Repent and Believe – Wittgenstein on the Resurrection

Repent and Believe – Wittgenstein on the Resurrection

But after John was imprisoned, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying: The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel. (Mark 1:14-15).

Don’t think, but look! – Philosophical Investigations, 66

It is likely that I have nothing new to add by way of commentary to this text from the gospel. But inasmuch as that is true, I am in the same boat as every Christian since the time of the gospel’s writing. Besides, it would be a mistake to assume that because the gospel text quoted above is so very short that its meaning must therefore be straightforward. Indeed, we often take for granted the things that seem obvious to us, without pausing to realize how strange and unobvious our deepest convictions may be. When we read into a text a meaning that seems obvious to us, we ignore important nuances and fail to ask pertinent questions.

One problem is that we think too much. Normally, I chide people ferociously for not thinking enough. So what can I mean by saying that we think too much? It is related both to Jesus’ proclamation in the passage above, and the quote from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Both, appear exceedingly simple, but conceal (I believe) a very profound insight.

If you read a piece of Christian propaganda, that is, an evangelical tract or website (like this, this, this, or more luridly, this), you will probably notice a specific structure. This structure is typically called “the Roman road” because its contents are drawn exclusively from the book of Romans. It goes something like this:

  1. We’ve all sinned (done things to displease God). (Romans 3:23)
  2. The punishment for sin is death (bodily and “eternal”) (Romans 6:23)
  3. But Jesus paid the penalty of our sin by dying for us! (Romans 5:8)
  4. Therefore if you repent of your sins, and believe in Jesus and confess him as Lord and Savior you’ll be saved! (Romans 10:9-10; 10:13)

Variations on this theme might include that God is a “holy” creator (Romans 1:20-21) and cannot let sin enter heaven. When we break God’s laws we are sinning against an “infinite” Deity thereby meriting infinite punishment. Which is why it’s such a big deal that we’re sinners – which by the way also happened because we’re descended from Adam (Romans 5:12). We might summarize all such evangelistic tropes by noticing that they present us with a problem, i.e. a dilemma – Either go on living your life (and go to hell) OR believe in Jesus and go to heaven. We are faced with a disjunction – Either No-Jesus/Hell or Jesus/Heaven. We might try to symbolize this as a logical disjunction with D symbolizing “damnation” and S “salvation.” Naturally, damnation is painted in very unpleasant terms, so most rational people (we must assume) would choose against it, so we can negate D. Then by disjunctive syllogism we conclude we have to go for belief in Jesus and salvation.

  1. D ∨ S
  2. ~D
  3. ∴ S

Even if we were to ignore the difficulties (and lacking premises) of steps 1-4 of the Roman road above, it should be obvious that this seems a little simplistic. We have, at most, symbolized our decision making process. Given the alternatives, we pick salvation through faith in Jesus. But what we would really like to do is to symbolize what we think its implications would be. So perhaps we could say that IF I accept (A) Jesus then I will be saved. IF I reject (R) Jesus (by not converting the minute I read the tract) then I will be damned. We might also like to add that we cannot have it both ways, so we need an exclusive disjunction.

  1. (A⊃S) ⊻ (R⊃D)
  2. ~D
  3. ~R (MT)
  4. A⊃S (DS)
  5. A
  6. ∴S (MP)

This ought to give us a much better idea of why we can be sure we are saved. Only, it gives us no such idea at all. One natural way to interpret the notion of salvation and damnation is through security. The damned are supposed to be (literally) insecure, while the saved are secure. That is part of what safety (Latin: salus – safety, hence, salvation) means. But this is evidently not the case. Many atheists, lapsi, and hedonists are not insecure – they are very sure of themselves. Christians delude themselves if they think that every atheist’s smug exterior must hide a pitiful, unsure, lonely soul waiting to give in and be saved. If we must fantasize, we need more sophisticated fantasies than that. Neither is it the case that every Christian is secure. Many Christians are racked by doubt, malaise, and uncertainty. Pace the psalmist, the “ungodly” are not chaff which the wind blows from the face of the earth, and the “godly” are not all like trees planted firmly by running waters. Often it is the Christian who is blown like a plastic bag in the wind and the non-Christian who actually flourishes.

We might notice two things at this point. Firstly, we only negated damnation (line 2) because we do not want to be damned. But of course it does not follow that we are not damned simply because we do not want to be. The fact that we may feel damned (i.e. insecure) could very well be an indication that we actually fall on the right side of the disjunction. More horrifyingly, we might conceivably be damned (on the system we’ve constructed) even though we did not consciously reject Jesus! (We mustn’t after all, affirm the consequent). Yet even though it would be a fallacy to conclude that because we feel or seem to be damned, that we really haven’t accepted Jesus, this is what many Christians will go on to do exactly. They will enact a mental ritual in which they “accept” Jesus all over again “just in case” it didn’t “work” the last time. They may even get re-baptized.

The other thing we have to notice is that it is really no use appealing to the afterlife. Someone might say that the damned are only insecure as far as the afterlife goes. They may thrive in this life, but they’ll have a rude awakening when they wake up on the other side. In the same way, the righteous may have afflictions in this life, but are guaranteed to pass the pearly gates once they’ve died. It’s just like the rich man and Lazarus. So on this view, we could all be massively deceived. Things are not as they appear.

But not only is this mass deception implausible. It is not a helpful or healthy way to think, for it eviscerates any criteria we might have for determining whether someone is a Christian or not: the serial axe-murderer child-rapist could very well be a saint while the Sunday-school teaching social worker is thrown into the lake a fire. So our initial problem is exacerbated and we have no reason to think we’re saved at all. Of course, it is not unimportant how we think about the afterlife. But many of the people who are (for lack of a better word) deceived into becoming Christian by means of the “Roman road” do so because of struggles and insecurities they have in this life, not struggles and insecurities they only anticipate in the next.

We may observe the following from all this. If you  believe logic to be an accurate indication of how the world is, and you accept our formulations above, you can only conclude that either your experiences are unreliable and you are potentially massively deceived, in which case you cannot be sure if you are “saved”; or else you can only believe you are saved if you both accepted Jesus and go on to “feel” saved. Any feelings of doubt are unacceptable.

I want to argue that this common problem – the problem of doubting one’s own salvation, results from a very strange way of viewing the relationship of logic to reality. It is an alluring and fascinating obsession which has gained strength since the Reformation and Enlightenment, but is ultimately an epistemic illusion. But first let us review another famous dilemma, or actually trilemma: the trilemma of C. S. Lewis.

In Mere Christianity Lewis says the following:

I am trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus]: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic… or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open for us. He did not intend to.

What is curious about this quote is that everyone is taken in by it. Most hip, self-applauded, “rational” Christians love C.S. Lewis. And this argument seems to be so much more rational than the Roman road dilemma above. It would appear that Jesus has cornered us and we must make a decision between three options, and two are obviously absurd. Therefore, Jesus must be who he says he is.


Notice that although Lewis has done it with more tact (and almost certainly in a charming British accent), he perpetrates the same thing that the common bible-belt fundamentalist does: he tries to use logic to force us to conclude something. Once we accept it, it appears to be the most obvious and rational thing to have done. We are supposed to have security – yet we are still capable of doubt. Why?

Lewis and the fundamentalist (though probably unbeknownst to the fundamentalist) share a post-Enlightenment obsession with the power of inference. In his book Miracles, Lewis admits as much.

All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like ‘must be’ and ‘therefore’ and ‘since’ is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really ‘must’ be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them – if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work – then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.

Lewis continues his argument in chapter 3 of Miracles. The first edition of this chapter was famously critiqued by the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe, and she thought her criticisms were just even after reading the revised edition. Fundamentally, Lewis appears to view the human mind as something “internal” or inside of us, while the world of objective realities is “external” or outside of us. Lewis thinks that we cannot trust our “irrational” or “non-rational” “inner” experiences such as feelings, emotions etc. That is why he writes in the quote above “If this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them… we can have no knowledge.” Notice that a “mere” feeling “in” our mind, cannot be knowledge. So on Lewis’ view, the only way we could possibly come to know anything about the external world is if we can believe in the certainty of logical inference. That is, we infer certain conclusions about things around us, and if our reasoning is “valid,” we can be sure that certain things must be the case.

But there are two serious problems with this way of thinking. First of all, it confuses soundness with validity. I might give the following argument:

  1. All children like ice cream.
  2. Tommy is a child.
  3. Therefore Tommy likes ice cream.

My inference is valid, but it does not therefrom follow that it is actually true that Tommy likes ice cream. My reasoning can be valid, but validity is not a guarantee of truth. One must first assume that one’s premises are true – but what are the grounds for this assumption? You could validly prove all sorts of things – “I think, therefore I am,” “There is an external world,” “God exists,” etc. It still would not follow that we are anything more than a brain in a vat – perhaps in God’s own laboratory. For if one is trying to argue from doubt to certainly, one can only reach – more doubt. Because although you can derive one proposition from another – the derived propositions cannot be more certain than the original.

When one says that such and such a proposition can’t be proved, of course that does not mean that it can’t be derived from other propositions; any proposition can be derived from other propositions. But they may be no more certain than it is itself. (Wittgenstein On Certainy, 1)

So one important upshot is that the “dilemmas” or “trilemmas” used by (some) Christian evangelists are epistemic illusions. In order for them to be plausible, you must first assume the truth of all their premises. But if you do that, you’ve already been won over to their position – because actually there was no “soul-winning” to speak of in the first place. If someone like C. S. Lewis, or Jack T. Chick comes to heckle you with the texts of the bible, you must first believe in the veracity of the bible – but why would you do that if you were genuinely an unbeliever? And how could they show it without assuming it?

I want to pause to focus on something important. Notice that this is the necessary order of their evangelistic approach – FIRST you must believe something, and THEN you must do something. First you must conclude that Jesus is God (or the Son of God, or both), and then you fall down and worship Him. First you believe you are a sinner and that Jesus died for your sins, and then you repent. First you “accept” Jesus and only then are you “saved.” In this model, you are always first confronted with a seemingly incontrovertible piece of information, and then you are required to give a reaction.

This leads us to the second important criticism of Lewis by Anscombe.

However, as your argument stands, it says that human thought is discredited unless his answer to the former question (“What, as a matter of history, led you to this belief?”) states the occurrence of reasoning… I should also deny this part of your argument. For though it is natural to use the word “cause” here, the logic of “cause” as used here is different from its logic as used when we speak of causal laws. Suppose someone asks me for such a historical account of the mental process which actually issued in my belief, and I give it to him. And suppose he then asks: “What reason have you for calling the thing that you mention in answer to this question the cases of your belief?” At first I would imagine that he was accusing me of self-deception, saying, “Look into it more thoroughly and you will realize that you have not given a truthful account.” But suppose he makes it clear that he is not suggesting anything of this kind; he does not doubt my account of my mental processes at all; but given that they occurred just as I have related them, and that afterwards I held the opinion which I say resulted from them, he asks why I say that it did result form them, that they did produce it? Would this not be an extraordinarily odd question?

What Anscombe seems to be getting at is that, Lewis assumes that if you belief is to be “valid” your reason for believing something can only be “reason itself.” He seems to ignore that there is more than one way of coming to believe something and assumes that the only right way to come to believe something is if it is the conclusion of a valid inference. This might explain why Lewis resorts to arguments like the trilemma (which he probably picked up from G.K. Chesterton anyway). He imagines that unless we are inwardly “assenting” to the conclusion of an argument that we do not have a rational belief. But Anscombe thought:

It appears to me that if a man has reasons, and they are good reasons, and they are genuinely his reasons, for thinking something – then his thought is rational, whatever causal statements we make about him.

Again, here she is not referring to the “inner mental process” of reasoning. She means here, as she argues elsewhere, that a person can be considered rational if they can provide their reasons in conversation. According to Anscombe, “’Reasons’ and ‘motives’ are what is elicited from someone whom we ask to to explain himself.” We might think here of a classic Wittgensteinian example. If you are teaching a child French and testing her abilities to speak French, say in an oral examination, if she is giving you all the right words, translating everything correctly, it would be nonsensical to say “Well, she can say all the words, but does she really mean them – does she really know what she’s saying?” For Wittgenstein and Wittgensteinians, to “mean” something is not an inner mental activity which we have to do when we speak. Of course, our words do mean something, but their meaning is made apparent in how we use them. Someone who can confidently speak French shows that she can do so by actually speaking French – not by doubting her “inner experience of French” and repeatedly consulting a dictionary. In the same way, someone who can “reason” does so, not by trying to make their “inner” experience match their “outer” experience through valid inference – but by engaging in conversation and argumentation with others.

How does this relate to what I said earlier about these sort of “rational” arguments or evangelism techniques requiring that you first believe and then react. Many Christians are fond of citing the proof-text below.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV)

These verses have furnished ammunition for centuries for the Protestant doctrine of sola fide, the thesis that we are saved only through faith in Christ and receive salvation as a gift of His grace as opposed to as a reward for our own good works. There is an admirable corrective to the decadent Renaissance Catholicism of its heyday in this doctrine. But it won’t work; and here’s why. Remember that Anscombe criticized Lewis for thinking that our grounds for rationally believing something must be an occurrence of reasoning “in our head.”

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein provides us with the following thought experiment. Suppose Jack writes down a series of numbers (1, 5, 11, 19) and Jill watches trying to figure out the pattern of the series. If Jill succeeds she exclaims “Now I can go on!” When Jack writes 29, she exclaims “I can go on now!” So what happened that constitutes Jill’s “understanding?” One possibility is that while Jack was writing 1, 5, 11, and 19, Jill was running through different algebraic formulae in her head to see which matched. After Jack wrote 19, she tries a(n)=(n^2) + n – 1. After Jack wrote 29, Jill knows she was right. So one possibility is that “understanding” means going through an inner mental process of finding the right formula.  This would fit Lewis’ idea that our knowledge of the world depends on finding the right underlying logical syllogisms of our inferences. But there are other possibilities: Maybe Jill actually was counting the differences between the numbers and found that it was 4, 6, 8, 10, etc, and then says “I can go on.” Or maybe she plays a lot of mathematical games and just says “O I know that series, now I can go on!” Or still, without any effort just feel “That’s easy” and go on to finish the series. Anyone who’s played sudoku, or solved a Rubik’s cube, or done a puzzle knows that these seemingly brainy activities do not take as much “mental” effort as many (like me) commonly assume. It is tempting to insist that Jill only really “understands” the series if she gets the formula. But is that really all there is to “understanding?” It is perfectly conceivable that the formula should occur to her and that she should nevertheless not understand. “She understands” must have more to it than: the formula occurs to her.

Similarly with what we may call “belief,” it is tempting to think that believing something is a matter of “grasping” a proposition in your head and assenting to it. But not so. Even Lewis admits that one belief or thought can cause another by being seen to be a ground for it. But for him to believe this, he’d have to give up the view that beliefs are inner mental processes. To say that “Jack believes some proposition p,” would be equivalent to saying, “Jack sees p to be true” or “p seems true to Jack.” And whether p really appears to Jack to be true, depends on his perception and perspective. When we say “Jack believes that p” Jack seems to be doing something called “believing,” as if believing in this sense was a transitive verb of which Jack is the subject and the proposition is the object. But this is an illusion. Jack is passive here. We can know this because if p does not appear to Jack to be true, Jack is not able to believe it. If believing was reducible to an inner mental process, Jack should be able to “force” himself by exerted mental effort to believe any number of things. He can’t – but what if he could?

Notice that the sola fide doctrine holds that we are saved through faith alone and not works. But if believing was an activity, even a hidden “inner” activity, something we could succeed in accomplishing through our efforts, it would be a “work.” The doctrine would collapse on itself because then even faith itself would just be another work. It might be the only work God demanded of us – but it would still not be true that we are saved through faith as opposed to works, for faith would be just one, exceptionally hard work. And that would mean that those who struggle with doubt would not just be the victims of misunderstanding – they would be sinful failures. Maybe that’s why so many Christians are mental (literally) about their doubts – they feel like failures.

Wittgenstein implored, “Just for once, don’t think of understanding as a ‘mental process’ at all! – For that is the way of talking which confuses you. Instead, ask yourself: in what sort of case, in what kind of circumstances, do we say ‘Now I know how to go on’?” (PI, 154). So now we can return to the gospel quote at the beginning of this blog. When John was in prison, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is near – repent and believe in the gospel.” We have noticed that the rationalistic approach to faith, of which C. S. Lewis and (ironically) many fundamentalists can be convicted with some justice, always assumes you must believe first (have a “mental state” called faith) before you act. But notice that in Jesus’ word order, FIRST you must repent and THEN believe. This may of course be a mere syntactic quibble. Perhaps the word order is accidental. But even if so, I think the fact that the word order is what it is, is important. In Greek the word order is as follows:

μετανοειτε και πιστευετε εν τω ευαγγελιω

Two extremely popular bible translations among Protestants render it as follows:

repent ye, and believe the gospel. (KJV)

Repent and believe the good news! (NIV)

It has become something of a commonplace to know that “gospel” means “good news” but we can see that the underlying verb has remain unchanged in these two translations. Either way “gospel/good news” is presented as something to be believed. And it is hard to imagine belief here as being something other than “assent to” the gospel proposition. There are two important reasons this should give us pause.

It is also a commonplace to understand the gospel (or perhaps the “simple” gospel) as being nothing other than the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (cf 1 Cor 15:1-4). But this is odd – for Jesus is the one proclaiming the gospel in this passage (Mark 1:14-15). Only He hasn’t died, been buried, or resurrected yet. What exactly therefore is this “gospel” He is preaching? And by the way, why is Jesus preaching His own gospel? Isn’t that what missionaries and apostles are for? Yet here at the beginning of the oldest gospel, before any apostles are even mentioned or called, Jesus is preaching a gospel of “God’s kingdom.” It’s contents: The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near. What does this mean?

The “gospel” (“glad tidings” is better than “good news”) of Jesus is not a collection of propositions about Jesus that could be true or false. Jesus IS the gospel: and He is not false. But that is the same thing as saying He is trustworthy. The Greek word pistis, which is translated somewhat too frequently as “belief” really means “trust.” To believe the glad tidings of Jesus, namely that the time is fulfilled and God’s kingdom is near, would not be to “inwardly assent” via some hidden mental process to some extraordinary information that Jesus is giving. It would be to trust Jesus Himself. To reiterate, the Greek of the reading is πιστευετε εν τω ευαγγελιω. If “gospel” was the object of a transitive verb meaning “believe” we would expect it to be in the accusative. But it’s not – it’s dative. Thus another way to translate this is “Repent and trust in the glad tidings. The word εν is also important (and often ignored) because it shows us that it is more likely that we are being asked to show trust in someone rather than believe something.

And trust is not a hidden inward mental process either. Trust is only intelligible if it is manifested in behavior. That is not because trust comes “first” and is merely “made visible” by behavior. It is because it is only in trusting-behavior that “trust” consists at all. If someone said that they genuinely trusted you, but always looked nervous around you, wouldn’t lend you anything, wouldn’t let you into their house, wouldn’t go anywhere with you, if they did all this but still insisted “I really, really trust you inside my heart,” we should think a person either dishonest or genuinely confused.

So to someone who is doubtful of their faith, the appropriate thing to do is not to consult some inner realm of allegedly “subjective” experiences we may call “faith.” It would be, as Wittgenstein says, to look and see whether you manifest trust. And to begin to manifest this trust, is what Christians know as repentance. For although metanoia can be clumsily translated as “changing your mind” (and some Christians bizarrely think it means changing your mind specifically about your sins), it more accurately corresponds to what we would call experiencing a change of heart. So contra Chick, and on my and Wittgenstein’s view, (and conveniently in the words of Jesus), repentance precedes belief, not vice versa, not just temporally, but logically. And why is this the case?

Let’s return to Lewis’ trilemma. His dilemma (aut Deus aut homo malus) is that Jesus is either God, crazy, or a liar. In case He is a liar or crazy, He couldn’t possibly be a great moral teacher. So if one admits Jesus was a great moral teacher, one must be implicitly admitting Jesus is God. But what is wrong with this dilemma is that it assumes the words “Jesus is God” have an obvious sense which someone can just recognize. But even if someone could understand what this proposition meant, could respond with understanding, that would require that there were criteria established for giving the proposition its sense. As Wittgenstein writes in On Certainty,

Whether a proposition can turn out false after all depends on what I make count as determinants for that proposition.

But if the proposition has never been uttered – has no established use in the language-game of a people, how is it intelligible? It’s not as if when we are confronted with this proposition we can just chuckle to ourselves saying, “O that’s right, I guess he was God after all.” We do not infer that Jesus was God. Such an inference is impossible. For God is transcendent, omnipresent, and the rest. We do not “discover” via a very clever mental trick that Jesus must’ve been who He said He was. If we do come to believe it – it is not through a mental process of apprehending facts or propositions about Him. It is by trusting Him. It brings up something interesting about how Lewis think about miracles. In Miracles he writes:

We see every day that physical nature is not in the least incommoded by the daily inrush of events from biological nature or from psychological nature. If events ever come from beyond Nature altogether, she will be no more incommoded by them. Be sure she will rush to the point where she is invaded, as the defensive forces rush to a cut in our finger, and there hasten to accommodate the newcomer. The moment it enters her realm it obeys all her laws… The divine art of miracles is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.

Again, we see a desire to rationalize the miracle – the need to assure us that once it “enters” nature, it can be assimilated or “naturalized” by her – as if an “immigrant.” Surely, then, Lewis think part of this “naturalization” is making the facts about such an “event” conformable to ordinary propositional logic. And all this seems neat and tidy. But this is not something an orthodox Christian can believe. At least – if this is how miracles are, we can’t believe that the Incarnation and Resurrection was a miracle – not even the “grand” miracle. For Jesus cannot ever be naturalized by the laws of nature or the laws of logic. Compare Lewis’ neat explanation of miraculous “events” to words by Kierkegaard in Practice in Christianity:

It is 1800 years and more since Jesus Christ walked here on earth. But this is not an event like other events which, only when they are bygone, pass over into history, and then as events long bygone, pass over into forgetfulness. No, His presence here on earth never becomes a bygone event, and ever becomes more and more bygone – in case faith is to be found on earth. And if not, then indeed at that very instant it is a long time since He lived. But so long as there is a believer, such a one must, in order to become such, have been as a believer must continue to be, just as contemporary with His presence on earth as were those first contemporaries. This contemporaneousness is the condition of faith, and more closely defined it is faith.

Faith in the Resurrection of Christ is not an inward assent to the proposition that an historical event, even an extraordinary historical event, “really did” happen. It is already to be confronted with the Living Person Himself. We are not to conclude that Jesus was who He said He was – we are to look and see Him in front of us. Only if we look and see in this way does it even become intelligible for us to fall down and cry “My Lord and my God!” For Thomas did not infer that Christ had risen by looking at His two hands, any more than G. E. Moore “inferred” the existence of the external world by holding up his two hands. It is not the “proof” of the hands that made Thomas fall down in worship but the presence of Jesus which he had denied. If Thomas’ reaction really was an inference, why was it not enough for his valid inference that he conjoin to the apostles’ proposition that Jesus had risen the proposition that they weren’t lying? Could this not have made him more certain? No. Because Thomas was not struggling with the problem of epistemic closure – he was not putting trust in Jesus’ promise to rise from the dead. It was not a problem to be solved, but an illusion to be dissolved. To show trust, Thomas did not need more reliable information – he needed to repent and have a change of heart. He needed to make room in his heart for the resurrection before the proposition of the resurrection could even make sense. He had to have a radical change in way of life.

The gospel is not a warm invitation to increase the storage space of your mental warehouse. It is the Living God, close at hand, prepared to break down the bars of your mental prison. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a logical demonstration – it’s a spiritual deconstruction. To fail to put trust in Jesus is not to be unconvinced, it is to be unconvicted. And to put trust in Jesus is not to understand – it is to be undone. The “event” of Christ’s Resurrection does not become one more historical event which Nature “naturalizes.” The hole He has ripped in the vault of the heavens to come down to you never closes.  And so too, the wound your heart must sustain to make room for Him never heals. The Resurrection did not happen. It is happening right now.

Contemplate the painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by François Joseph Navez. Religious art is an important exercise in theology. For in this painting, as in so many like it, Thomas is examining the wounds of Christ. The apostles are all looking on. But their view is all, as it were, horizontal – it is on the plane of mere history. They are mere extras in the story. Jesus’ gaze is vertical, He is gazing directly at you. You are the Doubting Thomas – and He is showing you his wounds. You need infer nothing from them. You are not confronted by information – but the Man.


C. S. Lewis was simply wrong – all knowledge is not knowledge from inference. The time for inferences is ending – for as Jesus proclaimed, the time is fulfilled and the kingdom is at hand. In contrast to the Lewis trilemma – consider these surprising words by Wittgenstein on the resurrection, and do not be discouraged or frightened by your doubt. Don’t think. Just look.

What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s Resurrection? It is as though I play with the thought. – If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. It that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven. But if I am to be REALLY saved, – what I need is certainty – not wisdom, dreams or speculation – and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: It is love that believes the Resurrection. We might say: Redeeming love believe even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to the Resurrection. What combats doubt is, as it were, redemption. Holding fast to this must be holding fast to that belief. So what that means is: first you must be redeemed and hold on to your redemption (keep hold of your redemption) – then you will see that you are holding fast to this belief. (Culture & Value, 33e)


Talitha qum – Gestures of love and Resurrection

Talitha qum – Gestures of love and Resurrection

Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” (Mark 5:22-23 NRSV)

Christians are about to celebrate a resurrection. And a resurrection, it would appear, is a kind of miracle. But what is a resurrection, and, perhaps more generally, what is a miracle? One extremely common understanding is that miracles are a kind of divine intervention wherein God, as creator and sustainer of the natural universe, does something remarkable. This remarkable something appears to defy the laws of nature and so when we see it happen, if we have the privilege of witnessing miracles or believe the testimony of those who have, we infer that there must be some transcendent God whose great power is beyond understanding. We rejoice and establish solemnities.

I do not want to say that this view is mistaken. Every piece of religious language is important, so presumably there is a reason this image of miracles captivates so many people. But I think it is incomplete. Every buoyant cataphasis needs a sober apophasis. But rather than discuss the resurrection Christians prepare to commemorate, I will bring up another. But first, some clarification.

The common view of miracles make them out to be a kind of activity – i.e. a kind of divine activity. So most people when they think of miracles, are led to consider God’s great power. But what is wrong with this? Is God not Omnipotent? Surely God is omnipotent, but what does this mean? Does God, for instance, not create? Is he not the creator of the universe? And if he is the creator of the universe, surely he can intervene in it? And surely that is what we call a “miracle?”

But notice, if one thinks of God’s power only in terms of omnipotence, one may be thereby led (via a trick of language) to think about divine potency – i.e. potential. And one obvious problem is that this conflicts (at least for sober philosophical Christians) with the thought of God as pure actuality (actus purus). That is, God has no potential. Potential belongs to the realm of becoming. But if God is fullness of Being, there is nothing for him to become. To say that God “acts” therefore, even for traditionalists, does not mean that God “does” something. Case in point – Christians have long eschewed the Gnostic portrayal of the Demiurge. The Gnostics reviled the Demiurge (from Greek demiourgos – craftsman) as the incompetent Artificer of the material universe. Since matter was opposed to spirit, the literal production of the material universe was thought to be a very bad thing. Christians deny this, and affirm the goodness of creation – but not because they believe in the Demiurge. “Demiurge” is not a word Christians have ever been comfortable applying to God. Because God is not a craftsman, artisan, or tinker. He is not a Deistic clockmaker.

But surely, inasmuch as we say in the creeds that we believe in the “maker of heaven and earth,” we believe God really is a “maker.” Perhaps he is not a demiurge, but assuredly he is a creator. Unfortunately, all the words for “creation” in the classical Christian languages, are derivatives of words for reproduction and growth. When Christians use them, we make language take a new turn. We give a new use to ancient forms. For when Christians affirm that God created the universe, they do not mean that he generated, emitted, emanated, or gave birth to it.

So what do Christians mean when we say God “created?” We ought consult the scriptures.

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
    and all their host by the breath of his mouth.

Let all the earth fear the Lord;
    let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
    he commanded, and it stood firm. (Psalm 33:6, 8-9)

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for he commanded and they were created. (Psalm 148:5)

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)

Among the many titles of God, along with “maker” and “creator” is another odd one: Author. And by the same linguistic trick that leads you from “omnipotence” to “potency” and from “creation” to “created” and so forth, you can be led from “Author” to its obvious derivative – authority. Christians should note that when God “creates” in scripture, it is not that he does something, it is that he commands and it is done. Notice that when Christians end all of their prayers with the word “Amen” (genitthito in Greek) they are not issuing a command to God such as “Do it now!!!” Rather, they are saying “Let it be done.” And when the Blessed Virgin submits to the annunciation, she does not say “Now do it!” but “Let it be done to me according to your word.” What we have here is not nature being overwhelmed or overridden by a divine power. What we have here is nature submitting, “willingly” we might say, to divine authority. God does not do anything. He commands, and it is done.

Remember that there are (at least) four kinds of “causes.” That is, there are at least (hang your head in shame for not having read Aristotle’s Metaphysics) four kinds of answers to the question “Why?” Four “becauses:” material, formal, efficient, final. If I ask why there is a vase on the table it could be because it is made of glass (as apposed to being a cloud shape), it may be because it is shaped a certain way such that it doesn’t fall off the table, it could be because a glassblower just made it, or, seemingly trivially, to hold flowers. We know that vases are for holding flowers. That is their final cause. But a final cause is not the process that the vase had to go through to get there. We might say that a final cause is not strictly a cause at all (at least in our everyday usage). A final cause is a purpose, or we might say, a reason for something.

Now at the beginning of the so-called Enlightenment, because of the scientific and later industrial revolutions, all kinds of cause were reduced to efficient causes. The universe came to be seen as a (splendid) machine, and living organisms became mechanisms. So miracles came to be seen as modifications or interventions in the mechanics of the laws of nature. And so naturally, most people ceased believing in them. Those who continued to believe, forgot that miracles, like the miracle of creation, is not a matter of divine machinery, and God a mighty Engineer, but a sign of authority. We became interested in power – a power increasingly magnified by science – so we came to see miracles as a matter of power.

God is not the material cause of creation, because God is immaterial. God is not the formal cause of creation, because the universe is not made in God’s “form” or image. God is not the efficient cause of the universe, because God did not do anything to create it. What about final causality? Jesus, as God, says “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Rev 22:13). What does this mean? Orthodox Christians know nothing of the barbaric language that imputes material, formal, or efficient causality to God. But we do think he is the First Cause, and Final Cause. In other words, He is both the reason that we exist, and the reason why we exist. He is our purpose. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have to go through millions of years of evolution, struggle, survival, birth, growth, and maturation, to get to where we are now. But it means that wherever we are now, it is not because He has put us here, but because he has called us.

So one shortcoming of understanding miracles, or for that matter any of God’s creative activity, as a kind of activity (part of the logical genus of acts) is that it makes miracles seem hard. Because they seem hard, we infer it must take a great deal of power to accomplish them. But this is not true. Miracles are not properly ascribed to Gods power but to his authority. God does not need to do anything to bring anything about. He simply commands and it is done. How it is done is unimportant. And in fact, that is why miracles are miraculous (from Latin mirari – to wonder). Miracles are not simply uncanny – as they would be if they were mere violations of natural laws wreaked by a merely powerful being – miracles are wonderful, they prompt awe. And the wonder they incite is at God’s authority – not his power.

One obvious reason we may be averse to this assertion is that we dislike authority. And of course we should dislike it in some sense. The thing that passes for “authority” in most human affairs is not in fact true authority. Nobody might have true authority unless it is given them. And to be given authority would precisely to be under authority.  Many of those who wield “authority” are really just exercising power. Authority, in this unfortunate way, is a kind of manipulation. And manipulation is a kind of doing, an activity. So if someone is attempting to use authority to manipulate, they are eo ipso not really exercising authority at all. Authority would be expressed by the fact that they do not have to manipulate to achieve their end. So we are indeed right to be averse to many who claim to have authority. Too many religious, political, and intellectual figures (and too many of them Christian) have pretended to have authority when in fact they were merely doing some kind of manipulative activity (perhaps by claiming to have authority). True Authority (of which there is only one kind) is not like that. But nevertheless, it is real.

What does all this have to do with resurrection? Jesus was God. But this does not mean that He was powerful. He is the Son of Man, but assuredly He was a man. He possesses both complete divine and complete human natures in his Person. But it is necessary for Christians to believe that in His life, the divine nature does what is proper to divinity and that human nature does what is proper to humanity. There is (a rarity) no linguistic confusion here. So when we read of the miracles of Jesus we encounter the following:

Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:26-27).

They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22)

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)

But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” (Mark 2:10-11)

And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. (Luke 7:6-10)

And to the apostles Jesus says,

See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. (Luke 10:19)

Why should one need authority to tread on snakes and scorpions? Could you not just wear heavy boots? Why should one need authority to forgive sins, heal the sick, or calm a storm? (Instead of for instance establishing criminal justice, modern medicine, or meteorology?) If Jesus made these things happen (i.e. if he did anything) he proves to be a very mighty hero – but it would not prove that he was God. We would know that, as in the pagan days, there were powerful and potentate beings who could strike us with lightning bolts or floods or diseases. But Christians are not afraid of the old gods (that is – of angels and demons) and what they might do to us. Our only concern is what our Master commands. Like the centurion, Jesus simply says “go” and things happen of their own accord in response to Him.

But wait, is this not distressing news? Might He not command us to do awful things? Might his emissaries (apostoloi in Greek) not lord it over us and manipulate us? And most importantly, could he not, as a cruel and dreadful Lord, command us to do the impossible and punish us without end when we fail? No. These worries, while distressing and dreadful (and the torment of many minds), are illusions. And there is a reason why. But to that later.

Does Jesus have to speak to exercise authority? Apparently not. For we do not always hear voices when miraculous occurrences happen. So importantly, although a command brings about the occurrence, the command is not a catalyst. Commands do not stand in relation to outcomes as causes do to effects. What is important is that the one being commanded, respond in obedience. A great king does not need to vocalize anything to be obeyed by his servants. Perhaps he need only wave a hand, or incline his head, or some other predetermined sign. So in other words, God may, in a sense, make a gesture and the response is significant. This is what Wittgenstein says about miracles in Culture and Value (1944).

A miracle is, as it were, a gesture which God makes. As a man sits quietly and then makes an impressive gesture, God lets the world run on smoothly and then accompanies the words of a saint by a symbolic occurrence, a gesture of nature. It would be an instance if, when a saint has spoken, the trees around him bowed, as if in reverence…

The only way for me to believe in a miracle in this sense would be to be impressed by an occurrence in this particular way. So that I should say e.g.: “It was impossible to see these trees and not feel that they were responding to the words.” (Remarks on Culture & Value, [CV] 45e)

When we are so struck by a miraculous occurrence, something pregnant with significance, we feel impelled to say “This is an act of God.” So when the centurion witnesses Jesus on the cross, he exclaims “Surely this man was the Son of God,” not because he infers via logical inference (having quickly read all the Jewish scriptures and taken courses on metaphysics) that Jesus is God, but because he is struck by what is before his eyes – the earthquake, the darkness, the pathos of it all. Similarly, when ancient men venerated the site of a lightning strike, it is not because they inferred that there was a being called Zeus, but because they were thunderstruck (a word that must be restored to English religious usage). Something similar might be said as when Catholics exclaim in the Mass “my Lord and my God,” not because they detect via inference per impossibile that God is now present, but because the priest performs certain gestures that are significant. This is neither here nor there.

I have promised to speak on resurrection. But not Christ’s. Christ raised many people from the dead. But it is not that he “brought them back to life” as if he were Dr. Frankenstein. There is no technique of resurrection which Jesus, as a holy but mad scientist employs. Resurrection is not a science, but a miracle. It is a kind of gesture. But why is this particular gesture so significant?

At the beginning of this piece I begin the account of Jairus’ daughter. It is in Mark 5. There are three miracles recounted in Mark 5. First, the healing of the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus casts a legion of demons into a herd of swine (once again, he does nothing – he commands and they obey). Afterward, when the restored man tries to follow Him, he says,

“Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.” (5:19-20)

This miracle is a gesture of compassion on the part of Jesus. It prompts amazement in others and gratitude in the man. He begged that he might be with Jesus, but Jesus refused. So this chapter sets us up for something many religious believers have experienced – the feeling of being denied something. God has done something remarkable in their life, or the life of someone they know, but He does not give the blessing for them to immediately follow him. And this, is indeed cause for distress. “Why can’t I?” “Why him and not me?” “Why don’t you want me?” As Wittgenstein asks of himself (he had good reason: he was gay),

Is it some frustrated longing that makes a man mad? (CV 44e)

So it can indeed be hard to witness a miracle in someone else, all the while wondering “when is it my turn?” But remember that miracles are not just divine activities. They are not, in other words, strictly speaking, favors. For God to “do” a miracle for one, does not thereby show that the other is not loved. A miracle is a gesture, and only the one who responds to it understands the proper context which gives the sign its significance.

What you have achieved cannot mean more to others than it does to you. Whatever it has cost you, that’s what they will pay. (CV 13e)

We move on in Mark to the hemorrhaging woman. Jairus has just sought Jesus, for his daughter is dying. They must make haste. But they are interrupted, for a hemorrhaging woman touches Jesus as he passes through the crowd and is healed after many years of waiting. She has received her miracle – one she has been waiting for a long time. But is this not unbearably frustrating for Jairus? Does it not seem that in a sense, the hemorrhaging woman has stolen his miracle? Has her neediness and brazenness not put an unbearable hold and moratorium on his expectation? Could she not have waited a little longer before importuning Jesus? What is waiting a little longer (oh I don’t know another academic year) to someone who has waited 12 years? Especially when someone else much weaker is dying?

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” (5:35-36).

If miracles were a species of divine activity, if they were hard or took divine power or energy (as might, by the way, be tempted to surmised from “power” going out of Jesus), we should worry that there are not enough miracles to go around. We could speak with jealousy that Jesus chose to attend to one pathetic, miserable, human being over another and that he got the timing wrong. But that’s not how things stand. For miracles are not something God does. Miracles are something that happen to us when we respond to God’s gesture. Some of us take longer to respond than others, but the timing is never wrong. It is only because we respond exactly when we do, that the gesture has significance. For the miracle is not a task on a timetable. There is no clocking in or out. Nobody is working. No hidden gears are turning. All one has to do is wait expectantly. Don’t be afraid. Only believe.

He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha qum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. (5:41-42).

The little girl was 12 years old. The woman had been bleeding for 12 years. Her problems began when the girl was born. But the girl was not the cause of the woman’s suffering. And the woman was healed when the girl died. But the woman did not cause the girl’s death. The universe is not a machine and God is not a mechanic. God “doing” one thing does not “cause” another. His doing a miracle for one person is not depriving another of their miracle. His giving something to one person is not taking from another. He is not just one more link in a causal chain. He is trying to break the chain that holds your tired heart captive.

Because when God does a miracle, He is not, as if He were Zeus or Poseidon, doing things to fuck with you. God is trying to show you something! He is not trying to compel you to do something you can’t. There is no question of your untapped or unused potential. God is not making a demand. He is beckoning you. Like a wink, like a smile, like a kiss on the cheek, like a hug from behind, like arms opened infinitely wide. And it is not a heavy task for you to go to Him. You need no power to make it happen. For all authority in heaven and earth belongs to Him. He need only open His arms and everything you are will go rushing further up and and further into Him – if you want.

If you offer a sacrifice and are pleased with yourself about it, both you and your sacrifice will be cursed. The edifice of your pride has to be dismantled. And that is terribly hard work. The horrors of hell can be experienced within a single day; that’s plenty of time. (Culture & Value 26e)

One more thing about resurrection and miracles. One reason it is hard to believe in miracles (especially when we conceive of believing as doing something) might be as follows. Even if you grant that I am right and that miracles are not God doing something, but rather, created things doing something in response to Him, that leaves us in mystery about the world around us. How can we believe that Jesus commanded the winds and the clouds when they are not alive or intelligent? It makes perfect sense to say that we can respond in obedience to God. But how could a disease respond to Jesus and leave when Jesus says, “your faith has healed you”? How can our sins respond and flee from us like smoke from a fire when Jesus says “Your sins are forgiven”? Or, more to the point, how can creation just “come to be” ex nihilo when God says so, unless God really did do something to make it?

I’ll do you one better.

The idea that one can beckon a lifeless object to come, just as one would beckon a person. Here is the principle of personification. (Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Golden Bough 4e).

Why is resurrection such a superb miracle? It is not because it is the most excellent kind of a genus of divine actions called miracles, but because it is the only kind of miracle. God “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). Notice, He does not make them. He calls them into being. They respond by being exactly what they are. This principle applies when he tells the 12 year old girl “little one arise.”

We sometimes speak as if death was not real. Indeed, the Lord himself says the girl is “sleeping.” And indeed, whether you are a continental philosopher following Heidegger in saying no one experiences their own death (what or who would be “experiencing” it?), or an analytic quoting Wittgenstein that death is not a “fact” of the world, death is very real. Pace Dominum, the little girl was not pretending to be dead but “really” sleeping. More to the point, Christ did not pretend to die on the Cross. Language is taking a new turn. Christians do speak of “falling asleep” in the Lord, but that does not mean they do not really die.  The use of speaking of death as “dormition” and praying that the dead “rest in peace” is that it allows us to think of there being something dormant in us. What lies dormant in us? The image and likeness of God – not completely destroyed by Adam’s sin, but hidden deep within us, so deep not even we can reach it without grace.

So the little girl really was dead. Yet when Jesus says “little girl arise” she rises in obedience. When you die, you become nothing. But God is the one who can call something out of nothingness. And when God calls you out of nothingness, it is not that you become some thing. You become Someone. You become who He calls you to be. And that is the only kind of miracle that ever need be or has ever been. It is indeed as Wittgenstein says. For God to beckon a lifeless object to come to Him is the principle of personification. Because His Resurrection personifies you. If you were a thing, an object, He could do whatever He liked with you. You could be a means to His ends as a cause to an effect. But that is not how God is. He beckons you to life with divine gestures and makes you a person. He gives you a name that only He knows but that you will hear when He calls. He works a miracle through you that only you understand – for only you have gone through what you have to understand its significance. No one can take that from you – but no one will try either. For everything in heaven or earth or below is subject to his authority.

The old gods have been defeated. Not one of them will ever have power to imprison us again.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-38).

The great ascesis is over and through Jesus we have overcome the Great Ascetic. The Great Feast is upon us, and we must make haste to the tomb. Little one arise – He beckons!

An Break in the Ceiling

An Break in the Ceiling

A Strange Salutation

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:26-29 NRSV)

The encounter of Mary and the angel, traditionally called the Annunciation, is celebrated as a feast in many Christian religions. In medieval England it was considered the New Year. We must try, difficult though it may be, in reading about this encounter, to attend to the words themselves and not be overhasty in the meaning we ascribe to them. The Gospel of Luke is perhaps the most narratively satisfying of the four gospels, for it contains some of the stories most loved and celebrated by Christians. But because we love this story, we are likely, in our excitement and flights of devotion, to overlook meanings hidden in broad daylight.

As Mary is pondering what sort of greeting this might be, the angel continues,

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (1:30-33).

We want to take note of something here. This is the point at which Christians start getting excited. The Annunciation is a feast of what Christians call the Incarnation – the becoming-human of God by “taking on flesh.” The incarnation is indeed central to Christianity. But nothing of the sort is stated here in our story. The word “incarnation” does not come up in our text – or any text of the bible for that matter. To one who does not already believe in the Trinity or Incarnation (perhaps with John 1:1-18 in mind), there is no reason to suppose that it is God who will be born of Mary. After all, all we have thus far been told is that Mary has found favor with God. She will conceive and bear a son. He will be great, and will be called “Son of the Most High.”

Mary is predictably, once more, confused. She asks the innocuous question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34), to which the angel has a ready response:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born [of you] will be holy; he will be called Son of God (1:35).

Once again, we have a strange utterance. The child to be born of Mary will be holy and will be called “Son of God.” And there is, once again, no suggestion that the babe will be God. Holy: yes. Son of God: yes. But God Himself – this is not promised by the angel. To one who does not already believe that “Son of God” means “God Himself,” all we know is this: God is going to father a son on Mary, who up to this point, has been a virgin and who is, by the way, betrothed to someone else. And like all Sons of Gods, this child will be a great king and hero.

A Golden Shower

And at a first glance, there is really nothing surprising about this story. It is strange, in the way all myths, folk-, and fairy-tales are strange. But not really surprising. It smacks of other Near Eastern myths wherein gods father children. For instance, in Greek mythology sometimes gods mate with other gods and beget children. Sometimes it is obvious what such couplings might mean. Of course the Sky (Ouranos) is married to the Earth (Gaia) – when he “rains” down on her, he makes her fertile and she bears “fruit.” Sometimes the pairings are more abstract, as when Strife (Ares) joins with Attraction (Aphrodite) to father Desire (Eros). It is easy to see, then, how some of these generative myths are allegorical. But there are also myths about gods fathering sons on mortal women. And these are somewhat harder to make sense of.

For instance, in the story of Danaë, Danaë is a virgin princess who is locked in a tower by her paranoid father, King Acrisius, who has learned from an oracle that he is to be overthrown by his daughter’s son. To prevent her from having any contact with men, and thereby conceiving his rival, Acrisius locks Danaë in a tower with no doors or windows, but only a high skylight for light and air. From above, Zeus, King and Father of the Gods, is captivated by her beauty and decides to seduce her. He does so by raining down through the skylight upon Danaë as a shower of gold coins. From this mysterious encounter, Danaë conceives and is found scandalously to be with child.

Do we not have here a sort of Greek Annunciation? Zeus (whose name simply means “God”) literally “overshadows” Danaë as a shower of gold coins and she conceives and bears a son, Theseus, who becomes the heroic king of the Athenians. Does this not explain the strangeness of the Annunciation? Can we not make sense of it by simply admitting that here, we have one more instance of a God fathering a son on a human woman; that this sort of thing has (at least in the imagination) happened before?

Christians fall into two general groups. The first group, more common in ancient and medieval times, deny there is any similarity between these two cases. The early Christians seemed to think that there was no truth, or else vanishingly little, to be found in the Greek myths. Mostly, they thought that they were stories made up by perverse poets to give license to obscene sexual behavior – for instance, coupling with gold coins. That the germ of their own religion might be found in such feverish fantasies never occurred to them.

The second group, more common today, admit that there is a similarity between the pagan myths and Christianity with one significant difference – that Christianity is actually true. Our “Myth,” so some say, became “Fact.” There is a historical dimension to Christianity not possessed by any other ancient religion. The difference between the “annunciation” to Danaë and the Annunciation to Mary, is that the Annunciation to Mary actually happened. Christianity is based on a historical fact and a historical person, while the Greek myths are not.

I do not wish to go into all the difficulties of this position, though there are plenty enough. 1 What I will say is that this is an example of how Christians sometimes get excited and jump to overhasty conclusions when reading their holy texts. These kinds of Christians are always trying to force a decision. Either Christianity cannot be like any other religion, or it can, but that doesn’t matter because it’s actually true. We are finished forcing a truth value onto the utterance before we’ve even come to the end of the gospel lection.

Suffice it to say, that the stories are superficially similar. And they are also different. But what is different about them is not simply that one “actually happened,” while the other was made up. What is different is how the events in each story happen and what that means to Christian and pagan believers. It is not merely that they are different that is significant – it is literally how.

How Can This Be?

We would do well to start with the question “how,” for it is Mary herself who asks the question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34) The Greek reads, πως εσται τουτο επει ανδρα ου γινωσκω: How will this be since I know not a man/husband? Mary is not ignorant. She, like us, knows where babies come from: how they are made. In saying she does not know a man, she is not claiming to have no male acquaintances. She is claiming to not be in any sexual relationships from which she could get pregnant. We know what goes into making a baby; or rather, we know what must go into a woman before she can conceive a baby.

Might not all this apply to Danaë? Could she not have wondered to herself, having become pregnant, “How could that be, since I knew not a man?” But then…  there was that funny business about that golden shower that felt so delightful, and that bit of spare change still lodged in my crotch this morning. I suppose it had something to do with that.

It is here that we run up against the salient difference between the two narratives. The striking difference between the story of the annunciation to Mary and her conception and the story of Danaë and her conception is not merely that the one is “true” and the other “false.” It is that in one we can ask the question “How?” and in the former we cannot. Or rather, we do not ask it. It does not occur to Christians to ask how in the case of Mary.

The Annunciation and the Golden Shower of Danaë are both popular subjects for painting. We might say that these images are icons – or ikons, if you like. Though their subject matter is often historical in nature, the point of religious artwork is not representational (the same way photographs and portraits are) but pedagogical. When we look at a piece of religious art, we are not (at least in theory) trying to figure out what “really” happened. The proper way to examine religious art is not necessarily to get caught up in details but to pay attention to structure. This is true at least of Christian ikons. The Greeks, who were polytheists as well as idolaters, may have had quite different uses for their religious images. But we can still imagine, generously, that what we have said was largely true for them as well and can therefore treat images of Danaë as pagan ikons.

So if we wish to see the salient difference between the two stories, it makes sense to consult their ikons. We may start with paintings of Danaë.

Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller: Danaë och guldregnet.NM 1767
Danae och guldregnet by Adolf Ulrich Wertmuller (1751-1811) via Wikimedia Commons. Notice Cupid as a kind of Gabriel.

Notice how in the painting above, Danaë och guldregnet by Adolf Ulrich Wertmüller, like in any Annunciation painting, there is the woman and the angel (in this case cupid). Something mysterious is going on, for rays of gold are falling down upon her as she lays back in ecstasy. This painting, despite Danaë’s naked body and bare breasts, is in fact chaste and restrained. For there are other paintings far more explicit about what is happening. Take for instance a somewhat disturbing anonymous German painting from the late 18th century.

Anonymous German, late 18th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In this painting, a more acute shower of gold coins falls directly onto Danaë’s womb as she lays back, a satisfied look on her face, and she is seemingly lulled by her nurse. (Btw, nurses are always lascivious enablers in these kind of stories). Another painting by Andrea Casali gets straight to the point, that is straight to the crotch.

Danae and the Golden Shower (c. 1750) by Andrea Casali (1705-1784) via Wikimedia Commons.

One more painting should suffice to give us a sense for what is happening. A late medieval painting by Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) shows Danaë draped in blue with a shower of gold coins falling directly between her legs as she herself looks on, a dazed look on her face.

Danae (1527) by Jan Gossaert. Via Wikimedia Commons

What should, of course, strike us as so stunning about this painting, is that Danaë is draped in blue, the traditional color of the Virgin Mary in western religious art. The setting of Danaë’s seduction is also similar to those of many Annunciation paintings. We can compare it even to other works by Gossaert, for instance, a Madonna from 1516.

Madonna von Lowen, (1516), via Wikimedia Commons

The Virgin’s right breast is also often left exposed (for she has been breastfeeding), just as Danae’s right breast is exposed in Gossaert’s painting. In fact, it is easy to see how, if the gold shower were replaced by a child, and Danaë covered up a bit, she could be a Madonna, even in another of Gosseart’s paintings.

Two paintings by Gossaert. Notice the crossed legs, exposed breast, trailing headband, and of course, the blue (though more subdued in the Madonna)

It may have been somewhat sacrilegious to depict Danaë this way. But the similarity of the subject matter obviously impressed Gossaert, as it impresses us. The question then becomes, should it impress us in this way?

The Swan or the Egg?

What do all of these paintings have to do with the Annunciation and Mary’s question: how can this be? Certainly it makes sense that medieval and renaissance painters would, having long painted Madonnas, been impressed by the story of Danaë, and painted her accordingly. That explains why some such paintings are suggestive of the Annunciation. But need we read into that? What’s all that got to do with the question “how did it happen?” One thing that is obvious about the paintings of Danaë we have examined is how they play at sexuality. The shower of gold coins is a metaphor for Zeus, but it is obviously Zeus who enters Danaë and impregnates her. Hence why the gold coins fall toward her vagina, sometimes in an alarming jet. That Zeus is meant by the gold coins is clear from paintings where he is explicitly shown.

Danae recibiendo la lluvia de oro (c. 1560) by Gaspar Becerra. Via Wikimedia Commons 

Or as in the following painting by Jonas Hoffman wherein Zeus is literally an old man from whom gold coins fall.

Danae och guldregnet. Kopia efter Giovanno Battista Tiepolo (1753) by Jonas Hoffman. Via Wikimedia.

There is, then, no real mystery surrounding Danaë’s pregnancy. For myth gives way to metaphor, and it is clearly Zeus who has gotten her pregnant – old though he may be. The golden shower may have been a kinky part of the sex, but the sex is as we would expect. Naturally, for we have been standing on formality for the sake of chastity. We know what the Greek gods were like – particularly their king and father.

Anytime we ask the question “how?” we are asking about efficient causality. That is, we are asking about cause and effect. We want to know what cause effected some occurrence. If we say A caused B, we are saying that B happened if and only if  A happened; just because A happened, B happened. It seems to have taken some time for humans to figure out that sex causes pregnancy, but they did eventually figure it out. It probably helped to watch their newly cultivated livestock.

To ask how Danaë got pregnant is a little like asking which came first: the chicken or the egg? Or in a related case, the swan or the egg. For another myth in which Zeus fathers children on a mortal woman is that of Leda and the Swan – another popular subject for painting. In this myth, Zeus seduces Leda in the form of a swan the same night she sleeps with her husband Tyndareus. Subsequently she lays two eggs out of which hatch two children each. Two of the children (it is not clear which) belong to Zeus, and the other two to Tyndareus.

Leda et le cygne (c. 1585), by Paolo Veronese. Via Wikimedia

In this case, we know what came first (pun intended) – it was obviously the swan, for Leda lays eggs. Although she goes on to have sex with her husband (who doubtlessly has no idea who or what has recently been with his deviant wife) there is no doubt that the swan played a causal role in the generation, or hatching, of her young.

I have said that there is a superficial similarity between the myths of Danaë and the golden shower, Leda and the swan, and the Annunciation to Mary. I have also claimed they are different, yet I have denied that this difference lies in that one is grounded in history while the others are merely myths. What then, is the difference?

Suppose for a moment that the stories of Danaë and Leda were certainly true. That is, they actually happened, while the story of Mary was false. Suppose Leda and Danaë were real women and they were telling the truth and really did have an extraordinary experience with a swan or golden shower, (as opposed to an encounter with the pool boy or milk man as we previously supposed). What would we learn? We know that sexual activity of a certain kind is the efficient cause of pregnancy. And sex with a bird and a pile of money is a kind of sexual activity. What we would learn is that this kind of sexual activity counts as an efficient cause of pregnancy.

Suppose that the story of Leda and Danaë were meant to explain something to us – a previously unexplained pregnancy. When their gynecologists interviewed them and checked thoroughly for anything out of the ordinary, they would perhaps find a penny or down feather where it oughtn’t be – and then we’d know. It would be gross and bizarre, but we would not wonder at it. For we would simply be adding to our knowledge of sexuality. We would know that the world is just like that; that this sort of thing just sometimes happens. We would move on to the next kinky scandal.

A Monstrous Birth

But that is not all we would learn from the story of Danaë and Leda. For suppose that all of the myth were true. That is, suppose there really was a God named Zeus who in the guise of a swan, or shower of gold, and anything else you can imagine, impregnated mortal women. Would this not be a cause for wonder? Apparently not. For the Greek themselves seemed to hardly take not of how strange it was. On the contrary, one gets the impression they rather expected it. For as we mentioned, “that sort of thing” just happened sometimes. In fact, the story of Danaë and Leda might be part of a larger explanatory framework explaining where strange or exceptional children come from – they are fathered by the gods.

Hesiod (c. 750-650 BCE) seemed to have this in mind in Theogony:

Now sing, Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus / Who holds the aegis, sing the company / Of goddesses who lay with mortal men / And bore them children who were like the gods.

The evolution of Greek religion, seems to have been especially concerned with tracing the divine lineage of their heroic ancestors. The divine achievements of previous generations stood in need of divine explanation, and so it was given – the gods hooked up with humans.

An Unsightly Intruder

I have said that there is a superficial similarity between the myth of Danaë and the Golden Shower and the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin. I have claimed they are different, yet I have denied that this difference lies in the belief that one is grounded in history while the other is merely a myth.

What should


Blah Blah Blah

1 One such difficulty is that it while seemingly putting Christianity on a firm foundation, it unwittingly buys into the materialist thesis that only material facts in space-time can be “true” thereby doing more harm than good for Christianity’s case.

On being a barbarian and other contemporary religious problems

On being a barbarian and other contemporary religious problems

I paced my kitchen sipping coffee, listening to the sound of heavy rainfall just outside. In my hands was a copy of Thomas Aquinas’ On Creation from the Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei (Q3). Begun in c. 1265 the Disputed Questions were begun before Thomas began writing the Summa Theologiae. It overlaps a great deal in content with Questions 1-49 of the Summa with the benefit of being somewhat shorter (only 10 Questions – roughly 200 pages). I read only Article 1, consisting of 17 objections and responses and already my head was reeling. Medieval philosophy was conducted in Quaestio format. The quaestio (Latin = question) has the following format: 1) an initial view is put forward – usually the opposite of what the author actually holds. Arguments are then given for this view. 2) “Contra” or “But against this…” a statement from various authorities (mostly scripture, Aristotle, or a church father) will be given suggesting the view is wrong. 3) The body of the quaestio – the author expounds his own view. 4) Responses to the arguments – now in light of the author’s own view, each of the previous arguments will be responded to/refuted.[1] So as an example from On Creation, let’s see how this format works for Aquinas.

  1. The first thing to be asked is whether God can make something out of nothing. And it seems that he cannot.
    1. Argument 1: For God cannot act counter to first principles… as the Philosopher (Aristotle) says in Physics I, it is a first principle and axiom of physics that nothing comes out of nothing. Therefore, God cannot make something out of nothing.
  2. On the contrary Genesis 1 says, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” According to the Gloss (of Bede), to create is to make something from nothing. Therefore, God can make something from nothing.
  3. I answer that we must firmly hold that God can and does make something from nothing… [here follows the rest of Aquinas’ argument]
  4. Response to Argument 1: The Philosopher says that “nothing comes out of nothing” is a first principle or opinion of natural philosophers because the natural agent which they investigate acts only through motion, and so it is necessary that there be some subject of motion or change. In a supernatural agent this is not necessary, as has been said above (in 3).[2]

That seemed easy enough. But there are 17 arguments and responses in just this first article (1 of 19 on only 1 question)! And the problem is that first all 17 arguments against God being able to make something out of nothing are given, then the contrary citations from authorities, then Aquinas’ own view, and then all of the responses to the arguments. So, you have to flip back and forth between argument and response. It’s really inconvenient. This problem besets philosophy articles to this day – issues and their responses are not put forth in an efficient way. It would of course probably be easier for pedagogical reasons if entire texts of medieval philosophy were restructured to deal with one argument at a time. These were the thoughts that occupied me as I sipped coffee and got ready to go to work.

It’s strange that as I checked my email in my office (a dreaded task that at least yielded the blessed news that a meeting was cancelled) a student walked in to meet with my office-mate, a recent PhD in aesthetics. She was apparently giving him feedback on a paper he had written on a work by Augustine commonly assigned to undergrads. It became apparent he was familiar with much of it. It turns out he was (somewhat predictably) a Catholic private school boy who got (in his own estimation) “twelve years of Catholic theology in school.” Still, it surprised him that much of Augustine’s worldview and philosophy is grounded in Platonism. So my colleague outlined a commonplace distinction “Oh yeah. Augustine went with Plato, Aquinas went with Aristotle.” (A little oversimplified but still true enough). Immediately the school-boy jumped in “I like Aquinas better than Augustine. Aquinas was a genius! He would just have scribes follow him around and write as he spat out thought after thought. He’s my confirmation saint.” This kind of silly fanboy attitude is common enough toward Aquinas among Catholics. I’m used to religious (Catholic) students of philosophy assuming Aquinas was the greatest Christian philosopher ever. It’s somewhat irritating, but not surprising. But what was not to be borne was what the boy said next.

“Of course, I’ve never actually read the Summa (or anything by Aquinas). It’s far too advanced. It’s above my level at least. Maybe one day I’ll get there. But I’m not there right now.”

The Summa may seem forbidding, if for no other reason than that it is enormous and its English translations somewhat archaic. But there is absolutely no reason why anyone should assume any work of philosophy is “above them” – as if you needed special access or privilege even to read the stuff. So, I turned around from my desk and interrupted the conversation the boy and my colleague were having.

Me: “You know, the Summa is large, but Aquinas wrote other things, many of which are shorter and easier to understand. For instance, this *pulls out On Creation*. He wrote this before He wrote the Summa. It deals with a lot of the same issues but is way shorter. If you read this, you’d understand the first whole section of the Summa better.

The boy was not as intrigued as I thought he might be.

Boy: “Oh, well you see, I just really don’t like to read. I never have. Even this *referring to Augustine book he had to read in intro* I didn’t really enjoy reading.”

I was stunned. I asked him what his major was – economics!!!

This conversation truly floored me. If you are an Aquinas fanboy, there are several issues which might prevent you from grabbing the Dumb Ox by the horns, so to speak. Maybe you don’t speak Latin and have a superstitious belief in only reading things in original languages. Maybe you find his jargon too technical. Maybe the outrageous format of medieval philosophical discussion (outlined above) makes his work too difficult to navigate. Maybe you have a pathological phobia of misinterpreting his work and falling into irredeemable heresy (seems unlikely). But it seems that the most preponderant reason why the average layperson fails to dive head-on into the work of ancient and medieval saints is far more depressing. We’re lazy.

If you’ve never read anything serious by Aquinas; if your sole exposure consists in popular biographies, quaint anecdotes, and maybe a prayer or hymn, how do you know he was a genius? Why would you assume that because he was prolific he was also profound? It seems that Aquinas suffers from the same fate shared by many (far less important) popular Christian intellectuals (e.g. C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, etc). Everyone who wants to seem like a smart Christian loves them – but there is an eerie lack of any critical involvement with texts. People might be impressed by the ability to spit out articles from the Summa, or chuckle at the witty shade-throwing of G.K.C. or be moved by the cozy, lukewarm, flirtations of C.S.L., but no one is willing to say straight up, “He was wrong” or “what a strange thing to say.”

It is furthermore strange that the boy would admit to “liking” Aquinas more than Augustine (at least I know he’s read something by Augustine…) because Augustine was Aquinas’ favorite and most quoted source besides the bible. It seems that for many fanboys, the Catholic imagination stops somewhere in the high middle ages. Oh sure, many people revere the idea of the early Church Fathers, but how many seriously dig deeper? It’s quite one thing to read (and be enraptured by) the Confessions or maybe even City of God. But what about De Principiis by Origin, Mystical Catechises by Cyril of Jerusalem, Contra Gentes by Athanasius, de Spirito Sancto by Basil, De Trinitate by Hilary or anything by Tertullian, the first Latin Church Father (who btw apostasized)?

Many people seem unaware that the history of Christian theology is very much an interactive legacy of scholars responding to recurring issues, questions, and each other, and that the divisions of Christianity often result from the differing answers given by key figures in different traditions. It is also overlooked that Christian philosophy and theology are not self-contained wholes, but have always existed in dialogue with pagan, Jewish, and Muslim philosophy. For instance, one simply cannot fully appreciate the constant shade-throwing of Aquinas at (the Muslim) Averroes (bastardized Latin for ibn-Rushd) unless one realizes that Aquinas’ access to Aristotle was largely mediated by the commentaries of Averroes’ coreligionist rival Avicenna (ibn-Sina). And one won’t understand the bizarre, seemingly unwarranted, allegorical interpretation of scriptures unless they understand the Jewish midrash and rabbinic traditions.

All of this comes to one central criticism. We don’t read, and even if we do, we often resent the effort, and even then, we do not always understand the connections between what we are reading and other things we have read. But why am I saying all this? Why does it bother me that a (probably) freshman would be an Aquinas fanboy without having read Aquinas? Too often in religion, we are looking not for understanding but for comfort. Authority comforts us. One of the things I hate about apologetics (similar to a criticism Bertrand Russel had of Aquinas) is that often when Christians do philosophy, we do so not disinterestedly or without ulterior motive, not even because we are desperately and genuinely seeking “the Truth,” but because we are trying to justify a belief we had – a belief we did not arrive at philosophically. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Many if not most of our beliefs were not arrived at through philosophical analysis – how could we come to believe anything if this was the sole way of believing something. We often believe things non-rationally, and later upon closer inspection, are happy to discover the philosophical underpinnings of what we believed all along. We walk away edified. Similarly, Christianity is not primarily a kind of philosophy but a religion, replete with pre- and non-philosophical commitments. Fine. The problem is that when philosophical investigation renders one of our religious beliefs unsatisfactory, or at least more complicated than we hoped, we pretend not to notice. Talk of the “limits of human reason” becomes a slogan, justifying our laziness and fear of digging deeper.

Very frequently when we cite authors as authorities, we do so not because we have an intellectually honest interest in their life, thought, and legacy, but because we simply want to have sufficient numbers of authorities to use as proof-texts at will. It does not matter to us why Aquinas thought the things that he did, let alone whether he was always right about what he thought – what matters to us is that it is written down in some big, old, fancy-looking book which we can bust out when arguing with Protestants, or liberal Catholics, or atheists. We want to be seen as having sufficient arguments in our apologetic arsenal to evoke trust in the skeptical. And then, we exploit that trust in getting them to accept propositions we haven’t demonstrated and are not entitled to ourselves.

It’s easy to see why this kind of pandering to authority might be acute among Christians of a certain kind. Most Christian are not really interested in philosophy and do not care if they derive their beliefs from reason per se, but instead take their beliefs from another abstract source, “the Church.” The life and spiritual oevre of Christian philosophers are sacrificed to get people to believe in that rather than in them. So the faithful neglect the rich intellectual history, drama, and controversy of their religion, while their commitment to “the Faith,” “the Church,” or “the Truth” remains unwavering. No one gives a damn how things got to be this way – what matters is that they are the way that they are. And that feels really good. Much better to read holy comic books about our super-heroes Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, or anyone else, than to crack open a damn Dover thrift edition. Why not throw a philosopher under the bus to get what we’re really after – certainty, consolation, triumphalism, and the oh-so-delicious feeling of knowing you’re right without knowing why.

There are of course ways to combat this trend. If you are interested in transitioning from the status of a basic Christian intellectual fanboy to actually honoring the tradition and intentions of Christian philosophers, you might try the following. I myself am giving these things a try, so as not to be a hypocrite.

  1. Try reading more. Maybe you don’t have a lot of time. That’s ok. There are shorter texts, whether treatises, letters, or short sermons you can almost certainly knock out in a few sittings. Don’t feel you have to finish works in a given time frame. Simply read a few chapters, questions, or articles, and think long and hard about them.
  2. Read primary texts, only using secondary sources when you really need them. You might assume that a text like the Summa is “above” you and that you are better off reading a summary by some “expert.” But if their work is not “above” you, why should the Summa be? There cannot (we hope) be an infinite bibliography of texts too hard for you. You will often be startled by how accessible patristic and medieval books really are.
  3. When you read, do not assume that the author, be they a saint or doctor, is always right about everything they wrote. People are often unaware that during their own lifetime, authors were not always regarded. Aquinas own work was often highly suspect in his own era. Saints were often exiled, anathemized, censured, or disregarded before Christians realized the value of what they wrote. Knowing this, do not assume that the contemporary or current opinion of “the Church” is the only thing to consider when reading a Christian philosophical work. What matters most is that you try to figure out whether what is being said is “true” rather than “approved.”
  4. Likewise, do not assume that just because an author you are reading is not a saint, or may even be a heretic, that they have nothing important to contribute to Christian philosophy. People often fail to realize that “heretics” were frequently simply those who arrived at a different philosophical stance than the establishment and refused to lie about it. Also, the history of Christian orthodoxy is very much simply a history of Christian heresy, since the “orthodox” would have no impetus to write and articulate their own positions except in reaction to what they saw as problematic in a heterodox author.
  5. When you read, jot down notes, vocabulary, and questions raised by the texts. People often do not retain what they read because they do not remember what they were thinking when they read it. They consumed a text in the hope of regurgitating it, and once they have regurgitated it – it’s out of their system. Even if you only write (hopefully not in the book like a savage) “what does this mean?”, “is this correct?”, “do I agree?”, or “why would they think this?” you are providing yourself with the beginning of an investigation.
  6. Pay attention to sources. For instance, in On Creation by Aquinas, there are 120 references to 11 works by Aristotle, 50 references to 11 works by Augustine, and all these beside 40 references to the bible. It is obvious which sources most influenced Aquinas, which means that you will often be eavesdropping on a far more ancient (even pre-Christian) debate then you realize.

Much of what I am suggesting would of course unfortunately be easier if there were more attractively bound, neatly formatted, inexpensive editions of works in both original languages and in translation. It would also perhaps be better if universities incentivized teaching as much as research, or if one did not have to go to a university to study philosophy. Imagine seeing a couple or group of students at a coffee shop (hell even a bar) with pleather-bound editions of Migne’s Patrologia on bible paper instead of ghost-written self-help books by Christians who are essentially motivational speakers. The market would have to be significantly different.

At any rate, if we do have a genuine interest, there is no reason why we should not avail ourselves of the blessing of Wikipedia.

[1] John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016). Kindle location 1449.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, On Creation [Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei, Q.3] trans. S. C. Selner-Wright, (Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 3-9.

Looking Up

Looking Up

The scene above, from the 12th century Copenhagen Psalter, depicts the Annunciation to the Shepherds (Luke 2:8-18). I think the Annunciation to the Shepherds is the most neglected scene in the cycle of Christmas images. The shepherds are there of course – at the Nativity scene adoring the Christ Child. But the specific value of the Annunciation sans baby Jesus is, I think, lost on most people.

Everybody loves depicting the “wise men” or “kings” as they are often (incorrectly) styled. I suppose it’s an opportunity to get multi-cultural without being politically incorrect since, absurdly, the kings are often diverse races. Christmas angels are also a favorite – the ability to generate infinite artistic variation on effeminate winged humans is a godsend to card companies. And of course, the holy family takes center stage – as I suppose they should.

These images are icons – or ikons if you wish. That is, though their subject matter is often historical in nature, the point of religious artwork is not representational (the same way photographs and portraits are) but pedagogical. When we look at a piece of religious art, we are not (at least in theory) trying to figure out what “really” happened or what the subjects really looked like. This is obvious because many of the beings in religious art are not corporeal entities at all. Though our favorite things to paint are God, Jesus, Mary, and angels, no one knows what God, Jesus, Mary, or angels look like. In the case of Jesus and Mary, this may be because we have no accurate pictorial record. But in the case of God and angels, it is not because our cameras did not have a high enough resolution to capture the moment – it is because there is literally nothing there to capture.

The proper way to examine religious art around Christmastime is not necessarily to get caught up on details but to pay attention to structure. A properly constructed nativity scene is not intended to represent what things really looked like the night of December 24 in A.D. 1. (At any rate Jesus was probably born in spring or autumn of 4 B.C.). Rather, the purpose of a nativity scene is to show what Christians believe about Jesus – that He is the center worthy of worship by kings and shepherds alike; clearly marked miraculously by a star; attended by angels, etc. But if the nativity scene is about Jesus, and maybe Mary and Joseph, what does this ikon teach us about ourselves? Unfortunately, not as much as we’d like.

The problem with the nativity scene – if this is really a problem – is that if we mistakenly try to discern ourselves in it, we will be misled. For in the nativity scene, Mary, Joseph, the magi, shepherds, angels, even the animals, can see and touch the object of their adoration – Jesus is in obviously in the middle. They can both hold and behold him. But as Christians, our often dry and uneventful lives of faith require us to persevere even in the visible absence of the one we claim to worship. In other words, if we try and succeed in putting ourselves in the nativity scene, Jesus vanishes. Jesus is simply not there in our lives the same way He is in ikons. Ikons depict in visual form what we cannot actually see (like halos). If you insert too many ordinary objects however, if you flood the ikon with what is visible, what is invisible becomes invisible again. This is partly why Christians have usually (though not always) been averse to inserting living persons into ikons. It is also why their structure was quite standard before the advent of artistic “realism.”

So, what is the proper Christmas ikon if we are trying to see ourselves in the Christmas story? The Annunciation to the Shepherds. Let me explain.

12th century Winchester Psalter with the shepherds gazing upward

Writing is also a form of iconography. When we attempt to describe the transcendent, when we write about spiritual realities, we are not simply making factual informational statements. What we are actually doing is using language to “depict” what we believe about these things. Christians have long wanted for the Christmas story to be more fleshed out – to be more than a few verses in Matthew and Luke. So, early Christians made up stories about the nativity. (More sensitively, they had “traditions” or “legends”). The second century Protoevangelium of James paints the following ikon with words.

But as I was going, I looked up into the air, and I saw the clouds astonished, and the fowls of the air stopping in the midst of their flight. And I looked down towards the earth, and saw a table spread, and working people sitting around it, but their hands were upon the table and they did not move to eat. They who had meat in their mouths did not eat. They who lifted their hands up to their heads did not draw them back, And they who lifted them up to their mouths did not put anything in; But all their faces were fixed upwards. And I beheld the sheep dispersed, and yet the sheep stood still. And the shepherd lifted up his hand to smite them, and his hand continued up. And I looked unto a river, and saw the kids with their mouths close to the water, and touching it, but they did not drink. (Protoevanelium of James 13:3-10)

This passage from the Protoevangelium (i.e. “Infancy Gospel”) is in the first person and claims to be by Joseph himself (another neglected character in the Christmas story). This is clearly not so, but that is not really the point here. This Infancy Gospel was extremely influential in the way Christians thought about the nativity up into the middle ages. When early Christians thought of the first Christmas, they thought about it the following way. Mary and Joseph were on their way to Bethlehem. Because there was no room in town they settled for a cave (btw far more plausible than the wooden barns/shacks we imagine today). Joseph wasn’t even present at the birth of Jesus – he ran to look for a midwife. While Joseph was searching for a midwife, Mary gave birth in secret. Joseph did not see the Christ Child be born – but he did see something. While he was walking, time froze. He watched everyone’s and everything’s actions slow to a halt and then resume suddenly. It is clear what Christians mean by this literary ikon – at the moment Jesus was born, time stood still. Time stood still because God was entering it. And in the moment that time froze, Joseph simply looked up. It is because he looked up rather than ahead that Joseph saw anything at all. He lifted his gaze from the horizontal plane of “real” life and turned it to the vertical plane of transcendent realities. In this visual ikon, everyone stops what they are doing and are transfixed while gazing upward.

This also is only an ikon. No one knows what actually happened, thank God. In this traditional story enshrined in an apocryphal gospel, all we learn is that Christians think it is very important when you are on an errand for the baby Jesus to stop for a moment and look up. If we apply this lesson in Christian pedagogy to visual iconography, we will see why the Annunciation to the Shepherds is more important to us today than the Nativity scene. In the Nativity scene, no one is looking up. Mary, Joseph, the Magi, are all looking forward, or even down. They can see and touch baby Jesus and therefore what they (in the ikon) are experiencing is not faith but certainty. They are not walking by faith, (actually they are not walking at all), but by sight. This certainty is something which Christians are promised – not something we experience regularly in our life. We walk by faith, not by sight. Though we hope to one day adore Christ like Mary and Joseph in the nativity scene – gazing upon Him blissfully face to face in beatific vision – that is not our lot at the moment. For that, we need purity of heart. And what is that?

The Jewish-Catholic mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943) wrote a great deal about the meaning of God’s absence.

God can only be present in creation under the form of absence.[1]

In this world, we only experience God through His visible absence. If we look around us in the world we live, we are confronted not by some unlimited beauty but, for the most part, by senseless suffering, injustice, frustration, and meaninglessness. We may try to comfort ourselves with religious and political fictions, but the truth is that many people, even or especially people of faith, live with an inexorable emptiness, a Void, inside of them. If we try to fill it with things, even our religious beliefs, we will have only illusory and temporary satisfaction. If we embrace this Void however, this emptiness is like a vacuum pulling down the grace of God.

We should not try to console ourselves by explaining our suffering in terms of God’s “providence” or “plan,” for that would be to fill the Void and keep God out. Instead, when we suffer, without any explanation, we should just gaze up.

[God] enters into contact with a human individual as such only through purely spiritual grace which responds to the gaze turned towards him… No event is a favour on the part of God—only grace is that.[2]

In other words, while Christmas is a time in which people try to find reasons to be thankful and are likely to see many things (nice presents, warm and cozy feels, holiday hormones) as God trying to tell them something (perhaps “you is kind, you is smart, you is important”), no singular event in our lives is God’s favor. Only grace which comes when we embrace the absurdity and emptiness of our lives, is a favor or gift of God.

If you are, like me, someone who gets seasonally depressed, maybe it is exactly the pain, regret, or unfulfilled longing, which you should be grateful for.

The irreducible character of suffering which makes it impossible for us not to have a horror of it at the moment when we are undergoing it is destined to bring the will to a standstill, just as absurdity brings the intelligence to a standstill, and absence love, so that man, having come to the end of his human faculties, may stretch out his arms, stop, look up and wait.[3]

When we suffer, because senseless suffering in a universe supposedly created by a good God is absurd, we cannot handle it. We are not being asked to cope with it, to pretend it’s not there. We are being asked to look up. It is absolutely impossible for us to lift ourselves up from this world of pain through our own effort. We simply cannot “rise above” or “transcend” our suffering. But if we look up (“I lift mine eyes unto the hills…”) it is just possible we will be drawn thither by the grace of God.

If we turn our mind towards the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.[4]

But you only get the good news (“I bring you glad tidings”) if you look up. The shepherds were not looking for God when the angels brought them the gospel. They were doing their duty – they were keeping watch. The shepherds were keeping vigil over their sheep. Simone Weil writes of three “domains” of God’s will. The first domain is accepting everything in this world – even our suffering – as the will of God, and loving it for that reason. The second domain is doing our natural duties – which we can discern through reason. But there is a third domain in which we don’t know what our job is. It is in this third domain that looking up comes in handy.

In this domain we experience the compulsion of God’s pressure… God rewards the soul that thinks of him with attention and love, and he rewards it by exercising a compulsion upon it strictly and mathematically proportionate to this attention and this love. We have to abandon ourselves to the pressure, to run to the exact spot whither it impels us and not go one step further, even in the direction of what is good… When the pressure has taken possession of the whole soul, we have attained the state of perfection. But whatever stage we may have reached, we must do nothing more than we are irresistibly impelled to do, not even in the way of goodness.[5]

So we need to wait. The purpose of suffering in our present very human life is to exhaust our intellect, will, and love bringing us to a standstill where all we can do is look up and wait. To watch the universe freeze as God enters our life. Not that we see Him do this. What we witness is the inexplicable standstill of our lives as we are pursuing the Good transfixed by its beauty.

Sometimes rather than look up, we hide our face from God

And that is why we resemble the figures in the ikon of the Annunciation to the Shepherds. If we insert ourselves into the ikon, yes the angels disappear. But we are doing what we should be – we are looking up and waiting for God’s mercy. If we look up and wait as we should, we will get the message we need.

The will of God. How to know it? If we make a quietness within ourselves, if we silence all desires and opinions and if with love, without formulating any words, we bind our whole soul to think ‘Thy will be done’, the thing which after that we feel sure we should do (even though in certain respects we may be mistaken) is the will of God. For if we ask him for bread he will not give us a stone.[6]

Merry Christmas.

[1] Simone Weil, “He Whom We Must Love is Absent,” in Gravity and Grace, (New York: Routledge, 2003),  109.

[2] Simone Weil, “He Whom We Must Love is Absent,” in Gravity and Grace, (New York: Routledge, 2003),  112.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Simone Weil, “Letter 1: Hesitations Concerning Baptism,” in Waiting for God, tr. Emma Caufurd, (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 4.

[6] Simone Weil, “Necessity and Obedience,” in Gravity and Grace, (New York: Routledge, 2003),  47.