Are You Secular? Some Reflections on the Theology of Hildegard of Bingen

The Meaning of the Secular

There has been much debate in the UK press recently about the meaning and future of the ‘secular’ but such discussions have often produced more heat than light, particularly for some religious communities who feel ever more threatened by a changing culture. A large part of this anxiety is generated by thorny questions concerning what ‘the secular’ is and how do we know if we’re really part of it.  Is it simply about widespread disbelief in God (or a Higher Power) or something more? And how is this non/belief linked to the ideology known as ‘secularism’? Some reactive religious communities continue to believe that if only they can define and ‘unmask’ the secular, they can affectively police the commitment of their members, sealing fragile souls inside a pious bubble, protected from a hostile world. But as I go on to suggest, it is not that simple. There might be paths beyond the secular, but these tracks may not lie where people think they do. Being ‘religious’ in a secular context might require a great act of imagination both strange and wonderful. Just insisting on some list of dry traditional values may not be enough. In this post, I want to consider what ‘the secular’ might be by looking closely at the thought of the Medieval mystic, physician, and musician, Hildegard of Bingen (1098 –1179). By filtering her richly complex theology through the work of philosopher Charles Taylor, I want to shed some fresh light on what is or isn’t secular. I want to suggest that full secularity is not merely about one’s nonalignment to religious beliefs or practices, but the rejection of a symbolic and analogical approach to the world.

"Universal Man", an illumination from a 13th-century copy of Hildegard von Bingen's Liber Divinorum Operum ("Book of Divine Works", c. 1165).Let’s start with some basic (contested) definitions. What divides the modern secular West from its religious past? According to the influential analysis of the philosopher Charles Taylor, the gulf between premodern and modern culture necessarily hinges upon questions of meaning. Under secular conditions, meaning is regarded as the product of agents, who impose their perspective onto an otherwise neutral cosmos. What we encounter in this world by way of ‘meaning’ is not an act of discovery but rather, an act of interpretation. We might very well believe in sacred things in an otherwise secular world, but we must make a conscious choice to do so. Life under secularity, does not invite the notion of meaning as inherent. The fact that we can imagine a world without God (even if we believe in Him) reveals our fundamental state of modern disenchantment.[1] What has changed? Taylor believes that modernity has eclipsed a sacred vision of life and nature in which God is not only believed in, but is also ‘inescapable’.[2] In a sacred cosmos ‘meanings are not in the mind[3]’ but are inherent in the structure of the world in the form of ‘charged’ objects, places, and persons. As Taylor notes:

[In] the enchanted world, charged things have a causal power which matches their incorporated meaning…. Once meanings are not exclusively in the mind, once we can fall under the spell, enter the zone of exogenous meaning, then we think of this meaning as including us, or perhaps penetrating us. We are in as it were a kind of space defined by this influence. The meaning can no longer be placed simply within; but nor can it located exclusively without.’[4]

Thus, in the enchanted world of Christendom, it was entirely rational to affirm the actions of spirits, the intercession of saints and the power of relics since subjectivity was not confined to human agents.[5] What are the distinctive features of an enchanted paradigm? A useful way into this question is to consider George Lindbeck’s ‘cultural-linguistic’ treatment of religious life. A key insight in Lindbeck’s analysis is the claim that what Taylor calls enchantment, is underlined by a shared narrative. The immersion in an enchanted world is made possible by the participation of communities in a common story which structure the way they speak and act. This narrative structure to life is underlined by Taylor’s claim that meaning is not just in the mind, but is constantly leaking out into the world.  In this model, our stories intersect with events, just as events intersect with stories.

Telling a Sacred Story

How is this approach to experience linked to Hildegard of Bingen? Such a narrative-centred cast of mind is vividly illustrated in Hildegard’s De Operatione Dei where space and time are understood as providential conduits, through which God’s intent is communicated. In one particularly revealing discussion of the order of the seasons, Hildegard notes:

When the sun rises high in the sky in summer, this fire carries out God’s vengeance by the fire-causing lightning; when the sun descends in winter, the judgement fire indicates condemnation and punishment by ice, cold and hail. For every sin, will be punished according to its nature, by fire, cold and other afflictions.[6]

Here the elements are rendered as actors in a coherent narrative-whole, repeating and recalling God’s past judgements recorded in Scripture. The same reasoning prevails in Hildegard’s attitudes towards the diversity of created life. In a world where meaning is inherent and not imposed, the birds of the air are symbols of thought[7], lions represent the judgement of God[8], while the serpent signifies the faculty of deception and cunning[9]. Working alongside this semiotic/psychological reading of nature, we find a complimentary tendency in Hildegard’s writings to interpret natural events through the lens of Scripture. Mary is frequently interpreted the dawn, giving birth to the sun (Christ)[10] while the seven planets of classical astronomy are made to ‘signify the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit,’[11]. Yet if the created order served as a mirror of Scripture, the Biblical narrative was also understood as a mirror to itself, with texts continually pointing beyond themselves to other images in the canon. Thus, when Hildegard reads of Aaron’s staff[12] (Ex. 7:17) and Abraham’s ram (Gen. 22:13) she sees a foreshadowing of the power and obedience of the Virgin Mary.[13] What does this semiotic method tell about the deep structure of Hildegard’s worldview? Crucially, we learn that the Biblical narrative is not treated as a linear time-bound text, but an abiding reality which beckons the worshipper into a timeless present. The sense that all things are in the orbit of an ever-existent Biblical narrative, is pertinently illustrated by Hildegard’s belief in the healing power of precious and semi-precious stones. In locating the basis of their healing properties Hildegard is careful to ground her explanation in the Bible’s narration of the devil and his fate. As she recounts in her medical treatise Patrologia Latina:

Every stone contains fire and moisture. The devil abhors, detests, and disdains precious stones. That is because he remembers that their beauty was manifest on him before he fell from the glory God had given him, and because some precious stones are engendered from fire, in which he receives his punishment. By the will of God, the devil was vanquished by the fire into which he fell, just as he is vanquished by the fire of the Holy Spirit when human beings are snatched from his jaws by the first breath of the Holy Spirit.[14]

Accordingly, when these instruments of divine fire are applied to the problems of human sickness, the devil flees[15] the patient and his spirits are subdued.[16] In the narrative origin of such beliefs, we see the full import of Taylor’s interpretation of the enchanted premodern. In a rich fusion of text and symbolic correspondence, Hildegard inducts the reader into a world where meaning migrates from the mind to outward signs and back again, transforming outward experience into a reflection of transcendent meaning. In turn, medicine becomes a narrative inspired act, which attempts to trace the influence of spiritual, infernal, planetary, and astrological influences on the life of the patient.  At the centre of these interlocking forces is the human body, which in its structure, expresses the earth’s affinity with these powers. In this respect, says Hildegard:

[Both] of them- sun and moon- then serve humankind in accord with the divine order, bringing us either health or illness according to the mix of atmosphere and aura …. If the moon is waxing, the brain and blood of human beings are also increased. If the moon is waning, the substances of the blood and brain in human beings also diminish.[17]

Hildegard von Bingen.jpgYet such astrological vision of medicine is never a declaration of fatalism for the Catholic Hildegard, but an expression of the hermetic principle supera et infera eadem sunt (as above so below). Here medicine is concerned not merely with physical health (much less predicting the future) but the restoration of various kinds of social and sacred balance.  Thus, as the anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers helpfully observes in his now famous study Medicine, Magic, and Religion, in many tribal societies disease was regarded as the result of an ‘infraction of totemic ordinances’[18] while cure was sort by the restoration of social relationship, through the confession of the malevolent party[19] or else through ‘curative rites connected with taboos.’[20] Pre-modern pre-secular Western medicine in this sense was a technology not only concerned with the causation between disease and cure, but touched upon the restoration of numerous hidden relations in the world and the body (one’s ancestors, one’s community, and one’s inner character). In agreement with this symbolic logic, when sins darken the human soul, says Hildegard, this state finds outward expression in the disappearing moon ‘at its waning.’[21] Likewise, when human beings persevere in righteousness, this is made externally manifest in the light of the sun.[22]  In this way, Hildegard sees humanity as possessed with the special task of disclosing the rule of God to his creatures, a link between earth and heaven. The same human being who is confirmed and blessed through the enactment of the Eucharist is meant to set as co-judge with God, sitting in the vacated place of fallen angels. Yet because of humanity’s primordial act of sin (which Hildegard identified with a blackening sickness[23]) people run after the lure of the magic arts. Instead of acting in partnership with God, our fallen species seek to imitate the devil by using creation for selfish own ends.[24]  Sin in this context is about a refusal of human beings to treat the creation humbly as a tutor of the self, but rather treat it as a means to and end, devoid of holy intent.

  Not Anti-reality, But Holistic Reality

What does this scheme tell us about the contrast between the sacred and secular? In her rich description of Adam and Eve before the fall, Hildegard tells us that all the elements of creation existed in a state of equanimity, serving human interests.[25]  When the primordial couple were expelled from Paradise, the art of medicine continued to provide a portal to this original state of harmony.  Unlike the disordered hubris of the sorcerer, the art of the physician is modelled God’s desire for a redeemed creation.[26] While magic relies on the destruction of preordained relationships, medicine is concerned with their restoration. To use modern philosophical jargon we might say that the sacred vision of Hildegard is holistic/ecological, while the vision of the magician is positively Baconian. Yet by employing such an oppositional rubric, one should not suppose that straightforwardly casual explanations are entirely absent from the enchanted world of Hildegard’s physic. As Rivers reminds us, many magical and religious practices encode accounts of physical causation[27], just as otherwise non-magical practices can take on a religious or magical significance.[28]  For her part, Hildegard is attentive to matters of organic function as her fascination with the workings of the heart and liver aptly demonstrate.[29]  Enchantment in this sense does not imply what the sceptical modern might regard as an anti-reality principle (the refusal to accept obvious causation) rather it concerns the imaginative apparatus through all causation should be understood.

Hildegard did not refuse obvious causes and effects in favour of purely arcane reasoning. The stance suggested by her enchanted medicine is altogether subtler. The position being reached for is that matters of structure and function are inherently bound up with subjectivity, with experiences and judgements of spiritual status. ‘Sin’ is bound to illness not because of an abject refusal to accept that the human organism has a structure which obeys certain regular laws , but rather because such an organism cannot be fully understood without the Church’s sacred story. A modern parallel can be seen in example of a Reiki therapist, who, while acknowledging the effectiveness of antiviral drugs and MRI machines believes that there is more to health than a simple mechanistic account allows.

In this way, we might say that secularity emerges not when we cease to tell the story, but when we separate matters of structure and function from that story. Thus, a religious congregation can be justly called functionally secular if the majority of the congregants are pure followers of sacred words/stories, but have no expectation that these stories will manifest in real-time (only in the deepest recesses of the soul). Such a stripped down personalised Protestant religiosity (whether it in fact calls itself Catholic or Protestant) has stripped religious symbols of active power, contracting out their real-world functions to medicine, private prayer or professional psychology.  This religiously inspired state of decay is probably most advanced in heavily policed congregations where believers are taught to dismiss dreams, visions, premonitions, healing and the low-level telepathy of prayer, as ‘New Age nonsense’. Here such intense fundamentalism obscures a deep spiritual hollowness, as key religious claims about experience are separated from the real quandaries and deep needs of human life. For humans to stay religious our longings for the holy must in turn  generate answers to the perennial issues of life and death. Once they cease to do this, the religious faculty becomes something of a vestigial organ. The symbolic forms remain, but the key to incorporating them into life has been lost. The great irony in this context is that the New Age astrologer or healer (condemned as sinful by committed purists) has a better intuitive grasp of what matters in the sacred life because s/he is able to see the invisible in the visible, unlike his religious yet highly secular detractors.

Is there any way back into this sacred view of life? If Taylor is right, there is no way of putting this secular consciousness back in the bottle, even if we wanted to. Our very awareness of the possibility of a completely godless world means that the spell of the premodern is forever broken. We can’t simply wish our way into the world of  Hildegard, no matter how much we say “I believe”. But for those who seek new depth in their religious traditions, there may be a way to enter the postsecular- a realm in which we discover the hidden linkages between stories and selves, symbols, and souls. This is the lynch-pin of Jung’s Analytical psychology, but it is also at the heart of Charismatic and Pentecostal movements that attempt to see their religious worlds through the activity of the Spirit, communicated in their holy stories. Once we break the embargo on linking our inner and outward worlds (Jung’s famed notion of synchronicity) we can begin to capture our sense of the sacred in a world made secular. But for many this process is only a vague possibility in a societies which are becoming increasingly alienated from holy ways of seeing. If this blog post is even half right, the danger for religious traditions in the modern world is not sacred forms being swamped by militant anti-belief, but rather, the prospect that in the very near future, the symbols and assumptions that tie together once influential religious narratives (particularly in the West) will become increasingly unintelligible or fragmented. What effect this will have on the course of our civilization, if left uncorrected, is anyone’s guess.

[1] Taylor, A Secular Age, (London: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 12.

[2] Taylor, A Secular Age, (London: Harvard University Press, 2007), p.  13.

[3] Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 35

[4] Taylor, A Secular Age, p.  35.

[5] Taylor, A Secular Age, p.  32.

[6] Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, ed. Matthew Fox, (Santa Fe, Bear & Company, 1987), p. 27.

[7] Hildegard of Bingen, Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica, trans. Priscila Throop, (Rochester, Healing Arts Press, 1998), p.137

[8] Hildegard, Book of Divine Works), p.

[9] Hildegard, Book of Divine Works, p. 37

[10] See Rebeca L.R. Garber, ‘‘Where is the Body?’ Images of Eve and Mary in the Scivias’, in Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays, ed. Maud Burnett McInerney, (New York: Farland, 1998), p. 120

[11] Hildegard, Book of Divine Works, p. 48

[12] Hildegard, Book of Divine Works, p. 20

[13] Hildegard, Book of Divine Works, ibid.

[14] Hildegard Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica, trans. Priscila Throop, (Rochester, Healing Arts Press, 1998), p. 137

[15] Hildegard Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica, p. 148

[16] Hildegard Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica, p. 149

[17]  Hildegard, Book of Divine Works p. 47

[18] W.H.R Rivers, Medicine, Magic, and Religion, (London: Routledge, 1924: 2001), p. 37

[19] Rivers, Medicine, Magic, and Religion, p. 36

[20] Rivers, Medicine, Magic, and Religion, p. 35.

[21] Hildegard Book of Divine Works, p. 103

[22] Hildegard Book of Divine Works, ibid

[23] Wighard Strehlow & Gottfried Hertzka, Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine, trans. Karen Anderson Strehlow, (Rochester: Bear & Company, 1998), p.101

[24] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Columba Hart & Jane Bishop, (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 101

[25] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, p. 86

[26] Hildegard, Scivias, p. 128

[27] Rivers uses the example of leech craft, which maybe compatible with certain religious conceptions, but in most cases, preserves definite ideas concerning both pathology and disease. See Rivers, Medicine, Magic, and Religion, p. 48

[28] Rivers, Medicine, Magic, and Religion, p. 101

[29] Wighard Strehlow & Gottfried Hertzka, Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine, trans. Karen Anderson Strehlow, (Rochester: Bear & Company, 1998), pp. 65-68


It Takes Guts to Believe that God Loves You

In a world characterised by so much brutality and suffering, it is a bold person who still asserts that human beings are ‘made in the image’ of a loving God. If there are marks of divinity in human beings, the deity in question appears to be terrifyingly cruel.  In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that scientists had uncovered what they described as ‘evidence of the earliest known murder among our ancestors’, with the implication that ‘interpersonal violence may be baked into the human experience’.  It came in the form of a grisly skull belonging to a hominid species much older than Neanderthals. The cranium showed signs of two repeated blows with the same implement, suggesting an ‘intent to kill’. These pre-historic remains hint at the dark possibility that the murder of Abel by Cain is emblematic of the human condition.  As the wars and genocides of the twentieth century conclusively proved, even with all our technology and education, we are frequently no better than that frightened ape that clubbed his enemy to death (although so much deadlier). As Sigmund Freud noted grimly in his essay Civilisation and Its Discontents (1929):

 Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus.

Yet, if “man is a wolf to man” (surely a slur on wolves?) how can that be reconciled with the human-positive language of the Gospel?  Are Freud’s ravenous apes the same creatures worthy of having their hairs counted by God (Matt. 10:30)? Are these monsters the same creatures of which God says, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters” (2 Corinthians 6:18).  Are these designers of bombs and missiles really the meek sheep which Christ will gather back (Matt. 18:12–14)?  When we peer into ourselves the darkness can sometimes seem overwhelming. Often we feel trapped by our egotism and although we know what we should do, we often shudder at the prospect of doing it. We rather others died before we died to our own selves. As Paul put it:  ‘For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it’ (Romans 7:15-20). In Paul’s painful honesty, we readily see the processes of natural selection which have made us. We perceive the outworking of millions of years of biting, tearing and clawing.

In the face of this shattering reality, it is hard to believe that anything so vicious could be cherished by any Supreme Being worth its salt. Yet this is precisely what the Gospel tells us about ourselves. When God sees us, he does not perceive a violent primate, but sons and daughters, heirs, and princes.  He does not see our sins, but rather the Spirit of Christ at work in us. In other words, God always sees us through the eyes of mercy. In the face of all the wrong we commit (or ever will commit) God declares in grace: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). The promise of Jesus is that God will not be pushed away.  The Cross and the Resurrection are signs of God’s ultimate refusal to give up on his creatures. Even when confronted with the roving spirit of Cain, God is not deterred by our coldness. He continues to wait and he continues to give. This is exciting and it is frankly scary. We are invited into a love we cannot earn, we cannot control and do not deserve by any human metric. This is the ‘ocean of light and love’ experienced by George Fox at his convincement, and it is the true reality of which Paul said, ‘neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers’ can bar us. Believing this promise of grace is the most radical act we can undertake. For once we hear and believe in that love which persists we can see beyond “fight and flight”, and all the ancient forces which keep us trapped in the past (both personal and collective).

What does such a graceful affirmation offer us? We can lift a sense of judgment from ourselves and by extension lift the burden of judgement from others. We can declare along with the Songs of Songs: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16). In articulating this new status, we can begin to act like the cherished one we know we are.   Through the love freely offered us, we become capable of sharing love more abundantly with others. Once we recognise our identities as sons and daughters of a loving Father, we can be open to the riches of our inheritance. As Martin Luther once put it: “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his”. But as the story of the Cross illustrates it takes guts to believe that God is love, because to do so calls into question the punitive behaviour which characterises our species- all our weapons, all our prisons and detention centres become shadows. God’s loving judgement, puts human judgements to shame.  But such a gift of escape may be too much for some to bear. Paul puts the challenge of this new nature provocatively when he tells the Church at Corinth:  “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). Putting the issue more pointedly still, Athanasius said that, the Son of God became man so that we might become God.  We are earth-bound creatures of mud and blood, meant for eternity- a destiny we share with the whole of creation (Rev. 21).

What utterly scandalous suggestions! How could such weak and spiteful beings have sway over the powers of the invisible world? How can we become mirrors reflecting the nature of God? It is surely more realistic to return to the savage safety of the rules which made us:  “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). It is this ethic of struggle that we hear in the voice of the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple who fears what Jesus might do to his ordered world: “You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). Or it put it another way, it is better that unruly love should be snuffed out than allow the anarchy of a perpetually giving God to recast the world. It is much easier to put this ceaseless love on trial and nail it to a cross than hear it and feel open to change. It is easier to follow the script of our evolution than concede the possibility that we nasty bipeds are meant to be a mirror of the Eternal, to be vessels for a reality that is just not like us.

Sometimes this refusal to accept the radical nature of grace becomes manifest in the way some Christians talk about God on the Cross. Instead of understanding the crucifixion as an outpouring of God’s love in the face of the wretchedness of the human situation, an emphasis is placed on stilling the anger of a righteous God, who must have satisfaction in blood. This theological reading is surely built on our ancient Reptilian brain; that part of ourselves which controls our aggressive instincts. Here, God, the bloodthirsty judge serves as a projection of our fears for survival. Someone must die so that we must live. In some theories of atonement, God’s Law is simply a refined version of our own longings for retribution against those who or put us in danger. But the Gospel repeatedly tries to push us beyond this reptilian apparatus by telling us that we must not return evil for evil and that peacemakers will be blessed. The Deity Christians worship is the arch offender against notions of natural justice. In his community, the first will be last and the last will be first, where rain is sent on ‘the just and the unjust alike’ (Matt. 5:45). The God of Jesus Christ is not a capricious sky Father filled with all our instinctual aggressions. The One loved by Israel, whom Jesus calls Father has come to save the world and not to condemn it. Yet there has been much copious theologising trying to blunt this fact. Grace perfects nature as the old Catholic theologians tell us, but invariably nature resists. We still want to believe that God plays by our rules of vindication and punishment, something the logic of grace denies. Our challenge is this. Are we prepared to see ourselves as God sees us or continue to be defined by our past? Grace is the key but will we open the door?

The Challenge of the Manger: The Deep Meaning of the Nativity

The Image of the Nativity Scene

Even in such a vigorously secular country such as Britain, much of our festive artwork and advertising is still littered with scenes from the Nativity; filling greeting cards, Advent Calendars, and shop fronts with the kind of religious iconography which is positively alien to most of us the rest of the year. Given the crass commercialism which is everywhere apparent in our contemporary notion of Christmas, it seems strange that this image of the shabby shepherds huddling around a tatty manger still has resonance in an age of LED Christmas trees and chocolate snowmen. What is it about the birth of this child which still has the power to capture our culture at least artistically? It certainly isn’t the background of the baby that moves us to depict him. Sadly, the surroundings of material deprivation in which Jesus was born is today shared by 1,000,000,000 of the world’s children and yet only organisations like Oxfam dare to put up their faces in the shop window. All right, what about his teachings? Does that give the Nativity its power? I don’t think so. History is never short of great orators or formidable moral teachers and yet the birthdays of most of the world’s great sages go unmarked. So, it is that modern Greeks continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus but you won’t find many Greeks celebrating the birth of Socrates! So, if the appeal is not in the biography or in the teaching, what keeps the Nativity in our minds and on our Christmas cards? Its endurance I suggest lies in the events following Jesus’ death. If you traveled back in time and asked a second-century Christian, ‘Why do you remember Jesus’ birth’? They would probably say “Because Jesus’ rose from the dead”. Determining what exactly “rose from the dead” meant to such a first-century person would be a tricky business, partly because the earliest oral sources which end up in the Gospels aren’t entirely sure themselves what happened. Yet the sources are at least agreed on a few points:

  • Jesus was executed under Roman supervision and buried
  • The disciples were disheartened and scattered.
  • Three days later, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by some female followers (the New Testament writers differ on the precise details here)
  • The person of Jesus appeared to the disciples physically

Without the last two events, the birth of this little baby born in Palestine would probably have never come to the attention of the world at large and thus Christianity would never have been born. Indeed, without the resurrection (or an earth-shaking event very much like it) Jesus’ followers would have remained demoralised, unable to preach their Master’s message, much less put their lives on the line for it no matter how much Mary insisted upon what the Gabriel had told her. After all, doubt is nothing new and most of us need a good shake before we accept the incredible. We need more than visions or hearsay to accept a life change. Thus, it is the Resurrection (and not the star, the magi or even virgin birth) which makes the first Christmas coherent for the early followers of Jesus. That isn’t to say the Nativity stories don’t reveal important dimensions of the Gospel. For Friends, this is indeed the first Quaker story, a narrative in which we glance our own reflection. Our Peace Testimony permeates the nativity in Luke and Matthew. When Friends campaign against war and injustice the divine declaration given to the Shepherds is brought to life again: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests’ (Luke 2:14). When Friends genuinely practice our Testimony to Equality, we sing along with the prophetic voice of Mary, who filled with the Spirit tells us how despite her lowly status in the eyes of society, God ‘has lifted up the humble… filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:53). Here is also the call to value simplicity. God decides to manifest not in the halls of emperors and tyrants but in a ram shack through the body a frightened young woman. What about the Truth Testimony? Oddly I think the greatest mirror of truth in the Christmas Story is King Herod. He represents the world of which we are all familiar; one marred by the politics of fear, mutual suspicion, and violence. Raging and sneering against a new light that he cannot comprehend, Herod is not able to let go of the belief that order is based on fear and leadership on the spilling of blood. In Herod’s own darkness and insecurity, we see more clearly ‘the light’ the little child born in Bethlehem offers. He is a ruler without earthly power, without armies or principalities, without popular majorities or a solve-all-your-problems manifesto. He only has love and the sacrifices which absolute dedication to love requires.

The Resurrection and Hope Fulfilled

But as a cynical news cycle reminds us, lots of people have high ideals, but most of the time they come to nothing. Movements for justice fizzle out, revolutions are subverted and people remain oppressed. How do we know that the grand life of love and suffering inaugurated by Jesus means anything? Isn’t it certain that in this world, the corrupt kings always win?  This is where the empty tomb comes bursting into view. Early Christians continued to tell the birth story of Jesus because the ideals the Nativity narratives embodied were confirmed by their own spiritual experience. The only reason in my view that the story of the angels and the shepherds appears in the Gospel records at all are because something more concrete is coming further down the track, giving the Nativity tradition substance. What Luke and Matthew want us to understand is that the Gospel is not built on insubstantial dreams, but the lightening-bolt at the tomb, the axis point which gives the birth of Jesus’ its meaning. When the Hebrew Prophets declared that the Messiah would usher in a new age (a renewed Covenant no less) the early Church found its inauguration in the life of a man who had defeated inevitability itself. In that solitary, astonishing event, the rules of the world appeared to have suddenly changed. Paul expresses this next phase of the world as new creation where the fear of suffering and death no longer holds sure sway over living beings. As Paul relishes, ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). If decay and oblivion were no longer life’s only trajectories, then the followers of Jesus had to start thinking about the world and indeed the universe in a new way. And so, they did. As the Christian Astrophysicist Arnold Benz notes in his excellent book The Future of the Universe (1997):

Good Friday/Easter became for Christians a new pattern for life, a paradigm with which they discovered the world anew. The only basic facts confronted them as they always had, and same needs plagued them, but they perceived therein a new, deeper, dimension. Even if the present is destroyed and no fortunate solution seems possible, all is not yet lost. God can create something completely new that far exceeds our boldest expectations. This also holds for one’s own life, where death must be confronted, as well as for catastrophes which affect all mankind. The expectation may not be fulfilled, at least not in the manner one wishes. For the new is no automaton, which would turn God’s free, act into a causal event. The future remains open and subject to risk. Christians nevertheless gather hope from the Good Friday experience that death will not be the last word, just as Good Friday was not the end-point it first appeared.

The Challenge of the Promise

What does this new pattern mean in our daily lives? Attempting to articulate this early Christian experience in a contemporary idiom, Benz summarises the new Resurrected reality initiated by Jesus through the following motto, “Whoever trusts in me, shares in a meaningful world, despite decay and death, even when the sun burns out, the earth spins off into space and the universe disintegrates”. Even in the inevitable suffering of the evolutionary process thinks Benz, God is there, using entropy as his method of entry into the world, pushing it towards transformation. I believe it is this cosmic promise that “all is not lost” which drags our increasingly post-Christian culture kicking and screaming back to the baby in the stable. That and the cold weather! Everyone seeks the prospect of a new beginning and a new hope at some point in their lives. The messianic child is the enduring symbol of that deep human need. Yet, having forgotten the old ways of expressing hope (through prayer, reflection, and community) secular society in its love for the Christmas card nativity has no way of accessing its religious meaning. In place, of reverence, devotion, and awe, our culture peddles an easier message of sentimentalism which expressly avoids confronting the theological vision which underlies the Christmas story. How should we as Quakers respond to this kind of avoidance? I think our big dare as Quakers should be to live per the dictum “all is not lost” in a skeptical/atheist culture which says that people don’t come back from the dead and angels never visit shepherds. I’m sure there are many Friends in our Meetings who would agree with this world-view, and herein lays the genuine challenge of the Nativity. By engaging seriously with the life of this extraordinary child, we are encouraged to re-evaluate our basic assumptions about the world (since it is hard to accept Jesus as the baby of promise without also confronting the issue of the empty tomb). Do we as Friends take the Resurrection sufficiently seriously in our Meetings and individual spiritual lives? Or in paying homage to our Christian roots, are we as Friends in fact too confined or too comfortable with our society’s philosophical assumptions about reality? Are we too eager to throw out older theological ways of thinking because agnosticism is easier to explain in a culture doubtful of God? Are we following our sense of God’s leading, or are we reticent to do so, worried by ‘what reasonable people might think?  Do we really give the Christian tradition our attention when seeking spiritual clarification and advice?  Or are we just content with a ‘chocolate-box nativity’ in December?  This is the deep challenge embodied by the child in the stable.

Why the Harrowing of Hell Still Matters

A Forgotten Model of Salvation

In 1 Peter there is a peculiar remark which continues to generate theological speculation among Christians to this day. After describing Jesus’ divinely sanctioned death, the text goes on to note: ‘being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits  to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built’ (3:19-20). Here the text recalls the gigantic progeny of the sons of God who brought violence and bloodshed to the earth in the days before the flood (Genesis 6:13). Even these creatures, long since dead are said to partake in Jesus’ messianic promise: ‘freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free’ (Luke 4:18). To confirm this conclusion, the author of 1 Peter goes on, ‘For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit’ (4:6). As cynical moderns with an eye for mythological motifs (the pre-flood giants have their analogue in Sumerian mythology) we are likely to dismiss this remark in 1 Peter as a cute cultural gloss by a writer who wants an audience familiar with Genesis to accept his claims. It would be easy to dismiss the image of Jesus talking to giants in some netherworld if this were an isolated image. But the motif of Jesus liberating creatures in some post-mortem state appears in other places in the New Testament as well.

Two key hints about Christ’s activity among the dead are provided by the Acts of the Apostles. In his speech to the citizens of Jerusalem (probably a version of a pre-80 CE creedal formula) Peter interprets a Psalm of David as referring to Jesus’ life after death: ‘you will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will you allow your Holy One to see corruption’ (2:27). Peter later repeats this formulation, telling his hearers, “His (Jesus’) soul was not left in Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption’ (2:31). Here Hades (ᾅδης) is a Greek borrow for the Hebrew Shoal (the grey afterlife reserved for both the righteous and the wicked). For the ancient Hebrews, there were no ethereal feasting halls or eternal summer lands. At best, a soul could expect a sub-earthly existence of perpetual gloom and dreamlike torpor. Yet, unlike his fellow mortals Jesus cannot be held by death. Indeed, he breaks the power of death utterly by his return to life on the first Easter. Thus the testimony of Acts makes sense of Jesus’ otherwise enigmatic statement that ‘the gates of Hades’ will not avail against the church (Matthew 16:17-19). A similar image of post-mortem liberation can be discerned in the theology of Paul. The apostle suggests in Ephesians 4 that Jesus ‘descended to the lower, earthly regions’ delivering ‘a host of captives’ from their bondage (4:8). Are these the same captive spirits mentioned in 1 Peter?  Paul even suggests that there is such a thing as baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29). This ties in closely with 1 Peter’s mention of proclamation, to ‘the spirits’. Whatever else Jesus might be doing the world of the dead he appears to be carrying out God’s saving activity. In the manner of his earthly ministry, he continues to spread the Good News to those without hope. As the early church theologian Clement of Alexandria summarises these points:

Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept ‘in ward and guard’? … And, as I think, the Saviour also exerts His might because it is His work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe on Him, wherever they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend, it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there (Stromateis 6, 6).

Here Clement helps us appreciate a vital issue. The Church can conquer the power of Hades because Jesus has conquered the netherworld first. As Paul asks in his first letter to the Corinthians, ‘”Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (15:55). Paul knows the answer. The power of Shoal has been abolished in Jesus. When we combine these statements with Paul’s images of Jesus shaming the principalities and powers at his crucifixion (Colossians 2:15) we get the impression of Christ operating on two levels. The first is the familiar Jesus of Nazareth as revealed through his public ministry (his preaching and the healing). The second is a more shadowy, altogether less familiar figure. This is the cosmic Jesus who is said to reconfigure the order of the world through his living and dying.He is not bound by space and time, but ‘is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:3). In this elevated state, he is capable of contending with the deep structures of the world (those things which Paul calls ‘the powers’). This includes the domains of ‘past’ and ‘future’ which restrict and condition all of temporal existence (see Romans 8:38-9). In the classical tradition, these realities came under the jurisdiction of the god Kronos (Time). While his son Zeus (the future father of Olympus) was capable of imprisoning him, he could not kill him. Time could be constrained but not done away with. In this respect, 1 Peter’s insistence on Jesus’ descent is more than a nice mythical gloss. It is an attempt (albeit in particular cultural terms) to describe the extent of Jesus’ saving power. The Son came not only to transform his contemporaries, but sought to free beings that had long since perished aeons past. Jesus has finally defeated Kronos. Now the world can be made radically open to a ‘new creation’. As Paul writes daringly, ‘whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are yours’ (1 Corinthians 3:2). The name for this ancient image of radical openness is the Harrowing of Hell, for now, darkness is being emptied and shaken (harrowed)  by Christ’s divine power.

Welcoming a New World

Why did the early Church believe that this event had changed everything? Part of the answer has already been offered through a brief mention of ‘the powers’ but let’s work through the implications of this idea to the end. In the old paganism, death was understood as a bridge from which no mortal could hope to return. It was a permanent fissure between two different realities. The gods could sometimes compensate fortunate mortals for their loss, but death itself was thought immovable. This is beautifully dramatized in Homer’s Iliad, when Zeus discovers that even he cannot save his son, Sarpedon. As the goddess Hera reminds her husband:

‘Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken? Do you wish to bring back a man who is mortal, one long since Doomed by his destiny, from ill-sounding death and release him? Do it, then; but not all the rest of us gods shall approve you. And put away in your thoughts this other thing I tell you; If you bring Sarpedon back to his home, still living, think how then some other one of the gods might also wish to carry his own son out of the strong encounter; Since around the great city of Priam are fighting many Sons of the immortals.  You will waken grim resentment among them. No, but if he is dear to you, and your heart mourns for him, then let him be, and let him go down in the strong’ (The Iliad, Book 16, 439-457).

Here death is a rule which cannot be overcome without disturbing the unity of the gods and the subsequent  equilibrium of the universe. The same kind of metaphysical resignation is also preserved in the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. The semi-divine musician attempts to rescue his mortal love from the jaws of death, but he is thwarted at the final moment by his own sense of human attachment. He is fated to lose her even though he tries to resist. From what did Orpheus attempt to rescue Eurydice? According to Homer the land of the dead was a cold and desolate place, devoid of the gifts and pleasures of mortal life. As the shade of Odysseus’ mother puts it in the Odyssey: ‘this is the way it is with mortals after death. The sinews no longer bind flesh and bone, the fierce heat of the blazing pyre consumes them, and the spirit flees from our white bones, a ghost that flutters and goes like a dream” (BkXI:150-224). Yet the Church, grounded in the proclamation of the empty tomb, gave a different answer to the problem of death.  Unlike the gods of Greece and Rome, the God of Israel was not bound to the powers of Hades. As the maker of heaven and earth, Christians and Jews understood him, not as ‘the God of the dead but of the living’ (Mark 12:27). Yet, this meant more than some general support of life over oblivion (a kind of biophillia). It was a comment on God’s relation to time. Through Jesus’ descent to Hades, we are shown that the past can be opened up again, walked in and rewritten. And yet here is the paradox. Despite this transformation, the memory of the past, its wounds and stings, are nonetheless preserved. Unlike Greek myth, Jesus does not come back from the grave, forgetful, as if he had drunk from the waters of Lethe. He still remembers the agony of  what has transpired at Golgotha  but he is no longer bound by the reality of the cross. Finding the words for this sort of erasure is doubtless philosophically taxing, but perhaps one of the best formulations can be found in The Four Quartets by T.S. Elliot: ‘The hint, half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. Here the impossible union/Of spheres of evidence is actual/Here the past and future/Are conquered, and reconciled”. This sense that Christ could revisit and heal the wounds of the past, led the Church to a set of startling conclusions. What were they?

The Reign of Love

Jesus Christ would hardly have cited, as an example of all that is gentle and beneficent and compassionate, a Being who shall deliberately scheme to inflict on a large portion of the human race tortures indescribably intense and indefinitely protracted; who shall inflict them, too, without any mistake as to the true nature of pain—without any view to future good—merely because it is just. (Percy Shelley)

Image result for sodomites in hell danteFirstly, the Harrowing of Hell potentially means the end of the old mythological horrors of the Jewish and pagan worlds and their replacement with a religion of radical love. An educated Latin-speaking Christian listening to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for the first time, would have been struck by the sublime newness of his message.  If he had been a student of the rhetorical academy, he would have been taught through Virgil’s Aeneid that the afterlife could be just as cruel as the world. Book VI of the epic poem is unflinching its descriptions of the gruesome fates of the damned. A devout Jew raised on post-exile prophetic literature would have been equally convinced of the reality of perdition. The Book of Enoch (read by Jews and Christians alike in the early centuries) contains a number of horrifying passages, involving lakes of fire and places of perpetual imprisonment. At the heart of these grisly scenes is an image of God most are familiar with.  This is the primordial Sky Father, who waits capriciously for us to fail but rewards us if we comply with his wishes.  As Sigmund Freud sketched out this deity in his essay The Future of an Illusion, the belief in such a being represents ‘one of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind . . . As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection-for protection through love-which was provided by the father . . . Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the danger of life’ (p. 30). Yet, like a human father, the supernatural parent who protects us could equally become our most dangerous enemy. In this sense, the divine Father (like the Roman patriarch) has the power of life and death over his children. In this mould, love is always tinged with the possibility of enslavement and violence. Yet, the Jesus community turned such a religious logic firmly on its head, through its emergent understanding of grace. In the faith of Paul and Jesus, God was not a cruel judge but a beneficient king who ’causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45). True, Christianity has as its central image, a father allowing the sacrifice of his son. But the sacrifice is restorative and not punitive.The Father does not kill the son to gratify his own lordly power, but does so in an effort to relinquish power for the sake of his creatures. This notion of self-limiting power radically rewrites the meaning of the Sky Father beyond anything psychoanalysis could imagine. In place of a tyrannical God and the grimness of Hades, Paul offers a hopeful vision of human destiny, in which each person can be reconciled through the actions of a loving parent. Instead of standing idly by while death plays havoc, Paul’s God never gives up on his children until they are all safely gathered to him. As Paul reflects,

I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-9)

Here religion is robbed of its habitual Freudian role as the enforcer of the Superego (as a vortex of punishment and guilt) and is transformed into an instrument for the healing of human relationships. At its heart is the possibility that God’s world can be ordered, not by a spirit of spine-chilling judgement, but by the laws of love and truth. While Christianity is always in danger of degenerating into the horror of the gallows or the misery of the prison-house, the Harrowing of Hell reminds us that the power of forgiveness always has the upper-hand over the temptations of condemnation.

The End of Religions of Flattery and Fear

If Christ’s descent protects us from a monstrous Freudian God, it also shields us from a deity of simple benefaction; the kind of being that a person might game or manipulate. In the old religions of the Mediterranean there was always the assumption of patronage between the gods, the community and the worshipper. As long as the supplicant placated the deity with appropriate satisfactions their personal or communal safety could be guaranteed. In this way, religion served as an insurance policy related to the promotion of certain instrumental goods. This model of cultic behaviour is powerfully summarised at the beginning of Homer’s Iliad in the mouth of the priest Chryses. Distressed by the abduction of his daughter by the covetous Agamemnon, this grieving father placates the god Apollo in the following terms:

“God with the silver bow, protector of Chryse, sacred Cilla, mighty lord of Tenedos, Sminthean Apollo, hear my prayer: If I’ve ever pleased you with a holy shrine, or burned bones for you—bulls and goats well wrapped in fat—grant me my prayer. Force the Danaans to pay full price for my tears with your arrows.” (Iliad, Book I)

At its mildest this was a religion which rarely extended beyond tribe or hearth. At its most extreme, this attitude produced the ancient mystery cults of the classical world. These inward-looking faiths promised personal immortality for the select worshipper (as long as the correct rites were observed).  In both cases, God was merely the guarantor of personal desire. While the religion of the Hebrews possessed most of the cultic elements of Greece (including their own mysteries) there was always something unruly about Israel’s God. Yahweh frequently refused the sacred bribery, implicit in popular ritual transactions and condemned those who put sacrifices before social welfare. As the Psalmist records God’s annoyance, ‘for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it’ (Psalm 50:10-12).  Such a god could never be buttered up in order to suit human expectations. The Harrowing of Hell merely confirms this key theological fact. Christ’s descent suggests that God has his own plans for the world, irrespective of the whims and schemes of human beings.

Here God is the great opener, the One who pushes us towards a world we dare not imagine. In this new reality, the rule of force is displaced in favour of a sovereign peace. It was the great doubter, the Greek Sage Epicurus who complained that, “If the gods listened to the prayers of men, all humankind would quickly perish since they constantly pray for many evils to befall one another.” And that is where religion would stay if humans were left to their own devices. Yet, the God of Israel breaks this self-serving religiosity apart by depriving human beings of the satisfaction and fear of annihilation. Jesus dies so that death can have no more hold on the world. With this act, comes the affective end of all politics, all empire and all systems of oppression. Imperial flags may continue to fly, guns deployed and tanks prepared, but in the ultimate sense, it is all for nothing, because Hades, the master of the gun and tank, is a phantom. While all human civilization is based on the threat of obliteration (in the hands of rulers or armies) Jesus’ descent into hell renders death ultimately powerless.

The image of Christ breaking through the gates of hell reveals the ultimate futility of the many and varied little hells humans repeatedly inflict on one another. God has judged these nothing more than puffs of smoke, dispersed in a moment. There is no damage we can do to each other that God cannot rescind.  If we want to be true to this reality, rather than continue to play with shadows, we should live according to the rule of love and not violence. As Paul puts it: ‘Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but enjoy the company of the lowly. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Carefully consider what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible on your part, live at peace with everyone’ (Romans 12:16-7).Yet, even this is ultimately about God and not us.  The Father wants us to live in the truth of his love so that he can accomplish his purpose: the renewal of creation. As Paul again informs us: ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies’ (8:22-24). While our androcentric religions cling to petty jealousies and endless grudges, the descent of Jesus is the first sign that the cosmic winter is at an end and a new world is breaking in.

In late modernity, we need the assurance of this great thaw like never before.  Religions of both terror and glib self-satisfaction are again on the march. We can see the religions of terror every day on our televisions screens.  In the face of the self-righteous shooter or the zealous bomber, we observe the life of one who does not know that the long night is over and the morning has begun. He is still desperately clinging to the rules of death despite the fact that he is made for life and life at its fullest. Yet beside these merchants of doom, there stand a softer, yet equally seductive cohort. They are the ranks of the spiritually self-conceited those that peddle a comfortable religion of the self.  Here the old brutalities of the superego are replaced by the confidence of a contented Id. Such a religion’s greatest commandment is: Love yourself.  Such a faith encompass everything from the New Age Gurus of ‘positive’ thinking and ‘success’ to those who use their prayers to bargain with God for success, fame or a mortgage.  Like the transactional priests of antiquity, such people don’t want to come out into the spring sunshine to see a world made anew. They would rather stay in their drab little houses getting small gods (tissues of ego and flattery) to do their bidding. They don’t want to be part of the costly gift that Jesus has wrought because they might have to give up the central place they have made for themselves in their own sacred story. They are quite happy to remain under the awfulness of the old order as long as there is a slim chance of keeping a vestige of what they already possess. Of course the grave makes a mockery of this religion of self. In the final analysis, it is not more self-focused spirituality we need, but One who can reach in and pluck us from the darkness waiting to snare us. Thus the truth of our human situation is not to be found in sugary reassurance or fiery condemnation rather in the possibility of absolute love. Can we bear be held by one who cannot be ‘bought off’ or placated. Are we prepared to be loved by one who desires that our tapered identities become something more? If yes, we might have to die to the laws of death (our securities, our defences, our egos) but in dying to these things, we can finally discern the endless reality of life freely given.  Even the wounds of the past are not immune from this life’s power.  Our mistakes and failures are not confined to a locked room, but are something which can always be brought to light again and redeemed. This is what Jesus’ dictum ‘on earth as in heaven’ truly means. When Jesus’ descended’ (as the old creeds put it) time and eternity met and mingled, the one becoming perfected by the other. In this new terrain, there is no space for fear, tears or regret, only the appreciation of a boundless present that reconciles all to itself.  This is religion at its most sublime.

Why Would God Repent? The Theology Behind a Remorseful Jesus (Matt. 3:13)

The New Testament preserves a strange incident which offers a key to understanding the internal radicalism of the Gospel message. Jesus is walking beside the Jordan River with his cousin, the wandering prophet John, and asks to be baptised. Initially John resists this request saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:13). John seems to know that Jesus is more than a relative making a fleeting visit. Does John sense that Jesus is ‘God in the flesh’? At the very least, he knows Jesus is the Messiah; the one for whom John and Israel have been waiting. Why would God’s anointed need to be purified of sins? The request must have seemed an affront to his deeply ingrained religious attitudes. Wasn’t God always holy? Jesus’ answer is fittingly obscure given this assumption: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” In Judaism, righteousness (tzedek) is related to the notion of remaining faithful to God’s Covenant’. Why then would the Son of God need repentance? The appeal to John only makes sense if God were attempting to repair the Covenant-relationship from the divine perspective. What might this mean?

In previous generations, God (through the Prophets) had condemned Israel for its moral recklessness and religious promiscuity. For these failures they had been enslaved, scattered and exiled. Children were made orphans; fathers and mothers were robbed of their children; foreign armies despoiled the sacred places of their religion.  Yet in the sheer rapidity of their misfortune, God’s punishment appeared to descend into a series of meaningless and brutal acts. And yet, despite the vale of tears cast over the people of Israel, God appeared to be unmoved by the suffering of the people. Something of this existential despair can be found in the Book of Job. In this text God is reduced to a pitiless and vindictive trickster, who makes a bet with Satan that Job will not forsake his god, despite being pained, dispossessed and humiliated.  After putting Job through a series of gruelling trials, this blameless man finds it within himself to argue with God concerning the injustice of his situation: ‘God may well slay me; I may have no hope/ yet I will argue my case before God’ (Job 13:15: Miles 324). God’s response to Job is both surprising and unnerving: “Have you an arm like God’s? Can you thunder with a voice like His?” (Job 40:9; Miles 313). All God can do to justify these appalling actions is to appeal to great power (the habitual attitude of dictators). Such an answer was probably just as unsatisfactory to ancient Jewish readers as many modern ones.

Why does great power give any the right to inflict suffering on others? Doesn’t God care about other creatures? Or are we just pieces on a cosmic game-board? Given this monstrous lack of empathy, it is easy to see why the modern detractor of religion, Richard Dawkins, calls such a deity ‘jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully’ (Dawkins The God Delusion p. 51). Given what God is meant to be; the author of the whole of time and space, is it really surprising that the Source of all is hardened to the little details of birth, suffering and death? Can such a Personality even begin to understand what we finite creatures experience? Ancient Greek philosophers like the Epicureans doubted it. If the gods existed, they thought, they would remain in a perfect world of their own. Insulated in their own divine bliss, they would show as little interest in the feelings of human beings as we take interest in the feelings of ants.

Should the badly treated insects (as Dawkins implies) go their own way? Is this God really worthy of worship? The answer to these questions can be found in the unfolding story which begins on the banks of the Jordan. The New Testament charts what Jack Miles calls a ‘crisis in the life of God’; the moment when God comes to suspect that the Thou was an abuser; that the Ground of Being might have wronged Job after all. The narratives we have, do not tell us what prompted this rupture in the inner-life of God. Yet, this we can justly say without injury to the integrity of the New Testament’s own theo-logic. God is not some dispassionate Being outside time (like Aristotle’s Prime Mover) but a voice to be argued with, persuaded and convinced. As Moses and Abraham learned, God’s mind can be changed by discursive means. While it’s nearly impossible to fully understand the motives behind such a decision; its consequences are at the core of Christian proclamation.  Jesus (whom the Gospel of John calls ‘the Word made flesh’) descends to the level of the human ants, lives like one of them, thinks like one of them, and eventually dies like one of them. He learns the cost of his own wilful blindness concerning the physical and moral limitations of those he commands. God’s resolve to mend his ways is made clear through Jesus’ request for baptism. God holds himself up to his own religious law, tacitly acknowledging that he caused pain and misery to his creatures and more narrowly damaged his Covenant with the people of Israel. God realizes that harsh judgement and moralising have wrecked creation. Now God seeks forgiveness from his people. The divine becoming human is not about God’s glory (seeking more adoring subjects) but about God coming as a supplicant before an angry and jaded community, who do not deserve their suffering. Among other things, this reading reveals a startling truth. For at least two millennia, many in the Church have supposed that a central part of Jesus’ mission was to demonstrate that the Jews had failed in their task as a holy people. Yet, if we stop to think about these matters in the light of Jesus’ enigmatic baptism,  the meaning of the incarnation is the exact opposite to the one proposed by  Christian supersessionists.The people had in general held their ground in the midst of dispair. God as Jesus had not come to show the Hebrews their spiritual failure. Rather, he had come in order to beg their forgiveness for his own.

In the past, Yahweh had kept a firm hand on the people through the ultimate sanction of death. As God declares in Deuteronomy: ‘This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him’ (NIV 30:19-20).  This shadow of death extended over the whole people of Israel; from the defiant child to the little old man who dared to collect wood on the Sabbath. To refuse the Torah was to wish destruction on the whole community. Yet, as a living breathing human being, God seems to share the mortal horror of death. Jesus spends much of his time lifting its effects; allowing everyone he meets to choose life in place of sickness and death. Yet unlike his earlier visitation at Sinai, God does this with joyful irresponsibility; with few rules and requirements; faithfulness appears to be enough in this next phase of Covenantal relationship. Some do not even have to ask to share in this new abundance of life, like Lazarus of Bethany (John 11:1-44). Yet God knows that one cannot hope to repair the consequences of divine wrath unless those who have been lost are restored.

There can be no true healing unless death is done away with; not merely in the life of one or two, but in the life of all. To do this, Yahweh (that sometimes ferocious Personality) takes on the role of the sacrificial victim according the grisly imperatives of an earlier self. On the cross Jesus as God becomes his own sacrifice to quell a sense of sin according to his own rules (Leviticus 4:7). John subliminally recognises this, although it might have horrified him if he had considered the full implications of his designation of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) Here the Lord of ‘the Angel Armies’ (2 Kings 6:8-23) stands in the place of all those (human and animal) that have died for the Jerusalem religious cult. Yet, this is not a sacrifice of self-glorification. Jesus uses his death as a vehicle for the most radical healing project of all. God makes personal desolation the means of beginning creation’s salvage. As Carl Jung put the thought, Jesus’ execution is the moment when God attempts to ‘rescue mankind from himself’ (Answer to Job, p. 93). At the Resurrection, God initiates the final stage of this rescue; fulfilling the imperative of divine repentance by allowing others to be forgiven. In this way, God and the world are linked in a mutual embrace by which the characters of both are fulfilled. The marriage of earth and heaven (Revelation 21-22) is nothing short of a profound and mystical interdependency; the recognition that the wholeness of one is in the gift of the other. This means that among the philosophers, Hegel and not Thomas Aquinas, has got much closer to the world of Scripture. God is Person, but also a process.

If God’s attempted redemption is the chief task of the Incarnation, what does this mean for the Church and Israel? The Assembly of God’s people has its own failures to confront to be sure, but if the episode at the Jordan means anything, then our role (those who are part of the divine story) is to continue God’s practice of repentance out in the world. The kernel of the Good News (announced by the angels at the Nativity) is that God reneges on a past in which the Creator was frequently at war with Creation. Thus in this new era of peace, those through whom God works, are charged with the duty of removing anguish from those who are excluded by so-called ‘religious authority’, by cultic violence, by tribalism as well as the pervasive idolatry of force. For the early Church this meant a conscientious opposition to war and disbanding of old distinctions between Jew and Gentile. And if we are to believe Jesus in the Gospel of John, more radical transformations are still to come: ‘I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear’ (NIV John 16:12). What tasks does God’s process of redemption mean for us today? Perhaps the most vexing of issue to trouble the Church in recent decades has been the recognition of same-sex relationships.  To some cynics, the affirmation of gay and lesbian people is a tale of feeble concession to secular trends. Yet, there is a another interpretation worth considering. Through the Spirit, God enters the cultural world to repair his own violence, personified in texts like Leviticus 18:22. By siding with the victims of stoning over the authorities who stone, by taking on the form of a broken and fallible man, divine fallibility becomes an instrument of repair and enrichment. God allows the body of Jesus to be wounded, so he can heal the wounded (in physical and cultural terms). To worship God as ‘suffering servant’ is not merely to acknowledge that God enters into our suffering, but also that God suffers because of the suffering the divine causes. Perhaps the world and God are on a path of co-redemption; each sustained by the progress of the other.

Angels Among Us?

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews, 13.2).

Angels are part of the fabric of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, yet their identity is starkly elusive. The word ‘angel’ comes from a Greek word angelos meaning ‘messenger’. An angel then is someone (or perhaps something) which communicates the will of God to the human world. In their earliest appearances, such heralds are surprisingly ordinary. When Abraham is seen entertaining angels in Genesis, we are told that he offers them hospitality, as he would any human guest (Gen 17: 2-7). Yet, even early on in the Biblical story, there is clearly something uncanny about them. An angel calls out from heaven, to stave Abraham’s hand from sacrificing his son Isaac (Gen 22:10). And we’re told that Jacob saw angels ascending and descending a ladder which linked earth with heaven (Gen 21:12). In this last image is revealed something of the intrinsic nature of the ‘angelic’ experience. To be in the presence of the angelic is to encounter an event which has the outlandish hallmarks of a timeless being, yet it occurs in time; amidst all the mud, blood and confusion of human history.

Later in the Biblical story (perhaps under the artistic influence of the Babylonians), the Jewish writers developed an image of angels more like the ones we see on Christmas cards today. And by the time of Jesus, Israel had a pretty sophisticated notion of what angels were like (complete with names, functions, and classes). At this later stage of their imaginative evolution, angels took on a bizarre, psychedelic quality- with glowing bodies, the faces of lions or eagles and with multiple wings. It was in this angelic-literate culture that both Matthew and Luke composed their Nativity narratives. Only the breaking in of the angelic world could be magnificent enough to mark the birth of God’s Messiah. The angels in their extraordinary appearance before the impoverished shepherds signal a new Jacob’s ladder, wrapped up in the person of Jesus. Yet, this still doesn’t shed much light on the nature of angels themselves; only that they are mysterious heralds, ushering in another grand mystery; God’s beloved son, alive on earth. So angels hang like big intrusive question marks in the middle of the Biblical universe, illustrating enigma, articulating our uncertainties, and offering us the joy of unexpected possibilities fulfilled.

God-Shaped Moments

Perhaps the most that can be said about angels is that they are a way of talking about God-shaped moments and God-shaped happenings, for which, in the end, only a spiritual meaning is persuasive. In some parts of the world, like Uganda, the traditional vision of angels still holds sway in the Churches. A robust Charismatic theology tells Ugandans to expect wonders, not just in the dusty pages of scripture, but in their personal lives. A Ugandan pastor once told that his life had been saved by an angelic visitation. In a rationalistic culture like ours, we are liable to take such accounts with a pinch of salt. Yet, he swore it happened to him, and told me he lamented the thinking of Western people, who refused to accept the presence of the angelic in daily life as he did. In my more rye moments, I suspect God is sensitive to our skeptical spasms, and as a consequence has scaled back his use of the spiritual fireworks. After all, it’s no good sending angels to people if so many of them are dismissed as mad. Given such intellectual hostility, how might we encounter angels today? Maybe some still experience the heavenly light on a hillside or see a flaming ladder, but I expect most will experience the angelic in more mundane ways. In the finest tradition of Protestant understatement, an evangelical lay preacher put it to me like this; coincidence is God’s way of keeping angels anonymous. The angels are with us, he seemed to be saying, but in the kindness of a stranger, the chance conversation, the hospitality unlooked for. In these convergences, God-shaped things happen and something of God is communicated to the world.

Angelic Service

This description of angels might seem all too homespun and vague for the tastes of some- especially if we reflect on the many dramatic stories in which angels appear. What attracts people to angels is their exquisite strangeness; their ability to shake things up and shift things around. Yet, this kind of supernatural thrill-seeking portrays a fundamental misunderstanding about these mysterious messengers. The truth of the angelic is not to be found in their flaming swords or majestic wings, but in the fact that, when Jesus was half-starved and dangerously exhausted in the wilderness, it was said that the angels came and nursed him (Mark 1:12). Here we see one of the many gorgeous paradoxes of Christianity. Christians are bidden to seek out the extraordinary (the magical if you prefer) in the rhythms of ordinary life- in loving, providing and serving. In this, the angels show us the way. In that spirit of compassion, most disciples of Jesus don’t expect some Harry Potter-style rerun of the First Christmas (complete with heavenly choir-calls of ‘Glory to God in the Highest’). Instead, they seek out the continuing presence of the Christ-child in the world, amidst all its pains and problems. By living in solidarity with those who hunger after peace, justice, and righteousness, the disciple is invited into the alchemical workshop or the magician’s study, so that she  might witness the transformation of the human heart from leaden blackness to glorious gold at first hand.

For most of us, however, this is a slow and arduous process (all true alchemy is). In general, the human species is pretty terrible at listening to its better inclinations. We get distracted by our own worries, anxieties, and hang-ups, so much so that we repeatedly fail to be the servants of love we know in our bones we can be. We neglect those in need closest to us, sometimes because we fear to intrude, or simply because the rush of the day just overtakes of us. And, in the end, without meaning to, we fail to do what love requires of us. Slowing-acting and difficult this process of metamorphosis might be, it is the abiding moral promise of Christianity; that we can become better, deeper, richer human beings, despite our inclination towards failure. And that’s the only magic followers of Jesus should need or expect. Anything else is a graceful bonus; gracious because it isn’t conjured up or looked for. Rather it appears unexpectedly from the depths of divine love. In this mysticism of the ordinary then, the angels are examples of service, encouraging us to heed God’s message when it is heard- not as a flashing light, but as an open door.

Talking to Angels

Yet, a niggling question remains. When all is said and done, can we actually see and talk to angels? Or are they just figurative expressions we hang on the mysterious? Many have claimed to have encountered angels- the poet William Blake and the scientist Emanuel Swedenborg to name but two. Yet for many, such testimony has never been enough. Could we perhaps summon them with incantations or special prayers? Could the materialists among us finally get something tangible to look at? The suggestion is pretty alluring, isn’t it? So attractive was the idea, that the Apostle Paul condemned early Christians for doing it. And even in later centuries, the occasional self-professed magus would attempt it (often at a great personal cost). The Royal astrologer of Queen Elizabeth I, Dr John Dee, was notorious for his arcane experiments to command and conjure angels. And it’s not just a relic of the past. Go to any Body and Mind and Spirit shelf in your local bookshop and you’ll soon see that such occult ambitions don’t seem to have abated that much in the proceeding centuries.

We seem as captivated by conjuring up angels as ever. Yet, as the old Faust legend warns us, the budding magician soon discovers that all he has summoned is a distorted reflection of his own desires and fears. Such are the perils of knocking on the doors of heaven just for the sake of curiosity. One suspects that the angels would prefer it if we didn’t spend much time trying to talk to them, since both we and they have a job to do in this world, and indulging in endless theological or occult speculation merely wastes time. It’s the holy equivalent of fussing over the latest bit of celebrity gossip in office hours. It might be fun, but it doesn’t get us very far. If you want to see angels, says the Christian tradition, you need first to get out of your own head and start living and working with others. The ‘deeper magic’ of Christianity as C.S. Lewis called it, requires no invocations, no astrological circles drawn in chalk, no black candles- only a willingness to start loving, giving and praying. Start down this road and you’ll soon discover angels around every corner- not all of them with wings.

Dedicated with love to my friend and guide Anna. I hope you are in peace Friend.