December 17, 2017

Epiphany IV: God, everywhere present, filling all things

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Epiphany IV
God, everywhere present, filling all things

Today, words from Fr. Stephen Freeman on the “one-storey universe.” That is, he is talking, from an Orthodox perspective, about the sacramental nature of reality.

As the Apostle Paul said in Athens:

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.” (Acts 17:24-28)

Or, as St. Patrick prayed:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

• • •

The shape of the universe of my childhood was not [simply] the invention of Southern Protestantism. It was part of a much larger culture, forged in the crucible of the Protestant Reformation and the birth of the modern world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Today it is the dominant shape of the universe shared by most cultures of the modern Western world. It is the universe in which modern believers live. It is also a universe increasingly hostile to religious belief.

I have come to think of this modern cultural construct as the “two-storey universe.” It is as though the universe were a two-storey house: We live here on earth, the first floor, where things are simply things and everything operates according to normal, natural laws, while God lives in heaven, upstairs, and is largely removed from the storey in which we live. To effect anything here, God must interrupt the laws of nature and perform a miracle. Exactly how often He does this is a matter of debate among Christians and many others within our culture—often measured by just how conservative or liberal their religion may be. The effects of this distance are all-encompassing in the area of religious experience and belief, and frequently in other areas as well.

…With the universe divided and its secularly conceived component dominating our daily life, the transcendent begins to elude us, and the world begins to drown in a sea of literalism. In the ultimate banality of the secular world, “what you see is what you get.” Time becomes chronology, and history triumphs over all. True eschatology, the moment-by-moment in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, ceases to have a place within the Christian world. Scripture becomes lost in a constant battle between opposing camps of literalists—those who believe literal history negates the Bible and those who believe the Bible is literal history.

This bifurcated universe is not the legacy of Christianity but a deviation from its legacy. The accidents of politics and philosophy have reduced our understanding and experience of human existence. But such sad turns in human history are not the final word. The witness to a deeper Christianity and a world in which God is “everywhere present and filling all things” has not disappeared. This book is an effort to draw back the curtain and look at both the emptiness of our present understanding and the fullness of our Christian inheritance.

…It would seem to me that anyone who comes from a sacramental tradition should feel a certain cognitive dissonance with the sounds and images of secularized thought. For the God who took flesh and dwelt among us is surely the same God who continues to take common things like bread and wine, oil and water, as well as men and women, and make of them the instruments of His presence among us. For He is indeed everywhere present and filling all things.

• Fr. Stephen Freeman
Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe

 

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    the beauty of the Eastern Christian tradition seems so far removed from the sad and mean-spirited edge of hell that is extreme fundamentalistism among some who wish to claim Christianity . . . the contrast overwhelms me

    . . . I am always moved by the great spiritual beauty of the Orthodox concept of the Holy Trinity and by how it is expressed in worship, in words, in hymns)

    “Meditate ever upon Him and upon His wondrous works; live Him and breathe Him; nourish thy soul with Him,; attire thyself in Him; purify thyself, enlighten thyself, sanctify thyself, establish thyself, adorn thyself, praise thyself, console thyself, through Him. By means of Him, vanquish the temptations and impositions of foes, visible and invisible.
    Whatsoever ye do, do all with thought of Him, and for His sake. Wheresoever ye might be, be everywhere with Him, as He is always with us, being everywhere, and filling all things (Tropar’ to the Holy Spirit).””

    (John of Kronstadt)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHi-1taeqeo
    (I’m posting this hymn in loving memory of my Ukrainian Catholic godmother who passed away recently)

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      “””the beauty of the … Christian tradition seems so far removed from the sad and mean-spirited edge of hell that is extreme fundamentalistism among some who wish to claim Christianity . . . the contrast overwhelms me””””

      I do not have to even go specifically to the Eastern tradition to feel this. It is a religion which as itself become small and banal. As if the Good Nuclear Family has superseded the Flame Of Creation as the center of all things. Horribly small.

  2. Christ is indeed everywhere and filling all things. And he is in our past, our present and our future. That’s why there is no need for those of us who live in a highly secularized world, with a highly secularized consciousness, to go back to a pre-secularized experience and understanding of reality, to a pre-secularized consciousness, in order to have access to him, or for him to have access to us. He is here with us now, his transcendence is inside of our secularized world as it is and as we experience it; it is exactly secularization, and modernism, and scientific exploration, and pluralism, that have made the bifurcation of the world appear as the illusion that it always has been. These have been our teachers, and these make a comprehensively sacramental approach to reality in its entirety possible for us; everywhere, everything, contains and communicates the God who is nearer to us than our own heartbeats.

    • I suspect some of the reason people doubt Christ is everywhere, is because of the popular idea of God existing outside of time, looking down upon it, from a distance. Rather than, as you said, Christ being in our past, present, and future—God filling time, observing it from inside.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        Yes. And people repeating this God-Outside non-sense as if it somehow makes it all more comprehensible – as if all that quantum-christian theological nonsense is somehow helpful; to anyone, anywhere.

  3. Neither do we want to escape from historical consciousness, even with it tensions and cognitive dissonances. We choose rather to live into it, and to recognize it as our real condition, and God’s gift to us whereby the freedom he has imparted to us is fully realized.

  4. This bifurcated universe is not the legacy of Christianity but adeviation from its legacy.”

    Outside of monasticism or a small village in a rural setting, I find it hard to believe that the majority of Christianity practised within the concept of a”one storey universe.”. This should be the goal but were peasants or craftsmen, who worked long laborious hours, all that awareof God in their surroundings? I think modernity & technological advances have probably given people more time for contemplation but less reason to desire living in it.

    • I’m not sure I have the intelligence to read a book in which the word “bifurcated” is used.

      • Or “adeviation” for that matter…LOL.

      • Ronald Avra says:

        Yes, it would take some work on my part as well, to delve into Fr. Stephen, but I’m grateful that there are persons who have the inclination and are willing to make the effort to produce insights that I can ponder. It seems that I have had an ongoing issue with comprehending what I read. I have a relatively large vocabulary, coupled with a reading speed that exceeds the average; it doesn’t seem to profit me when it comes to grasping the writer’s intent. I have to labor over passages and limit my input and even then I’m frequently lost as a goose.

      • If you’re a math geek, “bifurcation theory” is a really cool part of dynamical systems theory.

        If you’re not a math geek, “bifurcation theory” is still a really cool part of dynamical systems theory, for that matter.

        *crickets*

        As usual.

    • Let me stick my wick in here.

      I always thought of Orthodoxy as being more amenable to a person like me whose objection to sodomy was not that it was sinful but that it angered the elementals and could cause crops to fail and creeks to dry up, and who wasn’t all that convinced by endless ‘splainin’ about how it was “just like” heterosexual sex except with different tabs and slots.

      That’s just an example.

      • LOL its the mystery of the Bridal Chamber, not the mystery of the public toilet! But if your spiritual father gives you oikonomia to commit sodomy, then knock yourself out.

        This is what you happens when you let your theology be too much influenced by St. Augustine. First stuff like the filioque gets added because who cares, it’s just some Latin gobbledygook, rite? Then before you know it there’s lesbian priestesses in rainbow colored cassocks sodomizing each other.

        • That’s quite a slippery slope from the filioque to those lesbian priests that you so abhor. Since St. Augustine is really at the back of it, I’ll thank him in my prayers tonight.

          Btw, far worse than lesbian priests engaging in consensual sex is powerful male priests raping their helpless female charges.

  5. It’s because reality is not bifurcated that we need no special consciousness or knowledge or method or means of any kind to be present to God, or to know God’s presence. The secular landscape is filled with God, and reflects his fecundity and creativity; it also is the space in which his love of diversity, real diversity, is embodied in the human world, and reflects the diversity of the non-human or “natural” world that God has created. Maximal diversity is built into the “natural” world, and there are those of us who believe it is also God’s intention for the human world, and that pluralism and modernism are the best ways of enabling its fruition.

  6. Steve Newell says:

    At a Lutheran Church that I attended yesterday ago, the pastor would use St. Patrick’s prayer as a from of blessing and benediction at the end of a baptism. After making the sign of the cross and baptizing the child, the pastor would pray this pray but just replace “I” with “you”. Everything about our salvation, our continuation in the faith and our final time in the faith is all about having Christ with us.

    We live with dual citizenship in this life and we too often forget our citizenship given to us in Christ. Through Christ, we are all “anchor babies” in the Kingdom of God.

  7. I find myself disagreeing with Fr. Freeman.

    This “secular universe” that he so fears is not “increasingly hostile to religious belief”. It is increasingly indifferent to it. The distinction may seem pedantic but to me it seems fundamental. Not to see to see this distinction or to simply equate indifference with hostility is to be blind to what is actually happening. They don’t hate you, Fr Freeman! They’re just having a hard time finding any value in the things you have to say.

    Fr. Freeman’s idea of the “bifurcated universe” simply begs the question (the informal logical fallacy not the pretentious euphemism for raising a question). Please don’t tell me all the bad things that are happening to me because I live in a universe YOU created. Don’t put people in a box and then tell them how bad the box is.

    And finally, Fr Freeman assures us that transcendence is nowhere to be found outside his tradition. But they are finding transcendence elsewhere! That’s the whole point! I’m afraid Fr Freeman is simply myopic.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      “””
      . It is increasingly indifferent to it. The distinction may seem pedantic but to me it seems fundamental. Not to see to see this distinction or to simply equate indifference with hostility is to be blind to what is actually happening.
      “”””

      +1,000.

      “””They’re just having a hard time finding any value in the things you have to say.”””

      The response to which should be to demonstrate the error.

      “””Don’t put people in a box and then tell them how bad the box is.”””

      Wow. A nearly perfect description of the majority of 21st century religious rhetoric. We are safe, the water is clean, we flush and the poop goes away, we have food, and heat, survival rates for cancer diagnosis rise up past 70%, and OMG! it is all such a horrible failure. Doom Despair and Darkness! [this is crazy]

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > And finally, Fr Freeman assures us that transcendence is nowhere to be found outside his tradition

      Where does he assure of of this? This statement seems like overreach.

    • “indifferent” is almost like “lukewarm”. When Jesus says that he would we rather be hot or cold he was leaving open the possibility of reconciliation. But when someone is “indifferent”, or “lukewarm” there is little chance of persuasion.

  8. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    “””In the ultimate banality of the secular world, “what you see is what you get.” “””

    If you have reached the above point – something is already broken, IMO. You are viewing the world through a key hole of some kind, seeing it as small and banal. Because it is not. It is large, diverse, wild, surprising, and overflowing with fascinating people with interesting and amazing stories. People struggling – and, yes, often succeeding [no, really – it *does* happen! I swear], and, yes, a whole lot of failure. And following failure a lot of people get up the next morning and jump back in. Humanity is ugly and beautiful; in same kind as the creation they inhabit.

    If once you’ve arrived as this vista of banality step #1 in escape is to turn off the TV. I doubt any invention ever has done a better job at making the world – and its inhabitants – appear banal. It is like a box of endless despair. If that does not help, then seek professional help. Why waste your life wandering that delusional vista of banality? That is what is pointless.

  9. Christiane says:

    I can see something of Gnosticism and Catharism in the concept that ‘matter (or the material world) is evil’ and that Christ is not a part of it . . . could these early Christian ‘heresies’ still be around dressed in new phrases and new clothing for our day?

    ?

  10. I really, really wish Fr. Freeman could see the Reformation as something other than The Big Bad. It wasn’t and it isn’t and I’d venture to guess thst the serfs snd peasants in Russia, along with the slaves in Constantinople, saw themselves as living in a “two-story universe” – if only because they did. (Unfortunately.)

    I think there is much good in the Eastern churches, but i do wish that converts would focus on what they share with the redt of humanity, instead of saying “My way is The Only Way, while yours is innately corrupted.” It is exactly the same kind of thinking found inside fundagelical circles. I’m glad Fr. Freeman has left that which was stifling for him, but getting prescriptive isn’t helping him get his point across.

    And Christiane, thanks so much for posting the quote, upthread. I really appreciate the view you have – often feel like you opened a window when you write.

  11. I can’t speak or think in higher-level abstractions very well, so if God were *not* visible in our secular world, I would be unable to see Him except in vistas and details of nature. Within nature, I have always felt the presence of a spirit, a Higher Power, something greater than myself that has an intelligence and beauty and Presence (though the process of life and death itself in nature is often harsh and unforgiving of weakness).

    TBTG, though, in my later years I’ve also grown to see Him in the most secular of places and situations. My own basic sarcastic and negative nature remains in me, but God has infused it with His light so that I can, as it were “recover” from my fundamental nature.

    See, here I’m trying and failing to talk in abstractions. Let me be as banal and secular as I can. I’ve recently, in the past year, been able to lose 25 pounds. It brings me down to a very nice weight for my height. OK, that’s great. But now, often, when I see overweight people, my basic sarcasm pipes up mentally with “Wow, lady, by all means get that hot fudge sundae with your diet soda.” OK, that’s the basic me, gloating and sneering at the same time. But fast behind that comes the thought, “Well, Heather, aren’t you the bitch!” And then, “Sorry God. I know how awful it is to feel heavy and ugly. Please bless her and let her have a good day today.”

    Or today, in church, we had a priest whose sermon, especially at first, was very far from inspiring or even coherent. She stumbled through all four Bible readings as if she were trying to find something to talk about. I sat up in the choir, behind the pulpit, and I looked over at the organist, who raised her eyebrows and pointed to her head significantly. I smirked and nodded slightly. But when I turned back to the priest, she was quoting from Paul’s famous homily on Love being patient and kind, and so forth. I thought, “Well, suppose she *is* a little confused, or even in early dementia — that’s all the more reason to care about her and be kind to her.” And I tried to act on the the rest of the time she was with us.

    Maybe someday the first reaction — basic self — will fade away, though I doubt it. But now at least, eventually, I can see God in other people and be glad of it.

  12. Fwiw, medieval church art is very consistent with a 2-story view, but it adds a 3d. Do, there’s heaven, earth snd hell, all lsid out for us, long before the Reformation was ever a gleam in anyone’s eye. There are definitely visual elements in many Eastern icons that give a real sense of a 2-story universe.

    Must agree with the commenter who said that the find it hard to imagine some of this being feasible outside of a monastic community.

    Honestly, i am not trying to lambaste Fr. Freeman – i like a lot of his writing. But i cannot agree with him on this topic. Others have addressed the reasons for that above. The mundane is just as full of God’s presence as the sublime – likely more so, since it’s the world in which Christ lived, incarnate, going through the round of daily life, just as we do.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > And finally, Fr Freeman assures us that transcendence is nowhere to be found outside his tradition

      Is it? I am not quite sure this is the same as the ‘modern gnosticism’. I suspect, from what I have read anyway, that many people believe in this places as PLACES; not theoretical spiritual places or metaphors, but as PLACES one could someday place on on a map.

    • Dana Ames says:

      “The mundane is just as full of God’s presence as the sublime – likely more so, since it’s the world in which Christ lived, incarnate, going through the round of daily life, just as we do.”

      That’s exactly the point Fr Stephen is making – that there is no division between the “mundane” and the sublime”, that this reality is exactly the reality in which Christ incarnate lived and went through daily life. He’s saying there is only 1 reality, not 2. Part of that reality is unseen, but it’s still only one reality. I came to this conclusion long before I knew anything about the Orthodox Church.

      Dana

    • numo, The two-storey universe has always seemed more pre-modern than modern to me. I don’t agree with Fr. Freeman that it’s a modern construct. Just the opposite: science, as an expression of modernity, has dismantled the whole idea of a two-storey universe, which had come down to us from ancient ways of thinking about immanence and transcendence. I think Fr. Freeman has gotten this all wrong.

      • “Science…has dismantled the idea of a two-storey universe”

        Yes, in a sense. I think Fr. Freeman is saying it did so by telling those who believe in God, “OK, you can have your gods, you just can’t have them in the real world. Build a second storey in your imagination and keep him there.” They revised our understanding of the first storey and defined it as godless. They encouraged people to stay put in their pre-modern fantasy world if they like, insisting that they keep it separate from the new first storey, and scoffing at the idea that there was anything genuine about the second storey.

        Fr. Freeman’s one-storey is not the same as modernism’s one-storey. It is shot through with a quantum world of its own — God’s realm — which moderns deny because it cannot be accessed by empirical means.

        • Yes, I see your point. Nevertheless, the two-storey universe seems to be what came down to us from earlier times. It is the way that immanence and transcendence are represented and imagined in the visual art of the ancient classical and Christian worlds, and in their religious literature. The one-storey universe that Fr. Freeman describes, “shot through with a quantum world of its own”, is the result of modern science leveling reality to one storey, and thoughtful Christians in the both the West and East adjusting to that change by re-imagining transcendence and immanence in a new way, usually informed by their mystical traditions.

          • Robert, in case you come back to this,

            I think you’re misunderstanding. Fr Stephen is saying that in earlier times people viewed the universe as one-storey, and that it is as Chaplain Mike wrote above – that the post-Enlightenment voices, whether scientific or otherwise, called for the second storey to be built in our imaginations so that we could keep God and other “spiritual phenomena” in that space, not intruding into “real life.” Before that, Immanence and Transcendence were held together much more, even if they had to be depicted as “separate” in art.

            If you have time, you could visit Fr Stephen’s web site and do a search for one storey universe and read what he has written there – there is plenty.

            Dana

          • I understood the points that both Fr. Freeman and CM were making. But I don’t believe that in earlier times most people viewed the universe as one-storey. I think the one-storey universe came with the advent and development of modernism, and science. What evidence is there that in earlier times people viewed the universe as one-storey? That’s not how it’s expressed in the art and literature; as you acknowledge, immanence and transcendence are depicted as separate in these. In fact, the universe is frequently depicted as more than two-storey in ancient art and religion. The one exception to this is in the mystical traditions, where there has always been a sub-current of such thinking and experience.

        • But there have been antecedents for this conception of a one-storey universe outside of the mystical tradition, in the West, and from the Reformation. Didn’t Luther have this understanding in his sacramental theology of the Lord’s Supper? When Lutherans say that the finite contains the infinite, isn’t this what they mean?

    • turnsalso says:

      There are definitely visual elements in many Eastern icons that give a real sense of a 2-story universe
      Like the Ladder of Divine Ascent, perhaps?

      • No – that is about a person’s journey toward union with God, not at all a division between “storeys”.

        Dana

        • It is very typical in Christian religious literature through the ages to depict the journey toward God as one of ascent, not descent; that’s because, mythologically, the transcendent realm of God, heaven, was thought to be above the mundane realm of human and natural things. You have to work against the traditional imagery when you say otherwise.

  13. For the God who took flesh and dwelt among us is surely the same God who continues to take common things like bread and wine, oil and water, as well as men and women, and make of them the instruments of His presence among us.

    open tag s

    No he doesn’t. Because God can’t dwell amongst sin. The poor are poor because they sin, the churches are failing because they are lukewarm and full of sin, the land is hurting because of man’s sin, etc. God can only be where there is holiness. Where people are set apart. Where things are sanctified. If things aren’t that way, God is not there. If things are that way, God is there. It’s simple.

    Right? Thus was I taught. Thus it is true.

    /s

    • I hear you, but at the same time, no – i don’t believe it’s true, not for one second.

    • Dana Ames says:

      Stuart,

      yes, I remember that line of thought very well.

      One of the reasons I shall remain Orthodox until I die is that the understanding in Orthodoxy is that we are healed exactly in our sin, our un-sanctified-ness – that if there is a “hell”, and if I find myself in it, I can be sure that Christ is there with me.

      Dana

      • Dana, as one who agrees with you on “hell,” just wanted to say thanks so much for the above.

        (And yes, i arrived at that conclusion partly by reading various Eastern church sources… Orthodox, Church of the East, etc.)

  14. Christiane says:

    I think what really attacks the concept of a two-story universe is the very existence of the Body of Christ. It transcends our human limits of time and death and place. We are, by its very nature, made one with those who have gone before us in Christ. And they remain one with us in Christ. I think we, who celebrate holy communion as sacrament, understand what it means to be a part of a ‘whole’ union.