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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Going Up?!

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, famously declared on reaching the heavens that he had found no god. We take this so much for granted nowadays that unless Gagarin was being supremely ironic, we laugh to think that anyone could have thought that God was "up there." That the Soviets saw this as an atheistic propaganda coup is astonishing!

[I am grateful to Trevor in the first comment on this article that Gagarin was almost certainly not the author of this comment, (ed. Fr. Gregory)].

John Lennon probably wasn't being ironic either when he wrote this piece of theological drivel for his 1971 "Imagine" album:-

"Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today..."

So, clearly, as late as the 1960's and 1970's, many people still presupposed that God's existence depended on some ancient long superseded celestial topography. How extraordinary!

However, as this article makes clear, ["Is Heaven the Sky?] "God living in the sky" was precisely what the ancients supposed. This is the cosmology of Genesis and how irrelevant it is now to what we know about this planet and the Universe in which it is set.

On the 16th May, the Church celebrates the Ascension of Christ. This is a vitally important feast for Orthodox Christians as it affirms a central truth of our faith. Simply put, it is that in the resurrection of Christ, our humanity has been refashioned, glorified. This is a new creation of God in which even the physicality of our new bodies is not constrained by the spatial and temporal limits of the spacetime continuum in this Cosmos, (as we might say today).
We must not suppose, therefore, that Christ literally ascended into the clouds and had to use an oxygen mask, then later a vacuum sealed space suit. What nonsense is this! Rather, Christ ascended to the Father, taking our humanity, glorified with him and in him. This is why Christ came, to complete the work that the Father had intended for our good in creation.

What might, therefore, characterise an ascended humanity, aside from its already mentioned discontinuous existence in an unspecified transcendent state? First and foremost this would be a humanity that had left sin, suffering and death far behind.

The biblical way of referring to this is the "New Jerusalem" but again we must put away all carnal and this worldly descriptions of this paradisal state. Jesus himself said concerning marriage:- "When they rise from the dead they will neither marry nor be given in marriage but will be like angels in heaven" (Mark 12:25). This by the way is the most striking difference between Paradise in Islam, (also the faith of Jehovah's Witnesses), and that of the Orthodox Church.

Clearly a world in which there was no sin, evil, suffering or death is NOT in any way like our own broken creation. That is why, eventually, Christ had to leave it physically in order that he might open up the new reality of the Kingdom of God fully to his followers ... that, indeed, we might ascend to "where" he had gone before. To this end he promised to send the Spirit from the Father at Pentecost ... for knowing what and where we are called to be does not solve the HOW of acquiring that state. The Church then became the gathering of a new humanity, one in which the advances hitherto of evolutionary adaptation seem tame in the extreme. The Ascension is not so much "up" therefore as "one vast leap forward" for humankind. All that is required from us is a life consecrated to Christ that we might become by grace what he is by nature ... ASCENDED!


Trevor said...

About a year ago, Interfax posted an interview with Col. Valentin Petrov, who was a close friend of Gagarin. He claims that Khruschev actually initiated the idea about finding no God in space, and it was attributed to Gagarin, who was himself a Christian, after the fact.

Father Gregory said...

That's very interesting Trevor. I will put a note in the article referring to this. Thank you.

Michael Astley said...

Thank you for this post, Father. I remember that image of the cosmos from my A-level Christian Theology, when it first put the mechanics of the Genesis creation narrative into perspective. Before that point, I couldn't understand how what the editors of Genesis compiled fitted with what I saw. What was this "dome of heaven"? What were the waters abbove the dome that had been separated from the waters beneath. I suppose it makes sense of rainfall if you imagine tiny holes in the firmament.

Sadly, there are still many who don't see past this. I'm talking here about people who have no Christian background but who have picked up little snippets from Christians who only have a concept of "God up in space". Some of them are my friends and I often have difficulty answering their questions because the questions they ask are based on perceptions of Christian belief are very misguided.

We usually have to take a step back first to try to establish an understanding of space and time themselves being part of creation, of which God is not part. Even my attempts at talking about God "outside" of time shows how our language, based as it is on our experience within creation, fails miserably in communicating ideas about what is without. We talk of God being "outside" space. In the Creed, we affirm our belief in Jesus Christ, the Only-Begoitten, begotten of the Father "before" all ages. The words don't communicate what we want to say. It really takes patience and somebody with the gift of clarity in explanation (which I lack in speech) in order for this to be understood.

How many times has the argument been had with those who try to support the heresy of double-procession from Scripture by citing verses that refer to the temporal actions of the Person in creation, when the actual discussion is about the eternal origins of their being? I've certainly lost count.

Is this partly a symptom of our age of the individual? Are we at the point where we have spent so much time adjusting our society and the way we think to be focussed on the individual person that we are no longer easily capable of thinking in terms outside of our own experience? I hear stories of how the debates of the Oecumenical Councils were what people were talking about in the street, in their homes, at the market. If what I have been told is true, debates about Nestorianism, Appolinarianism, Arianism were the news of the day. Your average Joe Bloggs could speak about these issues.

I don't know.

Father Gregory said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Father Gregory said...

(edited and reposted)

My take on this incomprehension Michael is that it is primarily a a failure of imagination. By this I don't mean the ability to create pictures in the mind but rather the facility of describing reality with deep inner meaning rather than merely a shallow and pedestrian literalism. If one listens to the language of both atheists and fundamentalists alike they both share the same framework but with radically opposing conclusions.

A postmodern perspective ought to open up possibilities for spiritual discourse. Sadly this seems to make matters worse by locking up truth inside impermeable bubbles of personal subjectivity.

If there is an "unseen world" the modern secular mind must either dismiss it as unprovable nonsense (modernism) or a wonderful lifestyle option entitrely defined by the individual and those of like mind (postmodernism). Theological discourse on both counts remains impossible.

Things will only improve when people experience God for real. That, therefore, is primarily a challenge to us believers thatb we might be able to present such opportunities. Only God-centred encounters will do ... not the heavily secularised human-centred schmaltz that passes for worship in many non-Orthodox churches.

Michael Astley said...

That makes sense, Father Gregory.

I agree with what you say, too, about worship. As you know, it is worship that is perhaps one of the greatest inspirations to me. It is the words of the liturgy and the actions we perform, the sequence in which they occur and the way it all falls together, that spurs me on to seek the meaning behind it all and the Truth that it expresses. This has actually been the case with me since I was in my early teens, at least that I can remember.

The thing is, it's often difficult to express this to others in some non-Orthodox settings without causing backs to be arched. I can understand it because worship is often at the heart of a community's identity, and when you point out the fundamental flaws in the worship, it seems to be a criticism of the community, and perhaps it is, but how do we do that with charity in a way that doesn't appear to be an attack? It's difficult.

I look at the Mass "in the round", beloved of many these days, and all I see is an extension of society's focus on the individual, but people who are very immersed in it just cannot see it. They don't see the image of the local community, forming a self-enclosed circle, circumscribing God on the altar as its own possession, with its backs to the outside world, the cosmos, and all of creation. Many decry an Eastward-facing Mass as "backs-to-the-people", and respond indignantly to the wrong that has been done to them if they cannot hear everything the priest says or see everything the priest does, because surely they have the "right" to see and hear everything, not so? They don't want priest and people together, facing the same way together, on pilgrimage towards God together. Rather, they want the priest to face them. How is this simply not an extension of secularism into the realm of faith? Whether this is the cause or the effect, or perhaps a little of both in a self-perpetuating fashion, the reality is thathe experience of God is slowly pushed aside for the greater god, egalitarianism, and it is well nigh impossible to get people to understand this once they have become immersed in it, especially these days when it is all many people have ever known. I was one of them.

I think it's certainly possible to underestimate the psychological effect that this arrangement has over time. The way people experience church is bound to colour their thinking on the place of God, on their own place in relation to God, and the role of the Church. For this reason I agree with your point that only God-centred encounters will do. Otherwise, what is there?

I know I've been involved in the smug descriptions of "Mass over the counter" and similar expressions, and that is very bad form and does nothing to help the discussion, but there is a truth behind comments like that. God was gracious enough to allow me to see it. I continue to pray that others will open their hearts.

david darling said...

In defense of Lennon, I personally doubt that he thought that heaven was somewhere physically outside Earth's atmosphere or that hell was in the terrestrial mantle or core. After all, you can't squeeze too much metaphysical sophistication into a few lines of song! Wasn't he just saying that loving one another right here and now is more important than any speculation about what might lie beyond? I guess that's how I read it. (Even the icon you reproduce has Jesus sitting "up" in the sky!)

Anyone who still really believes that God is somewhere out there in the physical universe is, as you say, seriously mediaeval in their outlook. I'm happy to accept there may be an omniscient being in some state that is beyond our space and time and far beyond my comprehension. But I have just as much trouble with the notions used by theologians to describe this state and, in particular, the method by which humans have supposedly been given access to eternal, paradisical life, as I do with the old idea of heaven above and hell below. It is ridiculous to assume that Jesus rose astronaut-style above the clouds. But, to me, it seems just as bizarre to think I'm going (if all goes well) to become a haloed and winged angel.

Also, there seem to be so many contradictions about this transformation, or change of state, that occurred a couple of thousand years ago. God brought about a process in which we'll be rescued from sin and suffering, yet is apparently unable or unwilling to prevent immense suffering among millions of completely innocent children today. What kind of all-benevolent being is able to watch, without intervention, youngsters abused, tortured, and starving to death in their droves if it has the power to manipulate events on both a large and small cosmic scale? Something just doesn't add up.

Father Gregory said...

Thank you David for that. I don't have a problem with "Jesus floating" PROVIDED that folks realise that anthropomorphic and earthbound language in relation to God is metaphoric. Part of the sad legacy of modernism has been a certain literal frame of mind, positivist in orientation, which hasn't allowed for this. You and I may know what's NOT going on here but as for others .... well!

As to other characterisations of the resurrection state you have only given me one example to critique ... we shall become "angels." Oh dear!

I know of NO theologian who has suggested this even metaphorically. Certainly as far as Orthodox Christianity is concerned, the resurrection is a transformed PHYSICAL state. The angels, being immaterial intelligences, do not qualify. Indeed there was once an ancient heresy that still surfaces today called docetism which had the Risen Christ as a sort of divine ghost. This is not what Christianity (and certainly Orthodox Christianity) teaches at all.

Concerning the problem of evil, a few comments:-

(1) Christ conquered suffering, evil and death because, firstly, he endured it in his divine-human person ... and therefore, God himself personally engaged with it.
(2) In consequence of (1) a divine remedy became available for all those who embrace what God has done in Christ (faith) and follow in the same path (loving obedience to the way of the cross).
(3) In the light of (2) the victory is assured (the resurrection / ascension) but the struggle against suffering, evil and death is ongoing.
(4) It has to be ongoing because as surely as we screw up so also we must work at resolving the mess aided by divine grace and the Holy Spirit.
(5) God's action (no matter how much we would wish otherise) is not to remove the mess at one fell swoop, but to energise his creation in a cooperative venture to "clean up".
(6) It has to be cooperative rather than unilateral or else there would be no point in creation at all; that is, without its own proper contingency (as described by physical laws) and spiritual / moral freedom (the capacity for growth and change).

Father Gregory said...

David said ...

Many thanks for your analysis of the problem of evil. I won't make any further comment on that because I'd diverted you from the original topic. But I much appreciate what you said.
Going back to the question of ascension and misunderstandings about the location of Heaven and Hell, etc, it's always been a major stumbling block for me with orthodox (small "o"!) religion that it tends to talk down to the masses. One of my first experiences in this regard as a child was being handed the Catholic catechism and being told I should learn it in preparation for confirmation. I never got past the first line: "God is light". What does that mean? Even in primary school I knew that light was a form of wave motion. So God was a wave? Since no one could, or bothered to, explain to me clearly what the phrase was actually supposed to mean I refused to go on.

I realize that preachers can't deliver academic theological lectures every week to their flocks but on the occasions I've attended church services (of a variety of denominations) since childhood I've always found the delivery -- especially when it came to meta-questions about, for example, the nature of God, the resurrection, the afterlife, the nature of evil, etc -- patronising and unfulfilling. I'm also quite sure that your own services are not at all like this!

Fr. Gregory replies ...

I am sorry that you had such an unsatisfactory experience in the Church of your childhood and subsequently David. The reasons are complex but could include:-
(1) Poor standards of education and spiritual vitality among the clergy.
(2) A lack of concern for spiritual formation and education within the Body of Christ as a whole.
(3) An inability to cross reference truths across different disciplines.
(4) A faulty epistemology (theory of knowledge).
(5) An impoverishment of language and symbolic thinking.

I could go on but I think I will leave it there!

On the “God is Light” example we have an unfortunate case of the confluence of two incomprehensions.

The first concerns the difficulty with which children handle abstract truth, (not God but language ABOUT God). The second concerns the infantilism and impoverishment of adult language which has been subtly affected by positivism. This effectively leaves many with a conceptual and cognitive “apparatus” unable to handle spiritual matters.
In consequence, some reject religion altogether on fairly predictable modernist grounds, others choose the route of postmodernism into fanciful subjectivity. “If one cannot rule out the existence of fairies and that works for you, why not believe in fairies provided that nobody comes to any harm?” Oh dear!

David continues ...

Nevertheless churches in the main are full of medieval-inspired imagery of Jesus rising up above the clouds and talk of "rising from the dead", "ascending into Heaven", and so forth. Where is the difference between this and Gagarin or Lennon's naive portrayal of God/Heaven as entities somewhere "out there".

Fr. Gregory replies ...

That is precisely my point. There is no difference. When I as an Orthodox Christian handle those terms what I mean is VERY different from the bulk of non-Orthodox Christianity and present day sceptics and atheists alike.

David says ...

One of the reasons more people are prepared to trust what scientists have to say these days than theologians is that scientists and science writers have managed to keep the population informed about the latest developments in terms that everyday people understand and can relate to.

Fr. Gregory replies ...

I think that you are writing a bit naively about this David if you don’t mind me saying. I have had some experience now teaching both Maths and Religious Education to 11 – 16 year olds. The ignorance of spiritual traditions amongst this group is matched fairly evenly with their appreciation of science. There are some excellent popularisers of science about there ... not least your good self! ... but the relative ignorance amongst the general population of science and the long term decline of people making a career in the sciences belie your proposition. The reasons for this decline in both religion and science are complex but I think that both suffer from the postmodernist disillusion with both. Ignorance opines that religion creates war ... which is just as asinine as blaming science for Hiroshima. In forsaking science and religion people have turned inward because they cannot deal with the harsh realities of modern life. They suck their collective thumbs in comforting soaps, celebrities, hedonisms, New Age trinkets and bourgeois concerns. It is not easy rousing them from their slumber.

David concludes ...

In the case of religion there's a huge disconnect, as your post makes clear, between what is spoken from the pulpit in church and what theologians actually believe.

On the specific point about angels, I completely take your point and can accept and deal with the notion of angels in the way you describe. Yet, in my experience, the old-fashioned notion of haloed, winged beings is still promulgated to the public, through imagery and rhetoric, from the pulpit in a great many churches ...

(I agree ... ante ... Fr. Gregory)

... (contd.) ... And, if in addition to this, we are told that Jesus says we will become "like angels" what are we going to believe? I just wish that the concepts you convey so well in your blog were what was actually transmitted to the public in the majority of churches each week."

Fr. Gregory concludes ...

The sane may be still be found in the corridors of the deranged! It is important to realise first and foremost that not all believers are the same nor are all religious traditions saying the same thing even when similar language is used. One has to get beyond the language or at least insist that it is unpacked. So, “God is Light” is fine ... but you can’t switch Him on and off!

PS: In Matthew 22:30 ("For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven”), the context is this discontinuous aspect of eternal life, not the ontological correspondence of the angelic and the human.

drdavid.darling said...

Great response, Father Gregory. As usual, you've given me something that, as a scientist, I can relate to and appreciate.

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