The Problem of Hell and Free Will

by Chris Green, Ph.D.

Nicholas Loudovikos ends his remarkable essay—“Hell and Heaven, Nature and Person”—with this remarkable paragraph, which I want to quote at length and then tease apart for brief comment/critique:

Hell, then, is the denial of the Eucharist, the tragic freedom of absolute narcissism, that is, the supreme self-torture of a freely chosen enmity against love. As the boundary of heaven, it is lit dimly by its light, and this minimal gleam of rationality that is shed on it besieges the abyss of its irrationality with the compassion of the saints of God; but the battle against this hardened self-deification is indescribably frightening and also inauspicious.

The rest is known to God alone…. (IJOT 5.1 [2014]: 32)

As I said, remarkable. But also remarkably problematic, at least if I understand him rightly. Leaving aside for a moment the opening statement, I want to focus on this phrase: “the tragic freedom of absolute narcissism …” What is meant by these terms: “absolute narcissism,” “supreme self-torture”? Absolute over against what? Supreme in relation to whom? The answer, obviously, is God. In my judgment, this notion is the sickness that diseases all “free will” accounts of salvation and damnation. Speaking of our freedom as absolute and supreme means (a) that freedom-from-God is itself the greatest good God can give us and/or (b) that our freedom is ultimately self-grounded and our destiny self- determined.

I’ll return to those lines of thought in a moment, but for now I want to consider this second phrase, “As the boundary of heaven, [hell] is …” This strikes me as more or less straightforwardly dualistic. Are heaven (good) and hell (evil) mutually-defining? Does God really need evil and the punishment of evil to be recognizable as good? Surely not. That would violate the church’s understanding of God’s holy otherness and self-sufficiency, would it not? I would argue that this truth is axiomatic: God does not need anything but God to be the God God is for us.

* * *

Loudovikos seems to believe that freedom is the greatest good God can give us (at least until we freely give ourselves to God so that we are capable of receiving other, better gifts). And no doubt he would also hold that God desires to give us those better gifts. Indeed, it’s that very desire that animates “the compassion of the saints of God” which Loudovikos describes as assailing the irrationality of the damned. Of course, the saints’ compassion is nothing other than God’s own compassion: they are interceding just because they are perfectly at-one-ed with God in Christ. But that means if they fail, God has failed. And that leaves me in conflict. Is that really what the gospel promises? Are we bound by the Scriptures and the church’s teaching to say that God, in the end, does not get done what God purposes to do?

Of course, many people (like Loudovikos, and perhaps most famously C. S. Lewis) are prepared to say that God’s desire to save ultimately ends in disappointment. But then we have to ask why God fails—and our response has to be dogmatically adequate. It seems there are only one or two possible answers, neither of which satisfies me. Either God fails because there are some ones or some things that God just cannot ultimately bring into alignment with his will for them. And/or God fails because the good that is our freedom, our “choice,” is so precious that evil (or at least the repudiation and punishment of evil) must be allowed to exist as a boundary condition for that good.

In either case, humans are believed to be self-grounded and self-determined. And that means that when all is said and done, God can only do what we allow God to do. In the end, God is at our mercy and we crucify him afresh. Just so, we are, as Loudovikos says, self-deified.

One of my students put it to me this way: “the Spirit leads us to repentance, but the decision is ours alone to believe, repent and receive. Not even God can do that for us!” But what kind of theological sense does this make? Arguably, God could create humans so that they are absolutely free from all influence, creaturely or divine. But, as I’ve already said, that would mean freedom-from-God is the highest good God gives—and that seems to me outright at odds with the gospel. How could faith, hope, and love remain if ultimately we are self-grounded and self-determining? After all, we have not determined our own beginning—I have no voice in whether or not I exist, and whether or not I exist as this one within these basic conditions of existence. How, then, can we rightly determine our own end? To say that I could in fact be self-determined would be an admission of belief in “salvation by works,” would it not? It would nullify the gospel, which promises me not freedom-from-God but participation in God’s own life.

* * *

I do agree with Georges Florovsky: “union with God, which is the essence of salvation, presupposes and requires the determination of will” (“The Last Things and the Last Events,” Collected Works,  III:263). But to understand that statement rightly we need a non-competitive account of divine and human freedom. We need to understand human being and agency not as a limit to God—created by and as God’s act of self-limitation—but as existing within God’s freedom and because of it, in absolute dependence on God’s supremacy. We need a way of saying that God wills our free response and that our response is truly free just because God wills it. As creatures we are not and cannot be ultimately self-grounded or self-determined. We can no more deify ourselves than we can create the world. We are grounded in the one who (in a way fitted to the divine life) freely makes it so that we can (in a way fitted to creaturely existence) freely participate in the determination that is purposed for us. So, if damnation cannot in the end be overcome, it must be because God wills such an end, and that very willing is what makes it so that the damned freely choose not to be saved. If damnation is not so willed by God, then the damned must at some point freely turn from their sins to the salvation given in Christ as God’s will for them. Either way, I would say that this should be taken as axiomatic: I am free to make of myself nothing more or less than what God frees me to make of myself.

This is difficult for many of us to track because we are locked into imagining two, and only two, alternatives: either we are “free”—by which we mean we are totally uninfluenced by any external force—or we are “predestined”—by which we mean we are absolutely controlled by some external force. But these are not the right alternatives to consider. First, because God is not in any sense an external force, one agent among other agents, acting upon us from “outside” with coercive power. Second, because we are creatures, and so we find our freedom—our fulfillment, our happiness—not in total uninfluencedness but in perfect transparency to God as the ground of our being, the one from whom, through whom, and to whom all things exist. On this Augustine was exactly right: God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, the presence that is always-already relating to us and just in this way bringing us into being as the relating creatures we are. This means that God’s own power cannot be in any sense coercive. To paraphrase Bulgakov, God does not cause; God creates. God’s influence is never controlling. It does not limit our creaturely freedom: it generates it! And precisely because our freedom is so generated, we are most fully freely ourselves when we are most completely resting in dependence on God.

* * *

I hope no one dismisses what I’ve said as sheerly “Augustinian.” It seems to me a careful reading of Maximus’ Christology and theology of creation leads to this same end. I agree with Lossky’s summation:

God created man like an animal who has received the order to become God,” says a deep saying of St. Basil, reported by St. Gregory of Nazianzus. To execute this order, one must be able to refuse it. God becomes powerless before human freedom; He cannot violate it since it flows from His own omnipotence. Certainly man was created by the will of God alone; be he cannot be deified by it alone. A single will for creation, but two for deification. A single will to raise up the image, but two to make the image into a likeness. The love of God for man is so great that it cannot constrain; for there is no love without respect. Divine will always will submit itself to gropings, to detours, even to revolts of human will to bring it to a free consent: of such is divine providence, and the classical image of the pedagogue must seem feeble indeed to anyone who has felt God as a beggar of love waiting at the soul’s door without ever daring to force it. (Orthodox Theology, p. 73).

All I would add is that these two wills do not operate in the same way, or on the same “plane.” Creaturely will is no less dependent on the divine will in deification than in creation. It is simply differently dependent, a difference made possible because through faith it is coming closer to its purposed end. Yes, God is “powerless” before our freedom. God never forces the door. But the weakness of God is more powerful than all creaturely power, and when I’ve opened the door to the beggar who calls to me from outside I’ll know immediately that it is only God’s own grace that has made my hospitality possible.

Finally, then, sin, not damnation, is the denial of the Eucharist. Damnation would be what happens if that denial were willed by God as an identity for the deniers. But the Eucharist reveals that God does not identify anyone in this way. All are invited to the Table to give thanks together just because the one whose body and blood is given and received has once-for-all been given over to death for our sakes. He has once-for-all poured himself out for the life of his friends and his enemies alike. He has once-for-all offered himself to the Father through the Spirit so that we might share in his death and just in that way share also in his new-creation life. We may deny him, but he remains faithful. And it is that very faithfulness that calls all things into existence in the first place, holding them in being and ordering them to their end in God.

Dr Chris Green is Associate Professor of Theology at Pentecostal Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee.

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The Irresistible Truth of Final Judgment

And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

The Great Assize—I am brought into the courtroom of the Divine Judge. The prosecutor presents a movie of my life, with infallible commentary. The entirety of my life is presented in exquisite and shameful detail. Nothing is hidden. All of my actions and inactions, with underlying motivations, are revealed. And to make things worse, the movie shows the consequences of my decisions upon the lives of others, rippling down through the centuries. Finally, the prosecution rests its case. No defense is offered, can be offered.  With dread I await the verdict.

What’s wrong with this scenario?

In the view of Sergius Bulgakov, it fails to grasp the inner connections between creation, incarnation, parousia, glorification, and universal resurrection. When the Incarnate Son returns in glory, the dead will be raised and all will be glorified. Every resurrected person will partake of immortality, irrespective of merit. Resurrection is wholly a gift of God, bestowed in the paschal victory of Jesus Christ. Bulgakov quotes the Apostle Paul: “Christ shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil 3:21). He then comments: “This applies, we repeat, to all humanity without any exception, for the Lord became the New Adam, assumed humanity in its entirety: ‘As we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly’ (1 Cor. 15:49). The image of the heavenly will shine upon all resurrected bodies, clothed in glory” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 450).

The joy with which Bulgakov writes of the Second Coming is palpable. One can almost hear in his words the bells of the Paschal Vigil.  The kingdom is so very close.  Bulgakov often closed his writings with the acclamation from the Apocalypse: “Even so, come Lord Jesus.” The Russian priest eagerly awaits and prays for the return of Christ: the dead will be raised; the world will be made new; all will be transfigured in the Spirit. The parousia is the fulfillment of the gospel; but perhaps most surprisingly, the divine judgment is the fulfillment of the gospel. “Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein,” the Psalmist sings: “then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord: for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth” (Ps 96:12-13).

Glorification in Christ immediately, simultaneously, inescapably subjects humanity to divine judgment:

It is necessary to understand that the parousia, the coming of Christ in glory, that is, in the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, is, as such, already the judgment. The parousia cannot be an external and mutually indifferent encounter between God who has come into the world and man who remains in his isolated state of being, as he was before this encounter. On the contrary, man too is clothed in glory and incorruptibility, and the creaturely Sophia becomes transparent for the Divine Sophia. This changes man’s very being. This encounter with God, this entering into the realm of the divine fire, is not something optional for human beings. It is inevitable. For some this is the time of liberation (“look up, and lift up your heads” [Luke 21:28]). For others it is a time of fear and horror: “then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30). No one can avoid this encounter, for it is not an outward encounter but an inward one. For many this will be an unexpected and undesired transformation of their being, for the transfiguration, the light of glory given to human beings, can do more than illuminate. It can also consume in fire. (p. 455)

The final judgment is baptism into glory and light and fire and truth.

Here the popular image of the courtroom misleads. We think of the divine judgment as an external revelation. The book of our life is opened, read, assessed. We stand passively as the verdict is declared and the sentence executed. But this is the wrong way to think of the last judgment. It’s not as if we are judged according to a legal standard and then rewarded or punished. Judgment occurs in the event of our baptism in glory, as an encounter with the risen Lord who is not only outside us but within us in the depths of our being. “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). The final judgment is both transcendent and immanent.

The parousia manifestly clothes every human being in Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is precisely in this sense that the parousia is also the judgment. And Christ, as the Judge (John 5:27), judges by the Holy Spirit. Human beings are clothed in Christ, who is the Truth and the Life, by the life-giving Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth. This means that every human being is inwardly confronted with the truth about himself. Every human being sees in the truth, by a vision that is not abstract but living, like the consuming flame of a fire from whose light one cannot hide, for all will become visible: “for judgment I am come into this world” (John 9:39), says the Lord. …

The manifestation of God’s glory in the world is also the manifestation of the truth itself, as well as the abolition of falsehood and the power of the father of lives (John 8:44). No falsehood, no self-deception, no error will have a place in the kingdom of truth, and this “exposure” by the Spirit of truth is already the judgment. By virtue of the truth this judgment becomes for everyone a self-judgment, a shedding of the veils of falsehood and self-deception that cover emptiness. The enthronement of Christ in the world, the reign of God come in power, is the Holy Spirit that fully, without any kenosis, pours forth upon all flesh. Christ’s revelation in the Holy Spirit has an irresistible force, which is manifested both in the universal resurrection and in the transformation of the world, with a transfiguration and glorification that extend to all flesh. This illuminating and transfiguring power is expressed in the image of fire, not natural of course but “spiritual,” which will penetrate the “spiritual” body and the spirit itself. The fire of the future age consumes, but it also transfigures, illuminates, gladdens. (p. 456)

Bulgakov speaks here of the Lord’s judging word as possessing an “irresistible force.” A crucial clarification is needed. Throughout Bride of the Lamb the author stresses the importance of human freedom. God works with human beings in synergistic collaboration. “The freedom of the person remains inviolable and impenetrable, even for God” (p. 226). God persuades in love, never by force. Bulgakov even goes so far to speak of God limiting his omnipotence before the freedom of man. Like Eastern theologians before and after him, he quotes the words of Christ from the Book of Revelation: “I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come into him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (3:20). “This door,” he interprets, “is creaturely freedom, the source of the originality and reality of creation in its correlation with the Creator” (p. 226). Freedom is not just an attribute of the human being; it is the foundation of human existence. When Bulgakov speaks of the divine judgment as possessing “irresistible force,” therefore, he cannot mean a divine action that in any way violates human personhood. It must be a word that speaks a truth so personally compelling and self-evident that it can only be affirmed and appropriated:

The judgment and separation consist in the fact that every human being will be placed before his own eternal image in Christ, that is, before Christ. And in the light of this image, he will see his own reality, and this comparison will be the judgment. It is this that is the Last Judgment of Christ upon every human being. … Just as the Holy Spirit manifests Christ in glory, so it reveals Christ’s presence in every human being. The judgment is the theophany to the world of the Son sent by the Father in the Holy Spirit. Resurrection in incorruptibility and glorification is precisely the Last Judgment, in which creation appears before the face of God and sees itself in God. For the image of God, given to man at his creation, is also the judgment upon man in relation to his likeness, which is the realization of this image in creaturely freedom. The “likeness” is the book of life opened at the judgment. God’s image will be revealed to every human being by the Holy Spirit as inner justice and judgment for creaturely life. This judgment of Christ is also every human being’s own judgment upon himself. It consists in each person seeing himself in the light of his own justice, in the light of his proto-image, which he perceives in his resurrection under illumination by the Holy Spirit. The Judgment is the judgment of every human being in his true image upon himself in his “likeness.” As such, the judgment is self-evidently persuasive. This genuine image for every human being is Christ: The judgment consists in the fact that the light has come into the world (see John 3:19). “For judgment I am come into this world” (9:39).

Is it possible to reject this ontological self-judgment upon oneself as inappropriate and unconvincing? No! It is not possible, for one is judged by one’s own being, by one’s own truth. St Isaac the Syrian says that the torments of hell are the burning of love for God, the burning fire of this love. … This idea is also applicable to man’s relation to his divine proto-image: being aware of how distant he is from his proto-image in his given state or likeness, a human being nevertheless recognizes himself in this image as he could and should be according to God’s thought. He loves this image of himself, judges himself by it, compares himself to is, does not and cannot retreat from it inwardly.

This proto-image is Christ. Every human being sees himself in Christ and measures the extent of his difference from this proto-image. A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ. The two things are the same. Such is human ontology. Love is the Holy Spirit, who sets the heart afire with this love. But this love, this blazing up of the Spirit, is also the judgment of the individual upon himself, his vision of himself outside himself, in conflict with himself, that is, outside Christ and far from Christ. And the measure and knowledge of this separation are determined by Love, that is, by the Holy Spirit. The same fire, the same love gladdens and burns, torments and gives joy. The judgment of love is the most terrible judgment, more terrible than that of justice and wrath, than that of the law, for it includes all this but also transcends it. … It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving him. (pp. 457-459)

The divine judgment becomes irresistible because it declares the truth that we already know in the depth of conscience; irresistible because it presents the good that we have always desired; irresistible because it gives the love for which we have long sought; irresistible because it discloses our inmost self. Our freedom is not overridden but rather fully engaged. Bulgakov acknowledges that how each person receives the parousia, whether in joy or hatred, is conditioned by interior disposition. Resurrection and glory will come as a transcendent reality from which man cannot hide, ex opere operato; yet given free-will the manner of reception remains proper to each person, ex opere operantis.  But after affirming this synergism, Bulgakov reasserts even more strongly the primacy of grace: “But, to be sure, creaturely limitedness here does not limit the power of divine action in the manifestation of the divine image in man. A human being is saved by this action, though only in connection with what he himself is. These forms of salvation differ depending upon what foundation a human being has built upon. It is possible that he himself will be saved ‘yet so by fire’ (1 Cor 3:15); and he will be naked, for his work will be consumed” (p. 457).

Surrounded by the light of Christ and penetrated by the fire of his Spirit, we are stripped of delusions and pretensions. Denial is impossible. We know ourselves as we are, as we were meant to be, as we shall be. We see ourselves in Christ and Christ in us. In his humanity we discover our true selves. When Jesus appeared in Galilee, it was possible for men and women to know him and yet not recognize him, possible to know him and crucify him. Such was the kenosis of the Word made flesh. But in the parousia Jesus is revealed in glory, and we cannot but acknowledge him as the divine Image in whose image we have been made. “God is so irresistibly persuasive for man because man receives God into himself, in his sophianic proto-image” (p. 492). All will be immersed in the consuming fire of Christ’s judgment. All will know the truth. All will embrace the truth.

“Even so, come Lord Jesus.”

(Originally published on 19 July 2014; mildly edited)

Posted in Eschatology, Sergius Bulgakov | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Madeleine L’Engle and the Poetry of Us

by Alana Roberts

Madeleine L’Engle as a poet doesn’t muddle herself into blah, kneel to politics, or contemplate evil. Yet she will never be considered by such as Harold Bloom to be a first-rate or canonical poet. For one thing, her poetry is flawed. It has virtues, but flaws as well. Not all her word choices are the inevitable choices. In fact, she once began a line with the term, “Aaaaaaargh!” (Perhaps there was an ‘a’ or two more; please don’t make me count!)

These flaws are probably present because, when it came to writing poetry, L’Engle’s method of composition was, scandalously, the irreverent one-off, as she tells her reader in a 1996 Mars Hill Review interview:

ML: Poetry is very different. I’ve written very little poetry since my husband died. Last summer I was traveling in Ireland and Scotland, and I wrote twelve sonnets. They just flowed out. With a novel, I can sit down and write deliberately, but poetry sort of has to come to me. I’m not a terribly good poet.

MHR: How would you define a good poet?

ML: Most of my real poet friends putter around with each poem for weeks on end. I don’t do that. When I write a poem, I just leave it there. If I’ve written a poem, I’ve written a poem.

L’Engle is, of course, best known for her book-length children’s stories in which the science of the modern age turns out to be just another view of the glory of God, and children who love both science and the Lord have mystical-scientific experiences. I’m not trying to be dismissive. Science and the problem of evil—weren’t these the main challenges to poetry in the 20th century? She used fiction to help her readers imagine a way of living that many of us have dimly dreamed of—in which the seemingly competing and conflicting authorities of the old and new world merge, when rightly understood, into a single luminescent meaningful truth. The wife of a playwright and actor, Madeleine has, in her Time Quartet and elsewhere, written the Drama of Us.

I recently read an adult novel of hers that has nothing to do with science whatsoever. Love Letters is a book about two women—one, a wife, and the other, a nun—who love truly but unwisely, who are damaged in the experience, and who struggle through painful desperation to a transformed will that allows them to go on loving. This novel is more predictive of the subject matter of L’Engle’s poetry than the children’s stories are. Hardly naive, hardly tripping about a perennial spring-time world of the imagination in rose-colored glasses, L’Engle is painfully aware of the questions that have polluted the poetic well.

Her poetry is collected in a single volume, called The Ordering of Love. The title is taken from a line in one of her poems—and I feel almost certain that this vision of “ordered love” was a conscious distinction to the “free love”—the disordered love, in fact—of the sexual revolution going on around her.

For Madeleine, ordered love was more passionate than dissipated love could ever be. In one poem, she pictures herself at the hospital bedside of her dying husband. “This, too, is passion,” she says, referring to the restraint with which she touches his wrist as lightly as possible to avoid causing him more pain than he is already going through.

(Is this a deeper, more mature echo of John Keat’s prayer of romantic restraint?

O let me for one moment touch her wrist
Let me one moment to her breathing list;
And as she leaves me may she often turn
Her fair eyes looking through her locks auburne

Or do cultured minds find the patterns, the tracks in the road, not knowing who left them?)


This, too, is passion, the so gentle touch
Of fingertip to wrist, to shoulder, face.
More would cause pain, and oh I would not such
Anguish awake, I sit here in my place
Beside this strange white bed, with IV poles
Holding snaked lines that feed into your arms.
A limbo, this, a waiting room for souls
Ready to leave the flesh with all its charms—
And I am still in thrall to human love,
To touch, to whisper, bring from you a smile.
Passion remains. What am I thinking of?
How can I let it go? Hold on a while.
But oh, my love, must I now love you so
That my love’s passion has to let you go?

Coherent thought—the hallmark of the Christian mentality (which, after all, fostered science)—is also characteristic of L’Engle’s poetry. She has no existential fault lines to reflect in jagged phrases and interrupted syntax. Her mental scrapbook held no black armband left over from God’s funeral for she was not a mourner at that event—the world, in her imagination, was wounded to the quick, but it was still, from top to bottom, whole.

Nor was she a deeply subtle writer, like Charles Williams (whose poetry is often so obscure that readers are advised to read for the joy of the words and not worry too much, at first, about understanding it). There’s little to nothing in L’Engle you won’t understand. She never claims a place among the innovators, the stars, or the monoliths of English literature. She is simply doing what those innovators, stars, and monoliths have made possible—talking to us in poetry; communicating in a way that is not limited by the tendencies of prose. Being a little more human for it.

Many of her poems are biblical dramas—fictionification of stories and characters from the Bible. In these little poetic dramas, she doesn’t venerate the biblical saints—there’s another place and time for that. Instead, she renders them as one of ourselves—people trying to believe in God in the face of evil or cultural unbelief. Perhaps the best example of this kind of poem is her little gem about Jephthah’s daughter—who, scandalously, was sacrificed to Israel’s God when her father swore an oath that the first person he met coming from his house on return from battle would die in the Lord’s honor. How many of you fathers have returned home from work to see your delighted children flying out the door to greet you? Is there anything better? False religiosity pollute that?—how can it be borne?

Madeleine doesn’t turn the page of her Bible to seek a more amenable subject for her poem:

Take me beyond the grasp of nights and days.
Death leads me on to neither time, nor place.
Even in the dark can come El’s grace.
Oh, God. Oh, El. The darkness, El, the cold
between the stars. There’s nothing here to hold.
So am I dead? This endless silence roars
and flings me with the tide on golden shores.
Who is this man, here, eating fish, and bread?
How can I see and hear him, being dead? 
He hands me broken bread and I am broken.
I do not understand the word that he has spoken.
But he is waiting for me, bright as a star.
“It’s all right, child,” he says. “You are. You are.”

Ah. Maybe there’s something of the Time Quartet author there, after all.

Not all her struggling-faith poems are fictional, either. Sometimes she addresses directly her own struggle.

Nietzsche and Marx—and more recently, Barack Obama and scads of snarky anonymous internet commentators—assure us that we are religious merely as a way of coping with a reality we can’t handle. It’s just our pain drug. (They do not understand the positive attraction—the irreplaceable joy—of worship.) Madeleine tells a different story—the story we all know from inside the believing experience. Here, though we do not contemplate evil and we try not to incorporate its vagaries into our own life-systems, our very sensitivity to goodness renders us excruciatingly sensitive to evil, as well.  No less than Adorno, we are struck time and again with the sheer incongruity, the antithesis between kindliness and suffering, between comfort and pain, between giving and stealing, prosperity and want, joy and grief, agony and bliss. The good, one feels, needs to be very good indeed. And sometimes when one looks at the bad—

“It would be easier to be an atheist; it is the simple way out.”

The poem is “Pharoah’s Cross.” The poem’s persona is, more or less, Madeleine.

“Who is this wild cherubim who whirls the flaming sword / ‘twixt the door to the house of atheism and me?”

Next she describes God, using the words of Exodus, sending evil angels, killing Egyptians, hardening Pharaoh’s heart to keep him from repenting. (“This worries me, Lord.”) But she turns back from this kind of musing to a more twentieth-century way of thinking about it all (and why not? Modernity is our time, too. Let there be a modern Christianity as well as an ancient and a medieval Christianity).

All these things are but stories told about you by fallen man,
Part of the story (for your ways are not our ways)
But not the whole story. You are our author …

And winds up,

… you came to us as one of us
And lived with us and died for us and descended
Into hell for us
And burst out into life for us:
Do you now hold Pharaoh in your arms?

Where philosophy stops short of an answer, Christ remembered stands in the gap.

The writing fails to be thoroughly poetic or original. That bit about God’s ways not being our ways has done a lot of duty and stretched to cover a lot of broken windows in the house of faith. But the poem is not exactly meant as an answer, either—it’s versified drama, a portrayal of the search for the answer. It’s exactly like the sort of stab we take at the problem—the stab that embodies the faith we feel and the vagueness of our unschooled attempts to clothe that inner movement in words. It’s the Poetry of Us.

And like us, it was not Madeleine L’Engle’s destiny to be beaten down by evil to the point that she could no longer rejoice in goodness. In one poem she mourns the suffering:

I cannot pray for all the little ones with bellies bloated by starvation in India;
for all the angry Africans striving to be separate in a world struggling for wholeness;
for all the young Chinese men and women taught that hatred and killing are good and compassion evil;
or even all the frightened people in my own city looking for truth in pot or acid.
Here I am
and the ugly man with beery breath beside me reminds me that it is not my
prayers that waken your concern, my Lord;
my prayers, my intercessions are not to ask for your love
for all your lost and lonely ones,
your sick and sinning souls,
but mine, my love, my acceptance of your love.

Your love for the woman sticking her umbrella and her expensive parcels into my ribs and snarling, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”
Your love for the long-haired, gum-chewing boy who shoves the old lady aside to grab a seat,
Your love for me, too, too tired to look with love,
too tired to look at Love, at you, in every person on the bus. 
Expand my love, Lord, so I can help to bear the pain.

But she responds with a seeking for love, not a bitter shrug or raging or sneering at the life that dares to go on living while others suffer.

And in another poem, her rising contemplation of time and its mysteries in the light of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection bestows on her a Christmas innocence that can only be expressed in delighted rhymes that fly thick and fast, in a merry brief meter that skips and runs:


Let us view with joy and mirth
All the clocks upon the earth
Holding time with busy tocking
Ticking booming clanging clocking
Anxiously unraveling 
Time’s traveling
Through the stars and winds and tides.
Who can tell where time abides?
Foolish clocks, all time was broken
When that first great Word was spoken.
Cease we now this silly fleeing
From earth’s time, for time’s a being
And adoring 
Bows before him
 Who upon the throne is seated.
Time, defeated, wins, is greeted.
Clocks know not time’s loving wonder
Day above as night swings under,
Turning always to the son,
Time’s begun, is done, does run
Singing warning 
Of the morning
Time, mass, space, a mystery 
Of eternal trinity.
Time needs make no poor apology
For bursting forth from man’s chronology
Laughs in glee as human hours
Dance before the heavenly powers.
Time’s undone
Because the Son
Swiftly calls the coming light
That will end the far-spent night.

When you pay attention to the ideas, to the invocations, there’s a window to heaven there. Time as a being who is joyfully mastered by Christ—what a wonderful mythopoeic idea.

When you pay attention to the meter, on the other hand, you find many occasions of thickness where there ought to be thinness, and vice versa. The rhyme of “apology” and “chronology” is a particularly objectionable stumble in the meter. Yet the poem without those words would be impoverished. I call such dilemmas “bright blots.” Blots have to be evaluated in light of the surrounding virtues in a poem.

A poem that is all blots becomes tedious.

But many critics of poetry, needing to fill out their repertoire of condemnation in order to demonstrate their subtle and discriminating perception, have a no-tolerance policy for bright blots. It amounts to a sentence of annihilation for the poet, as poet, who is less than perfect (or a seeming proof that most people simply shouldn’t attempt meter and rhyme).

All that beautiful delicate virtue, coldly forbidden to exert itself, to exist, lest some mistake should wander onto the scene. What do they think a world would be like in which all the virtues have been stricken from the record lest some vice register its presence?

Madeleine felt the same way.


I build my house of shining glass
of crystal
light, clear,
The wind blows
Sets my rooms to singing.
The sun’s bright rays
are not held back
but pour their radiance through the rooms
in sparkles of delight.
And what, you ask, of rain
that leaves blurred muddy streaks
across translucent purity?
What, you ask,
of the throwers of stones?
Glass shatters, breaks,
sharp fragments pierce my flesh,
darken with blood.
The wind tinkles brittle splinters
of shivered crystal.
The stones crash through.
But never mind. 
My house
My lovely shining
fragile broken house
is filled with flowers
and founded on a rock.

If I had been her editor, I would have advised replacing phrases like, “the sun’s bright rays” and “sparkles of delight.” (Something more unique, more expressive, could have been found, surely?) Still, the poem in whole speaks, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t like to un-hear it. That flash of insight about how a glass house would sing in the wind—that’s the most genuinely poetical moment.

For Madeleine, one could both grieve evil (while trying to work for Love) and still retain the joy and innocence that poetry is most naturally vessel to. Far from being a cowering naivety, this innocence shelters in the shadow of something which has set itself against evil, as Adam the firstcreated man discovers in L’Engle’s poem, ‘Great and Holy Saturday.’ What is set against evil is immensely robust. It is strong—so strong that it reclaims the ultimate evil, death, and converts it to an inexpressible mystery of reasserted being: a tailor, to proffer my own metaphor, stitching robes of immortality.

Here we join Adam in Hades, accustomed and resigned to a shadowy existence where time seems neither long nor short because nothing happens:

The sound, when it came, was louder than thunder,
louder than the falling of a mountain,
louder than the tidal wave crashing down the city walls,
stone splitting, falling, smashing.
The light was brutal against my shaded eyes,
blinding me with brilliance. I was thousands
of years unaccustomed to the glory.

. . .

The crossed gates were trampled by his powerful feet
and I was wrenched through the chasm
as through the eye of the hurricane.
And then—O God—he crushed me
in his fierce embrace. Flesh entered flesh;
bone, bone. Thus did I die, at last.
Thus was I born.
Two Adams became one.
And in the glory Adam was.
Nay, Adam is.

The brotherliness and wholeness of Christ in this vision is both original and orthodox. His intense and triumphant engagement with the powers of creation is vitally Christian in a way that satisfies both ancient and modern hungers. The pace is dramatic. The vision of zoetic, thanatopic and cosmological mystery, informed both by primal splendor and by scientific awe, is rightly resolved in the flesh of Jesus – the safe harbor against his chest. This resolution invokes the secret well of joy in Christianity: the incarnation of Christ which places the gateway to all worlds in the pure and all-loving heart of the Man in whom all men are anchored to being and humanity and personhood.

It also reveals and sparks a movement within our spirits and minds—a movement we’ve enacted before and must enact over and over again—the flight through all trouble and difficulty and loss, home to Jesus. To Jesus, in whose flesh our own deaths are already accomplished, are housed and metamorphosized to wild adventure and ever-life.

The subject cannot be exhausted.

And while we confess that a greater poet might have made something greater of it, we also aver that the vision is a gift; and one must make something of one’s gifts.

If one took the poems literally, this one would seem to present a view incompatible with the image of Jephthah’s daughter after death, cast on the shore of Lake Tiberias. (What happens to people after death, we are asked… and sometimes forget to examine the assumption that we will confront a one-size-fits-all system, such as human government produces.) Be that as it may, the poems are united by the consolation in which they sum up the colossal limits set like cliffs around the sea of evil:

“You are, child, you are.”

“Do you now hold Pharaoh in your arms?”

“Adam is.”

Can he lose even one?

Madeleine L’Engle’s vision is distinct, original, and poetic enough to be remembered—to be contributory to a fully-formed English-speaking Christian consciousness. She is a literary resource for that collection of thoughts and feelings that we thoughtful modern Christians are forming to set afloat on the stream of tradition—the questions and answers, the sentiments and insights called forth by trying to live as Christians in modernity—the help future generations will need to remain connected, back through us and through history, to the foundations of our faith.

At Madeleine L’Engle’s invitation, we contemplate a goodness that is not a set of tortured rules futilely binding a wildly yearning nature. Here we find the goodness we know—the one that can be delicate and minor, or thunderous and cosmic; that never does harm, but sometimes hurts “in a good way”—the one that both rests and rises with all the force we find in our hearts and more, which in the roots of it is being, is “I am;” which is “I AM THAT I AM.”

If our thoughts are our lives then, Brethren, Madeleine L’Engle invites us to think on these things.


Alana Roberts blogs on poetry, culture, and Christian faith at Curmudgeon in Training.

(Return to part 1)

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Robin Parry on the Gospel of Hope

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Preaching Apokatastasis

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Madeleine L’Engle and the Dilemma of Christian Poesy in the Modern Culture

by Alana Roberts

Madeleine L’Engle’s earthly life began in 1918 and ended in 2007. When she was born, the world was only 17 years out from the end of the Victorian period. When she passed away—well, it was nine years ago. I don’t know what you were doing then, but I was mostly trying to keep my toddler out of the street, if memory serves. During L’Engle’s lifespan, the world of poetry worked through some pretty hefty challenges. Matthew Arnold, the most notable Victorian critic, had placed a burden on poetry that it has yet to recover from to our own day: he charged it with the duty, as he saw it, of replacing religion. As such, it was to become wholly serious, dignified, and elevated.

What would happen, in such a pass, to the delightfully frivolous poem—like this one from an anonymous poet?

Ye little snails,
With slippery tails,
Who noiselessly travel
Along this gravel,
By a silvery trail of slime unsightly,
I learn that you visit my pea-rows nightly.
Felonious your visit, I guess!
And I give you this warning
That, every morning,
I’ll strictly examine the pods;
And if one I hit on,
With slaver or spit on,
Your next meal will be with the gods …

Would it be forbidden? Or just become a lost art, like staining glass?

It’s worth noting precisely why religion needed replacing, in Arnold’s view. In his 1880 essay on the subject, he quotes himself from an earlier work thusly:

There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it.

Darwin to begin with, of course. Without a historical first Adam, the relevance of the New Adam to the whole human race seemed suddenly, well, nothing upon which you wanted to base national policy. The voices trying to explain that there were ways to reconcile all this got lost in the cultural uproar. And those details of biblical history that archeology was questioning—how could Matthew Arnold foresee how Israeli archeology would eventually debunk so many tenuous but scholastically respectable proofs of the Bible’s historical worthlessness?

Did you realize before how immediately the philosophy of evolution affected the seemingly removed and esoteric art of poetry?

Poesy has responded to Arnold’s dicta and tried to bear a burden of seriousness that is hardly natural to it. That happened.

Later, it seemed to revolt against that feeling and react to it in various ways. The beat poets weren’t just down and out—they were “beat”—dead tired. Here’s Ginbsburg:

Hospital’s oval door
where perfect tulips flower the health of a thousand sick souls
trembling inside hospital rooms.
Triboro bridge steel-spiked
penthouse orange roofs, sunset tinges the river and in a few
Bronx windows, some magnesium vapor brilliances ‘re
spotted five floors above E 59th St under grey painted bridge 
Way downstream along the river, as Monet saw Thames
100 years ago, Con Edison smokestacks 14th street,
& Brooklyn Bridge’s skeined dim in modern mists—
Pipes sticking up to sky nine smokestacks huge visible—

It’s meant to blur together, like the “beat” consciousness.

That was several decades ago: decades L’Engle lived and wrote in. It’s old news that (in reaction to the multitudinous “schools” of poetry that contended to redefine the art throughout the twentieth century) poetry can be “about anything.” It can, apparently, be about the specks of dirt on the floor of a Starbucks or that time your cousin coughed. Or poetry can be about tampons or toilet paper.

For that matter, it might as well be about nothing, like the poet’s idea of life.

To a Christian poet who finds himself looking for the original lost stream of tradition—who descends, artistically, from poets who never bought into Arnold’s dictum in the first place—this reactionary and blaring assertion is baffling and exhausting—and most importantly, unnecessary. We don’t need tampon poetry because we never bought into Arnold’s dismissal of Chaucer as not serious enough. The Wife of Bath will do very well for a poetry of human triviality, thank you kindly.

For a literature of the bawdy, well, there’s Rabelais—can any of us outdo him? I thought not!

… the child sprang up and leaped, and
 so, entering into the hollow vein, did climb by the diaphragm even above
her shoulders, where the vein divides itself into two, and from thence
taking his way towards the left side, issued forth at her left ear.  As 
soon as he was born, he cried not as other babes use to do, Miez, miez, 
miez, miez, but with a high, sturdy, and big voice shouted about, Some 
drink, some drink, some drink, as inviting all the world to drink with him.
 The noise thereof was so extremely great, that it was heard in both the
countries at once of Beauce and Bibarois.  I doubt me, that you do not 
thoroughly believe the truth of this strange nativity.  Though you believe 
it not, I care not much: but an honest man, and of good judgment,
believeth still what is told him, and that which he finds written.

Is this beyond our law or our faith–against reason or the holy Scripture? 
For my part, I find nothing in the sacred Bible that is against it.  But 
tell me, if it had been the will of God, would you say that he could not do 
it?  Ha, for favour sake, I beseech you, never emberlucock or inpulregafize 
your spirits with these vain thoughts and idle conceits; for I tell you, it 
is not impossible with God, and, if he pleased, all women henceforth should
 bring forth their children at the ear.  Was not Bacchus engendered out of
the very thigh of Jupiter?  Did not Roquetaillade come out at his mother’s 
heel, and Crocmoush from the slipper of his nurse? Was not Minerva born of
 the brain, even through the ear of Jove? Adonis, of the bark of a myrrh
tree; and Castor and Pollux of the doupe of that egg which was laid and 
hatched by Leda? But you would wonder more, and with far greater
amazement, if I should now present you with that chapter of Plinius,
wherein he treateth of strange births, and contrary to nature, and yet am 
not I so impudent a liar as he was.  Read the seventh book of his Natural
History, chap.3, and trouble not my head any more about this.

Bracing, isn’t it? How limp in comparison, how mired and miry, are the stories and poems editors admire now—even the profane ones!

But the over-seriousness, and reactionary bland triviality of much modern poetry is only part of the story. Because between Arnold and us loom the World Wars.

The proverbial sensitive soldier, whose mind the first World War nearly founders, is still part of our folk consciousness. This actually happened—this or death—to many talented and irreplaceable poets. The first World War, especially, wounded not only individual soldiers, but the whole English-speaking poetic world. You can see the difference in any anthology—poems after 1917 are shockingly removed from the previous tradition.

The nearly archetypal image of the war-foundered poet speaks to a more general feeling—that the shocking and horrific suffering involved in modern warfare debunks the opposing goodness—the sweet things, the delicate things, the hopeful and the joyful things. (And if poetry is the new religion, its duty is to confront this fact.)

No philosophical system had ever said (so far as I know) that extreme goodness could not exist in the same world with extreme badness—but then, following WWII, one seemingly did. Famously, Theodor Adorno (a German philosopher) said that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. He really meant, apparently (though I’m no expert), that if you were an artist of thought, you could not simply ignore the vital and all-encompassing question that the tortured person asks himself—why, and how, can one go on living (and poeticizing) in such a world—a world where, as he says in reference to a Sartre play—“all one’s bones are smashed.” Hidden in that assertion is the assumption that poetry can only do one thing: contemplate goodness, not evil. Yet that is missed by many who have compromised by continuing to write poetry—just Auschwitz-conscious poetry.

It’s not easy to dismiss. We have our own Auschwitz: the crunched bones or salt-burned flesh of offspring whose inarticulately questioning screams are muffled by amniotic fluid.

It is difficult—agonizingly difficult—for a person of any sensitivity to leap, in his mind, from the appreciation of that question to the contemplation of goodness. Yet contemplation is the special function of art. It is what a poet must do; it is what poetry helps us do when we read it.

So does the sensitive and ethical poet turn his art to the contemplation of evil? That question was floating around during L’Engle’s career. Traditionally, it is the contemplation of the good (whether as unrefracted white light, or in its rainbow of experienced and embodied virtues) that art, and poetry by inclusion, have traditionally served. The art was, you might say, invented for that purpose and turns to another with difficulty, with loss of its most characteristic elements. All these years out, it is possible to see that loss in contemporary poetry.

Try 5 sample poems from Poetry Foundation, and I guarantee you’ll find something to open your eyes and delight the mind—but a shadow often lies over it, or a false-cheer floor lies under it. There’s a good chance you’ll stumble on something disturbing, as well. You’ll be lucky to find any ordered form at all. And that concern about modern warfare, statecraft, corporate unculture, and the uglification of nature—about all the ways in which we’ve become accustomed to the presence in our midst of mechanized violence and totalitarian agonies—is so often made, conscientiously and grimly, into a galling harness for the thoroughbred art. For in the end, it wasn’t poetry but rather politics that replaced religion, and now poetry has got to pay homage.

Not just content, but style is inevitably affected. What traditional technique of poetry has not, by now, largely succumbed to the demand that poetry be written apologetically or else ragingly—under the shadow of all the evils?

Rhyme? Doesn’t it just seem artificial compared to the sufferings of women who make less money than men doing jobs that men invented, while filling up landfills with tv dinner packaging? Or, you know, Rwanda or whatever?

Meter? Please, no—you’d just be propping up the old order that, after all, produced slavery and colonialism!

The sweetness of violets? The daintiness of baby’s feet? The raptures, told yearly in new words, of first love? Why? For God’s sake why? Does it matter? DOES IT REALLY MATTER?

But the Christian or conservative artist feels a warning in all this: for the nature of art is such that we become what we contemplate.

Reduced by all that friendly fire, the average published poem’s primary characteristic is merely blah. Often it seems that the whole point is the effort to be as unlike poetry as possible. Take, for example, the Pushcart ranking of best literary magazines. This year’s winner was Kenyon Review. Here’s a quote from a poem in the current issue, chosen at random:

If only we could only talk with our hands—just
fingers & palms & those small bones, twenty-seven,
distinct, from tip through wrist, most firmly bound—
I’d apologize less for all the wrong things I say.
The problem, I guess, is mouths. So cavernous, maybe.

Maybe. Um, wait—what?

Well, it’s not entirely unpoetic. The place where bones join: it’s not a bad idea for a poem meant to function like the literary version of macro-photography.

But could you read all the way to the bottom of the second poem? Didn’t it all just muddle to gray? It did for me. It is notable precisely for not being notable at all.

In this, the Christians or conservative poet finds himself, once again, faced with the dilemma of being either marginalized and dismissed, or of trying to blend in. That is to say, imitating (because he could never invent) the reduced poetics of his wandering contemporaries, pretending to see nature and humanity through the gray-making virtue-blind glasses that publishable poets wear. Put them on, write as if Auschwitz cancels Calvary—(we have been used to speaking of heavy matters, you see)—and don’t forget to be suitably smug and condescending toward your fellow poets who don’t buy into it.

If you don’t want to wear those glasses, it can actually be a relief to turn from this bog to a critic like the immensely erudite Harold Bloom. I’m grateful for his insistence on the virtues of traditional poetry – he, an agnostic Jew who is Matthew Arnold’s contemporary heir, believes there is a cultural “canon” of poetry which, thankfully does include Chaucer but which excludes everything not “sublime” and “inevitable.”

In his 2004 anthology (a real treasure called The Best Poems of the English Language) we find this tersely staunch standfast: “By concluding with Hart Crane, born in 1899, and by reprinting only half a dozen poems published after 1923, I have largely evaded our contemporary flight from all standards of aesthetic and cognitive value.” And in an 2015 interview he summed up what he thinks is the major distraction that has caused this flight:

In my view, all these ideologies have destroyed literary study in the graduate schools and in the academies. Whether you call it feminism, which is not really feminism, has nothing to do with equal rights for women, or whether you call it transgenderism, or ethnicity, or Marxism, or any of these French manifestations, be it deconstruction or one mode of differential linguistics or another, or whether you call it — what I think is mislabeled — the new historicism, because it’s neither new nor historicism, but simply a dilution of Foucault, a man whom I knew and liked personally, but whose influence I think has been pernicious, just as Derida’s, with whom I also shared a friendship until eventually we broke with each other. All these “isms” are preposterous of course; they have nothing to do with the study of literature or with its originality. As I’ve said before, the esthetic is an individual and not a social concern.

But the poetry Bloom loves is all strenuous climb. Again – what about the snails with slippery tails? Do they deserve to have no poetry written of them? Can there be no Poetry of Little Delights?

More pertinently, can there be worth in minor poets? In flawed poets?

I believe that, provided one doesn’t mentally fudge, and pretend a poet is better than he is, there is value in poets that don’t make the canonical cut. One of the primary values of such poets is that they are us—and we have a need to speak in poetry. Not only is it good for us individually, but it is important because only from a populous pool of shared poetic endeavor rises the truly great poet. If Harold Bloom is right in having more or less given up on the capacity of our age to create great poetry again, then we must go where those preposterous ideologies hold no sway, seek the trickle of pure tradition in the grass, and begin to contribute to it again.

(Go to part 2)

Alana Roberts blogs on poetry, culture, and Christian faith at Curmudgeon in Training.

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Does God “respect” our freedom?

One often finds the following proposition asserted: God has created humanity as free beings and has thus bound himself not to interfere with their free decisions and choice. Divine agency and human agency are conceived as mutually exclusive. In one form or another we find this proposition commonly advanced in discussions of synergism, providence, theodicy, and eternal damnation. Please raise your hand if you have invoked the principle yourself.

The underlying image is that of a stage. God has created the stage and the human players, yet once having created them, God stands back, as it were, and lets the players live out their lives in freedom. But there is a problem here. The image is deistic. It forgets that not only has God created both the stage and players, but at every moment he is conferring existence upon them. In some sense, therefore, God must be the ultimate author of free human decisions and actions. If he weren’t, they wouldn’t exist at all. God neither respects nor interferes with our free actions; he creates them. Think upon that for more than a few seconds. Think long enough and you may even find yourself entertaining a theory of double agency.

If we take the creatio ex nihilo seriously, we will find ourselves wrestling with all sorts of challenging, perhaps intractable, problems. Hugh McCann discusses some of them in this interview with Robert Kuhn.

Dr McCann is the author of Creation and the Sovereignty of God and The Works of Agency.

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