by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
Some have accused the Australian writer, Gerald Murnane, of a kind of autism. It may be that his method is little more than an idiosyncratic phenomenology, though I suspect there is something more. I cannot tell whether he is in on the joke of insight or if he’s accidentally stumbled into the mystery of knowledge. In Border Districts, he touches upon some obsessional images that recur in other fictions, but what I find interesting is the way he recollects medieval optics and the concept that light not only emanates from or reflects back from an object; light also emanates from the eyes and Murnane implicitly speculates that each person has a unique signature so that what they bring to each mundane object is not replicable. In his reiteration and probing of memory, Murnane attempts to cross into a farther country that I would call the future that is God and this will involve a transformation as well as an alteration of our understanding of time and eternity. At the very least, eternity is not stasis, nor is it an oppositional other to time, nor is time intended to be a trajectory ending in death or endless, tedious repetition which is spiritual death. The latter is the unwitting aim of all immanent empires of self-transcendence.
When David Hart sketches out the failures of modern conceptions of freedom and sets against them the will’s necessary intrinsic relation to the Good, he is also implicitly indicating that liberty is not discoverable within the limits of a world of objects or a horizon bereft of meaning because blind to the House of the Father from which all creatures journey in order to return in a dance of non-identical repetition. Note carefully: it is not just the spontaneous irrationality of libertarian conceptions that should be refused, but its individualism. The freedom of the person is different, for there is a relational component that is ontological and constitutive of person and therefore not merely elective as moderns fancy. Think of it this way: in the myth of Eden, Adam in wonder reacts to the presentation of Eve with joyous reverence. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Adam’s cry of recognition is not just species identification. He’s not saying, “thank God, she’s not a walrus.” Rather, there is intimacy of origin, the acknowledgment that now the Adam sees the other that was hidden in his depths. When the Fall happens two things, identical in a way, result. Flight from God and mutual recrimination – the person is replaced with the individual and along with it a desire for individual responsibility, individual deserts, a belief one could cut-off what happens to an individual without irreparably harming one’s person. Everything Christ does subverts individualist flight. So Hart declares that “at Easter, Christ’s resurrection inaugurated an akolouthia of resurrection, so to speak, in the one body of the race, an unfolding that cannot now cease (given the unity of human nature) until the last residue of sin – the last shadow of death – has vanished” (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 142). This gloss on Romans 5:18-19, 1 Corinthians 15:22 and the plethora of other Pauline texts that juxtapose Adam and Christ indicate why forgiveness of sin is ultimately the defeat of death and why healing is inextricably linked with sin as an ontological category and not, except more superficially, with the moral as an end in itself.
Freedom, as Hart tirelessly explicates, is identical with well-being. “Freedom is a being’s power to flourish, as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is. The freedom of an oak seed is its uninterrupted growth into an oak tree. The freedom of a rational spirit is its consummation in union with God” (p. 172). Here, contrary to some notions of Christian freedom as an ascesis that repudiates desire, one discovers the apotheosis of all desire. “To be fully free is to be joined to that end to which our natures were originally framed, and for which, in the deepest reaches of our souls, we ceaselessly yearn” (p. 173). The common sense of the modern is sure to be baffled, however, by the implication that genuine freedom reduces choice. “Whatever separates us from that end, even if it be our own power of choice, is a form of bondage to the irrational” (p. 173). Or as Shestov remarks, “The knowledge of good and evil has no positive value, as we have always been taught, but rather a negative one … The accursed serpent deceived … The tree of knowledge does not increase our powers, but on the contrary, diminishes them” (Potestas Clavium, p. 157). And thus, the near instinctive affirmation today of diversity following certain vacuous notions of rights and liberty amounts to a serpentine deception, both flight from God and refusal of freedom in the name of freedom. Enslavement to perversity, the politicization of a vulgar and banalized language of love, the ironic assertion that the Good itself is a totalitarian imposition upon human flourishing follows from the twinned imbecilities of the attempt to thrive by fleeing the Source of being and an individualist ethic of nihilist liberty conceived as unconstrained choice — or, it is such a depressingly mediocre aspiration, demotic resignation before the Good fractured into mundane goods, the divine horizon that could make sense of desire lost to warring, seemingly incommensurable idolatries, the harmonious community now at best understood as provisional rules for limiting violence and allowing the pursuit of satisfaction tied to individually defined ends. Thus, modern choice turns out to be equivalent to metaphysical despair.
Hart then reiterates that God is not a preeminent object among possible choices. God is the horizon within which all created goods find their reason, their symbolic resonance, their very desirability, so that “the suggestion, then, that God – properly understood – could not assure that a person freely will one thing rather than another is simply false. Inasmuch as he acts upon the mind and will both as their final cause and also as the deepest source of their movements, he is already intrinsic to the very structure of reason and desire within the soul” (p. 183). Sin is madness, the illusion of freedom as choice between good and evil dispelled by the Tree of Life, that is, Christ on the Cross. And so Hart points to the Christological clarity of genuine human freedom. “The very thought that Christ might have turned from God, even as an abstract potential of his human nature, would make a nonsense of both Trinitarian and Christological doctrines … it would contradict the claim that Christ is God of God, the divine Logos, the eternal Son whose whole being is the perfect expression of the Father … if human nature required the real capacity freely to reject God, then Christ could not have been fully human” (p. 189). This last seems to me theologically compelling so that the theologoumenon that human freedom requires the option of refusal of God, the eternal perdurance of libertarian choice into the eschaton is shown to utterly lack Christian validation. Indeed, if one joins “the dynamism of human nature … its primordial longing for the Good” to an awareness of “the inherent emptiness of evil … the finitude of evil’s satisfactions and configurations and resources” (p. 191), the plausibility of the gospel as the victory of infinite love over the determinations of finite rebellion approaches certitude. If one remembers that we are not individuals, but creatures called to be persons, persons who are person by participation in the life of Christ not as an exemplary exhortation alone, but as an ontological fact, it becomes even harder to rationally deny the eventual liberty of the sons and daughters of God, for we are actually not individuals limited to choice and separate from the others. Our very freedom is rooted in the human action of Jesus Christ, so that there is an intrinsic gravity towards glory, even if for now it is often kenotically hidden from us.
“The saint,” says Felix Ơ Murchada, “is neither the hero nor the sage because the latter are concerned only with nature. The saint, on the other hand, is concerned with ‘second nature.’ The saint is not concerned directly or primarily with things of the world; his concern with things in the world is in terms of their origin beyond the world” (A Phenomenology of Christian Life, p. 197). And here, as I frequently do, I recollect William Desmond’s recurring theme of the passio essendi, that giftedness of being that is always sustaining, the gift that is given, and given again, even when love is refused, because, well, love is patient and kind, but love is also importunate, desirous, wanting the return of love, and though it will be considered a grave theological mistake, you know, to say that God needs his creatures, because, of course, it’s quite true that if God is God, infinite, flourishing plenitude is the signature of divine aseity; nonetheless, Péguy is correct when he writes:
Strange reversal, strange overturning, it’s the world upside-down.
The virtue of hope.
All the feelings that we ought to have for God,
God already began by having them for us.
The poet is quite shameless in exposing God.
He who loves places himself, by loving,
By that very act, from then on, into dependence,
He who loves becomes the slave of the one who is loved.
He who loves falls into slavery, consigns himself, puts himself under
the yoke of slavery.
He becomes dependent on the one he loves.
And yet it’s this very situation, my child, that God made for himself, in
God has deigned to hope in us, because he wanted to hope for us, wait
And if all that seems backwards, Péguy has already admitted it is upside-down. Yet it is perfectly fitting, unsurprising in its surprise, really, for only the God who needs nothing can choose to need; only the God of absolute generosity, of agapeic gift, who gives not for himself, but for the good of the gifted creature, can choose to desire in utter freedom, without the constraint of potency and want, so that the eros of agape is pure, ardent desire and soft, solicitous, almost diffident hope, wooing the wild, wounded beast, hoping to bring it close, to nestle and nurture and heal — that is God, who is king in the most remarkably curious way. In all that, there is a kind of stubborn joy that is still the serene creative certitude of the Father, and in the play of antinomies that strains against our finite conceptions, the mystery of freedom.
Bulgakov talks about how the earth is never a dead object, a neutral sort of stuff awaiting the shrewd ape to shape into something useful, to project from its lonely soul a vagabond meaning and worth that ever escapes its grasp, but rather, the world is not only divine gift, it is attended upon, performed, held within the noetic heaven as wondrous secret, as life emerging from the creative Triune light that is night and darkness to all creatures, so that the tetramorph and the seraphim wonder, even as they regard, the angels, caring, and watching, and singing in order to discover the next, astonishing thing, the revelation that causes joy and amazement to arise in them. “This is the meaning of the earthly world, outlined in the heavens before its creation. There is nothing really existing (and not illusory half-being arising out of the shadow of non-being, out of the play of light and shadows) which would not be in the angelic world, in the minds, multi-eyed in contemplation and six-winged in execution” (Jacob’s Ladder, p. 82). So, Bulgakov says that the God creates in this strange manner. The God who alone creates, from nothing, the nothing you and I and the angels come from, so nothing it is truly nothing, untouched by memory, this God who hopes, also, oddly, chooses to create in such a way that the creation, dazzled by divine fatherhood, finds within itself an energy that participates, shapes, develops. Man is a liturgical being, declares Evdokimov. Inspiration, hints Catherine Pickstock, is never a function of solitary genius, we commune with angels. And Bulgakov says that all our human arts reflect angelic praise, the earth in all its symbolic richness a doxology of theophanic beauty. And freedom, in its perfected fullness, as Berdyaev declares, is an eschatological mystery. “Absolute Man is not completely and finally revealed in the appearance of Christ the Redeemer. Man’s creative energy is directed towards the Coming Christ, towards his appearance in glory … in it humanity is deepened to the point of divinity and divinity is made visible to the point of humanity” (The Meaning of the Creative Act, p. 321). There is an echo of Nyssan anthropology in Berdyaev. Despite his admittedly heterodox metaphysics, he remains more insightful of Christian realities than most.
And by-the-bye, here is also a refutation though not a lucid syllogism or argument, so they will not be moved, of those who might think Péguy is merely indulging anthropomorphic fantasies or that the uniqueness of God relegates analogy and the imagination to a useful crutch necessary for dependent creatures who reason and think discursively, but having nothing to do with divinity. It is true that the radical transcendence of the God recognized in classic theism precludes the personalism of a mere moral agent, however perfect. The immanence of the God is identical to his transcendence. It is true that the God is outside the duality of subject and object, so much so that advocates for Christian gnosis like Jean Borella and Wolfgang Smith speak of non-dualism in a manner distinctive, but nonetheless reminiscent of Hindu tradition. God knows the world by knowing himself, yes, but when a fella like Norris Clark borrows the language of intentionality or the experience of the Church as the recipient of transforming love declares that the God watches over his creatures with tenderness and concern, this is not a mere sop to finite limitations. If it were so, one might suspect the angels closer to God, the way the angels know. Yes, they were there from the beginning. The hermetic trope, as it is above, so it is below might give the ring to the elder brother, not the grubby, foolish, prodigal. Indeed, even if still infinitely removed by apophatic distance from God’s knowledge, might the angels not be closer than the human thing? Unfettered by blood and touch and the crush of emotion, they might know intelligibles without mess and awkwardness, opacity and wounds. But somehow, ridiculously, it isn’t so. That would be to forget the Incarnation and the divine humanity; that impossibly, it is tactile flesh, no doubt resurrected flesh, beyond our ken, yet not utterly outside our imagination, for that, too, is assumed by God, so that the angels bow down in reverent rapture at the strange freedom of the God who creates from the foundation of the world by the slain Lamb, a work of Christological poetry. Or as I think I once wrote, Christ is vates through and through. Throughout the text of That All Shall be Saved, Hart worries that his audience is captured by the black magic of an impoverished conception of freedom, so much so that he repeats a diagnosis of the paucity and frequent inanities attendant upon modern libertarian definitions of freedom. The various permutations throughout the book attempt to make certain his readers begin to see past the shadow images and find release from binding chains. Not least, it is within the lurid light of the cave that infernal shades seem plausible. Because of the linkage between inadequate or false notions of freedom and despairing eschatology, Hart devotes less space to suggesting the fullness of human freedom. Theosis, of course, perhaps best greets us in the music of silence. I have redressed the balance somewhat in order to juxtapose the radical difference it makes for the way Christians might approach life and the way they might begin to think about what the Church is called to accomplish.
(Go to “Paradiso”)
* * *
Dr Moore has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas. He has been a contributor to Eclectic Orthodoxy since before the beginning of time. There is, it must be said, no truth to the rumor that he comes from a family of Druids or that he will drink only plum wine, though it is possibly true that he prefers cats to humans, allowing for exceptions. He is the author of the recently published tale of Noah and the ark, Beneath the Silent Heavens.