Posts Tagged ‘allegory’

The Geography of Heaven and Hell

October 19, 2011

I noticed tonight in a Facebook discussion a reference to this article – thus I thought a reprint might be timely. I continue to be amazed at the literalism that infects the minds of many Christians. Just because Scripture uses the language of geography to describe something does not at all mean that we should assume that it is referring to a literal geography. Those whose imaginations are filled with various versions of heaven and hell in literal terms – it seems to me – lack imagination. The accounts of Christ after the Resurrection, though marked occasionally with very physical descriptions, are clearly marked as well with things that defy everything we know of physicality. His Resurrection is the only “image” of a tangible/non-tangible sort that we can point to for the character of life after death. Some Christians so lack imagination that they won’t let Christ off a literal throne in heaven and use such nonsense to deny the complete reality of the transformation of the Eucharist into His body and blood. In earlier centuries of the Church, such notions would (and were ) declared heresy by the Fathers. How can we worship God in awe and wonder when He is reduced to such understandable terms. Jesus Christ is Lord and His resurrected existence is the only measuring stick (if you will) of reality. 

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) has a long history of teasing Christians into dangerous territory. I suspect that many if not most Christians have more than a little curiosity about life after death. We want to know what happens. We want to know “how things work.” And this parable – at least on its surface – seems to give more indication of “how things work” than almost any other passage in Scripture.

It gives us a geography of sorts: Lazarus is in “Abraham’s bosom” apparently enjoying good things; the rich man is in Hades and in torment; we are told that there is a “great gulf fixed between the two” so that no one can come from Hades to Abraham’s bosom and no one from Abraham’s bosom can go to Hades.

It interests me that many Christians use this parable as a “map” of the after-life, or at least as a story that supports their own “map” of life after death.

The most important feature of such maps is the very “fixed” character of their geography. What seems most important to them is that one character is in one place and the other character is in another place and there is no traffic between the two. (To read some useful Orthodox thought on life after death and Christ descent into Hades – the following article is of interest.)

It would seem that the reason some Christians like this is that it fits their own map of God and life after death. There are those who seem to like things to be stableand unchangeable – by this I mean they want a life after death (and a life before death) with clearly defined rules, boundaries, unbending laws and the like.

In such a map of things – those who obey the rules, observe the boundaries and master the laws do well. Those who do not – are punished. Such a world, it seems to them, is the way things ought to be, and to be the best way to either reward the good, correct the bad, or punish the incorrigible.

I might add that if you want a world like this – then it is even better if you can find a way to secure God as its underwriter. Many people do this under the heading of the “justice of God.” They will say that “God is just and He cannot deny His justice,” thus forcing God to have very clear rules and guaranteeing that He cannot break His own rules.

Several things to note:

1. There are no maps of the afterlife. Regardless of the descriptions in this parable – the purpose of the parable is not to teach us the topography of heaven and hell. Where, I will ask, is Abraham’s Bosom? How do we think of this as a place? Hades has the same problem – where do you place it? As for the Great Gulf – of what does the gulf consist? What sort of obstacle is insurmountable in these circumstances?

The point of the parable is found in its end: “If they have not listened to Moses and the Prophets, neither would they listen to someone even if he came back from the dead.” It is not a parable about the topography of the after-life, but a comment about our present life and our unwillingness to hear the gospel.

2. Important, and please note carefully: no matter how much some may want the world – particularly God’s world –  to be describable in clearly defined rules, boundaries and unbending laws – it’s just not the case. If there is a “rule” of any sort – it is God Himself – it is Personal – and is defined only by mercy, love and kindness.

And so it is that the “Way” forward, backwards, up or down, however you want to describe our travel in the Kingdom of God – the Way only follows the map of the heart of God. If you want to know the way to go – if you want to know how things work – then you have to know the heart of God. You have to know God Himself.

And this is all that we need to know for life here – and life hereafter. God Himself is our heaven – and in the teachings of the Fathers – God Himself is our hell – for hell is nothing other than our self-imposed refusal to accept the love of God. It is that refusal that brings its own torment.

If we have the eyes to see – we are already traveling the roads of heaven and hell – already dwelling in the bosom of Abraham or in the torments of Hades. The geography of that journey is the geography of love and mercy, kindness and forgiveness – or contrary – hatred and judgment, violence self-conceit, slander and calumny.

Judge for yourself – for we’ve all experienced both. Where do you want to dwell? The good news is that whatever gulf is fixed in our heart – whatever wall or chasm has been erected within us – Christ has gone there. He descended into Hades. If you will look within yourself – into the darkness of your own private hell – you will find Christ there – for He has gone there to look for you. And as sure as He trampled down death by death – He can trample down your own hell and translate you into the Kingdom of light.

The Mystery of Theophany

January 4, 2011

This week, the Church moves from the feast of Christmas to the feast of the Theophany – the celebration of the Baptism of Christ. The intent of this feast is not to celebrate a succession of historical events (the Baptism of Christ is at least 30 years later than His birth). Rather this feast takes us into the depths of the mystery of Christ and His salvation of the world.

Many Christians, reading the gospel accounts of Christ’s Baptism, are not sure what to make of the event. They accept Christ’s own explanation to St. John, “It is necessary to fulfill all righteousness,” though they are not entirely sure what He means by this. They have no particular understanding of why Christ submitted Himself to this action of John (it was not required by the Law – but is rather a prophetic action on the part of St. John).

St. John himself does not seem to understand the purpose of Christ’s Baptism. He is told that “whoever you see the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain” is the Messiah – but he is given little information beyond that. Witnessing Christ’s Baptism and the Spirit resting upon Him, he hears the voice, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew, Mark and Luke all bear witness to the voice).  The Church later celebrates this manifestation of the Trinity (Christ in the water, the Spirit descending, the Voice of the Father – hence the title “Theophany”).

But with the text alone, on its literal level, leaves the mystery of Christ’s Baptism alone, without context or meaning. The Tradition of the Church, however, sees the Baptism of Christ in the context of Pascha (Easter) as it sees everything in the context of Christ’s Pascha. Christ’s Baptism is a foreshadowing (and on more than a literary level) of His crucifixion and descent into Hades (just as our own Baptism is seen by St. Paul as a Baptism into Christ’s “death and resurrection.”

Such possibilities of multiple means and revelations of greater meanings within the literal telling of the story suggests that the world itself is not to be comprehended entirely in its literal manifestation. Something more is at work, particularly in the workings of God. Some thoughts I have offered earlier on Fr. Andrew Louth’s thought seem appropriate to the occasion:

Andrew Louth, writing in his book, Discerning the Mystery, says:

If we look back to the Fathers, and the tradition, for inspiration as to the nature of theology, there is one thing we meet which must be paused over and discussed in some detail: and that is their use of allegory in interpreting the Scriptures. We can see already that for them it was not a superfluous, stylistic habit, something we can fairly easily lop off from the trunk of Patristic theology. Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition as the tacit dimension of the Christian life: allegory is a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures. Of course the question of allegory in the Fathers is complex (and often rendered unduly complicated by our own embarrassment about allegory): but whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.

I have quoted Louth at some length to make a point. His characterization of a search for a “deeper meaning” is a hallmark of Patristic thought about Scripture. They do not all call it “allegory,” indeed, it was and is called by many names (theoria, etc.). But all shared a common sense that there was something behind or beyond the text that confronted them.

I have written about this topic primarily under the heading of iconicity – a word I use to connote the referential character of not just the text we read, but the world we inhabit. The world as pure object, as a collection of self-contained and self-explaining things (of which people are but examples) is a world that is foreign to the perception of traditional Christianity. Though this is true, it is, nevertheless, the world-view that is increasingly offered to us in a secularized world. Others may afford us the luxury of believing that something has reference beyond itself, but only do so as a courtesy, a social bargain. We allow others to infer meaning (where secularly none exists) simply out of respect for their will. If you want the world to be referential, I will respect that, remembering, however, that this is only “true for you.”

The classical Christian claim is not the same thing as relativist courtesy. The text has a deeper meaning not because I infer it but because I discern it. The meaning is real and true. Indeed the classical Christian claim is that the truth of things (and not just texts) is to be found precisely in their referential character and in that to which they refer.

To know the personal God is to know God in the manner in which persons are known. The content of a person always has an infinite quality (and this is especially so of God). And that content always has a referential quality as well. Thus, to know Christ is also to know Him as Son, and hence the Son of the Father. “No one knows the Father but by me,” Christ says. For the person of the Father (as is indicated by the name revealed to us) is always referential to the Son (as the Son is to the Father).

And this must be said even of human persons. We never know each other exhaustively nor in the crass manner of modern objectivism. For each of us, fearfully and wonderfully made, is also infinitely referential. Thus knowledge of another is perhaps better described as relation or participation. It cannot mean comprehension.

The same is true of the text of Scripture. To read the text of Scripture without the constant and abiding sense that there is more here than I can see or understand is not to have read Scripture at all, or at least to have read it badly.

St. Antony the Great was once asked by a philosopher where were his books. He replied, “My book, O philosopher, is the world.” St. Paul also sees this aspect of creation: “For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20).

This capacity of creation, for much of the modern world, has become the opacity of creation. We can see no further than the thing itself. Modern man is in danger of losing his ability to read the references of everything about him. And with that loss comes the diminution of everything, including himself.

The world and all that is in it is given to us as icon – not because it has no value in itself – but because the value it has in itself is the gift of God – and this is seen in its iconicity.

At Theophany, the waters of the world are revealed to be both Hades and the gate of Paradise. In Christ’s journey within and through the Church, everything is revealed to be such a place. You are my entry into Paradise as clearly as you may also be my entry into Hades. Love alone reveals things for what they are, and transforms them into what they were always intended to be. It is the gift of God.

The Tree Heals the Tree

September 16, 2010

Readers of the New Testament are familiar with St. Paul’s description of Christ as the “Second Adam.” It is an example of the frequent Apostolic use of an allegoric reading of the Old Testament (I am using “allegory” in its broadest sense – including typology and other forms). Christ Himself had stated that He was the meaning of the Old Testament (John 5:39). Within the Gospels Christ identifies His own death and resurrection with the Prophet Jonah’s journey in the belly of the fish. He likens His crucifixion to the serpent raised on a staff by which Moses healed the people of Israel. Without the allegorical use of the Old Testament – much of the material in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament would be unintelligible.

Orthodox Christians are very accustomed to this manner of handling Scripture – the hymnography (largely written during the Patristic period) of the Church’s liturgical life is utterly dominated with such a use of allegory. The connections between New Testament and Old – between dogma and the allegory of Scriptural imagery is found in almost every verse offered within a service. Those who are not familiar with the Eastern liturgical life are unaware of this rich Christian heritage and of its deep doctrinal piety and significance.

In the feast of the Holy Cross, the hymnography at one point makes the statment, “The Tree heals the Tree.” It is one of the marvelous commentaries on the life of grace and its relationship to the human predicament. It refers to the relationship between the Cross of Christ and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The latter was the source of the fruit that Adam and Eve consumed that was the source of their fall from grace. The “Tree that heals” is none other than the Cross of Christ.

I am struck particularly by this treatment of Biblical imagery. The meditation does not say that the Cross destroys the tree whose fruit, along with our disobedience, brought the human tragedy. The Tree heals the Tree. In the same manner, the Kingdom of God does not destroy creation – it makes it whole.

There is a tendency within our lives to view failure and disasters (whether self-inflicted or otherwise) as deep tragedies that derail our lives and the world around us. Our heart becomes confused when the thought of “if only” takes up residence. But the Tree heals the Tree. In God, nothing is wasted.

It is the spiritual habit of the Church’s liturgical life to see the story of Christ in everything. Every story involving wood or a tree seems to find its way into the hymnography of the Cross. The same is true for many other images. I believe this way of reading Scripture is also a key to the Christian life. Our hearts are such that they generally do not see the Kingdom of God – we see only the tree and our disobedience. But Christ Himself became sin that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). He took our life upon Himself that He might bestow His own life upon us. Thus Christ has entered all things that He might make all things new. Nothing is wasted.

The Allegory of All Things

January 11, 2010

Andrew Louth, writing in his book, Discerning the Mystery, says:

If we look back to the Fathers, and the tradition, for inspiration as to the nature of theology, there is one thing we meet which must be paused over and discussed in some detail: and that is their use of allegory in interpreting the Scriptures. We can see already that for them it was not a superfluous, stylistic habit, something we can fairly easily lop off from the trunk of Patristic theology. Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition as the tacit dimension of the Christian life: allegory is a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures. Of course the question of allegory in the Fathers is complex (and often rendered unduly complicated by our own embarrassment about allegory): but whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.

I have quoted Louth at some length to make a point. His characterization of a search for a “deeper meaning” is a hallmark of Patristic thought about Scripture. They do not all call it “allegory,” indeed, it was and is called by many names (theoria, etc.). But all shared a common sense that there was something behind or beyond the text that confronted them.

I have written about this topic primarily under the heading of iconicity – a word I use to connote the referential character of not just the text we read, but the world we inhabit. The world as pure object, as a collection of self-contained and self-explaining things (of which people are but examples) is a world that is foreign to the perception of traditional Christianity. Though this is true, it is, nevertheless, the world-view that is increasingly offered to us in a secularized world. Others may afford us the luxury of believing that something has reference beyond itself, but only do so as a courtesy, a social bargain. We allow others to infer meaning (where secularly none exists) simply out of respect for their will. If you want the world to be referential, I will respect that, remembering, however, that this is only “true for you.”

The classical Christian claim is not the same thing as relativist courtesy. The text has a deeper meaning not because I infer it but because I discern it. The meaning is real and true. Indeed the classical Christian claim is that the truth of things (and not just texts) is to be found precisely in their referential character and in that to which they refer.

To know the personal God is to know God in the manner in which persons are known. The content of a person always has an infinite quality (and this is especially so of God). And that content always has a referential quality as well. Thus, to know Christ is also to know Him as Son, and hence the Son of the Father. “No one knows the Father but by me,” Christ says. For the person of the Father (as is indicated by the name revealed to us) is always referential to the Son (as the Son is to the Father).

And this must be said even of human persons. We never know each other exhaustively nor in the crass manner of modern objectivism. For each of us, fearfully and wonderfully made, is also infinitely referential. Thus knowledge of another is perhaps better described as relation or participation. It cannot mean comprehension.

The same is true of the text of Scripture. To read the text of Scripture without the constant and abiding sense that there is more here than I can see or understand is not to have read Scripture at all, or at least to have read it badly.

St. Antony the Great was once asked by a philosopher where were his books. He replied, “My book, O philosopher, is the world.” St. Paul also sees this aspect of creation: “For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20).

This capacity of creation, for much of the modern world, has become the opacity of creation. We can see no further than the thing itself. Modern man is in danger of losing his ability to read the references of everything about him. And with that loss comes the diminution of everything, including himself.

The world and all that is in it is given to us as icon – not because it has no value in itself – but because the value it has in itself is the gift of God – and this is seen in its iconicity.

At Theophany, the waters of the world are revealed to be both Hades and the gate of Paradise. In Christ’s journey within and through the Church, everything is revealed to be such a place. You are my entry into Paradise as clearly as you may also be my entry into Hades. Love alone reveals things for what they are, and transforms them into what they were always intended to be. It is the gift of God.