The faith is a demanding thing, and the way may well be impossible.
You are a creature, in the flesh, and subject to the stresses and demands of physical survival. You can no more extract yourself from the natural world than you can leap off the Earth and land on the Moon.
We will ever be at odds with the world, and if we are not, that shall be a warning to us. As it is, the more one is faithful, the more he will be hated.
The darkness is always closing in.
The world then, with its powerful and mighty, its famed and fortunate, has an appeal the faithful can never capture. There is enmity and it cannot be bridged. The advantage, so long as we are in the world, belongs to the worldly.
So you may find yourself beaten down. In a world upside-down – as it will ever be – your virtue is a drag on your success, your kindness is weakness, your modesty is a limit beyond which your competitors race to defeat you.
You may come to think that, despite the echoes of your dreams, dreams from a far-off place, you are destined to a middling life. Gray and sluggish, commoditized, leaving no impression by which you will ever be remembered.
But you’ve got it all wrong; You have swallowed the lie.
I am your brother, listen to me: You have closed yourself off from God.
God – does not – permit mediocrity. He will spit you out, and perhaps He has.
Here is how you will find the moment of expectoration: When did you last avoid a good action because of fear? It is that simple – in your family, in your business, in your spiritual life, when you have found something good to be too much, or too dreadful, you assumed the temperature of the room. You were no longer pleasing to the taste, giving satisfaction to the thirst.
The lie is that, as a child of God, you are bound to defeat. No need to begin fighting, it will all end in flames and ashes.
The enemy is no fool. He knows that if he can demoralize you before you’ve begun to fight back, he’s already won.
The game is rigged against you, he says. He holds all the cards. Go ahead, make a run at it – see how easily you are slapped down? And what are you resisting sin for, after all? If it is all for God and the ultimate victory, why does God not win right now? Why does He make it all but impossible for you to succeed?
Now, do you see how you have been poisoned and duped? Do you see how the world has trampled upon your God-given dignity, and has stifled the mighty works God meant to work through you? It is time to go in, whips in hand, and throw the tables over.
The truth is, you have not trusted God enough. You have accepted, from fear or disappointment, that He will not come through for you.
Perhaps you are inadequate (you are). Perhaps you are imperfect (doubtless). Yes, you have failed, and you have shamed yourself, and you have given every earthly reason to any worldly power that you are not up to the task.
Do you see the lie? You will see it when you hear the truth: You do not answer to a worldly power. You answer to the Almighty.
Therefore! It does not matter if you have failed by worldly measures, over and over again. It does not matter if you have showed yourself inadequate for the task, lacking in perseverance, intelligence, skill.
Fool! IT. IS. NOT. ABOUT. YOU.
Do you wonder why Adam and Eve ate of the apple? First, clean your lips of that bitter sweetness… you have sunk your teeth into the lie and devoured it whole.
Let’s put it starkly, written in a flame against the blackness of night: The Devil has isolated you from God, and proceeded to devour you. This is why you are demoralized, beaten down, perpetually inadequate, in motion and going nowhere.
The Devil is virtually a god and has convinced you that you must face him under your own power. Every failure, every weak moment, every grasp at evil is one more victory for him, and one more defeat for you. And you have no hope of overcoming him…
But of course he has lied to you. He rigged the game, he set you up for destruction. Now, you know better.
You, as always, must call on the Almighty. You must call on Him with all of the desperation of a drowning man, because truly you cannot defeat the waves. You must call on him as though the enemy came fully armed, has you surrounded, and is counting down to your annihilation. Because you cannot defeat death.
But He can.
And there it is, my brother, my sister. Look to Him, always. Pray to Him, at every moment, for every good thing – especially in your need.
Then, simply hold on. Work and strive and fight with everything you have, reinforced by the power of God. One day you will barely be able to stand, and the next you will be lifting mountains. First, you will strain to walk, then you will race with all speed to the ends of the earth.
Many will doubt, and then you will succeed beyond all of their expectations.
Many will forecast doom, and you will deliver victory.
It is difficult to capture the miracle of the Resurrection.
On the one hand, we all experience it every day, arising from our sleep. On the other, none but a small child believes he goes to sleep for the last time when he lays down his head. (Is it a terror of existential darkness that causes young children to avoid bedtime?)
The finality of death is a cleft in the mind, the pit into which all fall and none recover. What one makes of this creates a divide, while there is no division about waking up each morning.
What happens after we die? Many guesses.
Whether death is an end, whether it just is the observed failure of the body to persist, whether it is the excising of a very particular person and presence from the world in the way she was commonly known? Yes, no one argues this.
Put it this way: Say you believe a loved one lives on, and well he might. Now you observe him in little signs, a serendipitous word from a stranger, a rare species of flower where one does not ordinarily find it, an annoying thing he always did that comforts you now. Here is the test: Would you rather have these little signs for another 10 years, or one more day with him, in his fullness?
Death forces your hand, leaves you the scraps when you crave the feast. It is a savage compromise, but that is the Universe we are in.
So much for the true and severe loss of death.
Now Good Friday is the collapse, the utter devastation and lifeless plummet into the pit. It is the heavy-weight fight, the clash of Titans – Life vs. Death. And Life, as expected (though recklessly hoped against) staggers and falls from unimaginable height to unimaginable depth.
One loses his breath. Of course he does – he watches the Source of that breath, breathing His last. He goes under, lost, never to return.
Easter Sunday is the unfathomable resurgence, the great inhale, the impossible gasp. It is the cure of all depression, it is cause for an old man to leap to his feet and run like a child, it is fire and purpose to
accept, stare down, … praise God for a torturous death.
Or become child-like again. If the night brings terrors, what does the day bring? What irrepressible joy comes with the dawn of a new sun? What verve of anticipation passes through your bones just to think of Christmas morning? (And why Christmas morning, and no other?)
Run, and never grow weary.
Easter is our great Hero finding the bottom of a bottomless pit. It is saving the souls of the irredeemably lost.
It is slipping into darkness, clawing to stay awake, alive…the sheer terror of all joy, all love, all of everything being ripped away…
…and then you wake up, and there are no more tears, and all you know is love and joy and the thrill of existence.
See – It is death that is impossible. You will live.
I write this at peak Christmas.
Peak Christmas does not happen on Christmas Day – it happens the night before.
All of the preparation, the carols, the extra coins in the red bucket at the grocery store, the stories of good will toward perfect strangers, the re-focusing on just what Christmas is all about, the magic of the nighttime, the anxious awaiting of dawn…
It reaches a head just before bedtime on Christmas Eve. You could stride along, atop the sheer anticipation.
There are those universal moments – the story of a stranger pulling over to help someone stranded on the side of the road, or a famous person discreetly providing toys to poor children, or a church getting together to feed the homeless a hot meal – which elicit the lament, “Why can’t every day be like this?” Or you sometimes hear it declared, ambitiously – “Make every day Christmas day!”
It would be nice, wouldn’t it? A universal disposition toward concern for others, finding satisfaction in bringing joy to others, making impossible things happen – even the gaiety of spirit one experiences, alone, driving along a dark road with Christmas lights shining brightly.
Why can the people in darkness not see a great light, every night?
In the classic carol, “Little Drummer Boy,” there are two lines which go:
Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
This verse presents the Incarnation in a striking way. A boy who is weathered by the elements, who knows hunger, who is always only days away from wasting away – this boy empathizes with the King of Kings, because the King has so completely relinquished His power.
He has arrived utterly powerless, utterly impoverished, an infant lying among beasts. Of course a shepherd boy could relate.
What’s more, a few lines later – “Then He smiled at me.”
This can be our Lord’s simple pleasure at a shepherd boy’s humble song. Then again, if you hold in mind the shared poverty, something else emerges: It is a blessing.
The baby to the boy: Your humble station, your poverty, are not the shackles you think they are. You are here before the Almighty, aren’t you? Did you not see the heavens open up, and angels arrayed like a mighty army, singing my praises? And with Me, what will be impossible for you?
Of course, on the one hand, we cannot have our own birthdays every day. Even if you tried to celebrate every day this way, it would – very quickly – exhaust your body’s ability to feel pleasure and your mind’s ability to call it happiness.
So that is the first answer: Celebrations stand out from ordinary time, and require the experience of ordinary time in order to create the contrast, the novelty, the superlative atmosphere for which they are known.
See it another way – our ordinary experience in the modern world is Christmas-like for those from another place or time. That the ordinary is no longer special is not only tautological, but part of the human condition.
The second answer rides aloft upon the first: We are not home yet.
The Incarnation was a rescue mission, an invasion by God Himself to save His children when nothing else would work.
That He arrived as a baby was a profound stratagem, one that brought Him deftly behind enemy lines. He evaded the princes and principalities, and He softened the guard each of us keeps on our hearts.
That the Almighty became frighteningly vulnerable; that the all-knowing became ignorant of His own name; that He who is Holy, Holy, Holy was tempted to sin…
All of this was done, to save you.
Nothing could be more extraordinary. “Christmas every day” could never capture it, and it is undesirable in any case – because it would be a fraud.
What Christmas gives us is a flickering light through a dark glass. It is nostalgic, like the memory of a long-deceased father who loved us very much. It is one frame per second of the memory we wish could play over and over again.
It is, in short, a reminder of our true home. Not even Christmas – not the best, most magnanimous, most inclusive, most abundant moment of Christmas – can truly accomplish what is longed for when we ask for Christmas every day.
That is achieved when God remakes the heavens and the earth – this world, the darkness, will pass away.
Everything else is a paltry imitation, and even the holy day itself merely points to this. You will know it is really Christmas when you hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
The Pharisees made an art and a science out of observing the Law of Moses, cowing many followers into observing the endless minutiae and machinations they had devised. It was indeed a heavy burden – was God really like this?
Or should the commandments of God liberate us from sin, and cut a path to His love and mercy?
Along comes Jesus, who earlier permitted his disciples to pick grain to eat on the Sabbath, and now was healing on the Sabbath. How could he explain this over and above the endless strictures concerning the day of rest? -which strictures certainly appeared to take the command “Keep holy the Sabbath” as seriously as possible.
Jesus’ justification is two-fold: First, a man is more valuable than a sheep (and the Pharisees would certainly rescue their own sheep from harm on the Sabbath).
Second – of course it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. The whole point – of all God’s commands – is that we ought to do good. But we sin, so we require God’s mercy and guidance to do good rather than to sin. The commandment regarding the Sabbath was directed toward being holy – not toward following a rule.
The commandments are not for nothing. They are the pattern of behavior, the focus and discipline of a man’s spirit toward the will of God. If you follow them because you love God, you will do well!
If you follow them because you love power and influence, because you leverage them so that men will grovel at your feet or struggle to be conformed to your image, now that you have sufficiently misshapen the Law…
Right then, it is time to turn back. Immediately. Turn around – you’ve gone far, far off the path.
But take heed… a viper would be found far off the path.
See it again, one more time: If there had been no Fall, there would be no Law. We would be inclined toward the Good, and thus “all things are permissible.”
As it is, there was a Fall – and therefore we are profoundly broken. We see good, and perceive that it is evil. We see evil and imagine it is good. It is an honest mistake, or it would be a diabolical one.
To counter-act this, God established rules-laws-patterns of behavior that would settle all disputes within the will (and the community). My fallen nature urges me toward an illicit act. But it is powerful and feels genuine – why not act on it?
There might not be any reason to avoid doing so, except the Law. Of course, even that was violated, but at least we could then recognize we had sinned, and were in need of a Savior…
Therefore, the Law was good – profoundly good, so that not one iota would be altered until heaven and earth disappear.
And it was this profound good that the Pharisees had appropriated for their own gain. The promise of God, that one would find true peace and prosperity and joy in following the commandments (“Lord, I love your commands!”), became a long chain of shackles hammered together by men too small to let their brothers live free. It became an admixture of their neuroses and scruples, their leverage from a distance of a great weight upon their brothers.
This weight they attempted to foist upon and trap Jesus, the Messiah. As if to anticipate the old atheist riddle, they burdened the Son of God with a weight they imagined he could not handle.
Notice, though: There is a rock so big that God cannot lift it. That is, of despair. And with so many laws, and laws upon laws, and consequences of laws that must be addressed by still more laws, one could easily find, say, lepers and paralytics and tax collectors laden with such an impossible weight.
For love of them – the lost – Jesus flares up with indignation. His Law – an instrument of liberation – bent back upon itself and sharpened into an instrument of condemnation.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”
No – the purpose and the end are God. They always were. It was always – dimly – the Beatific Vision, the “well done, good and faithful servant!” The Fall was a happy fault, because God would not, even then, abandon us. He would find a still more incredible way to point us back to Him, and deliver us.
And we might say – He’ll be damned if His own rules are going to be used against Him. How true.
Another great example of a natural metaphor to explain a supernatural phenomenon is evidenced by the manifold answers to the following question:
What, exactly, did Jesus accomplish on the Cross?
It is cast as ransom for a prisoner, as redemption of a slave, as rescue from behind enemy lines, as a jailbreak from the gates of Hell, as vicarious suffering of a punishment, as repayment of a debt, as a lamb being led to slaughter, as a new Passover (itself somewhere between physical/historical and spiritual)…and this is just off the top of one’s head.
What is interesting is that one is often taught that no single metaphor captures it. In fact, some are downright scornful for some scholars, except that they appear in Scripture, and so must be addressed. The redemption of a slave received this treatment recently.
I am personally of the view that we should not be so quick to judge Scripture, and that whatever the case may be just is the case. If God Himself would tell us to imagine we were slaves (to sin) and that He came to redeem us for a price (His suffering and death), what exactly is my objection? That He did not order the Universe properly so as to avoid a slave analogy? That He did, in fact, redeem me? Nonsense.
Anyway, this great spiritual reality strains all analogies, which is a lesson that the spiritual realm is truly a different realm. Just as new formulas and rules govern 2D geometry and 3D geometry (and beyond), so are there new rules in the spiritual which we can hardly begin to imagine by way of the physical.
One of the more acute ways of demonstrating this point follows: Imagine you are speaking to a man who has been blind since birth. How would you describe a beautifully cut, flawless diamond?
You could approach it – perhaps some exquisite smell, like a rose, with an almost geometric perfection – or perhaps by means of heat and texture, as well as construction that might be conveyed by touch. You see the point, though.
In no way have you shown this man the diamond. And we left you the benefit of four senses.
Likewise, in no way do we really understand what Jesus accomplished by His Passion and death. Yet even a child can understand it was marvelous, miraculous work, and precious to possess.
Nota bene: Naturally, these metaphors do not refer to purely physical phenomena. The social construct of slavery, for example, does not appear to have any parallel in the animal kingdom, and relies on abstractions such as dignity (or lack thereof) and power. The spiritual analog is, therefore, a next-level abstraction.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
– John 1:1-2, 4-5
Supposing you had a real but indescribable experience – how do you go about sharing it with a friend or confidant?
Consider an epiphany you’ve had. There was some problem, some riddle of existence which you could not answer. Perhaps for days, perhaps for years, you sought the answer and could not find it. (We are already speaking in metaphor, but hang with me).
And then, quite unexpectedly, you had it. The answer.
Now the physical phenomenon of an epiphany might be described as a new neuro-pathway, the literal (physical) firing of synapses across particular neurons in a particular order which rendered the new thought to your consciousness (whatever that is).
For one thing, this is a quite dull and tedious way of telling the story of your epiphany, but let it pass.
For a second thing, it is anything but clear that thought is, our could be, a purely physical phenomenon. Never mind this, too.
The salient point is that the truth discovered, the object of the epiphany, the objectiveness of the truth, is non-material. Insomuch as we engage with it, then, we are operating in the abstract/spiritual realm.
So when you say something like, “And then I saw it…” or “That’s when the light bulb came on…” – which functionally mean the same thing – you are pulling an abstract experience through the filter of a physical experience.
Or, you are reaching up to understand the abstract by means of the physical, which is the thesis here.
Now what if (literally) God came to Earth and became (literally) man, and dwelt among us? What if this God-man taught and demonstrated a doctrine which corrected our moral and intellectual (spiritual) deviancies, healed and exalted our wounded bodies (literally) so that we might transcend them to a greater reality? How would you describe this experience?
You might call Him the Light of the world. You might describe Him as irresistible, unassailable, like a light in darkness – in no way can the darkness overcome the light. Just so, in no way could evil overcome Him or His mission.*
And if you’ll accept the Gospel and believe in Him, that same invincibility – on the spiritual level – is conferred upon you.
*Arguably, even mission is a metaphor.
We have laid out three ways of knowing the spiritual realm, which is further proposed as the true realm. The physical realm is but an echo.
The difficulty remains that – ordinarily – we know the physical realm with a higher degree of confidence than the spiritual. It feels more real because it is more obvious and less deniable.
There is a reason, after all, that apostates are made by imprisonment and torture.
So if there are three ways of knowing the spiritual, which are nevertheless nebulous to the populace; and if we have a systematic and reliable way of learning about the physical; what could ground us more firmly in true knowledge of the spiritual?
Here is my thesis: The spiritual realm is the source of the physical. It is often analogous to, but not an exact emanation of, the spiritual.
In some ways this sounds like Plato. I said before – honestly – that I don’t know whether the world of Forms is real. Nevertheless, we are not saying that there are forms, per se. We are saying that, if one imagines that forms exist, it gives us a useful way of learning about the spiritual from our experience of the physical.
Indeed, suggesting that humans have a spiritual sense captures what we’re about here – that one’s physical senses are analogous to one’s spiritual sense.
But what if your spiritual sense is dull, or inoperative? Or what if you simply don’t trust it?
What if you think Plato is interesting, but he’s mostly talking ho-bunk?
If, still, you wish to learn something about the spiritual realm, I suggest you can learn it by a careful study of the physical realm. We’ll take some examples next time.
There is a reason, after all, that saints are made by imprisonment and torture.
We have established that humanity, over and above the emus, has an innate sense of the spiritual realm, and this is demonstrated by the persistence of religion in human life, among other things. Against the naturalist, we see the impossibility that human life could have been purely physical, because of the ease with which humans engage in abstractions.
In other words, a single kiss from my daughter is the kiss of death for Naturalism. Requiescat in pace.
This frees us to advance: What do we know about the spiritual realm, anyway? What can we know?
Our difficulty is that the physical realm seems so…well, obvious, immediate.* When we want to say something about the physical realm – the sun is shining, the tree is blooming – these things are generally provable by observation. Humans broadly agree about the facts right in front of them, in this sense – we don’t argue with the weatherman about whether it’s raining, nor the traffic reporter, for that matter, who sees down the road and looks upon other roads.
The spiritual realm is not verifiable in the same way. It is not engaged with by means of the physical senses…though, it can be indirectly verified that way. Let us return to that another time.
For now, the grievance of the naturalist is more important than his arguments: If beliefs aren’t scientifically verifiable, then anyone can believe anything they like! How can this rise to the level of knowledge?
That’s true. That’s a good point.
One argument, which we have alluded to already, is that humans have a spiritual sense. It “looks” upon the world and detects certain abstractions, like good and evil, beauty, even truth. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga says we have a “sense of the divine” which justifies our belief in God.
For another argument, we derive from Plato the world of “forms,” which are abstract and ideal molds from which the physical instances are derived. Is there an ideal form of a chair? I don’t know, but there is something remarkable about the ability to make a chair without explicit instructions, as though the idea exists as a universally accessible concrete entity.
Let’s take a third. That is, the natural order appears to be governed by laws, which laws have no physical properties. These laws are often expressed by mathematics, which is the highest point of agreement between the naturalist and the supernaturalist – math works, is practically the most reliable form of knowing that there is.
Whereas the naturalist may agree that mathematics is the language of the Universe, the supernaturalist goes further and says that information does not simply occur, but is articulated by someone or something. Math is preceded by Logos, which gives the Universe structure and predictability and knowability.
And so, we can have knowledge of the spiritual realm by direct experience of it (the spiritual sense), by abstraction from the physical structures to a spiritual ideal, and by observing that the physical realm operates according to non-physical laws, which laws must have their own reality.
Any of these, arguably, is more reliable that the physical world itself as a deliverer of truth. You will find people who claim to have seen the spirit world in a vision or a near death experience. You will find others who hold to the Platonic view of the world. And still others construct reality on a foundation of abstractions – arguably, all of modern science, for a start – and build a monument of knowledge thereupon.
*Who stops to wonder – is this by design?
A basic biological creature – an emu, perhaps – only deals in the physical. Life is all hatching and growing and foraging and mating and running and dying. Often it’s not quite that good.
By the naturalist’s account, this ought to be everything for humanity, and we may as well enjoy it while it lasts.
It would be everything, except for that pesky “brain virus” that clings to religion, that continues to believe old fairy tales against all experience and evidence…or so they would have you believe.
I don’t notice the godless being all that critical about paganism. They will tell you this is because the pagans do not trouble them, but they are ignorant of history and human nature besides.
It is more a case of making allies with a common enemy. If modern religion disappeared, Paganism would immediately gain from it. We know this by looking back before Christianity emerged, and noting that human nature has not changed.
But Paganism is the bellwether of Naturalism’s demise – its miscarriage, really. If Naturalism could not dam up religion from the earliest days, it never had a chance.*
Why is this significant? The question is the answer.
That is, significance is the first handhold out of the physical realm. If physical objects can be imbued with meaning beyond their physical utility, then we are also engaging in a realm beyond physical activity.
Think of a flower, for instance. It has physical utility, a place in the natural order.
Now think of giving a flower. One is not offering the flower in order to pollinate another flower, or for ingestion, or for composting or anything else. Instead, the giver and the receiver both perceive an abstract (roughly, a spiritual) significance to the flower and the act of giving the flower.
This is what the naturalist could not prevent from happening, never could prevent from happening.
*The usual line is that humanity has sufficiently advanced, or will inevitably advance, such that religion will be seen for the fraud it is. They believe we will see Christianity like we now see Roman paganism.
As a matter of fact, the sword has another edge – if the Stoics and the Enlightenment could not free the world from the grip of religion, it is doubtful that anything else could. Rather, one religion comes to dominate another at any given point in time.
What one must immediately see is that the spiritual and the physical are completely different. And we have always seen this.
They are parallel lines, running together but never crossing. If we were mere physical creatures – like the lower animals – a “spiritual realm” would never occur to us. Even among men, we are dismayed at those who are singularly focused on the physical – a woman obsessed with her looks, a man with his riches.
Just so, the spiritually obsessed are often mocked, detached as they are from the most basic and necessary elements of living on a physical planet. The ditz, the new age believer – we instinctively understand that they enjoy a disposition supported by those who daily reckon with the elemental – dirt and steel and sweat and disappointment.
But the spiritual is more real, the foundation of the physical. God spoke the Universe into existence, and not the other way around.
So, why not detach from the physical? Why not all be esoterics?
Surely you’ve thought of that. And what came of it?
You’re here, reading today – surely you’ve thought of forsaking the world completely, praying all night, perhaps, as Jesus did, or else fostering such piety that you might levitate while in an ecstatic vision of the Almighty. Are you familiar with the Stigmata?
And you did not wonder, at least for a moment, what that would be like?
That, my friend, is exactly what forsaking the physical looks like. It looks like holes through your hands and blood and water flowing from your side. It is a coronation with thorns, because they are no better or worse than gold.
“My kingdom is not of this world.” No joke, that.
My friends, it is dreadfully painful to forsake the world, because you just are a physical being. Your very being responds to the environment, to the stimuli impressed upon you. There is the objective quality about it, that if you are shot through the heart, you will suffer and die, no matter what you believe or how you live.
Yet, some do forsake the world. Not absolutely, but – shall we say? – in spirit.
Now, how are we to resolve this paradox? We exist as physical and spiritual beings, and while the spiritual is more fundamental, we can be destroyed by physical means. The two do not intersect, and yet we cannot ignore either of them.
How do parallel lines cross and remain parallel?
They do so, if you view them from a third angle, another dimension.