an experiment in blogging as intellectual discipline and spiritual practice

Month: March, 2015

on incorruptibility

i’ve been doing some thinking lately on the miracle of incorruptibility. from ancient times, many christians have believed that God will, at times, intervene in the natural processes of decomposition to preserve the body of a saint, according to the words of the psalmist, “thou wilt not suffer thy holy one to see corruption” (ps 16:10)

the doctrine has basically evaporated from protestant teachings — indeed, it tends to seem rather macabre to more refined and modern religious sensibilities. and while belief in incorruptibility persists within romanist and orthodox contexts, it does so mostly as a folk belief — for academic theology, it is often something of an embarrassment. yet despite all the theological modesty pushing in the opposite direction, it is an immensely powerful tradition with deep roots and ongoing influence, and i think very much worth reintroduction into properly “theological” conversation — particularly given what i am working on in terms of reconceptualizing the nature of the miraculous.

of course, there are some problems with the miracle of incorruptibility that are immediately apparent — to wit —

  • why should God intervene on behalf of some saints, and not others? how is this determination made?
  • how do we account for the phenomenon of incorruptibility as it occurs in holy men of other religions? — indeed, i observed in greece the belief that incorruptibility can just as well be a curse as a sign of blessing! how do we know if it is one, rather than the other?
  • as with cognate phenomenon, such as relics, what about the possibility of deceit and forgery? in particular, what about the case of a saint that is intentionally mummified and his cult promoted for less than holy purposes?

to these, we may add the objection raised by Brian Dunning over at skeptoid: if incorruptibility were truly miraculous, wouldn’t we expect the incorruptibles to be more — well — incorrupt?

Mummification is the natural, expected process that happens to a body under the right conditions. There’s nothing miraculous about a natural, expected process. I suppose some people claim that in some of these cases, decomposition should have taken place instead of mummification, and thus the miracle. So, what; leaving a few strands of beef jerky stretched over the bones is the best that the miracle-creating superbeing was able to muster? I’m not convinced, and a skeptical Catholic shouldn’t be either. Incorruptible should mean incorruptible. The corpse needs to be flexible and lifelike, as if asleep. We’ve never seen anything remotely like that. There are no verifiable, viewable examples of supernatural incorruptibility anywhere on the planet, and no reason to think there ever have been.

yet Dunning’s sarcastic comments are rooted in a common misunderstanding about the nature of the “supernatural.” there is no need for a miracle to work over and against or contrary to forces for which we can give a naturalistic account. it MAY do so, of course, but this is not — as i have argued — essential to the definition of a miracle. it is worth becoming fluent in this distinction in order that we may “give an answer” to skeptical killjoys like Dunning who rule out miracles a priori and then go about proclaiming the triumph of modern modes of explanation — which on the whole turn out to be rather boring ways of cloaking the mysteries. for my part, i much prefer the ancient impulse to celebrate them — and i defy the skeptics — if they wish to pry me and others like me from my “backwards” and “primitive” phronesis — to offer me a more compelling way to do so.

i have suggested that miracles be understood primarily as an event that definitively shapes an imaginal topography. i would submit, accordingly, that the preservation of the body of a saint is only one aspect of the miracle of incorruptibility, and while it might properly be held up as the most dramatically visible component of the miracle, it is not actually the most important one — as counterintuitive as this may seem.

let’s consider again the “natural” process which death typically involves — and by “natural” here, i mean the ordinary course of human events and experience, which extends beyond the process of decay/mummification and into the social body of those beings that die. the ordinary progression moves from death to the dissolution of the body to the fading of memory of that individual, to the disappearance of any living memory, to their ultimate final oblivion of being completely forgotten and leaving a world that is effectively without evidence of their ever having existed. i suppose that we could add some other gradations in there between the last two stages — for instance, many of us will persist in some form for a good long while by virtue of contributing our healthy genetic markers to the gene pool. in the right conditions, written information can be fairly durable, as can artifacts discoverable by archeology. so the time from our demise to the final extinction of ANY evidence of us WHATEVER could be quite long. these days, however, no one would argue for the eternity of the world. the creation is “subject to futility and decay,” and eventually even these last scraps of our existence shall also be destroyed; whether incinerated in some great conflagration or gobbled up by a black hole or frozen out of existence by the extinguishing of our sun and the “great freeze” of all of the material stuff of the universe drifting so far apart that nothing is left of the cosmos we know.

such, at least, is the natural order of things, in all its glorious grimness. there is no escaping mortality … except, of course, by the grace of God in Christ, who tramples down death by death, and raises together with him to the newness of life. in knowing Christ and adhering to his promises, we share in the power of his resurrection and in the fellowship of his sufferings — and this is well-worth pursuing by all means if we may in any way participate in the life-giving miracle of his defeat of death.

what happens in the incorruptibility of a saint is precisely the opposite of the normal course of death. their bodies do not return to the dust, as was promised by the curse spoken over them. they are not returned to the ground from which they were crafted, to lie hidden in obscurity till they are summoned forth by the voice of the Lord. instead, they are put on display; indeed, they are lavishly celebrated as an icon of the triumphant power of a God who is glorified in his saints. and rather than slipping into oblivion, with their memory fading, and their social impact gradually diminishing, they instead often continue to grow in notoriety and social influence through the expansion of their cult. if the visible preservation of their physical body is somewhat lackluster, the visible preservation (and indeed attenuation!) of their social body cannot fail to be impressive — and indeed, this social body supplies for the ongoing maintenance, beautification, and adornment of the physical body. in fact, the social body contributes to the extension of the physical body through the replication of images and icons of the saint. over time, the saint can become an even more potent conduit to the numinous after her decease than when she was alive!

incorruptability is a type of participation in the resurrection power of Christ that testifies to that power. it remains, however, categorically different than that power, and also than the power that we anticipate will be released at the general resurrection, when “what is sown in corruption will be raised in incorruption.” this accounts for the apparent imperfections of incorruptibility – viz., the fact that the body’s state of perfection is less than absolute and perfect, and also that the preservation itself is not absolutely durable (ie, the relics can be destroyed by theft or vandalism, or the cult of the particular saint can dwindle away and the body discarded as the cult disappears.) indeed, in the “long view,” incorruptibility staves off the dissolution and oblivion of death only for a time. but i am not disturbed to think that even angels and saints may be mortal and looking forward with us to the fuller immortality that shall come when the last enemy, death, is defeated. but i would speculate their “death” occurs only from our perspective as they slip into oblivion, out of our ability to remember or even imagine them. they may indeed be ascending to higher ranks of more pure and perfect praise, hidden even more entirely from our view, awaiting the consummation of all things, where the transformation that will occur by the direction of the divine power is unspeakable and unimaginable.

as a mode of participation in the divine energies, incorruptibility is rooted in christianity’s profound (even at timesgrotesque!) affirmation of the body, an affirmation that has its origins and pinnacle in the doctrine of the Incarnation. although God is confessed to be pure Spirit, impassable and outside of all human affairs, utterly outside of our comprehension and even outside of “being” as we know and understand it, the only true “supernature” — nevertheless, in Christ he has humbled himself, and descending through the ranks of angels, he has come among us and taken on a body, the Power of the universe submitting himself to the powers of this world, and yet unable to be held down either by these powers or the weight of materiality. accordingly, we affirm that the uncreated divine energies, which are eternally focused and ordered and consummated in Christ and transmitted through the holy angels, continue to be active and manifest through the material: since our Lord became matter for the redemption of matter.

because of the Incarnation, human bodies — and those of men and women who are especially united in love to their Lord — are capable of serving as signs and as conduits of the divine energies – whether they are alive or dead. in fact, death makes the body all the more transparent to these energies, as (a) there is less of a danger of confusing the divine energies with the powers immanent to the individual through whom they are flowing and (b) the personal life of that individual, now more perfectly “hidden with God in Christ,” shares a particular nearness to God through her complete freedom from the cares of the body and of this world, and by this freedom, she able to stand perpetually in worship before God and intercession for the world as she awaits the final consummation of all things.

to answer the initial difficulties we posed with incorruptability, then: first, since the primary purpose of incorruptibility is to testify to the power of the resurrection, it is not strictly necessary for there to be a great number of incorruptable saints — we need only to have an effective signification. as to why some saints are chosen and not others, this is a mystery of the divine dispensation analogous to other such mysteries: God appoints some as as apostles, some as teachers, some as prophets, etc., each to serve the purpose that he appoints within the Body. this is also reflected in the fact that within the Church there are multiple mechanisms that can convey a meaning and power that is similar to incorruptability — for instance, relics, shrines and icons can serve a very similar purpose — even when these have very little connection to the saints personal physicality (although some kind of mechanism is often needed to bridge that gap.)

second, the existence of “incorruptables” outside of the Church or among the cursed does not invalidate the miracle — it in fact confirms the existence of the “natural” mechanisms through which that power is communicated. indeed, there is no reason to denigrate these instances as something other then “miracles,” since our definition of shaping an imaginal topography applies equally. there is no question, however, that outside of the Church these miracles are attesting to an alternate imaginal landscape. as such, in the process of christianization, these the authority and influence of these incorruptables would need to be outflanked or otherwise reinterpreted.

as to the question of forgery, finally, we have already dealt with this to a certain extent above in noting that it is possible for the meanings and power of incorruptability to be conveyed with out there being “actual” corruptability. presumably, this would mean that it is possible for a forgery to possess this power — in the instance, for example, of a local holy man being deliberately mummified on the sly and passed of as incorruptable. in this case, the power would seem to flow more through the faith of those who believe in the miracle with sincerity, rather than the inherent power of the relic itself. the initial act of deception, however, would be unbecoming to the holiness of the desired end, and could be immensely destructive should the deceit be discovered, causing the cultus to unravel and many “little ones to stumble.” it is by far the best, then, to regard with humble piety the miracles that God has given us, rather than to try to artificially promote or manufacture our own.

this also makes some inroads into what i’m sure would be the skeptic’s next objection – that the incorruptible saint and his cultus (rendered in this way) are not “miracles” so much as they are “natural” sociological processes. but the existence of an anthropological or sociological account of the cult of a saint need not invalidate its miraculous character. indeed, as much as we might understand the processes that form these patterns of practice and piety, i would defy any “expert” in such phenomenon to engineer one.

the miracle is thus, in my view, satisfactorily interpreted — and indeed, it becomes even more wondrous for its color and complexity, for finding how it interweaves into everything from cosmology to sociology. and given such a robust expression, it does not need to be despised by secular people as an impediment to continued to participation in the systems that produce “real” knowledge (ie science) or “real” power (ie politics).

this does not, of course, “prove” the miracle to the unbeliever. the unbeliever will continue to unbelieve, for although it is not necessary for a miracle to be verifiably “supernatural” in order to be a miracle, it is necessary for that miracle to accepted as a matter of faith, and understood in the light of the economy of salvation worked out in the world by God’s initiative, not our own.

angels and the Divine Energies: preliminary thoughts

a friend of mine pointed out in a conversation the other day that my musings on the “imaginal” bear an important resonance with the palamite controversy and the emergence in the orthodox tradition a substantial distinction between God’s essence and his energies. i suppose this is an example of how study that is too focused can cause one to miss out on some of these more obvious connections. it has been a while since i have worked with palamism specifically; i’ll have go back to the sources and reconsider them from the point of view of the angels and of the imagination.

the first question and most urgent that comes to mind for me when the connection is made, however, is what is the relationship between the angels and the divine energies? the two concepts share a substantial portion of their properties and place in a theological system. both are unseen, yet not unobserved realities, acting by an external volition by received through capacitated interpretation. both are ordered to the end of enabling participation in God, while at the same time assuring his ultimate transcendence. it is through the ministrations of both that the soul is purified and illumined and makes its ascent to God, yet it is not knowledge of the angels or the energies themselves which are the purification or the illumination: they are simply the means through which that purification and that illumination occurs. both have to be finely and carefully distinguished from the Incarnation, which must always remain the center and fulcrum of divine-human mediation, not being subtly or deceitfully displaced by elaborate pseudo-christian spiritual-philosophical systems, for “there is one God, and one mediator between God and man — the man Jesus Christ.”

but yet, if the angels and the energies are taken as merely metaphorical maps of methexis, then the concept of one should be able to be mapped perfectly onto the notion of the other, and vice versa. yet this is clearly not the case. angels are personal beings, while energies are personal effects. angels are created, while the energies are uncreated, flowing rather from the essence of the divinity. angels (even if we consider them entirely immaterial, which — in spite of the weight of the tradition — i don’t necessarily think we ought to) bear some intrinsic relationship to matter — they are “messengers,” after all, communicating to the world of bodies the will of the bodiless God. the energies do not have this kind of necessary relationship to matter, and can rather manifest spontaneously in either the noumenal or phenomenal according to the will of God, whose purposes remain perfectly hidden from us in a mystery.

we might hypothesize that the angels are the medium through which the uncreated energies are transmitted. in the course of “filtering” this transmission, the angels contribute to its character out of their own personal created energies. this is what gives each experience of the divine its own particular comprehensible character, for if the divine energies were to act immediately upon the intellectually perceptive faculties of the soul (viz., the imagination), they would be a perfect image of the inscrutable divine essence, and so incomprehensible. the particular chain of angelic transmission is what gives a particular revelation of God its intelligible form and content. an analogy might be made with stained glass, as we consider God as the sun, the energies of God as the sunlight, and the angels as the particular composition and pattern into which the glass is arranged. the aesthetic experience is affected by the whole process of light shining through the glass to the eye. the analogy breaks down, however, as the content of revelation is more dynamic than light, and indeed, the angels are more dynamic than a pattern of glass.

accordingly, if the energies of God might be seen as “impersonal” forces relative to his personal essence, this is never strictly the case, as angels stand between as personal intermediaries to the personal subject to whom the energies are communicated.

Origen’s ecclesiology and the “heresy” of heresy

When [Christianity was] beginning, they were few and were of one mind; but since they have spread to become a multitude, they are divided and rent asunder, and each wants to have his own party. For they wanted this from the beginning… they are divided again by becoming too numerousand condemn one another; they only have one thing still in common, so to speak, if indeed they have thatthe name [of Christian]. And, in spite of all this, this alone are they ashamed to desert; in other respects, they are at sixes and seven

thus charges the pagan Celsus in his extended critique of christianity, The True Doctrine, written sometime in the 2nd c. the work is no longer extant, unfortunately, but we have fragments preserved in Origen’s reply, Contra Celsum, which he wrote around 100 years later. this specific quotation is from Book III, Chapter 10 and 12.

it is not surprising that Celsus would use the divisions within christianity as one of the marks against it. this is a perennial challenge, rightly perceived as a scandolon and felt within the Church as a painful and uncomfortable reality, particularly given Christ’s manifest will that “they would be one” (Jn 17).

the way that Origen answers this charge, however, is rather surprising. his first move is to argue that christians have had important differences of opinion from the beginning, and he points to a number of nt disputes to make his case (divisions between jewish and gentile communities in acts, divisions within the corinthian community, and the errors within the churches that Paul corrects in his epistles). these examples “show that from the beginning there were certain varieties of interpretation, although there were not yet, as Celsus thinks, many who believed.” so much for some lost golden age of christian unity! Origen in the 3rd c. — before any of the divisions emerged that we recognize as enduring to this day — recognized that there was no such thing — on the basis not only of his own experience, but of the of the the nt.

so how does Origen recommend that we interpret christian division? “any teaching which has had a serious origin, and
is beneficial to life,” he suggests, “has caused different sects.” accordingly, divisions among believers serve to corroborate the Scriptures and preaching of the Gospel as true and useful knowledge, rather than undermine it. no one would bother to make a counterfeit of something that was worthless, or try to integrate the power of a powerless belief into another system of thought. Origen goes on at length to explore the analogy with other familiar sociological groups:

since medicine is beneficial and essential to mankind, and there are many problems in it as to the method of curing bodies, on this account several sects [Gk: hairesis] in medicine are admittedly found among the Greeks, and, I believe, also among the barbarians such as profess to practise medicine.

And again, since philosophy which professes to possess the truth and knowledge of realities instructs us how we ought to live and tries to teach what is beneficial to our race, and since the problems discussed allow of considerable diversity of opinion, on this account very many sects [hairesis] indeed have come into existence, some of which are well known, while others are not.

Moreover, there was in Judaism a factor which caused sects [hairesis] to begin, which was the variety of the interpretations of the writings of Moses and the sayings of the prophets.

So then, since Christianity appeared to men as something worthy  of serious attention, not only to people of the lower classes as Celsus thinks, but also to many scholars among the Greeks, sects [hairesis] inevitably came to exist, not at all on account of factions and love of strife, but because several learned men made a serious attempt to understand the doctrines of Christianity. The result of this was that they interpreted differently the scriptures universally believed to be divine, and sects [haresis] arose named after those who, although they admired the origin of the word, were impelled by certain reasons which convinced them to disagree with one another.

from here, he interprets Paul’s words in 1 Cor 11:17 – “it is necessary that there be division [hairesis] among you, so that what is approved may be made manifest” — a word that was frequently a source of meditation for the Fathers on the nature of church life. “Paul’s words on this subject are quite admirable,” Origen notes, for

the man who is qualified in medicine is he who is trained in the various sects [hairesis] and who after examining the several schools of thought with an open mind chooses the best; and a man who is well advanced in philosophy is he who by having known about several schools of thought is trained in them and follows the doctrine which has convinced him. So also I would say that a man who looks carefully into the sects of Judaism and Christianity becomes a very wise Christian. Anyone who criticizes Christianity on account of the sects might also criticise the teaching of Socrates; for from his instruction many schools have come into being, whose adherents do not hold the same opinions. Furthermore, one might criticize Plato for his doctrines on the ground that Aristotle left his instruction and introduced new ideas.

so then there is a benefit to the divisions among christians which can be asserted without compromising the ideal or the end of unity, which lies in the integrity of the doctrine, its effectiveness, and its accordant aim of universal propagation.

Origen’s understanding of the relationship of christian sects is so different than our own that it creates a difficulty in translation. he uses the term “hairesis,” the obvious source of our english “heresy” — but there are no negative connotations embedded with the term whatsoever. for Origen, the term “heresy” basically describes a school of thought, and can be applied to medicine or philosophy (we might say science or literature generally) just as well as to religion[1]. Chadwick helpfully uses the term “sect” in his translation to avoid confusion; except in those instances where the “sect” in question is “heretical.” a good example of a translator doing interpretive work.

i do not know precisely how or when the change in the definition of the term occurred — but it seems reasonably safe to assume that this change would have occurred alongside christianity’s political ascendency, within 100 or 200 years of Origen’s lifetime. if the goal in the imperial religion is unity and uniformity that testifying to the unity of the imperial structure, it certainly makes sense that the existence even of relatively benign “schools of thought” would become inherently problematized.

but this isn’t just a problem introduced by big bad Constantine and the consolidation of the Church and the christian faith that he enabled. if Origen’s understanding of the term “heresy” is more neutral than our own, this does not mean he has no sense of “heresy” as we understand it . he does believe that some sects are better than others, and that other sects — while they might have their roots in christianity, have gone so far from the fold as to lose any purchase of the name completely.

I think that Celsus has come to know of certain heresies which do not share with us even the name of Jesus. Probably he got wind of the so-called Ophites and Cainites, or some other such doctrine which has entirely abandoned Jesus. But this is irrelevant to a criticism of the doctrine of Christians.

christians have more in common that Celsus gives them credit for, viz., that in confessing Jesus Christ and receiving the Scriptures, the different christian groups have a strong foundational unity, even if some of their doctrines (or apprehension of those doctrines) differs.

our agreement is based on an important foundation, or rather not on a foundation but on a divine action, that its origin was God who taught men by the prophets to wait for the advent of Christ who would save men. In so far as this is not really refuted, even if it may seem to be refuted by the unbelievers, so much the more is the doctrine established as the doctrine of God, and Jesus is proved to be Son of God both before and after his incarnation. But I affirm that even after his incarnation he is always found to be most divine in character by people who have very sharp eyes in their soul, and to have truly descended to us from God, and not to have owed his origin or development to human sagacity but to God’s manifestation; for it was He who by varied wisdom and various miracles established Judaism in the first place, and later Christianity.

this is part of what makes historical theology so interesting. it is not particularly meaningful to decry “nestorianism” or “monophysitism” by force of habit (or canonical obligation). but it is enriching to understand how the Scriptures were being interpreted and appropriated; how these marginalized (and often extinct) sects understood their doctrine over and against the imperial ecclesiastical norms; and what, from the point of of the established Church, was understood to be permissible, what was considered dangerous, and why. it does seem, in retrospect, that the lines of “heresy” were drawn a bit too tightly; and often they are today as well.

of course, on the other hand, some moderns would prefer to completely ignore such boundaries, which is another problem. Walter Bauer’s notion of the “heresy of orthodoxy” has tended lead people to project the celebration of the apathetic pluralism of modernity onto the early Church, when really, the both the Fathers and their opponents were quite rigorous about establishing the boundaries of their teachings.

as a matter of contemporary appropriation of Origen’s ecclesiology, it does seem that we stand under what Peter Berger has described as a “heretical imperative” — what is needful is the courage to make interesting mistakes in the name of Christ and with tenacious faith in his ultimate power and goodness; but ultimately, to keep searching, learning through the process, to the infinite goodness of Christ which as been poured out upon us without limit in his Son.

[1] we find the same usage in Josephus, who speaks about the jewish “heresies” of the 1st C — again, meaning only particular groups with a particular way of teaching the Scriptures and living the faith.

understanding miracles

i have found for myself in the study of the angels within the bounds of natural theology a key that unlocks a number of mysteries, and lays a strong foundation for the rearticulation of the faith in an age that has grown cynical and cruel (even under the guise of universal toleration and passionate individualism). at some point, i will have to enumerate the full list of these mysteries, and detail systematically how a robust natural theology of angels helps us to comprehend and articulate the divine work in the world. for the present time, however, i am collecting these topics as investigations of angels and of the imagination, as a practice in formulating these thoughts, and as an aid to memory.

one of these mysteries is the question of miracles. we reflexively define a miracle as an event which is extraordinarily improbable or even impossible brought about by divine intervention. but such a definition is quite vulnerable: for instance, as Hume pointed out, this being the case, miracles (whether or not they happen) are the opposites of historical “facts.” historical facts require verification corresponding to the likelihood of their actual correspondence in history. and event that is infinitely improbable, then, would require an infinite amount of verification. and so, any account of the miraculous is scrubbed from modern historiography as simply incredible — and we moderns, who come to understand ourselves in, through and by such sterile historical narratives, either develop a tin ear for the miraculous, or come to embark upon a well-meaning (but ultimately disastrous) rebellion against history itself in the interest of preserving miracles over and against our common assumptions about the nature of history.

we can circumvent this problem, however, by giving a careful consideration of “miracle” itself. a miracle, i would propose is an event that definitively shapes an imaginal topography, whether on a personal or corporate level. it may or may not, as such, have any correspondence to spectacular or coincidental manifestations of divine power. certainly the experience of something highly unlikely or impossible conjoined to a theological interpretation is perhaps the most common form of this — and such a conjunction is normally plays out as a “conversion experience” of sorts.  yet such a definition of miracle need not be restricted to a single religious system, to religion in general, or the category of the “supernatural: or “paranormal.” even Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts” are miraculous, by this definition; strange as it sounds, the development of enlightenment patterns of thought that call into question the very category of the miraculous, the ascendency of those systems which create and propagate a falsely-delineated “miracle free” secular space — these are all “miraculous” as being definitive imaginal topographies that have been shaped by a particular event or events. they are miraculous, even if we conclude (as i would say we ought) that such miracles are in fact deceptive, viz, not performed by the servants of God in the interest of what is true, but in fact orchestrated by the demons and those human intelligences (usually quite well intentioned) that have come under subjection to them and serve them. this, however, is a separate matter from our universalizing definition of the miraculous.

but why should we want to universalize the miraculous? why should we not want to maintain them as the unique property of our confession? two reasons — (1) an account of the miraculous is much firmer if it can account for the miraculous as it is experienced by any person and (2) as a philosophical and historiographical project that turns Hume on his head, and sees history and human experience utterly shot through resplendent with the majesty of God. we thus aim for a universal definition of the “miraculous” — universal as a meaning (ie., that the same meaning can be usefully applied to any and all things that are described as miracles) and universal as a category (ie., that the notion of the miraculous can be invoked with additional explanatory power within discourses where it is not normally used or even excluded).

it should be said at the outset, moreover, that the burden of this project is to define miracles as “merely” imaginal. this kind of demythologizing approach is often taken in interest of defending the faith, but what starts to defend it, ends by destroying it. no indeed, my aim is quite the opposite: i believe in miracles — i begin by presuming their “actuality” and “reality” in any way we can reasonably describe them — but i want to push the envelope and say that the fullest essence of the miracle lies not in that something happened that was unlikely and extraordinary, but in the associated reorientation of the imaginal. accordingly, while i affirm absolutely that miracles “happen” and take reported miracles at face value that they actually “did” and “do,” not all miracles need to “happen” in order to be fully and truly miraculous — viz., it is possible for the miracle to unfold exclusively in an imaginal space without any corresponding impact in the observable, sensible world. indeed, i am arguing implicitly that the public, visible aspect of the miracle (which i am by no means denying) — that part we normally think of and call “miraculous” — is actually epiphenomenal. the real effect of a miracle is in the imaginal space. any physical outcome is secondary – a sign and symbol that testifies to the interior reality that the miracle confects.

so, once again — a miracle is an event that definitively shapes an imaginal topography.

in the conversation above, i’ve snuck into this preliminary definition the sense that a miracle might be a cumulative or progressive phenomenon — it might be that the “event” is not in any way a discrete occurrence on the timeline at all must then be retrospectively discovered after a new imaginal topography has emerged. this often happens in evangelical testimony culture, as the faithful are regularly encouraged to sort through the chaos of their memories for those decisive decisions, events, experiences, insights that brought them to their present place of faith.

within these “imaginal topographies,” then, our normal intuitions about causality break down — an epiphany can precede an extraordinary event just as well as follow it. i do not think it beyond the pale that a miracle can actually change the past – collective act of interpretive imagination bringing forth a past . certainly, this is part of Augustine’s motivations in the Confessions — reviewing every act of desire through his life, he repents of their shallowness, and points them through to their final end.

moreover, since miracles effect imaginal topography most dramatically, memory becomes an essential mechanism in the miraculous. such acts of memory do not differ in mechanism from ordinary “remembering,” but they differ very much in their intentionality and effects. it is not inappropriate, therefore, to afford such a memory a separate designation, such as “sacred memory,” or anemnesis. anemnesis serves to confect, not merely a vague recollection of things past, but the imaginal making-present of the realities remembered; a reaffirming participation in the events remembered. as such, an act of anemnesis can be no less miraculous in its effects than the original miracle itself – and so indeed all of christianity participates still in the miracle of Christ, and indeed, is an ongoing extension of that miracle. this is why the Church is known as the Body of Christ – and our remembering is accordingly a “re-membering;” as our anemnesis functions correctly we are miraculously re-attached to that Body in proper function and proportion. and accordingly, connection between the Church as the Body and the Body of Christ that we receive broken and distributed in the Eucharist becomes clear.

the vast majority of historical literature prior to the enlightenment could be described as “anemnetic historiography,” hagiography being the most obvious example. the narratives of saints’ lives have less to do with the enumeration of historical facts and accomplishments than initiation into the mystery of the mediation of a particular saint by the grace of God within the divine economy. (and while we might note that while modern historiography follows a different path, it is, in fact, no less anemnetic; it simply serves as an initiation into a rather uninteresting and deficient cultus.)

this is obviously the key to understanding christian worship; it is less obviously but no less profoundly how we should understand the historicity of the Gospels. they are an anemenesis of the crucified and risen Lord, written “so that you may believe, and believing have life in his name.” the point of the Gospel accounts is not to impartially narrate historical facts, but to involve the reader in the life-giving spiritual reality of Jesus Christ — which is not only to read about Jesus’ healings, but to be healed; not only to witness his death, but to die with him; not only to see the empty tomb but to rise with him; not only to observe and learn about Jesus’ prayer, and his worship, but to pray with him, and worship with him — indeed, to come to worship him, to eat his flesh and drink his blood. a miracle is an event with that decisively shapes an imaginative topography: and the most profound shaping of imaginal topography in christian history – arguably in the world – is Jesus Christ. he is the imaginal center of gravity, such that all other imaginal trajectories – even those that do not know or acknowledge him – still feel the weight of his pull.

now, we should deal with the fact that this definition of the miraculous also excludes some things that might normally be thought of as miracles, viz., those extraordinary and unlikely occurrences attributed to divine intervention that do not shape an imaginal topography, or shape it in a way that is less than definitive. we might see this phenomenon among charismatics who come to see divine intervention as a normal part of everyday life — but even more nearly to ourselves, do we not frequently overlook what a spectacular thing is our own existence? but a miracle is not a miracle unless it is understood as a miracle and remembered as a miracle.

conversely, are not imaginal topographies shaped by things other than miracles? well, yes — certainly and all the time: whenever we learn or discover a new piece of information about ourselves or the world around us, this corresponds to some change (however slight) within our imaginal topography. but for the most part, these are small adjustments. the qualifier definitively is an essential one in this case. cumulative shifts in imaginal topography, moreover, can ultimately coalesce into a definitive one, but again (per above), this is usually (always?) associated with the production of a historical narrative that associates the definitive shift with a particularized event, or else embeds the shift in an anemnetic ritual.

but can an imaginative topography be definitively shaped by something other than a miracle? here we must confess a gray area in our provisional definition: yes and no. traumas have a tremendous impact on our imaginal topography, but it is an unambiguously destructive one: it does not “shape” so much as “destroy.” being entropic, moreover, we perceive this kind of event to go with the grain of the universe rather than to be any kind of beneficent “intervention” on our behalf. it is not a miracle, then, even if it is definitive. the miracle lies, rather, in our recovery and healing from the trauma; our ability to go on even in the face of the profoundest pain and loss; that “God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purposes.” elements of the traumatic event are thus assimilated to the miraculous, but the trauma itself is not a miracle.

it is perhaps redundant to add this to our definition, as “miracle” bears of its own such a strong positive connotation, and speaking of an “imaginal topography” implies a robust implicit order corresponding to the overwhelmingly positive / constructive connotations of the term. but it ought to be said explicitly. a “miraculous” shaping of imaginal topography always increases the capacity for wonder, imparts a deep faith in order, conveys a sense of purpose. any possibility of an fatalistic, destructive, or cynical imaginative shift, accordingly, is thus excluded from the realm of the miraculous.

so – to draw all of this together in summing up, a miracle is an event that definitively shapes an imaginal topography on either a personal or a corporate level, in such a way as those who experience are increased in their capacity for wonder and delight in the immanent order to the rejuvenation of a sense of well-being and purpose in a presence-infused universe. it is experienced primarily anemnetically, but that anemnesis is inseparable from some form or forms of historical reality and manifestation.

this conforms to our usage of the term fairly well, i think: being struck by lightning, for instance, is extremely unlikely and would certainly bear some definitive significance to the person struck and those near and dear to him — but it would never be described as a “miracle.” the “miracle” would lie in that person’s survival, and whatever pattern of interpretation of that event and its aftermath that restores her faith in the general goodness of creation and providential purposes, and her confidence in being outdoors on a cloudy day. likewise, 9/11 definitively shaped the imaginal topography of our national consciousness — indeed, i daresay, it had such an impact through a large portion of the world’s population — but it was a terror and not a miracle; as such, has tended to the impartation of fear, chaos, anger, hatred. the miracle lies in reconciliation, in renewed hope and trust, in the restoration of peace — we have not experienced that corporately, but it is a path open for individual narratives.

oh, and what of the angels in all of this? if we accept this definition, it becomes very clear that the angels are the mediators of every miracle. they are involved in crafting both the “event” itself (since, remember, the event more anemnetic than sensible), and the “imaginal topography” corresponding to that “event.” miracles are not one-off fortuitous occurrences, nor are they imparted for the personal benefit of those who receive them, but as an angelic participation tending towards a greater wonder and order, miracles initiate us into the deeper realms of human experience, and draw us nearer to those who share in them. (if we feel a kind of revulsion to the “miracle industry” of many televangelists, accordingly, this is appropriate, since it flattens the nature of the miraculous and overlooks the mediation and participation both the human and angelic agents.)

as an aspect of the narrative of my own thinking, on the other hand, it was in contemplating the involvement of the angels in the miraculous that i was able to arrive at the aforementioned definition of the term. i do not think that it is an exaggeration to attribute the insight — as all insights — to the activity of angels, who are ever communicating to us the illuminations that they receive from the Father of Lights.

Apuleius and angelic bodies

Apuleius has got me thinking again about the tricky issue of angelic bodies. his treatise On the God of Socrates is quite clear in laying out the question – although, of course, he is thinking of daimones rather than angels, but this category translates fairly easily into christian angelology the way that he uses it. i’ve added to my reading list his Discourse on Magic, which should provide some further interesting grist for the mill. (a decent translation of his works is conveniently located on google books).

the question of angelic bodies first became a pressing issue for me when i read 1 Enoch for the first time. obviously, if angels are producing offspring with the women of earth, this implies a fairly high degree of “real” body. 1En is hardly canonical, of course, but it raises the question, nevertheless, of why we should assume that angels are “bodiless,” or “pure spirit.” this question has only intensified as i have realized (with the help of Rahner, and others) just how reliant upon neoplatonism such conceptualizations are. as such, they are not by any means required by the faith, and indeed, the assumptions upon which a doctrine of bodiless angels are not shared in our present cultural context. a contemporary natural theology of angels accordingly begs to be rebuilt upon a different foundation. on the other hand, such angelic speculations may have the tendency to drift in the direction of Origenism, whose doctrine of primordial intellects is rightly judged problematic by the Holy Fathers and the Councils of the Church. many avenues for such thoughts have thus been foreclosed in the history of doctrine. however, if we begin with the intention of integrating the Biblical data on angels according to the framework of a natural theology of angels that is more suitable to a modern cosmology (to the extent that this is possible), we can circumvent these questions for the time being. (although it would be most appropriate to bring a newly developed understanding into conversation with the historical pattern of teaching.)

Apuleius presents an argument for the necessity of intermediary beings between the gods and men shared with Plutarch in On the Obscelescence of Oracles (which i have reflected on viz-a-viz the calculation of angelic lifespan); he also makes an argument from pleroma that resembles one that Philo raises in On the Giants. the former argument seems to be an immensely important development in middle platonism, rooted in Plato, but not developed in him. Plato, after all, began to glimpse the mystery of transcendence and identified this as a proper aspect of divinity, but was not uniform in his identification of divinity with the term “god.” the notion of “gods,” for Plato, still had quite a bit of pluriformity – middle platonists were trying to tighten up the language. it is beyond my ken to parse the particular history of this conversation, but certainly, a new monotheistic pressure driven by judeo-christian enthusiasm on the one hand and a homogenizing imperial imagination on the other likely contributed to this interpretive trajectory.

as to the second argument, the argument from pleroma – that this is shared between Apuleius and Philo is probably indicative of a common source, rather than any direct or indirect influence of the latter on the former. and indeed, my copy of On the God of Socrates helpfully footnotes Aristotle On the History of Animals as the source for this notion. the basic idea is that, in interest of imagining a proportionate and harmonious universe, there ought to be “aereal” beings, just as there are “terrestrial” beings and “aquatic” beings – given the nature of air, it is not surprising that such beings would be invisible to us. but even if we grant the ancients their supplanted four-element metaphysics, this argument is still dubious, as it relies on the existence also of some kind of “fire” being. Aristotle apparently had some sensible evidence of this, or credible reports of such sensible evidence – as on his authority, both Philo and Apuleius accept the existence of such beings as a commonplace for the purposes of the argument. to my knowledge, christianity doesn’t say much about the existence of such “fire-beings,” although its likely belief in them persisted well into the middle ages. eventually, fire-spirits will reappear as a facet of authoritative belief in the arabian-islamic notion of the jinn – whence as an oriental motif it will become a fascination and constant inspiration for western fantasies.

comprehensively, Apuleius understands daemons (and we can extrapolate from this to angels) as “in their genus animals [ie, created souls], in their species rational, in mind passive, in body aerial, and in time perpetual.” the first three qualities are shared with humans; the fourth is unique to them, and the fifth is shared with the gods. as such, they are intermediary in several senses:

  1. locationally – as dwelling between the heavens and the earth
  2. elementally – as standing between the lightness of celestial ether and the heaviness of earth, and being mingled / participated in each
  3. with respect to temperature – they do not bear the heat of fire, which would cause them to ascend further upward, yet neither the coldness of earth or water, which would cause them to sink downward
  4. psychically – sharing the immortality of the gods but the susceptibility to passions that characterizes human intelligences
  5. officially – transmitting the prayers of men to the gods and the gifts of the gods to men

there is much to reflect on in this layering of mediating features – in particular, i want to return at some point to the question of the metaphorical “height” of angels (which needs to be revisited given that it presupposes an outmoded cosmology), their “passions” according to this schema (of course, christian angels share in divine impassibility; the passionate angels are generally considered demons), their relationship to humans, the ways in which the diversities among the daemons accounts for the diversity of human cultic life, etc. for the time being, however, we will keep our focus on their bodily properties.

by Apuleius’ reckoning, reflecting their “middle nature,” the bodies of angels must be “adapted to the middle condition” that they inhabit. accordingly, their bodies must be neither “so heavy as terrene, nor so light as ethereal bodies, but after a manner separated from both, or mingled from both, whether they are removed from, or are modified by, the participation of each.” as Apuleius notes, however, it is easiest to imagine them as being mingled from both, rather than mingled from neither, as some other “thing.”

these bodies “will have a little weight, in order that they may not proceed to supernal natures; and they will also have something of levity, in order that they may not be precipitated to the realms beneath.” Apuleius substantiates this picture by reflecting on the composition of the clouds: “the clouds coalesce in a way not much different from this tenuity of body.” however, the analogy breaks down: the bodies of the angels would be much less dense, and therefore, much more attenuated than clouds. he describes them beautifully:

no terrene solidity occupies in them the place of light, so as to resist our perception, since the energies of our sight, when opposed by opaque solidity, are necessarily retarded; but the frame of their bodies is rare, splendid, and attenuated, so that they pass through the rays of the whole of our sight by their rarity, reverberate them by their splendour, and escape them by their subtlety.

unfortunately, however, as delightful and as satisfying as this angelic vision is, it rests upon a physics which is so problematic as to be largely incomprehensible to moderns.

interestingly, Aquinas – although he resolutely insists upon the total immateriality of angels (he argues resolutely that they are purely spiritual-intellectual beings; ST I.50.1-2) – retains a mechanism for angelic embodiment that very much resembles what Apuleius lays out here. assumed angelic bodies are made of “condensed air” organized by the divine power for the purpose of creating a visible manifestation whereby something might be sensibly communicated to a human audience.

Aquinas’ angelology is quite robust and complete for delineating such mechanisms, and reading through it is an excellent speculative exercise. unfortunately, however, he very much relies on neoplatonism in describing the angelic substance, and even includes a version of the pleroma argument: there must be incorporeal creatures, because since God as Creator (the uncreated, incorporeal intelligence) fashioned the physical world (a world populated with bodies), and that world has as its pinnacle embodied intelligences, there must also be unembodied intelligences to mediate between the embodied intelligences and the unembodied Intelligence of the Creator. if this solves the problem of invoking “fire-creatures,” it still presupposes that some entity (other than God) is a purely spiritual creature existing absolute abstraction from the physical world and yet exercises autonomy within it. such an assertion is quite repugnant to modern sensibilities.

to a certain extent this weakness is overcome, however, in that Aquinas suggests that there is a fundamental, created correspondence between the angelic intelligences and the corporeal entities with which they are associated. to this end, Aquinas puts forth the opinion that the angels were created simultaneously with the visible creation (ST I.61.3). from here, it is a relatively short step to suggest that angels (as emergent from complex material constellations) are immanent within yet irreducible to the social-material patterns with which they are associated. this task, however, i shall leave for another time.