Four Words to Describe Pre-Moderns

Jedburgh Abbey – gutted, like the pre-modern world today

I had the pleasure of enjoying lunch and Trappist beers with one of the lovely people of the Urban Abbey the other day. Among the many interesting topics of discussion (rates of growth/decline among the religions of BC’s Lower Mainland, the ultimate modernism of postmodernity, Charles Taylor, raising young children, Eastern Orthodoxy) was the idea of the pre-modern.

She said to me that many people say that she is pre-modern, then asked what four words I would use to characterise pre-moderns. They were:

  1. Homoousios (‘If that’s allowed?’ ‘Of course, that’s allowed!’)
  2. Celestially-minded (after asking, ‘Can I use hyphens?’)
  3. Rooted

And I didn’t come up with a fourth because the conversation moved in its own ways. Now I have too much time to think on it (how can I choose??), so I’ll just say numinous and then differentiate that from celestially-minded when the time comes. Allow me to quickly unpack why these 3/4.

Homoousios

This is the word of the Nicene Creed that we translate variously in English as ‘consubstantial’, ‘of one substance’, or ‘of one being’. As the theologians of the fourth century and beyond reflected on what homoousios meant (besides ‘How to exclude Arius’) in light of Scripture, tradition, and liturgy, they nuanced it not only in relation to the special, unique, unrepeatable oneness of the Triune Godhead but also in relation to created beings.

Humans are all united in this worldview. ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,’ to famously quote John Donne (who is a very pre-modern modern if you read his poetry). Like begets like. Human begets human. My sons are of the same essence/substance/being as myself — I would argue that genetics backs this up.

There are various ramifications of such a worldview — some of which are that in the wrong hands, bad things can be justified. Amongst them is a drive to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sick, not simply because of Bible commands but because they are part of you. Amongst them is a feeling that we are all connected deeply — the sin of the sinner is never disconnected from the righteousness of the righteous. All justice is social justice, all retribution is remediary.

This also means that we find ourselves in community, something that is also bound up in the honing of Trinitarian theology — I think largely on the title of Zizioulas’ study of the Trinity (largely through the lens of the Cappadocians), Being As Communion. I would also argue that ancient Greeks and Romans had similar ideas about the oneness of the social community, even if their language and point of reference differed.

Celestially-minded

Here I do not mean literally fixated on the starry heights, although there is some element of that, I would wager. Rather, pre-modern people had a viewpoint that kept the divine in focus. They also lived in what Fr Stephen Freeman calls a one-storey universe — God or even the gods were everywhere. Indeed, even the polytheists with their vision of the Olympians dwelling on mountaintops believed that divine beings were present and active in their daily lives. Hence sacrifice, prayer, incense, etc., etc.

Of the many ramifications, I would argue that every act of existence was infused with meaning. The divine could be around every corner. Moreover, a common morality as handed down from the heavens or the ancestors was part of the fabric of life.

But they were not so earthly-minded as we late moderns are. The gods stride across Homeric battlefields as more than mere ‘symbols’. Nonnos writes an epic about Dionysus precisely because the theme is so great. The Christians write hymns and epics about Christ because there is nothing better to focus on. Why navel-gaze at your own psychology and inner turmoil when you could cast your eyes up and out into a world with celestial vision?

Rooted

This one is sort of less theological. In the pre-industrial world, people didn’t really move much. Most people lived and died where their parents, grandparents, etc., did. As a result, they had a strong sense of place. The early monastics also saw rootedness as important, something I’ve blogged on before in relation to St Benedict. In a spiritual sense, rootedness is important because you cannot leave yourself behind. You cannot overcome anger at others by becoming a hermit. Boredom is truly cured by standing still and living through it.

For most pre-moderns, rootedness was not a choice. Even if your movements were not legally restricted because you were a slave or a colonus or a serf, most people simply never had the wherewithal to go anywhere else. Choice or not, being rooted to a place, a people, and a community means that you can savour the slow, lovely moments of life. You can appreciate more and more the homoousiai persons in your midst.

Imagine if today we made choices about where we lived based on community and holiness rather than career advancement or school districts. Our constant moving is a reflection of our own rootlessness, our our disconnectedness from each other, our own existence as isolated, atomised, modern individuals.

Numinous (Sacramental?)

By a pure denotation of numinous, much of what I placed under celestially-minded would qualify as the sort of person aware of the numinous. A numen in Latin is a spirit at its broadest and vaguest, from the animist idea of a rock’s spirit right up to the Demiurge of Platonism. The sense of the numinous is that there is another world at the edges of our existence.

Part of the Resistance Movement against Modernity were Wordsworth and Coleridge (and Keats!). Coleridge’s ideas about language and symbol are perhaps more what I’m getting at here. Life is infused with meaning. Nothing is simply only its dead self. There is no mere matter. A rock can be a window, a symbol, a passageway into the divine.

The false dichotomy between body and soul has yet to make its way into the pre-modern mind. There is no dead matter. Nothing is meaningless, even if we will never fathom its meaning. Indeed, we will never fathom even a small portion of anything’s meaning. Nevertheless, at the edges of our perception there is more to this life than just animal existence — we are more than ugly bags of mostly water. We are more than our physical appetites.

The numinous also energises all our activities, especially the creative arts. Poetry dances at the fringes of our understanding and tickles our sense of the numinous bigness of the world. Music written in harmonies that correspond to the Pythagorean theories of music resonate not only with our souls but with the order of the universe itself. (I am listening to Striggio’s ‘Mass in 40 Parts’ as performed by I Fagiolini right now — numinous, indeed!) A cathedral is not a pile of stones but a gateway to God.

These are four words to describe the pre-modern world. They are worth investing energy in.

Good Christology matters for Good Friday

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence
My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

In a little under two weeks, it will be Good Friday as we make the final push to the chief feast of the Christian year. Some preachers seem to dread Good Friday — they are uncertain what more could ever be said, or they feel that Protestant Christianity makes too much of the Cross and too little of the Risen Saviour, or they are awkward about how bloody the whole thing is, or they’ve decided to wash their hands of any theory of atonement or … or …

Well.

I can see their preaching predicament.

Good thing I’m not a preacher. 😉

One thing that will undoubtedly pass through the minds of many is that old, wretched ‘Divine Child Abuse’ line, or similar awkward thoughts about God unjustly lashing out against an innocent man to divert his wrath from ‘deserving’ sinners. That sort of thing.

I generally wonder what sort of Christology lies at the heart of their preaching when they question theories of atonement (how Christ’s death-and-resurrection make us one with God) from such angles.

If Nicaea I through Nicaea II have taught us anything about how to do theology that is at once (somewhat) philosophically coherent and biblically faithful, it is that God is Jesus. This is the meaning of all that high-flying ‘Hellenistic’ ‘philosophical’ jargon that gets thrown around in the patristic period and disparaged in the modern

(you know —

homoousios/consubstantial

hypostatic union

dyothelitism —

that sort of thing)

Consubstantial means that Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Word Incarnate of John 1 — the subject of our Faith and the author of our salvation — has the same substance or essence as God the Father, as the Person we tend to think of as ‘God’.

Hypostatic union means that the person (hypostasis) of Jesus is a single unity of both human and divine. Divinity does not swallow up humanity, nor does humanity deprive divinity of its reality. Jesus — who is fully God as articulated by consubstantial — is also fully human, a complete man with body and soul — to the point of (in later theology) somehow, inexplicably (as far as I’m concerned, though I know that Maximus has explanations) having two wills (dyothelitism).

So, what does this have to do with Good Friday?

I think the most powerful impact it has on many of the common objections to traditional atonement theories is that God is absolved from injustice and child abuse. Why? Because God is Jesus.

God chose to become a man and all that means.

God chose to be scourged, bloodied, and die an unjust death he did not deserve.

The result is not simply a quick and easy transaction whereby we get into heaven free. The result is that God has taken a human person into himself in some way. God is not distant. He has suffered all that ordinary humans suffer. He has tasted death and returned victorious.

And he did this because he loves us. We, through our rejection of the only true and right way to live, were heading — are heading — for destruction. We had incurred a debt greater than we could pay. God chose the path of love to remove that debt, he chose the hard path, the path that would lead him into the fullest depths of the human experience, thereby transfiguring human life and taking it into himself, and showing us that He knows us and loves and can relate to us.

And so, Good Friday.

While we were yet His enemies, God the Son, the Incarnate Word, died.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

Next week, I’ll be posting some medieval poetry and art about this. I hope that you can be drawn into the mystery of Jesus and love Him more as a result…