Unbelief and the Two-Storey Universe

vm14451I have written extensively about what I have described as a “two-storey universe.” In short, this is a description of how many modern Christians see the world. There is the first floor – the natural world which operates according to naturalist, “secular” rules, and the second floor – the world of God, heaven, hell, angels, etc. The spiritual crisis of much of modern man is the inherent disconnect in these two worlds. It is a belief construct whose history goes back some centuries but whose fruit has been a very different form of Christianity and a growing tide of unbelief. As I have written elsewhere, many Christians have serious doubts about whether anybody actually lives on the second floor.

One interesting component of this world-view is unbelief. When a Christian whose world-view is dominated by the two-storey universe ceases to believe – what he ceases to believe in is the second storey. There need be little change, if any, to the first-floor on which he perceives himself to live. He does not cease to believe in the God who is here, but in a God who is “out there.”

Of course, what remains in such a situation of unbelief, is an acceptance of a universe that is less than a full account of how things truly are.  The first floor of a two-storey universe is not the same thing as the “one-storey universe” I have described: it is simply a house with the second floor blown off. It is in this sense that I have commented on Christian fundamentalism (one of the primarily proponents of the two-storey universe) and contemporary atheism being two-sides of the same coin. Their interminable arguments are a conversation that takes place in half a universe. One argues that there is a second floor while the other argues that the truncated, detached debacle of a first floor is all there is. However, they do not disagree about the fundamentals of the first floor. The daily world (and often the daily life) of a two-storey Christian is often as empty and secular as his atheist counterpart. He differs only in his anxiety to prove the existence of a second floor.

I believe it is important to go to the heart of these matters – to realize that when arguments take place between such inhabitants of the two-storey world – nothing authentic is taking place. Both positions are inheritors of a broken view of the world and neither will ever state the truth in a satisfactory manner.

It is interesting to me that there are atheists who do not belong to this category of “two-storey unbelievers.” Their lack of belief in God includes deep questions about the very character of the universe and the nature of human existence. As such, they share much in common with the Tradition of the Orthodox faith. Many converts to Orthodoxy must undergo something of an “atheist” stage in order to leave the mythology of the two-storey world and enter into the revelation of God as Christ has given to the Church. It is for this reason that in the services for the reception of converts there is included a formal renunciation of various errors. You cannot follow the “only truly existing God” while at the same time believing in a God who does not exist. We are to believe in but one God.

I recall the first year of my life as an Orthodox Christian. Having been an ordained clergyman for 18 years prior to that, it startled people when I said that the primary question for me in my first year of Orthodox life was the existence of God. People asked, “Did you not  believe in God before?” The answer had to be “yes and no.” To embrace God as He is revealed to us in the Orthodox faith requires, as well, not believing a number of other things. That first year was a struggle.

On the other hand, the same year forced me to a far more existential level – even to the place of crisis. How to believe in a God who is “everywhere present and filling all things” is a very different way of life than to believe in a God who is “out there.” In an Orthodox life our faith in God also changes how we see everything else (or it should). Nothing remains the same. The creation is not “self-existent” (a hallmark of two-storey thought) but utterly dependent and contingent moment by moment on the good will and providence of God. “Heaven and earth are full of His glory.”

I have found it interesting in my ministry as an Orthodox priest and missionary to meet people who, upon learning of the Orthodox faith, have replied with joy, “I always thought something like that must be true.” There are many people, who though never having heard the Gospel presented in its proper fullness, have nevertheless refused to be content with something less. They are, for me, miracles of grace.

It is a commonplace to say that Orthodoxy is full of paradoxes. One of those is the paradox that many non-Orthodox Christians may have to leave their God in order to become Orthodox and that many atheists will have to learn not to believe in a different God before they can come to the Truth.

It is simply the case that in order to find our life we have to lose it.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


41 responses to “Unbelief and the Two-Storey Universe”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: A monk of Valaam Monastery walking on the ice of the far north.

  2. Guy (Theodotus) Avatar
    Guy (Theodotus)

    Father bless;
    I found this a blessing to me. I just finished (this morning) reading your “Christianity in a One-Storey Universe” and was thinking deeply about it and how it relates to our existential journey here. I find that I am constantly correcting my thought processes after being a fundamentalist for over 30 years. What you say about “the primary question for me in my first year of Orthodox life was the existence of God…” really summarized for me the continual struggle I am having after 8 months of being truly Orthodox. My dear Priest commented about something the Ecumenical Patriarch said about things ecumenical. Something to the effect that the Protestant Fundamental belief is “Ontologically” different than the Orthodox faith… that is something to think on. (I will ask my Priest for the actual reference..).

    Thanks for your blog.. it has helped me more than you know.

    Kissing your right hand
    -a sinner

  3. Margaret Avatar

    It is a gift from God to my heart that you are able and willing to write about God in such a manner. God be praised! Thank you!

  4. Robert F. Avatar
    Robert F.

    For those interested in reading more on the Two-Storey Universe I can highly recommend Prof. David Bradshaw’s A Christian Philosophy of Time. Bradshaw discusses the relationship between eternity and time. Other online writings by Bradshaw can be found at http://www.uky.edu/~dbradsh/

  5. Sam Avatar

    Interesting post. I have a question though–what makes you think that this worldview is uniquely Orthodox? Protestant Christians believe in an imminent God who is everywhere present, yet who is also transcendent. I am protestant, yet I believe strongly that all of creation is “charged with the grandeur of God” and that God is with me, here, now, as I type this.

    Perhaps I misunderstand the Orthodox view, but I do not see such a sharp distinction. Indeed some protestants do view God as distant, but this perhaps may be a misunderstanding of this truth, not a flaw in protestant theology. If I am mistaken, please clarify.

  6. Troy Avatar

    It took a slow reading of Fr. Alexander Schmemann for me to come to these same realizations. This is a particularly fantastic post, Father.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    It has not been a traditional hallmark of Protestant theology. I doubt that any Protestant would say that God is not everywhere. But effectively in their doctrine – in the lack of a true ecclesiology or a sacramental theology that is more than memorialism, Protestant theology has pushed the “eternal things” to somewhere “off-world” and generally made the cross of Christ to be about a legal transaction or forensic event that is removed from this world. It’s hard any more to say much in general about Protestants because even within denominations it’s become a self-invented thing. The consequences of an imminent God (who of course is transcendent) and the creation being “charged with the grandeur of God” are not evident in Protestant theology.

    For instance, most Protestant theology need make no reference to these things in order to give, what for them is a complete account of salvation. That is not true for Orthodox. A Protestant might believe in a number of things, or they might not. But in much of classical Evangelical and Conservative Protestant thought, this world is only an arena for the next. Orthodoxy would not say that.

  8. a sinner Avatar
    a sinner

    My husband and I converted to the Orthodox Church together. Less than a year after that he stopped coming to church. He now considers himself agnostic. It’s hard for both of us. I hope through God’s grace we come through this stronger, but I don’t know what to do. Please pray for us.

  9. carl Avatar

    “a sinner” – I said a prayer for you & your husband. My wife and I became Orthodox six months ago. It is a very hard transition for many of us evangelicals (I don’t know if that is your background). There are nights when I wake up in a cold sweat, asking myself, “What am I doing in this Church?!”. I’m longing to learn how to live in this “one-storey universe” … I’m not sure how to live each day, practically, in this reality. So, I can relate to some of the struggles you might be experiencing.

    That being said, I’m far from giving up. The positive changes in our lives have been many and some have been, dare I say, miraculous. As I think of you, I will continue to pray. Please pray for us as well.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    I will indeed pray for you both. As I commented in my posting – it was very hard for me my first year – unexpectedly so. Though I can see now how necessary and inevitable it was. I pray that you both will come through this stronger and that God be speedy. For many people, a break in attending Church is occasioned by some event of anger. If he had such an experience, it would be good for him to talk about the event with someone. We bring such ideals and expectations to the Orthodox life and are frequently surprised by how hard it is. And the hard stuff is not the fasting, standing, etc. It is deeply personal and existential. Our salvation, however, has to happen on a deeply personal, existential level because that’s where the disease of our soul is. May God keep you both and have mercy!

  11. Robert F. Avatar
    Robert F.


    I suspect you would find Bradshaw’s writings to be of particular interest, available free online at http://www.uky.edu/~dbradsh/

    As you will see, the differences between Orthodox and protestant theology are quite acute and of great consequence.

  12. Barbara Avatar

    I recently said to someone that being Orthodox meant that I got to believe everything I always wanted to believe. However, it also meant giving up certain beliefs and those beliefs were/are very entangled with my heart and mind and body – the process is definitely slow and it definitely requires real change. But slow is OK in orthodoxy – in fact it’s better than fast! I am not rushing to be saved – I am already saved – I am learning to live again.

    Baron Friedrich von Hugel (a Catholic theologian living in the late 19th century) wrote a letter to his niece telling her what a rare gift it was to be continuously open to all things beautiful and true and good. He says, “Do you realise how rare this gift is? That it is a gift, one of the most precious of the gifts of God? That it is a form and kind of deep faith – a true prayer? I ask all this that you may mix with these admirations, more and more, little exclamations of gratitude, of union with, of adoration of God, present in all this truth, beauty, and goodness. You could gradually develop this into spontaneous habit.”

    This spontaneous habit is one that I hope to acquire one day as I learn to live in a one-story universe.

    Thank you for your ongoing encouragement to all of us new converts, Fr. Stephen.

    PS The quote above is from “Letters from Baron Friedrich von Hugel to a niece”. Edited by Gwendolen Greene. It was originally published in 1928 and now out of print, but you can find second hand copies. Even though he is not orthodox, he seems to live in a one-story universe and I have been encouraged by his writing.

  13. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    I understand you to be speaking metaphorically of the disconnect between the worldview that holds Jesus Christ at the center and all other worldviews. When you write about a two-story universe, do you also intend this cosmologically?

  14. Jesse Avatar

    Thanks for sharing Father,

    Surprising read for a philosophy student with a touch-and-go relationship with Atheism. Frankly, I wasn’t aware there were many Christian theological positions which didn’t appeal to some form of gnostic or Platonic dualism, so this has piqued my interest. I really did not know that non-dualist positions (albeit, loosely defined) had a referent in contemporary Christian thought. It reminds me very much of a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Crossing” in which the main character, a boy more or less wandering about the Mexico-US border in the forties, meets an ex-Mennonite amongst the remnants of a church in a city that has been destroyed by an earthquake. The man tells the boy that his zeal brought him there, that he sought to find some piece of evidence of divine, metaphysical intervention. The boy asks him what he found and the man responds laconically, “A doll. A dish. A bone.” Somehow this post elaborates on that scene for me. Excellent book, excellent author too—have you read?

  15. Daniel Avatar

    I’m a little confused. You seem to be describing a view of God that was pretty common at my mainline Protestant seminary as “the Orthodox view” as if it were radically different than the views of Western Churches.
    I think there are plenty of Western Christians (Protestant and Catholic) who have read that “heaven and earth are full of his glory” (in the Bible or the liturgy) or that it is “in God” that we “live and move and have our being” (again, in both the Bible and the liturgy of several churches). Certainly there has been a lot of talk about New Creation and the whole creation being “shot through with glory” as it is claimed by the power of the Resurrected Christ.
    You are quite correct that these are not important teachings/categories among non-Sacramental Protestants, Fundamentalists or many conservative evangelicals. But these are very important for Sacramental and Emergent Protestant Churches.

  16. Ron Jung Avatar
    Ron Jung

    Has it always been a one-storey world or only after the Incarnation?

  17. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would agree that they have a growing place in Emergent Churches (who are drawing from Classical Orthodox sources), and have a sort of place in the Sacramental Protestant Churches, though the deviations and permutations in the latter make it impossible to compare them to the Orthodox. Some are simple New Age in teaching and practice. Many Episcopal Churches now admit the non-baptized to communion though this is not their official doctrine (and would be deeply contrary to Orthodox understanding). I am glad that some Protestant Churches are headed in the right direction, more or less, but there is a difference in speaking of the latest fad in Protestant theology (they blow and change like the wind) and maintaining, keeping and practicing something consistently for 2,000 years. There is a difference in doing something because you believe it is the truth given to us by Christ to which we are to be faithful and doing something because you like it (or it pleases the congregation). I’ve been a sacramental Protestant pastor (Anglican) and in my experience there is a vast and deep difference that I would have, at the time, not thought was there.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Always. St. Maximus the Confessor said that the Incarnation is the Cause of all things. Though the Incarnation is certainly an event within time, it also seems to have a transcendent element – or better yet – it is also eschatological. It’s clear, also, that the Patriarchs very much lived in a “One Storey Universe.” This is none other than the House of God…

  19. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Indeed, Father Stephen, there no doubt is a difference between returning after squandering a fortune in reckless living and having served obediently for many years.

  20. Ron Jung Avatar
    Ron Jung

    Do all Orthodox have this worldview? If I spoke to a priest in my area, would he be able to answer questions about this?

  21. fatherstephen Avatar


    If I understand the question I think the answer is yes, cosmologically as well. The only proper distinction is between created and uncreated – but to say that there is a “place” where the uncreated dwells, would be like saying that the uncreated needs a dwelling place (created). The heavens and the earth are created. Paradise is created. Hell is not created because God is not the author of death. Hell is more or less “imaginary” or a projection of our sins, a rejection of God and union with Him. It is a state of our heart.

    The two-storey universe is a figment of man’s imagination and a bad metaphor that leads us to live as though there were no God.

    If I understood the question correctly… 🙂

  22. fatherstephen Avatar


    I am offering nothing new in terms of the Orthodox worldview, other than a creative use of language (one storey, two storey) to say something in a way that contemporary Christians and others can understand. I’m not even certain the the one-storey two-storey metaphor is my creation. I have seen it used in different ways for a number of years – though not in the manner I’m using it.

    I would say that the writings of Fr. Alexander Schmemann say precisely what I am saying, though in more traditional language. The same thing could be said of a host of 20th century Orthodox writers. The average priest, unless he reads this blog, might be wary of the language but would understand and agree with it immediately if he did read it.

    The language, of course, is non-traditional, though the teaching is very much at the heart of the Orthodox faith. On the other hand, we live in a culture that is permeated by the two-storey model, and thus it is likely the case that you’ll find some Orthodox priests who unconsciously think in those terms. My writing about this in popular terms is, I hope, a way of raising Orthodox consciousness to its own life and teaching as well (if I can be so bold).

    I’m working on a possible book on the topic which would probably be a more effective way of bringing the topic into priestly conversation – and priestly critique. But I have no fear that I am “running in vain” inasmuch as I have had many conversations on the subject with senior priests and theologians whose judgment I respect and who have found this language to be useful.

    I’m basically a preacher and not a theologian. My task, whether speaking or writing, is to say what the Church says, but to say it in a way that those who hear or read will understand. That’s a slightly creative process – but God forbid that it should be truly creative. As C.S. Lewis once said, “In theology, novelty is not a virtue.”

  23. Sean Avatar

    @ Wonders:

    “there no doubt is a difference between returning after squandering a fortune in reckless living and having served obediently for many years.”

    There is no difference, as long as someone has really returned after squandering the fortune. In this case who has?

  24. Ron Jung Avatar
    Ron Jung

    Thank you for your responses. I do much better in oral conversation than written. The two (or three) storey world is a difficult one to abandon.

  25. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Touche, Sean. 😉 But then surely it is better for the heart to rejoice to see us even a long way off than to talk of how far we are from the church who has never left the fullness of the truth?

  26. Robert F. Avatar
    Robert F.

    “The two (or three) storey world is a difficult one to abandon.”

    Indeed. The Fathers teach us this is not done by means of intellectual assent. It is a way of life, of denying oneself, of ascetiscm, of living in the Church.

  27. Jason Avatar

    “Many converts to Orthodoxy must undergo something of an “atheist” stage in order to leave the mythology of the two-storey world and enter into the revelation of God as Christ has given to the Church.”


    That describes me to a tee. I went through a few years of tremendous struggle a couple of years after converting where I felt like God did not exist. There were a lot of reasons for my unbelief, but some of them would fit perfectly into the description you have here. I had always struggled somewhat with belief because, aside from my belief in a God “out there,” I had a thoroughly secular worldview. Finally, I looked around and could see nothing to convince me that God was anywhere “out there.”

    My path back to faith was very much an inner process that involved, in part, integrating disparate parts of my self and my understanding of the world–getting rid of the two-story worldview, if you will.

    Thank you, Father Stephen.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thank you. Such stories confirm what has been written and encourage me a great deal. God is good.

  29. a sinner Avatar
    a sinner

    Thank you Carl and Fr. Stephen for your words of understanding and your prayers. I wish my husband was open to talking to someone about it, but he’s become somewhat more withdrawn too, especially from anyone or thing having to do with church. But I’m not giving up yet. May God have mercy on us all!

  30. anymouse Avatar

    I’ve been sort of bothered by this for some time, although I did not verse it this way.

    Once upon a time, I was a physicist. I remember hearing that the change in philosophy paralleled the new physics, that is, as certain 19th and 20th century philosophers were discussing mysteries, and departing from the classical notions of logic, identity and noncontradiction, physicists were struggling with the mystery of spin (if a proton really has thus-and-such a diameter and its spin is measured to be another value, then there must be parts of the proton which move faster than the speed of light, meanwhile, we know that nothing moves faster than the speed of light) and particle-wave duality, etcetera.

    The discussion abruptly ended, probably because the schism between the two worlds was accepted, underscoring Father Stephen’s observations.

    Thereafter, while writing my doctoral thesis, I would spend time thinking about quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and trying to see if there was an image of God in them, if there was some representation of God in our latest physical models.

    Indeed, there seems to be a lot of compelling relations, but maybe I’d be called a heathen if I mentioned them here, because they’ve never been checked against any theology and I’m not a theologian, so I humbly refrain from elaborating on my thoughts. In any event, it helped me to bridge the two worlds and see God as coexisting with φυσις.

  31. Chocolatesa Avatar

    Thank you again for this, I appreciate these reminders of the existence of a one-storey universe rather than a two storey one where I think I am most of the time.

  32. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    Jesse, you wrote “Frankly, I wasn’t aware there were many Christian theological positions which didn’t appeal to some form of gnostic or Platonic dualism, so this has piqued my interest.”

    I think you misrepresent Plato here. He would be one to speak of there being one unified Reality. You might be interested in this: http://college-ethics.blogspot.com/2009/04/plato-and-intelligent-design.html

    Orthodox theologians place the Incarnation (God in flesh and blood) at the center of Christianity because it IS the center. You might also read this: http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2009/03/reality-is-cross-shaped.html

  33. Basil Avatar

    Christ is Risen!

    Dear ‘Wonders’;
    I am still quite an immature Christian and a real sinner, so I should be careful to speak. I know there are many noble reasons why someone like yourself might choose to stay officially outside the visible Orthodox Church, while increasingly becoming internally Orthodox.
    I wonder, not as a challenge but as one curious, how you avoid a kind of necessary gnosticism, though, if you believe it’s possible to be orthodox somehow ‘at heart’ without being Orthodox officially, from head to toe?
    And I also wonder how it can be something other than pride?
    If the Church is really here for our salvation, then I am the one who needs to be saved. I cant do anyone else any good if I remain outside the very body of Christ Himself. And in a mystery I only became closer to all those I love whom I left behind (ostensibly) when I converted from my non-Orthodox church.
    My questions are genuine. I’m not trying to bully anyone into Orthodoxy. I just wonder how you have thought your way through these things, as you appear (increasingly all the time it seems) very Orthodox-at-heart.
    Please feel free to email me as these questions are not meant antagonistically and we could hold a more honest correspondence out of sight I believe.
    my address is:
    [all one word]
    gmail dot com

    with love;
    -Mark Basil

  34. David Avatar

    I believe in the one-story Universe, but only on the testimony of others I know and trust. I have witnessed the ordinary miracles (or should I say “common” ones) we all experience. this is not to diminish the ordinary, but to ask a valid question about the extraordinary.

    Why is this one-story Universe revealed by the senses to some and not others? In other words, this blog and others have retold the tales of the appearance of Angels and the Saints. For those who experience these appearances, there is no confusion between the experience of their own senses and other’s experiences. For those of us who have never had such experiences, we are asked to live with the dissonance.

    The world of one who has never experienced such visions simply isn’t the same world as those who have. Their knowledge of God isn’t reconcilable. This is not to say that an appearance “solves everything”. The Saints testify that it can cause more trouble than it solves. But one wonders why, for those who see their atheism alone as an honest commitment to their own senses, their need isn’t met.

    I’m not talking about God appearing in the skies of the world dictating a master list of propositional-truths at a volume where no single person on the planet could resist listening. I’m talking about a heart seeking after living water that God judges is best left in dryness.

    It seems to add division to something that should be whole.

  35. dale Avatar

    just two quick comments in response to anymouse and david,
    i found that when a protestant at least (haven’t really considered it in an orthodox frame yet) learning of chaos theory enabled me to come to terms with my struggle between science and theology. it just made so much sense. i no longer saw the need for conflict between the two schools of thought. they fit rather well.

    and to davids thought… spent much time wrestling with that and wanting to “experience” that second story and this led me towards more charismatic circles of evangelicalism.. now as orthodox and bbelieving the concept of comunion it is easier to accept that I have experienced it but I have not been the eyes of the body. I have experienced what I am called to experience and not what I have not been called for. the ears may not have seen the angels but it has heard their singing.

  36. apophaticallyspeaking Avatar

    This is strange Father, I wanted to comment on a post I saw called “living in a one storey house” or “living on the first floor”. Now I can’t find the post, it disappeared.

    Well I wanted to share a passage by St John
    of Damascus that expresses the error of seeing God removed from our world, far away on the second floor somewhere.

    Creation exists outside of God, “not by place but by nature”.

  37. fatherstephen Avatar

    The disappeared because it was up for just a few hours (the few hours that I sleep). When I read it the next morning it seemed too rambling to me so I deleted it – I’ll give it another shot soon. Sorry. Well said: “not by place but by nature.”

    With slight editing, I have now published the piece. Comment freely. 🙂

  38. Seraphim Avatar

    The Orthodox Study Bible tells us simply that Jesus “took the cup and gave thanks (Gr. “Eucharist” ) and said ‘Take this and divide it amongst yourselves for I say to you I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes’” and then a little later “I bestow upon you a kingdom…” (Lk 22:17-18, 29).

    I bestow upon you a kingdom.

    Nothing remains the same.

  39. Lydia Avatar

    This is a profound and somewhat new idea to me; I thank you Father Stephen.

    Though not directally related to the main theme of this post, I am curious about your conversion from an Episcopal priest to an Orthodox that you have mentioned in this post and in others. I was baptized into the Episcopal church, and only recently have I become familiar with Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church and their claim to be the one True Church is interesting to me, to say the least, yet I am very troubled about sacraments such as baptism. Is an Episcopalian baptized in the eyes of the Orthodox Church? Would a conversion to Orthodoxy require another baptism? I have been unable to find consistent information or answers on this anywhere. If you, having converted yourself, could enlighten me I would be very grateful. Thank you for time.

    Glorifying God,

  40. fatherstephen Avatar

    In most cases, someone who is Baptized in the Episcopal Church would be received by Chrismation (anointing) rather than by Baptism.

  41. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    I was received by Chrismation as an Episcopalian. However, my baptism took place in a Baptist Church in 1966. The priest at my parish said I would likely have had to be re-baptized had I been baptized in the Episcopal Church after 1979.

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