Christianity in a One-Storey Universe

Preliminary – Death in a Two-Storey Universe

I have written before about the two-storey universe that is part of our cultural inheritance in the modern world. I have noted that the default position of our culture is secular protestantism. I have explained that I mean not that we do not believe in God, but that in our dominant cultural metaphor the God we believe in is removed from our everyday affairs. Often what we are left with is a collection of doctrines to which, for one reason or another, we have given allegiance. But there remains the two-storey universe.

Now the primary difficulty of the two storey universe is that we live on the first floor while (our metaphor would have it) God lives on the second floor. The great unspoken fear for all on the first floor is that no one actually lives on the second floor. Everytime a board creaks we quickly rush to proclaim, “Miracle,” mostly because it finally gives us some evidence that God is moving around up there.

Rumor has it that when some one of us dies, their soul gets to move to the second-storey. If, however, they were bad, or failed to have correct theology, or a number of other factors, they have to go to the basement (this actually gives us three storeys). Our culture is certain that no one goes from the basement to the second floor (this of course is guaranteed by the reading of Luke 16:26 which speaks of a “great gulf that is fixed” between the sufferings of gehenna and the joys of Paradise).

There are those who spend a great deal of time, and money, trying to prove that there really are souls of the departed on the second floor. They make the mistake of becoming Spiritualists, and are all about “proving” there is life after death.

The full effect of all of this metaphysical architecture is that we live in ignorance. We want to believe that someone is on the second floor, but we’re not sure. Thus there can be a dogged fundamentalism with regard to certain passages of Scripture and the way they are interpreted, because it is seen as the only guarantee that we’re right about the second storey. But try as we might – it is an inherent part of life in a two-storey universe that you can never be sure and that doubt always dogs your every thought.

Thus death becomes a crisis of faith. The industry surrounding death is a large part of our culture as well. Today, we often “celebrate life” rather than speak of the second story. We simply remember how good the first floor is and say goodby to those whom we will miss.

In its proclamation of the Gospel, the Orthodox Church predates the two-storey universe. This is a distinct advantage. We do not hear hymns that are full of modern doubt, nor our own lack of confidence echoing back at us. Indeed, Orthodoxy proclaims that when we gather for worship, there are no two-storeys – that Heaven and Earth are together – that we actually eat of the marriage feast – indeed its food is nothing other than the Body and Blood of God. To the question: “Do you believe in God?” We may answer: “Believe in Him? We eat His Body and drink His blood!” I mean nothing blasphemous in the statement – but simply state the facts.

It is this presence-of-Heaven-here-and-now that is Orthodoxy’s primary assault against the mistaken notions of the two-storey universe. For that proclamation is indeed the truth. Our cultural metaphor is like the lie of the White Witch who imprisoned the children beneath the moutain and told them there was no Narnia. We pray in the beginning of almost all our prayers, “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things…” Learning to pray in such a manner and to gradually come out of the darkness of the lie and into the brightness of the truth is also leaving the two-storey universe and coming to live where there is but one storey.

William Dalrymple in his wonderful book, From the Holy Mountain, relates a wonderful one-storey account of the monks (Coptic Orthodox) of the Monastery of St. Antony in the Desert of Egypt. Only the smallest hint of a two-storeyed world has reached them and find the notion unbelievable:

The monks of St. Anthony’s remain wonderfully Dark Age in their outlook and conversation. Exorcisms, miraculous healings and ghostly apparitions of long-dead saints are to the monks what doorstep milk deliveries are to suburban Londoners – unremarkable everyday occurrences that would never warrant a passing mention if foreigners did not always seem to be so inexplicably amazed by them:

“See up there?” said Abuna Dioscorus, as I was finishing my egg. He pointed to the space between the two towers of the abbey church. “In June 1987 in the middle of the night our father St. Antony appeared there hovering on a cloud of shining light.”

“You saw this?” I asked.

“No,” said Fr. Dioscorus. “I’m short-sighted.”

He took off his spectacles to show me the thickness of the glass.

“I can barely see the abbot when I sit beside him at supper,” he said. “But many other fathers saw the apparition. On one side of St. Antony stood St. Mark the Hermit and on the other was Abuna Yustus.”

“Abuna Yustus?”

“He is one of our fathers. He used to be the sacristan.”

“So what was he doing up there?”

“He had just departed this life.”

“Oh,” I said. “I see.”

“Officially he’s not a saint yet, but I’m sure he will be soon. His canonization is up for discussion at the next Coptic synod. His relics have been the cause of many miracles: blind children have been made to see, the lame have got up from their wheelchairs…”

“All the usual sort of stuff.”

“Exactly. But you won’t believe this-”

Here Fr. Dioscorus lowered his voice into a whisper.

“You won’t believe this but we had some visitors from Europe two years ago – Christians, some sort of Protestants – who said they didn’t believe in the power of relics!”

The monk stroked his beard, wide-eyed with disbelief.

“No,” he continued. “I’m not joking. I had to take the Protestants aside and explain that we believe that St. Antony and all the fathers have not died, that they live with us, continually protecting us and looking after us. When they are needed – when we go to their graves and pray to their relics – they appear and sort out our problems.”

“Can the monks see them?”

“Who? Protestants?”

“No. These deceased fathers.”

“Abuna Yustus is always appearing,” said Fr. Dioscorus matter-of-factly. “In fact one of the fathers had a half-hour conversation with him the day before yesterday. And of course St. Antony makes fairly regular appearances – although he is very busy these days answering prayers all over the world. But even when we cannot see the departed fathers we can always feel them. And besides – there are many other indications that they are with us.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What sort of indications?”

“Well, take last week for instance. The Bedouin from the desert are always bringing their sick to us for healing. Normally it is something quite simple: we let them kiss a relic, give them an aspirin and send them on their way. But last week they brought in a small girl who was possessed by a devil. We took the girl into the church, and as it was the time for vespers one of the fathers went off to ring the bell for prayers. When he saw this the devil inside the girl began to cry: ‘Don’t ring the bell! Please don’t ring the bell!’ We asked him why not. ‘Because,’ replied the devil, ‘when you ring the bell it’s not just the living monks who come into the church: all the holy souls of the fathers join with you too, as well as great multitudes of angels and archangels. How can I remain in the church when that happens? I’m not staying in a place like that.’ At that moment the bell began to ring, the girl shrieked and the devil left her! “

Fr. Dioscorus clicked his fingers: “Just like that. So you see,” he said. “That proves it.”

Indeed, it does prove it, and those of us who do spiritual battle in a two, even three-storey universe can only marvel and say, “Pray for us!” How sad for us that we perceive ourselves to be in such a small universe, longing for more, hoping for more, arguing for more, starving for more. God give us grace and have mercy on such blindness as is ours! Come and drive away the dark demons and their lies!

Part One – What Do Words Mean in a One-Storey Universe?

It seems to me that much of our religious vocabulary, defined many times within the past 500 years, is enculturated to speak a two-storey world (see the previous post for an explanation of two-storey world). Words such as “faith,” “believe,” and their relatives belong somehow to a portion of the world that is not first-storey. They are keys to the second storey, and are therefore unconvincing to the ultimate modern one-storey folk, the atheists. The abstracted notions of “imputed righteousness,” when the meaning is something other than an actual reality within the person of whom we are speaking (imputed, as in “in the mind of God”) are tailor-made for a two-storey world. It is little wonder that much religious discourse takes place in the abstracted world of the second-storey. Much doctrinal discussion is little more than moving around air (or digital events) and not about anything that someone is actually doing.

There are plenty of hucksters on the first floor, who make false claims and boast of false gifts. Televangelists playing “baseball” with the Holy Spirit, as if God were a ball of energy to be hurled across the stage at so many bowling-pin believers. This is silliness, driven by our desperation for the marriage of the first and second storey. Such hunger will always produce false prophets. Simon Magus was only the first in a long line.

But, I believe it is equally tragic when those who claim to be teachers of the Kingdom of God, are in fact only sophists, able to manipulate words and symbols in discussions about what the floor plan or the stairs to the second storey must be like, but without anything other than theory to guide. Where is the honest teacher who says, “I don’t know?”

So for the moment I will leave a question (I do plan to return and suggest some answers): what should religious language look like if it is not the language of a two-storey universe? What do words mean in a one storey universe?

Part 2 – The Meaning of Words

I have taken this discussion of life in a “one-storey” universe to that of language, precisely because I think that much of our language (as we presently define it) presumes “two-storey” meanings. One of the places I will press language is our speaking of God’s Providence.

In the “Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina,” we have a version of a prayer that can be found in similar form by other names within Orthodoxy, but certainly a prayer that expresses a very common thought:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will. At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will. Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee. Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone. O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take plce during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

Though the prayer states that “all is sent down from Thee” I would not necessarily describe this as “two-storey” language, though it could easily be taken that way. More to my point is the assumption of the prayer that God is indeed, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Equally that, “in Him we live and move and have our being.” There has been something of an abandonment of the concept of providence in many theological corners in modern times – probably brought on from the crisis within theodicy (the technical word for the understanding of the relationship between God and evil – or the question, “How is God just?”) Events of the 20th century, particularly the horrors of modern war and the like, have tended to push the question of God’s providential involvement with the everyday world to the outer realm of theological discourse. When I attended a modern Protestant seminary back in the 70’s, not once was the subject of Providence even discussed. It simply had no place at the table.

Of course, if we are to speak in a one-storey manner, Providence, God’s involvement with everything that is, cannot be avoided. Interestingly, it is not only not avoided by contemporary Orthodox spiritual teaching, it remains very much in the fore. The late Russian elder, Fr. Ioan Krestiankin, speaks constantly of God’s providence in his recently published letters. This language, interestingly, comes from one who spent part of his Christian life in the Soviet Gulag. Such mindless suffering seems to have had no effect on his perception of God’s providence.

However, many are appropriately nervous when they read accounts such as those of the monks at St. Antony’s monastery in Egypt (in my first posting on this topic). The hucksterism and spiritual delusion that are rampant in some Christian circles can easily and appropriately make people shy – who wants to live in delusion?

Thus, I think that as Christians we approach the abandonment of a two-storey universe slowly. Above everything we begin to move our Christian life out of the realm of abstraction and into the realm of living. We pray rather than think about prayer. We trust God rather than discussing the concept of trusting God. We act on the basis of faith rather than spending time talking about the importance of faith. We make every effort to embrace God as good and at work in all things.

I suppose this is a return to my writing about the small things – the immediate things. But this is where we live – and it is where we are being saved. So much of the Orthodox faith has this very concrete character about it. I have come to some fairly simple practices in my life as a priest. When someone calls me at Church to ask for prayer – particularly for matters of great moment – I leave the office – go in the Church – and offer a Molieben (it’s a short service of prayer, designed particularly for just such occasions). It takes about 20 minutes – but it’s what I was asked to do – to pray.

By the same token we bring our faith into this blessed first storey (indeed probably the only storey of the universe) by doing here what we were commanded to do – pray, give, forgive, love, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc. It is in such straightforward activities rather than in the abstractions that would call us away that we will find Christ, the saints, the angels and the whole of our faith.

God is with us.

Part 3 – The Meaning of Language

Having pointed out that much of popular Christian language (and some images in sacred texts) lend themselves to the notion of a “two-storey” universe – and having noted that the second storey as the dwelling place of all things spiritual has almost insurmountable problems – how should we speak about such things?

First, it seems that it’s worth thinking about what the words we use really mean in the first place. Perhaps the most common and universally used prayer in the Christian faith is the one taught us by Christ Himself. The prayer begins, “Our Father who art in heaven…” or does it? The text in the Greek varies. In some cases it reads “in the heavens” (plural) in others simply, “in heaven.” Of course Christian theology teaches us that though we may use spatial language to speak of God, we cannot say that there is some space “up there” where God dwells. God is not a creature such that He needs a place to dwell. In that sense, the word “heaven” becomes something of a grammatical place holder, a word that allows us to speak of “where” God is – all of which is fine – unless we become literal about it and make God subject to limitations that are simply incorrect. In that sense “heaven” is as “unspatial” as God is Himself.

If you read classical theological texts such as those of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, it is quite clear that the Church has always understood that God is utterly transcendant. He is “beyond being,” in the language of St. Dionysius. The Fathers would say, in speaking of God’s Being, that in comparison to our “being,” God is not – meaning that though we speak of ourselves as having “being,” the “Being” that God has is wholly other and is not to be thought of as having an existence that is like our existence.

In the same vein, the Fathers teach us that God is completely beyond our knowing. Or as Father Thomas Hopko says, “It is impossible to know God – but you have to know Him to know that.” This, of course, plays on the understanding that the God who is beyond knowledge, who could not have been known by us, willingly made Himself known, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. Thus Christ will say that “no one knows the Father except the Son” (Matt. 11:27).

Christ’s promise to us is that “he who eats my [Christ’s] flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56). It doesn’t say that if you do this you will have visions of a second storey heaven or such things. The language is very “first storey.” Eat, drink, abide. The words are very here and now, though they change the nature of here and now. We are suddenly indwelt by Someone Whom even the universe cannot contain. That reality changes us.

This morning I was thinking on these things as I celebrated the Divine Liturgy. It is quite clear in the Liturgy that the “here and now” has something completely different about it because of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. For instance the Liturgy says:

Remembering this saving commandment [”Do this in remembrance of me, etc.”] and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious Coming.

It is fairly commonplace in Orthodoxy to note that Chrysostom’s Liturgy speaks of the Second Coming in the past tense. Not because we believe that Christ came for a second time at sometime in the past, but that because of what is happening in the Liturgy, we may speak of the Second Coming in the past tense. We are standing at the Messianic Banquet. If it is Christ who dwells in us and we in Him, then how is it possible that we are not with Him at the beginning and the end (since He Himself is the Beginning and the End)?

The coming of Christ into our world, or rather the manifestation of God to us in this world, has radically changed this world. Part of the proclamation of the Orthodox faith is the true nature of life in this world:

God is with us! Understand Ye nations and submit yourselves for God is with us!

…we sing in the service of Compline. If God is with us, then what must this world truly be? The patriarch Jacob once fell asleep and had a dream. In the dream he saw a ladder stretching “from the earth into heaven.” He saw angels ascending and descending on the ladder. When he awoke he made a very strange statement (at least from the perspective of our post-Freudian world):

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17).

Of course, Jacob made a very first-storey response: he set up a stone, poured oil on it [consecrating it] and promised to serve God and to give Him the tenth of all he had.

It is incorrect to think of the world of our faith in two-storey form. The Incarnation, at the very least, reveals that to be not the case. God is with us and has come to abide in us. That truly makes this storey the first.

Part 4 – Speaking of Christianity

Some years back, the Evangelical-convert-to-Rome, Thomas Howard, wrote a book, Splendor in the Ordinary. In it he argued for a sacramental world view and spoke of how that might effect the local home. I recall the book because it came out while I was in seminary and caused a minor stir. Some of us were interested in a more sacramental life – but we as yet had no idea either of the scope of the problem nor of the seriousness of the cure.

The creation of “ordinariness,” is itself a bit of a problem. According to the Oxford English Dictionary – the word comes into its present meaning in the 16th and 17th centuries, having had much more technical legal and ecclesiastical meanings prior to that.

(Please forgive the aside…in Anglican usage, a seminary frequently is an island unto itself, not subject to a particular Bishop – as such it is known as a Peculiar. The Dean, who heads the seminary is thus in charge of its order, as a bishop is of a diocese and is thus its Ordinary. When I was in seminary we relished the fact that our Dean was, technically, the Ordinary of the Peculiar. There was much debate as to whether he was more ordinary or peculiar but this was never settled….)

But the rise of the new meaning of “ordinary,” meaning “common” or “just the usual,” was thus a modern, or post Reformation event. Howard argued in his book that the rise of the ordinary was the mark of the fall of the sacramental. As the world became rid of sacramental presence, it became something else – the ordinary world. And, of course, with a word like ordinary or usual, it was presumed that the sacramental was thus somehow extraordinary and unusual. As goes the sacrament, so goes God. Adam and Eve had been expelled from the Garden of Eden. With the 16th and 17th century, man returned the favor.

This is another way of speaking about a two-storey universe – a world where there is ordinary and extraordinary, usual and unusual. If one adds to this the sameness of mass-produced goods, and the sameness of the Organization Man,  our modern world has little room for either man (as unique) or God. It is hardly surprising that we’re as crazy as we are.

Not until we cease to divide the world into ordinary and extraordinary, into usual and unusual, into sacred and secular, will we have either the possibility of knowing God, much less living the Christian life. What substitutes for both is a second-storey belief system that is held up either by rigid abstract dogmatics or various fundamentalisms, or by fear of the abyss of atheism and meaninglessness. The first is not necessary and the second is our own creation.

Father Alexander Schmemann is quoted as saying that when we bless something, we do not make it into something other than what it is, but reveal it to be what it has always been. This can either be viewed as “theological sleight of hand” or (by some) as somehow lessening the sacraments – making little distinction as it does between ordinary and the holy. On the other hand, when Orthodox priests go to various portions of water at Theophany – the local river, an ocean, a spring, etc., and do the service for the blessings of waters, how far does the blessing extend? Is there a three mile limit to sanctity? We call on the rivers, “the blessing of Jordan.” A similar question: how long does the blessing last? What is the half-life of holiness? We have been blessing all the waters of the world for centuries. Schmemann’s explanation is the only one that makes sense.

It is certainly the case that holy water is holy water – and yet when Christ entered the waters of the Jordan – we are not told that John prayed a blessing over the water. None was necessary. Christ is who He is, and the waters are what they are (and they are more than what many think the waters to be). The icon of the Theophany reveals the Jordan to be Hades itself, the chaos of darkness into which we had plunged ourselves. Christ enters the waters just as at the Cross He entered Hades. In the waters He “crushed the heads of the dragons” (quoting the psalm noted in the prayer of blessing), just as in Hades He crushed that old serpent, the enemy of man.

At Christ’s Baptism there is a Theophany, a revealing of God, but there is also an Epiphany, a revealing of the world in its greater meaning. Every tree, every rock, every word and action – all things have their meaning in relationship to God – not as things-in-themselves. And it is only as they are handled as having their meaning in relationship to God that they will be handled rightly. The earth itself bears the scars of man’s declaration of ordinariness. It is not a word of blessing but a curse.

My oldest daughter, Matushka Mary, was relating to me some things from the writing of a diocesan priest in the area around Krasnoyarsk, Russia (she lived there for a year). He was commenting on various Scriptural events, with an eye to its typology that was wondrously revelatory. He noted, she said, that Christ took away the curse that had been on the earth when he accepted the crown of thorns. The earth had been cursed on account of the first Adam when it was said:

…cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. ” (Genesis 3:17-19)

My daughter (quoting the priest) added, “not only does he bear the thorns brought forth from the earth as in the curse, but for the sweat of man’s brow, he offers His own sweat as blood, when He does the righteous work of prayer and obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane.”

What wonderful images!

But these are images that reveal the ground to be what it now isblessed because it was the tomb of Christ’s body. The trees, blessed because upon them hung the one who suspended the universe. The rocks are blessed, because they reveal Christ, who as the Rock was cleft and water flowed to save Israel from its thirst. Everything is blessed and revealed as blessed when we know the One Who blessed it. Only in knowing Him do we see the world for what it is, and understand that the gates to Paradise have been opened to us.

Part 5 – Living a One-Storey Life

I have chosen to use language of the “first and second storey” to describe the kind of bifurcation that the modern world has experienced over the past several centuries. Its results have been to smash the religious world into “sacred” and “secular” and to make believing both harder and disbelief more natural. Thus, to many atheists their world view seems obvious, while believers try to make leaps of logic and argument that render their own thought more schizophrenic.

There is obviously a problem. I have tried to describe the problems and to suggests why such language is either to be treated as metaphor, at best, or avoided when possible. The Christian faith is that God is with us. The Christian life is lived moment by moment in union with God and in harmony with nature which God has rendered the bearer of the holy and the place of communion.

Living a one storey life can be described as simply living here and now. It is being present to God Who is present to us. It is recognizing the true nature of the created world as the arena of both our struggle and our serenity. Our argument with those who do not believe should not be about whether or not their is a second storey to our universe, but about the true nature of the universe in which we live. Whenever Christians allow the gospel to be shoved upstairs, we have allowed ourselves to be disregarded and the gospel to be marginalized. God did not become flesh and dwell among us in order to establish the truth of a second storey universe: he came to redeem the one we live in. Those who cannot recognize hell among us will also be blind to paradise as well. Christ reveals both. Our daily struggle is to live in the latter and to proclaim the gospel to those who live in the former, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Part 6 – Christian Atheism

The title for this post sounds like an oxymoron, and, of course, it is. How can one be both an atheist and a Christian? Again, I am wanting to push the understanding of the one-versus-two-storey universe. In the history of religious thought, one of the closest versions to what I am describing as a “two-storey” world-view, is that espoused by classical Deism (the philosophy espoused by a number of the American founding fathers).

They had an almost pure, two-storey worldview. God, “the Deity,” had created the universe in the beginning, setting it in motion. He had done so in such a way that the world could be described as directed by His Providence, but not in any sense interfered with after its creation. Thomas Jefferson produced a New Testament, wholly in tune with this philosophy. He expunged all reference to miracle and kept only those things he considered to have a purpose in “moral teaching.” The creator had accomplished His work: it was up to us to conform ourselves to His purposes and morality – which were pretty indistinguishable from natural law. If you read the writings of the period it’s much more common to read Providence where a Christian might put God. Many modern evangelicals mistakenly read such statements as Christian.

Functionally, other than having some notion of an original Creator, Deists were practical atheists. The God Who created had completed His work. Ethics were as much a matter of scientific discovery as any other principle of physics. They believed in something they called “God” or “Providence” but only in a very divorced sense. It would be hard to distinguish their thought from that of an atheist except that they clung to an idea of God at least as the initiator of all things.

I have here introduced the notion of “practical atheism,” meaning by it, that although a person may espouse a belief in God, it is quite possible for that belief to be so removed from everyday life, that God’s non-existence would make little difference.

Surprisingly, I would place some forms of Christian fundamentalism within this category (as I have defined it). I recall a group affiliated with some particular Church of Christ, who regularly evangelized our apartment complex when I lived in Columbia, S.C. They were also a constant presence on the campus of the local university. They were absolute inerrantists on the subject of the Holy Scriptures. They were equally adamant that all miracles had ceased with the completion of the canon of the New Testament. Christians today only relate to God through the Bible.

Such a group can be called “Biblicists,” or something, but, in the terminology I am using here, I would describe them as “practical atheists.” Though they had great, even absolutist, faith in the Holy Scriptures, they had no relationship with a God who is living and active and directly involved in their world. Had their notion of a God died, and left somebody else in charge of His heaven, it would not have made much difference so long as the rules did not change.

I realize that this is strong criticism, but it is important for us to understand what is at stake. The more the secular world is exalted as secular, that is, having an existence somehow independent of God, the more we will live as practical atheists – perhaps practical atheists who pray (but for what do we pray?). I would also suggest that the more secular the world becomes for Christians, the more political Christians will become. We will necessarily resort to the same tools and weapons as those who do not believe.

Christianity that has purged the Church of the sacraments, and of the sacramental, have only ideas which can be substituted – the result being the eradication of God from the world in all ways other than theoretical. Of course, since much of modern Christianity functions on this ideological level rather than the level of the God-Who-is among-us, much of Christianity functions in a mode of practical atheism. The more ideological the faith, the more likely its proponents are to expouse what amounts to a practical atheism.

Orthodox Christianity, with its wealth of dogma and Tradition, could easily be translated into this model – and I have encountered it in such a form. But it is a falsification of Orthodoxy. Sacraments must not be quasi-magical moments in which a carefully defined grace is transmitted to us – they must, instead, threaten to swallow up the whole world. The medieval limitation of sacraments to the number 7 comes far too close to removing sacraments from the world itself. Orthodoxy seems to have declared that there are 7 sacraments solely as a response to Western Reform and Catholic arguments. In some sense, everything is a sacrament – the whole world is a sacrament.

However, if we only say that the whole world is a sacrament, soon nothing will be a sacrament. Thus the sacraments recognized as such by the Church, should serve not just for pointing to themselves, but also pointing to God and to everything around us. Holy Baptism should change all water. The Cross should change all trees, etc. But Baptism gives the definition: water does not define Baptism. Neither do trees define the Cross. Nor does man define Christ. Christ defines what it is to be human, etc.

The more truly sacramental becomes the Christian life, the more thoroughly grounded it is in the God-Who-is-among-us. Such a God is indeed, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Our options are between such a God – as proclaimed in the New Testament – or a God who need be no God at all for He is removed from us anyway.

At the Divine Liturgy, before approaching the Communion Cup, Orthodox Christians pray together:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ the Son of the living God who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first. I believe also that this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own precious Blood. Therefore, I pray Thee: have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, committed in knowledge or in ignorance. And make me worthy to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries, for the remission of my sins, and unto life everlasting. Amen.

There is not a single hint of a distance between us and God. At this point, having prepared for communion, having confessed our sins, we stand at the very center of the universe, before the God Who Is, before the God with Whom Moses conversed on Mt. Sinai, and we receive His true Body and Blood.

Such realism of a first-storey character makes bold claims about the nature of the God whom we worship and how it is that we relate to Him. It’s removal from the “end of miracles” deism of some Biblicists could not be more complete.

There is a dialog that may take place between Christians and atheists. But there is, prior to that, an even more important dialog to be had, and that is with the practical atheism of Christians who have exiled God from the world around us. Such practical atheism is a severe distortion of the Christian faith and an extremely poor substitute for the real thing.

Richard John Neuhaus has written frequently of returning the Church to the public square. I think the problem is far deeper. In many cases we have to speak about returning God to the Church. In cases where practical atheism is the faith of a goup of “believers,” their presence in the public square makes no difference. Who cares?

But within the Orthodox faith, God cannot be exiled from our world no matter how men try. He has come among us, and not at our invitation. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He is already in the Public Square as the Crucified God who is reconciling the world to Himself, whether we like it or not. The opposite of practical atheism is to do the only thing the Christianity of the first-storey can do: keep His commandments and fall down and worship – for God is with us.

Part 7 – Icons in a One Storey Universe

I’ll ask my readers to forgive me as I look at yet another aspect of the Christian life when the idea of a two-storey universe is jettisoned and we come to realize that we are living in a one-storey world: that God is with us. Readership has remained very high over the past week or so, so I will take that to mean that many people are interested in this approach and the insights it brings.

Icons are popularly referred to as “windows to heaven.” This is one of the places where language breaks down. If you are using language in a two-storey world, “heaven” is the equivalent of “upstairs.” It would thus be very peculiar to describe something as being a “window to upstairs.” The very language of the Church shows that it means something quite different.

Icons are not windows to another world, per se, but are a revelation of the truth of existence. When we paint an icon of a saint, the effort is to paint the saint in the truth of their life, not in their mere historical appearance. Thus the symbolism of the Byzantine style, points us towards the holiness of a saint. The same thing could be acheived by writing their lives – but an icon does the same with a single picture.

The same is true of icons depicting Biblical scenes. The icon of the crucifixion famously contains many elements that you would not literally have seen that day in Jerusalem – but if you knew the Truth of all that was happening – then you would know all that is shown in the icon.

This is one of the great difficulties of our one-storey world. It’s not that we live on the first floor and that’s all there is – it’s that we live on the first floor and we don’t know the half of it. We do not realize the true nature of where we are or when we are. Icons frequently show us much about the world as it truly is. This is the character of much of the lives we read about in the saints – they not only see what we see – they see much more. Indeed, we are told, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is not a reference to a notion that if you’re pure in heart, someday you will die and see the Lord. This completely misunderstands the verse.

The verse tells us that the primary organ of vision for human beings is not the eye, but the heart. Our eyes will only see what our hearts will allow. Thus we almost never see the truth of our enemies – as our language says, “We are blinded to the truth.” Anger blinds. Hatred blinds. Greed blinds. Politics blind. Many things blind.

Thus a great part of the Orthodox life is living in such a way that we will be able to see more and more clearly the truth of our own existence and of the world around us. There are those (non-Orthodox) who view the making and venerating of icons as a non-essential in Christianity. They may be willing to tolerate it, but see no necessity in it. Making and venerating icons, in the wisdom of the Church, is not only pleasant, but quite necessary. The veneration of an icon is an essential part of actually seeing it. The persons or situations that are presented to us in an icon are situations that call for humility of heart and a feeling of reverence. In some cases the reverence is so deep that we not only kiss the icon involved, we actually prostrate ourselves to the ground before it before we kiss it (this is the case in the Holy Cross and in the Burial Shroud of Christ).

We have a culture where people bow themselves before money, before food, before the flesh, before power, before almost anything but not the things of God. Our hearts are thus poisoned and our vision becomes clouded. We cannot see or judge anything correctly. We do not see or know the true God, nor do we see our neighbors for who they truly are. The only corrective is to live a life learning to rightly honor those things that should be honored. If kissing an icon seems foreign, it may be merely cultural, but, mind you, ours is a culture that has not taught us how to honor the things of God.

When someone is entering the Church through Baptism they renounce the devil and have prayers of exorcism read over them. Then they turn towards the East, towards the altar of God, and are told to worship Him. At that point they bow to the ground for the first time. They are then given the Creed to recite. There is an understanding that unless you bow down to the Lord God and worship Him, the words of the Creed will remain closed to you. You will not hear them rightly nor find them to be for your salvation.

Thus we walk through this one-storey world and pray to have our eyes opened. We make the sign of the cross frequently, almost as if we were brushing away the clouds of delusion that rise up from everything around us. We invoke the name of Christ without ceasing, begging His mercy.

Icons are windows – to heaven. But heaven is a window on this world. Christ Himself told us that the Kingdom of God is among us. Blessed be His name and may we see with pure hearts what only the Light of Christ can illumine.

The Desert – Struggling in a One-Storey Universe

One of the best-known sayings to have come from the Desert Fathers is: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” To a large degree the saying extols the virtue of stability. Moving from place to place never removes the problem – it only postpones the inevitable. Somewhere, sometime we have to face the heart of our struggle and by the grace of God overcome. Of course, not everyone is entirely successful in such struggles in the course of this life. How our healing is completed beyond this life is left to the mystery of grace.

There is nothing secular about the desert, the arena of our spiritual struggle. The early monastics who fled to the desert for prayer did not think that they were avoiding problems by seeking out such solitude. St. Athanasius, in the 4th century, had written the Life of St. Antony, one of the first and greatest of all hermits. That book, in a time before printing presses and book agents, still became a “best-seller.” It was read by many and propelled literally hundreds of thousands of young men and women into the monastic life. Modern Christians are overwhelmed when they hear the estimates of the number of monastics by the 5th century. It is hard to believe that the desert could sustain so many.

But that book on the life of St. Antony, held no romanticism for the desert life. Antony’s life of prayer is also a life of struggle against demons. They literally toss him about and beat him up. If anything, such a novel should have made generations afraid to go near the desert.

In the 6th chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul had written:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (11-12).

St. Paul’s observation that the struggle was against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (literally the “heavenlies”) clearly did not dissuade the hordes of hermits from invading the deserts of Africa and the Mideast or the islands and caves of Gaul and the British Isles. One simple reason was that the “heavenlies” was not a description of a two-storey (or more) universe, but simply a description of the nature of the struggle. Those “heavenly places” were as much the territory of the human heart as anything. St. Macarius, a desert dweller, would write:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

 The heavenly cities are not to be found in contemplating some second storey of the universe, but are to be found within the terrible (in the classic sense of the word) confines of the human heart. This was the great promise of the desert: that in solitude and quiet, through prayer and fasting, a man could enter the depths of his heart and there do the warfare that had been given to us to do. Some few became great saints. Others found only madness. Orthodox Christianity received something of a handbook on warfare in that land of the heart in such writings as the Lives of the Fathers, the Philokalia, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and other similar works. They have remained staples of the spiritual life ever since.

The struggle in the desert does not ignore relationships with other human beings. But it recognizes that the trouble in those relationships does not lie in other human beings, but within my own heart. Christ did not suffer from trouble in His relationships with humanity. He was at peace with all. We cannot do more than be like Christ, who Himself began His ministry in the desert, defeating the enemy.

Later Orthodox reflection has widened the desert and recognized that it includes all territory. There is no place we go where the struggle can be differently defined. In the city, in a factory, an office or in school, the battlefield of our spiritual life remains within our own heart. Solitude is only a tool in learning to recognize that fact and to focus our attention on where our attention needs to be.

Obviously, most of us do not leave the company of other human beings in our journey to salvation. But we should draw proper conclusions from the men and women who first entered the deserts and left us the records of their struggles. We do not labor in a secular land beneath the watchful eye of second-storey perfection. We labor in the land where heavenly wickedness does its battle: the human heart. And if our hearts are where the arena is to be found, then we should recognize as well that it is in that very arena that the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is to be found as well. The vast array of saints described by St. Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews who, having completed the course of their warfare, now surround us as spectators in the arena of our warfare, should themselves not be relegated to some distant second-storey where they watch us from afar. Thus it is not a strange thing that those who do spiritual warfare best also have many friends among the saints, and learn to call on them for aid. For though it may seem like “my” struggle, it is the struggle of all who name Christ as Lord. The saints do not surround us like a great cloud of witnesses in idle curiosity. They surround us to strengthen and aid us, to encourage us, and even, if need be, to fight along side us. Such is our heavenly warfare of the heart.

To spend time with someone who has learned well the battle of the heart is to sit at the gate of paradise. On some few occasions I have had opportunity to meet such warriors. The peace that is theirs, the complete lack of self-consciousness are signals that you have come to a new country. Such living witnesses are the loudest proclamation of the gospel known on earth. For in their heart, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. These are the dwelling places of the New Jerusalem and the living promises of God. Their hearts point us to the place where we should be engaging the struggle and remind us that with God all things are possible.

Icons – A Room with a View

Dreams are interesting things – our modern age either makes too little of them or too much of them – but mostly, we believe our dreams are about us and about the inside of our heads. Those who make too little of their dreams write them off to anxiety or other stresses of the day – wish fulfillment – or a variety of other mundane causes. Those who make too much of them remind me of those who are Western believers in reincarnation – they always seem to have been somebody famous – while their dreaming counterparts always try to find the meaning of the universe or something equally significant in the slightest symbol. I don’t mean to sound so jaundiced on the subject, but I once spent a week at a Jungian Conference (long ago and far away and definitely in a different galaxy). Such a week can make you afraid to go to sleep.

But dreams certainly have a signficance – and as shown in Scripture, they can indeed be sent by God. My favorite Biblical dream is that of Jacob, who sees a ladder stretching into the heavens and angels going up and coming down. His reaction upon waking was to attribute the dream to the place in which he was sleeping:”This is none other than the gate of heaven and the house of God!” And, of course, as the good patriarch that he was he erected a stone and anointed it with oil.

Years ago, some years before I became Orthodox, I had a dream in which I was in a Church. Its construction was of log-timber and it was obvious to me that it was an Orthodox Church. There were icons and lampadas, and a sizable crowd of people. What fascinated me about this dream-Church were its many rooms. Everywhere you went there were steps up and steps down and rooms here and rooms there and all of them full of people and icons and lampadas and the faint smell of incense and the low murmur of worship and prayers. I remember the dream lasting quite a while, but with nothing more significant than the many rooms – and how it felt to be there.

That feeling is what remained with me when I awoke and remains with me to this day. The description I have given is probably the best I can do, for I have no words for how it felt, other than to say it felt like an Orthodox Church – but an almost endless Orthodox Church.

Having written a week or so back about the Christian life lived in a one-storey universe, I am reminded of that Church in my dream. It was certainly a one-storey Church – and yet it constantly opened up into place after place.

This week I am studying the painting (or writing if you prefer) of icons. They are often called “windows to heaven.” In the Church of my dream, or certainly within the metaphor it has left in my heart, I also think of them as doors to another room. Each saint, each icon of Christ or of the Theotokos, opens not just to heaven, but to ever deeper rooms within the world in which we inhabit. To spend time with an icon is not to visit some other place only to return to where you were before, but is to enter another room though you never left where you were. The world is changed, enlarged. What seemed small and insignificant is suddenly expanded and filled with meaning. The finite is filled with the infinite and becomes inexhaustible.

I remember waking from my dream years ago, and aching with a hunger for something I could not name. But I know now that it was a hunger for heaven – and not for a heaven somewhere else, but for heaven on earth – which in Orthodox dogma – is indeed the Church.

What Do You See Outside Your Window? Evil in a One-Storey Universe

A question was put several days back about what would be said about “evil in a one-storey universe?” Of course, as I’ve thought about the question, my simplest conclusion is to wonder how one would give an account of evil in a two-storey universe. For it seems that those who have imagined the universe as a two-storey affair have largely confined evil here and proposed that the second-floor has been swept clean. Heaven above and earth below, and a basement yet to come where the evil will at least be confined in everlasting flames. Of course the multi-storey version of good and evil do nothing to solve the problem and do much to create a secular no-man’s land, increasingly populated with those who cannot believe in either a second-storey nor a basement and frequently see believers among the evil in this world (if only to complicate matters).

Of course, the two Biblical books that treat the imagery of spiritual warfare with the evil one in the most literal fashion, have Satan standing before God and holding converse about the long-suffering Job (in the book of the same name) and engaged in a “war in heaven” with St. Michael and the angels in the other (the Revelation of St. John). In neither account is the location of great significance, for the center of action in both books in not “heaven” but rather earth – with St. Job’s sufferings in the one, and the various plagues and misfortunes befalling the earth in the other. Indeed, if the drama of either book is examined, the “heavenly” scenes, are rather more like ante-rooms than an upper-storey.

But the question remains – what account do we give of evil if we speak of the universe in the language of a single storey? I am a believer and as such generally find the source of evil in the abuse of free will, whether of human beings or on the part of heavenly beings (the demonic). Nor do I see that account as different than the theological account to be found in the Fathers. What I bear witness to as a believer, however, is less an account of the origin of evil than to my faith that our universe, though caught in the throes of death and decay, has nevertheless been entered by its Creator, who having taken flesh of the Virgin, has entered into the very depths of death and decay – themselves the result of evil – and defeated them. And thus I see this one-storey world in which I live as the active stage upon which that same victory is being manifest. I cannot say in the least that I see that victory increasingly manifest – for the Christian account of the world is not an account of progress towards the Kingdom of God, but a witness to the fact that the Kingdom of God has entered our world and there is nothing we can do about it. We can, of course, repent, believe the Gospel, and by God’s grace come to know that Kingdom within our selves and within the world in which we live (all of which is the gift of God) but we will also know that Kingdom in the midst of this same storey, which continues to lie in darkness and to endure the presence and work of evil.

Of course, there is much conversation about the metaphysics of evil and the nature of hell and eternal punishment – and though I have recommended articles on the same that I find of value – I think that a large amount of Christian energy is wasted on such matters. For it is not the mastery of the metaphysics of the universe that makes any difference, but rather the embrace of the Gospel of Christ and obedience to His commandments. Those who point to the plenitude of evil around us will get little argument from me, other than to say that what appears to be a plenitude is a “kingdom” that cannot stand, and that it’s end will come. I received a post that got lost in the spam yesterday complaining of the evil within the world, and wondering how I could speak of “heaven on earth.” I cannot think of anywhere else to speak of it, since all I know of heaven its what came forth from the tomb at Pascha. That same resurrected Christ is now Head of His body, the Church, and I cannot know of how to speak of that Body if it is not heaven on earth (despite all that we sinners may drag within her) but all the sickness that enters the doors of a hospital do not make it less a place a healing – I cannot do other with the Body of Christ but bear witness to the very fact that it exists for nothing other than healing. The only weakness within the Church is when we “patients” forget why we came in its doors in the first place, and begin to imagine either that we are already healed, or worse, that someone has turned us into the medical staff.

But though the one-storey world as we know it is itself a cosmic war zone, I cannot lose hope when I know that the end of the battle has already been accomplished in the coming of Christ. I wait for its manifestation – but having known the risen Lord – I wait with hope and run the race with patience. What else are we supposed to do?

Time in a One-Storey Universe

It seems to me as I’ve looked over my posts on the “one-storey” world, that one thing I have not paid much attention to is time. Part of the “two-storey” construct which dominates our modern world-view, is a tendency to view time in a purely linear, historical progression. Thus for some very conservative two-storey Christians, time begins at creation, and moves along in a linear fashion. Thus the timing of Adam and the fall become critical historical problems. There are those who are thus forced to argue for a “young earth.” A museum opened this past year in which the young earth was celebrated, the dinosaurs depicted as cohabiting the world with Adam and Eve. It adds a whole new dimension to life in the Garden of Eden.

This same treatment of time may have an emphasis on the “last days,” in some cases arguing strongly that we are in just such days. The “Left Behind” series of novels celebrates this linear view. And although, properly speaking, the end of history may be referred to as the “eschaton,” the linear, two-storey version of time and life on earth, actually lacks an eschatological dimension. There is nothing about the end that is different from the rest of time with the sole factor of its timing. It is the end, because it is the last thing in a long progression. Prophecy about such an end is not about the nature of things, but simply about the progression of things. This is not Biblical eschatology.

Of course, this is a hallmark of the two-storey worldview. It is inherently secular (even when it’s religious). That which is significant and of everlasting value has been placed “off world” in a second-storey. This world simply continues until it is brought to its cataclysmic end, trucks running off the road, airplanes crashing, and all the rest of the tragic scenario of Dispensationalism (of course it’s quite possible to be a two-storey Christian without at the same time being a Dispensationalist).

However, as noted, this modernized world-view has no proper eschatology, and does not have a proper Christian view of time. Christ, we are told in Scripture, is the “Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 21:6). This is not simply a way of saying that He is eternal and was here when everything was created and will be here when everything ends. To view Him in such a manner, is to privilege creation in a way that sets it on a par with God, only shorter.

Scripture does not tell us that Christ was the Alpha and He will be the Omega – He is already both, always. When Christ walked among His disciples, the end of the age had come upon them. It is thus that His ministry is marked with the character of a “Jubilee” year, the 50th year in the Sabbath Cycle, in which everything is set free, and restored to its proper owner and order. Thus when St. John the Baptist sends word to ask whether Christ is the Messiah, Christ’s answer is couched in the language of the Jubilee:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me (Matt. 11:4-6).

In the same vein He announces His ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:16-19).

This passage is a traditional Jubilee passage. The Jubilee itself, though occurring every 50 years, is also a type of the eschaton, the Great Day of the Lord, when the Judge will come and all things will be set right. The healing ministry of Jesus must be seen in this light. He does what He does, because He is the Omega, and where He walks the Jubilee has come. He is the End of History tabernacling in time.

By the same token – all that is associated with Him takes on this same cast. Thus, we are no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of Heaven:

But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,21 who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:20-21).

Thus the Church, though in this world, is not of this world. Properly, the Church is an eschatological moment. It Baptizes into the death of Christ and raises in the likeness of His resurrection, thus casting time aside and treating these historical events as present, because in the presence of Christ all moments are present. The Church eats of an eschatological meal, enjoying the food of the Messianic banquet now, because in Christ that moment is already made present to the Church.

Dostoevsky’s famous Grand Inquisitor is a frontal assault on the Church acting not as eschatological community but the arbiter of history. In Dostoevsky “poem,” the Grand Inquisitor will have nothing to do with Christ other than to threaten Him for heresy and subject Him to the Inquisition. The Church will achieve what it sees God has having failed to do. There are a thousand ways to run this story – whether it is the Liberation Theology of South America, or the Swastika bedecked Churches who sought to Baptize a demoniac regeme. At points in time Christians have lost the proper identity of the Church as an eschatological moment and, through various schemes and arrangements, has either sought to prop up regemes that were judged useful to the Church’s needs, or even to have simply replaced the regeme with the Church itself. This is the ultimate triumph of secularism. To declare the Church as the Kingdom Come when it is living as nothing of the sort is to dress up a donkey and call him “Aslan.” Some may fall for it, but none of us should. It is a false eschatology.

The act of forgiveness is a true eschatological triumph. Trapped in history, modern man sees no way forward but to fight for domination: to the victor goes the spoils. Forgiveness is weakness and a good way to lose tomorrow what we gained yesterday. However, in radical obedience to the gospel of Christ, Christians behave in an eschatological manner: we forgive our enemies because we have already seen the outcome of history in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and thus do not need to force the behavior of our enemies in order to create a desired outcome. In the light of Christ’s triumph, we may forgive those who hurt us, because we know of the forgiveness that is and will be ours. The forgiveness of enemies is a proclamation of the victory of Christ – both now and forever.

The resurrection itself is the great sign of our forgiveness. Having obtained death as the outcome of our disobedience, we obtain the forgiveness of death in our resurrection. In a thousand ways in which the life of the Church is made manifest in this world – it shows forth not a linear progression through history – but an inbreaking of the Kingdom. Time has been ruptured, fulfilled, overcome.

We may live in a one-storey universe – but this one-storey universe is not a linear progression of events. It is the arena in which the Lord of time, transcends time. It is the arena in which the Cause is born in the midst of time. Thus St. Maximus can say that the “incarnation is the cause of all things.” In this one-storey universe icons become windows to heaven, doorways to the eschaton, for each portrayal in an icon is drawn in an eschatological manner. Thus we can see an icon of St. John the Baptist (with his head on his shoulders) with his head also on a charger lying at his feet. This is only possible for we are seeing all things together as we gaze through a window that shatters the boundaries of time.

It is also a reason why it is quite problematic when Orthodox Christians see themselves primarily as the keepers and conservers of the past. We do not look back and think that the 1st century was the best; or the 4th; or the 8th; or the 15th; or the 19th, etc. We are “stewards of the mysteries of God,” which no time can limit or define. We are the same Church in the 21st century as we were in the 1st century because we have always been the Church which is Christ’s eschatological bride. We are the Church of all centuries because we will be and are the Church at the end of the age.

Blessed is the Kingdom, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.


72 responses to “Christianity in a One-Storey Universe”

  1. […] New “Page” Posted I have combined the series on the one-and-two-storey universe into a six-part series and posted it under the Pages section on the right margin of the Blog. People can now click and read the entire string. I hope this will be of interest to some. It is in the pages section with the title: Christianity in a One Storey Universe. […]

  2. […] Christianity in a One-Storey Universe […]

  3. […] Christianity in a One-Storey Universe « Glory to God for All Things Christianity in a One-Storey Universe « Glory to God for All Things […]

  4. […] series of posts that he bundled together that is essential reading, in my opinion, entitled Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.  It will make you think, but I think he is right about our relationship with God and His with us […]

  5. Petros Avatar

    Bless, Father.

    Are you going to add the post about icons to this page?

  6. Kevin Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I enjoyed this series, and learned much from it; however, this series has reminded me of a lingering question: exactly what do Orthodox believe heaven is? Your series leads me to believe heaven and earth are and are not distinct. I know Orthodox believe heaven is the dwelling place of God, angels, and the saints, but is it physical? Do the souls of the deceased saints / Christians dwell there and await the resurrection (or, if it is completely outside of time, do they already have their glorified bodies?) I believe it is very easy for Christians to think of heaven and earth as two distinct “storeys”, one being physical and spiritual, the other only spiritual.
    Also, how can it be that saints are in heaven and visit here on earth?

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    We certainly believe in the reality of God, the saints, angels, and heaven, but I am suggesting that it is less than helpful to think of it as a “second storey”, removed. It is certainly the teaching of the Fathers that all these things also dwell in the human heart. That there is more to it than that, of course, but it becomes very problematic as I have shown to dwell on that in a spatial sense. Before long, we will have rid our world of all that is spiritual, which is tragic. We should dwell on what we can know and leave aside what we cannot know. We can know God in our heart, etc. Therefore, seek him there.

  8. Kevin Avatar

    Ok, thank you Father.

    It have found your posts encouraging. God be with you.

  9. Richard Collins Avatar


    What is the Orthodox view of the ‘destiny of all things’? Given that Heaven and Earth are two overlaping realities, is it the Orthodox ‘hope’ that the day will come when these two realities are fully and finally connected?

    I’m not disagreeing that the two spheres don’t ‘connect’ in various times and places (such as in the sacraments), and that living in a ‘one storey’ universe requires us to appropriate more of the ‘heavens’ within the ‘earth’ we daily encounter, but it is true that the union between God and Man is not fully realised and complete?

    Is, therefore, the ‘day of the Lord’, that time/moment when the ‘sacramentality’ of creation will be clear to all and will unite creation fully with God?

    This theme is something I have learned from within N T Wright’s work (taken from the notion that the Temple of Israel was THE place where the sphere of Earth and Heaven most clearly intersected i.e. THE Sacrament of Sacraments), and wondered whether Orthodoxy shared this hope?

    Thank you again for such a wonderful series.


  10. fatherstephen Avatar


    The Resurrection of Christ is the proper model for the destiny of all things. It is the marriage of heaven and earth. In that sense, sacraments reveal the end to us, in that they are such a marriage. The 8th chapter of Romans would be a primary text for the hope that we have. We see this in the sacraments, and other instances that certain either partake in it or point to it. We would note that in the lives of a number of saints, that union, intersection, whatever we might seek to call it, just seems to happen around them, as though they themselves were an eschatological moment. Many interesting stories. The Kingdom of God is indeed among us.

  11. […] in so doing, we slide right into that “two storyed universe” that Fr Stephen warned us about. We seek to keep our own environment “rational” (read, “secular”), and God […]

  12. […] That which St. Paul would describe as the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all,” is now spoken of as a “mere human institution” and such notions. Thus, “the Church,” like so many other realities of our faith, has by some been relegated to the “second storey,” a convenient place to store things that can be spoken of in ideal and abstract terms but which are preferred not to litter the landscape of the secularization of the first storey in which we live. (See my earlier articles on the “second storey“). […]

  13. […] if you live in a two-storey universe and you tell about an encounter with a second-floor creature, some people are afraid of the […]

  14. […] If you have missed Fr. Stephen’s blog postings concerning “Christianity in a One-Story Universe” then you have missed some very deep and insightful thoughts about the Orthodox life. You can read all of them here. […]

  15. Kyranna Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    The second storey is both useful and necessary for many people, for whom God is absent in the first storey. It allows victims of violence, abuse, chronic illness, genocide and the like to hope that while God refused or refuses to care for them in the present world, things will indeed be different on the second storey, where pain will be no more. Surely God will show his love for all on the second storey, even though he hides himself on the first.

    Perhaps that is functional atheism, but at least it allows for hope and faith, whereas total atheism does not.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar


    I understand your thoughts – though I don’t think it necessitates a two-storey world-view to accommodate the pain. I have had opportunity over the years to minister to people who have lived through abuse, many forms of violence, etc. And it does make God seem distant. But rather than ratifying what is a damaged heart by saying that God is distant and will help someday – the call to the Church is to be present to the pain now. God is here with us whether we can feel it or be aware of it or not. I find no comfort in the second-storey. But I do understand the point you are making and share with you in your concern for those who have been hurt. And I suspect that it is true that the merciful God will always be as merciful to functional atheists as he is to anyone else. And it is true, hope and faith are essential.

    Thank you for your note and your heart.

  17. […] people must be wrong? The whole question of “Are there ghosts here?” also seems to be built on a two-storied view of creation- earth is here, heaven and hell are way over there, and neve… But if heaven and earth are further dimensions of reality so that we are constantly surrounded by […]

  18. Jordan Avatar


    Fr. Stephen will be giving a talk on this very topic in person at the Crest Room at the University of Tennessee University Center. I suggest making any prior arrangements in order to be there. Here’s the details:

    Heaven Ain’t Up, Hell Ain’t Down: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe

    Rev. Fr. Stephen Freeman of St. Anne Orthodox Church gives a talk at the University of Tennessee University Center at 7:00 on February 21, 2008.


  19. […] Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Individuality ExplainedWhere is God? Who is God?On the Nature of GodFr. Stephen on Knowing God […]

  20. Ben Avatar


    I was so moved by this writing that I felt compelled to compile it into a PDF complete with pictures of icons to go along with the writing, so that I could print it out and share it with some of my friends. I have made it available from my site at:

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am in negotiations for a “book” based on the One-Storey teachings, which will expand considerably what is available. If something works out, I hope many will benefit. I appreciate your thoughtful service to your friends and others. It looks well done. I have taken the liberty of making available on this site as well.

  22. shevaberakhot Avatar

    “Christianity in a One-Storey Universe” is a gem.

    In it’s attempt to become more palatable to a “two-storey” audience, contemporary christianity has diluted much of the substance of Jesus’ teaching, life and words.

    The “one-story” concept gets as close to the living gospel of Jesus Christ as it is possible to get.

    Brilliant. Well done.

  23. […] Christianity in a One-Storey Universe « Glory to God for All Things […]

  24. […] In the comments, a fellow mentioned an Orthodox priest’s blog where he looks at things in a similiar vein. Ie the separation aspect. The title is Christianity in a one storey universe, its a must read. […]

  25. […] By fatherstephen I 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 […]

  26. […] Steve Allison’s blog comes this bit from Father Stephen Freeman (look under Part 6 of his essay there). I have here introduced the notion of “practical […]

  27. […] Earlier this week I was discussing with a friend the difficulty of actual communicating anything meaningful about sex or sexuality in our cultural context without first exploring the question of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God. I think a lot of American cultural Christians, especially those often labeled ‘evangelicals’, seem to assume they already know, but I’m not convinced that’s the case. Having been thoroughly formed and shaped by what has effectively become the predominant American culture, I do know that its answer to that question is very different from what we find in the Christian story. However, the mainstream American Christian perspective has become so dualistic that I’m not sure it places the human being or even the creation within which we live in the proper context in the story anymore. (Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent series on that topic he has consolidated into a single post for those interested in exploring that aspect: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.) […]

  28. Frank Hawkins Avatar
    Frank Hawkins

    The two-storey universe is more characteristic of western Christendom,I believe.There are some(not I) who would argue that the one-storey universe is tantamount to Pantheism.The one-storey universe is wonderful-it takes the focus away from
    dogma and places it where it belongs on a boundless Christian God who is always present with us.It is years since I read “the brothers Karamazov”, but I am so reminded of the simple goodness of heart of Alyosha who dwelt in the one-storey universe.I remember years ago taking a university course in mediaeval church history and never really understanding the importance of icons in the Orthodox faith(famed iconoclastic controversy).Your commentary on Christian atheism goes right to the heart of what is wrong with Christianity in the West-
    meaningless ritual witnessed by parishioners dutifully in attendance on Sundays and oblivious to the need that Christ’s teachings should fill their lives.I am one of these.I must read this again since I am sure that there is much that I missed.Thank you,Father

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks, Frank. I have no doubt that some will worry about Pantheism – but it’s just solid, classical Christian theology – without the secularization. I hope you enjoy it. The recognition of the Dostoevsky connection is no mistake – but that’s just Orthodoxy. 🙂

  30. […] a sort of three story universe? Fr. Stephen Freeman has an excellent article on that very subject, Christianity in a One-Storey Universe. I highly recommend […]

  31. […] Such conclusions fit well in a secularized world and appeal to the modern sense of God’s absence. The heart of the secular world is not a belief that there is no God, but rather the sense that God is somewhere else. Our world is a “no-man’s land,” in which all things work according to “natural laws,” independent of God. I have previously written about this in articles on the “two-storey universe.” […]

  32. Prudence True Avatar

    Orthodoxy is a one-storey universe. Just ask any young Orthodox child – they often know God is right there with them, not tucked away upstairs in the attic.

    Excellent explanation, now I know why I’ve never understood many *modern* Christians.

  33. […] in explicit secularization, we are implicitly secular right down to the pews of most Churches (see here for a long and evocative essay by Father Stephen, and here for a shorter piece explaining that […]

  34. […] all modern expressions of this perspective share certain certain features. Fr. Stephen, in his excellent series, uses the metaphor of a two-story house with a basement to describe the universe portrayed by this […]

  35. […] developed a metaphor to articulate what really marks an authentic Christian view of reality: the one-storey universe as opposed to the […]

  36. […] in prayer, etc. In earlier writings I have described this construct as a “two-storey universe.” God dwells in heaven (or somewhere) while we live here in a world which works according to […]

  37. […] Such conclusions fit well in a secularized world and appeal to the modern sense of God’s absence. The heart of the secular world is not a belief that there is no God, but rather the sense that God is somewhere else. Our world is a “no-man’s land,” in which all things work according to “natural laws,” independent of God. I have previously written about this in articles on the “two-storey universe.” […]

  38. Sabrina Messenger Avatar
    Sabrina Messenger

    I first heard of your book on the Ancient Faith Radio station, and because of that I’ve decided to permanantly eliminate the term “the Man upstairs” from my vocabularly when speaking of God and Christianity. What you say in this blog entry makes perfect sense. How can God be limited to a 2d story when He in reality is EVERYWHERE?

  39. Andrew Battenti Avatar
    Andrew Battenti

    Sabrina if I may,

    You are right, God is everywhere and He may not be limited by us. This is so well explained by Irma Zaleski:

    “In other words Theophany — often called “Epiphany” in the West — is not the “ascent” of the human mind to the Divine Presence, but a descent. It is God descending and revealing Himself to us. Theophany in the biblical tradition is a sacred event, an encounter — always initiated by God”…

    (Who is God? p. 20)

    Thank you, good comments.

  40. […] this, I’ve been using Fr. Freeman’s (of Glory to God for all Things) understanding of the one-storey/two-storey universe and Evelyn Underhill’s definition from Practical Mysticism that “Mysticism is the art of […]

  41. Leigh Mosley Avatar
    Leigh Mosley

    Was the book (Christianity in a One-Storey Universe) finally released? I can’t remember the name of the publishing house – where can I buy a copy? (Didn’t there used to be a link on this page to the publisher, or am I hallucinating? Or perhaps too blind to find the link?) Thanks so much!

  42. Leigh Mosley Avatar
    Leigh Mosley

    Forgive me for insufficient googling. Conciliar Press – I got it!

  43. […] have written at length on the problems of Christianity in the secular world ( cf. “two-storey universe” and the book Everywhere […]

  44. rst Avatar

    Can I simply say what a relief to find somebody who really realizes what they’re discussing on the internet. You certainly find out how to take a problem to light and enable it to be important. Even more people need to study this and understand this side of the story. I can’t believe you’re not very popular as you positively have the gift.

  45. […] by them all. To a great extent those who surround the dying and the dead make a great rush for the “second-storey” of the universe, uttering words of deep assurance to one another with scenes drawn from the […]

  46. […] weaknesses of modern secular culture. The imaginary world (which I have described as the “Second-Storey“) sometimes includes God […]

  47. […] Christianity in a One-Storey Universe […]

  48. Raphael Avatar

    Father, Bless!
    Wonderful series of articles father…thank you. As a hospital chaplain I spend much of my life with the sick and dying. For some who are in the process of dying the two story universe is not enough and they will build floor upon floor in an attempt to escape the fear they have of the inevitable. However, after reading your article I believe I have witnessed this sacred shift from the two story universe to the one. At times when I am visiting a patient who is in the process of dying the conversation will turn from an almost manic pursuit of religiosity and fear to matters of the heart. Patients will start to recall relationships, people they loved and who loved them. Regrets, triumphs, and eventually the conversation will most always come back to people they love…not loved. The dialogue will change to the love they still possess whether the person is living or dead and how the love they experienced is not simply a memory but something they still feel if they will just quiet themselves. I have always found these moments profound and sacred to the point in which tears will often come to my eyes. I’m not sure if any of this makes sense…forgive me as I have too many thoughts going through my head after reading this series of articles. In any case…thank you father. I am going to make sure the chaplains I train read this series of articles.
    Kissing Your Right Hand…

  49. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you for the kind words. Having worked as a hospice chaplain for several years, I pray for your good work. I might suggest that you would like my book, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe. It has expanded versions of the articles and much more material of a similar sort for reflection. It’s even available in Kindle. 🙂

  50. Raphael Avatar

    Father Bless!
    Thank you father…I was able to find your book in our parish book store. I am enjoying it and will likely read it a few times.
    Kissing Your Right Hand,

  51. fatherstephen Avatar

    God bless you and your parish bookstore!

  52. […] have written extensively about the “two-storey universe.” In short, this is a description of how many modern Christians see the world. There is the first […]

  53. steven Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I really enjoyed your article. Over Easter while I was visiting my sister in CO. Springs, she took me to a wonderful Orthodox bookstore in Manitou Springs that occupied an old fire station. Time and money did not allow me to walk out with books, but I wrote down titles and authors on the back of a business card I found. The first and most interesting title was “Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.”

    Fast forward a month to my Sunday School class where we have been studying the Sermon on the Mount for the last 6 months. We had spent several weeks on the Lord’s prayer and I brought in some material from Dallas Willard’s – Divine Conspiracy. He discusses how the first word for heaven in the prayer should be plural (just as you mention in your article) which launched our class into much discussion. One lady with a phone app looked up all the translations available and not one had “heavens”. Willard paraphrases the verse as “Dear Father always near us,….”

    During the week I cleaned off my desk and noticed a business card had fallen to the floor. I picked it up and did recognize the business and started to throw it away when I turned it over and there was the title to your book. I went online to read more about the book and discovered this blog, read through it and copied five pages of material to use in class, which generated much discussion.

    While I was meditating on the lesson it occurred to me that, like you mention, much of our language is geared toward the two/three story world. One glaring example for most protestants, especially Baptists, is the word “saved” which seems to be fundamental when they describe a follower of Jesus, which is soooooooooooooo second story terminology!

    I really enjoyed your discussion on “Christian/practical atheists, on time and the young earth, and on forgiveness. I can’t wait to set down and slowly devour your book.

    Thank you for sharing you journey with us,


  54. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you for your very kind words. You rightly note that translation can be deeply effected by the assumptions brought to the effort. On the other hand, knowing this can make for the delightful experience of “re-discovering” the Scriptures! The Bible is far more amazing than people imagine. One of my favorite (“space and time”) stories is in the Orthodox Bible (its in what the protestants call “the Apocrypha”). It’s in the end of Daniel – sometimes called “Bel and the Dragon”.

    Now the prophet Habakkuk was in Judea; he had made a stew and crumbled bread into the bowl, and he was on the way to his field, carrying it to the reapers, when an angel of the Lord said, ‘Habakkuk, carry the meal you have with you to Babylon, for Daniel, who is in the lion-pit.’ Habakkuk said, ‘My Lord, I have never been to Babylon. I do not know where the lion-pit is.’ Then the angel took the prophet by the crown of his head, and carrying him by his hair, he swept him to Babylon with the blast of his breath and put him down above the pit. Habakkuk called out, ‘Daniel, Daniel, take the meal that God has sent you!’ Daniel said, ‘O God, thou dost indeed remember me; thou dost never forsake those who love thee.’ Then he got up and ate; and God’s angel returned Habakkuk at once to his home. On the seventh day the king went to mourn for Daniel, but when he arrived at the pit and looked in, there sat Daniel! Then the king cried aloud, ‘Great art thou, O Lord, the God of Daniel, and there is no God but thou alone.’ So the king drew Daniel up; and the men who had planned to destroy him he flung into the pit, and then and there they were eaten up before his eyes.

    Here the prophet Habakkuk (who lived two centuries apart from Daniel) is whisked away in an instant to Babylon. Does the work he should do, and is whisked back to Israel! Not only are heaven and earth “one-storey,” even space and time are. Gives an intriguing meaning to “everywhere present.” Everywhere and always and all times.

    In a proper understanding of “eschatology,” the last things, wherever the Holy Spirit acts, He acts in a manner that transcends space and time. Where He is, is also the Eschaton and all other time. Thus in the Lord’s Supper, Communion is also the Last Supper, and the Mystical Supper in the Kingdom. It is the Lord’s Passover.

    Read my book slowly. It’s short!

  55. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C

    Of course, if the Protestant mind is suspicious of anything from the Apocrypha, we have the miraculous transporting of Philip to Azotus following his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch.

    Brother Yuan, a remarkable Chinese evangelist, writes of a similar experience. I imagine there are Orthodox “wonderworkers” for whom this was also a reality.

  56. […] The anti-sacramentalism (and non-sacramentalism) of some Christian groups is among the most unwittingly pernicious of all modern errors. Thought to be an argument about a minor point of doctrine, it is, instead, the collapse of the world into the empty literalism of secularity. In the literalism of the modern world (where a thing is a thing is a thing), nothing is ever more than what is seen. Thus every spiritual reality, every mystery, must be referred elsewhere – generally to the mind of God and the believer. Christianity becomes an ideology and a fantasy. It turns religious believing into a two-storey universe. […]

  57. […] Kingdom of God has come in Christ and the whole world is a sacrament.” Ours is a “one-storey universe.” If we would but open our eyes, we would see the divine light everywhere present.  I do not […]

  58. […] live in a one-story universe, not a two-story one. The piece goes through many of the implications of this from an […]

  59. […] is that Americans (or believers shaped in our culture) see icons from the perspective of the two-storey universe. That which is “spiritual” is in the head, not in the icon. The icon only serves as an […]

  60. […] is that Americans (or believers shaped in our culture) see icons from the perspective of the two-storey universe. That which is “spiritual” is in the head, not in the icon. The icon only serves as an object […]

  61. […] The anti-sacramentalism (and non-sacramentalism) of some Christian groups is among the most unwittingly pernicious of all modern errors. Thought to be an argument about a minor point of doctrine, it is, instead, the collapse of the world into the empty literalism of secularity. In the literalism of the modern world (where a thing is a thing is a thing), nothing is ever more than what is seen. Thus every spiritual reality, every mystery, must be referred elsewhere – generally to the mind of God and the believer. Christianity becomes an ideology and a fantasy. It turns religious believing into a two-storey universe. […]

  62. […] Living a one storey life can be described as simply living here and now. It is being present to God Who is present to us. It is recognizing the true nature of the created world as the arena of both our struggle and our serenity. Our argument with those who do not believe should not be about whether or not their is a second storey to our universe, but about the true nature of the universe in which we live. Whenever Christians allow the gospel to be shoved upstairs, we have allowed ourselves to be disregarded and the gospel to be marginalized. God did not become flesh and dwell among us in order to establish the truth of a second storey universe: He came to redeem the one we live in. Those who cannot recognize hell among us will also be blind to paradise as well. Christ reveals both. Our daily struggle is to live in the latter and to proclaim the gospel to those who live in the former, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. (Source) […]

  63. […] There will be a huge appeal in these books and merchandise to what Fr Stephen has coined “The Second Storey“. It is prevalent, widespread, attractive and well packaged: drawing on reductionist tropes […]

  64. […] the ‘dead’ and the ‘living’ are not the same as the prevailing bifurcated Western mindset. Fr. Stephen Freeman describes this division as a ‘two story universe”. God lives above us, separated from our affairs on […]

  65. […] cease to do so just because we have gotten comfortable living in what Fr Stephen Freeman calls a two-storey universe. And, honestly, if you really believe in something so apparently absurd as the God who created the […]

  66. […] 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 […]

  67. […] but that since He is unpre­dictable in His help we must rely on our own strength.[ed.: see the writ­ings of Fr Stephen Free­man for more on this top­ic. In both cas­es God’s ongo­ing Prov­i­den­tial […]

  68. […] The anti-sacramentalism (and non-sacramentalism) of some Christian groups is among the most unwittingly pernicious of all modern errors. Thought to be an argument about a minor point of doctrine, it is, instead, the collapse of the world into the empty literalism of secularity. In the literalism of the modern world (where a thing is a thing is a thing), nothing is ever more than what is seen. Thus every spiritual reality, every mystery, must be referred elsewhere – generally to the mind of God and the believer. Christianity becomes an ideology and a fantasy. It turns religious believing into a two-storey universe. […]

  69. […] The anti-sacramentalism (and non-sacramentalism) of some Christian groups is among the most unwittingly pernicious of all modern errors. Thought to be an argument about a minor point of doctrine, it is, instead, the collapse of the world into the empty literalism of secularity. In the literalism of the modern world (where a thing is a thing is a thing), nothing is ever more than what is seen. Thus every spiritual reality, every mystery, must be referred elsewhere – generally to the mind of God and the believer. Christianity becomes an ideology and a fantasy. It turns religious believing into a two-storey universe. […]

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