IV. Mastery, Meaning and Mystery
Following the biblical narrative, the theology of the Fathers always begins with Creation. This is where their profound and crucial understanding of God begins, with the Father Almighty who is in the beginning, Maker of heaven and earth; with His Son, the Word, through whom all things were made; and with the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and hovers over the waters, as He did in the form of a dove at the baptism in the Jordan, and is the Lord and Giver of Life.
For the Fathers, God speaks and His Word creates ex nihilo, out of nothing. “By making God command and speak,” says Basil, “the Scripture tacitly shows us Him to whom this order and these words are addressed. It is not that it grudges us the knowledge of the truth, but that it may kindle our desire by showing us some trace of the mystery.” (66 – italics added) For the Fathers, God is already, or I should say, eternally in communion with Himself at the moment of Creation. The Holy Trinity is the “I AM” that precedes Creation and is the first of all the great mysteries. In Aristotelian terms, the necessary FIRST CAUSE.
As we see in Basil’s Hexaemeron, the Fathers’ interpretation of the Creation narrative in Genesis dwells on three lessons that I shall call mastery, meaning and mystery.
What most impressed the Fathers about the world they saw around them was what Basil calls “the good order which reigns in visible things.” (52) This is what I mean by “mastery”.
When we examine the universe, whether with our naked eyes or through our microscopes and telescopes, we confront a reality that is perfectly mastered and ordered. So much so that what ought to seem extraordinary, as G. K. Chesterton points out, becomes commonplace, and miracles become mundane. Everywhere we turn, we confront the miracle of Creation, and in his homilies, Basil seeks to draw our attention to this fact by describing natural phenomena in a way that gives us “fresh eyes” and appreciation for the marvelous design in and among all things. “Recognize here the wisdom of the Artificer,” says Basil. “See how He made the heat of the sun proportionate to this distance. Its heat is so regulated that it neither consumes the earth by excess, nor lets it grow cold and sterile by defect.” (88)
At the same time, Basil recognizes that “compared with their Author, the sun and moon are but a fly and an ant. The whole universe cannot give us a right idea of the greatness of God; and it is only by signs, weak and slight in themselves, often by the help of the smallest insects and of the least plants, that we raise ourselves to him.” (89) (Notice, please, Basil’s reference to created things as “signs.”) Later, he points out that “a grain of sand, the weakest thing possible, curbs the violence of the ocean.” (73) He said this of course without realizing that someday the weakest thing possible would organize and store all the world’s information on a silicon chip. Basil never tires of rehearsing the theme of mastery as he works through the taxonomy of living creatures. His beautiful descriptions of the lives of birds afford good examples of this.
Take the crane: “During the night cranes keep watch in turn; some sleep, others make the rounds and procure a quiet slumber for their companions. After having finished his duty, the sentry utters a cry, and goes to sleep, and the one who awakes, in his turn, repays the security which he has enjoyed. You will see the same order reign in their flight. One leads the way, and when it has guided the flight of the flock for a certain time, it passes to the rear, leaving to the one who comes after the care of directing the march.” (98)
Hans Zinsser, a noted agnostic, wondered why theological schools fail to include a rigid discipline in the fundamental sciences on the grounds that “the final refutation of chance and purposelessness” is based on “the marvelous orderliness” of the universe. (Han Zinsser, As I Remember Him) This is after all what lies behind the scientific movement today called “intelligent design” whether supported by laws of probability or arguments concerning irreducibly complex biochemical machines. The basic position of the pieces on this chessboard remain more or less as they were in Basil’s time. He understood, as we do today, that if your premise rules out a Creator, you are left with only chance and purposelessness. “Deceived by their inherent atheism,” says Basil at the beginning of the Christian Era, “it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that all was given up to chance. To guard us against this error the writer on creation, from the very first words, enlightens our understanding with the name of God. ‘In the beginning God created.’ He first established a beginning so that it might not be supposed that the world never had a beginning” (53) . . . as it was supposed throughout much of the so-called Enlightenment Age.
The Fathers also found MEANING in the book of nature. Meanings there are writ both large and small. Of course, in their eyes Creation has one grand overarching purpose.
Basil expresses that purpose as “not conceived by chance and without reason, but for a useful end and for the great advantage of all beings, since it is really the school where reasonable souls exercise themselves, the training ground where they learn to know God; since by the sight of visible and sensible things the mind is led, as by a hand, to the contemplation of invisible things.” (55)
At this point, Basil quotes from the Book of Romans, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” (Romans 1:20) And then he goes on to describe what we now call the Big Bang: “Perhaps these words ‘In the beginning God created’ signify the rapid and imperceptible moment of creation. The beginning, in effect, is indivisible and instantaneous.” (55) These are Basil’s words, not mine or Georges Lemaitre’s or Isaac Asimov’s or Steven Weinberg’s or Stephen Hawking’s. But for me personally, the most enjoyable and entertaining feature of the Hexaemeron is the meaning Basil attributes to the habits of living creatures. He possesses a keen eye for nature, and everywhere he looks, like Aesop and LaFontaine, he finds a lesson to be learned, a moral to be drawn. “Let no one lament poverty;” he tells his working class audience, “let not the man whose house is bare despair of his life, when he considers the industry of the swallow. To build her nest, she brings bits of straw in her beak; and, as she cannot raise the mud in her claws, she moistens the end of her wings in water and then rolls in very fine dust and thus procures mud. After having united, little by little, the bits of straw with this mud, as with glue, she feeds her young; and if any one of them has its eyes injured, she has a natural remedy to heal the sight of her little ones. This sight ought to warn you not to take to evil ways on account of poverty; and, even if you are reduced to the last extremity, not to lose all hope; not to abandon yourself to inaction and idleness, but to have recourse to God. If He is so bountiful to the swallow, what will He not do for those who call upon Him with all their heart?” (98)
We have time perhaps for one more of these cautionary tales. Basil is full of them. Consider the crab: “The crab loves the flesh of the oyster; but, sheltered by its shell, a solid rampart with which nature has furnished its soft and delicate flesh, it is a difficult prey to seize. . . Thanks to the two shells with which it is enveloped, and which adapt themselves perfectly the one to the other, the claws of the crab are quite powerless (against it). What does (the crab) do? When he sees (the oyster), sheltered from the wind, warming itself with pleasure, and half opening its shell to the sun, he secretly throws in a pebble, prevents them from closing, and takes by cunning what force had lost. Such is the malice of these animals, deprived as they are of reason and of speech. But I would that you should at once rival the crab in cunning and industry, and abstain from harming your neighbor; this animal is the image of him who craftily approaches his brother, takes advantage of his neighbor’s misfortunes, and finds his delight in other men’s troubles. O copy not the damned! Content yourself with your own lot.” (91)
It is worth noting how practical, humble, simple and down-to-earth Basil and the Fathers usually are when discussing what the Creation has to teach us. He’s tilling the soil and looking for what his plow turns up. He’s offering his flock an example of how to look upon Creation, always with an eye to finding there a meaning, a purpose, a lesson in this school for the student Man. What he finds he accepts as a gift planted in the earth for him. The Creation is full of sacred meaning, but only for those who are plowing the earth and looking for it. Says Basil, “I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that everywhere, wherever you may be, the least plant may bring to you the clear remembrance of the Creator. If you see the grass of the fields, think of human nature, and remember the comparison of the wise Isaiah. ‘all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.'” (76)
To those who might regard the meanings he finds naïve and subjective, I would ask: what’s wrong with that? The Creator Himself, when He walked among us, often used the natural world to point his lessons about the kingdom of heaven by citing the lilies of the field, the mustard seed, the fig tree. It isn’t that these meanings are written like code into nature for the discerning observer to crack, but why shouldn’t we, as Basil admonishes his listeners, “recognize everywhere the wisdom of God; never cease to wonder, and, through every creature, glorify the Creator?” (99)
We must be, as the Master tells His disciples, like children, seeking the lessons of Creation that lie about us like Easter eggs in the long grass. While describing the obvious MASTERY and prying open the MEANINGS hidden in Creation, the Fathers looked upon it all with wonder and awe and a deep reverence for something that was ultimately veiled in MYSTERY.
This is a vast topic which I have neither the ability nor the time to do justice to, but one can’t discuss the patristic narrative on Creation without touching upon it. It involves epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and the distinction between what we think we know and what we know. We know from our own experience, as well as from the works of the philosophers that we think we know much more than we know. This was the basis for Socrates’ claim that among the philosophers of his day he was the only one who knew he knew nothing.
Paradoxically, it is also true from a biblical perspective that we, mystically created in the image of God, know more than we think we know.
Again, it was Socrates who attempted through his dialogues to extract knowledge from the mere opinions of his students. In addition to this quantitative difference, whether we know more or less than we think we know, there is also a qualitative one. The ways of knowing described in the Bible and by the Church Fathers have little in common with the way of knowing as understood by modern science. We have already noted this in Basil’s passing reference to the mystery of the Holy Trinity when he described God’s utterances in Genesis 1 as kindling “our desire by showing us some trace of the mystery.” He is talking about the great mystery of who and what God is. Of this great mystery, according to the Fathers, we can have only apophatic knowledge, that is, we can only know for certain what God is not.
How then can we hope to know God, biblically speaking? Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa may help us with this question. He wrote a kind of sequel to the Hexaemeron entitled On the Making of Man. Gregory picks up where Basil leaves off with the creation of Man. In his treatise, he explores the nature of knowledge when he discusses the forbidden tree in the midst of Paradise. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “What then is that which includes the knowledge of good and evil blended together?” he asks. “I think I am not aiming wide of the mark in employing, as a starting-point for my speculation, the sense of ‘knowable.’ It is not, I think, ‘science’ which the Scripture here means by ‘knowledge’. . . . ‘Knowledge’ is not always to be understood as skill and acquaintance with anything, but as the disposition towards what is agreeable, — as ‘the Lord knoweth them that are His’; and He says to Moses, ‘I knew thee above all’; while of those condemned in their wickedness He Who knows all things says, ‘I never knew you.'” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, 409-10)
For Adam and Eve, the eating of the fruit is the knowing. But what is knowing? Gregory’s answer? Desiring. Those who know God desire Him whom they cannot know in any scientific sense. If we look closely at Gregory’s Old Testament references, it is clear that biblical knowing is not, as Gregory says, “science”. It’s not knowing about something and being able to answer the exam questions correctly. To credit God with knowing about something is, on the face of it, pretty ridiculous. Of course, God knows about those that are His. He also knows about those condemned in their wickedness as well. But what of it? Would the Scriptures bother making such an obvious and prosaic claim? Of course not. Instead, they wish to assure us that God desires those that are His and that He has no wish to have anything to do with those condemned in their wickedness. Those who eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, as Adam and Eve did, desire good mixed with evil, as we all, being sinners, do. To desire God is to know Him. The beauty of Christ evokes our desire for God.
The moral universe is another profound mystery we are shown another trace of in the Genesis account. After each “day” of creation, God declares his work “good.” Why not simply create rather than insist on the moral dimension or perfection of the work? Like the nature of God, this is for the Fathers a great mystery. They believed, as did their pagan contemporaries, that fundamental moral laws were written into the universe, as immutable as the laws of gravity and thermodynamics. By recognizing and obeying these laws, we keep from harming ourselves and one another.
For the Greek poets, these were the logoi, or divine laws, that, although often unwritten, controlled the destinies of men and nations and always trumped the nomoi, or laws designed by men. Think of Antigone. Respect for the bodies of the dead is a mystery, one we ignore at our peril, as Creon learned. What does it mean to ignore a mystery? Generally, it means to acknowledge that there’s something there, but to presume that it’s something we can take apart, or as our parents used to say, de-mythologize, and as we say these days, de-construct, and can thereby figure out how it works and then re-assemble it to our own liking.
The poet John Keats certainly had this in mind when he accused us of “murdering to dissect.” By this descriptive metaphor — and this was more than a century before embryonic stem cell research — he meant that by robbing the living thing of the mystery of its being, we gain a false knowledge of its parts and have exchanged our birthright for a bowl of soup.
Nowadays, thanks in no small measure to the scientific paradigm that rules our minds, knowledge connotes “knowing about” something, and we see ourselves as observers, examiners, investigators, experimenters who stand above or apart from the object of our knowing. Knowledge is acquired through objective, disinterested study and subject to rules of logic and evidence.
In the last century, Heisenberg undercut this tidy illusion of objectivity, and the Serpent’s lie to Eve that she would be like a god, when he discovered the uncertainty principle and exploded any scientific claim to ultimate truths of the type a god might make who stands outside his creation. (The more certain we are of the position of a particle, the less certain we can be of its momentum.) Man’s knowledge is inevitably incomplete and polluted by his own presence, his perspective, his influence over the object of his study. His reference frame. We know, or now think we know, for example, thanks to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, that everything we have concluded about our universe, everything we’ve measured, is subject to our own reference frame, and yet there are an infinite number of reference frames in the universe, from any one of which we might draw different conclusions or measurements.
In God’s reference frame, which before Man comes along is the only possible reference frame for the six days of creation, a day might indeed be a billion human years? Shouldn’t it strike us as astonishingly coincidental that the only psalm, Psalm 90, attributed to Moses, the putative author of Genesis, makes the claim that “in the sight of God a thousand years are like yesterday, which passed, and like a watch in the night?” (Psalm 89 (90)) That’s four hours. Time is an elastic ruler. We hate to admit it, we refuse to confess it, it offends our godlike aspirations; nevertheless, the really important questions will remain a mystery. Basil’s admonition is: “Put then a limit to your thought, so that your curiosity in investigating the incomprehensible may not incur the reproaches of Job, and you be not asked by (God), ‘Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened?'” (Job 38:6)
To most moderns, this admonition will sound like heresy, a shocking form of anti-intellectualism, a crucifixion of the human spirit, a stunning refusal to embrace our destiny and build our towers of Babel and reach for the stars, and so on and so forth.
But why does this matter? Why should we care if we live in an age governed by a materialist philosophy and a scientific paradigm of knowledge and determined to exercise its right (freedom) to know about everything and to deconstruct the mysteries of life?
The answer is: Because as we try to apply the scientific way of knowing to mysteries, we not only look like fools trying to extract screws with nail pullers, but we risk violating the fundamental laws written into the universe by the Creator. When we start asking questions like – When does life begin? When is it all right to take a human life? Why should marriage be a sacred bond for life, or limited to one man and one woman? Why shouldn’t a person have the right to take his own life? Why shouldn’t consenting adults do what they damn well please? What’s wrong with experimenting with the stem cells of human embryos, or with cloning life? – we may be exercising our right of “private interpretation” when we ask these questions, but we are also demanding proof for those things which the Fathers regarded as the mysteries of life and death, chastity and marriage, the knowledge of good and evil. These are trees the fruit of which should not be desired.
But once the Serpent begins asking his questions, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat from every tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1b), we begin to lift the veil on the mystery and we reason our way to picking and eating the fruit. Similarly, jesting Pilate asked Christ, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) anticipating the very modern idea that all truth is relative or the mere opinion of the powerful. In every decade of my lifetime, we have used our scientific theory of knowledge to move the boundaries of the unthinkable until the very idea that we should be constrained from asking certain questions or challenging certain mysteries is itself unthinkable. There is no tree in our garden from which we now hesitate to eat. Now good and evil are defined by those who can through politics achieve a majority or through violence achieve power.
For those who prefer the former, the means justifies the end; for the latter, the end justifies the means. It is worth reminding ourselves that this view and use of science ran wild in the last century, notably in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, although we shouldn’t expect to be reminded of this in academic circles or in the popular press. Instead, with shameless amnesia, the massive genocides and monstrous injustices of the last century caused by the social experiments conducted in the name of science are brushed aside, and religious bigotry and intolerance are blamed for the world’s conflicts and ills. MASTERY, MEANING and MYSTERY – these things found in the Creation reflect the Creator God in Three Persons.
The more we learn their lessons, the more we desire God and share in His Holy Wisdom. We read and teach the Fathers that our desire for God may grow, and in their sermons and treatises against the heretics and pagans of their day, we recognize that the modern attacks on God are not about science, but about the ancient attempts of man, guided by the Serpent, to deny mastery and assert randomness, to dismiss meaning and assert purposelessness, and to delve into mystery in order to re-engineer the Creation.
It is fitting that the last word should be Basil’s:
“May God who, after having made such great things, put such weak words in my mouth, grant you the intelligence of His truth, so that you may raise yourselves from visible things to the invisible Being, and that the grandeur and beauty of creatures may give you a just idea of the Creator.” (71)