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Hell Overcome by Beauty: The Implications of the Primacy of Divine Beauty over Violence

The Climacus Conference 2015

From February 13th through the 14th, St. Michael Orthodox Church in Louisville, Kentucky, hosted the 2015 Climacus Conference of Thoughtful Ascent. This year’s gathering was titled “Truth, Goodness, Beauty Will Save Us” and featured lectures on Sacral and Theological Aesthetics; Objective and Transcendent Beauty; Augustine, Aquinas, and Kant on Beauty; and Imaginative, Iconographic, Architectural, and Poetic Aesthetics.

February 2015

Hell Overcome by Beauty: The Implications of the Primacy of Divine Beauty over Violence

Fr. Jonathan Tobias

February 16, 2015 Length: 42:57


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In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Glory be to Jesus Christ! [Glory forever.] At the beginning of things, when we first start to understand life, at least just a little bit, the story of God become man rises up in our thoughts. It starts only in rudiments and puzzle pieces, but as recognition grows, the individual appearances begin to indicate something transcendent, something beautiful, and that beauty, through time, takes on a name, finally, that is above all names. Someone may have told us in writing or in speech; we may have noticed it in the kindness of a friend; or we may have recognized reflections, maybe only hints of it in the particular graces of cardinals fluttering in our bird feeders. Maybe we’ve noticed it in the barely understood suggestiveness of a brick lane wending through choirs of maples and honeysuckle bowers; in the haunting of a summer breeze in twilight, echoing somehow of far-off waterfalls; in the breaking of waves on even farther shores; in the silent passage of the moon and stars to the brilliance of the sunrise, when night speaks to day and deep calls to deep.

Before we dismiss such rhapsodizing stuff and relegating it to the dustbin of sentimentality, let us ask how such a unity of vision, in which one thing is linked to another and has reference to the immaterial, eternal, and even to the infinitely transcendental—how could such a rumor of beauty ever come to be? How is this ever possible to see even just a glimmer, from a point of view whose view had seen so many other instances that were anything but graceful? How could these beauties ever have been apprehended by a mind that had been so broken by ugly, evil things even to the point of schizophrenia, where the existence of other things was doubted and everything had been turned into an abstract allegory of inexorable alienation and isolation? For surely this point of view had been bound in dark iron bands to a mythical narrative of violence and alienation.

In this regressive, fallen allegory, there was a perverse meta-narrative of the infinite. It was a meta-narrative of utter chaos, in which materiality emerged out of chaos temporarily coalescing and solidifying for a moment, perhaps maybe lasting a hundred billion years, and then collapsing into the inevitable chaos from which it came. There were rumors in this narrative of singularities, a happenstance of various emergences of temporary orders, each of which had established a set of conditions sheerly by chance. And there would be various other singularities happening, other explosions of conditions in their own respective cosmic bubbles, and each bubble would start its own cosmic history, a history that would arise and fall and collapse back finally to either a big crunch or an infinite dissipation.

In this meta-narrative was only a history of violent domination, in which larger, more powerful structures utterly subsumed smaller, weaker systems of material successions in such a way that histories were subsumed under grander, more totalizing histories, and were always revised and rewritten. It was a myth of all power, all violence. Moments of peace turned out to be only mere interruptions in one long succession of terror.

Within these interruption moments, there would occur illusory occasions of order and instantiations of beauty. Thus beauty was seen as just a temporary respite from the real primordial ugliness, where it is what it is, and what will be will be: just an artificial stillness imposed, as David Hart says, upon the surface of the primordial ontological tumult, a beauty that was just a mockery of justice that deserved from the grown-ups and academics nothing less in the darkness but utter rejection as a dishonest fallacy.

So I suggest that the possibility of beauty is actually a lot more difficult than we ever thought. The smallest perception of meaning, the mere apprehension of any form is itself materially impossible. Of course, here we’re now talking about the consciousness, and not only is the reality of consciousness completely unexplained by materialistic theory, but also—let’s double-down on this—also any comprehension of any object is also inexplicable in part or in whole. The strictly material explanation of my view of a cardinal in the foreground, displayed against the background of dogwoods and snow… A strictly physiological interpretation of that involves only the reflection of certain wavelengths of light activating certain cells in my retina, which in turn are translated into certain electrical signals that travel along my optic nerve and in turn are interpreted by, as Hercule Poirot might say, my little grey cells. [Laughter]

Until that moment, until that experience of the cardinal arrives at the critical interpretive function, there is physiologically only a formless, chaotic sensory stream. There is no sense; there is no recognition. It’s almost as though we were witnessing firsthand the sheer, bare physics of Genesis 1, where we hear, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form.” There simply are no logical, acceptable, logically complete material theories that explain the jump from sensory reception to mental perception. What is always involved in the perception of form and image and the apprehension of any creaturely object, what is always involved is the consciousness. The perception of beauty is the most immediate invocation of the immaterial consciousness, at least, that is the way of natural human nature. I am not alone in this view. A certain Nobel laureate once wrote:

I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness to study it. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.

Who was that man? That Nobel laureate was Max Planck himself, a not-insignificant physicist from the last century.

To save ourselves here from a lot of needless complication, let us say at the outset that the consciousness is at least associated with the heart of the soul, the nous, if not utterly synonymous with this window of the soul.

So before we go on to look how much beauty has been occluded and blocked from the human consciousness, let’s think for a while about the created nature of the consciousness, the way it was, the way it was meant to be, and the way, hopefully, it will become. Here, at the level of the nous, is where our story of beauty really begins, and where beauty, despite its transcendence and indefinability, where beauty is best and can only be properly understood. Clearly, from the testimony of not only Christianity but even of other religions East and West, and even in the best intentions of philosophy, the soul was always meant and understood to not only perceive beauty in every moment of the creation, it was meant to be guided by beauty onward, deeper, and upward, in its eternal life of theosis or deification. Since I’ve mentioned theosis, I should add that usually we understand the truthful recognition of creation as the perception of the logoi. Vladimir Lossky called these eternally pre-existing divine ideas “thought-wells.” These logoi include not only the creature’s true form but also its genesis and destiny: its teleological perfection. Further—and Lossky’s following closely St. Maximus the Confessor here—Lossky [writes] his in his [The] Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church that the destiny of every [logos] is perfect communion with God.

Usually, we discuss the logoi mainly in the context of illumination, the second level of spiritual development, which is preceded by purgation or purification, and then succeeded by communion or theosis. Tonight we shouldn’t restrict the meaning of this true perception of beauty to a second step of spirituality. Rather, the perception of creation’s true meaning and the recognition of loveliness is an essential property of the way we were always meant to be. It’s an essential property of human primordiality, that primordial form that comprises the created human nature.

The whole intention, the whole telos of human consciousness was for it, as the nous, to recognize the original beauty and peace of creation and to commune with the personal Infinity whose best and highest name is Love. The soul in this natural state sees in complete clarity the limpid transparency of each creature as it reflects the uncreated light of divinity in every phenomenon. In this illumination of the divine light, the phenomenology of every experience coheres completely with the truth that is the word of God. In such a coherence, there is no ambiguity in symbol, and every analogy of creature with the Creator is flawlessly clear in its witness of infinite transcendence.

To all creation that Word who is the second Person of the Trinity himself, to all creation that Word articulates the message that creation is completely unnecessary to God, that creation is created only out of delight, only out of a gratuitous desire by the Father to give created space and time through the Spirit to his Son, and finally that creation is returned by the Son through the eternal sanctification of the Spirit back to the Father. Everything becomes, or rather everything is revealed as meaningful, whether they are creatures great and small, material and immaterial, because all creation is lucid and co-inherent with the human nature of the Son.

And that co-inherence, that perichōrēsis, is an economy of peace and constant self-donation. No existence proceeds at the cost of any person. There are no losers in this economy. With such an infinity of peace, there are no zero-sum arrangements. There’s only a constant effervescence of beauty and the joyous regard for the other. As the inimitable Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae wrote toward the end of his first dogmatic volume, he writes, “The beautiful economy of creation and redemption is perfectly analogous to the co-inherent relations within the Trinity itself.”

Here’s a nice paragraph for you to put on your refrigerator, by the way.

As a work of raising up believers to intimate communion to God (this modern-day confessor wrote) salvation and deification are nothing other than the extension to conscious creatures of the relations that obtain between the divine Persons.

That is an utterly wonderful paragraph. That, to be sure, is not the easiest statement in Church doctrine; our triadology remains the most difficult set of sentences that we try to serve up in catechesis and to our seminary students, but it wasn’t always so. Time was when theology, even Trinitarian theology, was the most natural thing to think of, and comprised the most important desire of the human heart. The reason why theology is thought to be difficult today is not because it was originally that way. Indeed, there was a time when theology was not difficult at all, which should give some hope to seminarian students everywhere.

There was a time when theology was the only way to think, when it was thought synonymously. It was the only way to perceive; it was the only natural way to experience the created world. There was nothing holding back the soul from apprehending its direct experience of divine beauty, and in response the soul desired nothing else, nothing less, than to leap out of itself in kenotic ecstasy, in what St. Gregory of Sinai called “the human eros of desire, responding to the first desire of the infinite eros of the Divine.” That this is not the case must not be taken to mean that it was always the case and can only ever be the case.

Frequently and perhaps usually, human reason degenerates into a pattern of extrapolation from broken conditions onto all reality. Human reason begins from distorted truth and occluded beauty and constructs totalities that are informed by broken existential conditions rather than the truth of essence. It is unreliable, if not invalid, to reason from such broken opaqueness, in which symbols are truncated and analogies are reinterpreted under the rubrics of deterministic material models. So much thought in academia and popular culture is conditioned deeply by Heidegger’s Being-in-the-World, which is confined to the familiar movements of a behavioral pendulum. St. Maximus the Confessor defined these pendular movements as, on hand, the unstable attraction to pleasure, and, on the other hand, the avoidance of pain. Stăniloae, in turn, called these instabilities the two existential nails that bind the consciousness to darkness and chaos.

The fall of the human race from earthly paradise, as narrated in Genesis, should be interpreted as not just historically, but also more immediately and profoundly as an explanation of this wide-spread cosmic mis-perception. This is a deep diagnostic narrative or etiology of how it came to be that divine beauty might not be seen. Why, it is occluded, where the luminous form of the Logos is distorted and only seen through a glass, darkly. St. Gregory the Theologian interpreted this tragic fall of the innocent but immature man and woman in Eden principally as the darkening of the nous, the passionate fixation of the consciousness on objects, displacing the natural desire that was naturally meant to be awakened by infinite beauty.

However, this catastrophic brokenness resulting from the Fall is exaggerated by many other doctrines and narratives. It’s exaggerated to a complete separation of God from man, a total discontinuity between divinity and humanity. This total extrapolation of darkness is understandable because it seems that way. In the midst of so much mis-perception and occlusion of beauty, the darkness at least seems permanent. Divine transcendence is mistaken as absence or completely without analogy to human existence. And any notion of infinity at all is marked by abstract projections of power, heartlessness, chaos, and violence. That’s what is known, just do the multiplication, multiply to infinity: that’s what must be.

So it is small wonder that this idea of a deep, personalized divinity as so separated from man and so absent might have become at least a contributing factor to the widespread atheism of the modern West. Of course you wouldn’t want to believe in a god like that: infinite heartlessness, infinite power, infinite violence. No wonder Ahab in Moby Dick cried out one time, “Are there no hearts above the snowline?” Kind of a sad, pitiful cry of modern man.

The apparent ubiquity of this darkening of the nous that produced even in Christendom philosophies of complete discontinuity between God and man, and doctrines like total depravity in human nature, should make us wonder, then: How in the world can beauty ever be seen at all? How could it ever be experienced? But despite the darkening of the nous and the apparent prevalence of depravity, the fact remains that beauty is seen and experienced. The darkness is strong, but it is not complete. Every phenomenon remains in utter reliance upon a self-donating community of infinite divine Persons. Creation remains, and is only totally contingent upon a Creator whose highest name is Love.

Thus, we still know, despite the Fall, we still know even and especially in common non-academic thought, we still know that beauty can be a frequent, even mundane, perception. We still know, despite the impossibility of confining beauty to a definition, that it is objective; that beauty is not merely a psychological fiction of desire. Neither is beauty just a defense mechanism of the ego that Karen Horney called “sublimation.” Rather, we know that it possesses a priority in experience. We know that beauty is outside the ego and that it always, always issues or comes as a surprise. We know almost intuitively that beauty is the real primordial character of difference and contrast. We know that beauty evokes the true and good desire, not passionate desire, like Fifty Shades of Grey—I think that’s what it’s called—but real desire that proceeds from natural humanity—the desire of love. We know that beauty cannot be nailed down to a single category.

We know that it eludes definition and instead always seems to take our perception and even consciousness to higher and higher levels of divine glory. And finally, as we conclude this précis of David Bentley Hart’s helpful summary of beauty, in his eponymous work, The Beauty of the Infinite: Beauty guards against our constant temptation toward abstraction and gnosticism. Beauty reminds us that reality is creation, in all its concrete particularities and surface phenomena. Beauty prefers the concrete and the particular. It turns away from abstraction. It delights in the surface appearances. It likes not waiting for explanation. It prefers not being defined. Beauty is a fact of human experience despite its very human unlikelihood.

So how is this experience of beauty possible at all, when the Fall says that it should not be? Or when post-lapsarian philosophies of opaqueness contend that beauty is only a mirage, an illusion that only masks the real and ugly disorder of things? Just as Marx said that religion is the opiate of the people, maybe beauty is the opiate of aesthetes. One thing is for sure: the real experience of beauty, if it is real, could not have been produced by a narrative of sheer power, aggression, violence, and arbitrary domination. These kind of movements to which we have grown so accustomed in human history are, after all, characteristic of fallen narratives, so they could hardly have produced anything so unlike them and so transcendent.

Rather, beauty can be expressed only by a story of truth and goodness, articulated only in the language of primordial peace, in a story that is constantly and overwhelmingly inflected where all of life and consciousness is interpenetrated by visions of beauty, leading up to the Word himself, the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, who became the Son of man. This story is not only a story among others, but the story over and embracing all others. It is perhaps the only story from which all stories, narratives, sentences, poetry, and thought are derived. It is the word from which all other words are declined.

Why must there be such a story? Why must there be any story at all? The tragic fact of evil is that it cannot be ever simply left alone. Death is something that is brought upon ourselves, says St. Basil the Great. The presence of death in human society is such that not only does it grow but it flies in the face of everything God is like and everything that God intends. The rejection of divine beauty instituted a horrible existential possibility that became the gravitational hole of all subsequent rejection. Thus, for beauty to be restored in perception to humanity, this gravitation had to be overcome.

So I suggest a thought experiment. For the sake of beauty, we should consider this gravitation, this black hole, a lot more closely, this horrible existential possibility. So let us go to hell, then, if only just to see what this retrograde existence is all about. I say this rhetorically, of course, if only to underscore the fact that going to hell really isn’t all that hard to do, for tragically it remains until the last day a constant possibility of rejection of grace, and hell remains as a concomitant demonic preference over God’s free gift of beauty. It’s not hard to do. It remains as easy as turning around from God to self, from luminosity to opacity, from form to chaos, from the created world of beauty where everything means something to the planet-wide marketplace of kitsch and despair.

Hell is another word for an eternal regressive existence of rejecting essence. I say this because our essence as human is a free, beautiful gift of God. Thus a rejection of grace turns out to be a rejection of creaturely essence. It is a deliberate turning away from the beauty of God’s omnipresence, and since God in his love is everywhere present, filling all things, then for that divinity to be rejected, one must devolve within one’s own ego and invent a psychic space and existence of an unending regression towards zero, an impossible desire for nothingness. You can always want to go there, but you’ll never make it.

We are thinking of hell right now because it is the predicate or basis of anti-beauty. Hell is not a place, but an existential possibility that will remain until the very last day. Hell is the deliberate darkening of the light, the shuttering of the nous, that is, in turn, the window of the soul. The greatest tragedy of hell is that it is the ultimate self-betrayal. The ego or self betrays itself ultimately in egoism or self-centeredness. In the ego’s rejection of beauty, it turns away from all invitations to deny itself and to step outside of its own cramped universe of self-regard.

This rejection of beauty, which later on we will call a Christocentric beauty, this rejection of beauty ultimately becomes the worst of all reductionisms, far worse than any ripping apart of atoms in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. When the ego turns away and actually abandons the invitation of beauty, consciousness itself, that is, the nous, is scattered and shattered. And none of those fragments leave a glowing vector scale on a cloud chamber like what happens at CERN, but instead it falls like brimstone on the desolate plains, and it coalesces into inanimate igneous rock. Thus, egoism—one of the most ironic paradoxes ever—actually destroys the unity of consciousness itself, if only because it turns away from the objective call of divine beauty, that call that is the only way personhood can ever be preserved and beautified.

Thus, hell is a shade of existence that meanders in the doldrums of apparent meaningless[ness] and absurdity. There is no perception of analogy in these doldrums, no apprehension of the logoi. There is only abstraction of experience and an extrapolation of the ego onto all reality. There is only ambiguity of form and a recognition of only material cause. Needless to say, there is no recognition of purpose, of destiny, even of form. There is a complete denial of creatureliness. There is a continual running away to hide oneself in the bushes, to obscure oneself from open discovery, to cover one’s nakedness because the ego has been convinced of its own ugliness and shame. All because there has been an existential rejection of the essential grace of the Creator, a grace that we call beauty.

Contrary to Jean-Paul Sarte, hell is not other people. Hell, rather, is no people. Hell is the isolation of ego. Whereas the existentialists have unwittingly warned us: existence precedes and thus occludes the essences; not only God, but nature itself is rejected. The world becomes a shrinking place thus from three dimensions to two to finally one, and every ego in perdition becomes its own tiny, devolving singularity, where there will never be, ever, a big bang. And so—we’re almost done with hell here—hell is an ugly, ugly place. If only we mean by the word “place” a psychic topography.

Obviously, such a place that is not a place, because it is outside space and time, such a place cannot ever be overcome by sheer power. Power needs substance to be acted upon, an object to be moved by force. Hell, as that possibility of the rejection of divine beauty, that infinite rejection toward nothingness, but never quite reaching it, this hell is only overcome by unveiling the apocalypse of the Son of man as the Son of God.

In one of the verses sung at vespers on Saturday evening, this is what is said about that very moment when hell was overcome:

The gates of death opened to thee from fear, O Lord; when the guards of hell saw thee they were afraid, for thou didst demolish the gates of brass and smash the iron chains.

So how was this demolition and this smashing done? Not by a show of violence and domination, not by a demonstration of greater power, but instead by sheer revelation. At the moment of humanity’s greatest descent and falling, at the interval of humanity’s farthest existential regression, there at this extremity Jesus Christ revealed the fullness of his divinity, and united to that divinity was his complete human nature in solidarity with all humanity. This is the revelation that Christ articulated in beauty to all of humanity at this extremity of opaque ugliness and despair. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev has written convincingly that Christ on Holy Saturday proclaimed himself the fullness of God’s word to all humanity. Christ’s descent into hell, after having canceled the necessary violence of human existence and sin on the Cross, was shrouded in obscurity to the devil and the demonic powers. They could not perceive the full identity of Christ as not only the Son of man but also as the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Not only could they not see that, but they could never even begin to grasp that the kenosis of self-donation lay at the essence of God, who is a union of three Persons.

What is utterly shocking here about these events is, as a kid I always wondered: Why did the devil let Jesus down there in the first place if he knew what was going to happen? Well, the first answer, according to St. Irenaeus and some of the other Fathers, is that he didn’t know that Jesus was fully God. The second answer is even more shocking. The devil and the evil powers, on Holy Friday, Holy Saturday, and Great and Holy Pascha, the devil and the evil powers were ignorant of Trinitarian doctrine and Christology. They didn’t know. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at this, because the only way to recognize the divinity of Christ is through the witness of the Holy Spirit, and the only way to know God as Trinity is through the willing entry into communion with Trinitarian love.

Thus it is that hell never knew what was coming and still does not understand. The devil, I think, is still an Arian, at best, and may even be agnostic, and he remains fanatically committed to the narrative of chaos and violence about which we were complaining so vociferously at the beginning. You are already a better theologian than the devil, and you will always be. The devil knows lots of facts, but he doesn’t really know.

Jesus Christ, on the other hand, conquered hell, not by imperious force nor by power in the usual sense of power. One does not surmount a shadow cult of existential rejection by forceful domination, but rather only by a sheer revelation of divinity, a divine glory that we Christians know as beauty. In the dark ugliness of hell, God simply did what he did at the beginning; he said, “Let there be light.” And Christ, as the Light of the world, who revealed the Father and the Holy Spirit in himself, was that Light and the Light was him.

Once again, divine beauty was reestablished forever as a constantly present eschatological existence of infinite peace and as the utter delight of three Persons, consubstantial and undivided. In other words, Christ conquered hell simply, infinitely, by showing up, for real, in all his divine and human glory, a glory that we call beauty.

Hell begins in any and every moment of turning away from the infinite friendship of the Trinity and turning toward the egoist, demonic isolation of self-deification. It begins at the moment of self-imposed exile, in the opaque domain of material causes and radical commodification. Just turn around from God, and you’re there at the threshold. Listen—and you might be able to hear the melancholy cries of the wheeling crowds of Dante’s vestibule, and you can, if you just squint your eyes right, barely make out the tattered banners of every movement in human history. This is the hell Christ has overcome by his infinite beauty, his articulation of the infinite, divine as primordial peace that bridges all distances as the tri-Personal, self-donating love.

Such love obviously is everything, infinitely more and everything that hell is not. The expression of that infinite primordial love and peace is beauty itself. To see this beauty that is everywhere is to understand that beauty makes everything meaningful simply because every moment, every thing, is not only linked to the Creator but now since Holy Saturday that linkage of meaning is universally revealed to every and all consciousness. Every experience is now limpid with meaning. Every experience can be referenced to the still point of the Logos, and every creature can be translucent with the light of God, and that translucence itself is exactly what beauty is. This is so because the story of beauty, how it started at the beginning and how it came to be restored as a perpetual reality, this story of beauty is beautiful itself. The story has become the very form of beauty.

As John Keats once said, and I wrote this long before David quoted it this morning, earlier today… As John Keats once said, “Beauty is truth; truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” And since we know that truth is Christ himself, the very Logos of God, Keats was righter than he knew. Beauty is truth; truth beauty. And nothing is more certain than that. Thank you. [Applause]


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