The following is a translated and transcribed version of a french podcast recorded in March 2021 by Jonathan Pageau and Jean-Philippe Marceau.
Thanks to Norm Grondin for the translation, transcription and edition.
JP: Welcome to this new episode of The Symbolic Life with Jonathan Pageau and Jean-Philippe Marceau. In the first two episodes we did a pretty thorough theoretical introduction to symbolism, and we also used the modern symbol of the zombie to situate ourselves in our present moment. Now that we have put that all in place, I would like to spend a few episodes drawing some symbolic threads in the Bible and also in stories floating around today. Even in some of the more bizarre elements of popular culture, such as conspiracy theories, we can see more clearly once we have a symbolic outlook.
A good place to start is right in Genesis, right at the beginning, in how God creates the different stages between the two extremes of the heavens and the earth. A way to conceive of these things is that, in general, heaven will refer to more abstract principles, to things that are above, invisible, things that lack body. Conversely, the earth refers to potential. It’s related to water, to the possibility of things to emerge, but it is just chaotic and without depth. This is just how it is written in Genesis, and it is through a union, a marriage, or a meeting between these two poles that things exist. From above, we get significance and invisible patterns that come to inform matter. And conversely, from below we have matter, or earth, that expresses or supports this more elevated meaning.
Jonathan, your brother’s book, The Language of Creation, is excellent regarding these things. A good example he uses is from Genesis 2, when Adam names the animals. Here you take something invisible, a name, and you associate it with something on the earth, namely a concrete animal that isn’t yet precisely defined because it’s yet unnamed. This brings matter to a higher level, into human relationships, and conversely it lowers an abstract concept, making it land in the concrete world. This is the specific example of an animal, but everything that exists does so through a meeting like this, through a union of an invisible pattern and concrete matter.
Another example is the creation of Adam himself, where God takes earth, dust from the ground, and assembles it into one thing. He then blows spirit, wind, something that comes from heaven, that is an invisible pattern, and blows it into Adam. In that meeting of matter, of earth from below, and the pattern from above, we get Adam. So this union of heaven and earth is the fundamental, foundational pattern of existence. Throughout the Bible, we have a story of how these unions work, break, how we try to repair them, and ultimately how they are reunited.
Jonathan: Exactly. The first thing we need to do is break our materialism and look at the elements and the associations that are in the first chapter of Genesis. We have the idea of God who is in heaven, or outside of reality. But, after that, He manifests, as Christians say, as “Our Father, who art in heaven”, that is in the invisible world. Then, He manifests himself through certain things.
There is the idea of speech, and of spirit or wind, of breath, and then there is the notion of light. He starts by creating light, which also doesn’t have a body, so it’s a great example to help us understand spiritual principles. What light does is to reveal to us the bodies that come out of the darkness. But the light itself has no body. It is similar here to the idea of breath or spirit, that is as something invisible, but that carries meaning, especially when used in conjunction with speech. So, the human being is a type of microcosm. The way we work is that the meaning and the pattern of our reality come from our mouths, and from that we express those patterns with our hands, our feet, our body.
Let’s say names and meaning come from above. It’s hard because we have so badly broken that way of thinking symbolically… I think we spoke about this in our first podcast: the experience of going up higher gives us the capacity to see the pattern of something. When we distance ourselves from something, especially by standing above that thing, all of a sudden we are able to see more reality at one time. That is also the idea of the pattern or the structure that is hidden in multiplicity, but when you succeed in rising above it, you are able to recognize its structure. And it’s this very structure, in the end, that makes things exist.
In Genesis, at the beginning, there are two extremes that are created: heaven and earth. That is, the earth was without form and void. The earth is like a chaos, a type of potentiality of body that doesn’t yet have any form. Then God speaks (makes noise through invisible breathing or blowing). He says things, and in the measure that He speaks, meaning coagulates phenomena together to give meaning a body. After that, He sees light. Imagine the light that hits phenomena. God sees, and what does He do? He recognizes that it’s good. That’s super important because for God to recognize that it’s good is to recognize the natural hierarchy of the universe. To recognize that things are created to be good, that embedded in the very identity of things is always an evaluation of quality.
There are really simple examples of that, such as when you see a glass – you don’t really even realize it – but you are always in the process of evaluating whether it’s good. For example, if you come to the glass, and see that it’s dirty, then you won’t take it to drink. Or, if you see a glass and it’s broken, then you won’t take it. In seeking a glass, if you need to use it for its intended goal, your hand will automatically evaluate all available glasses and reach to take one that is good. This is also how we are able to recognize the difference between a dead and a living being. We are able to see that the living being accomplishes the goal of that animal or the reason why it exists, whereas the dead animal doesn’t. A dead dog is not a “good” dog. It’s a “bad” dog in the sense that it doesn’t accomplish what a dog is supposed to be.
JP: Yes, you have a connection between heaven and earth in the dog, of the pattern and the matter of the dog. When we have a good match between heaven and earth is when we recognize something as pretty, as beautiful. When the correspondence isn’t there, we recognize that it’s something less beautiful. For example, take two flowers. One is pretty because it incarnates the principle of itself well. Its matter is shaped according to the kind of this flower. But imagine that the other is sick for any number of reasons. There, the pattern of the flower is incapable of informing the matter of the flower, and we describe it as ugly.
Jonathan: Yes, and let’s say you see a flower, and it’s been mangled by something. A dog walked over it, or you stepped on it or something. You can understand the way in which the flower falls back into chaos. If you can imagine chaos as being full of potentiality, like a monster that wants to come and eat you, a dragon that comes out of the water to eat things. Initially you have an object that exists, but when this dragon, all these exterior possibilities, begin to chip away at its identity, at a certain point, the object begins to appear as less than it is. Instead of gathering the phenomena to itself, it has been overtaken by its elements, overcome by what surrounds it, and its identity has become undone. It has broken its identity.
JP: Yes. That explains well how things exist, and we can see it well in Genesis, as it goes progressively toward Adam. You mentioned how he was a microcosm before, where you have heaven and earth, the two extremes of creation, and then you have the light…
Jonathan: It’s fascinating, because the Genesis text is constructed as two extremes that come to meet in the middle. That’s often why people have difficulty understanding the text. If you try to understand it scientifically, it’s so absurd, there is no meaning at the scientific level. It has to be understood ontologically, that is, as how the hierarchy of being manifests itself through things in human experience. Then all of a sudden you understand. For instance, the day after he creates vegetation, God creates light, and you say, “okay, what’s going on?” After that, on another day, He creates the birds and the fish, and after that He creates domestic animals and wild animals. There is a type of descent of phenomena from above (light, birds) and an ascent of phenomena (grass, fishes, beasts) that comes and on the last day, we arrive at the middle and God takes the dust of the earth, like you said, and the spirit enters into him, and he becomes like a seed of creation. The spot where creation finds all its meaning and becomes even a type of originator of meaning, is in man. He’s a microcosm of the whole thing.
Adam then begins to name the animals. God even says, when He speaks of the role of Adam and Eve, that they have to dominate the earth. Often, it isn’t translated like that because people don’t like that idea. But the idea is that God created this garden as a type of space that contains everything, and Adam is supposed to reproduce in the rest of creation what God did in the garden. God tells Adam he is supposed to bring the identity, the name and the meaning to fill the earth. We typically understand it just in terms of having children, but it isn’t necessarily the best way to understand it. It’s to fill the earth with the presence of man, we could say, and that bothers people today. It bothers people because of our ecological bend. We have a problem when we hear that, but it’s important to understand that even this type of ecological vision participates in the pattern. That is, we saw an excess of the pride of man who wanted to impose, in an arbitrary sense, his reign over creation. He didn’t make a garden, he created a city in an attempt to take up all the space. Then all of a sudden we see the other side, the bottom side that says, “no, no, no.” Then we go ecological and there are people who are extreme, who are ready to desire the end of humanity to move their project forward because they see the other side of the coin in the manifestations of the extreme. But the human being is supposed to be the balance. That is supposed to be his role.
JP: It’s good to discuss this excess of light, this excess of heaven because it’s not so easy to recognize. Everyone in the culture is able to recognize the other side, i.e., that in the Fall, we fall into multiplicity, into potential. It’s an association that is very common, between potential and sin in practice. When things fall into potential, it’s often wrong or bad. Many people make that association even if they’re not aware of the surrounding details in the Bible. In the Fall, when heaven and earth no longer hear each other because Adam and Eve no longer do their job as mediators between the two extremes, they descend into multiplicity, closer to potential, and they find themselves on the earth, where you have images like the thorn bush.
Jonathan: Thorn bushes are really an image of multiplicity that manifest themselves as points. So multiplicity manifests itself not just as potential, but really as a type of active multiplicity that comes to attack you, to do you harm. You just have to step on some brambles, and you’ll know what it’s all about. (laughs) All the needles that go into your foot . . .
What’s important to understand is that if you say the human being is put in the garden to be an equilibrium between heaven and earth, to be a gardener, he’s there to take care of the organic world. He’s there to impose a certain order and structure, to name things and to participate in their being.
In Genesis, there are many falls. Adam and Eve create an excess of light in the sense that they take from the tree, from what is above them. There is the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden. That knowledge is light, that’s what it is. Knowledge is a light on something, and God says not to eat that fruit. Traditionally, the explanation is that God doesn’t want human beings to take it for themselves. God was going to give that fruit to Adam later in his development, but he wasn’t yet ready for it. But Adam lifts his hand, he takes the fruit for himself in an excess of pride, an excess of self-sufficiency. It’s an excess of light. We think we have it all, we’re no longer scared, we think that we contain the whole universe within ourselves. He takes the fruit and then he falls. He descends, and then it’s the opposite that happens to them. Suddenly we see a vacillation between the two extremes beginning to manifest itself. So they face thorns, the multiplicity that pierces them and to respond to that, they will make garments of animal skins. They will take something that is dead to cover and to protect themselves.
After that, Cain kills his brother and there is like a second fall. God chases Cain into a valley, even further down than Adam and Eve. Imagine that the more you descend the mountain, the more you distance yourself from its summit, the closer you get toward the sea, toward chaos. He goes lower down the mountain, and it’s super funny, because Bible scholars don’t understand. Some explain that it makes no sense because Cain is described as a vagabond, a type of nomad as it’s written that he will wander in the world. But right after, it reads that he builds the first city. So then the scholars say that it makes no sense. How can he, who is supposed to be a wanderer, a vagabond, build the first city? It appears as a contradiction, but it isn’t. It’s the same process repeating from the beginning that shows how one extreme brings forth its opposite. Because he becomes a vagabond and wanderer, then he isn’t at home and he has to build one to protect himself from a situation that becomes more and more extreme.
Then you can imagine that that continues with civilization. We make objects, we make tools. There are many cities that appear. All of a sudden we make weapons of war and begin fighting, which brings about chaos and our descent. You can imagine from the garden of Eden, you descend, you descend, you descend and at a certain point, you go too far, and you arrive at the sea. And in the story, that is the flood. The water comes back and then it’s finished. The process is finished in total chaos.
JP: People often have an idea of original sin, or of sin in general, as something that begins at the bottom. Or many think that it was something that was sexual, or that has to do with potential . . .
Jonathan: It’s such a bad understanding because sin is always that: the sin of Satan, the sin of Adam. That is, Satan wanted to be God. Adam wanted to be God. It’s not hard to see that it’s the same sin! Satan wanted to make a war in heaven to replace what was above him and Adam too wanted to take what belongs to God for himself and to become like God by himself. So that’s the sin, it’s not a sexual sin.
I often say that there is a suggested union with the serpent in the text, but you can’t necessarily imagine it in that way. That is, it’s as if Eve allows herself to be influenced by things that are unstable, by multiplicity. But multiplicity leads to overreaching above… as I said, it’s like a game of extremes. Even after the flood, you see the same thing. What’s the first thing they do after the flood? They build an immense tower to touch the sky. Right after! It’s all a game of extremes. You can imagine the descendants of Noah who said, “the city that we are going to build won’t be like Cain’s, it’ll be a city that will hold together, you’ll see! We won’t be swept up by the flood. So we will make a tower that will touch the sky so that even if there is a flood, we won’t be swallowed up by it.” But the result of that is another chaos that comes back. So the fall is like a vacillation from extreme order to extreme chaos.
JP: I would like to speak about Noah, because I’d like to go through a few stories where we see the heaven and earth pattern. We spoke about creation, with the Word, when God lifts the earth out of the water, that He will create things in a meeting of a pattern from heaven and matter/potential that comes from below. After all the falls that you just enumerated, we arrive at the flood, we return to the primordial state. There remains only Noah, his family and the animals. I.e., there remains a microcosm of the previous world in the ark. After that, for the recreation of the world, it follows the same type of pattern as before, but with a bird. There are two birds, and you know better than me that symbolism there, there is a raven and a dove, I think.
Jonathan: There is a dark bird and a light bird, let’s say. You have to remember, in the Bible you have to be able to follow the images… and you know scholars, they don’t like it when we do that, that’s why people don’t have the tendency to do it, but you have to see how the images are repeated in the text, even up to the New Testament. You need to do that to be able to recognize what happens, for example, when Christ is baptized, as he comes out of the water and it says: “The spirit of God descended upon him like a dove.” Well, the goal of that description is to connect things in the Old Testament together with the New. You know, the dove that Noah sent out over the water in the time of the flood? Well, that was the same spirit of God that was over the water at the beginning, when God created heaven and earth. And also, the spirit of God that descends on the waters of baptism, when Christ becomes the bridge between heaven and earth, it’s the same image as the dove of Noah descending, that finds earth after the flood. It’s the same structure, which is that he sends the dove to find and to create a meeting between heaven and earth. The dove descends from above, it finds a tree branch, a spot where there is a structure.
We can’t take the time to unpack all the symbolism here, but a tree is structure. A tree is a fractal structure where each tree branch is the same shape of the whole tree. It’s as if Noah sends the dove to find the space where there is an incarnated structure on the earth and when the dove brings this back to Noah, then the flood is over. The chaos is finished because we found that patterned structure, and then we are ready to reboot the machine, to reboot the world.
But remember that there are two birds, a dark and a light one. We could say that the dark bird loses itself in the chaos. In an image of that dark bird in Christian iconography, we represent it as eating a carcass. So it finds a residue of the ancient world, and it feeds itself on it, whereas the white bird finds the seed of the new world. So you see the two extremes manifesting themselves again. You have the dark bird who doesn’t come back, that loses itself in the residue of the ancient world, and then the white bird that comes back, and helps to recreate the world by having found that structure.
JP: So you go into potential to either lose yourself in it like the dark bird, or to go into it, but to use it, inform it, and to create a new world like the white bird?
Jonathan: Exactly, and the best image of that in the Bible is when Jesus speaks of fishing, when he says to St. Peter to go to the water’s edge. St. Peter goes to the edge and there is a fish that presents itself with a piece of gold in its mouth. That’s really an image of the possibility of going into chaos and the role of the human being to find those hidden seeds. The role of man is to inform, to find those spaces that shine in the chaos. It’s not abstract, it’s like someone who goes into the Amazon forest and discovers a new species of lizard that he didn’t know existed before. He goes into chaos, into a space that he doesn’t know, and all of a sudden, “bang”, he recognizes something. Then he gives it a name, and all of a sudden that thing, that lizard, begins to participate in the world of meaning. Before, it existed as a type of potential, but now it exists in meaning. That’s a bit of the idea of how a new world is made. It’s a new meeting between heaven and earth.
JP: When we work, that’s what we do. Take someone who builds something physically, using say wood, metal or things like that, that are potential for him, and he will inform them. He will take a pattern and use it to inform and to shape the wood. After that, the wood will express a pattern. Or, take a nurse or a doctor who takes someone who has the potential to be healthy but whose body doesn’t work well, and he will go and put back the good pattern in that person. He will allow that matter to re-express the pattern of the human being.
All the work that we do is trying to unite pattern and potential. That’s why Adam also had a type of work to do in the garden. As a gardener, he was to take potential and use it to express patterns: to create things, eat things, order things and name things.
Jonathan: Yes, exactly. It’s important to understand that connected to this idea of finding a piece of gold in the fish, there is another image in the Bible, which is when Samson finds honey in the lion’s carcass. Let’s say you want to create a house. One of the things that you have to do is to identify the good potential. Because if you try to make a house with water, well you’re going to have a hard time.
The human being has the capacity to recognize potential bodies for identities, and it’s one of the things that make it so that the human being accomplishes the work that he does. We don’t even notice it because it’s so obvious to us. It’s so evident that when you build a house, you will take strong and solid materials, or materials that have a certain flexibility. This capacity that the human being has to recognize the value in potential and to inform reality in turn is not as evident as it seems.
JP: That’s good. I’d like to take some time to go through a funny example of heaven and earth symbolism. What one intuitively imagines when reading Genesis is the sky as a dome, that is blue, that is invisible, and a flat earth in front of us. It works with our phenomenological experience of the world, where the world exists as a union of these two things.
We spoke in the first podcast about how we lost this vision of the world historically, how we distanced ourselves more and more from it. And now, there is a funny thing happening. During the Copernican revolution that alienated us from our experience, we said, “okay, the earth doesn’t look like this. It isn’t flat, it’s round. Our phenomenological experience isn’t what comes first. Rather, what’s first is the mathematics that permit us to say that the earth turns around the sun, which turns around this and that.” But there are conspiracy theorists today that claim that, in fact, the earth is flat and there is a conspiracy to hide this from us.
It’s an interesting example that shows how we arrive at the end of a type of cycle where, as you said earlier, we oscillate between an excess of light and an excess of potential. For a while, we had been trying to see things at just their lowest material level. We’ve now arrived at a moment where we can describe mathematically how the earth behaves and what it looks like, but it’s very far from how we experience reality. So, if we don’t have confidence anymore in the people who are above us and who assure us that these mathematics work, we swing violently to the other side. Instead of jumping over to a legitimate phenomenological worldview, which would be a union of heaven and earth, we cast our phenomenology down into materiality, and end up saying that the world is materially flat.
Jonathan: Yes, this phenomenon is interesting because one of the ways to express the union of heaven and earth is with the word: trust. Our authorities tell us how reality works, and that is true all the time. If people listening don’t realize that, think about the following: if you’ve never been to Bangkok, but you are confident that it exists, that’s because people that you have confidence in have told you and shown you things that make it so that you believe it does. The majority of the things we believe (I would say 90% of things that we believe), we believe through the implicit confidence that we have in an authority of some type. And one of the ways to express the rupture between heaven and earth is as an absence of trust. Christians would call it an absence of faith.
When you don’t have faith, all of a sudden things start to fragment and fall apart. What we see is that the model of the world that we have been presented with, let’s say from the time of Copernicus, was a model that wasn’t based on trust. The model of the enlightenment and the scientific model were not based on trust but on doubt. But secretly it’s always based on trust, that is everything that you believe regarding science or the fact that science operates in one way or another is based on trust. But if you look at the real scientific method, the way that it works is supposed to be based on doubt. The big joke though is that the scientific process has devoured itself because now, having arrived at the end of this process, people realize that the only reason they believe that the earth is round and that it turns around the sun is just because someone at school told them.
They don’t have that experience of the world. When they go outside, they don’t see that the earth is round. Then they say, well I doubt what they told me and I want to experiment for myself, I want to arrive at this experience personally, but it’s very hard to have this experience. You’d have to take a plane and go up super high to do that. So instead they say, “ah, no, I do not trust. Even scientifically minded people told me not to have trust in authorities, to question authority.” But now it’s turned back on the scientific process, and it’s like reinstalling, despite itself, a type of traditional vision of reality, but one that’s in transition. It seems that conspirationists don’t have a vision of reality as being phenomenological and based in meaning and the hierarchy of meaning. Instead, they keep hanging on to the scientific model, but strangely, they come back to a super ancient model, of the sky as a dome and the earth as a flat disc, that is as old as human consciousness. It’s fascinating to see.
What it shows is that our system of meaning is in crisis. In these types of things like flat earth, we can see little sparks, not yet fully formed, trying to re-understand how the world works in reality without denying the technical description of a round earth that turns around the sun, and the sun that turns around this and that. We don’t need to question that to understand that in the world of meaning, there is above and below; and if you question that, my friend, you are going to have some serious problems. If you question that the sun comes up in the morning in a real way, according to your experience, you are going to have problems. (laughs)
JP: That’s good how you explain it as a lack of trust, like a lack of union between heaven and earth. Instead of us all having a traditional view of the world, where meaning comes to inform potential, we are told to doubt that story. But we put ourselves in another story, a simpler one, where people tell us that what is most important is a materialist vision of the world, where the earth turns around the sun, for example. We become potential for that story, we unite with that vision of the world. We leave the vision where the patterns exist in a more profound way than just mathematically. In progressively taking away more abstract levels of existence, we arrive in the end to matter, and we see that it doesn’t work. It’s like we have so violently oscillated to the other direction, that we are unable to express exactly what the ancients were trying to say, that there wasn’t just matter in their vision of the world. We arrive at a world that is physically flat …
Jonathan: This phenomenon is so interesting because one of the things that created it was asking: “why did they tell us that? Why did they make us believe that the earth is round, when in fact it’s flat and the sky is a dome above?” And the reason that they arrive at is great. (laughs) They say it’s because there are people who wanted to distance believers from God, who wanted to distance humanity from God. So they proposed a model that made it so that the earth wasn’t in the center of the universe, that man was not in the center, and in so doing they were marginalizing us and destroying the meaning of things. So in a totally roundabout way, it’s all true. In only emphasizing the material causality and in ignoring the deeper structures that animate and allow them to exist, we are in a further process of distancing, and bringing people toward atheism and all that. It’s an excellent conclusion, but just a roundabout way of arriving at the reason for why we wanted to impose that system on people. It’s fascinating.
JP: Yes, there are jumps in that argument where I would like to add extra steps, but they arrive either way at the right conclusion. It’s funny.
Okay, I think that shows the problem we are in, namely in the fall we have been talking about since the beginning. Heaven and earth are separated. As all problems are ultimately resolved in the Gospels by Jesus, I would like us to trace how that union is remade ultimately by him. One example is of Jesus walking on water. Walking on water is already a union of heaven and earth that is stronger than normal, where water is potential that obeys God, that obeys the Word directly. Jesus walking on water is a new creation happening. That’s also why Christ brings Peter in this pattern. If Peter looks at Jesus, if he remains fixed on the mediator between heaven and earth, he is capable of participating in this pattern too. He is able to walk on water, but as soon as he looks away, he loses the vision of that union. As he looks lower and becomes a materialist, for example, he sinks in the water. It’s interesting what happens next, because Jesus will take him back out of the water and Peter, whose name means rock, is the rock upon which the Church is founded.
So you have a recreation of the world. You have the Word that descends, like in Genesis, to recreate the world from potential, and Jesus brings us inside it. So similarly for us today, we can also get into the boat, with Peter and ultimately Jesus.
Jonathan: That story of Jesus who rescues Peter from the water is really a repetition of creation. You can imagine that in the storm, there are extremes that manifest themselves. The wind is too strong, the spirit is too present in the sense of being out of union between heaven and earth. The water too, is too strong, so you have two extremes: the wind is strong, the water is strong, bubbling, and then all of a sudden Christ arrives, he walks – whoa, I am mixing two things up!
JP: That does work well, though . . .
Jonathan: In both stories, there is the same meaning! The story of Christ calming the storm is the same story, fundamentally, at the level of meaning. But okay, so Christ descends and walks on the water, and then, there is like a fall and a redemption in Peter’s story. That is Peter’s story: he denies Christ, then he becomes the foundation of the Church. In the story of Peter, you have a microcosm of the whole story of the universe. Peter comes out of the water and, like you say, in looking toward the Logos he is capable of staying above the chaos, to manifest the earth. It’s trust that makes it hold together. When he doubts, he begins to sink in the water, and Christ pulls the earth out of the water. Christ takes Peter, the rock, out of the water to create a new earth, a new world, to reboot the new body and the new world of the Church.
JP: Yes, and it can seem more abstract than it really is, especially when said like that. It can seem almost unrealistic for people who listen to that and who are not Christian, but it’s really the experience that is happening if you go to Church. You practice uniting heaven and earth, like Peter. You do your best when you sink in the water to look to the Logos that comes to unite heaven and earth. All the liturgical practices are done to permit us to participate in that union.
Peter’s boat, the boat in which he will enter, well it’s always been associated with the Church. It’s like Noah’s boat, too, where above the chaotic waters we have a new creation that will be ready for the new world. We learn to see the world as per the phenomenological vision we were talking about before. It’s very useful to have the liturgy to practice that.
Notice, it’s not for nothing that people become flat-earthers when coming from materialism. They’re struggling to find an alternative. Let’s say you have just become aware that materialism doesn’t work, that you need something else. Once you become aware of that, you are like Peter. You can fall into water because you don’t know what to fall back to, because our society has been materialistic for so long. And even if you realize you need a more sophisticated worldview, you’ll probably think, “I don’t know for sure what Church maybe or what religion or what other system”. But you have to commit to something. As we discussed in the first episode, it takes time to (re)learn how to see the world properly. It doesn’t happen right away, like you say a formula and all of a sudden you relearn how to see things.
I thought about this a few days ago when I was praying in my car, I saw heaven and earth for the first time as a dome. It was now natural to see it like that, whereas before I was sort of alienated from that world. It’s hard to explain exactly, but it’s like it didn’t shine before. I was a bit divided on one side with my Christian practices and on the other, when I went outside and saw heaven and earth, it was mainly just material things as usual. But the capacity of re-seeing the meaning phenomenologically that should be evident in things, that’s something that takes practice in the microcosm of the Church. So the solution that we have in the story that we just spoke about with Jesus and Peter, it really works. It’s said in a super dense way in the story so it can seem unrealistic to people, but if you go practice it in the liturgy, that’s the experience.
Jonathan: Yes, it’s that even at a more basic level. Say you work for a political party. You do things for them, and all of a sudden you begin to have doubts about their goals. If you doubt, you will fall into chaos because you’re supposed to be involved in the project, but now you no longer believe in it. You have no more trust in the project. You’re going to start to fall into chaos, maybe losing yourself and ceasing to be attached to that project. Or maybe in searching, or in the project itself, or through someone in authority that comes and helps you to understand, you reconnect with the party.
Or worse, you’ll discover that it wasn’t just a lack of confidence. Say you work somewhere and you yourself act against your workplace. You steal pencils, or you do things that participate in destroying the meaning of the project you’re engaged in. If you aren’t taken back to re-see the project and aim at it, you will sink. It’s the same thing in a family, or in anything that requires a unity of people working together toward something. The story of St. Peter who sinks in the water is a story that applies to every situation in which you are united to something that is above you, whether a structure, a goal, or a hierarchy.
JP: That’s good. I think we’ve covered the subject well, but I can’t help wanting to end in discussing the supreme example of that, which is the crucifixion. It’s an amazing image that shows right away that phenomenon where you have the union of heaven and earth. You just have to imagine it visually. In the crucifixion, above Jesus, you have speech, the Word . . .
Jonathan: The title, his name . . .
JP: Here is the “King of the Jews”, so it’s like an abstract word that’s planted in the earth, in potential and united in Jesus. The element of confidence mentioned before, well Christ is that, ultimately. He takes everyone, as potential, to unite them to God the Father who created all. Through Jesus’ trust for the Father, he comes to unite heaven and earth, and then all creation with God.
Jonathan: The cross is hard to talk about because there is everything happening at the same time in that story. On one side there is the radical separation between heaven and earth, and the radical union that happens at the same time. It’s really hard to keep that together in your mind.
JP: Where do you see the separation exactly?
Jonathan: He says, “My Father, why have you abandoned me?” It’s one of the strongest lines that has ever been pronounced in the history of humanity. But then, to take those words seriously, you also have to believe the other thing that you said, namely the radical union. You also have to believe that the cross itself, in its form, is a union of the verticality and the horizontality, a union of heaven and earth. There is the mystery also in the covenant because one way to unite heaven and earth was with sacrifice.
A sacrifice was offered to God and afterwards, He gave His benediction. But He also gave body. That is, we ate the flesh of the sacrifice. It’s as if there was an exchange made, where we sent a part of the spiritual sacrifice in the smoke that rose in the sky, but there was also a part that came back down. That was the flesh that we ate together and that we shared as a body. And all that takes place on the cross. Christ tells us: “this is my body that is given up for you.” He makes reference to his crucifixion and says here is the flesh that comes down, that is sacrificed. After that, from the cross, he says as well, “into your hands I commend my spirit.”
There is this movement upwards and this movement downwards, but there is also the fact that there are plenty of actions that break this movement. There is a double irony in the cross – it’s really hard to think about the crucifixion because the title that is there above Jesus is meant to make fun of him. People didn’t think Jesus was really the “King of the Jews”, they did that to mock him, but Christ transforms that derision. He transforms that upside down world and realigns it. He puts it back in place by the fact that finally this death becomes a sacrifice. Nobody realizes what’s happening, nobody knows that something is in the process of making that death a sacrifice.
Christ descends into death, to the lowest place. He goes to the very bottom of death to preach to the lost, to the souls who were imprisoned in death. After that, he ascends to the summit of the garden of Eden because we see in the story that the veil of the temple is torn from top to bottom, which means that he goes into that space, to the top of the mountain. That’s hard for people who don’t yet understand all those symbols, but he goes to the spot where God meets the world. He goes to the center of the garden, above the mountain, and he enters the space of the Holy of Holies of the Temple, which is the place where God and man meet. So he does both at the same time. He goes to the end of death, to where He seems abandoned by God, but where he is also totally united to God. It blows one’s mind. That’s why I have a hard time talking about the crucifixion.
JP: That’s why it works. There has to be a moment that reunites all creation with God. He has to go to the points that are the furthest away from that union. He has to go into death, into atheism, he has to take all the worst ironies that could exist while at the same time keeping the memory of the Father.
Jonathan: Yes, that’s it. That’s the aspect of the mystery of the totality that Christ manifests on the cross. It’s really a mystery, not just in the sense that it’s something that we don’t understand scientifically, but in that it unites extreme opposites to make us see a glimpse of a totality, a real totality where everything is included in that story …
JP: A term that I had heard before that was good was suprarational . . . things that are . . .
Jonathan: The crucifixion is really that.
JP: There are things that are irrational, that just don’t make sense. There are things that are rational, that we understand perfectly. And then there are things that are suprarational because they are inexhaustible sources of intelligibility, of meaning.
Jonathan: Yes, because you can spend your entire life meditating on the crucifixion. I have been thinking about the crucifixion since I was 10 years old, but I am still surprised about elements that were just in front of me. Why did I never think of that? There are still things that when I see them, it’s like, I am not sure that I understand what that is, or why that’s there.
One of the things people can find hard to understand in this story is why they need to cast lots for his garments. But that totally makes sense since the garment is the exteriority that loses its meaning. So the casting of lots is the absence of meaning. Lots is a decision taken without reason. There isn’t a reason when you cast lots. You throw a die, and that goes to him, well, why? Pffft, I don’t know, there’s no reason, it’s like …
JP: It forgets the heavens… and leaves things up to potentiality.
Jonathan: Yes, that’s it, so then his body, his garments are taken by Romans and given up by casting lots. And there is another mystery in that, in relation to the conversion of the Church and of Rome later on. But suffice it to say, the crucifixion is hard to talk about.
JP: Yes, that’s good. That’s perfect. That’s why I’d like to do a series of episodes where we begin with something in Genesis, and we trace the whole story right up into the Gospels. Not necessarily right up to the cross, but often, because its symbolism is so vast that if we try to discuss any subject with depth we end up connecting it to the cross anyway.
Jonathan: If you look at ancient images of the crucifixion, there are many where you can see that. In the cruxifixion, above Christ, there is the name and then below the cross, typically it will show the garments that were cast by lots. So you have the chaotic potentiality of a garment, an exteriority, that isn’t connected to meaning, that is below. Then you have the name that is above. Or, below, we will often show Adam’s skull in a cave. So you have a hole where it’s dark, where there is no light, connected to death that is hidden in that dark place. Then, all of a sudden, you have the name above, and you have Christ that connects the two together, that connects to “Jesus Christ the King of the Jews.” This is one of the reasons why, in the Orthodox tradition, we often write “Jesus Christ King of Glory” rather than “Jesus the King of the Jews”. It’s to try to help people understand that the name acquired on the cross is a universal name that fills the whole earth.
JP: Yes. That’s good. I think we didn’t do the full tour, that’s impossible . . .
Jonathan: It’s certain that we didn’t do the full tour of the crucifixion! I think though that we traced a pretty good thread between where heaven and earth come from, the story of how we lost it, including where our flat-earthers come from today and how the ultimate solution is to be found in Christ.
I hope we provided a lot for people to meditate upon, and we’ll continue in the next episode.
JP: Yes, thank you very much.
Jonathan: Until next time, Jean-Philippe.