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Filtering by Tag: Justin Ryals

The Judgment, Backwards

Justin Ryals

Eccehomo1 I have for some time viewed the trial and death of Christ as, in a sense, the Final Judgment, only backwards. Jews of the first century had a deep expectation that the Messiah was going to come in final judgment upon the earth and rescue Israel from its enemies and set up an everlasting kingdom. Indeed, even to the very end, Jesus’ own disciples were arguing over who was to have the higher rank in that kingdom. And the judgment of God did take place, but in a way so far profoundly different from any way anyone expected. God Himself was judged, and declared guilty, and took the curse of death, which man had been long under, into his own body, and thereby broke it utterly.

But the backwardness of the judgment works on many levels in scripture. The means by which this judgment takes place is the darkest act ever committed by men — man’s judgment, condemnation, and execution of God — and yet, in astonishing irony, this is the very means by which God reconciles mankind to Himself. John emphasizes the irony of this backwardness again and again in his gospel, even from the very beginning: “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (1:10-11). Tragically backwards.

Yet, though I had seen the trial and death of Christ in this backwards sense for some time, not until recently did it strike me so forcibly how explicitly and intentionally John cast Christ’s trial and judgment in this backward way. First of all, Jesus is given a mock crown and a mock purple robe (the imperial, royal color) and given mock reverence, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (19:2-3). But John knows, and wants the reader to know, that these things are profoundly, ironically true, in ways far beyond the speakers’ knowledge (in a kind of double reversal: they mean to be ironic, but John points out how ironic is their irony, for they actually reveal the profound truth). But what struck me most forcibly of all was, when Pilate ceases his half-hearted defense of Jesus, he brought the latter before the people and he himself “sat down on the judgment seat” (19:13). No mundane detail; it’s as if the cosmic reversal is complete. Pilate, as the representative of the greatest kingdom of this world (a term which for John has all the moral connotation of the curse of sin), sits in judgment over the true judge of the world (cf. 5:22). God is declared guilty and put to death. But, as has already been mentioned, in the greatest irony of all, this very act was God’s acceptance in Himself of the original judgment upon mankind from the beginning of the human story: the day you eat of the fruit of this tree, you will sever yourself from me, the fountain and source of all life, and you shall surely die. Here, gloriously, astonishingly, this is undone, reversed, destroyed!

Realizations like this — this thread that John has woven throughout his gospel —remind me of the rich literary and theological subtlety of the Scriptures. So often seemingly simple and unadorned, in them are hidden the riches of Christ, if I have the attentiveness and patience to dwell in them and let them seep in, in the midst of the constant rush of our restless world.

(Painting by Antonio Ciseri)

The Ethics of Elfland

Justin Ryals

Teun-Hocks-Utitled-1995. In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton wrote a chapter evocatively titled "The Ethics of Elfland," in which he relates how his philosophy of the real world is best mirrored in the world of classical fairy tales (think Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang, George MacDonald, or the like). For example, the nature of the world in a fairy tale is magic; for Chesterton, likewise, the real world itself is magic. As he stated, "stories of magic alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege." The world of the fairy tale and our own world are equally inexplicable in terms of why they are there or are the way they are. Both are equally startling and unnecessary, equally wonderful. Reality is a pure gift. The sun and planets and stars all "hang about" in the sky. Does "gravity" make that fact any more inherently explicable since gravity itself just adds one more thing equally inexplicable in its being and nature as the rest? Is the explanation of gravity any less peculiar, or indeed logically any different — on an ontological level — from saying that a magic spell holds them there?

The being of the world, and of ourselves, cannot be "solved" by pointing to a natural causal chain. Each link is as inexplicable and "magical" in its being as any other. A place where eggs turn into birds and caterpillars transform into butterflies, for Chesterton, is best captured in the language of the fairy tale: "We must answer that it is magic. ... A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. ... The sun shines because it is bewitched." The "magic" of a world that enchants us is not merely an impression but an insight.

The only reason the "real" world is not a realm of "magic" but one that is "disenchanted" (as Max Weber said) or dead is because it has been narrated that way, and it has shaped our consciousness and imagination. It perhaps gives us a sense of complacent calm or control to think of the world as not "magical" in this way, for it calls forth no response from us and we may shape it according to our will. But when we think of a fairy tale as magical and lived life as "just the real world," these are mere abstractions of our minds. The question is, are we going to interpret reality according the "dead" and "humdrum" metaphor of "the real world" or according to the profound depths so well captured in the metaphor of the fairy tale? The modern world sees the universe as dead because it is looking in a mirror at itself — its own abstraction projected onto the world. Yes, the natural world is full of interrelated patterns, but its patterns are that of the artist or the storyteller rather than of the fatalist or determinist.

Chesterton was not disparaging the legitimate place of scientific inquiry and discovery, though he thought that science pointed to a world as magical in its wonders and mysteries as any fairy tale. Rather, he was speaking of the nature of ontology, and the all-too-common fact that we take the being of the world and all its particularities for granted, when they are anything but "granted;” or rather, properly speaking, they are granted, and that's what's so astonishing — we are, they are. As I've quoted Chesterton before, there is within us "a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence" that we search for (Autobiography, 97). He concludes with this:

"Thus ends, in unavoidable inadequacy, the attempt to utter the unutterable things. These are my ultimate attitudes towards life; the soils for the seeds of doctrine. These in some dark way I thought before I could write, and felt before I could think ... I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself. ... The thing is magic ... Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently."

(Painting by Teun Hocks)

Do we often stand outside of life?

Justin Ryals


“... the only way of ‘mastering’ one’s material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgment, as the work revenges itself on the domineering artist.” (Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, 186)

In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers makes the intriguing point that our modern culture typically approaches life according to a scientific or analytic “problem and solution” paradigm rather than what she calls a “creative” paradigm. As she states, modern man views life “as a series of problems … which he has to solve with the means at his disposal. And he is distressed to find that the more means he can dispose of — such as machine power, rapid transport, and general civilized amenities, the more his problems grow in hardness and complexity. This is particularly disconcerting to him, because he has been frequently told that the increase of scientific knowledge would give him ‘mastery over nature’ — which ought surely to imply mastery over life” (185-6). In short, we try to take a method that’s applicable to a small subset of human experience and try to apply it to all areas of life, indeed to human life itself.

In her creative paradigm, life isn’t a problem to be solved, nor the mystery of the universe an equation to be worked out; for one thing, these imply the ability to master life. Rather, in this view (as Christine Fletcher summarizes Sayers), “life presents a series of opportunities to make something new” (The Artist and the Trinity, 96). The artist, for Sayers, doesn’t stand outside life as an engineer, but, open-endedly, within life, working with the elements of life according to their nature, in order to make something out of them in harmony with their nature, essentially in an ongoing process of being fruitful and multiplying, that is, in all the various aspects of human life and human interaction with the world. Sayers applies this creative paradigm not just to the artist in the narrower sense, but to the fabric of human nature itself, indeed suggesting that “creative mind is … the very grain of the spiritual universe” (Mind of the Maker, 185).

Thus, central to what Sayers is arguing seems to be that modern man does not want to live life (this ongoing fruitful process); he wants to master life. Modern man seeks to overcome even the deeper problems of life through, e.g., analytic or machine techniques, seeking to conform the world to human will. But the creative paradigm doesn’t seek to master nature. It works with the materials received, according to their nature, to bring forth yet new things. Therein, even “the pains and sorrows of this troublesome world can never … be wholly meaningless and useless.” The artist will seek to “make something of them” (192-3). In short, they are the materials for a new creation or a new synthesis. This, Sayers argues, is the pattern that Christian theology provides as well. And there is a striking parallel, e.g., in the Incarnation. The problem of the Fall isn’t simply “solved” in the sense that problematic elements simply disappear by force of will and reason. They become themselves part of the very elements out of which something brand new is brought forth. God enters within the context of human life as things stand and creatively engages with all the factors involved according to their nature (taking on the “likeness of sinful flesh” [Rom 8:3]). Thus all the materials of the fallen order are employed to create something new. To be sure, God “adds” new materials — the supernatural breaking into the natural — but the old materials are integrated into the new, having been transformed into something glorious through God’s creative work. One is reminded of C. S. Lewis’ analogy, in “The Grand Miracle,” of discovering the missing, central passage of a symphony or chapter of a novel, which, when plugged in, transforms and transvalues its whole meaning, making new sense of all the other parts, forming a masterpiece. Thus, though life is often, in large part, made up of tragedy we can rest in God’s promise and his creative power that he can take all of those elements — the scars, pain, loss, and all other seemingly useless material — not simply erasing them or resetting everything to zero, but creatively forming out of them a new creation of unforeseen glory (how else could a crucifixion be the creative means of glorifying the Son of God?).

Do we perhaps often stand “outside” life, seeking to engineer our lives and thereby gain mastery over it through techniques, or (similarly) get lost in imaginary scenarios that could have been but are not? If Sayers is correct, should we not rather stand “within” life, as its servant, imaginatively interacting with what is there, engaging with life in media res, seeking to create new forms and re-integrations of the good, the beautiful, the true (in all walks of life)? While also, of course, admitting to the tragedy and the brokenness and the longing of life that cannot be assuaged by human ingenuity.

(Painting by Frida Kahlo)

What is the imagination?

Justin Ryals


Is it important to have a good imagination? Or is it, as at first glance we might be inclined to think, perhaps a little trifling, maybe something important for children but not very necessary for adults? I guess that depends on what the imagination is. I fairly recently came across a very interesting definition of the imagination while listening to an interview of Stephen Prickett discussing George MacDonald, an influential Scottish writer of fantasy (and other genres) in the Victorian period, who had a particularly profound influence on C. S. Lewis. Lewis, in fact, described his initial encounter with MacDonald’s imaginative work as a conversion or baptism of his own imagination; “It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later… The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live” (George MacDonald: An Anthology, xxxviii). So here we already see the great, potentially even transformative, power of one imagination upon another. It altered the way Lewis saw the world and the realm of the possible. And it’s perhaps telling that his imaginative transformation was more basic for him than other aspects of his nature; it set the groundwork for the rest of him to follow. It was Lewis, I believe, who first made me step back and consider what imagination is, before which I, perhaps naively, conceived of it (based upon the root word) simply as the power of the mind to contain and produce images. But Lewis, in the weirdly titled essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” intriguingly referred to the imagination as “the organ of meaning,” whereas reason is the “organ of truth,” the former being the more basic. These points certainly present the imagination as something far beyond a trifling affair, and rather something that is at the very heart of the human person.

Similarly, I came across a description of the imagination in an essay by David Bentley Hart (for my money perhaps one of the most insightful minds currently writing) titled “The Pornography Culture,” in which he speaks of the central importance of the imagination, and by implication the need to guard it from depraving influences. There he writes (reminiscent of Pr 4:23), “the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character.” Here, again, we have the imagination described as of profound central importance to the human person, such that how one’s imagination is formed will determine the possible range of meaning that one can perceive, and the possible ways in which one may view the world.

On yet another note, also striking is Mary Midgley’s statement, “Facts will never appear to us as brute and meaningless; they will always organize themselves into some sort of story, some drama,” pointing to the inevitably “storied” nature of the way we see the world (Evolution as Religion, 4). The form which that story takes will naturally depend on the character of our imagination.

Similar to these perspectives, I think, is the one Prickett recounts of George MacDonald’s view (via Samuel Coleridge) of the imagination. As he explains,

It was [conceived of as] a great integrating faculty that brought all our sense impressions, all our thoughts, all our understanding, together into a single package. And of course each of us has a different imagination because each of us has been through different experiences. I once went for a walk in a very beautiful part of the country with a friend of mine who is an expert on birdsong, and he said, “How many birds can you hear?” And I listened and I very boldly said, “Five or six.” And he said, “I can hear forty.” He had a trained ear, and that was, if you like, the difference between our imaginations at that stage. He could form and integrate what was coming into him into a far more profound pattern of sound than I could.

Here imagination is the central, integrating faculty of the whole person, involved in a dynamic relationship with the world, ever expanding as it interacts with reality (that is, ultimately, God); or, no doubt, diminishing as it entertains false reality. These accounts approach the nature of the imagination from different angles--seemingly not irreconcilably so--but in every case the imagination is something connected to the deepest part of ourselves, forming the range of possibility of what we can and cannot see of reality. One is reminded of Goethe’s commonly quoted line, “Few people have the imagination for reality.” It perhaps informs the fabric or framework of our whole inner world, through which we interpret everything else, having to do with “the power that underlies thoughts,” as MacDonald said in The Fantastic Imagination. Do we give enough attendance to these truths? Do we seek ways in which to enrich or even “baptize” our imaginations, thereby renewing our minds and our vision of the “divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live”? Indeed, how might we do that? If Lewis is a guide, encountering those with rich and profound imaginations embodying deep (perhaps even pre-cognitive) truths is one way. In any case, these, I think, are questions worthy of reflection.

Under the Overpass

Justin Ryals


“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” (2 Cor 8:9)

Mike Yankoski’s Under the Overpass recounts the story of how he radically took these words to heart, taking the reader on quite a journey. It is the tale of the experience of an upper-middle-class young man who has an existential crisis of sorts. After hearing a sermon on the necessity that Christian action match confession, manifesting itself in truly caring for a needy world, he was powerfully struck with a crisis of whether his faith in Christ was weighty enough to genuinely identify with the poor in their suffering. An idea began to form in his mind that compelled him on a journey deep into the existential reality of the poor among us: he became homeless. For five months, along with a friend who decided to take the journey with him, he wandered the streets of several of America’s cities with no place to call home and no idea where his next meal was going to come from. While Yankoski might not exactly be an excellent writer (he’s a young guy), and the dialogue between him and his companion sometimes leaves something to be desired, in the end the idea acted out and some of the experiences he has are so compelling that one can’t help but be affected.

The book is a journal-like account of his experiences on this inglorious adventure into the sewers of America. Though he runs into a lot of interesting, and sometimes disturbing, characters, the picture that emerges is not at all pretty. The world from this perspective looks altogether different, with different priorities and concerns. The reader is hit strongly by the impression that the homeless don’t quite have the status of human beings in the consciousness of America, whether Christian or otherwise. It’s the underbelly of civilized reality we’re all tacitly aware of, but which seldom registers for long in our living consciousness (fleeing with rapid speed as soon as the traffic light turns green).

The essential message of the book is that Yonkoski’s experience is extremely dehumanizing, which is the common lot of his fellow sufferers who have sunk still further. But Jesus entered into the suffering of the lowest of the low, and the church needs to follow Him there. To be sure, the world is big, with many problems and battles to be fought in various arenas of life. But as the apostles summon, “They only asked us to remember the poor” (Gal 2:10). It’s amazing how many of the destitute have ears to hear the good news of Christ’s death for the sinful and broken. The vacuous thoughts and concerns of middle-class consumer culture drift away like mist in this context because they are familiar with the abyss of this fallen world—the need for the gospel is not theoretical but palpable in this context. But for my sake, does my present rhetoric have meaning if the result is not faith working itself out in love towards the poor? When we see the poor, are we like those who have eyes but do not see that we look as in a mirror at our own spiritual condition? Do we not know wherein true poverty and true riches lie?

Explaining Up vs. Explaining Down

Justin Ryals

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The 17th century theologian and poet François Fénelon is quoted to have said,

There was nothing in me that preceded all [God’s] gifts, nothing able to receive them. The first of His gifts on which all the others rest is what I call “myself.” He gave me that self. I owe Him not only all that I have but also all that I am. Oh incomprehensible gift which our poor language expresses in a moment but which the human mind will never arrive at understanding it and all its depth. This God, who has made me, has given me myself to myself. The self I love so much is simply a present of His goodness. Without Him I would not be myself. Without Him I should have neither the self to love nor the love wherewith I love that self, nor the will that loves it, nor the mind that knows it. All is a gift. He who receives the gifts is himself to first gift he receives.

Sed contra, Francis Crick has stated,

“You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: “You're nothing but a pack of neurons.” (Astonishing Hypothesis, 3)

Could there be a more astonishing gulf than between these two metaphysical approaches to human existence?

The Fénelon quote, other than being exquisitely beautiful, might be said to represent a view of reality that explains everything “up,” ultimately into the realm of the infinite, of infinite value, meaning, beauty, joy, and love, “and this we call God,” as Aquinas might say. “That which was from the beginning” (1 Jn 1:1), therefore, is reflected and imbibed throughout all of finite reality, informing the matrix of meaning in which we live and move and have our being.

On the other hand, the Crick quote might be said to display the approach that ultimately explains everything “down,” into ever more divided and basic material, getting into the realm of the inconceivably small, and finally into nothing--if not in a absolute sense, certainly in the sense that meaning, value, beauty, reason or the like simply did not exist “in the beginning.” It appears inevitable that this view could at the end of the day yield only some variety of nihilism, both in an almost “literal” and philosophical sense. If nothing is the beginning of all things, then reality at bottom is ontologically “blank.” By what criteria could anything ever be said to have any meaning, or human life any value, which have their ultimate basis in the nihil of a yawning void? That which is not present in the source cannot be present in what is derived from the source.

Not incidentally, in the “downward” model man can in theory master reality and fully explain it, fit it inside his head (at least once it finally becomes modified through technology). In the “upward” model man rather receives reality; he is the recipient of a gift. G. K. Chesterton, who believed, “The test of all happiness is gratitude” (Orthodoxy, 98), captured the wonder of existence as a gift when he stated that no man has “really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything,” adding,

At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy. (Autobiography, 97)

If indeed we have received our entire reality purely as gift--even the reality of ourselves--can we also be masters of reality (even our own “little realities”)? Might it not be that only when we’re receptive of reality as gift, as revealed both in the wonder of creation and in the gospel--with Jesus Himself being the concentrated form of reality and its gift (Col 2:9)--that we’ll be of such posture as to receive God’s outpouring love revealed there, flowing into ourselves and from thence outward toward others and all creation?

(Painting by Teun Hocks)

Diversity and Unity: Further Up and Further In

Justin Ryals


C. S. Lewis says of human nature and destiny,

"[God] makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you. … Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the divine substance." (Problem of Pain, 151-2)

Elsewhere he states life works “like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good” (Great Divorce, viii). The one statement describes human persons in all their variation and particularity. The other alludes to the ever-expanding complexity of that variety, like an ever-increasing richness of musical polyphony. And as Dorothy Sayers mentions in The Mind of the Maker, "the stronger the diversity, the more massive the unity" (53).

I was driven to reflect on this question of the nature, potential, and teleology of humanity when recently I was reading M. I. Finley's The Ancient Greeks and came across this statement:

"It is sometimes said that the anthropomorphism of the Homeric poems is the most complete, the most extreme, on record; that never before or since have gods been so much like men …; that this is a terribly naive view of the divinity. No doubt it is, but it is also something else, something perhaps far more interesting and significant. What a bold step it was, after all, to raise man so high that he could become the image of the gods." (27)

Finley adds that this perspective was “pregnant with limitless possibilities” (ibid.). He affirms how naive was the Greeks’ anthropomorphism of divinity, but suggests the other side of this coin shows how high was their view of man. This seems to be a common view among academics but the idea is rather problematic. It’s unclear how a low conception of divinity can imply a high conception of humanity when the latter is simply the image of the former. If the gods are small, then man, bearing their image, cannot be great.

It is rather the case that the greater one’s view of the divine, the greater must be that which bears its image. The lower one’s view is of the divine, the lesser is that which bears its image. Within the Christian vision of the Imago Dei, in which humanity encapsulates a kind of analogy of the infinite God, the meaning, worth, and potential of the image of God cannot, in a sense, be described as finite (limited) as it bears the image of the infinite. In other words, within this (meta-) narrative the image of God is a finite being but with genuinely limitless potential for ever-increasing love, joy, creative activity, and every other human capacity in an eternally dynamic dance with the Infinite.

This is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’ memorable phrase from The Last Battle, for humanity to ever move “further up and further in,” into the unceasing and inexhaustible outpouring of the life, love, joy, and creativity of God, thereby always expanding the human capacity to image God more fully to one another and back toward its source in love and bliss. Surely, this is a divine image worth bearing.