Axis Mundi : The Mystery of Christ and Ancient Christian Cosmology

AXIS MUNDI

The Mystery of Christ and Ancient Christian Cosmology

Since the creation came into being at the beginning through God’s power, the end of every thing that exists is inseparably linked to the beginning.

Gregory of Nyssa

All creation groans…. Creation is … the prayer of time sent up unceasingly to the origin…. If the groan turns into a howl or a curse, this too is a perverse prayer of time…. And yet there are those days of grace that surprise us, and when the world floats above its own dark nothingness, as if its hovering were the heat of its eros for ultimate transcendence, as if a sigh of unknowing love were floating free into the ether, releasing creation into the lightness of eternity.

William Desmond

 

How should we know the beginning and the end of things? How should we know the mystery of cosmic origins and the yet deeper mystery of our cosmic destiny if not with great difficulty, anxiety, or even despair, but yet not as those without hope? Seemingly oblivious, even blind, to the human need for meaning, reckless of life and happiness, random and irrational, the stuff of the universe, unfeeling, unthinking matter, rolls toward its appointed – but no that is too purposeful a word – rather, toward its inevitable, its ineluctable and ineludible end, and in the midst of its endless spaces and staggering span of time, no clear answer from God nor clarity of love and knowledge, nor purity of intention, among us, the latest, most tormented and seemingly unanticipated arrivals upon this arbitrary shore. At any rate, so the Christian must suppose, or so the Augustinian Christian at least supposes, for the tree of life was planted on the hill of Golgotha before ever it was planted in paradise so far as ‘knowing’ is concerned. As regards both the method and the substance of our knowing, we begin at the beginning, at the arche, that which is in Greek both the ‘beginning’ and the ‘principle’ of all things, namely, the mystery of Christ and his mysterious cross. For the beginning when, and the principle according to which, and the Word by whose power, the universe came to be, its mathematical laws, structures of reason and of ‘knowability’, of order, coherence, and beauty, was the crucified. We – and not the greater apes it might be worth pointing out – crucified the Lord of Glory. Consequently, there is for the Christian a candour of despair that admits a general nescience regarding our moral probity – the primary Christian concern – as well as our speculative theories about what is and is not our status in the world, including our religious theories. The prison of our fantasies might well extend to include our scientific opinions as these themselves extend their reach toward the metaphysical. We should like the world to be a certain way, to bear a certain meaning upon its face, or not to bear any meaning at all beyond what our own will to power places there, but are reminded that God answered Job out of the whirlwind and humanity from the cross. As Rowan Williams puts it: ‘the true condition of finite existence, ours and the world’s [is] the sphere of poverty, tears, loneliness, disillusion and the scars of countless unintelligible hurts.’[1] Or, in Newman’s equally uncompromising words, ‘To consider the world in its length and breadth … this is a vision to dizzy and appall, and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.’[2]

‘And yet there are those days of grace that surprise us’ still, and to deny them is no less a sign of our self-deception than our propensity to see them where they are not, just as our disinclination to provide a serious account of what they mean is no sign of our metaphysical sophistication. ‘In the place where he was crucified there was a garden’. The candour of despair that marks serious Christian contemplation of our ultimate origin and destiny and the suffering of the time between is matched by an equal openness to the possibility of an answer. The world is knowable after all – science would not exist otherwise, and the knower has for most of his existence thought that that meant something and today thinks at least that it is meaningful to deny it. ‘And God saw that it was very good, and there was morning, and there was evening, the sixth day.’ Which is to say that the beginning and the rationality of the cosmos, its ‘understandability’, its essential, ultimate, and final origin is the risen one. If there never was a paradise,[3] there was the story of a paradise, for what was true in principle was of necessity for the storyteller true in principio, in the beginning, the arche. There was no way to tell this story otherwise that would constitute the grounds for hope. We would then have had perhaps a ‘gnostic’ hope of redemption from but not of creation or an ancient Manichean or a modern nihilistic denial that in fact the cosmos is good, either because we believe that it is evil or because we believe that it is not – because there are no grounds for such a moral judgment in the first place; a cluster of moves that Augustine, for all his pessimism, was or would have been resolute in opposing -all that is is good, he insisted, and that as surely applies to a view that the world is neither as it does to a view that the world or matter is evil, simply and without remainder. The incarnation and resurrection of Christ are the divine vindication of creation and created life; the yet more ancient story of paradise and fall the thesaurus or treasure house of images and concepts by which these are understood.[4] The mystery of Christ, the risen one, is the principle, the beginning, by which the theologian reads the world. It was, indeed, one of the great creative moments in the thought of St. Paul when he tied his doctrine of creation to the agency of Jesus Christ. ‘In him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…. In him all things hold together’ (Col. 1.16-17). So it is that the story of the first garden, the image of that paradise the world was destined to become if the God of Israel was as loving as faith hoped him to be, came to be one of the primary ways in which the garden in the place where he was crucified was understood. The awe-filled garden of the resurrection was understood in the gospel of the forty days – those forty days before his ascension when the risen Christ taught his followers how to find him in all the scriptures – to be paradise regained, the transformation of human life, the gift of a destiny beyond the end of all things, an end, a doom, as surely foretold in the scriptures as predicted by modern science. The problem that requires a solution, even to be properly understood, was known to theology long before any of it was known to modern science or philosophy. So it is that the tragedy and the grandeur of the evolving cosmos is read from the three great days of grace, the great Triduum, and from the Incarnation that precedes them.

To say that in him all things hold together is to claim that the mystery of existence finds its resolution in the mystery of Christ. To read the cosmos as a creation, not merely as nature or, more severely, as simply matter, is to claim to find the hidden relation of things in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the crucified Lord of Glory, the Word or Logos or Reason or Principle or Source of the laws and substance of the universe. To read the cosmos in this way is not to say that it is an easy matter, for manifestly it is not nor on the basis of the Jewish and Christian scriptures should we expect it to be. But neither are there no grounds for hope. It is, on the theological view, a matter of the most strenuous and perplexing scientific and philosophical work with no guarantees given in advance that would over-determine an existence that is after all a matter of faith, love, and hope, not of a knowledge secured beyond all possibility of doubt. It is also, however, a life of intellectual work suffused with that same faith, love, and hope. It affords no grounds for a sense of superiority toward other pilgrims on this difficult human journey who do not see the hope of glory, yet neither does it encourage much patience with those whose dismissal of the Jewish and Christian struggle to understand the phenomenon of life is based on little more than a passing acquaintance with the cosmological speculation of the Great Tradition. To read the cosmos in this way is to claim that there are metaphysical grounds for trusting the transcendent sources of being.

The point then of the reflections that follow is to work our way back to the ancient faith and relearn there how to read the scriptures as the treasure house of the gospel, opening for us a renewed vision of how the God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the creator of all things, visible and invisible, of how the figure of the crucified and risen one has been inscribed upon the very structure of the cosmos ‘so that the Cross is, indeed, the axis mundi, the still, eternal or timeless axis around which the world rotates.’[5] As St. Isaac of Syria put it:

We do not speak of a power in the Cross that is any different from that through which the worlds came into being, [a power] which is eternal and without beginning and which guides creation all the time without any break, in a divine way and beyond the understanding of all, in accordance with the will of his divinity.[6]

 

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis – the Cross stands, while the earth revolves.

And if it should transpire that this Christic vision of an otherwise vast, terrifying, and lonely, indeed a groaning, cosmos is such that, after all is said and done, this same cosmos should indeed appear to be the creation of a God who suffers the harrowing fate that was ours before it was his, and suffers it both in love and in a power capable of an astonishing transformation that secures human identity beyond human and cosmic death, then what should we do except to offer that worship which is our reasonable service? Under sentence of death himself, yet perforce to see his loved ones depart before his own allotted time, citizen of states that were not always here before nor shall long endure his own passing, but rather of states of fear or despair that have always shadowed and always will the thoughts that he cannot be certain were not themselves a curse of random fate, and with no ground for calling anything by one name rather than another nor for his complaints, unbelieving man is a Job who cannot be said to suffer yet suffers that, unless there is one who, in suffering even that – the end of man as a moral creature who can claim anything about his own suffering or give a reason for it, can save him from his cosmic prison, unless, that is to say, the mind of man, man as man, is indeed the image of something greater, neither accident nor mirage, but child of God. Suppose, in other words, that modern science in its nihilistic simplicity, which is perhaps the source of its stunning power, has come to almost perfectly describe the world to which the gospel of Jesus Christ has always claimed to be a reasonable response. If the human mind can think itself to be something of little consequence and of no lasting importance in a vast, evolving universe devoid of love or meaning, can it not also think that something hardly stranger or more unlikely might be true?

And so in believing that what man says in derision, God may sometimes mean in earnest, the Church says to itself in faith, and to world in love and hope: ‘Behold the Man.’ As he was the origin, so he is the destiny of the human race. For ‘God said: “Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves….” And God created man in his own image; in the image of God, he created him; male and female he created them.’

This then is the heart of the Christian speculation about the meaning of the cosmos, namely, that its greatest mystery, the very being that can ask about itself, so denominate or even, more astonishingly, deny itself, has met an answering mystery in the person of the God-man. Of the dust, a creature like all the rest, mortal, yet self diminished and capable of a ‘consciously created evil’[7] far in excess of animal aggression, the biblical woman and man know themselves to be the stewards of this earthly home, called to name the animals and to understand the land, to glory in its beauty, and to celebrate the giftedness of life. They are at once, and together, husbandman, scientist, artist, and worshipper. But what they can destroy, they cannot finally save nor promise a future in hope. The answering mystery proposes itself to human thought as the possibility that what we should like to have been the nature of reality, will indeed be its nature. This is what it would mean to say: ‘Behold the Man’, the axis mundi.

 


[1] The Wound of Knowledge, 82.

[2] Quoted in Nicholas Lash,

[3] ‘There never was a golden age. There is no point looking back to one. The first man was immediately the first sinner.’ Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/I, 508.

[4] John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006), 17, points out that in the ancient Church, ‘the scriptures were not used merely as a narrative of the past, but rather as a thesaurus, a treasury of imagery, for entering into the mystery of Christ….’

[5] Behr, 37.

[6] Behr, 90.

[7] Hosle 204.