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Matthew 19: 23-24 famously reads:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
There are two popular interpretations for the phrase “eye of a needle.” The first theory is that it is a reference to the tiny hole at the top of a sewing needle. Simple enough. The second theory is that it is a reference to a gate with the name “the eye of the needle” that was in first century Jerusalem. The gate was so small that anyone that hoped to get a camel through would have to take all of their baggage off the camel, get it down to its knees, and kind of shimmy the camel through the tiny opening.
You can see why this is important for Bible readers. Either Jesus is saying that it is impossible for a rich man to get into Heaven, or he’s saying that it’s really challenging for a rich man to get into heaven. There’s a big difference between impossible and barely possible. So which is it? Is it hard or impossible? What is the eye of the needle?
After a little research, I wasn’t able to find a trustworthy modern commentary that genuinely advocated for the gate theory. In varying detail, they all disproved it with archaeology, translations from the Greek, interpretive history, and the plain sense of the story. That being said, I didn’t find a single place that really poured out all of the evidence for the reader’s consideration (especially when it came to the history of interpretation). So here we go! This is my attempt to round up all of that evidence and hand it over to you.
The archaeological evidence for the gate theory is pretty poor. There’s no legitimate evidence of a gate known as the “eye of the needle” gate existing in Jesus’ lifetime. I would cite something, but you can’t cite evidence proving a lack of evidence! A quick google search reveals that even modern claims about eye of the needle gates in Jerusalem are dubious at best. There’s one small Orthodox church that claims that they have the actual gate that Jesus was referring to (which looks suspiciously like a hole in an old wall). There’s also a handful of travel blogs from people that claim they went to the eye of the needle gate. None of these claims are citation-worthy. Church websites often make dubious claims (see my article about fake quotes from famous saints for more church website sins) and the travel blogs pictures feature people smiling by a variety of totally different “eye of the needle” gates. Were there gates in different times and locations referred to as eye of the needle gates? Yes. There’s gates like that in German castles from the Middle Ages and obviously a handful in Jerusalem today that claim to be eye of the needle gates. That being said, there’s no record of a gate being referred to by that title until after the year 1000. In first century Jerusalem, there is absolutely no evidence that such a gate existed. Strike one.
The Greek manuscript makes the gate theory even less viable. If the “eye of a needle” was the name of a specific gate or a reference to a type of gate, that would make the language a title. You’d have to use the same words, “eye of the needle,” every time you talked about it because you’re not actually talking about eyes and needles; you’re talking about a type of gate known as an eye of the needle gate. The story comes up three times in the Gospels (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18) and each author uses slightly different words for this phrase. Matthew calls the eye of a needle the “trypēmatos rhaphidos” (τρυπήματος ‘ῥαφίδος), while Mark calls it the “trymalias tēs rhaphidos” (τρυμαλιᾶς τῆς ‘ῥαφίδος). Both are using the same word for needle (referring specifically to a tailor’s needle), but they’re using different language to talk about the eye of that needle. Luke not only adds a third option for the eye, but uses the word for a surgeon’s needle rather than the word for a tailor’s needle: trēmatos belonēs (τρήματος βελόνης ). If they’re trying to use a title for a specific kind of gate, they’re all over the map! Two of the three of them are using the wrong words to refer to that gate. If, on the other hand, they’re talking about needles and the tiny holes in them, the differences in their accounts present no problem. Strike two.
Now to the history of interpretation. Most commentaries I looked at claimed that the gate theory was a legend from the Middle Ages, but there wasn’t much detail provided beyond that. I saw a lot of people throw around dates like the 9th century (maybe), the 15th century (definitely wrong), and the 19th century (right out), but few provided direct quotes from their sources, much less cited sources at all.
The oldest reference I could find that’s absolutely airtight comes from Thomas Aquinas’ megacommentary, Catena Aurea. It packed great quotes from multiple noteworthy church fathers into one convenient commentary. In the section on Matthew 19, he provides the following commentary from Anselm of Canturbury:
It is explained otherwise; That at Jerusalem there was a certain gate, called, The needle’s eye, through which a camel could not pass, but on its bended knees, and after its burden had been taken off; and so the rich should not be able to pass along the narrow way that leads to life, till he had put off the burden of sin, and of riches, that is, ceasing to love them.Anselm of Canterbury as cited in Catena Aurea, Thomas Aquinas, CCEL Edition.
I can’t find a primary source from Anselm on this one, nor can I find anyone else who was able to track one down, so we’ll just have to take Thomas’s word for it. Anselm wrote in the early 12th century, so there’s definitely an uncomfortable gap here. Sources legitimately interested in uncovering the source of the theory often quote this as the its first official appearance, and I have to agree. I can’t find an earlier source than Thomas quoting Anselm. Did Anselm say it? Probably. Did he get it from someone else? I have to imagine he did. Someone that spent most of his life in England seems an unlikely candidate to start spouting off about gates in Jerusalem.
There are some people that point to an eastern bishop from the 11th century named Theophylact as the actual originator of the gate theory. If he did, it’s bizarre that he didn’t write it down anywhere and actively contradicted himself in writing. Here’s what he says on the matter in his commentary on Matthew:
As long as a man is rich and he has in excess while others do not have even the necessities, he can in no way enter the kingdom of heaven. But when all riches have been shed, then he is not rich and so he can enter. For it is just as impossible for a man with wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. See how Christ first said it was difficult to enter, but here that it is completely impossible.Theophylact’s Commentary on Matthew, Ch. 19, trans. Christopher Stade.
You can hear where he gets a little close: “when all riches has been shed, then he is not rich and so he can enter…” If there was a tiny gate where you had to get all of your gear off your camel and shimmy it through, the process might be something like that. But note that he still definitively says that it is impossible for a rich man to enter. Theophylact is describing the process of a rich person becoming poor, not talking about unpacking your camel for the sake of a narrow gate. Just to cover our bases, let’s see what he says about the same story in Mark 10:
Understand ‘hard’ here to mean ‘impossible’. For it is impossible for the rich man to be saved. This is clear from the example which the Lord gives, saying, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’ For it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.Theophylact’s Commentary on Mark Ch. 10, trans. Christopher Stade.
Yeah, this guy is absolutely not the originator of the gate theory. Some people just misread his commentary on Matthew. This is why primary sources are so critical: because people don’t always say what others claim they did.
There are a number of proto-claims that come way closer to the gate theory than Theophylact did. For example, check out this commentary from Jerome (a Roman theologian from the 4th century):
By this saying it is shown to be not difficult but impossible. For if, in the same way that a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle, so a rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven, then no rich man will be saved. But if we read Isaiah, how camels of Midian and Ephah come to Jerusalem with gifts and offerings, and those that were previously bent and distorted by the depravity of vices entered the gates of Jerusalem, we will see how even these camels to which the rich are compared, when they have laid aside their heavy burden of sins and the crookedness of their whole body, they can enter through the narrow and strait road that leads to life.Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew, trans. Scheck, 220-221.
Like Theolphylact, Jerome EXPLICITLY says that it is impossible. Buuuut there is that passage in Isaiah (60:6) where camels with loads of fancy gifts and people who were bent and distorted get into Jerusalem. Sooo maybe rich people can get in too if they lay aside their riches and vices? A bit of a comforting stretch for a passage saying that something is impossible. In his commentary, John Broadus goes so far as to suggest that Anselm got the idea from a misreading of Jerome’s fanciful explanation. A bit of a stretch, I think, but the connection between proto-claims like this and the gate theory are definitely real.
There’s a definite instinct in the history of this passage to try to soften the blow. Whether the eye of the needle is made a gate, the camel is made a rope (a suggested mistranslation that’s just not viable, as you can tell from the simple fact that no reputable Bible translates it that way), or the reading of the story is followed up with long statements about how being rich is actually fine if you manage to resist the allure of your riches (Clement of Alexandria among others), there are a lot of people that want this to be a little easier to swallow. Which is surprising, because all of this evidence pales in comparison with the words of Jesus in the following verses (Matt 19: 25-26):
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Jesus literally says that the point of bringing up the whole camel and needle thing in the first place was to say that it is impossible. He’s intentionally using an absurd image to talk about something that can’t happen! If his words aren’t enough to put the final nail in the coffin of the gate theory, I don’t know what would be.
I just ran across this quote from the famous 4th century Christian preacher, John Chrysostom:
We spare neither labors nor means in order to teach our children secular sciences, so that they can serve well the earthly authorities. Only the knowledge of the holy Faith, the service of the Heavenly King are a matter of indifference to us. We allow them to attend spectacles but we care little whether they go to Church and stand within it reverently. We demand an account from them of what they learned in their secular institutes—why do we not demand an account from them of what they heard in the Lord’s house?as cited by Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation, trans. Fr. Seraphim Rose, 331
It was kind of a shock to read! Here’s a man in our heralded Christian past, preaching in an era which I all too readily assume was full of devotion and piety, and he’s addressing the same thing that we face today: parents often care more about secular education than they do the Christian faith. After all, life is long! A child has a whole lifetime to think about God. The window for getting into a good school? That’s approaching fast. So should their child attend church or piano lessons? Wake up early on Sunday for an entry-level job, or head over to worship? The piano lessons and job look better on a college application than anything the Church has to offer. A good application means a good school. A good school means a good job. A good job means a stable income and a higher chance of job satisfaction. Job satisfaction means a higher chance of being happy! And what more could a person ask for than a happy child? Conversion can happen anytime; the road to happiness is happening now. Children need to get on or get left behind.
It’s easy to suggest that this is a phenomenon that only really effects nominal Christians that attend church on Christmas and Easter, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Even the great Augustine of Hippo, bishop and theologian extraordinaire, had parents that prioritized his academic education before his faith journey. When he took a concubine (or started living with his girlfriend, to try to translate a weird ancient idea into a modern one), his Christian mom was surprisingly calm about the whole thing. If anything, she was glad they weren’t getting married:
The reason why she showed no such concern was that she was afraid that the hope she placed in me could be impeded by a wife. This was not the hope which my mother placed in you for the life to come, but the hope which my parents entertained for my career that I might do well out of the study of literature. Both of them, as I realized, were very ambitious for me: my father because he hardly gave a thought to you at all, and his ambitions for me were concerned with mere vanities; my mother because she thought it would do no harm and would be a help to set me on the way towards you, if I studied the traditional pattern of a literary education. That at least is my conjecture as I try to recall the characters of my parents.Augustine, Confessions, trans. Chadwick, p. 27
In Confessions, Augustine almost NEVER says anything bad about his momma. She is the shining pinnacle of saintliness that follows him around, praying for his conversion and hoping that her son might know God! But even SHE buys in to the theory that he needs to put his studies first while he’s young and then maybe someday he can convert when he’s nice and settled. This isn’t just a thought pattern for nominal Christians; this is a pervasive way of thinking for a lot of Christian parents.
Andrew Root talks extensively about this in his book, The End of Youth Ministry. He suggests that each society has a different vision of what a parent is supposed to be. Obviously, a good parent produces happy children. That tends to be universal. But what does it mean to be happy? Is happiness luxury? Elevated social standing? Religious identity? What does the culture say that happiness is? Because regardless of whether or not you personally affirm it, you’re going to find yourself influenced by it:
It would be super weird for even me (the theologian and husband of a pastor) to say [to my next-door neighbor], “Yes, [my children are] doing very good. Owen fasted all week and saw two visions. And Maisy felt the deep conviction of the Holy Spirit and has entered a time of confession and penance. She wore our family hair shirt to school today. It made gym class difficult, but that’s the point: doing penance for sin isn’t easy!” There was a time in history when this might have been exactly how a person would respond. But not today. The moral imagination has changed, and if I did respond like this, even a churchgoing neighbor would make all sorts of moral interpretations about me… My neighbor might even call social services, assuming that I’m some crazy religious freak, because my sense of the good feels wrong to her. And what would give her the moral high ground is her assumption that my poor kids are being kept from living a full life.Andrew Root, The End of Youth Ministry, p. 25
So what is good parenting today? What is that thing that our society strives to achieve? For people in the eras of Augustine and Chrysostom, it was clearly tied to an increase in wealth and standing. Are things so different today? Not to suggest that the core of all goodness is located in a person’s pocketbook, but we clearly assume that more money will lead to better opportunities for happiness. Augustine’s parents got all kinds of admiration for saving up and sending him off to a top-notch school! That made them good parents in the eyes of the world. Good parents just like that were being lectured by Chrysostom: don’t let material success take priority over faith, regardless of how good it makes you look in the eyes of the world. If we want to avoid being good parents and be godly parents, it’s going to be a challenge that we can’t embark on alone.
I have no kids. It’s easy for me to say that Christians need to find ways to push back against the presiding social imaginary and put faith first when raising children. That being said, I’m still a church member. I’m responsible for helping raise children within my church community, and I’m responsible for supporting their parents. I hope I can can help them on that difficult journey, and I hope I can find a community to help me when that time comes. Raising children faithfully been a challenge for thousands of years, and the lure of defining parenting by the measure of secular success isn’t going away anytime soon.
I won’t pretend that I knew who Jean-Jacques Rousseau was before this past week. Makes sense. Enlightenment-era philosophy and Christian theology tend not to have much in common. He’s probably best known as the guy with that memorable quote, “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” I’ve started digging into his stuff after running across him in Carl Trueman’s latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (a brilliant attempt to trace the history of thought that led the modern Western mind). Apparently this Rousseau guy went toe-to-toe with Augustine! Not only did he write his own Confessions, but he even included a section about stealing produce and what it meant for his soul!
For those that aren’t aware, Augustine (father of Western Christian orthodoxy) has a really famous moment in his Confessions where he steals some pears. He’s with a bunch of his rowdy teenage friends when they see this big, beautiful tree of pears. They steal as many as they can, and then they throw them to the pigs. The act is pure sin. There’s nothing to be gained. There’s nothing logical about it. Augustine even has better pears at home! The point isn’t to gain something; the point is to destroy something:
It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error–not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.Augustine; Henry Chadwick. The Confessions p. 29
It’s a vivid illustration of man’s innate drive towards sinfulness. Who among us hasn’t done something stupid in their youth? Something that was destructive for the sake of being destructive? For me, I think about the cafeteria at undergrad. When you were done eating, the popular thing to do in my friend group was to grab an extra apple or banana on your way out and just throw it as far across campus as you could. And why? Because destroying was fun! Cleaning staff be darned! Let the fruit smash commence! Augustine is saying, “let’s not let ourselves off the hook for the destruction that we wrought as teens. We did it for a reason: humanity innately longs to sin. Don’t let the fact that you were younger and more overt prevent you from seeing your fundamental nature in those stupid acts of destruction.”
Meanwhile, in HIS confessions, Rousseau ALSO tells the story of stealing produce! This time, it’s asparagus. His boss, Verrat, has a mother that’s been growing a little garden, and he’s decided that young Rousseau is the perfect man to steal asparagus from it and sell them on his behalf. Rousseau steals asparagus for relatively benign reasons at first: “seeking only to please my employer,” he claims. But what began as a little way to help his boss get some extra luxuries starts to warp him. He starts skimming a little off the top. After all, he’s the one that is taking on the risk, and nobody would believe him if he said that his boss put him up to it! So to make things fair, he takes a little. Then he starts stealing other little things that he finds: apples, tools, trinkets he finds laying around the house. More than that, he feels utterly justified in doing all that he does:
A continual repetition of ill treatment rendered me callous; it seemed a kind of composition for my crimes, which authorized me to continue them, and, instead of looking back at the punishment, I looked forward to revenge. Being beat like a slave, I judged I had a right to all the vices of one.Rousseau, Confessions, Bk 1, Gutenberg Edition
Note the change in culprit! Augustine saw his crimes as proof of a deep-seated inclination to sin within his soul. Rousseau looks outward to find the culprit. Verrat convinced him to start stealing to feed his need for luxury. The sin was reinforced by unjust risk, the beatings that he suffered, and the way he was treated after his crimes. If Augustine’s pear-thieving was proof of an inward problem, Rousseau’s asparagus theft is a testament to the power that society has to warp an individual towards evil.
This brings us to one of Rousseau’s major ideas: society is the primary force responsible for corrupting the average human. If left alone, people are basically good! They don’t know how to lie, deceive, compare themselves to someone else, or take advantage of people. They’re unique, gifted, and ready to live in a way that suits them. But when they’re introduced to society… well… they learn to lie:
As long as men remained satisfied with their rustic cabins… they lived free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would admit, and continued to enjoy with each other all the pleasures of an independent intercourse; but from the moment one man began to stand in need of another’s assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished; property started up; labour became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling fields, which it was found necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.Rousseau, Second Discourse, Gutenberg Edition
People’s lies help them get along with others. They help them accumulate wealth and power. They help them appear better than they are. All of humanity ends up living a lie and drawing each new person they meet deeper into that lie. The people who are best at lying benefit tremendously, regardless of who is actually moral:
While government and laws take care of the security and the well being of men in groups, the sciences, letters, and the arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down, snuffing out in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they appear to have been born, and make them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people. Need has raised thrones; the sciences and the arts have strengthened them. You earthly powers, cherish talents and protect those who nurture them. Civilized people, cultivate them. Happy slaves, to them you owe that refined and delicate taste you take pride in, that softness of character and that urbanity of habits which make dealings among you so sociable and easy, in a word, the appearance of all the virtues without the possession of any.Rousseau, First Discourse, Gutenberg Edition
Trueman suggests that philosophers like Rousseau set the stage for modern thinking about morality. There’s a presiding sense in the West that the greatest thing humanity can do is stop oppressing one another and redesign our systems of governance to minimize societal injustice. Political debates are increasingly built around terminology like social justice, systemic oppression, and intolerance. Rousseau would be proud of our willingness to tackle society head-on! But what have Christians lost by adopting so much of his thinking? We’re taking on the thought processes of someone who directly contradicted one of our greatest thinkers! We have to stop and ask, what will we be left with when we strip away all the chains we’ve heaped on one another? Will the final product be capable of glorifying God? Or was Augustine right? Is there a force beyond societal injustice that causes us to stray? Is sin much more embedded in the human soul than we’d like to imagine?
2 Timothy 3:16 famously says that all scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. Unfortunately, not all of it is easy to understand. So let’s pick out a really weird verse and see what God has to say in it! We’ll take a good look at the verse itself, explore the history of its interpretation, and see what we can make of it.
6 When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”
4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.
5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
What on earth is happening in this passage? For me, the pinnacle of weirdness is in verse 4: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” What the heck?
To make heads or tails of this passage, we have to be able to identify 3 different groups: the sons of God, the daughters of man, and the Nephilim. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly hard to translate the Hebrew here with any level of certainty. Not only are the words and phrases vague enough that they leave several interpretive possibilities on the table, but exact phrases like these are used so rarely in the Bible that we don’t have a lot of clues to help us out.
First, we have the sons of God or “bene haelohim”. The phrase appears two other times in the Bible (Job 1:6 and Job 2:1) and in each instance it clearly means “angels.” That being said, Genesis and Job weren’t written at the same time, and there are several other translations that would be well within the bounds of reason. It could mean something like “men who follow God” or “men who are like God,” (aka godly men). To add even more confusion to the matter, the word “elohim” can mean “God” or it can be used to refer to any being that’s particularly impressive. It could mean “king.” It could mean “angel.” You get the picture. Bene haelohim could easily mean “sons of kings” or “sons of warlords.”
Clearly the “daughters of humans” (a phrase uncommon in Scripture and more clearly rendered “daughters of man” in Hebrew) are intended to be the opposite of whatever the sons of God are. If we say that the sons of God are angels, then thinking of them as human women makes the most sense. If the sons of God are godly men, the daughters of man are intended to be worldly women. If we say that the sons of God are the sons of kings or warlords, then they are intended to be peasant women.
Finally, we have the Nephilim. You know a word is bad when Bible translators don’t even touch the thing. There’s a few options here as well. The literal translation from the Hebrew is “the fallen ones,” It appears in two other places in the Bible: once in Numbers when the Hebrew spies look over at Canaan to see if it is safe to inhabit and they see nephilim (usually rendered “giants” in English) and again in Ezekiel 32 to describe warriors that have fallen on the battlefield. In a battlefield context, the word could also be used to talk about strong attackers, or those who “fall upon” their opponents with attack after attack. The giants idea might seem out of left field, given the English translation, but an ancient Greek manuscript grants us a little insight. The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament from the 3rd century BC) has Nephilim translated as “gigantes” or giants, so there’s some kind of cultural or linguistic link there, even if it’s not immediately apparent.
Where does that leave us? Well, we have three story options starting to emerge. This could be a story about angels coming to earth, having children with humans, and giants being born as a result of that union. It could be a story about righteous men of God having children with worldly women, leading to a slow compromise of faith over the generations. Then there’s the option that it could be about the sons of rich merchants mistreating peasant women and raising a generation of fierce warriors. Each of these seems viable.
So what now? Well, time to look at tradition.
The oldest interpretation I could find was from the Book of Enoch. This little apocryphal book (book that didn’t make it into the Bible) was probably written between 200 and 300 BC. And obviously Enoch didn’t write it. Enoch is the guy who was famously “taken away” by God in Genesis 5:24 (and there’s much speculation about what THAT means, but that’s a story for another time), so someone else must have written it and popped his name on it. The book is basically an attempt to retell the story of Genesis more thoroughly, filling in all the plot holes that the original has. In the retelling of this story, the sons of God are DEFINITELY angels that come to Earth to have children with human women:
And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied, in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’1 Enoch 6:1-2
Not only do they have children with human women; they give humans science and technology! Unfortunately for them, God is not best pleased with this development:
Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the great day of judgment he shall be cast into the fire.1 Enoch 10:4-6
Bad times for Azazel.
Does the story sound familiar to you? It sounds suspiciously like the Greek myth of Prometheus to me! A lesser divine being comes to Earth, hands out some tech, and gets banished to torment in a barren wasteland for their sin against the divine being/beings in charge. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this book starts showing up around 200-300 BC considering that Alexander the Great did his grand crusade of the world between 356 BC and 323 BC. Would it be so crazy if an Israelite that heard the Greek myth was looking for greater clarity in their Scriptures and took a little inspiration from the Greeks? I don’t think so. Mind you, that’s a disputed point, but the dates and the narratives are too similar for me to dismiss.
In any case, we’ve got the angels and giants theory on the table. How does mainstream Judaism react in the coming years? They don’t seem to care for it much. Not only is the Book of Enoch never canonized, but a majority of rabbinic writings that emerge tend to favor readings that cast the sons of God as tyrants and the Nephilim as powerful warriors. These readings gain more and more momentum over time. Nonetheless, the apocryphal books have their supporters. There are certainly people, especially at the fringes, that strongly support a supernatural reading.
When Christians start popping up, they’re a little more interested in the whole angels and giants thing. After all, a lot of early Christians were on the fringes of Judaism. Apocalyptic Judaism was a fringe movement that focused heavily on the coming of the messiah, and the Book of Enoch was very popular with them. If mainstream groups didn’t like the Book of Enoch, it was because they were scared of its prophecies concerning the messiah! And so early Christians inherited the angels/giants theory from some of their earliest supporters.
Mind you, its momentum didn’t last long. After about the year 300, the angel/giant theory seems to take a nosedive in popularity within the Christian community. Not only did they slowly accept 1 Enoch as “not legit,” but they started asking questions. What is an angel? What can an angel do? Are angels all male? When did angels fall? Why does the term say “angels” when clearly disobedient angels are devils? Jesus said specifically in Mark 12 that Angels have no interest in procreation. Why did the angels do that? What happened to them? And what happened to the giants, because if you render that word “giants” to resolve their appearance in Numbers, you need them to survive a world-ending flood that the Bible deliberately says they would not have survived. The whole interpretation is just incredibly bizarre and doesn’t make logical or narrative sense. So theologians started speaking out against it. You have heavy hitters like Clement and Augustine weighing in against it. Chrysostom goes so far as to call the theory “blasphemous.”
To read the passage well, Christians looked back at what happened previously in Genesis and tried to think about how this puzzle piece fit. Genesis 5 is highly interested in genealogies. Seth is born to Adam “in his image and likeness.” Genesis 1:26 previously established that Adam was made in God’s image and likeness. To some interpreters, this was a symbolic passing of the torch. Seth inherited his godliness from his father, and his people would continue to strive for godliness in the coming generations. There became two types of people on the Earth: the children of Seth, and the children of Cain. These two branches seem to be symbolic, more than biological. The devout and the worldly both lived on the earth, though living in very different ways. This, then, is a story in which people of faith decide to compromise their beliefs to intermingle with the attractive people of the Earth. As Eve tempted Adam, so now the daughters of man tempt the children of God. The resulting offspring are fallen; they do not know God, even though they know the ways of the world quite well. The only truly devout man left is Noah. You know how the story goes from there.
By the time the reformation rolls around, there seems to be broad consensus that this view is correct. Martin Luther presents it as the obvious meaning. John Calvin only brings up the angels and giants thing only to ponder why ancient thinkers would possibly have thought something so odd:
That ancient figment, concerning the intercourse of angels with women, is abundantly refuted by its own absurdity; and it is surprising that learned men should formerly have been fascinated by ravings so gross and prodigious.Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 6:2
The matter seems settled. But lo and behold, the angels and giants make their way back into popular Christian thought around the 18th century. At this point, modernists (a group that considered their Bibles to likely contain large amounts of mythology) started re-investigating the issue. If the Bible is full of myths that aren’t literally true, why can’t this be a story about angels and giants? Ironically, some fundamentalists reached the same conclusion, but through very different methodology. If the Bible is always true and you don’t need tradition to understand it, then why shouldn’t you be willing to believe a fantastical story about angels and giants? It’s one of those weird points in history where really conservative people go one way and really liberal people go another, and somehow they end up making a giant loop and meeting up at the same point.
But now we’ve looked at all the interpretive options and poked around all the major strands of tradition. What do I believe? Well, you ought to know that I’d rather be wrong with the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin than right with anybody else. Not only is their interpretation the most well-represented in Christian tradition, but it just makes sense. It’s logical. It fits the Biblical narrative leading from genealogy to flood, and it addresses a constant theme in the Bible: don’t compromise your faith to fit into this world more comfortably (Deut 7:3, 2 Corinth. 6:14, Deut 16:21, etc). To be a true disciple of Christ, you can’t afford to compromise any part of the truth. You have to live your whole life in constant worship and obedience. Not only do I think this is a good interpretation, but I think it’s something that’s an important reminder as we try to live out our faith today. We live in a world that’s increasingly secular. Our culture is more than happy to accommodate Christians that are willing to compromise on the things that they believe. If you’re willing to make a few concessions, you’ll fit in easier. You’ll be the “right kind” of Christian. Your life will be significantly attractive on the outside. If you don’t? Well, things might get difficult.
As people made in the image and likeness of God, we can’t afford to compromise truth for temporary gain. After all, we know truth itself in the person of Jesus Christ. The only way for us to live well is to hold fast to truth and to continually honor God, rather than ourselves.
That’s my take! But rather than end on a dramatic note, I’ll end with some humility. It’s a tough passage! If you think I missed something or want to dig around on your own, check out some of the resources below! See what you think! Either way, wrestle with those tough verses when you find them. If all Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, sometimes we have to do a little bit of wrestling to see what God is saying.
Great articles if you want to know more:
Apologetics (the art of defending the faith) hasn’t changed nearly as much as you’d expect over the past 2000-ish years. Well… parts of it have certainly changed. After all, if you had a question about Christianity today, I assume you’d look for a pretty official looking book with basic questions and good answers in response. Makes sense. But in the third century, a perfectly legitimate option was picking up a dramatization of a fantasy debate in which the apostle Peter and the sorcerer Simon Magus wage an epic war of words about the big questions in Christianity (as based on the story in Acts 8:9-24). And it’s every bit as awesome as you could imagine.
Ok, a public debate might not sound all that exciting to everyone, but trust me, if those two legendary figures going head-to-head doesn’t get your blood pumping, the details will. Simon Magus rolls into town and becomes the leader of a local cult by explaining to them that he’s God. When the current cult leader (who also claims to be God) objects and tries to beat him with his stick, the stick magically goes through Simon’s body, which leads to the cult leader immediately stepping down from leadership and handing his position over to Simon. Simon also claims to be able to do all kinds of wacky things. He can fly! He can make children grow beards! At one point, he claims to have created a boy out of thin air and then turned him back into air again. Not only did he do this magnificent feat (supposedly), but he claims it as proof that he’s more powerful than the God of the Old Testament. That guy only created humans out of earth and everyone knows that’s way easier than making people out of air.
See? It’s the details that really bring this epic story to life.
The verbal smackdown is just as fun to read. Our debate begins with Peter offering peace to his opponent. Simon’s response?
Do not invoke peace, but rather battle, which is the mother of peace; and if you can, exterminate errors. And do not seek for friendship obtained by unfair admissions; for this I would have you know, above all, that when two fight with each other, then there will be peace when one has been defeated and has fallen. And therefore fight as best you can, and do not expect peace without war, which is impossible; or if it can be attained, show us how.The Recognitions of Clement, 234
Simon has no chill at all.
All of this is from The Recognitions of Clement, a part of the larger body of work known as the Clementia. Basically, it’s an ancient historical fiction. The author wanted to talk about doctrine, but they spiced things up by using Bible characters. The resulting narrative is surprisingly fun. And effective! I couldn’t help but be a little moved by Peter’s response when one of his assistants asked how God could blame anyone for leaving him if the devil offered them more power:
If your son, whom you have trained and nourished with all care, and brought to man’s estate, should be ungrateful to you, and should leave you and go to another, whom perhaps he may have seen to be richer, and should show to him the honour which he owed to you, and, through hope of greater profit, should deny his birth, and refuse you your paternal rights, would this seem to you right or wicked?”The Recognitions of Clement, 229
All of the grand spectacle aside, it’s shocking just how relevant most of the the questions that Simon Magus asks Peter are for people today. If Jesus is so great, why does he contradict himself in the Gospels? If God is so good, why did he create evil stuff? Why did God give humans free will? How could the being written about in the Old Testament truly be called a good God? I don’t want to pretend like all of the answers that Peter gives would be totally satisfying to modern ears, but they hold up pretty well on the whole.
In pop culture, there’s this strong sense that we’re so far advanced from the primitive thinkers of the past. The progress that we’ve made over the past 2000 years puts us lightyears ahead of our foolish, backwards ancestors, but when you crack open their books, you can see how ridiculous a statement like that is. We may have some new tools and some new insights into the way the world works, but we’re still fundamentally the same beings working out the same questions. Our ancestors’ thoughts on religion, philosophy, mathematics, and any one of a million other disciplines are often far more advanced than we give them credit for.
As Christians, we have so much to gain from looking back at ancient apologetics. Not only are the historic responses insightful, but reading these documents reminds us that we haven’t entered into a new age in which all of our collective wisdom is outdated. We’re more equipped than we know, and the questions that people are asking aren’t as groundbreaking as we think. There’s truly nothing new under the sun.
The other day, I got an e-mail from a higher up in the Methodist church that ended with this quote:
Do all the good you can,-John Wesley
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
I closed out of that message in a tizzy because John Wesley never said that! Honestly, John Wesley never said most of his famous quotes. Kevin Watson did a phenomenal series about quotes that Wesley never said here. Just about every Wesley quote that makes its way onto a key chain, wall hanging, or church bulletin isn’t actually his. The fact that a reputable higher up in the church was misquoting him was a bummer. Did he not care about the integrity of the quote?
But as comfortable as it is to slip into self-justifying outrage, there are a TON of quotes that famous saints “said” that they didn’t actually say, and… they’re not bad! They’re pithy. They’re clever. People love them! They get referenced in reasonably educated circles and they’re popular in churches. So what do we do with all these fake quotes?
Francis of Assisi supposedly said “Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary.” Not only is it not in his writings, but it’s not even a quote that suits him. He’s known for his preaching, and preaching was one of the core tenants of the Franciscan monks that followed in his footsteps. Why would someone that values preaching so much speak so flippantly about it?
Theresa of Avila supposedly wrote this famous poem:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on the world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
But she didn’t. Not only is it found nowhere in her works, but this blogger did a great deep dive on the origin of this poem and theorized that it was originally created by Methodist Minister Mark Guy Pearse, who said the second half in a sermon that he gave in 1888, and Quaker medical missionary Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree, who added the first half of the poem after acknowledging she took the second half from him. From there, other people started adapting the poem, and it gained a life of its own. I can’t personally guarantee that they’re right, but it seems like a really decent stab at locating the history of one of those mythical quotes. It still does leave a big question: how on Earth did it get attributed to Theresa?
None of these quotes have an oral history that dates back to the time of the figure in question. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, they’re fake. Are they malicious forgeries? Who can say. I’m going to guess no. It’s hard to prove that sort of thing, so it mostly boils down to a guess. I’m willing to give the parties involved the benefit of the doubt and say it was a mistake or some sort of misunderstanding.
That being said, it’d be silly to pretend that the quotes don’t benefit from their connection to famous historical figures. It makes you sound way smarter if you say “As St. Francis of Assisi once said…” rather than, “I saw this on a keychain once…” The quotes gain a certain amount of gravitas from their attachment to big-name historical figures. Some very significant religious organizations have these quotes plastered on their websites, and they almost certainly wouldn’t if they were anonymous. There’s no shortage of blog entries and news articles pointing out that these quotes are not legitimate, but there’s not enough church history nerds out there to keep them from getting through the cracks!
So… what do we do?
I’ve seen some books take the position of claiming the quote is “attributed to” the saint in question, but probably wasn’t actually written by them. I don’t know how much good that does, if only because it still creates a really fun backstory for the quote and then picks at it without adding a positive alternative. We could always take the position of saying that they’re anonymous. That would certainly detach the quote from it’s fake history, but nobody wants to engage with a quote by “anonymous,” so at that point, you may as well not use it anymore.
How much does the integrity of the quote matter?
It reminds me of a little story from The Decameron (basically the 14th c. Italian version of the Canterbury Tales). There’s this guy named Ciappelletto, and he’s garbage. He launders money, writes fake documents, lies, gambles, etc. You get the picture. One day, he gets really sick. His friends are afraid he’s going to die, but the Church won’t bury him unless he confesses his sins to a clergyman, and his sins are so horrible that no clergyman would absolve him. His friends will end up stuck with his corpse, and it’ll be a whole awkward thing. But Ciappelletto has an idea. They get this friar to come in and take his confession, and Ciappelletto just gets crazy with it. He makes up lie after lie after lie about what a saintly life he’s led. Sure enough, the friar absolves him and even buries Ciappelletto in his own convent later that day… but things don’t stop there. The friar is so moved by what he heard that he preaches about the virtuous life of Ciappelletto to everyone who will listen. Before you know it, people are using items that Ciappelletto owned as relics and going on pilgrimages to his grave. They claim that miracles are worked in his name! Lots of people live holier, more Christlike lives because of the (fake) legend of Ciappelletto. In the end, our narrator points to the whole affair as, “a manifest token of the superabundance of the goodness of God to us, inasmuch as He regards not our error but the sincerity of our faith,” (First Day, 090).
Does it matter that Ciappelletto was a rogue if his legend helped others grow in Christ?
Does it matter that Wesley, Francis, and Theresa never said those things if it helps people know God better?
…YES! Faith is about truth! The elements of our faith should be able to get by a simple Google search without being clearly and inarguably fake. Better to build a house on the rock of truth than the sand of convenience. Fight the misquotes, dear friends. Say they’re anonymous! Say they’re misattributed! Ignore them if you want! Just don’t say they’re true.
The Decameron can be read here.
In the ever-raging battle between contemporary and traditional music, traditional music usually gets credit for having ties to historic Christianity. These are traditional songs! They were passed down by generations before us! They’re the classics of worship music!
But how old is your average hymn?
In the United Methodist Hymnal (which is the one in my office), the overwhelming majority of hymns were written between 1850 and 1989. I’ll pop the book open right now and prove it! Starting at hymn 365 (the random page I opened to) and moving forward, the year of composition is 1911, 1963, 1834, 1873, 1939, 1905, and 1749. Ok, we ended on one that broke the norm a little bit, but you can see where I’m going with this. Where is a hymn from year 300? 1423? 1555? Why is the genre we call “traditional” so lacking in tradition beyond the 1800s?
The simple answer is that the first American hymnal was printed in 1831. Of course most hymns are from that year or later; that’s when their distribution really took off. Before that, hymnals were collections of lyrics that you’d put to music on your own. But just because people didn’t have hymnals didn’t mean they weren’t singing hymns. Hymns go waaaay back. Take, for example, this hymn by 4th century bishop Ambrose of Milan:
Come, Holy Ghost, who ever One
Art with the Father and the Son;
Come Holy Ghost, our souls possess
With Thy full flood of holiness.
In will and deed, by heart and tongue,
With all our powers, Thy praise be sung;
And love light up our mortal frame,
Till others catch the living flame.
Almighty Father, hear our cry
Through Jesus Christ our Lord most high,
Who with the Holy Ghost and Thee
Doth live and reign eternally.
How cool is that? Yes, this edition of it is a little older and could use some paraphrasing to modernize it, but the language is so evocative! Lots of trinitarian references, and a gorgeous example of participation in God’s action there in that middle verse. We sang this every day at Mepkin Abbey when I was staying there a few summers back. The Rule of Benedict (their monastic rule) requires you to sing Ambrosian hymns, and so we did. We protestants may not be required to sing old hymns, but are we missing out by skipping stuff like this?
Here’s another genuine oldie, this one by the 7th century Greek theologian Andrew of Crete:
Whence shall my tears begin?
What first-fruits shall I bear
Of earnest sorrow for my sin?
Or how my woes declare?
O Thou! The merciful and gracious One.
Forgive the foul transgressions I have done.
With Adam I have vied,
Yea, passed him, in my fall;
And I am naked now, by pride
And lust made bare of all;
Of Thee, O God, and that celestial band,
And all the glory of the promised land.
No earthly Eve beguiled
My body into sin:
A spiritual temptress smiled,
Unbridled passion grasped the unhallowed sweet:
Most bitter— ever bitter— was the meat.
If Adam’s righteous doom,
Because he dared transgress
Thy one decree, lost Eden’s bloom
And Eden’s loveliness:
What recompense, O Lord, must I expect,
Who all my life Thy quickening laws neglect?
By mine own act, like Cain,
A murderer I was made:
By mine own act my soul was slain,
When Thou wast disobeyed:
And lusts each day are quickened, warring still
Against Thy grace with many a deed of ill.
This one is a little harder to imagine singing in worship, even if you modernized the language a bit. People tend not to sing about lust in churches these days. Go figure. Still, there’s a lot to love here! The story of Adam’s first sin is opened up and applied to the singer. You are like Adam. You are like Cain. You are the sinner. Genesis isn’t just the story of someone else in some other time; it’s your story. How many songs today help you live out the reality of Scripture this well?
If you’re someone looking to get a fix of some old hymns, check out the cyber hymnal. Nothing there is copyrighted! It’s prime for singing! Browse by person to find older stuff easier (spoiler: anybody named Someone of Somewhere is probably old). You can always tweak the language to make it a little more modern. Whether you want a rock guitar up front or an organ, there’s some real gems in the Christian tradition. “Traditional” hymnals be darned; this is real traditional music!
I just finished taking a class where the professor warned us about writing about Augustine and sex on blogs. Apparently it tends to attract people who have STRONG OPINIONS! But telling me not to do something is practically encouraging me to do it, so here we go. And since opinions in the modern era regarding bodies and sex are hot-button issues, give this one a sympathetic read, assuming that there’s no secret agenda. It’s just an adventure in one fifth-century theologian’s thought processes.
It’s easy to point out that Augustine has VERY different opinions on sex than the average modern person. And I don’t just mean that he’s a little conservative for modern taste; he’s way out there in uncharted territory. He’s pretty negative about sex, regardless of the context. I mean, one of the subchapters in City of God is literally titled, “the sense of shame in sexual intercourse.” I don’t know that anyone today really thinks, “Yeah, it’s normal to be a little ashamed during sex. Nothing weird there”. But rather than take the opportunity to discuss how his thoughts are bad (which I’m sure has been done a million times before), I want to look at the insights that he can give a modern reader. Augustine’s odd insights can remind us that our bodies are not as purely neutral or good as we moderns often imagine them to be. Bodies are tainted by sin in this life, just like everything else, and they won’t fully align with our saintly ambitions until the end of time.
In the circles I study in, it’s safe to say that bodies are normally thought of as highly positive elements of our being. People emphasize the line in the Apostle’s Creed “the resurrection of the dead,” they talk about the body’s role in our current and future being, and carefully choose language intended to destigmatize bodily aspects of existence like sex and disability. And, of course, none of that is bad. Nobody that I know wants to live in a society where the disabled are stigmatized and sex feels like a sin. But the methodology that’s used tends to make the core assumption that bodies are de-facto good. They’re extensions of our own being, complete with natural and good inclinations that we ought to listen to if we want to be happy. If our body is not as we would like it to be (regarding appearance, food intake, sex, ability, or any other number of factors) we need to accept it as differently good, rather than problematic.
The problems begin when we have Jesus saying things like “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). Lust is one of those bodily emotions that we just sort of… feel. We don’t choose to lust; it just happens. What do we do about that? On one hand, we have groups that have normalized sexual expression whenever a person feels lustful. It’s almost viewed as a form of hunger. If you’re hungry, you eat. If you’re lustful, you have sex. Many of the wellness systems that I’ve seen encouraged in colleges list sexual expression as a basic need for wellness. Lust is portrayed as one more positive emotion that helps us regulate our bodily well being. This, of course, simply assumes that Jesus was wrong. Another common understanding is that there is a big difference between thought and action. To think a lustful thought isn’t ideal, but it’s not as bad as actually acting on it. True though this may be, it’s not the high bar that Jesus presented. He didn’t say that a few lustful thoughts were well within the boundaries of reason. He said to knock it off completely.
This is where we can start to understand Augustine’s perspective. What makes sex so troublesome to him? It’s attached to these bodily emotions that are almost impossible to control. It’s not the only activity capable of arousing these sorts of passions, but it’s certainly one of the most prominent. Despite our most careful attempts to cultivate virtue, we’re always subject to bodily lust. In City of God he writes:
There are lusts for many things, and yet when lust is mentioned without the specification of its object the only thing that normally occurs to the mind is the lust that excites the indecent parts of the body. This lust assumes power not only over the whole body, and not only from the outside, but also internally; it disturbs the whole man, when the mental emotion combines and mingles with the physical craving, resulting in a pleasure surpassing all physical delights. So intense is the pleasure that when it reaches its climax there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness; the intellectual sentries, as it were, are overwhelmed.City of God, Book XIV, 16
Here, we see lust portrayed as this sin that’s rooted in our body, capable of completely drowning out our own free will. It can stop us from being the saints that we want to be and drag us towards sins that our minds would never choose for us. This isn’t a battle that can be corrected either. Until we receive new bodies/restored bodies in the resurrection, we’re stuck fighting our own lust. Our bodies are affected by the fallenness of the world, and lust is a sin that’s etched into them for the duration of our time on Earth. The gift of sexuality that God gave us is always muddied by the unavoidable, uncontrollable presence of lust.
But the fullness of Augustine’s concerns with sex are a little deeper than that. The ancient era was dominated by the thoughts of Plato, who warned people not to focus on things in this world, but to focus on the things beyond this world. For Christian Platonists, the world below was something that should draw our attention to our God above. If we get bogged down in focusing on earthly things because of their own beauty, we’ll miss the greater beauty that they’re pointing to. The Bible has passages that these ancient, Plato-influenced readers would have focused on to a far greater degree than we do, such as Colossians 3:2, “Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things.” That’s why we have bishops like Augustine creating whole theological systems that encourage people to put their whole heart and mind on God, regardless of what they’re doing. He says that things in this world are here for us to use, while the God beyond this world is there to be enjoyed:
To enjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake. To use, on the other hand, is to employ whatever means are at one’s disposal to obtain what one desires, if it is a proper object of desire; for an unlawful use ought rather to be called an abuse.De Doctrina, Ch 4
A good Christian only uses the things in this world. We use our tools. We use our modes of transportation. We use our friends. We use everything to seek God, in whom we rest. And yes, “use” is a word that hasn’t aged well to talk about people, but hopefully you can see what he’s trying to do here. He’s not suggesting we use them in a way that is disrespectful or abusive. He’s suggesting that they’re here to help us seek God and enjoy him. That’s why all of us are here: to point to God.
You can see why all of that would make lust extra concerning. Someone experiencing lust is probably not thinking much about God. Their faculties are overwhelmed with the pleasure of an earthly thing, and they’re not giving much thought to heavenly things. In that light, lust is something that is continually pulling us away from heaven, down into the dust from which we were made. It’s a way to enjoy something for its own sake, rather than to enjoy God through it.
To Augustine, not only is lust something that’s bodily and uncontrollable, but it’s pulling our minds away from God and down towards things that can never fulfill us. That’s why it’s so worthy of concern.
In an era where assumptions about bodies and sex have changed so vastly, what do we have to gain from reading Augustine’s thoughts about sex? A reminder that our bodies are not purely reliable entities. They’re tainted by sin, just like everything else. Rather than always differing to the wants of our bodies (sexual or otherwise), we can remember that there’s something beyond all of this that demands our loyalty. That’s where real enjoyment is.
In the Western church, there’s a prevailing sense that a right faith is a happy one. A lot of today’s bestselling Christian pastors/authors have founded their churches on the idea that God wants you to be happy. But is that the faith that has been handed down to us by Christian tradition? Or is it something else? In an age in which the average person is a functional materialist (only believes in what they can see), have we ceased to believe that we can find fulfillment by following the plans of a transcendent being? Is the shallow feeling of happiness so enviable in our age because it’s the closest thing our culture can get to a sense of spiritual fulfillment?
I don’t know. Clearly those pointed questions say how I feel, but rather than circle back around to conversations about secularism, I want to investigate a bigger problem with the Cult of Happiness: it’s built on straw. Life stinks sometimes. People get sick. Your friends die. You step in a puddle and get wet socks. Life just ain’t always great. Rather than try to pretend we can get through it without being sad, why not just acknowledge unhappy feelings and grow in spite of them? Not only do we see that repeatedly in Scripture (see the Psalms and Jesus for some prime examples), but we see that in the writings of one of the greatest saints of all times: Gregory of Nazianzus.
Those of you that have followed me for a while may remember my previous entries on Gregory of Nazianzus. His poetry is just magnetic to me. Beyond it’s beauty and theological content, he’s not afraid to express himself. Gregory is downright miserable at times. Translator Peter Gilbert goes so far as to suggest he might be diagnosed as clinically depressed if he were alive today (On God and Man, 2). This is the faith of one of the saints that helped us understand the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and it wasn’t a particularly happy one.
Just look at this heartrending selection from On Human Nature:
…I keep an unchanging bent, while we rush93-99
upon the sword in suicidal madness, like the swine.
What’s in fact the good of life? God’s light? But then
hateful and jealous darkness keeps me from it.
Nothing’s of any use to me. And what is there of no use to the wicked?
If only they were equally endowed,with troubles especially!
I lie helpless. Divine terror has bowed me…
The full poem is long, so I’ll give a little context to that excerpt: the poem opens with Gregory racked with anxiety, asking himself the big question: who am I (line 25). On one hand, Christ died to mingle his essence with the divine and lead him on towards holiness. He knows that! But on the other hand, he doesn’t feel particularly blessed. He describes himself as “a nothing… pommeled down by ills like a thing compacted” (line 43). In old age, his body is betraying him. It’s an “enemy that never lets up warring” (59-60), and he feels like he’s “carrying a corpse… locked in the hateful chains of life”(65). Where is this joy that was promised? Will it come? Was there a point to any of this?
Those of us hoping for a happy ending don’t exactly get one. He concludes his quest: “now’s a fog, but afterwards the Word, and you’ll know all, whether by seeing God or eaten up by fire… I headed home, laughing at my self-estrangement… heart in anguish smoldering,” (127-128, 130-133). This is not a happy man, but it’s still a faithful man. He ends this poem specifically because he knows he needs to trust God, even in his misery:
Stop. Everything is secondary to God. Give in to reason.123-126
He did not create me in vain. I am turning
my back upon this song.
God didn’t create him for nothing. He moves forward in hope, even if he doesn’t feel particularly happy in the given moment.
This poetry is grim, and yet, I find it strangely compelling. It’s honest. I’ve felt these feelings. I’d go so far as to say that existential crises, self doubt, and unfathomable pain are near-universal experiences in this life. When I think about the preachers that are chasing happiness, I can’t even fathom them validating these kinds of emotions as legitimate. “God doesn’t want that for you! Seek joy!” But that advice denies the pain that we all know is real. Anyone who has lived knows that it’s painful sometimes. A saintly faith isn’t one that ignores the deep pains of the world. It’s one that sees the pain and weeps without giving up faith in God. Gregory knew pain. The psalmists felt pain. Jesus felt pain. The faith that’s been passed down all these thousands of years is a hard one sometimes. That’s ok. It’s part of the journey. To quote Rainer Rilke,
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.Go to the Limits of Your Longing
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
We seek fulfillment in our eternal God, not a dopamine rush that might get us through another work week. When things are bad, it’s okay to be sad. It’s not a lack of faith; it’s honesty. We have to remember that God didn’t create us in vain and keep trudging on our way, trusting that in the end, God knows what he’s doing.