16 July 2013

Thinking about the unthinkable, or
being rational about the impossible

An angel in a window in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Can we be sure what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch what it seems to be?

This is not abstract philosophical thinking. We became very conscious of this dilemma in recent months with the crisis in these islands when what people thought was beef turned out to be horsemeat.

But it is a question that is raised every day. The female figure on fashion magazine belongs to no body and nobody, is nobody and is no body, because of advanced photoshop-like technology.

Most of us smile when we learn the singer is not singing but is miming, as when we realise that Beyoncé was not singing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ at the inauguration of Barack Obama last January.

But if the singer is not singing, should we ask whether we know Barack Obama is indeed Barack Obama? Is he the same person who took office in 2009?

Is the unthinkable the same as the irrational or the impossible?

These were opening questions posed this morning by Dr Christoph Schneider in his lecture at the IOCS Summer School in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge – “Jacob’s Ladder: Angels and ‘the Between’ (metaxu).”

Christoph is Lecturer and Bursar of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and has contributed to the IOCS distance learning programme as a tutor. His research interests include Orthodox Theology and he is also interested in the dialogue between Orthodoxy and 20th century Protestant theology.

The title of his lecture came from Sergius Bulgakov’s book, Jacob’s Ladder.

Bulgakov (1871-1944) was the 20th century’s leading Orthodox theologian. He was the dean and professor of dogmatic theology at Saint Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, and his major works include The Burning Bush, The Friend of the Bridegroom, Jacob’s Ladder, The Lamb of God, The Philosophy of Economy, The Unfading Light, and The Comforter.

Bulgakov wrote Jacob’s Ladder after a near-death experience and an encounter with his guardian angel, who led him back to life. This book, with a mystical intensity, draws on scriptural, liturgical, iconographic and personal experiences, which Bulgakov uses to develop his theological understanding of angels, and he does it with lyrical beauty and profound speculative reflections.

Jacob’s Ladder, originally published in 1929, completes the word picture of divinised and Sophianic creation begun in The Burning Bush and The Friend of the Bridegroom, which constitute what has been called Bulgakov’s “major” or first trilogy.

He begins with words of love – “God-Love created human beings for love” – and culminates in joy: “How great is the joy bestowed on humankind knowing this!”

He frames his work with meditations on the meaning of love, not as a sentimental indulgence, but as a way of understanding the deep, tender, self-sacrificing, personal knowledge that is both at the heart of a Trinitarian God and in the midst of relationships between human beings and their guardian angels. His discussions on the creation, function, nature, appearances and incorporeality of angels lead also to reflections on the incarnation and human nature, especially the role of the sexes, death, and the Christian hope of resurrection, meditating on the Wisdom of God in the creation.

Christoph drew on Bulgakov, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) as he looked at the real and the unreal, the face, the countenance, and the mask, and angels.

In today’s society, the layers of deception become thinner and thinner. And behind the veil, are we to find the naked will for power? Can we access to the world as it is in itself, or do we construct our interpretation of it? Is it possible to judge our interpretation of the world against the world itself?

As he reflected on appearance and truth, he asked how do we know what is the mask? And what is the face? What can we know? And what is unthinkable?

He concluded with the Canon to the Guardian Angel:

O Wisdom of the Most High Personified,
for the sake of the Theotokos,
fill with wisdom and divine strength all that faithfully cry:
O God of our fathers, blessed art Thou.

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