Princess Aesileif and the Fire Dragon

(A Fairy Tale on Demand)

Like all good fairy tales, this one begins at a particular point in history (upon a time) and, as far as things go, happened in singular fashion (once). Thus, like all historical events that have already transpired, we may say that it happened, Once Upon a Time.

 

Ahem.

 

Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Larger Ubridia, there was a princess called Aesileif.  This was a Germanic kingdom, and in those days, the name Aesileif was considered a very charming name for a young woman.  I have some knowledge of languages and history, and I assure you this is the case, and you really should be more trusting of your narrator.  This is not what you might call a “post-modern” fairy tale in the sense that you have an unreliable narrator.  I assure you, I am quite reliable, and this is entirely historical.

 

Aesileif was the kind of princess who dutifully did her work.  She sat at the distaff all day as musicians played on the lute or some other obscure instrument that a modern person would say “that looks like a guitar” of.  At times songs would be sung of the great heroes who had ridden into battle in the olden days, like Thorstein, or Hjolf Hjolf’s son.  And, as a lady of her time and culture, she was quite content with her lot in life.  You see, many modern stories would have you believe that every princess with a brain would have been a modern princess, bucking at social norms and demanding equality and the like.  But this is a historically accurate fairy tale which seeks to respect the cultural situatedness of our heroine.  She, like many other noble ladies of her day, thought her life was quite grand, not having to slop about with manual labor like a commoner.

 

Now, as it sometimes happened in those days, her father was a warlike man who wanted more than he had.  Greed, unlike bucking social norms, was as common in those days as it is today.  And so her father Ulf lived up to his namesake, and tried to swallow the territories around him in giant gulps.  But in doing so he earned the wrath of the war bands to his north.  They were warriors who, learning from the Romans centuries before, fought easily on mounted horse instead of simply on foot.  Now, until the invention of the pikestaff, it is well known that a mounted soldier would be worth ten men on foot.

 

So it is that Ulf’s people found themselves at a great disadvantage when they, simple walking folk who cleaved their way through the lands to the south and west of them, came up against the mounted soldiers of the north.  Now, some of these mounted soldiers were also noblemen of their clan.  Noble mounted men are called Knights.  The term Knight, really just means servant, but the idea of a mounted nobleman riding in service to the government, goes back to the old Roman days and a class of people called the Equestrians.  So, for all intents and purposes, these men were knights.  Again…trust me.

 

Now, Ulf’s warriors, though brave, loyal, and stalwart, were no match for these northern men and their galloping steeds.  And soon Aesileif, our lovely, happy with the status quo, princess, was an orphan.  The castle where she lived, which was really something like a hill fort, all staked round with wooden barricades and stockades, was soon to be overrun.  And Aesileif was rightly afraid, for in those days (and sadly in these days) warlike men are not always the most courteous to the women of a conquered people.  The gates were shut, and the doors closed fast.  But there were few of her father’s men still able to hold sword and shield in that hill fort that day.

 

Now, Aesileif was a Christian woman, as many of those warring Germanic peoples were in those days.  She held her virtue in high regard, and wanted no knight to endanger it without first entering into the bonds of holy matrimony with him.  And so, as the northern horsemen rode around the fort, calling out to the young princess with words that perhaps are among the most rude things that can be said whilst riding around someone’s home on a horse, she prayed fervently to the Lord that she might be delivered from her distress.

 

“Oh Risen and Conquering Christ, who has set the whole world under His feet, hear me and deliver your servant from this terrible fate!  Send a messenger to carry me far from here where I may remain pure and in your service.”

 

And, as is always the case, the Lord heard the prayer.  And, as is sometimes the case, He, in his wisdom, chose to answer it even as she had asked.  And so the Lord called forth his servant, a great fire dragon from the eastern mountains.  Up it rose from its dark and vast chambers in the roots of the hills, and spread its mighty red wings across the sky.

 

A terrible cry went up from the marauding men: “Wyrm!  Wyrm!”  And some of those brave horsemen fled immediately.  But those who were very brave crashed their swords against their shields and prepared for terrible combat with the fire drake.

 

But battle was not his call that day.  Instead, he descended down on the center most building of the hill fort, and lowered his tail to the princess’s window.  His voice, like the billowing of steam mixed with the roaring of a great fire, said “Lady, this day the Lord has heard your cry and sent his servant to deliver you.  Gather your ladies and mount the scales of my tail as a ladder that you might alight upon my back, nestled between my wings.  Hence I will take you to safety.”

 

And so she did even as he commanded.  And the dragon flew off to the mixed relief and disappointment of the northmen and set himself down atop the mountain where his own caves were hidden.  There a cave was prepared where the Princess might live with her ladies, and treat with messengers from more noble men who might wish to win her hand.  Again, being a lady of her day, she did not deign to choose her own husband, but left the decision to the great fire drake who was wise and full of the insight of his master.  And he, being a kindly dragon, and not enculturated into a wholly patristic society (for dragons are a very egalitarian people historically), sought her counsel on who she might like best to marry. And so a goodly match was made after a year of suitors coming to the mountain.

 

Her new husband was not a greedy man, nor a cruel man, but he was also a product of his time and place, and thought of Princess…or rather Queen…Aesileif as something of a subordinate to him.   She thought very little of this, except on the nights when she prayed and gave thanks for her deliverer, the great dragon of the east, who had treated her with great courtesy and fairness.  Perhaps then, in a small place in her heart, she did perhaps wish that things were a little different. But not so much as to be unnatural for a woman of her status and day.

 

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The Relational Secret and the Eschaton

Judgment

This week I attended the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology’s conference this week, a conference which I heartily suggest to those even mildly interested in adding an ecumenically attended conference to their year.  The academic presenters range in tradition from Roman Catholic to Methodist, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran and more on common theological topics.  This year the discussion centered around the last things, or Eschata: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.  The last was left open due to the ecumenical nature of the conference; though I think it got very little play.  Both the papers and the discussions surrounding the topic were top notch, and well worth the time of anyone interested in theological issues.  The center’s page can be found here for both its journal Pro Ecclesia and to keep an eye out for next year’s conference:  http://www.e-ccet.org/

Now that I have done my part to bring more people to the conference, I wish to address a topic which was not directly considered in the papers presented (I place here the caveat that I did not attend the very last paper of the conference which was concerned with preaching about Heaven and Hell).  The topic in question is one of relationships as constitutive of being.  Here I am drawing on Metropolitan John Zizioulas’ proposal that the most fundamental category through which we are to understand God is not “being” but “communion” (Koinonia).[1]

Zizioulas’ understanding of persons as relational aims at undermining two of the three great sins of our reading of personhood in the last century, Radical Individualism, and Collectivism (the third being Objectification which is obliquely addressed by this theory).  Persons are persons, not individuals.  They are not particular instances of humanity existing on their own in a sea of other individuals.  Instead, they are radically related to other persons in a way that both explains and constitutes them.  From our very conception to our death, our identity is defined by who we are in relationship with.  It is not the whole of our being, of course, for we are still subjective “I’s” thinking our own thoughts, loving Celtic Music instead of Hip Hop, or vice versa, or both.  We have our own tastes, our own experiences, and our own particular existence in relationship to other persons with their own tastes, experiences, and particular existences.  This is the safeguard against simple collectivism.  I am I because I am related in some way to you, though I was I before I met you.

Some relations are of course, intrinsically constitutive.  My parents are my parents at the same time that I come into being.  In fact, they are coterminous realities.  My brother, younger than myself, has my brotherhood as intrinsically constitutive of his being, since I became his brother the moment he was conceived. This is somewhat asymmetrical, of course, because the same was not true when I was conceived.  There are of course, many ways we could examine these kinds of relationships, but it is enough to say that who we are is deeply defined by who we are in relationship with.

The Eschatological question here is one that concerns itself with the question of the resurrected identity of those in the Heavenly State.  (I use Heavenly State here to describe the state of the resurrected who are in communion with God, in whatever environment that entails).  A question arises about our identity as either whole or partial in the resurrection if those who are in some way constitutive of our identity are not present.  If someone who was either more or less central to the constitution of my identity is missing because they are ultimately and eternally in Hell, how can I be a full person?  How can I be really myself?  And if not really or wholly myself, how am I fully raised?

While this may seem to us, as we know ourselves now, to be a question about a very few number of people, I think the question is ultimately about every human’s relationship with every other human who has ever lived, or will ever live.[2]  We may not understand how we are shaped by the person who bags our groceries for seven minutes once in our lifetime, but it would be a strange thing to say that even the minutest relationships between two images of God are meaningless.  Far less can we understand how persons who lived in faraway places in times remote and perhaps forgotten, even sequestered from the flow of the rest of human history, could constitute our beings.  But once more it seems strange that any two of the myriad images of the Living God should not be in some way related in a meaningful way that transcends our perceived social and familial relations.

The question of being as constituted in some way by relation continues to plague us when we consider the imago Dei of each person.  Drawing on George MacDonald’s anthropology,[3] I would argue that the revelation of God’s own self is enacted in a special way through the personal relations of each person to God.  Your relationship with God is revelatory of the God who made you, and that relationship is unique.  MacDonald uses the image of the White Stone in the book of Revelation for this idea.  Each person is given a white stone on which is inscribed a name known only to the recipient and the Father (Rev 2:17).

The revelation of God then is personal in multiple ways.  It is a personal relationship directly between a human being and her creator, redeemer, sanctifier, and deifier.  But it is also a relationship with the images of that God who speak, though their very lives, secrets about God.[4]  It seems true that if God has revealed Godself in a particular and unique way in my best friend and worst enemy, like it or not, I must love my enemy as well as my friend to fully love God.

And so we come to the second problem that lies inherent in the question of relation as constitutive of our identities.  For my relationship with God, and who I am in relation to God, is reliant on my reception of the revelation of God given to me.  But that revelation is bound up in the images of God close to me or distant from me in space and time.  Should some of these be lost, that revelation is lost.  My knowledge of God will not, in fact, be complete, or even complete in an Epektasis model, going from fullness to greater fullness.

We may argue that if persons are lost eternally, God will indeed supply the missing bits of ourselves.  God might say, “I am all in all, and I shall give to you what you once had with those persons without their presence or consent.  I will be your brother, cousin, lover, friend, so that you need them not.  What I have bound up in them as revelation of myself, I free from them and give to you directly.”

But can God, or would God do this?  Perhaps the second question first.  Would God take what was revealed as particular persons in our history and say “ultimately, you needed them not, for I am all you need.”  Would the God who has instilled in us the command that the eye should not say to the hand “I have no need of thee” (1 Cor 12:21), say to us “you in fact did not need them at all”?  This seems out of character for the God who teaches us to model all of our behavior on the divine character and life.

The more difficult question seems to be, can God even do it?  Can we distinguish some inner principle of the revelation of God which is in my worst enemy from the person that is my worst enemy?  Can we say that God can abstract from that person some truth or fact that can be presented to me in some other way?  Or is it that the revelation is the person in relationship with God?  Is it that my worst enemy is the secret or truth about God that I must learn, and can learn no other way?  If this is the case, it seems that the only way then, once God has set this truth, this person, forth in history, for me to know this truth, is to know this person in the most intimate exchange of love in the Heavenly State.

It seems then, if Zizioulas is right, that our beings are constituted by relation, and the steps taken in this short essay are safe ones, that the result of a doctrine of eternal hell leaves us with both incomplete persons in the Heavenly State, and an incomplete Revelation to those persons.  This seems intolerable for a solid Christian Eschatology.

Finally, as a bit of speculation, we might also consider the human race as a body (a not unbiblical image).  If the body is also imago Dei, and not only each individual, then we must ask who the audience is for that image.  Might it not be that the angelic hosts wait with bated breath for the day when the full revelation of God in human form is set forth?  One might argue that this is already done in Christ, but while that may be true on the level of nature, it does not seem true on the level of the particular members of that body in relation.  If, as Dr. Paul Griffith’s suggested at the conference, the only things really important about us are the sacramental elements, we might say that the revelation of each human is rather like every other.  But this seems to me to be a rather deficient anthropology.  If instead, my most despised opponent is in fact, by the very fact that he hates the show Mad Men, loves Eggplant, and skiing, particularly revelatory of God, then his inclusion in the body of Christ with Christ at its head is necessary for the full setting forth of the revelation of God called the Human Race.

Perhaps then it would be that revelation that the whole of creation stands in wonder of as the very last Son of Adam comes forth from the hell of self to stand in new godhood before all things.  Perhaps then he will be in new and renewed relation with all others, and all will be made whole.  Perhaps then will the Son of Man say to all else that He has made, “Behold, I tell you a secret about myself.”  And perhaps then the sons and daughters of the earth will shine forth like the sun in the fullness of the glory that was set as their inheritance for all things to behold and rejoice in with not a single light missing, nor a single voice silenced.


[1] John Zizioulas, Being as Communion.

[2] We may also say this about the creation as a whole, which would not stray far from Zizioulas’ ecological intentions.

[3] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I.

[4] Once more we could also say this of the whole of creation.