Veneration of the Victory-Tree: A Meditation on the “Dream of the Rood”

The cross of Christ intersects our lives and transforms us at the place we most need Jesus. So, in reflecting upon the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poem “Dream of the Rood,” I am not surprised that a medieval and martial people would understand the cross in terms of military conquest; only then, for the self-sacrificial love of Christ and the cross itself to triumph over violence.[1] For in the mystery of the cross, Jesus sacrifices himself for the life of the world. The cross, hitherto, an object of shame and humiliation becomes an object of devotion and faithfulness to the way of Jesus. And the cross symbolizes and represents Christian love: a self-sacrificial love that extends to enemies as well as neighbors. Christians venerate the cross to draw near to the gift of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and especially during Passiontide, we contemplate the salvation wrought by the work of Christ on the cross. Thus, I invite you to reflect on the “Dream of the Rood” this Holy Week, to venerate the “victory-tree,” on which Christ offered his life for ours, and to meditate upon the great salvation we have in Jesus.

The “Dream of the Rood” describes the poet’s dream wherein he encounters the true cross upon which Christ died. In this dream the cross speaks giving a firsthand account of the crucifixion. The poem can be divided into three sections: it begins by describing the poet’s vision of the exalted cross, then the cross speaks recalling Jesus’s crucifixion from its point of view, and finally the poem concludes in a prayer offered by the poet extolling the glory and wonder of the Christ’s death. In this way, the poet invites us to a profound veneration of the holy cross and contemplation of the paschal mystery.

The poet begins by describing his dream as an encounter of the exalted cross. He says, “It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree raised on high, wound round with light, the brightest of beams.” The exalted cross appears as the cross in glory, which is the cross seen from the vantage of God’s victory over sin, death, and evil. When we behold the cross beyond the warped perversion of sin or the tarnish of death, then we like the poet behold the completed work of Christ and God’s presence revealed within all things. Thus, the poet declares, “that was no felon’s gallows.” The exalted cross reflects the glory of God from the place of uttermost despair, the place in which mankind kills the Son of God who became as we are to save us. So, the poet first responds to the sight of the exalted cross by becoming keenly aware of his own sin:

            Wondrous was the victory-tree, and I was stained by sins,

            wounded with guilt; I saw the tree of glory

            honored in garments, shining with joys,

            bedecked with gold; gems had

            covered worthily the Creator’s tree.

            And yet beneath that gold I began to see

            an ancient wretched struggle, when it first began

            to bleed on the right side. I was all beset with sorrows,

            fearful for that fair vision; I saw that eager beacon

            change garments and colors—now it was drenched,

            stained with blood, now bedecked with treasure.

 Indeed, confronted by the cross of glory we should all examine ourselves and confess by my own hand and for me my savior died. Yet, the exalted cross also remains forever the cross of Christ’s cosmic victory over the Enemy, the principalities and powers of darkness, and evil. To encounter the cross means simultaneously to gaze upon the glory of God and the suffering of Christ. The cross joins desolation and the consolation of God. And in the exaltation of cross, we witness the triumph of love over violence.

Then, the poem continues in a new voice, for the cross addresses the poet recalling its participation in Christ’s victory. The cross speaks first of its abuse as the instrument of executing criminals, lamenting, “Strong enemies seized me there, made me their spectacle, made me bear their criminals.” But in Christ’s crucifixion, the cross becomes something more than an instrument of death; for in Christ’s death God redeems all, even the cross. The cross transcends the use put to it by sinful mankind becoming God’s instrument of grace. The cross tells of cooperating with God’s saving purposes:

            …Then I saw the Lord of mankind

            hasten eagerly, when he wanted to ascend upon me.

            I did not dare to break or bow down

            against the Lord’s word, when I saw

            the ends of the earth tremble. Easily I might

            have felled all those enemies, and yet I stood fast.

            Then the young hero made ready—that was God almighty—

            strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,

            brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom mankind.

            I trembled when he embraced me, but I dared not bow to the ground,

            or gall to the earth’s corners—I had to stand fast.

            I was reared as a cross: I raised up the mighty King,

            the Lord of heaven; I dared not lie down.

The cross reveals that God in his wisdom does not save us without us.[2]  God’s plan of salvation includes the cooperation of creation. God saves us by the Blessed Virgin Mary’s cooperation with divine grace bearing God into the world as Jesus. God saves us by the cooperation of human nature and divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ. In the poet’s dream, God saves us by the cross’s cooperation with Christ for the salvation of the world. According to his wisdom, God saves us by drawing us into his own divine life and purpose for all things.

Then, the poem continues while the cross continues to speak describing Christ’s death, burial, and victory, which has caused some to question why the cross should speak so much, if at all. A conscious and intelligent cross might be the fruit of poetic imagination, or as some scholars suggest, the vestiges of a pagan and animistic past.[3] On the contrary, I consider the notion of a conscious relic guiding the Christian soul into deeper meditation of the mysteries of God a profoundly Christian idea. After all, St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”[4] In some way, the cosmos as God’s creature awaits the fulfillment of God’s creative purposes, when mankind will be revealed fully as the “children of God.” The cosmos, then, awaits the full manifestation of God’s work already accomplished on the cross. Creation’s conscious achievement of its end is realized not in some historical or primordial beginning, nor in the accumulation of days and years, nor by marking progress in terms of values or evolutionary biology, but in Jesus’s incarnation come to its fulness on the cross. Creation, after all, exists by God’s pleasure sprung from the fecundity of God’s love and formed according to God’s wisdom. Thus, I am not surprised that modern scientist endeavor to solve the hard problem of consciousness—whence consciousness—to no avail, especially when the presupposition is that matter produces consciousness. Regardless of how complex the chemical, biological, and physical systems of matter present themselves, matter does not produce consciousness much less intelligence. No, it seems more likely, and infinitely more satisfying, that God according to his love and wisdom, identical to the divine mind, creates all that is and grants creation a life of its own imbued with some sort of consciousness proportional to its being and its being loved, which can respond to God its creator and lover. Indeed, all that exists does so because God loves it, and the love of God ultimately revealed by Christ on the cross should not be considered frivolous. Therefore, we do well to learn from the poet that holy relics, the cross, and even the cosmos may serve as guides into the divine mystery of God’s love.

Finally, the poet concludes in prayer that he too might take up the cross and find himself in the glorious presence of God with his saints. After encountering the cross, recollecting his thoughts, the poet said:

            … My spirit longed to start

            on the journey forth; it felt

            so much of longing. It is now my life’s hope

            that I might seek the tree of victory

            alone, more often than all men

            and honor it well. I wish for that

            with all my heart, and my hope of protection is

            fixed on the cross. …

The cross marks the boundaries and defines the lines that chart the Christian life. The poet having received the vision of the true cross can do nothing else but take up his own cross and follow Jesus. Doubtless, suffering will mark the journey, even as Christ suffered, but when we undergo the passion of this life with faith and hope, then love will be our guide. Love will remain as we meet our end, for as the poet says, this life is but “loaned” to us and not our own. We ought then to be both as careful and careless with our lives as Jesus was with his. With great care we tend to our lives that we might grow into likeness of Christ; we offer our lives joined to Christ’s life as a gift to God. But was not our Lord, also, quite careless with his life abandoning it to death for our sake? So too we must not value our lives more than we love God or our neighbor. Only, then, can we know how to love ourselves. Furthermore, when we take up our journey after Christ’s own, we can be sure of its success:

            The Son was successful in that journey,

            mighty and victorious, when he came with a multitude,

            a great host of souls, into God’s kingdom,

            the one Ruler almighty, the angels rejoicing

            and all the saints already in heaven

            dwelling in glory, when almighty God,

            their Ruler, returned to his rightful home.

Not even death impeded Christ’s journey of incarnation, death, descent into the grave, victory, resurrection, and ascension. Death itself became God’s captive, made to serve God’s purposes, and made to usher God’s beloved into glory.

Therefore, as the poet says, when we venerate the holy cross, we venerate the “victory-tree.” Jesus by the grace of God invites us to contemplate the vastness of God’s blessing and love for us. The holiness of the cross is God’s holiness, which is the unwillingness of Christ to succumb to the temptation of establishing his life in this world. His life remained hidden with God. Consequently, he willingly took up the cross that it might raise him up as the King of Glory. The glory of God bore the woundedness of sinful mankind while he himself knew no sin. The wounded cross reveals the cross of glory, and the cross of glory heals our woundedness. Mankind in league with the Evil One contrived the cross as an instrument of terror and the humiliation of God, but God is not mocked. God redeemed the cross itself to preach his victory. And his victory becomes our victory, when we follow Christ, share in his love, and glory in his cross.

This article and others about Christian Spirituality and Acetic Theology by Fr. Jonathan Totty can be found at which is dedicated to Christian pastoral and spiritual writing to foster a love of God and authentic subjectivity.

[1] “The Dream of the Rood” is anonymous and can be read in full online at The version quoted here is translated by Roy M. Liuzza.

[2] “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” S. Augustine, in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1847.

[3] Richard North, Heathen God’s in Old English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 247.

[4] Romans 8:19

Evil and How the Cross of Christ Overcomes It: Thoughts about the One Perfect Simple Triune God rescuing the rebellious, foolish, and mostly immature lot of folks known as humankind. Or reflection on the cross. Or Soul Odyssey.

A former professor and dear friend often asked students who were not paying attention in his theology classes, “What are you going to say when some child asks you, ‘what was that snake doing in the garden?’” Not that he took a particularly literal view of Genesis; rather he was determined to demonstrate just how high and how low the stakes are when we do theology. The stakes for theology are never any higher or lower than when someone asks about the so-called problem of evil. The stakes are low when someone inquires theoretically about the problem of evil because an answer will involve philosophy and an entanglement of the doctrines of God, grace, theological anthropology, free-will, etc. so as to ensure that the inquirer will neither grasp nor reproduce the answer adequately apart from much reflection. Also, any good answer to
questions about the problem of evil will terminate in some discussion of evil as a surd, as no-thing, and with no actual cause per se. Consequently, a skillful presentation of the question of evil often ends with some amount of befuddlement. Alternatively, the stakes are high when someone asks, “whence and wither evil?” while experiencing it.

The low stakes conversation about the so-called problem of evil begins with some form of the question: How can God be good and omnipotent and evil exist? Then, someone will trot out some tired examples of natural and moral evil such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, or some other disaster, or the Holocaust, or the suffering of children. Then, the conversation might take one of several possible directions. Some folks will cry, “God is dead!” A few of these might take glee in a reductionistic fantasy wherein “good” and “evil” exist as mere constructs of language. But most people are happily inconsistent in navigating the tension between their beliefs and behavior. Others will attempt a theodicy, and concoct various unconvincing arguments about why the vindictive super powerful sky god can do whatever he wants. While kinder and wiser folks know better than to imagine evil is some thing. These folks will ponder classical ideas about the privation theory of evil, about what it means to be human, about consciousness, about what it means for a thing to be a thing, about what it means for God to be, and what to be even means. After this pondering comes a long, generally true, explanation totally lost on most people who want an answer better suited to common sense living. So, often the stakes remain low in any discussion of evil, and the best possible outcome will be to keep a vast majority of the professional theologians away from the people actually suffering.

Alternatively, evil can hurt us. I witnessed a real life instance of grappling with the problem of evil at the age of eleven. One year some time ago, simultaneously, or due to the convergence of my memories, I recall doctors diagnosing two of my cousins with terminal illnesses. One family received news that their son would be born with a hole in his heart and not likely survive birth. The other family observed their seemingly healthy one-year-old decline in mobility, for he had cancer. My cousin born with a hole in his heart defied the odds and lived for six months before dying. Whereas my cousin diagnosed with cancer lives even now. One family held a burial while the other raised their son. Such is life; inexplicable, mysterious, full of sorrow, full of joy, and from a Christian perspective permeated by God’s grace. But in these situations, we feel haunted as if by a forgotten memory that life is not as it should be. Anyone with a scrap of moral intelligence feels injustice when children suffer and die. We call this injustice evil, and to speak about evil in the context of particular suffering means a high stakes conversation whereby people may encounter grace or despair.

Suffering is not intrinsically salvific. The suffering and death of a child does not contribute anything to the meaning of the universe. God does not necessitate evil as a part of his grand plan for the cosmos. Where evil is concerned, everything does not happen for a reason. I would think all of this goes without saying, but when my cousin died several well-meaning and God-fearing Christians said something like, “I know it is hard to understand, but everything happens according to God’s plan.” When someone says something about evil happening according to God’s plan, I can only surmise that the Church has failed to teach and pass on the Christian faith. For the foundation of Christianity resides in the Church proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus, which is a story about God in Christ overcoming and putting an end to evil. Thus, Christian teaching does not explain evil but offers a solution to the problem of evil.

Evil constitutes a problem for humanity, for communities of people, and especially individual people but not for God. None of the authors of Holy Scripture seek to explain evil nor do they attempt to vindicate God from responsibility for evil. Instead, the Scriptures present the work of Christ as the resolution to evil as a human problem, as the problem of this cosmos, even as a
spiritual problem. St. Paul, for example, proclaims the work of Christ as freeing humanity, and all things really, from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4). Thus, when the stakes are high, Christians ought to have something to offer those who experience the wound of evil. The Church ought to be a community that proclaims the cross of Christ as a healing salve and as liberation from sin and death. The Gospel, whether expressed in its distilled Pauline form wherein Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection frees humanity from bondage to sin (Rom. 6-8) or in its longer narrative forms recounted by the Evangelists, tells a compelling story about God rescuing the cosmos from evil.

The story of our rescue begins with our present situation. Whence and wither evil? Scripture only hints at how our current predicament came to be in the language of myth. Myth, in this case, means a form of language that references and makes sense of some otherwise incomprehensible realm. Just because a story is a myth does not mean it cannot be true. In fact, some of the deepest truths can only be communicated indirectly by mythic narrative. Thus begins the book of Genesis describing human existence in this present age. Genesis 1-11, does not record the history of man’s fall but describes the reality of the fallen world. Accordingly, the fall does not reference some event in time, but the only Christian way of making sense of humanity’s alienation from God, a universe defined by predation, and ultimately sin, death, and evil.1 Perhaps, David Bentley Hart describes this ahistorical fall best as “an ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths and reduced cosmic time to a shadowy vestige of the world God truly intends.”2 Fallenness, then, describes our present situation as one of distorted understanding about ourselves, the world, and God’s purpose in creation.

Yet, because of Jesus Christ, fallenness cannot wholly describe our present situation. Fallenness remains an apt description of the only cosmos we know, but the work of Christ provides a larger narrative context for this fallen world. As Christ reveals the truth about us and the world, we recognize evil as the perversion and privation of the fullness of God revealed in Jesus. He defines what is most true, most real, and essentially durable about God’s creation. Evil does not have the last say about us; God in Jesus ultimately defines us. God reveals authentic creation in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, the cross especially marks the event in which the distorted values of this present age unmask themselves as the fallen demonic powers and principalities. Simultaneously the cross reveals the glory of God. The distorted values of this present age consist in the illicit desire for control at whatever cost. The cost usually manifests itself in murderous violence. The ethic of this present age can be summed up: return evil unto evil, hate your enemy, and secure your life in this world no matter what it takes. In stark contrast, God reveals his glory in an ethic that can be summed up: love your enemy (Mt. 5:43-4); Lk. 6:27) and do not repay evil for evil (Rom. 12:17-21).3 We might expect the Lord to annihilate this present evil age, the world, and all of us with it, but whatever vengeance he reserves for himself he expresses as the suffering servant casting out evil and healing us by his own woundedness (Isa. 53:5). Thus, we cannot make sense of our fallenness by measuring how far we have fallen, evil has no explanation, so we must make sense of our present state in terms of redemption.

In his death and resurrection, Christ overcomes evil, this evil age, and the evil within us. We do not need a theodicy. We do not need an argument to vindicate God of evildoing. We need salvation. We all must traverse this fallen world engulfed by darkness, and we only do so safely according to the Light that has come into the world, Jesus Christ. Truly each of us has already embarked upon an odyssey toward our true home. But I do not mean Heaven. Rather God beckons us from the cross of Christ to be made fully human, which is to say divinized made in the image and likeness of himself. Thus, Christ both saves us from this present evil age and makes us the place of his salvation in the world, specifically as the community of the church. Salvation from evil occurs within us when our lives become transformed by the ethic of the cross. Our odyssey in this life, then, means understanding ourselves according to our true creation revealed in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Indeed, God saves us, and all things, by forming us into a people and a community who live according to the ethic of the cross. Therefore, when the stakes are high and evil confronts us in the particulars of everyday life, we must respond by embodying Jesus’ ethic of the cross. We must do good rather than evil. We must bless rather than curse. We must respond in love. Evil is not a thing to be destroyed but an affliction to be healed. The answer to the question of evil, then, is not an explanation but the cruciform life of Christ’s followers.

(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)

1Jordan Daniel Wood in The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor, pp. 155-169, argues some patristic theologians such as Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximos the Confessor taught a “prehistorical” fall.

2David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami, p. 22. For further reading about the Fall as ahistorical, see Jesse Hake’s article shared by Aiden Kimel, at Eclectic Orthodoxy, and Kimel’s response.

3 Robert Doran develops Bernard Lonergan’s notion that the “Law of the Cross” transforms evil into the “supreme good.” in The Trinity in History: A Theology of the Divine Missions (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2012), 227-258. Doran’s insights have heavily influenced my own thought about how the cross of Christ constitutes authentic human subjectivity and ultimately authentic communities.

Christian Spirituality and Human Experience

Oftentimes, the spiritual seeker is one who seeks to escape their humanity by way of mystical experience that promises to transcend the reality of the material world. The spiritual seeker often desires to discover a reality that exists behind the mundane normative experience of being human. However, Christian spirituality shatters these misconceptions about the world, humanity, and the transcendent. Because the fundamental truth of Christianity, is that the one infinite God who transcends all categories of human comprehension entered into time, space, and human reality in the person of Jesus Christ. God became fully human while remaining fully God, and therefore bestowed eternal and divine significance upon human experience. God became like us. In his book, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, Rowan Williams describes Christian spirituality as it is incarnated in Christian history by the saints of the church. Williams does not mean to suggest that the spiritual life is only for the few, the heroes of the faith, rather he presents the spiritual life by illustrations and sketches of various saints. Thus, he highlights human experience in the spiritual life. Christian spirituality is inclusive of human experience, because the relationship humanity has with God is one in which God offers friendship with himself to humans by redeeming the human story in and through entering the fray of human existence as the incarnate Jesus.

I will illustrate the place of human experience in Christian spirituality by expounding on Williams’ treatment of the New Testament, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. John of the cross. Though these sources do not provide an exhaustive explanation of the place and importance of human experience in Christian spirituality, they do provide an introduction as to how humanity and all of reality are transformed and brought into union with God by Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.

The New Testament is fundamentally about God’s salvation of humanity from sin and death. Furthermore, the New Testament is about the salvation of particular human beings. Thus, the New Testament while proclaiming that Jesus Christ universally defeated sin, death, and evil on the cross, also proclaims this robust salvation in the lives of specific persons. God’s disclosure of the truth about all creation happens in and through the human story and particular human stories. Williams explains, “If the heart of ‘meaning’ is a human story, a story of growth, conflict and death, every human story with all its oddity and ambivalence, becomes open to interpretation in terms of God’s saving work.”1 The human story is, then, to be understood by the hermeneutic of God’s saving work in Jesus. Human experience is necessarily intertwined with God’s revelation of himself by the salvation wrought by the person and work of Jesus.

Jesus reveals what it means to be fully human; Jesus is, in a theological sense, the first true human being. Jesus’ work of redeeming the cosmos is realized by his full and complete dependence upon God. Williams writes, “Self-dependence is revealed as a mechanism of self-destruction; to cling to it in the face of God’s invitation to trust is a thinly veiled self-hatred.”2 Self-dependence is the attempt to create a reality apart from God. Apart from God there is no coherent truth to reality. Apart from God, humanity is capable of creating false realities based upon the lie of our own self-dependence and self-sustainability. It is possible for humans to create systems of community and interpersonal relationships without acknowledging human dependence upon God. However, these systems end in nihilistic violence, and are characterized by oppression and exploitation of people and natural goods. Thus, self-dependence is not a demonstration of human success and achievement, but a refusal be fully human. Jesus demonstrates by his identity and work that to be fully human in perfect friendship and harmony with God is to rely on God who is the creator and sustainer of all things.

Therefore, human experience is innately caught up in the mystery of God. There is no human experience apart from God but only a privation of human existence. Human existence properly understood is creaturely existence that grows into deeper union with God. Humanity was created for relationship and union with God. Humanity was created to participate in the life of the Triune God. Consequently, the salvation effected by Christ is of a progressive nature. In other words, followers of Jesus are to progress in the Christian life ever approaching God-likeness. Williams states, “Salvation is to be realized in growth, and not to grow is to fall away.”3 Human experience, as properly defined by Jesus’ mission of salvation, is characterized by spiritual growth. Christian spirituality, is necessarily inclusive of human experience, which is human experience of divine salvation effected by Jesus.

Williams uses Augustine of Hippo to explain how Christian spirituality is inclusive of the finite human situation. As finite beings, humans are not objectively in control of their reality. Williams notes, “Human reality is acted upon at least as much as acting.”4 As finite beings, we are located in time, space, relationships, proclivities, and aptitudes that are not necessarily of our own choosing. We do not choose to exist, nor do we exert control over our lives in an autonomous, objective, or linear fashion. Rather, we come to exist in the middle of narratives that are much larger than our individual lives. We are born and mature in the midst of familial, socio-cultural, and theological narratives. Augustine is perhaps the first great theologian to grasp the significance of our personal narratives in our experience of the transcendent God. Williams explains, Augustine “confronts and accepts the unpalatable truth that rationality is not the most important factor in human experience, that the human subject is a point in a vast structure of forces whose operation is tantalizingly obscure to reason.”5 Our human relationships with God and our spiritual growth are not merely about what we conceive objectively about God. Christian spirituality is as much about the heart as it is about the head. “The heart is moved, drawn, tossed about by impulse and desire, and ‘will’ has less to do with reason than with passion.”6 The Christian’s relationship with God, then, is as much, if not more, about simply being with God as it is about rational or intellectual conceptions of God.

Human experience entails emotions, relationships, and desire as much as rationality. The spectrum of human experience is not an encumbrance to relationship with the divine. Human embodiment is not an impediment to the God who is spirit. Williams says, “Human beings are naturally passionate, vulnerable, mobile, and if their humanity is to be saved it must be without loss of all this.”7 We are saved in and through our human experience. We meet God and grow into his image and likeness in and through our human experience. “Thus the confidence of the believer never rests upon either his intellectual grasp or his intellectual control of his experience, but on the fidelity of the heart’s longing to what has been revealed as the only finally satisfying object of its desire.”8 Our confidence rests not in our knowledge of God but in our faithfulness to desire and love God above all else. Prayer is the language of the heart, and it is by communing with God regularly in prayer that we ensure the fidelity of our desire for God.

In the work of St. John of the Cross, Williams demonstrates how embodied knowledge and desire draw us deeper into a participatory relationship with God and eventually draw us into union with God. Embodied knowledge distinct from pure reason is to know in a holistic and experiential way rather than in a merely intellectual way. Union with God is not an escape from our creatureliness or human experience, but preserves every aspect of human existence thought by Augustine to be saved in Christ, yet now existing in a transformed and higher way. John of the Cross teaches us that human knowledge and love must be transformed and reordered. Williams explains, “To be determined by knowledge and love of creatures, to have that as the decisive reality of one’s inner life, is to be able to know and love God.”9 Our inner lives are shaped by what we know and what we love. “Knowledge unifies; knowledge is participation, in which the knower is molded to take the form of what is known.”10 Knowledge unites us with God when our knowledge is shaped by prayer and permeates every aspect of our human experience.

For John of the Cross, the knowledge gained in prayer is not “rare mystical trances, visions or ecstasies, but the sense of being drawn into a central magnetic area of obscurity.”11 In other words, we know God when we cease to know by human means. We know God when we know that it is more important that we are known by God. St. John of the Cross refers to this knowing as illumination. Williams describes illumination saying, “Illumination is the running-out of language and thought, the compulsion exercised by a reality drastically and totally beyond the reach of our conceptual apparatus.”12 Thus, illumination is apophatic by nature. However, neither St. John of the Cross nor Williams intend for growth in union with God to render our human experience of God’s creation meaningless. Rather, “Illumination is an entry into that ‘contradiction’ at the heart of Christian belief represented by Jesus on the cross.”13 Illumination is experience of the infinite God becoming a finite human in the person of Jesus Christ so as to unite the totality of human experience eternally with the life of the Trinity. The apophatic moment of illumination does not abolish the world, but so transforms who we are that we receive ourselves and all of creation again, but now as a gift born out of the excessiveness of God’s love. We receive ourselves and all of creation as a gift of God which directly participates in the being of the divine.

Therefore, Christian spirituality is not about an escape from the material-physical world, nor is it about an escape from our finitude. The Christian spiritual life is about growing towards union with God in such a way that the totality of human experience is transformed, saved, and of eternal significance. Rowan Williams tells the history of Christian spirituality as the story of individual Christian lives being redeemed and brought into deeper and fuller relationship with God in and through prayer. The New Testament assures us that we are saved in our particularity. God entered the world in Christ not to save humanity in abstract terms, but to offer individual Christians relationship with God mediated by the Church. Augustine of Hippo brilliantly describes salvation in a way that is inclusive of all human experience. And, St. John of the Cross explains how we in our humanity are brought into the life of the Trinity. Christian spirituality, then, is about how God meets us in our humanity, and transforms “humanity” into a category capable of cooperating and participating in the divine life of the Trinity.

  1. Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publication, 1991), 12.
  2. Ibid., 17.
  3. Ibid., 19.
  4. Ibid., 83.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 84.
  9. Ibid., 175.
  10. Ibid., 176.
  11. Ibid., 181.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.

Introducing Modernity and the Secular, A Theological Narrative

One of my early childhood memories is of an afternoon spent fishing with my father at a small lake in a park. Actually, I do not remember much about the fishing trip (and whether we caught any fish isn’t the point!), but what I do recall, most vividly, is the thought that occurred to me while I cast my fishing line into the water.

What if this is a mere dream? What if my dreams are reality and what I take to be my reality is only my dreams?”

At my young age of six or seven years, I was not able to cope with my own thought, nor was any adult I confronted interested in pondering the concept of reality. However, some years later I now have many more books than fishing poles, and I want to revisit these questions.

Questions about reality, and our existence (or even non-existence) within reality are parts of a much larger theological story. That is the story of “Modernity” and the “Secular.” You may be suspicious that I would label these concepts as theological. Or, perhaps, you are now thinking, “Only a theologian would claim the history of the last seven hundred years is theological.” Yet, that is exactly my claim (and the claim of many others). The terms “Modernity” and the “Secular” have a genealogy that originates in the theology of the late middle ages. Now, before I explain, I need to first define a few concepts and terms.

Before the advent of Modernity, there was a Medieval Renaissance, which is now often referred to as part of the “lost world,” also known as the “classical world.” Thomas Aquinas lived during the twilight of the lost world, and provides what is arguably the best example of the classical synthesis. For Aquinas, the world was an ordered whole created by God that was permeated with God’s truth. In other words, being, beauty, and truth were real universal concepts present in humanity and the world, and these concepts had meaning because of God. God was not merely the cause of creation, but, for Aquinas, God was intimately and actively involved in the existence and creativity of creation itself. God gave order to His creation continuously. Aquinas presented reality as paradoxical harmony of God as present in every aspect of life, and humanity as truly free beings when they participate in God and, thereby, the reality of creation of which they themselves are part of the ordered whole.

When Thomas Aquinas died in 1274, the reality that he described as an ordered whole created by God was displaced by wars, plagues, and schisms. The combination of the Hundred Years War between the rulers of England and France, the Black Death, and the Great Schism between the Avignon and Roman Papacies shook the conceptual foundations of the classical world. In the midst of this chaos arose the concepts of nominalism and voluntarism as well as the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.

Nominalism is a philosophical and theological framework that has dominated Northern Europe and, later, the whole of Western Civilization even until today. William of Ockham is generally regarded as the founder of nominalism and has had a lasting impact on western philosophy and theology. Nominalism, simply put, is the idea that universals cannot be found in the particulars of existence. According to nominalism, universals are merely names that we give things out of convenience and nothing more. Thus, there is no universal concept of being, beauty, or truth.

Voluntarism is closely related to nominalism, and is the result of a nominalist philosophy and theology. Voluntarism describes an emphasis on God’s sovereignty and power concerning efficient causality. Whereas, in the time leading up to and including Aquinas, God was understood in terms of the attributes of his wisdom and love, voluntarism conceptualized God as the primary efficient cause. An efficient cause is the cause of an effect distinguished from material, formal, or final causes. Aquinas had described God as a primary cause with reference to these four kinds of causality in the context of a genuinely humble and apophatic theology, yet with the advent of nominalist and voluntarist modes of thinking, causality was reduced to efficient causality. Thus, God was reduced to the first and primary all powerful (via voluntarism) cause of a universe that need not cohere into an ordered reality (via nominalism).

Nominalism took hold of Northern Europe, and by the time of Martin Luther was the dominant thought paradigm. Luther was, himself, trained at the University of Erfurt, which was thoroughly of the nominalist persuasion. So, it is no surprise that the theology of the Reformation is also nominalist and voluntarist in nature. For instance, imputed righteousness has no reality in the particular individual, and is only theoretically real in the mind of God (nominalism). And, the Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty and predestination (voluntarism).

I contend that the turn away from the classical synthesis, and the advent of nominalism and voluntarism set the conditions for Modernity and the Modern Secular Age. The Reformation provided the occasion for the emerging nation state to create public space that either controlled the voice of the church or silenced it. Thus, a nominalist-voluntarist-reformed theology directly contributes to the both Modernity and the Modern Secular Age.

So, what does this theological narrative have to do with dreams and reality? Imagine you are in the midst of a cold winter, the only instance of relief from a long war spanning about thirty years. Imagine your entire world is turned on its head; you are Roman Catholic, but the Church’s authority is subject to criticism and speculation. You find yourself sitting in a warm room, an escape from the blistering cold outside. Then, warm and cozy, you begin to think about the nature of reality. Who can you trust? What can you trust? Because you are a nominalist you know that the real does not exist in the particulars of this world. Thus, you feel free to doubt the actual real existence of the room in which you sit. Perhaps it is all a dream. In other words, imagine you are Rene Descartes. The cogito ergo sum is often thought to be a summary description of the philosophical and theological revolution taking place in the 17th century, but it did not originate with Descartes. Instead, it had a long theological genealogy dating back to the 14th century. If Descartes is the Father of Modernity, then he is the heir of a nominalist and voluntarist theology.

If you have read my theological narrative of the origins of Modernity and the Modern Secular Age, then you have read what I hope will serve as an introduction to a planned conversation between Paul Axton and myself. In a series of podcasts, we will explore the origins of Modernity and the Modern Secular Age by discussion of the work of Charles Taylor and John Milbank. And, we will discuss theological responses to modernity in Catholic theology and Radical Orthodoxy. I hope I have piqued your interest, and that you will enter this engaging theological conversation with us.


Simpson, Christopher Ben. Modern Christian Theology. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Milbank, John. Beyond the Secular Order. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2013.

The Non-Violent Epistemological Premise of the Declaration and Address

Are the churches of the Stone Campbell Movement peace churches? A survey of the modern reality of the Stone Campbell Movement’s position on the issues of pacifism, violence, the state would answer, no. However, many of the founders of the movement were pacifists, and at times wrote and preached about Christian pacifism. Barton Warren Stone, Alexander Campbell, Raccoon John Smith, and Benjamin Franklin were all advocates of Christian pacifism, and yet the Stone Campbell Movement does not bear the marks of these early leaders teaching on peace. If many early leaders of the movement were pacifist, then why did the loose association of churches they ministered in not become peace churches? Is there any remaining evidence of the pacifistic heritage in the Stone Campbell Movement? Continue reading “The Non-Violent Epistemological Premise of the Declaration and Address”

Theology, Community, and Friendship

Christian theology is a dialogue through the ages among mostly friends and sometimes enemies. However, the best and longest lasting theological perspectives were among friends. Would we have the works of Irenaeus, and dare I say the canon, if not for his friend and mentor Polycarp? How would we understand the Trinity apart from the friendship of Gregory Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea? Of course, there are great antagonistic relationships in Church history as well. Augustine and Pelagius come to mind. However, Augustine was not at his best arguing with Pelagius, and perhaps he was at his worst. Thus, in my opinion, it is a fact of history that theology is best suited for friendly and critical discussion. 

Continue reading “Theology, Community, and Friendship”