The patriarch Jacob once slept out in the wilderness and awoke to find himself in a vision. He saw a giant Ladder coming out of the heavens, a bridge to Earth, upon which many angelic beings were ascending and descending. Jesus connects himself to this image by saying, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”. I think this is a clear image of Jesus’ mediation, that He stands between the Heavens and the Earth as their only King, their Maker and Sustainer.
Now why do I bring this up? Well, I discovered recently a German theologian by the name of Wolfhart Pannenberg. I find the history of ideas interesting from an academic, outsider’s point of view. It is fascinating to see how people’s thoughts have changed over critical times or very brilliant and influential thinkers. However, I put my weight more on history than the philosophy itself. I’m practitioner of Common Sense and growing in my acceptance that Humanity is earth-born. That is to say, we do not have wings to rise up to a spiritual world beyond to figure out the truth of things.
I say all of that, in regards to my first sentence, because Pannenberg was one, from what little I’ve understood of his thought, who would agree. He eschewed both Barth and Bultmann because the former transcendentalized history which, it could be argued, moved it beyond human perception and the latter threw history into an existential blender, leaving a cocktail of mythology for the human concern. Pannenberg wanted to take Scripture, and thus any revelation, in terms of its placement in history. That is to say, it happened to humans in real time and needed to be talked about as such.
Pannenberg made a distinction between two kinds of Christologies. One was from above and one was from below. The former presupposes certain doctrines of God, his Triune identity, and then begins to ask questions about the Incarnation. Those who adhere to it will puzzle over things such as: “How did the eternal Son of God enter into time?”, “How did the Infinite God become Finite in Man?” or “How could the Invisible Word ever be seen?”. The latter does not presuppose such things, but starts with the man Jesus of Nazareth. From there one begins to ask questions concerning how this Rabbi, this Prophet, this Messiah even, how is he, as Nicene puts it, True God from True God?
Now this all goes back to a particular question that has been stuck in the craw of Western philosophy for thousands of years: how does the universal relate to the particular? Or in other words, how does invisible heavenly things reach down into the here and now? How do we understand this? There’s a great painting by Rafael called “The School of Athens” where all sorts of philosophers are all at work. Front and center are Plato and Aristotle. Plato has his finger lifted up, pointing above, as he argued that man has to perceive the heavenly Forms to make sense of the material things that draw upon them. Aristotle has his hand facing downwards, for Aristotle believed man has to start with what he can observe with his senses to understand anything heavenly.
Placed in a Christian context, this battle continued to rage throughout the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and on and on and on. Of course, besides just trying to figure out the world, the question underneath all of this is how all of this applies to God? Just asking that makes me a little sick because it makes YHWH, the unseeable, the timeless, boundless in whom all things dwell and are held together, a mere thing in a collection. Yet instead of turning apophatic, only saying what God is not, I’m going to circle around Jesus. However let me get there first.
Now I have problems with both Plato and Aristotle, both make some interesting insights, but both horribly wrong. Plato says we can approach divine things with our minds, our own little divine sparks, and then from there we understand the world around us. Now let it be said, before we get to Plato’s bastards, that the man was a student of Pythagoras and the Egyptian astrologers. Pythagoras taught the transcendent divinity of numbers and the Astrologers probably taught him something of a respect for cosmological order. Now project the heavy ethical focus of Socrates above, and instead of numbers we get divine ideals of Justice, Beauty, and, ultimately, Good.
But what have we gone and done? Has anyone ever agreed what these are, besides nice sounding talking points? Plato’s children have run wild with trying to dissect what these mean, and ultimately they’re all working from a bed of straw for a foundation. Some have shrouded Platonic methods in mysteries, the Neo-Platonists of the 3rd and 4th centuries creating cultic rituals to engage in. However the blinding light of human reality, the life of bodies, makes short work of all the speculating, because that’s all that it is. Plato’s thought stands or falls on his teaching of Recollection, or that humans do not learn new things, but since the soul is eternal, know all things already and merely must remember them. Without this, we’re adrift in an ocean of concocted metaphysics.
Aristotle on the other hand says that from things around us we can gather enough information to project upwards into the heavens and get a grasp on what the divine is like. The best leftover of this sort of thought is that the ultimate god is the Unmoved Mover or the Uncaused Cause. Since everything is in motion, internally or externally, and everything in motion is set in motion by something else, there must be one that set it all off in an eternal beginning. Same argument in terms of cause, every cause is caused by something, so there must be an uncaused cause going all the way back.
Well ok, so say some, we atleast established the Creator? That’s good right? It’s really quite worthless because we haven’t said anything worth saying. We’ve even supposed that we can understand the Cosmos, as we are, and that we can describe something substantive or personal about its Maker. We don’t know if that Maker is a faceless non-being Multiverse or a Cthulu-esque uncaring, indifferent slumbering horror. However, unlike Plato, Aristotle actually has grounds to speak about something. Why? Because it can be tested by our eyes and touch. We can assess claims this way, and while the mind, the soul, is immaterial it operates within the bounds of the material.
Yet, again, what can this possibly say about what is from On High? Nothing, and that’s a very a hopeful truth. Why? Shouldn’t we thus despair? Perhaps, and so it makes sense that mankind has placed its own face, or the face of animals or things, upon that scary black morass. At this point, while we’re stumbling around in the dark with Plato and looking at our shoes with Aristotle, Jesus of Nazareth enters the scene.
See, Pannenberg’s point was that we have to start with the man Jesus, where else can we go? If there is a god, then we better damn hope he/she/it/them come(s) looking for us. Jesus reveals the glory of Heaven, the majesty of his Father, in himself and never more fully then when he hangs upon the cross. In him, we see the face of God, we see that he is love, and can do nothing more than to shout with the centurion, “This man was indeed a son of god!”
Finally I return to the beginning because Jesus is that Ladder from Heaven and thus, starting with him, we can truly see who God is. We can say, with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of God”. We can see the Triune: that in the Son, who has a Father who sent him, is the Spirit who anoints him. We can ascend and descend that ladder to see our God from On High who comes down to meet us, and we can see the Man, our High Priest, bringing us upward to meet the divine Host with its King at the very center.
Empires the world over, since the very beginning, have tried both approaches. Perhaps they reached up to Heaven to assure that they are slated for destiny’s approval and an eventual resurgence as long as they stick to the plan. They have taken hold of what the ultimate Good is and plan to carry it out. Or maybe they look down at their own riches and read it back in the Cosmos. The god/gods really must be for us, like us in our values, and supporting all of our endeavors.Otherwise, why would our empire be so large, our treasury so full and pleasure so abundant?
America has done both over the centuries. From our puny imperial standing, with a beckoning call of Manifest Destiny, to our now Hegemonic role in the world where the American Century ought to have no end.
Some grandiose preachers said, in centuries past, America has a handle of the mandate of heaven, that the principle of Christianity (for it’s always been in that veneer) has a place with us and therefore American will span the Earth in influence. After World War 2, where America stood as one of two super-powers, or after the fall of the Soviet Union, where it was alone, other new preachers have looked at the wealth and projected it upwards. It has been argued that the god of Americana supports our democracy, our freedoms, our grandma’s apple pie, because otherwise things would not be the way they are. Some have argued that what America represents is the end of history, the telos of man.
Let Jesus shatter all our molds. Let us forsake all our attempts to steal into the heavens and let the Man of Heaven tell us about it. Let us circle around the Son of Man as he both reveals and is the revelation from On High. For in Jesus is the mystery of both Heaven and Earth, the Kingdom of God. Let that Rabbi from Nazareth fill in our very life with life abundant. In Jesus we can see from Heaven down and from Earth up. He is the treasure trove of God’s wisdom. Amen.