Wisdom’s Fire, Radiant and Unfading. Part VII-1

Wisdom’s Fire, Radiant and Unfading. Part VII-1 November 8, 2010

Part VI

From self-love, we have gone down the path of godless pride,
Seeking to make the world in our image as if we were god.
So, quaking in fear, from the divine eye we try to hide,
Expecting, as divine retribution, a strike of the disciplinary rod.

The world is, and yet it is not as it should be;
From the fall of one comes the fall of many:
And what is meant to be, we do not see
Because evil corrupts us all from our infancy.

It has been difficult throughout the ages for philosophers and theologians alike to explain evil. Where did it come from? Who committed the first sin? What effects did this and other sins have on creation? While we have been given clues so as to have some way we can answer these questions, it seems as if we have not been given enough information to conclusively respond to them. We must make due with what we do know from revelation or what we can best discern from reason (knowing full well the limitations of said reason). We have been told that human sin has had a profound impact on creation.[1] It appears that human sin was encouraged by some non-human source (with the serpent in the garden representing this in the book of Genesis).[2] We discern from this that, before our fall, there was another fall, for who else would try to lead us to sin but another sinner?[3]

In dealing with the question of evil, we must understand the difference between ontological priority with historical priority. While there are good reasons to think that ontological priority would be reflected in history, this is not necessarily the case. Historical events, when they affect the order of being, become transcendent in their nature; the past can be influenced by the future just as much as the future can be affected by the past. The relationships between time and space, as Einstein has shown, are complex relationships, and time is in many respects, a relative aspect of space. Scripture hints at this when it looks to the ontological priority of Jesus’ death on the cross as it affects creation: Jesus is the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.[4] Though Jesus’ death clearly takes place in history, it is also a transcendent event. The fall, because of its ontological value, would appear to also be such a transcendent event, and as such, it could happen late in history while affecting all of it.

We can find two major sources of sin in the world, and understand that both of them have had major effects on the great chain of being, leading to the “fall of creation.” These sins affect not only those who have sinned, but the whole of the great chain of being. Sin perverts, not just those who sin, but those around them; the response to sin has often been more sin, greater sin, worse sin, than the sin which preceded it. The first major source of earthly sin lies in the angelic, or spiritual realm, the second lies with us, with humanity, with the myth of Adam and Eve exemplifying the universal impact of human sin.[5]

The fall of Satan and other angelic spirits clearly have had a major influence on world history.[6] Scripture says that it is “through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it” (Wis. 2:24 RSV). While we can know of their existence, it is important to realize how much and how little we know about such demonic powers. They find themselves coming from an important position on the chain of being. Being pure spirits, they have the powers and abilities of spirits. Satan’s fall is generally understood as coming out of his self-loving pride, out of his arrogance. What exactly this pride was, we do not know. Some have speculated it was because of the greatness of his spiritual being, he did not want to bow before humanity.[7] In this tradition, because he resided in a greater level of the chain of being, he thought he was better than humanity and could not accept the central place God has given to humanity in his divine economy.[8] We find this idea in the hymns of St Romanos the Melodist.[9]

While we do not have to believe this version of Satan’s fall, we should acknowledge its wide-ranging influence and realize that there is something in the story worthy of our consideration. It reminds us as to why humility, and the willingness to serve others, even those who we consider our inferior, is not to be neglected: Satan’s downfall was his inability to serve, while Jesus, God incarnate, showed us the way of holiness is of servitude: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 RSV). And, though it predates the debates over icons, it is clear that it points to the solution which the iconophiles would hold onto: iconoclasts are in error because they are unwilling to venerate the image of God. Even if we do accept the veracity of this story, we can understand that his rebellion against God was, in part, also a protest by Satan against humanity. Satan stands against humanity with envy and hate, not just in Scripture, but in tradition as well. And it is because of his pride, because he thought so greatly of himself, that he was willing to blaspheme, to attempt to manipulate creation so as to become a god unto himself:

The devil sets himself up as a counterpart in order to dislodge God from his creation, rendering it indifferent to the divine presence, and thus he effects a gigantic substitution. Disdainfully proud, he says: “I, and no one else,” “A god am I.”[10]

Whether it is in his lack of humility, or if it were some other act of pride, Satan in the end chose to follow himself and his desires instead of seeking to follow what he knew was to be good. He put himself above all others, above the common good, leading to his presumption to go against God. He was great, but like all narcissists, he did not understand fully his greatness, and so became much less than what he was capable of being. Still, this leads us to ask, if Satan is so great, why would he sin? Would he not know the result? In trying to explain why Satan (and the rest of the demonic host) fell, St. Anselm gives us a rather complex answer. First, he points out that though they knew that they would deserve punishment, they did not know the consequences of their action.[11] They decided it was worth the risk to do as they would do. But why? Anselm explores this by saying on the one hand, it is because they had not been given the grace to hold fast and follow God, but on the other hand, it is because they did not accept that grace:

So I say that the devil did not will what he should have willed when he should have willed it, not because he lacked the will (and lacked it becomes God did not give it to him), but because, willing what he ought not to have willed, he drove out the good will when the bad will supervened. Therefore God did not give him the good will to persevere, and he did not receive it, not because God did not give it, but on the contrary, God did not give it because he gave up willing what he should have willed, by abandoning and not retaining it.[12]

However, St. Anselm still understands that there is a paradox involved with Satan’s fall – that it was, in a way, without reason. In a way, it was its own cause and effect:

S. Why does he abandon it?

T. When I say that by willing what he ought not he abandons it, I show openly why and how he abandons it. He abandons it because he wills what he ought not to will, and in this way it is by willing what he ought not that he abandons it.

S. Why does he will what he ought not?

T. No cause precedes this except that he can will.

S. And he wills because he can?

T. No. Because the good angel could will similarly yet does not. No one wills what he can will because he can, without some other cause, although if he is unable to will he never does.

S. Why then does he will?

T. Only because he wills. For this will has no other cause by which it is forced or attracted, but it was its own efficient cause, so to speak, as well as its own effect.[13]

This, once again, points to the question of cause and effect, of transcendent ontological events, and how they often lead to a paradox. In the end, the issue is of free will, and the ability to either open oneself up to or close oneself up to that grace. The choice to sin must, in some sense, be seen as “causeless,” as Bulgakov points out:

Freedom is without cause. It determines itself on the basis of itself. In this sense, the original sin associated with the fall of the angels is, as a work of freedom, without cause and irrational. It is not subject to any rational explanation. Furthermore, it is irrational and antirational, self-willful and arbitrary. But such precisely is creaturely freedom. Creaturely freedom not only conforms to the law in the sense of freely agreeing with the objective law of creaturely being, in its sophianicity, in God. But it also arbitrary, rebellious, insane. The potential capacity not only for good (i.e, for conformity with objective law) but also for evil (i.e., arbitrariness and caprice) is the privilegium odiosum of creation in its original untested state.[14]

Satan’s will was activated in time, but was based upon an ontological decision by Satan;  that ontological decision was known by God, and God allowed Satan (and all other sinners) the freedom to act upon their ontological decisions in time. But it is also because Satan willed in time to reject the grace needed for perseverance, a grace given to other angels, it was not even offered to Satan. That grace was only offered after the temporal trial of the angels had been given, and those who made a decision for themselves against God had shown their decision to the rest of creation. All were given a good will, and obeyed it until the time of their trial. In eternity, this disobedience and activity was known, and the creation of the world in time reflected this, so that the temporal reality was, in part, created as a result of the ontological decision of Satan and his followers. And from this, the demonic powers, which were given power and authority over matter, revealed that power and authority in the history of creation:  much of the destructive qualities of nature are, in part, the result of their fall.

Our world was put under the governance of angels. Not only were nations, such as the nation of Israel, put under their guidance,[15] but it would seem much of nature was also guided by such angelic powers.[16] Different angels were made to help guide and direct different aspects of nature – even the fallen angels. When they fell, while their authority might come under dispute, they continued to have the power to influence what they once had under their authority. This explains the dark shadow of nature, the terrible and destructive qualities which we often see associated with nature.  This also explains why the Church believed that such demonic control could be, and should be, put under control, through the powers of prayer, the sacraments, and the sacramentals.[17] In this way, Christianity has helped temper nature and to allow it to be studied and controlled by humanity – not that such control is final, nor absolute, because the demonic powers remain and seek to take back that which they once controlled (and human sin allows this to happen).

Because of their place in the chain of being, spiritual beings are capable of manipulating and influencing physical realities. Though we might not normally think of it in this way, if we explore the situation further, this should not be entirely surprising. Marsilio Ficino offers many observations on the issue of matter, what it is, and how it is to be moved. Through what he says, we should be able to understand why a spiritual being, like an angel or a demon, can have some power over the material world.[18] Thus, when we observe any physical body, we should understand that it cannot be self moving:

According to Plato, body is made up of matter and of quantity. It is characteristic of matter only to be extended in space and affected by action; and extension and being affected are passive conditions. But quantity is nothing but the extension of matter; or, if it is anything else, it is such that it is always subject to division even as it subjects matter to an unending sequence of experiences and has no affect on any other matter than its own. It follows from all this that body in itself does not act but solely is acted upon.[19]

The great chain of being also presents to us the reason why matter is something which is to be moved by a subject outside of itself; matter is purely objective, and incapable of self-movement; rather it is entirely capable of being moved by another:

We can grasp the same point in the following way. What is first in nature, that is, God, acts on everything but is never acted upon. So what is last, that is, corporeal matter [or body], has to be acted upon by everything. It can never act on anything else of itself, for nothing exists below it which could be the subject of its action. And if the highest unity, being infinite, there exists an infinite power of acting, then in infinite plurality there exists no power of acting at all but rather an infinite capacity for being acted upon.[20]

Now, matter if it is capable of being acted upon, is capable of being acted upon by something outside of itself; the higher up one is on the great chain of being, the more capability one has to act, and therefore, the higher one is up on the chain of being the more influence one can have over matter. Of course, how that influence is felt depends upon how directly the subject finds itself in relation to its object; subjects, such as ourselves, who are both matter and spirit, find themselves more directly connected to the material realm, and therefore, have a more direct influence over matter. Others will also have a strong influence on matter, but it will be according to their spiritual qualities, qualities which then unite them to aspects of the material world. That is, as Ficino points out, concentrated quality, which must be incorporeal, nonetheless will have considerable influence on matter which participates in that quality. After pointing out that quality cannot be said to be body, because two qualities can be found together, while two bodies cannot,[21] Ficino points out how action is achieved through quality: “Action pertains to quality, especially when quality is concentrated. So quality is not body; and when it is concentrated in a single point, it becomes totally incorporeal. Hence the activity of bodies does not arise from matter, but from the power of an incorporeal nature.”[22] Quality itself is further seen as being moved by an incorporeal subject, something which helps keep them together, making sure what is established remains:

Therefore over and above all these quality forms, there must be a certain incorporeal substance [or form] present in ruling over all objects; and this penetrates the bodies, and the corporeal qualities are its instruments. For how else would individual qualities, which are by nature unstable and without order, preserve a stable order in the succession of generation, unless ruled by a stable order of a higher cause.[23]

While we might not know all of them, because it is likely that there are far more spiritual species than we can count,[24] nonetheless, their existence helps explain the kind of forces which we see influencing the created order of being. When such forces come from fallen entities, this will negatively affect the created order. Though their negativity might have been put into check by the work of the Church in history, increase in human sin will allow their influence to return, worse than ever before:

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, `I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.  Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. So shall it be also with this evil generation (Matt. 12:43-45 RSV).

Because of their high placement in the chain of being, combined with the interdependent reality of that great chain of being, fallen spirits have an effect on all which lie underneath them in the chain of being. Again, we must not say their effects need always be direct; some of it will be quite indirect, but even their indirect influence can have tremendous effects on world history. J.R.R. Tolkien in his creation story as told in The Silmarillion shows us a way we can understand this. “There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.”[25] The Ainur, Tolkien’s angels, produced a great and beautiful musical composition together; Ilúvatar, God, had given them the ability to explore their own talents and to increase them, so that they could share in Ilúvatar’s creativity. They were led to sing, to produce wondrous harmonies of music in front of Ilúvatar. The music was of a beauty without compare. But there arose one among the Ainur who wanted to take control of the music: Melkor. “But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”[26] Melkor’s theme initially brought discord into the music; some were unable to continue to sing, while others started to join in with Melkor and disrupt the angelic music. Ilúvatar was to show himself superior, as to being able to take what Melkor had done to the music and to integrate it into something greater.

Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty. But the discord of Melkor arose in uproar and contended with it, and again there was a war of sound more violent than before, until many of the Ainur were dismayed and sang no longer, and Melkor had the mastery. Then again Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that is countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others.[27]

Tolkien then tells us what the music was about, and what it had produced: Ilúvatar allowed the Ainur to offer their talent and creativity in the formation of the world, and their song, including the chaos of Melkor and his followers, was reflected in the creation of the world:

But when they were come into the Void, Ilúvatar said to them: ‘Behold Your Music!’ And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it. And as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew. And when the Ainur had gazed for a while and were silent, Ilúvatar said again: ‘Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added. And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.’[28]

What we find in the story might, in a sense, seem to contradict traditional Christian sensibilities: God created the world, and did it without the need of the angels. This, of course, is correct. Creation came from God, but God has given the subjects of creation the ability to mold and shape it, to be sub-creators. While subcreators, like Melkor, might try to divert creation, and to take it over, God remains in control and is capable of taking what is done and use it for some further, greater good. Although an evil will seeks to go against God’s plan, we must remember, God is not going to be overcome; rather, God will take what is willed, and show the good contained in it can still be used for his glory – as Tolkien has Ilúvatar explain to Melkor:

And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.[29]

This, of course, is in accord with traditional understanding of evil, where no pure evil can exist, and what exists, therefore, has a good within it that shall be able to be used by The Good for its good ends. Thus, Pseudo-Dionysius proclaimed: “Whatever is, is from the Good, is good and desires the beautiful and the Good, by desiring to exist, to live, and to think. They are called evil because of the deprivation, the abandonment, the rejection of the virtues which are appropriate to them.”[30] For Dionysius, their powers remain, but they act contrary to themselves, to their nature, in mindless, irrational actions; because their powers were meant a rational and superior end, what they do can be said to be evil. But it also shows why they are able to continue to influence, and therefore, hinder, creation – with such great power being misused, the history of creation will demonstrate this misuse; their evil will be the source of a great amount of suffering in time.[31]


[1] For anyone who doubts that humanity can have a significant impact on the environment, all they have to do is read Genesis. Here we are told that what was once a kind of paradise turned against us, became hostile to us, once we sinned.

[2] We do not have to take the book of Genesis as literal history, but we must accept that it is telling us something about humanity and our theological position in the world. For this reason, while one might ask a question as to the nature of the serpent, whether or not it was Satan or an instrument of Satan, such questions move us away from the point of the story itself: humanity was given a special place in creation, and we were diverted from it by some demonic force.

[3] Some, to be sure, might suggest that the temptation given to humanity might not have been done by a sinner, but someone sent by God to test humanity. This, however, seems to suggest God would have had some part in human sin, which would run contrary to the divine nature.

[4] Cf. Rev. 13:8 and 1 Peter 1:18-20.

[5] That is, just as the fall in the angelic realm of existence has helped lead to the human fall, the human fall continues the downward decline of the great chain of being, and others beneath us are therefore capable, in their own way, of choosing to act against their own innate good and to sin.

[6] We will leave aside the question of how we would go about describing angelic beings and whether or not fallen angels should be understood as “persons.” It is assumed that they are. Acknowledging the difficulty such a position entails, and the insights of contemporary scholars who question their existence, nonetheless I find their existence is understandable and understandable as fallen persons. One can say they are moving towards becoming an impersonal, unbending force, and that the corruption of sin leads to such depersonalization, not just to angelic beings, but to all who sin, and this is an insight we better appreciate after studying contemporary questions over their existence.

[7] While apocryphal, and not authoritative, we can find this being stated in The Life of Adam and Eve, which reflects what some in the ancient world thought about the fall of the devil. In chapters 14 – 16, the devil explains why he is angered with Adam and Eve:

“And Michael went out and called all the angels, saying, ‘Worship the image of the Lord God, as the Lord God has instructed.’ And Michael himself worshiped first, and called me and said, ‘Worship the image of God, Yahweh.’ And I answered, ‘I do not worship Adam.’ And when Michael kept forcing me to worship him, I said to him, ‘Why do you compel me? I will not worship one inferior and subsequent to me. I am prior to him in creation; before he was made, I was already made. He ought to worship me.’

When they heard this, other angels who were under me refused to worship him. And Michael asserted, ‘Worship the image of God. But if now you will not worship, the Lord God will be wrathful to you.’ And I said, ‘If he be wrathful with me, I will set my throne above the stars of heaven and will be like the Most High.”

And the Lord God was angry with me and sent me and my angels out from our glory; and because of you, we were expelled into this world from our dwellings and have been cast onto the earth.”

“Life of Adam and Eve,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.Volume 2. ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 262.

[8] This is also taught within the Islamic tradition. Without being able to explain why God would have Satan bow before humanity, Islam shows that Satan was put into a quandary: he knew God rejected idolatry but also he knew he was to obey the commands of God. So when God told him to bow before Adam, he had to figure out which command he was to obey. His resolution was to disobey God by not humbling himself and bowing before Adam. Al-Hallaj believed that Satan’s fall came out of his deep love for God and the divine nature, that his fall represents the greatest love in creation – he was willing to suffer the fires of hell so as not to bow to anyone but God. Of course, Christians who followed through with this speculation believed that God ordered Satan to bow before Adam because of the incarnation, and Satan did not obey because he was jealous that the incarnation would take place in humanity. In this way, he wanted to be like God, and was upset that humanity, through the incarnation, would achieve his desire. It is therefore a devilish irony that led him to lead humanity into sin through a perversion of God’s intentions: to convince humanity to try to make itself like God all by itself, thereby denying the grace of God which was needed in order to truly experience theosis.

[9] See J. Grosdidier de Matons, Romanos le Mélode, Hymnes. Introduction, texte critique et notes (Paris: Source Chrétiennes, 1967), 528.

[10] Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life. trans. Sister Gertrude, S.P. Rev. trans. Michael Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 90.

[11] See St. Anselm of Canterbury, “On the Fall of the Devil” in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. ed. Brian Davies and Gillian Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998),226-8.

[12] St. Anselm of Canterbury, “On the Fall of the Devil,” 201.

[13] ibid., 231-2. S means student, T means teacher.

[14] Sergius Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb, 153-4.

[15] In the book of Daniel, for example, we are shown such angels as holding principalities over different nations, with the archangel Michael as holding authority over the people of Israel.  cf. Daniel 10:13; 10:21; 12:1.

[16] “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12 RSV). Paul is understood by many to be talking about those demonic principles which, due to their hate and envy, seek as harm.

[17] Thus, Christ’s baptism was seen to dispel demonic powers in the waters of Jordan, a process which is redone in the creation of holy water.

[18] Of course, as spiritual beings ourselves, we already see that there is a power of spirit over matter, though in us, we control matter in a way which pure spirits would not be, because we find ourselves intimately united to the material realm.

[19] Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology: Volume I, 21.

[20] ibid., 23.

[21] See ibid., 27.

[22]ibid., 27.

[23] ibid., 37.

[24] “The varieties of bodiless powers is as great as that existing among the peoples of the visible world, indeed much greater,” Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology Vol. 2. trans. Ioan Ionita and Robert Barringer (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2000), 119.

[25] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977), 15.

[26] ibid., 16.

[27] ibid., 16.

[28] Ibid., 17.

[29] Ibid. 17.

[30] Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Divine Names” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 91. Dionysius explains further this evil: “Or again, what is this evil in them? It is unreasoning anger, mindless desire, headlong fancy, and yet qualities of this sort, even if they are to be found among the demons, are not totally, completely, and innately evil,” ibid., 91.

[31] Nonetheless, we must remember that in the eschaton, the Good will be able to take it all together and produce some wonderful, and glorious from what is accomplished in history.

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