Today I would like to share a guest post with you from my friend Jesse Hake. Jesse works as a curriculum developer for Classical Academic Press in Harrisburg, PA. Before that, he served for seven years at Logos Academy in York, PA as academic dean and principal. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have three children, Nessa, Tobias and Tabitha. Jesse has taught college courses in history, philosophy, and ethics as well as upper-school history, literature, and rhetoric. He grew up in Taiwan as the oldest of nine children. He has a BA from Geneva College in history as well as an MLitt in history from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. You can find his work at Copious Flowers.
As far as I can recall, there is only one belief that the theologian David Bentley Hart has joked about needing to add into the Christian creeds: “To be honest, I’m afraid that, right now, belief in fairies has got to be part of orthodoxy. It’s got to go right in the creed.” This was in a chat with David Armstrong where Hart also describes belief in fairies as something “worth devoting yourself to” and begs others to join him in “militantly resisting” any form of Christianity that fails to believe in fairies.
In another place, Hart writes that “of course mermaids exist” or, a little more precisely, “of course water spirits and magical marine beings of every kind are real and numerous and, in certain circumstances, somewhat dangerous” and that “there is a real moral imperative in not dismissing” tales of mermaids “as lies or delusions.”
Finally, in a essay earlier this year on his Leaves in the Wind newsletter, Hart wrote that “our proper habitat is an enchanted world, charged with mana or filled with fairies or kami, where we can always find places of encounter with immortal (or at least longaevous) powers; and in the absence of those numinous or genial presences we feel abandoned, and very much alone.” Why does Hart insist that Christians need to take the belief in such creatures so seriously?
I would be as dumb as a doornail to speculate, but I suspect that Hart is incensed by the loneliness of contemporary life, by our increasing isolation from nature, and by the thought that it was Christianity itself that gave rise to our sterile and alienated contemporary world over the course of a long and bitter story.
Hart is aware, obviously, that there are many instances within Christian history of those who did not see Jesus Christ as being at odds with fairies and nature spirits and such. However, the story of conflict does begin early and grow loud. Writing around 335, Athanasius of Alexandria dismissed all nature spirits who were associated with sacred trees or springs as simply “demons” who used cheap tricks to “deceive men’s minds.”
However, writing less than a century earlier, Origen had insisted on the opposite conclusion. He wrote that “the water springs in fountains, and refreshes the earth with running streams” and that “the air is kept pure, and supports the life of those who breathe it, only in consequence of the agency and control of certain beings whom we may call invisible husbandmen and guardians; but we deny that those invisible agents are demons.”
In the same city of Alexandria, the leading Christian teachers went from calling Dryads and Naiads the “invisible husbandmen and guardians” of nature and specifically denying that they could be demons to saying that these same creatures were nothing but deceivers and demons who craved power over humans.
Certainly, the later antagonism of Athanasius would be predominant in the rest of Christian history, but there are many exceptions. Many Celtic Christians would, of course, have recognized and loved this understanding of dryads, naiads, and all other such creatures as the “invisible husbandmen and guardians” of God’s creation. (Justin wrote about this HERE)
We might also point to Robert Kirk (1644 to 1692) who was a minister, Gaelic scholar, and folklorist best known for writing The Secret Commonwealth in defense of fairy folklore and second sight as believed by the people of the Scottish Highlands who were under his spiritual care. Kirk was clearly going against the prevailing attitudes of his own church with this book defending the experiences and beliefs of uneducated rustics.
Whatever might have been the ups and downs of the Christian relationship to the various spirits and presences who share our world in one sense or another, all of this was entirely done away with when the Enlightenment discovered that a tightly focused empirical methodology could grant us an unprecedented level of control over nature.
Christianity, in certain varieties, had created the conditions for its own broad destruction and the destruction of life in general. Modern science was born of both a commendable love for creation as well as some distorted visions of creation as a realm ripe for conquest and raw resources. Without time to dwell on a complex history, the point is that, as modern science demonstrated its methodological genius, it quickly became a de facto metaphysics as well.
Only that which could be quantified and measured by means of our five senses was real. Intangible qualities of being as well as any concepts of affection or even intentionality became irrelevant to the tasks of measurement, modeling, and prediction that could yield seemingly endless fruits. When this was combined with our sense that we were, psychologically speaking, essentially products of our wills, it made us nothing but machines of production and consumption.
God was as irrelevant as our own spirit, soul, heart, or capacity to see the integrated or holistic nature of anything. We became machines that existed, psychologically speaking, by means of our capacity to choose between various options. Our world became either inert raw materials for our own satisfaction or a pristine place for us to flee from the brutal cycle of work and consumption to a vacation (a no place) that might allow our energies and appetites to reassert themselves.
This mechanical and psychological understanding of ourselves has given way today to a computational model mixed with some psychology. With all of this, we have entirely forgotten that any other spirits might have shared our world or that everything we touch and feel and see with our fleshly bodies is an icon of an even more alive, substantial, and spiritually embodied creation. We can now calculate our way to the production and consumption of both material and digital products that allow us to destroy the earth even more quickly in our rush to develop ever more specialized cultures of distraction from the world.
It no longer does us much good to have five senses that can provide our contemplative intellect (our nous) with the means of seeing God’s life reflected and participated with at every turn, but this requires a quiet receptiveness that can synthesize all of our physical senses into a unified perception of the eternity within every being and the uncreated light that animates every creature.
Sergius Bulgakov writes that “time is real because it has eternity itself as its content.” For Hart, this is also a matter of our eschatology: “All things living are spirit and can be glorified in God,” and “there is definitely a transcendental orientation to the Good in every blade of grass, or it could not live” (because, after all, grass “may lack a deliberative will, but ideally so will we one day”).
If we follow the thread of fire or light at the heart of all created things, we find rich material. Maximus the Confessor writes, “the unspeakable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things, as in the bush, is the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of His beauty inside every thing—a shining forth, an epiphany, of the mysterious depths of being.”
The Irish philosopher and Bishop of Cloyne, George Berkeley, said that the “visible light and splendor [of Christ’s transfiguration] was, not many centuries ago, maintained by the Greek church, to have been divine, and uncreated, and the very glory of God” so that “this fire seems the source of all the operations in nature.” In fact, “were it not for this, the whole would be one great stupid inanimate mass,” but “this active element is supposed to be everywhere, and always present, imparting different degrees of life, heat, and motion, to the various animals, vegetables, and other natural productions, as well as to the elements themselves, wherein they are produced and nourished.” (Justin wrote about this HERE)
With an extended vision of awareness to this living light in his novel Lilith, George MacDonald writes of how one character experienced a time when “every heather-bush, every small shrub, every blade of grass was perfectly visible—either by light that went out from it, as fire from the bush Moses saw in the desert, or by light that went out of our eyes.” The narrator continues that “the world and my being, its life and mine, were one” so that “the microcosm and macrocosm were at length atoned, at length in harmony” and “I lived in everything; everything entered and lived in me.” In this condition, “to be aware of a thing, was to know its life at once and mine, to know whence we came, and where we were at home—was to know that we are all what we are, because Another is what he is!” Finally, the narrator says that “to everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel” so that “I was a peaceful ocean upon which the ground-swell of a living joy was continually lifting new waves; yet was the joy ever the same joy, the eternal joy, with tens of thousands of changing forms.”
On the theme of a world created and sustained out of light, we might also spend time with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who proclaims that “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame” and that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
In sad contrast to this understanding, all things have been sadly reduced to inert matter and all persons to deracinated centers of will. We are cut off from every strand of telos and awe that once tied our hearts to the cosmos with all the life and flow of an umbilical cord. In our sad situation, perhaps it is the countless kami and fairies of numerous folk tales who can, more effectively than any other reality, restore creation to us as a divine gift.
In our estrangement and impoverishment from our own world, we are fools not to seek out these conduits of wonder and revelation. We should hold in reverence every distant story of the countless spirits who once gambled and threatened from all the wild edges of human life, showing us realities about creation and ourselves that we so easily become too preoccupied to see. Before humanity placed the commodification of all reality into a cycle of exponential growth in niche distractions, the fairies were our best teachers and sharpened our recognition of the real and the false, the good and the evil, the beautiful and the ugly. Now that we can hardly recognize anything around us as alive, we need their instruction more than ever.
With a renewed devotion to ancient and foreign accounts of fairies, we might again glimpse light, glory, and beauty in the form of other modes of love and life that are both alien to our own and yet capable of illuminating for us what is always right before our eyes.
In closing, all that I am really saying is that we should take long walks, alone and with our loved ones. We should read all of the old stories with open hearts and minds, and we should pray that we might know the depths of eternity and endless forms of life in which every moment immerses us.
Stories, poems, and regular long walks are best, of course, and the best resources are abundant once you begin to look. However, a very few of the many didactic or prosaic texts that can be resources include Noel Moules (shared before by New Eden Ministry and with a wonderful podcast interview here on Nomad); The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by Robert Kirk; Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age by Richard Beck; The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible by Robin A. Parry; The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity by Marshall Sahlins; “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation” published in 2016 within A Small Porch by Wendell Berry. Several essays by David Bentley Hart and the philosopher Stephen R.L. Clark.
Even if we never find them again, the search for the longaevous powers surrounding us might at least slow us down and restore some part of a lost world back to us. Mostly wonderfully, if we are steady in this across generations, it might even give us the ability to discover Christianity again as a reality in which every spirit and power in every realm has a right and vital place within the household of God.
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