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Found In The Cosmos

What's in a word? A fresh New Testament translation raises the question fruitfully

Allow me to be metaphysical for a bit. I am reading theologian David Bentley Hart’s just-published translation of The New Testament. In his First Things review, Father Paul Mankowski says:

It is a truism that those who know the Bible only through translations are cut off from a good deal of what is communicated in the original texts. It is also widely recognized that translations made over-familiar by liturgical or personal repetition tend to steer the mind of the reader down habitual paths and for that reason insulate him from what is terrible or perplexing in the text. Hart acknowledges this, but he also makes a point more rarely considered: that scholars accustomed to reading biblical documents in the original languages—especially those who believe they have “gotten a feel” for the voice of the ancient author—likewise glide over much that is ambiguous and problematic, and that it isn’t until one is forced to translate, that is, to reformulate the familiar phrases using the equipment of another language, that the difficulties announce themselves with full impact. Says Hart:

To translate a text is to be conducted into its mysteries in a way that no mere act of reading—however conscientious or frequent—makes possible. At the very least, the translator is obliged to confront the words on the page not merely as meanings to be received, but as problems to be solved; and this demands an attention to detail for which most of us never quite have the time.

The problems Hart refers to are of two sorts: places where we know what the Greek says but find English (or whatever the receptor language may be) inadequate in conveying the meanings, and places where the meaning (or text) of the Greek is itself in doubt. In addition, many readers have doctrinal or theological commitments that in effect cut them off from readings that the original texts permit, and sometimes compel.

Hart is well aware that few scholars will applaud all his decisions, and admits his preference for choosing the “unfamiliar or more baffling interpretation” because it is unsettling—and because it is sometimes more accurate. Even those of us convinced that the Holy Spirit is the author of Sacred Scripture are rarely attentive to how many purely human anticipatory choices, based on purely human prudence, are involved in deciding for each particular verse which text, which grammatical and syntactical analysis, and which translational rendering best reflect the sacred author—and thus end up on the printed page of our English Bibles. Inasmuch as one goal of Hart’s eccentric formulations is to make us rethink the validity of the accepted ones, he provides a useful service even where we judge him wrong, in pushing us back to the original texts to assess the plausibility of the rival claims. If, after considering the evidence, we decide the conventional expression remains superior to Hart’s alternative, our preference is no longer a sentimental loyalty, but a choice more alive to the ambiguities of the original.

One thing that leaps out at the reader is Hart’s decision to use the original koinē Greek word “cosmos” instead of “world.” Here’s John 3:16-19, in Hart’s translation:

For God sent the Son into the cosmos not that he might pass judgment on the cosmos, but that the cosmos might be saved through him. Whoever has faith in him is not judged; whoever has not had faith has already been judged because he has not had faith in the name of the only son of God. And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the cosmos, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were wicked.

Try 1 John 2:15-16:

Do not love the cosmos or the things within the cosmos. If anyone love the cosmos, the love of the Father is not within him; Because all that is in the cosmos — the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vainglory of living — is not from the Father, but from the cosmos.

In his essay accompanying the translation, Hart offers his rationale for why he made certain choices. About using “cosmos” instead of “world,” he writes:

But, while there are instances in the text where the world functions as an equivalent of oikoumenē, the inhabited world of human beings, it more frequently means the whole of the created order, the heavens no less than the earth. It certainly carries this latter meaning in some crucial and occasionally unsettling ways in many verses in John’s Gospel, Paul’s letters, and elsewhere. It is good, for example, to be reminded that in the New Testament, and in Paul’s theology in particular, both slavery to death in sin and final liberation from death in divine glory are described as cosmic — not merely human — realities, taking in the whole of creation. Moreover, the word “world” as we use it today simply does not capture what is most essential to the ancient concept of “cosmos,” a word that most literally means “order” or “arrangement” or even “loveliness of design.” For us, the “world” is either merely the physical reality of nature and society “out there,” or it is the human sphere with all its attendant moral and historical contingencies. For the late antique cultures from which the New Testament came, the “cosmos” was quite literally a magnificently and terribly elaborate order of reality that comprehended nature (understood as a rational integrity organized by metaphysical principles), the essential principles of the natural and animal human condition (flesh and soul, for instance, with all their miseries), the spiritual world (including the hierarchies of the “divine,” the angelic, and the daemonic), the astral and planetary heavens (understood as a changeless realm at once physical and spiritual), as well s social, political, and religious structures of authority and power (including the governments of human beings, angels, celestial “daemons,” gods, terrestrial demons, and whatever other mysterious forces might be hiding behind nature’s visible forms). It is a vision of the whole of things that is utterly unlike any with which most of us are today familiar, and that simply does not correspond to any meaning of “world” intuitively obvious to us. For the author of 1 Peter or of 1 John, for instance, to tell his readers to have nothing to do with the “cosmos” is to say something far more comprehensive, imponderable, and astonishing than that they should avoid vice and materialist longings, or that they should withdraw from society. It seemed better to me to risk oddity of expression than to risk losing sight of these truths.

I can’t stop thinking about the implications in this for Christian belief. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, as Hart also is, this is not exactly new information. But somehow, seeing it in familiar passages in the New Testament jarred something in me. Just seeing that word — cosmos — where I expected to see world compelled me to take more seriously the radicalism of the Christian claim. When Jesus says, in John 16:33, “In the cosmos you have suffering, but take heart — I have conquered the cosmos” — that strikes one as a far more radical concept than we are used to. Jesus is saying that he has become master of the entire created order, that by his death and resurrection he has transcended it and brought it unto subjugation. Note that he is speaking here of all things, including the natural world. Historian Robert Louis Wilken points out that the pagan philosopher Celsus, writing in the second century, well understood the profound implications of the Incarnation. Celsus said that if the Infinite became finite, it would upset the entire cosmic order. (This is a claim we hear again, 1,800 years later, from the mouth of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit: “Jesus thrown everything off balance.”)

What does it mean for Jesus to have come into this world to save “the cosmos”? Cosmos is not a synonym for “universe,” because a cosmos is a phenomenon that is diverse but fundamentally unified and ordered by the Logos (here is a good, clear explanation of what this meant to early Christians). The word “cosmos” implies not simply individual souls, everything that exists. That means that nothing that exists can be taken for granted, because God so loved the cosmos that He sent His son into the cosmos to save it. Think of it: God so loved even the rivers and the grass and the animals that He sent His son to save them too — not “save” in the sense that humans are saved, but saved in the sense of being perfected, of being redeemed, or being restored to full participation in the divine life, as God intended. The beginning of the process of cosmic redemption occurred in the Resurrection. St. Ambrose, writing in the fourth century, proclaimed a truth that is still recognized in Orthodox Christianity: “When Christ arose, the earth itself arose.” (People who mock Pope Francis’s “environmental” encyclical Laudato si ought to realize that they are mocking Christian tradition going back to the early church.) When Jesus tells his followers in John: 16:33 not to be afraid, for “I have conquered the cosmos” (Hart’s translation), he is saying that the cosmic victory has already been won, and that we are simply living out its meaning in time — a meaning that will only be fully realized at the end of Time, according to Christian eschatology.

What would it mean to be “in the cosmos, but not of it”? How can we be outside the cosmos, given that the cosmos is the entire created order? The answer is that the more we conform ourselves to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and allow ourselves to be possessed by the Holy Spirit, the greater the share we have in his victory over the cosmic. In a 2003 essay, Hart gives us the answer to the question I pose. In the piece, he says that in our post-Christian culture, we need to work much harder to observe the First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” I’ve boldfaced the words below that answer my question:

Moreover, we need to recognize, in the light of this history, that this commandment is a hard discipline: it destroys, it breaks in order to bind; like a cautery, it wounds in order to heal; and now, in order to heal the damage it has in part inflicted, it must be applied again. In practical terms, I suspect that this means that Christians must make an ever more concerted effort to recall and recover the wisdom and centrality of the ascetic tradition. It takes formidable faith and devotion to resist the evils of one’s age, and it is to the history of Christian asceticism—especially, perhaps, the apophthegms of the Desert Fathers—that all Christians, whether married or not, should turn for guidance. To have no god but the God of Christ, after all, means today that we must endure the lenten privations of what is most certainly a dark age, and strive to resist the bland solace, inane charms, brute viciousness, and dazed passivity of post-Christian culture ” all of which are so tempting precisely because they enjoin us to believe in and adore ourselves.

It means also to remain aloof from many of the moral languages of our time, which are—even at their most sentimental, tender, and tolerant—usually as decadent and egoistic as the currently most fashionable vices. It means, in short, self-abnegation, contrarianism, a willingness not only to welcome but to condemn, and a refusal of secularization as fierce as the refusal of our Christian ancestors to burn incense to the genius of the emperor. This is not an especially grim prescription, I should add: Christian asceticism is not, after all, a cruel disfigurement of the will, contaminated by the world-weariness or malice towards creation that one can justly ascribe to many other varieties of religious detachment. It is, rather, the cultivation of the pure heart and pure eye, which allows one to receive the world, and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the good gift of God. It is, so to speak, a kind of “Marian” waiting upon the Word of God and its fruitfulness. This is why it has the power to heal us of our modern derangements: because, paradoxical as it may seem to modern temperaments, Christian asceticism is the practice of love, what Maximus the Confessor calls learning to see the logos of each thing within the Logos of God, and it eventuates most properly in the grateful reverence of a Bonaventure or the lyrical ecstasy of a Thomas Traherne.

A paradox? Yes, absolutely. This is how we mortal creatures participate in the redemption of the cosmos: through loving it ascetically, which is to say, by loving it through the mediation of the One who is not of the cosmos, but who is rather the Creator and Conqueror of it.

Mind you, this is a decidedly Eastern view. As Louis Dupre has written, of an early split between Eastern and Western Christianity, “Whereas for Eastern theologians salvation meant deification (union with God), Westerners tended to view redemption as a healing of human nature.” Dupre says that after Rome’s fall in the West, the Latin Christian mind became very dark about human nature, and only began to recover a sense of God’s sacramental presence in Creation in the High Middle Ages.

Anyway, I want to focus on what it would mean to us everyday Christians if we started to think of what the New Testament says about the “world” as talking about the “cosmos.” That is, not as “society,” but as “all that exists.” How would that change our relationship to it? I think it would require that we live ascetically, in the sense Hart means above. It would teach us to see the created order not as something we submit to, but something that we struggle with, toward its ultimate redemption, and our own. It would make it clearer what the Benedictine monks mean when the talk about rightly ordering all things by and towards God. The first commandment — “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” — gets into your bones better when you think about the world as cosmos, does it not? It teaches us “to see the logos of each thing within the Logos of God,” as Hart writes. This struggle towards sight is a lifelong pilgrimage. Ultimately, what I’m trying to get at in The Benedict Option is a recovery of the cosmic vision Hart articulates — the metaphysical vision that united the Church for its first millennium. G.K. Chesterton said, “Religion is not the church a man goes to but the cosmos he lives in.” Yes.

Thoughts? I know this must be dull to non-Christian readers, but perhaps it will give you some insight into why people like me believe what we believe — and how we fall short of what we profess.



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