Albrecht Durer, Rock Study, ca. 1497, Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria
In a memorable exchange from Luke’s gospel, Jesus (as he was wont to do) rebukes the Pharisees. The jubilant events of Palm Sunday are happening. The Pharisees are scandalized and tell Jesus to make His disciples quiet down. In response, Jesus says, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
Jesus is not going to shush His disciples. It’s as if He tells the Pharisees: “I see you one pack of humans, and I raise you the whole universe.”
I have always regarded Jesus’ cryptic reply (“the stones will cry out”) as poetic license – albeit very effective and sublime. But today, as I prepare for a faculty reading group I’m in at Seattle Pacific University, I’m seeing the declaration in a new way.
If they keep quiet, the stones – the earth, the forms of things – will cry out.
We live in an age just unfolding, called the “postmodern.” The age right before ours, the “modern,” is widely marked by the following characteristics: philosophical naturalism (i.e., there is no “supernatural”); a drive toward total domination of our material environment; rapid, sophisticated technological development; impatient utopianism; the challenging or erasure of traditional lifeways and values; and fluidity (boundary-erasing), manifest across an array of domains from economics to politics to culture to personal identity.
Now, the characteristics above illustrate just one cross-section of the very complex phenomenon we call modernism. But one thing they have in common is a conviction that “modern” people – “enlightened” people who live today – have the right and responsibility to reshape Creation according to their will. This belief is anchored in the implicit philosophical naturalism that underlies every other domain of thought. If there really is no God, no providence, and no enchantment in the universe – or if God is so far away and so other that He has no relevance for day-to-day life – then it is our duty to “take over,” in a way. “Let us speak of God no longer,” we seem to say. “Let us be practical and keep quiet about the so-called divine.”
And yet, the stones cry out.
Jesus Christ, the wisest and smartest person who ever lived, meant several things every time He spoke. I think that on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus prophesied a time when humans would “keep quiet,” denying the existence of divinity itself, and at such time the stones themselves (matter, nature, Creation, today so carelessly exploited) would rise and sing its God-given dignity, pushing back against the doubts of men.
In my SPU faculty reading group, we began with the writings of Maximus the Confessor, a seventh-century prisoner of conscience who found deep theological meaning in the richness and specificity of the natural world. For Maximus, the endless forms of Creation unfurled from God and revealed God’s heart in myriad ways that, at the end of time, would be united but not dissolved together. Heaven would be a place of glittering, mind-blowing diversity.
This month, my faculty reading group is considering the work of John of Damascus, the celebrated 8th-century opponent of iconoclasm. John’s enemies wanted to destroy religious imagery because they thought the physical world (including wood, paint and stone) was lowly and undignified – unworthy as a platform for the divine. Though their worldview was intensely supernatural, it shared some characteristics with the version of “modernism” I described above. The eighth-century iconoclasts, like many modernist ideologues, thought the physical world had no intrinsic dignity, and could therefore be subject to any kind of distension or destruction human authorities deemed necessary. Their view was not only hostile to art, but it was hostile to the human in its justification of violence and oppression in the name of a sort of utopian purity.
This quarter, my faculty reading group will also be considering the work of Giovanni di Fidanza, called St. Bonaventure – a Franciscan scholar and mystic who theologized the insights of St. Francis of Assisi. The endearing St. Francis, who wrote songs about the moon and preached sermons to birds, laid the groundwork for a richly theological view of nature that found God in the littlest things, and that consequently treasured those things, in all their idiosyncrasies, all their delicacy, all their mystery, as very “icons” of a facet of God. If Francis’s (and Bonaventure’s) Franciscans approached this truth poetically and mystically, their friendly rivals the Dominicans approached it logically. Thus, the celebrated Thomas Aquinas could argue that all the diverse goods and beauties of the created universe flow from God, receive their meaning from God, and reflect the infinite richness of God – and they do this precisely in the specificity of their createdness. God’s complexity requires all such manifold expression. Created things are not mere variations on, for example, airless, generalized “Platonic forms.”
Early thinkers and mystics like Maximus, John of Damascus, Francis, Bonaventure, and Thomas give us a vocabulary for navigating, today, our rediscovery of Creation after the blinders of “modernism.” With the help of our forebears, we can see once again how the “stones cry out” – how they sing of their own dignity because they are beloved by, anchored in, desired of, and designed by God. The contemporary environmental movement is a natural efflorescence of the stones’ “song:” the self-evident dignity of Creation can no longer be ignored. The civil rights movements of the last half century also resonate with the “singing stones,” in that the integrity and preciousness of solid, specific human bodies created by God can also no longer be denied.
But there has been much wounding. There have been many gashes in the earth, many holocausts, many cataclysms, and many traumas, that make the stones’ song, at least for now, tinged with lament. It will take a long time to identify all the throbbing, trembling, aching side effects of our “modern” bendings and twistings. It will require slow and careful wisdom to distinguish the scars and scabs of self-defense from truly healthy flesh.
Yet, because they are made by God, the stones cry out, the trees cry out, and human bodies cry out – all of them unveiling their noble forms and internal dignity. Their cry also heralds a “childbirth,” as St. Paul says, yielding through pain an epiphany of new and precious Life. And in this latter age, none of them will be silent. Their time has come. We must listen to their song and join in the healing that God will bring.
Caspar David Friedrich, Gorge, 1823, Belvedere Museum, Vienna, Austria