In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers
By Mario Baghos, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College and University of Sydney
Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tariq Modood on the Crisis of European Secularism (28 May 2012).
Drawing on my own research and interdisciplinary interests, the following response to Professor Tariq Modood’s podcast entitled ‘The Crisis of European Secularism’ will consist in a summary of his main thesis, followed by a statement of the challenge I seek to address, namely the anthropocentrism inherent in (some forms of) contemporary secularism; particularly its neglect of religion/God and the cosmos. This will be followed by an etymological analysis of the word ‘secular,’ which is analogous with the age/aeon, especially as it was envisaged by the Cappadocian fathers of the early Church, Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian (or, ‘Nazianzus’). It is hoped that their holistic vision of the age, one in which God and the cosmos were in fact included, can inspire further reflection on the way we experience our ‘age.’
Summary, and Addressing the ‘Crisis’
David Robertson’s insightful interview with Professor Tariq Modood unfolds within the parameters of a very pertinent debate, namely, the relationship between secular nations or states and religious institutions; where secularism, in a broad sense, has to do with separation of these two spheres. Professor Modood distinguishes between three types of secularism that, historically, have conditioned the relationship between governments and religious establishments since the Enlightenment. These can be described as ‘soft,’ ‘strict,’ and ‘moderate,’ the latter implying that organised religion and political authority can be partners, albeit in a limited sense (i.e. whilst retaining their mutual autonomy). According to him, it is the ‘strict’ form of secularism – an outcome of the French concept of laïcité – that is unfortunately prevailing in British society at a time when a new religious pluralism is beginning to emerge with immigration by Muslim minorities. Indeed, Professor Modood is genuinely concerned with positing a framework (i.e. through moderate secularism), where British authorities and Muslim clerics can work together without compromising the secularism of the former and the religious convictions/way of life of the latter. Whilst appreciating the significance of Modood’s presentation, I am reluctant to comment on it further, insofar as I do not feel sufficiently equipped with the knowledge pertaining to the secular policies of our modern governments, nor the intricacies of immigration. However, Modood’s nuanced description of various secularisms does offer the opportunity to engage the ‘crisis’ in relation to my own research interests; for whilst the professor has pertinently observed their implications for the relationship between politics and religious/ethnic minorities, I will be presupposing that the general mentality (or, metanarrative) behind secularism can be both anthropocentric and reductionist, insofar as its promotion of a-religiosity (on a political level) and preoccupation for the interests of human beings precludes an appreciation for the ways in which the ‘age’ has been interpreted by ancient and traditional societies, wherein God and the cosmos were intimately bound with the human endeavour or history. As pretexts for this anthropocentrism, the increasing neglect of God and religion in public affairs (the latter pointed to by Modood with reference to the ‘strict’ model), Mircea Eliade’s characterisation of modern ‘man’ [or, people] as only existing “insofar as he makes himself, within history [i.e. apart from cosmos]” (2005: xxiii), as well as the scientifically proven and very obvious degradation to the planet since the Industrial Revolution in the name of our own progress, will have to suffice for such a short piece. But before moving forward I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Modood for drawing my attention to some very important and sensitive issues, apart from which I would have remained rather ignorant.
Scope and Definitions
As mentioned, I intend to begin with an etymological analysis. Presupposing that words or definitions are indicative of the mentalities that produce them, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum, wherefrom the word ‘secular’ is derived. I am aware of the difficulties inherent in undertaking an etymological analysis without extensively considering the different ways in which the notion of secularism and its cognates (such as ‘secularisation,’ ‘secularity’) have been employed across a range of interpretive disciplines (the history of religion, the sociology of religion, the field of geo-politics, to name a few). Nevertheless, having recently explored the historical development and use of some of these definitions as set out both in Modood’s presentation and in the works of N. J. Demerath and Judith Fox, I believe that my approach is legitimated by etymological analyses of the words ‘culture’ (Demerath 2007: 71) and ‘secular’ (Fox 2005: 292) undertaken by the latter in order to demonstrate their respective theses. Of particular relevance is Fox’s demonstration that the derivation of this term, coming from “the same etymological root (L. saeculum) as the French word siecle, meaning ‘century’ or ‘age,’” is also evident in “the astronomical use of the word secular to talk about processes of change over long periods of time” (Fox: 292). Perhaps unintentionally hinting at the longue durée of the Annales school of historiography (Le Goff 1992: xxi-xxii), this astronomical definition is important, for it can be interpreted as pointing to a relationship between the Latin saeculum and the Greek aeon (αἰῶν); the latter being a more flexible term which can mean either a long period of time or eternity depending on the context. To this end, the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, included in my title, is the Vulgate translation of the New Testament phrase “into the ages of ages” (εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων/eis toūs aiōnas tōn aiōnōn) which is commonly mistranslated as the eternity of God, but in fact relates to a doxological (and hence, existential) appraisal of his sovereign presence and providential activity throughout both the present age and the eschatological ages to come (Cf. Gal 1:5, Eph 3:21, Phil 4:20, 1 Tim 1:17, 2 Tim 4:18, Heb 13:21, 1 Pet 4:11, Rev 1:18, 4:9, 10, 5:13, 7:12, 11:15, 22:5). Usually preceded by an invocation of the Holy Trinity, this doxological phrase commonly prefigured many prayers and hymns of the Christianity of the late antique and medieval periods, resounding today in its major branches, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. So, as my title suggests, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum as a long period of time (here to be understood as the duration of the cosmos), evoking the existential dimension of the Christian tradition with its antecedents in the scriptures and exemplified in material which is of immediate relevance to (and an outcome of) my own research, namely, the writings of the fourth century Cappadocian fathers Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. I will show that their conception of the age or aeon is one in which God and the cosmos are included, which, I will argue, stands in stark contradistinction to our anthropocentric and reductionist interpretations of secularism.
The Cappadocians on the Age/Aeon
The Basilian concept of the ‘age’ is associated with two other aspects of his thinking, namely, his exegetical approach to the scriptures – more particularly Genesis (i.e. protology) – and his eschatological vision; where the eschaton, the ‘last things’ of the historical continuum traditionally described as “Christ’s final judgment of humanity, the resurrection of the dead and the final ‘transformation of the cosmos’” (Baghos: 2010: 86) were envisaged as anticipated in the here and now in an ecclesial context. Concerning the former, which is expounded at length in his Hexaēmeron (or, Homilies on the Six Days of Creation), he notes that scripture [i.e. Gen 1:5] “calls the first day of creation ‘one day’ – ἡμέρα μία [heméra mía] – instead of the ‘first’ – πρώτη ἡμέρα [prótē heméra] – in a succession of days” (Baghos: 89). The Cappadocian allegorically interprets this ‘one’ day (heméra mía) as symbolising a totality that recapitulates within itself all of creation history from beginning to end as metaphorically represented by the creation narrative. He does this by suggesting that the very structure of the week of Genesis, which is paradigmatic for the duration of time we experience (i.e. all subsequent ‘weeks’), constitutes an image or approximation of eternity in its cyclical rotation. Hence, both the ‘one’ day and its consecutive ‘reiterations’ point to the aforementioned recapitulation of history which he also describes as the age/aeon (αἰῶν), which does not simply refer to the human endeavour undertaken for its own sake; but to the origin, rhythms and purpose of the entire created cosmos, consisting of both the “heavenly and earthly, human and biological, astronomical and mineral” (Costache 2010: 22), which he elucidates throughout the treatise. So, for this traditional thinker, there could be no separation between the notion of the age and the cosmic purpose that contained within itself the human endeavour (Costache: 23), thereby leaving no room for the sort of anthropocentrism characterising contemporary secularism(s). St Basil also refers to “the ages of ages” mentioned in the scriptures (see above), stating that, since they are not enumerated in a sequence (as the six days of creation in Genesis) they do not refer to ‘ages.’ Instead, they pertain to “differences of conditions and of various circumstances” (Hexaēmeron 2.8, at 35. PG 29, 49D-52A) that pertain to this very age designated by the ‘one’ day, the age or aeon, and also the ‘eighth day’ that occurs outside the week of time and hence our temporal experience. Days ‘one’ and ‘eight,’ inhering within the same aeon, not only point to the inextricable relationship between protology and eschatology in the saint’s thinking, but also to the fact that those aspects relating to the ‘last things’ mentioned above can be experienced in any epoch, thereby prefiguring the profoundly existential already/not yet of the eschaton put forward by contemporary scholarship; that although God’s kingdom has ‘already’ been established in the Church (with the advent of Christ), it is ‘not yet’ consummated – and won’t be until the second coming (Baghos: 85). In his On the Holy Spirit, St Basil highlights this ecclesial dimension by affirming that days ‘one’ and ‘eight’ coincide on a Sunday, which in Greek is literally the ‘Lord’s day’ – or Κυριακή (Kyriakē) – the principal day on which the Eucharistic liturgy was and still is celebrated (Baghos: 85). Herein lies the existential significance of the age for this Church father. For him, the ecclesial rhythms, but especially the liturgy, recapitulate God’s providential activity throughout the entire age understood cosmically; what has happened, is happening, and will happen is summed up within the Sunday, the ‘one’ day of creation, through which believers are able to have an immediate foretaste of the ‘eighth’ day, i.e. the eschatological life to come.
St Gregory the Theologian’s vision of the age/aeon is as holistic as that of his friend and peer, St Basil. At the beginning of the twenty-fifth chapter of his Fifth Theological Oration, he states that “there have been two transformations of life manifested out of the entire age [τοῦ παντὸς αἰῶνος/toū pantōs aiōnos]” (Fifth Theological Oration 25, at 136. PG 36, 160D). I have written elsewhere that this all-encompassing approach, resonating with Basil’s conception of the age, “attempts to give a comprehensive account of the historical drama and the persons and events that it includes” (Baghos 2011: 24). In other words, the Cappadocian’s perception was akin to what we today call a metanarrative, which, he went on to affirm, unfolded between the two covenants of the Old and New Testaments, which he also described as “earthquakes” marking two important existential changes in disposition of God’s people; from the pagan idols to the Mosaic Law, and from the Law to the Christian Gospel (Baghos: 24-25). For the Theologian, these two changes were analogously marked by the disclosure of God as Trinity; the first covenant proclaimed the Father, the second the Son, whilst also giving believers “a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead” (Fifth Theological Oration, 26, at 137; PG 36, 161C) before his revelation to the apostles and the ecclesial community. Here, we encounter a conception of the age/aeon that far from being interpreted anthropocentrically, is instead concerned with God’s self-disclosure that unfolds in stages proportionate to the capacity of human beings to receive it (Baghos 2011: 29). That this self-disclosure is again profoundly existential is exemplified by the saint’s insistence that the Spirit dwelt within the apostles, and his understanding of the eschatological experience as constituting the “third and final earthquake that will translate the cosmos into an unshaken, unmoved mode of being” (Baghos 2011: 31). And it is precisely here that the cosmic dimension of Gregory’s vision of the age is exhibited; for this eschatological rumination, when compared intertextually with chapters 11-13 of his Oration 38, denotes that whilst the historical continuum moves from one ‘covenantal earthquake’ to the next, it is in fact marked on either end (i.e. alpha and omega) by the Demiurge Logos (i.e. Christ), who, in his pre-incarnate existence created the spiritual and material worlds (Baghos: 30-31). For Gregory it is to this same Logos, now incarnate as Christ Jesus, towards which history, and hence the age, is oriented; thereby precluding the anthropocentric model in light of the inevitable teleological encounter of the universe and all it contains with God the Son.
In an environment where secularism is often interpreted as a prerogative in human self-governance and even our perception and experience of the world, it is perhaps intriguing – if not often disquieting – to be confronted with how representative figures from other epochs, usually considered more religious than our own, viewed their own age and all it contained. Whilst there are many forms of secularism, such as those pointed out by professor Modood in his podcast, what I have been concerned with in this piece is to offer an alternative, holistic vision of the concept of the age/aeon based on the writings of two figures from fourth century Christianity. Whilst some might decry this diachronic, and in fact interdisciplinary approach, I am finding that it has become a staple of my own research, insofar as I am genuinely convinced that the religious perceptions and mentalities from any context can offer insights into contemporary situations, not the least secularism. In the beginning of this response I mentioned the fact that secularism can be, in a general sense, characterised by an anthropocentrism that is manifested in a neglect of God and religion in public affairs, as well as an a-cosmicism that has had an immediate effect on our environment. I then undertook an etymological analysis of the term ‘secular,’ in order to legitimate its use with reference to the age or aeon. This led me to a brief exploration of the conception of the ‘age’ in two representative figures of early Christianity, namely the Cappadocians Basil and Gregory. In the former, I identified the relationship between the age and the cosmic rhythms, outlining their existential dimension that is facilitated by the Eucharistic liturgy, wherein the entire salvific economy (or, God’s presence in the age) is anticipated with a foretaste of the future eschaton. In the latter, I observed a metanarrational vision of history (or the age) whereby God gradually discloses himself through the ‘covenantal earthquakes’; a vision which is not without its cosmic significance insofar as the age is marked by Christ’s presence on either end as creator and consummator. That the vision of these two saints is not without contemporary relevance is testified by their veneration, especially amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians, who moreover continue to refer to them with epithets established by tradition (‘the Great,’ ‘Theologian’) and to celebrate liturgies ostensibly written by them. It is perhaps worth pondering the ramifications of secularism on these Christians, both as it increases in popularity in their native countries and as they migrate abroad. As a final note, in focusing on these specifically Christian figures I did not mean to preclude the perception and experience of other religious traditions. On the contrary, it is hoped that their holistic perception and experience of the ‘age’ as one in which God and the cosmos are included will provide a meaningful alternative to our modern experience of it as interpreted from the viewpoint of various secularisms, which I have posited can be anthropocentric, and hence reductionist, in nature.
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About the Author:
Mario Baghos is Associate Lecturer in Patristic Studies and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Redfern, Sydney. He is a PhD candidate in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. His research interests include the city of Constantinople, patristic eschatology, and the history of religions and mentalities.
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