In yonder nether world

April 10, 2011

This past week in Torrey we have been discussing Milton’s Paradise Lost…we spend 9 hours on this one—more than any other book this semester. Since I read most of the book in one long sitting, I was able to enter into the story a lot more than I expected. But geez louise! The fall of man is a complex and confusing story. I think it always has been…last semester we must have read a dozen different theological takes on what the first sin really was, and I’ve also read more than a few skeptics mocking the story of the “magic apple.”

I am beginning to understand both of those responses. Sometimes I want desperately to explain the fall, to fit it into a nice formulaic equation, and sometimes I want to write it off as a fairy tale (although I’m not sure even fairy tales are safe to write off). While reading Milton, I simply tried to enter into the fall—and that’s what made my reading experience so rich.

I was especially struck by the empathy I felt for Adam and Eve. They have always been such archetypal characters in my mind, and Milton really emphasized their humanity. When an angel called Raphael comes to escort them out of Eden forever, Adam asks the angel a simple question: “In yonder nether world where shall I seek His bright appearances, or footstep trace?”(11:328-329) He doesn’t ask why he and Eve must leave, but how they are to find God outside of Eden. Raphael replies,

“… Surmise not then

His presence to these narrow bounds confined

Of Paradise or Eden…

Doubt not but in valley and in plane,

God is as here, and will be found alike

Present.”(11:40-42,49-51)

Paradise Lost reminds me that Earth is not Eden, and that God can be found in unexpected places. It is easy for me to confuse the presence of God with the feeling of security or comfort, but this is wrong. God is not confined to the secure and comfortable places.

And as German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, God is not confined to human weakness either:

“Religious people speak of God … either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure—always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weakness but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness.”

(P.S. This is from a collection of Bonhoeffer’s letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge.  Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his blatant opposition to Nazism, and was executed just weeks before the Nazi’s were defeated. We read a few of his letters in Vision, Voice & Practice this week, and though they were never edited or written for any audience other than his friend, they were beautiful.)

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