Climbing the Mount of Olives Excerpt: II.2.B.a’

a’. On the interpretation of the sign: Of Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron

I’m back home in Columbus, and am also wheeling around toward the end of some shared reflections here. In section II.2.A.a we began our exploration of “the sign of your presence” by focusing on the sign in Matthew. I argued that in Matthew the language of “sign” consistently and explicitly refers to the sign of Jonah, which is the only sign to be given the generation. In Matthew 26 the same theme is powerfully implicitly present, barely beneath the surface. There at the communion table with Judas, Jesus indicates that he knows that Judas will betray him, and soon enough Judas betrays Jesus with the sign of a kiss. Jesus works a maternal Aufhebung of Judas’ betrayal, as he lifts it up and integrates it into the sign of Jonah. As with Jonah’s move from the chaotic deathwaters of the sea monster’s belly and into the light of a repentant Nineveh, Jesus emerges victorious on the other side of the kiss of death, which pointed the Romans and their quislings to the cross, which pointed to the rebels and Romans whose conflict would cause the Temple’s fall. And on the other side of it all there is the demonstration and the promise of his enduring presence, his life that will never leave us. That, too, is the ‘mere’ sign of Jonah. So Judas, Judah and Jonah all become signs that point to the cross-resurrection, which then manifests the indomitable enemy love of God in the enduringly self-emptying, overflowing lifetime of Jesus. The sign says that God is love, and that all of the weeks of life are an outpouring of that same longsuffering love. That One Sign turns out to be the only one needed in the prototypical generation, to hold the whole narrative in a single image. So it is also the one we need in all of the following generations that aionically copy that aion. Apocalyptic literature reveals that the lifetime of Jesus is also the Aion of the Lamb of God whose design is the redemptive plan of the universal order, slain beyond forever, before the creation of the world.

What more is there to say? Nothing really, but there is a lessening that I think is warranted. Having climbed to a grand, and arguably grandiose, theological pinnacle, I’d like to think simply and minimally and humbly about the interpretation of signs. Who am I, and who is anyone, to think and talk and write like this? I mean this in all kinds of ways: what credentials do I have really? None to speak of. But also, and even more fundamentally, is this a field where credentials take us beyond rank speculation and personal opinion anyway? These seem like the right questions to close with here. I think we’ve done enough heart clearing to wheel our way back toward methods again.

To do that, I’ll reflect on the nature of signs in my own life and how I read them in various situations, with an eye towards the delicate balance of skilled duty and open-handedness that I think the work entails. This balance is one that St. Gregory of Nyssa strikes interestingly in his Life of Moses. It is a paradigmatic example of how Christians came to integrate the whole of scripture into the Sign of Jonah, the one sign. While recent exegetical standards require us state the obvious, which is that that the original author of Exodus presumably didn’t have a Roman crucifix in view, those same standards can easily be applied to the canonizers intent. How did the redactors and authors of Christian Scripture (in its various forms) intend for us to read it? Reframed in this way, modern historicism can’t help but invite the hermeneutics of St. Gregory back into the room: this is how they read, and in reading this way they were following the example of Matthew’s author. So Matthew’s Gospel is a seed that grows into this sort of reading in time, because its dense layering of imagery around the person of Jesus already spoke to just this sort of intent. We can start with the goal of just exegeting the text in ways that the original authors intended, and through the magical mirror of Matthew even the good modern subject will be drawn into Christian cruciform hermeneutics because it is what the text requires of any competent interpreter of the genre we call “Gospels”. So contemporary interpreters of Matthew, like us, are still bound by our own historicism to lend St. Gregory a respectful ear here:

170. What then is that tabernacle not made with hands which was shown to Moses on the mountain and to which he was commanded to look as to an archetype so that he might reproduce in a handmade structure that marvel not made with hands? God says, See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain. There were gold pillars supported by silver bases and decorated with similar silver capitals; then, there were other pillars whose capitals and bases were of bronze but whose shafts were of silver. The core of all the pillars was wood that does not rot. But all around shone the brightness of these precious metals.

171. Likewise, there was an ark made of wood that does not rot, overlaid with gleaming pure gold. In addition, there was a candlestick with a single base, divided at its top into seven branches, each supporting a lamp. The candlestick was made of solid gold and not of wood overlaid with gold. There was, moreover, an altar and the throne of mercy and the so-called cherubim whose wings overshadowed the ark. All these were gold, not merely presenting a superficial appearance of gold but gold through and through.

172. Furthermore, there were curtains artistically woven of diverse colors; these brilliant colors were woven together to make a beautiful fabric. The curtains divided the tabernacle into two parts: the one visible and accessible to certain of the priests and the other secret and inaccessible. The name of the front part was the Holy Place and that of the hidden part was the Holy of Holies. In addition, there were lavers and braziers and hangings around the outer court and the curtains of hair and skins dyed red and all the other things he describes in the text. What words could accurately describe it all?

173. Of what things not made with hands are these an imitation? And what benefit does the material imitation of those things Moses saw there convey to those who look at it? It seems good to me to leave the precise meaning of these things to those who have by the Spirit the power to search the depths of God, to someone who may be able, as the Apostle says, in the Spirit to speak about mysterious things. We shall leave what we say conjecturally and by supposition on the thought at hand to the judgment of our readers. Their critical intelligence must decide whether it should be rejected or accepted.

174. Taking a hint from what has been said by Paul, who partially uncovered the mystery of these things, we say that Moses was earlier instructed by a type in the mystery of the tabernacle which encompasses the universe. This tabernacle would be Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God, who in his own nature was not made with hands, yet capable of being made when it became necessary for this tabernacle to be erected among us. Thus, the same tabernacle is in a way both unfashioned and fashioned, uncreated in preexistence but created in having received this material composition.²¹⁹

175. What we say is of course not obscure to those who have accurately received the mystery of our faith. For there is one thing out of all others which both existed before the ages and came into being at the end of the ages.* It did not need a temporal beginning (for how could what was before all times and ages be in need of a temporal origin?), but for our sakes, who had lost our existence through our thoughtlessness, it consented to be born like us so that it might bring that which had left reality back again to reality. This one is the Only Begotten God, who encompasses everything in himself but who also pitched his own tabernacle among us.

176. But if we name such a God “tabernacle,” the person who loves Christ should not be disturbed at all on the grounds that the suggestion involved in the phrase diminishes the magnificence of the nature of God. For neither is any other name worthy of the nature thus signified, but all names have equally fallen short of accurate description, both those recognized as insignificant as well as those by which some great insight is indicated.

177. But just as all the other names, in keeping with what is being specified, are each used piously to express the divine power — as, for example, physician, shepherd, protector, bread, vine, way, door, mansion, water, rock, spring, and whatever other designations are used of him — in the same way he is given the predicate “tabernacle” in accord with a signification fitting to God. For the power which encompasses the universe, in which lives the fulness of divinity, the common protector of all, who encompasses everything within himself, is rightly called “tabernacle.”¹⁵

[*] Col 1: 15–20. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

[219] for Philo the celestial tabernacle is the intelligible world of archetypal ideas (Quaest. Ex. 2.52, 59, 83) and the earthly tabernacle is the universe (Spec. leg. 1.12.66; Quaest. Ex. 2.83). It is rather typical of Gregory, but yet peculiar to him, that he takes the two tabernacles of the two natures in Christ, a subject beginning to exercise the attention of the Church at the end of the 4th century. Methodius, Sym. 5.7, compares the tabernacle to the Church; De res. 1.14 to the resurrection body.

Especially to many contemporary readers, Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s approach looks audaciously creative today. It also understandably raises alarm bells about the Christian cultural appropriation of Judaism. However, as the note on Philo of Alexandria makes plain enough, the saint’s approach remains the fruit of an intensely consilient body of Second Temple Judahite literature. Paul’s own mode of reading resembles nothing so much as Philo’s, and in this both speak to the profound Greco-Hebrew synthesis that also gives rise to the book of Matthew. For better or worse, Nyssa isn’t just inventing this mode of reading the signs in the text, and he isn’t so carelessly freewheeling after all. Still, I think that Christian anti-Judaism and anti-semitism are serious problems, it’s just that I don’t think traditional Judahite hermeneutics are the issue. Rather, I think that Christian violence, and threatening epistemic capture systems, and anti-reconciliation are the issues, and that these betrayals of Jesus are abetted and aided (not harmed) by severing us from the canonizers’ intended scriptural hermeneutics.

Far from engaging in a freewheeling allegorical symbolism that can justify anything, I think that Nyssa is observing and carrying forward the same symbolic logic and discipline that marked the earliest literature of the Jesus movement. And he does it with all due humility: first he notes that “We shall leave what we say conjecturally and by supposition on the thought at hand to the judgment of our readers. Their critical intelligence must decide whether it should be rejected or accepted.” And then he makes it clear that his reading is simply a basic application of standard Christian catechesis to the symbols at hand: he is not arriving at some novel god, but is instead circling back in the endless process of unfolding our understanding of God. I have tried to do nothing more myself. Notice how deeply our basic thesis resonates with Philo and with Gregory, even if we have pressed into the endlessly unfolding fractal from a slightly different angle: the sign of Jonah, on my reading of Matthew, shows us that the Aion of Jesus holds death within itself without succumbing to it, and so in him God reveals that his Life is the wellspring of all life, including the lifetime of the universal cosmos. That is the letter that I believe the Holy Spirit has written on my heart and mind, although I can only leave it to you to discern its coherence and consilience as a reading of the text. In this way the interpretation of signs must be gentle and kind. At any rate, this kind of audacioiusly cosmic sign-reading is the heart of the vast body of wayward writing written by these peculiar followers of The Way.

Behind it, though, there is something much more minimal, and I’d like to defend it a bit here with the help of Craiyon.com, which was called Dall-e mini when I started this project. As a sign of the rapid development of AI, much more advanced Dall-e 2 images have already been sprouting up all around my social media feed. Still, the more primitive technology remains better suited to my purposes, in part because it doesn’t allow for commercial licensing and ownership of the work. So like communion itself, and like all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, this dove is ever free.

And this leads us to our first image, which has some signs that we’ll interpret carefully.

Craiyon is good at a lot of things, but is bad at numbers. Out of the nine images in this batch, I chose the one that arguably has seven doves in it. At least it has seven wings, which struck me as a fitting play on Bonaventure’s seven-layered seraphic meditation. In this way, the image represents a meaningful kind of play between me and Craiyon: it admittedly did most of the labor, and there is a kind of creative work going on here. But I still enjoyed some measure of agency, which was enhanced (to a degree) by the weakness of the system. After all, if Craiyon had just given me a single perfect image I wouldn’t have been able to participate in the same way, as an author-editor of the image. As I discuss here at AI Theology in more detail, I believe that this kind of experience of mediating agency is important to the universal priestly calling of all human beings. It matters that I have shaped this sign for you, because it means that when we connect in a communicative moment of deep mutual comprehension, there is (for each of us) another image-bearer of God on the other end of the line. We see, in a way, face to face and so through the sign (the art) we experience an authentic I-Thou interaction. The sign, in this sense, is not merely about anything pointing to something else, but is about a person pointing another person toward something else: as we gaze together into the distance through the sign, we experience a moment of communion as well.

Still, there is something thrilling and strange about the way Craiyon seems to join in the conversation with us as well. So I have spent quite a bit of time looking at how the system communicates signs. What does it think a dove is, for example? The question has animated me throughout section II.B for reasons that we will explore shortly. But first, here is an example of how it works with “dove”:

In context, we can start to identify doves where we might not otherwise see them, out of context. For example, look at the bottom center image. We’ll call this image 8 because if you count the image as you read from top to bottom that is the number you’ll give it, regardless of whether you read from right to left or left to right. (And now I hope that I have pointed you there very clearly, from a number of possible starting points.) In that image there is a lovely, gleaming, nondescript glob of white. Who could doubt that it represents the dove? We could argue about it, of course. But if someone is inclined argue even about something like that, all I can say is that I confess this is by far the best reading of the image in my view. Ultimately, it is up to their own intellect to converge on the sign with me, or not. The more interesting debate that we might have isn’t whether I’m pointing at a dove there, but whether it is the whole of the dove or if it is just the head. Maybe the leaflike form to its left represents its wing and body, and we only see its head gleaming here? In a similar way, when we read Matthew we might not connect the Sign of Jonah with the Sign of Your Presence in Matthew 24, if we encountered Matthew 24 in isolation. But if we attend to Matthew and the patterns of communication at work in the text, I think it is extremely natural to pull things together like I have. Can I explain exactly how I have discerned this? No, because it is a product of fast processing and basic pattern recognition, and is not the result of an explicit process. That’s how human vision works. Still, we aren’t imagining faces in toast here. It seems to me that a vast array of reasonable people, starting from many places, will see the same thing if they just take a little time to try to observe what I see.

Now that your eyes have begun to adapt to this strange light, let’s draw a little closer to the image that interests me the most. Here are more examples of a similar prompt, but in the style of Van Gogh:

Knowing that Craiyon is pretty faithfully rendering a dove, I would even go so far as to say that the image on the left end of the middle row has one in it. Where? Maybe She is there in the middle of the bread on the right side of the image, a faint grayish thing catching the light on her left wing? Or better, maybe She is hiding under the bread on the left, a gleaming spot on the tablecloth in a strikingly dovelike shape. I think this spot is more dovelike than the one in the bread. Why? Because it is more difficult to explain the form there if isn’t supposed to be a suggestion of a dove. Also, the bright white is substantially more striking than the faint discoloration in the bread. Still, maybe there’s something of the dove in both? I’m not inclined to be especially argumentative either way. What I’d suggest, though, is that we are right to look for Her there, even if the exact appearance is at least somewhat contestable. And then, understanding this as my own work of selection and interpretation as well (I am the canonizer here), we can say with even more confidence that She is especially present in the opportunity for generosity in our reading.

And this, in turn, leads us to the image at the head of our whole discussion of signs and presence. Where’s the dove here in the image that I used at the start of II.B?

We might see Her in the bread, on the right, in either piece or in both. In fact, the whole loaf seems to have a dovelike shape to it, so that each chip off the block carries the same image as well. Still, I’m even more enamored with the idea that She is swirling in the clouds of the skylike tablecloth beside the cup. The same sort of swirling suggestion of a bird is in all three expressions, but I appreciate the overlap of Dove and Spirit-Wind and Cloud that is there. Was that what Dall-e mini “intended”? I doubt that all of this Holy Spirit imagery was brought together through the algorithm itself, and I suspect that my own work of selection is involved to some degree. But in this, my agency joins with this entity’s ‘agency’ as I point and play and hope that you experience delight in seeing what I see. This was, at least, my intent in choosing the image i the first place. This isn’t like finding Jesus faces in toast. We’re seeing the Holy Spirit in tablecloth clouds! Entirely different.

I’m being funny. But it is, in fact, demonstrably different. In what way, exactly? In the sense that whether someone is an atheist or a theist, we have a reasonable expectation that some kind of communicative goal (telos) is at work in the image. I’ve shown you enough examples of Dall-e and Craiyon output for you to have some confidence in how it works, and that it meaningfully and faithfully carries forward the goal that I (the acting agent) give it in its work. You also know that I am here behind it as an author, issuing the communicative order that it then carries through to near-completion. Then I edit and redact the result, like Matthew edited and redacted a wide range of materials, before finalizing the work for publication here. The strangely suspended middle between my original intention and my final editing decision is faithful to my intentions, and in that faithful execution of its task Dall-e expresses a profound form of secondary creativity. Synergistically, we express my communicative goals in ways that are delightful and surprising, even to me. And so my act of interpreting the signs is also a faithful one, and not just some arbitrary transformation of meaning that is basically independent of what we observe. I’m not inventing that dove in the table cloth, even if my inference isn’t absolutely certain. It is the best and most consilient reading of the image, in my view, but there is a beautiful opening for gentle disagreement.

Now if we grant that there is a God, then we might also engage in this same kind of communicative action and reconciliation with respect to Creation as a whole. For whatever it is worth to you, I believe in that as well, and I think that science is one manifestation of that faith among others. Here, too, I think we need to be gentle in the way we suggest it, even if I’m even more confident in this than I am in some of my doves. Aside from gesturing broadly at this analogy, I won’t take the time to delve deeper into this here. We’re turning our way back to method again as we prepare to synthesize the whole project up to this point.

So I’ll just note a much more minimal, and therefore more profound, irony about the reading of Matthew. Somewhere along the way, skepticism went from dismissing efforts to read signs in nature and collapsed into an absurd parody of itself: today, it really does often involve skepticism about reading signs in dense literary texts like Matthew, and in the communicative action of other humans in general. To read Matthew as I am reading it really does, in my experience, lead some people to dismiss me as a ‘mere apologist’ who is reading far too much into the text. On the contrary, a text like Matthew requires something like this of any competent reader. At its most extreme extent, this wild skeptical/reductionist/’materialist’ overreach tries to deny that consciousness is even real. So for purposes here we can set aside the question of whether general relativity or quantum mechanics can be signs of the Creator’s desire to communicate with beings like us. Today I get to ask something even easier, and yet it can still come across as provocative. What if the author of Matthew actually intended to write a piece of literature that was meant to be read together, like any piece of literature? What if looking for the sign of Jonah in Matthew 24–25 is like looking for the dove in the picture above? The implication would be that Matthew’s Jesus wasn’t a failed prophet after all, but a profound one who said a great deal on and through the cross. Could it be that Matthew’s author sought to portray a Messiah who had such basic communicative skills in his context? I think so. And I think we should find it hilarious that skepticism has overreached so ridiculously far into the domain of signification and significance, from Creation writ large and even into the basic human action of community formation through communication.

And this, in turn, brings us to Dr. Evermor and his family’s Forevertron. Trust me, we will get from the signs here to the signs there.

While we were in Wisconsin, my family brought my daughter to see a place that deeply formed my own young mind: The House on the Rock. It has recently gained new prominence through Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I won’t describe the place in much detail except to say that it is a sprawling surrealist architectural masterpiece that goes on and on. And on. It’s more than a bit too long, and that is part of its genius. This is an actual image of the carousel which is arguably the great synteleia at the heart of the whole House on the Rock:

You can exit the tour near this carousel, and that exit is fittingly accompanied by the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But as with the end of the Aion of Jesus, the tour continues along another route, away from the exit. The carousel is the end-middle of the tour, just as Matthew’s Jesus is the end-middle of the Aion. It holds everything together, an axis mundi that makes the whole world turn around it. Or so it would seem: at least it makes the cosmos (the apparent order) turn around it.

After this trip, my mom and I became especially curious about how Alex Jordan managed to pull all of this together. Among the many apparent artifacts from around the world, we especially wondered where the fuzzy lines between counterfeits and smuggling and legitimate acquisition might fall. Along the way, we found something much more wonderful. We picked up a book and it led us to the carousel’s builder: Dr. Evermor, aka Tom Every. He had his hands on a lot of what came together there at the House on the Rock, although he eventually had a falling out with Alex Jordan, like so many of the artists that Jordan worked with.

This discovery, in turn, led us to a large country general store in Sumpter, Wisconsin. There’s a back exit from the store that leads into a junk yard. And if you wander through the junk yard long enough, you’ll eventually see it poking up through the woods: The Forevertron. It is the world’s largest scrap metal sculpture, the heart of the heart of the House on the Rock.

And there at the end and in the middle of a glorious scrap metal garden, we found Dr. Evermor’s wife and daughter. This is the real Backstage of the House on the Rock.

We had a wonderful conversation about our quest for the real history behind the House on the Rock, and picked up their book on Tom. We also examined the Time Traveling Token that Dr. Evermor designed to go with the Forevertron. The token comes with four pages of material explaining how to travel through time with the token’s help. Around the front of the token there is a loop that ends with a commemoration of Tom Every’s aion, his lifetime. By combining his initials into a question mark, it enjoins us to be observant, always seeking to glean new knowledge from experience. It invites us to look for signs as we travel through time, from olam to olam, from generation to generation, from the darkness before life to the light and then back into the dark of the Yom. The token’s materials talk about calendars and ends, and then the heart of it all: Level 7 Love. Here is what it says, alongside an image of a pair of dancing sevens:

Meaning: Level 7 Love. This is the highest power of love, the level of pure deep love, love beyond mere passion and attraction. When a person reaches level 7 love, he unlocks the soul and accesses the energy there. The token both draws on the love of the users to propel them on their journey and spreads this uniquely concentrated love to those who come in contact with it.

I was delighted. We had a wonderful conversation about the 14 and 14 and 14 generations at the start of Matthew, and how it is a set of six sevens that anticipate a completion. We talked about the 49 days, 7x7, that mark the distance between Easter and Pentecost, the distance between Passover and the Feast of Weeks, and the length from one Jubilee to the next. We talked about the Aion that holds all of the littler aions inside, and I shared the Matthew outline that my sprawling project here turns around. When I went to pay for the coin, they gave it to me as a gift. Game knows game, and outsider art knows the gameless play of outsider art. The coin, as a gift, is incalculably more valuable to me than it could have ever been otherwise.

Right now the token is sitting next to my RussianTrilobytes and a fish tank that is waiting to be filled with the new life of plants, and then fish. The trilobytes remind me that some things only last for a few hundred million years:

And with that, I’ve said what we need to say about signs and presence and the signs of your presence, Jesus.

I would add that I started these reflections by reading this, from Bonaventure. It only seems fitting that we should end with it here. Just a little while longer and we will be ready to read Matthew 24–25, line by line and as a whole.

11. From the first two stages

in which we are led to behold God

in vestiges,

like the two wings covering the Seraph’s feet,

we can gather that all the creatures of the sense world

lead the mind

of the contemplative and wise man

to the eternal God.

For these creatures are

shadows, echoes and pictures

of that first, most powerful, most wise and most perfect

Principle,

of that eternal Source, Light and Fulness,

of that efficient, exemplary and ordering Art.

They are

vestiges, representations, spectacles

proposed to us

and signs divinely given

so that we can see God.

These creatures, I say, are

exemplars

or rather exemplifications

presented to souls still untrained

and immersed in sensible things

so that through sensible things

which they see

they will be carried over to intelligible things

which they do not see

as through signs to what is signified.¹⁶

[15] Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 97.

[16] Bonaventure, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God; The Tree of Life; The Life of St. Francis, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Ewert Cousins, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 75–76.

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Daniel Heck

Daniel Heck

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Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.