Nathaniel Metz's Blog

1st year doctoral student in theology at Baylor. This blog exists to help me formulate my thoughts and practice writing. It does not speak for any institution.

#evil #privationtheory #theology #cybernetics #systemstheory

Recently for class, I read Rowen Williams’s book, Tokens of Trust. In Chapter 2, Williams discusses the mechanics of the cosmos, focusing on the complexity and coherence of how the world operates. However, he is quick to resist the common mechanistic accounts of the world, such as the old analogy of the cosmos as a watch or a fixed machine. Instead, Williams maintains that the systems are dynamic and capable of change. Though he did not specifically use the term, it sounds like Williams envisioned a type of cybernetic viewpoint of the world, which might align more with systems theory.

Cybernetics and systems theory are interdisciplinary fields that explore the complex interactions and behaviors of systems, be they mechanical, biological, social, or computational. They provide frameworks for understanding and managing the intricacies of dynamic systems in various domains.

Cybernetics, coined by Norbert Wiener in the mid-20th century, focuses on the study of feedback loops and control mechanisms within systems. It seeks to understand how information flows within a system and how it can be used to regulate and optimize system behavior. Cybernetics has applications in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and management, emphasizing the importance of communication and feedback in achieving system goals.

Systems theory, on the other hand, takes a broader perspective and encompasses the study of systems at multiple levels of complexity. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of components within a system and their roles in influencing system behavior. Systems can range from simple mechanical devices to complex ecosystems or organizations. Systems theory helps in modeling, analyzing, and predicting the behavior of these systems. It provides tools for problem-solving, decision-making, and holistic thinking.

Both cybernetics and systems theory share common principles, such as the consideration of feedback, adaptation, and emergence. They are crucial in addressing contemporary challenges like climate change, healthcare management, and information technology. These fields enable us to design more resilient, efficient, and adaptable systems by recognizing the interplay of elements within them, ultimately contributing to a better understanding of the complex world we inhabit. An interesting perspective within some circles of cybernetics is the role of teleology because the feedback mechanism within a system can be understood as operating according to an ascribed telos. Thus, as the classic example goes, a thermostat operates according to the telos of an established temperature. When the temperature in the environment dips below that temperature, the thermostat activates a negative feedback loop to course-correct and bring the temperature back to the desired telos.

Rowen Williams, borrowing from Thomas Aquinas, maintains that the systems of the world have their ultimate teleological end in God. Thus, all systems find their truest nature in bringing glory to God. However, given that the world systems have such complexity and possibility for change, the systems can either go with the telos or against it. Complex, interdependent, and interrelated systems produce complex changes that can bring about drastic consequences — especially when rational agents are involved and influencing those systems (William, 40).

Though it doesn’t solve the problem of evil, I think such a perspective provides helpful analogies for thinking about evil in our world. Evil is like a positive feedback loop that causes the system to operate against the telos and into chaos. But before I can develop the analogy further, allow me to explain negative and positive feedback loops, because negative and positive are used in a technical sense, not in a value sense. To make it easier, I'll break it down into a compare and contrast, focusing on purpose and operation, and give a simple example.

Negative Feedback Loop:

a. Purpose: Negative feedback is a stabilizing mechanism within a system, aiming to maintain or restore a desired state or setpoint. b. Operation: When the system deviates from its desired state, negative feedback mechanisms work to counteract that deviation. They reduce the gap between the actual state and the desired state. c. Example: In the human body, negative feedback regulates body temperature. When you get too hot, sweat glands release sweat, cooling the body. When you get too cold, shivering generates heat, warming the body.

Positive Feedback Loop:

a. Purpose: Positive feedback amplifies deviations from a system's desired state, potentially leading to exponential growth or a significant change. b. Operation: Instead of opposing changes like negative feedback, positive feedback mechanisms reinforce them, causing a continuous deviation from the initial state. c. Example: A classic example is a microphone too close to a speaker. The microphone picks up sound from the speaker, amplifies it, and sends it back to the speaker. This loop continues, leading to a loud, screeching noise.

Thus, when these insights are applied to how we think about evil, we can analogously say that evil operates as a positive feedback loop, similar to an invasive species. Imagine that you introduce wild rabbits into an ecosystem, and let them reproduce as much as possible. This is a positive feedback loop that will tend toward accelerating chaos and system breakdown that is extremely difficult to stop. Or, think of an invasive species of plant that spreads throughout an ecosystem. In many such cases, the invasive species can be a positive feedback loop that brings chaos and destabilization toward the system, but it’s incredibly difficult to remove it without damaging the entire ecosystem.

What I like about this analogy is that it is compatible with the privation theory of evil. In the two analogies I gave, both rabbits and the invasive plant are good in themselves and are good when they are operating in their proper environment. The “evil” is derived from a misalignment of goods in a way that breaks down the proper teleology of the system. Likewise, I think we could say that evil has no telos because, ontologically speaking, evil as such does not exist, but is rather a privation of the good. However, at the same time, this analogy of a positive feedback loop captures something about the emotional force and devastation that we often feel when encountering evil, and the language of privation, though technically correct, often feels hollow. Finally, what I like about this analogy is that it aligns with Jesus’ parable.

Matthew 13:24-30 reads: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”

It’s not a perfect one-to-one correlation, but I think there’s a strong resonance between Jesus’ teaching and the analogy of evil as an invasive species operating as a positive feedback loop.

Williams, Rowan. Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief. 1st U.S. paperback ed, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

#sublime #CasparDavidFriedrich #romanticera #art #music #GeorgesBataille #aesthetic #theology #religiousexperience

Yesterday, I listened to Laufey’s brilliant new jazz album “Bewitched.” It simultaneously captures the power of Ella Fitzgerald’s love ballads, Nat “King” Cole’s heartfelt spirit, and the reflective sadness of Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours of Morning.” I was brought to tears. Laufey has managed to penetrate into the depths of human emotion, showcasing the sublime beauty and heartache of falling in love. The album is astonishingly passionate, and it refuses to compromise or tame itself, reaching into the extremes of sadness (”California and Me”) and love (”While You Were Sleeping”). Like a breath of clean air after years of a polluted environment, Laufey’s words, instrumentation, and vocal cadence are an unapologetic, full-throttle sincerity. Her music — simultaneously angelic and concrete—puts to shame the trollish and ironic dispositions of our current milieu, where authentic human emotions are obscured for non-committal niceties. In short, the album is a testimony to the depths of the human spirit for an age in which it feels like our souls have been ripped from our bodies. “Bewitched” is not merely a once-in-a-lifetime artistic achievement, it is a spiritual masterpiece.

To expand upon the spiritual reality Laufey was able to capture, I will turn to an explanation of the Romantic era, the sublime, and the link between romance and religious experience.

Romanticism and the Sublime

The Romantic era of art, which spanned from the late 18th to the mid-19th century, was a period characterized by a profound shift in artistic expression. It emerged as a reaction against the rationalism and restraint of the Enlightenment — instead embracing emotions, nature, and mystery. At the heart of this movement lay the concept of the sublime, a powerful and often overwhelming aesthetic experience that evoked both terror and awe. As I've said before, it's like looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon. The sight is overwhelmingly beautiful, but it is simultaneously terrifying because the canyon is so deep that one could fall to one's death if not careful.

Caspar David Friedrich, a prominent figure in Romantic art, expertly exemplifies this connection between the Romantic era and the sublime. Friedrich's works, such as “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” and “The Monk by the Sea,” are quintessential examples of the sublime in art. His landscapes are vast and majestic, depicting untamed nature in all its glory, but saturated with deeply spiritual themes and undertones. In these paintings, human figures are often minuscule compared to the grandeur of the natural world, emphasizing the finitude of humankind in the face of nature's (and, for Friedrich, God’s) sublime majesty.

The Romantic artists sought to capture the sublime not only in nature but also in the human spirit. Emotions, often intense and tumultuous, were celebrated in their works. Friedrich's use of symbolism, such as the solitary figure gazing into the abyss or standing on a precipice, conveyed the individual's quest for self-discovery and spiritual connection with the sublime. Furthermore, Friedrich's manipulation of light and shadow created an atmosphere of mystery and transcendence. This technique intensified the emotional impact of his paintings, inviting viewers to contemplate the vastness of the universe and their place within it.

The term “romance” in the Romantic era originally referred to medieval tales of chivalry and adventure, often involving heroic knights and heroic deeds. These stories were marked by a sense of wonder, idealism, and a focus on individual passions and quests. The Romantic era drew inspiration from this idea of individualism and the pursuit of intense, personal experiences, which is why it came to be associated with the term “romance.” However, I believe that this artistic movement also sheds light on the romance of falling in love, and the qualities of sublime love are captured quite powerfully in Laufey's album. During its prime, the Romantic era often linked sublime beauty with masculinity and grandeur. But in our contemporary age, Laufey brings a much-needed feminine perspective. And although the album has moments of grandeur in which the music builds and the symphony swells, her music is also able to capture the spiritual and sublime moments found in the calm and quiet. Laufey does this by focusing on falling in love.

The Spiritual Dynamics of Falling in Love

Falling in love is both the greatest catastrophe and purest ecstasy. Hence, someone overcome with romantic emotions is said to suffer from lovesickness. One wants to cry bitter tears when on the mountaintop of joy and sing joyous melodies when in the valley of sadness. A romance into which one fully surrenders oneself is vulnerable, raw, and terrifying — but it is the sacrifice necessary to most intimately glimpse the divine light in the Other. It is, in short, sublime.

Moreover, similar to the spiritual themes saturating Caspar Friedrich’s paintings, the feeling of falling in love is akin to a religious experience. It is rapturous and overtakes us without us necessarily preparing for it, such as looking over a mountainside and suddenly recognizing our own finitude and contemplating the Infinitude of the Divine. Or, in Laufey’s case, her album begins with a song (”Dreamer”) in which she promises to not open her heart again— “And no boy's gonna be so smart as to / Try and pierce my porcelain heart.” But the album ends with her experiencing a rapturous pull into the beauty of love once again:

I try to think straight but I'm falling so badly

I’m coming apart

You wrote me a note, cast a spell on my heart

And bewitched me

The rapturous power of falling in love is perhaps why many religious persons wish to shun the passion of romance, fearing that the ebb and flow of infatuation will replace God in one’s life. However, if we look to the artists of the romantic era and the philosophy of Georges Bataille, we can see why romance is religious without needing to bring charges of idolatry.

The romantic artists understood that instances of the sublime brought about a keen awareness of one’s own finitude. The overwhelming beauty cascading over oneself — as beautiful as it is terrifying — has a way of breaking one’s consciousness. However, this breaking is by no means traumatic. Instead, it is the necessary expansion of one’s awareness to perceive new depths of truth. A whole new reality is opened to oneself in such moments.

Georges Bataille recognized the link between beauty, terror, and the loss of self in his work “Erotism: Death and Sensuality.” Within this book, he develops a theory of limit experiences. To quote what I have written in my previous post, a limit experience can be created through an experience of the intense combination of the erotic (not necessarily just sexual) and that which is terrifying. This is because limit experiences entail a loss of self and a dissolution of individual boundaries. In these moments, individuals transcend their individuality and merge with a larger whole, experiencing a sense of continuity and connection with the universe. Bataille associated limit experiences with a kind of sacred or mystical state that disrupts the everyday order and opens up possibilities for profound transformation. He notes that both erotic encounters and moments of terror (especially witnessing death) bring about this loss of self into the broader world, like pouring water into the ocean. For Bataille, such limit experiences provide a means for understanding religious experiences as well — especially the mystical and rapturous experiences reported by many saints. Such moments are the loss of self into the divine.

Thus, we can see that true romance — the catastrophic joy of falling in love — bears structural resemblance to the sublime and to limit experiences, and hence, to religious experience. Romantic love involves the boundary-breaking, vulnerable expansion of self into the realm of the Other. And we find examples of this moving beyond oneself both in the love songs of the great poets and in the deepest ecstasy of the mystics, for even a casual reading of the mystics will thrust oneself into a romantic spirituality full of passion, rapture, and the sublime.

Of course, things depend to some extent on context and the individual, but I disagree with the de facto charge that one falls into a passionate romantic love merely because one is too immature to keep his or her emotions in check. The truncated immanence and secular materialism of our culture often discourage higher forms of spiritual rapture. But the vulnerable strength it takes to risk pain for the sake of love reveals something deeply true about reality that one cannot learn in the abstract. Falling in love might instead be a sign that one’s soul is alive. Moreover, from my own Christian perspective, enduring vulnerability and even pain for the sake of love is at the heart of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection—which is the ultimate statement about the character of Being Itself (God).


Through her music, Laufey was able to allow us to experience a real human soul once again. “Bewitched” is powerful because it is so vulnerable. It is coherent because it is emotionally contradictory. Laufey has pulled back the curtain and shown us once again what it means to be a spiritually alive human— to fear, to hurt, and to love simultaneously beyond the boundaries of self.

#filmanalysis #art #DietrichBonhoeffer #SergeiBulgakov #theology #GeorgesBataille #atmosphere #CarlJung #atmospherictheology

The films of Panos Cosmatos are known for their intense atmosphere and striking use of color, drawing viewers into a world that is at once eerie and awe-inspiring. In works such as “Mandy,” “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” and “The Viewing,” Cosmatos creates a sense of otherworldliness through his use of color, light, space, and atmosphere. The screen is transformed into a mystically cosmic spectacle, disclosing apocalyptic noumena behind the thin veil of the everyday. To elucidate these themes, this essay will draw upon atmospheric theory, Sergei Bulgakov’s theory of religious materialism, Carl Jung’s theory of color, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theory of revelation, and Georges Bataille’s theory of limit experience.


Atmosphere refers to the general affective quality of space and material environments when interacted with by agents. There are different models and theories about the ontology of an atmosphere. One metaphor is to say that atmospheres are like spatially extended emotions. Through the intentional staging of a material environment, a space can convey or encourage certain ranges of emotional or affective responses. Set design and staging within theatre is a great example. Professional production designers are highly skilled at constructing a stage that helps convey or support the affective qualities of the scene. Furthermore, as in the case of a haunted house attraction, human agents might not even need to be directly present in order for the space to radiate powerful emotions, such as fear.

Films likewise generate an atmosphere. Though it might not be as fully immersive as others, the staging of a film is capable of creating atmospheres that suture the viewer more deeply into the emotional landscape of the film. Panos Cosmatos brilliantly accomplishes this. For Cosmatos, the atmosphere is not merely a background, but rather an active agent in itself, playing as important a role as the actor.

Religious Materialism

In addition to emotional qualities, atmosphere can encourage or convey other types of emotional affects as well, such as religious affects. Religions throughout time have professed the religious significance of physical objects, sacred spaces, and material environments for worship. The 20th-century Russian Orthodox theologian, Sergei Bulgakov, called this “religious materialism” in his essay “Relics,” and the concept played a significant role in his own theology. In the essay, Bulgakov uses the topic of relics to articulate the vitality of the material world from a religious perspective and how, from his perspective, there is no such thing as dead matter.

Sergei Bulgakov's theory of religious materialism proposes that the material world is intrinsically connected to and infused with divine energies and attributes. According to Bulgakov, creation is not separate from God but rather a manifestation of God's presence and creative activity. Bulgakov emphasized the sacredness and spiritual potential inherent in the physical world, rejecting the dualistic notion that matter is inherently sinful or separate from the divine. Instead, he argued, based on the Orthodox doctrines of the Incarnation of Christ and deification of humanity, that matter is a vehicle for divine revelation and the realization of God's purposes, of which the Incarnation of Christ and sacraments like the Holy Eucharist are prime examples. As he wrote, “The spiritual bread, the heavenly food, is also bodily bread and food; by no means does the spiritual sacrament become incorporeal — rather, it is corporeal to the highest degree, corporeal par excellence. [...] [Christ] came not to destroy the world but to save it. Therefore, in the gracious life of the church, all that is spiritual is corporeal [...].” (Bulgakov, “Relics,” page 9, Boris Jakim translation).

For Bulgakov, the materiality of the world is not dead, but rather something sacred, given that it is thoroughly infused with divine life. However, this picture contrasts sharply with our Cartesian-capitalist paradigm in which matter is a dead resource waiting for exploitation. Material environments, human spaces, and urban buildings become little more than cogs in a wider machine. However, in the films of Panos Cosmatos, the world is strikingly more mystical and cosmic than the dead matter of modernity. Cosmatos’s cinematic worlds are pulsating with animated energies and spiritual dimensions that we cannot fully comprehend. Each landscape or set is permeated with a mystical and sublime awe, as if every part of the world is just a facet in a larger sacred space.

Jung and Color

The sacredness of the atmosphere and material environments within Cosmatos’s cinematography is captured largely through the striking use of color. To understand this point further, I will turn to Carl Jung’s theory of color:

According to Jung, colors possess inherent symbolic and psychological meanings that resonate with the collective unconscious, the universal reservoir of ancestral memories and archetypes shared by all human beings. Jung believed that colors have a profound impact on our emotional and spiritual states, transcending their visual aspects. He viewed colors as carriers of archetypal messages and symbolic representations of psychic energies. For instance, red is often associated with passion, vitality, and danger, while blue is linked to spirituality, introspection, and calmness. Jung argued that these associations are not arbitrary but rather reflect deep-seated universal symbols that have emerged throughout human history.

Within the realm of religion, Jung posited that colors play a crucial role in the expression and experience of religious phenomena. He noted that religious rituals often incorporate specific colors to evoke particular psychological states and tap into the collective unconscious. For example, the color white is frequently associated with purity and divine transcendence in many religious traditions. Similarly, gold and yellow are often connected to the sacred and divine illumination. Jung also emphasized that individual psychological experiences of color can vary due to personal associations and cultural conditioning. While certain colors may have universal significance, their interpretation can be influenced by personal experiences, cultural contexts, and individual symbolism.

Even if one does not concede the idea that there are specific archetypal meanings inherent within each color, I do think it’s not far off to note that religious rituals and religious experiences often involve the use of striking colors. In nature, colors are beautiful, but they are often more muted. Rarely do we encounter, for instance, a natural landscape bathed in bright purple. And if such instances within nature do occur, such as in the Aurora Lights, then it fills viewers with a sense of otherworldly awe. On the flip side, incomprehensible lights often occur in mystical experiences, and sacred architecture regularly incorporates colored phenomena not typically found in nature.

However, in the films of Panos Cosmatos, the world is saturated with mystical and transcended light. It is as if the veil has been pulled back from our eyes, and we see the radiant, spiritual dimension of reality that permeates the world around us. Cosmatos's films are a powerful example of the transformative power of colors in our inner world. By using color to create a sense of atmosphere and evoke powerful emotions, he taps into the viewer's psyche in a way that is both profound and unsettling.

Bonhoeffer and Bataille: Revelation and Limit Experience

The interesting thing about Cosmatos’s films is that the spiritual and the divine are not always equated with the good. Of course, there are many instances of the transcendent, color-rich atmospheres that do convey beauty and goodness — especially in the first act of “Mandy” in which cosmic colors interspersed with radiant natural lighting are used to show the love between Red and Mandy. However, some forms of spiritual, otherworldly, or transcendent experience turn into absolute terror and horror. Often, this is the case when, in a Frankensteinian or Lovecraftian fashion, the human characters attempt to grasp and control the transcendent themselves. Without giving away too many spoilers, we can see this within the “bad trip” scene of “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” in which Barry takes a concoction of psychedelics and has an existential breakdown from which he cannot recover. “The Viewing” likewise features a recluse billionaire for whom the world and its inhabitants are objects to collect, but his aspirations of collecting something truly beyond our world lead to drastic consequences. Thus, within the films of Cosmatos, the spiritual world is both overwhelmingly beautiful and also terrifying, filled with phenomena and agents beyond our understanding.

In a sense, this sublimity of overwhelming beauty and terror in giving oneself to the Unknown, and hoping that it is good (while there is a threat it could lead to one’s own destruction) captures a sense of the harshness of religious experience in secular age. When people encounter something truly beyond their understanding, it can sometimes be perceived as a threatening force that leads to self-destruction because it breaks down the truncated, materialist world in which we believe ourselves to inhabit. This is perhaps similar to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about in his book “Act and Being.” For Bonhoeffer, when God reveals Godself, it breaks down our rational systems and subverts the expectations we have of reality. It’s almost like an inverted version of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraftian horror typically involves themes of the unknown, and the incomprehensible, often featuring ancient and malevolent beings that exist outside of human understanding. It relies upon the idea that human knowledge and understanding are limited, and that there are forces in the universe that are beyond human control and comprehension. When the characters encounter these incomprehensible forces, they are filled with a sense of dread and helplessness, often leading to madness, nihilism, and the futility of existence.

For Lovecraft, much of the horror comes from a revelation that humanity is little more than an ant to the cosmic, extra-dimensional monsters. However, for Bonhoeffer, this gets turned on its head. The horror is not that God is malevolent or uncaring, but rather that God is so loving, is so full of grace, is so beautiful, that we feel like minuscule dirt compared to God’s Perfection. For Bonhoeffer, this is especially the case in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, in which this Perfection and Grace become incarnate in a particular person.

Back to the films of Panos, we can see this angst and struggle captured brilliantly in his films. There is a primal and cosmic dimension to the emotions and struggles of the characters. Stepping into the atmosphere is like stepping into another world, parallel to ours, in which everything radiates with the sacred. Or, stated another way, perhaps it is like taking our secularist blinders off for a brief moment and allowing the incomprehensible spiritual dimension of reality to rapture us.

The Bonhoefferian reading of Panos’s films brings some parallels to the theory of limit experiences as developed by the French philosopher, Georges Bataille.

According to Bataille, limit experiences are transformative and ecstatic encounters that push individuals beyond the boundaries of their ordinary existence, challenging established norms and rationality. Bataille believed that limit experiences arise from activities that involve risk, transgression, and the breaking of taboos. These experiences confront individuals with the limits of their own existence and reveal the underlying instability and irrationality of human nature. Examples of limit experiences can include acts of intense sexuality, ritualistic practices, extreme physical activities, or encounters with death.

Furthermore, as developed in his book Erotism, a limit experience can also be created through an experience of the intense combination of the erotic (not necessarily just sex) and the horrific. This is because limit experiences entail a loss of self and a dissolution of individual boundaries. In these moments, individuals transcend their individuality and merge with a larger whole, experiencing a sense of continuity and connection with the universe. Bataille associated limit experiences with a kind of sacred or mystical state that disrupts the everyday order and opens up possibilities for profound transformation. He notes that both erotic encounters and moments of horror (especially witnessing death) bring about this loss of self into the broader world, like pouring water into the ocean.

Bataille argued that limit experiences are essential for individuals to confront and transcend the constraints imposed by society and rationality. By pushing individuals to their limits, these experiences enable them to access a different realm of experience that is typically suppressed in everyday life. Through this confrontation with the limit, Bataille believed that individuals could gain a deeper understanding of themselves, the world, and their place within it.

Within films like “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” “Mandy,” and “The Viewing,” characters are shown having such limit experiences — situations that break down rationality and bring about a loss of self. However, such limit experiences often lead to the character’s own destruction, rather than the reconstitution of a consciousness that embraces a newfound sense of transcendence. These limit experiences are quite different from the types of experiences described by mystics, such as St. Teresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich. Perhaps this is because the saints and mystics were more embedded within a symbolic and living religious tradition that already embraces the sacred. Their limit experiences were reconstituted into a deeper awareness of God’s love and grace. Contrarily, for the characters within the Cosmatos filmic universe, no such structuring existence. It is simply the raw, unfiltered extremity of human experience, without any reconstitution into a higher meaning or purpose. In a sense, this capture the type of underlying nihilism latent within the secular. The spiritual and mystical is all around us, but we have all but lost our categories and structures for engagement.

Conclusion and Additional Remarks

In conclusion, the films of Panos Cosmatos are a powerful example of the transformative power of color and atmosphere in cinema. By creating otherworldly atmospheres, often using bright and striking colors, Cosmatos taps into the viewer's psyche in a way that is both profound and unsettling. His films convey a sense of the sacredness and spiritual potential inherent in the physical world, echoing the ideas of Carl Jung and Sergei Bulgakov. Furthermore, the sublimity of overwhelming beauty and terror captured in Cosmatos's films reflects the harshness and struggles of encountering the divine in a secular age, resonating with the ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Georges Bataille.

But of course (and to perhaps entirely subvert my own writing) most religious experiences are not that extreme. In fact, they usually are cultivated within the small liturgy of the everyday, building up over time and transforming us step by step into a new person. There is great hope in this, because it means that we don’t have to rely upon the apocalyptic to dictate our religious experiences. It can start right now.

#SergeiBulgakov #theology #religiousmaterialism #atmospherictheology #spatialtheology


During Bulgakov's life, a major scandal broke out in the Russian Orthodox Church: vandals broke into a church and desecrated the relics of saints. In response to this event, Bulgakov wrote an essay titled “Relics” in which he articulates a theology of holy relics grounded within the doctrines of the Incarnation, resurrection, and deification. For Bulgakov, these doctrines combine to create a new understanding of material reality, which Bulgakov (somewhat reluctantly) calls “religious materialism.” I recently finished reading this essay, and I found it eye-opening and tremendously fruitful for reclaiming the religious significance of the physical and material world. This article provides a summary of his argument.

Keywords: Deification, Incarnation, Incorruptible, Materiality, Sacrament, Sainthood, Resurrection, Soul and Body Union, Phenomena and Noumena

Four-sentence summary:

  1. The incarnation and deification are the core doctrines associated with relics, which creates an ontology of religious materialism.
  2. The holiness of relics witnesses to the incarnational and sacramental sanctification of reality.
  3. The bodies of saints contain the future resurrected bodies in the present.
  4. The most important thing about a relic is its holiness, not whether it is incorruptible.

Incarnation and Theosis

The incarnation of Christ is the first doctrine associated with relics. The Christian doctrine of the incarnation is a fundamental belief that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became fully human while remaining fully divine. It teaches that God, in the person of Jesus, took on human flesh and entered into the world to dwell among humanity. This belief is rooted in various biblical passages, such as the Gospel of John, which states, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

Additionally, the sacrament of the Eucharist stands in continuity with the Incarnation. Just as Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, in the Eucharist, believers receive the true presence of Christ—his body, blood, soul, and divinity—under the appearances of bread and wine. It is a sacramental participation in the life and sacrifice of Christ. Indeed, as Bulgakov points out, all sacraments contain a degree of materiality to them, such as baptism requiring water (more on this later).

Bulgakov believed that the incarnation was not only a redemptive act but also a transformative event for humanity and creation as a whole. Thus, the holiness of relics witnesses to the incarnational and sacramental sanctification of reality along with Christ, who possesses a “Holy flesh” and stands as the prime example of this new reality (pg. 14).

Through the incarnation, Christ united the divine and the human, bringing about a process of deification (theosis) by which humans can participate in the divine life and uncreated energy of God. Or, as Athanasius of Alexandria put it: “God became man so that man might become god,” which Bulgakov himself restates on page 8. The doctrine of deification, also known as theosis, is a theological concept within Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It teaches that through the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, humans can partake in the divine energies and become united with God. Theosis involves a transformative process where believers are progressively conformed to the image of Christ, participating in the divine energies and attributes. It is understood as a synergistic communion with God that goes beyond mere moral improvement or ethical conduct, emphasizing a profound union between God and humanity, rooted in the incarnation of Christ. It is the ultimate goal of salvation, where believers are transformed in their thoughts, desires, and actions, becoming more Christ-like and reflecting the divine image. The doctrine of deification holds that humans, through grace, can share in God's life and participate in the eternal communion of love and fellowship with the Triune God.

For Bulgakov, this process of deification is not merely a future hope, but a reality that is breaking into the present. At the Ascension, Christ, in the flesh, created a ladder between heaven and earth (pg. 8). The sacraments are then a means by which this holiness and transformation are brought to us from above (pg. 8). This creates a spiritual power via being born again in the Spirit (pg. 8). Additionally, as discussed in The Bride of the Lamb, Unfading Light, and The Comforter, Bulgakov expanded the concept of deification to include the whole cosmos. He saw deification not only as a personal transformation but also as the restoration and transfiguration of the entire created order. Bulgakov believed that through the incarnation, Christ united heaven and earth, and the goal of deification is the renewal and glorification of all creation.

When the doctrines of the incarnation and theosis are combined, they create an ontology of “religious materialism.”

Religious Materialism

“Religious materialism” is a phrase used (somewhat reluctantly) by Bulgakov to describe the sacredness and religious significance of materiality. Reality is not spirit or matter alone, but is comprised of both of these principles at work simultaneously. Bulgakov then cites several examples of what he means by this. Humans are not spirit alone such as the angels. Likewise, God doesn’t take us out of the world but fills us with God’s power in the world (pg. 8). Additionally, as hinted at earlier, sacraments are not purely spiritual but involve material, which affirms embodiment (pg. 9). Sacraments do not lose their corporeality during e.g. consecration but rather become “corporeal to the highest degree” (pg. 9). This reveals a deep continuity between materiality and spirituality, which is the ground of holy things, objects, places, etc. (pg. 13).

Sacraments transubstantiate the cosmos, which link back to the doctrines of the incarnation and deification (pg. 10). Borrowing terms from Kantian philosophy and German idealism (which his Western audience would've been more familiar with), Bulgakov describes sacraments as keeping the material phenomenon but replacing its noumenon or the thing-in-itself (pg. 12). This priestly and sacramental transformation is what happens with relics (pg. 18). But how does this relate to bodies and relics?

Resurrection and Embodied Holiness

This sacramental sanctification or transubstantiation of the cosmos brings the future redemption of the cosmos into the present (pg. 17). It is the future resurrection manifest to the present, making the corruptible incorruptible, and bringing new life over against the mortal life of humans (pg. 25). However, one might wonder about the particular difficulties raised by the materiality and physicality of this future resurrection. The key difficulty raised by Bulgakov can be stated as follows: What about bodies that died long ago and have decomposed and spread matter throughout the earth? (pg. 26)

To answer this question, Bulgakov provides an analysis of 1 Corinthians 15, which is a famous passage concerning the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15 is rather long, so I will not quote it at length here, but I'll provide a general summary: Paul argues that the resurrection of the dead is a crucial connection to the resurrection of Christ because Christ's resurrection signifies the first fruits of those who have died. As all die in Adam, so will all be made alive in Christ. The first fruit of the resurrection is Christ, followed then by those who belong to Christ. Drawing a parallel between Adam and Christ, Paul states that the first Adam come from dust, and the second Adam (Christ) came from heaven. As people who are of both dust and heaven, we will bear the image of the resurrected one. The perishable body will put on imperishability (or the “corruptible” will put on the “incorruptible”) — the mortal body will put on immortality.

According to Bulgakov, this passage is about “the dynamic centers or monads of a body that has supraphysical and supramaterial character as well as a cosmic [physical] character” (pg. 27). In other words, we have something like a spirit or soul, though Bulgakov is keeping a full definition intentionally vague so as to not get pinned down into one particular camp of the mind-body problem. But importantly for Bulgakov, his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15 means that “The mortal body is a seed of the future body” (pg. 27), the seed being the dynamic center of the body. For Bulgakov, this implies that “bodies have different glories” (pg. 28) or exist on a spectrum of holiness, with some bodies more fully manifesting the in-breaking future resurrection than others.

I'm going to jump in and emphasize something important as an aside: This is a spectrum of holiness, and not physical appearance or disability. Someone with a disability might have a more glorified body than a supermodel in perfect health. I think this insight holds fascinating potential for disabilities studies. But I digress...

The dynamic core or spirit of the body is an “entelechy,” which means something with potency that is actualized through matter and cannot be destroyed or removed (pg. 28). The greater the spiritual strength, the more powerful this connection between the entelechy of the dynamic core and the physical body (pg. 28). In other words, a holy person will more clearly manifest or showcase the future resurrected body in their own physical body (pg. 29).

To provide an additional example, I've heard a phrase thrown around in Catholic circles that I find rather interesting. I've heard several Catholics talk about meeting people who are particularly holy and full of the love of God, and they are described as people who “glow.” There is something within not just their words but in their physical presence that manifests a witness to the glory of God. Returning to Bulgakov, he interprets the saints as more clearly manifesting the future resurrected body, implying that saints don't die like the rest of us (pg. 29).

Because saints more clearly showcase the future resurrection within their own bodies, it means that sainthood is a witness to the transubstantiation and deification of humanity (pg. 19) — and indeed the entire cosmos. The saint becomes an altar for divine power (pg. 20) and a witness to the future resurrection glory. Importantly, because the saint is witnessing or manifesting a future glory that involves the complete redemption of our bodies (the general resurrection), the saint’s holiness is an embodied holiness (pg. 21).

What does this mean for relics? Quite simply, it means that a relic is, in its most basic form, “a place of the holy body” (pg. 21). The proto-typical relic and thus prime example is Christ’s body in the grave on Holy Saturday before being raised to resurrection, eternal transfiguration, and glorification (pg. 23)

Objections and Rebuttals

Within his essay, Bulgakov also recognizes that relics are not without their detractors and skeptics, so he replies to three key objections to relics.

Objection 1: Relics are too superstitious in the modern age (pg. 7).

At least in my initial reading, Bulgakov did not have a direct rebuttal to this objection but rather allows his general theology to serve as a response. But let's parse this out a bit more.

If this objection was made from the assumption that God does not exist, then of course holy relics would not operate as the Church describes. Bulgakov obviously believes that God exists, but the question of God's existence is a different conversation outside the scope of this topic.

If the objector proposes that God exists and also that relics are superstition in the modern age, then I think Bulgakov would point back to how firmly relics fit within the core doctrines and beliefs within Christianity, and so are no more superstition than the resurrection of Christ or hope in future deification. If one holds a more deistic view and supposes that miracles do not happen within a world guided totally by natural laws, then Bulgakov's essay “On the Gospel Miracles” serves as a response. But once again, that is outside the scope of this conversation (though I'm reading that essay right now, so I will try to write a summary of that soon).

Objection 2: Extreme Protestants who call for no sacraments and only Word (pg. 7).

To this objection, Bulgakov's statement at the end of the essay would be appropriate: “Thus, our discussion has been based on the conviction that the question of the veneration of holy relics is by no means an external and peripheral question, by no means a question that concerns only liturgical and cultic formalities. (...) it is indissolubly connected with the very essence of the Christian faith. To deny holy relics is to deny the power of Christ's Resurrection (...)” (pg. 39). Once again, Bulgakov has demonstrated that relics fit firmly within core doctrines of Christianity, such as the incarnation, resurrection, and deification (and probably beatific vision if one was a hardline Catholic about this). Additionally, Bulgakov has provided a Christian ontology of religious materialism that pushes against the (extreme) Protestant call for only Word and no sacrament, which can sometimes fringe upon Gnosticism.

Objection 3: This is all just fetishism (14)

Of course, the term “fetish” is used here in the anthropological and religious sense, not the sexual one. Fetishism, in a religious context, involves attributing magical or supernatural powers to objects or symbols. These objects, called fetishes, are believed to possess inherent spiritual or divine qualities and act as intermediaries between humans and the spiritual realm. In fetishistic religious practices, these objects are revered, worshipped, and believed to have the ability to influence various aspects of life or supernatural forces. Fetishism is commonly associated with animistic religions, where nature and its objects are seen as having spiritual essence or powers. The term “fetish” comes from the Portuguese word “feitiço” and was initially used by European explorers and missionaries to describe the religious practices they encountered in Africa and other regions.

To the objection of relics being a form of (perhaps pagan) fetishism, Bulgakov gives one of his spiciest takes in the essay. In essence, he says, 'You know what? Fetishism is good actually. At least it's better than materialism and spiritualism' (pg. 14, not a direct quote). Fetishism is more closely aligned with the ontology of religious materialism that Bulgakov sketched out above. Furthermore, there is such as thing as pious fetishism, such as Jacob pouring out oil at Bethel after his dream (pg. 14). Thus, Fetishism is false not because of its understanding of the connection between matter and spirit, but because its theology is incomplete (pg. 14). Furthermore, God is omnipresent, but still makes distinctions between places, with some being more sacred than others, which is shown repeatedly in scripture (pg. 15). The kenotic act of creation means God gives Godself to space and time to be present with us but without changing the divine essence or undoing omnipotence (pg. 15).

Concluding Thoughts

I found this essay exhilarating and intellectually exciting. It's one of my favorite essays I've read recently. Bulgakov's religious materialism especially resonated with me, given that one of my primary interests is in the theology of sacred spaces, material environments, and atmosphere. I also really liked his defense of fetishism where he said that the basic underlying assumptions of fetishism — the spiritual reality of materiality — are correct; it's just that the theology is not yet complete. I wonder if such a position could be expanded into a broader ontology of Christian animism, which would also seem to fit within Bulgakov's religious materialism.

Hopefully, this summary was helpful. The essay is a wonderful piece of theological writing, and I encourage you to read the full thing if you get a chance.

#SergeiBulgakov #Trinity #Theology #Sophiology #Creation #openprocessing

Sergei Bulgakov


Poetic. Confusing. Beautiful. Controversial. Sergei Bulgakov's Sophiology ignited heated debate within the Russian Orthodox religious renaissance of the late 19th-20th century. Sophiology is a theological-metaphysical theory to account for how God is both transcendent to creation while also being the Ground of All Being, that the physical world is not merely dead matter, that creation comes into being by God's Being alone, and that God is personal. If you have never heard of Bulgakov or Sophiology, that is because the waters are still receding into the academic ocean, preparing for a coming tsunami of more mainstream Bulgakov scholarship in the years to come. Well, at least that's my hypothesis as of now. In this essay, I will attempt to give an over-simplified explanation of Bulgakov and his concept of Sophia.

Bulgakov's Brief Bio

Sergei Bulgakov was a Russian Orthodox theologian and philosopher who lived and worked in the late 19th to early 20th century. He was one of the most prominent figures within the Russian Orthodox renaissance of that time period. This renaissance was sparked, in part, by the mass expulsion of intellectuals from Russia shortly following the Soviet Revolution. Thus, Bulgakov and his contemporaries were writing and working as exiles in Paris. He spent his life as a professor, priest, and even was a confessor and spiritual mentor to Mother Mary Skobtsova, who went on to become a canonized saint.

The concept of Sophia is central to Bulgakov's theology. Unfortunately, this concept is incredibly difficult to understand, which has made it difficult for Bulgakov's theology to gain more traction beyond the narrow corners of academia. For instance, my earliest encounter with Bulgakov's work happened during my first semester as an MTS student at Duke Divinity. I'm not sure if I have ever read something that went so completely over my head. Ever since that fateful day, Bulgakov has haunted me, and I've been determined to try to understand him because, despite being so beyond me, I felt like he had something beautiful to say. So in what follows, I will attempt to give my best over-simplified explanation of Sophia. Please keep in mind that I am still a novice in Bulgakov, and so this should not be taken as the definitive explanation of his thought because I might very well be wrong.

The Divine Sophia

The term Sophia is taken from one of the names of divine wisdom found in scripture. It is the Greek translation of “hokhmah” which is used often in Proverbs. For instance, Proverbs chapters 1 and 3 describe wisdom in terms that are strikingly personal and exalted.

“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 'How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.''” (Prov. 1:20-23 NRSV)

“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.” (Prov. 3:19-20 NRSV)

Bulgakov attempts to take the vast biblical witness to Sophia (which is far more inclusive than the two verses I provided) and create an expansive theological metaphysics that involves both the Trinity and creation. His aim is to theorize how Sophia works within the Trinity without being a fourth member of the Godhead, bridge the gap between Creator and creation, and balance the immanence/transcendence distinction in God's relationship to the world.

For Bulgakov, wisdom/Sophia names something about the essence of God. It is not a fourth member of the Trinity and it is not a person. But at the same time, it is also not a static substance or storage of abstract data. My favorite description I've come across thus far is from John Milbank, who described Sophia as a “person-making force.” It is a dynamic and living essence that, when engaged in relation, creates a person. Thus, in the act of eternal processions within the Trinity, when the Father communicates the divine essence to the Son and the Spirit, there is a communication of a person-making force from which the two persons eternally proceed or generate. This generation or procession of the Son and Spirit by virtue of the Father's communication of the divine essence is the foundation of the Trinitarian relations existing from all eternity. Bulgakov described this relationship in kenotic (meaning “self-emptying,” cf. Philippians 2) terms. The Son is the result of the Father eternally giving himself to another in absolute love, and the Holy Spirit is the hypostatic joy of this love which freely gives itself to another.

Indeed, for Bulgakov, existence itself has a personal character to it because all that exists rests on and in the Ground of God's own being. As he writes in Jacob's Ladder, “Everything truly existing is personal, because love is personal and therefore reciprocal” (Jacob's Ladder: On Angels, page 3). For Bulgakov, the essence of the Trinity is love, and true love must be personal love of the self-giving itself to the Other without dissolving itself. The giving of oneself to the Other without dissolving oneself is how the Father communicates the Divine Essence to the Son and Spirit. If that which truly exists is personal because love is personal, then this would then imply that the divine essence is not static or abstract but rather living and dynamic. However, we do not want to postulate Sophia as a fourth person of the Godhead, because that would be heresy. Likewise, we do not want to collapse the hypostasis (roughly translated as “personhood” or “person”) of the Father into the essence such that they are purely univocal, because the Father communicates the essence to the Son but not the hypostasis. Thus, the divine essence must be personal (a person-making force) without being a full Person with a capital P.

However, Sophia is not something existing only within the Godhead. There is also a creaturely Sophia, which is a distinct mode of being of the Divine Sophia, though they are both just one Sophia. Sound confusing? You're not alone. This is one reason why Bulgakov has proved both controversial and confusing, but let's see if we can parse this out.

The Creaturely Sophia

One of Bulgakov's main concerns is the need to bridge the gap between creation and its Creator without collapsing into pantheism or a harsh dualism like Manicheanism (where both matter and God are co-eternal and co-necessary substances). At the same time, Bulgakov wants avoid postulating that the existence of creation makes a change within the nature or essence of God. In other words, Bulgakov wants to avoid saying that only after the creation of the world did God become a Creator. Instead, Bulgakov insists that God is a Creator from all eternity, and not merely in the abstract potentiality for one day changing into a creator, but that God is a Creator in God's actuality. (cf. The Bride of the Lamb, pg. 62).

Additionally, Bulgakov wants to avoid bringing God down into the category of a being amongst beings. He is insistent upon God's total transcendence, aseity, and self-sufficiency. God is the Ground of All of Being or Being Itself. Because of this, Bulgakov wants to reject what he sees as a bad notion of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”). Creatio ex nihilo means that God did not use any pre-existing matter or material to fashion the world. God created the world purely through God's own power. Thus, it is often said that God created the world 'from nothing.' But Bulgakov insists that this “nothing” is not covertly 'something' like empty space. As he writes in The Bride of the Lamb, “It is impossible to imagine that, before creation, there 'was' a nothing that was like a kind of emptiness, a sack into which, later, upon creation, all the forms of being were poured. Such a state of divine being before or outside the creation of the world simply did not exist and could not have existed, just as there was no such emptiness and no such sack.” (page 44)

Thus Bulgakov is juggling many things at once.

1: Bulgakov's wants to avoid pantheism and harsh dualism.

2: Bulgakov believes that God is a Creator from all eternity (not merely potentially, but in actuality) instead of only becoming Creator with the creation of the world.

3: Bulgakov rejects the notion of creatio ex nihilo as implying that there was an empty space into which God poured the stuff of creation.

4: God is not a beings amongst beings, and is thus not reducible to the “first cause” or “prime mover” of the world, because God is transcendent to our causal categories in the unfolding of nature.

To hold onto these commitments, Bulgakov advocates a view adjacent to what is sometimes called creatio ex deo. The doctrine of creatio ex deo, Latin for “creation out of God,” is a theological concept that affirms that all things were created directly from the being of God. According to this doctrine, God's creative power is intrinsic to God's divine nature, and the entire universe, including both the material and immaterial realms, finds its origin in God. Creatio ex deo emphasizes that God is the ultimate source and sustainer of all existence, while rejecting that God used any pre-existent matter to create the world. In this view, the universe is seen as an expression of God's will and a reflection of God's divine attributes. The doctrine highlights the immanence of God, asserting that His presence permeates every aspect of the created order. It also underscores the unity between God and God's creation, suggesting a profound interconnection between the Creator and the handiwork. Creatio ex deo serves as a theological framework that affirms the transcendence and immanence of God in the act of creation.

Because the world is an expression of God's will and a reflection of God's divine attributes, the world is an expression of the Divine Sophia. The presence of Sophia (the person-making wisdom of God) permeates and sustains the world, somewhat similarly to the world soul theory of other philosophers. Sophia is thus a type of bridge or mediating reality between God and the world, simultaneously existing both in the creaturely sphere and within the Godhead.

My preferred analogy is music. Suppose we have a classical symphony with an orchestra and a conductor, who composed the music being performed. Before the orchestra plays, the composer first composes the music based upon the melody that exists within his or her mind. The music within the composer's mind is like the Divine Sophia. Then, the composer writes down the music externally on paper, creating sheet music that depicts the melody in the composer's mind. This is like the creaturely Sophia — the Divine Sophia gone outwards. The music depicted by the notes on the paper exist both within the mind of the composer and externally on the paper. This is similar to how Sophia exists both within the divine essence and the cosmos. However, the notes on paper are not quite yet music per se. Rather, it is like a music-making force. It comes into its fullness when the composer leads the orchestra in playing the music he or she created.

Of course, this isn't a perfect analogy, but hopefully, it is helpful.


In conclusion, Sergei Bulgakov's concept of Sophia emerged as a poetic, beautiful, and controversial theory within the Russian Orthodox religious renaissance of the late 19th-20th century. As a theologian and philosopher, Bulgakov aimed to reconcile the transcendent nature of God with His immanence in creation. Sophia, derived from the biblical notion of divine wisdom, represents an essence of God that is not a separate person within the Trinity but a dynamic, person-making force. Bulgakov sought to bridge the gap between the Creator and creation without falling into pantheism or dualism. He rejected the idea that God became a Creator only with the existence of the world and instead emphasized God's eternal creative nature. Bulgakov also challenged the naive notions of creatio ex nihilo, positing instead a view adjacent to creatio ex deo, which holds that all things were directly created from the being of God. The presence of Sophia permeates and sustains the world, acting as a bridge between God and creation while remaining present to each. While this summary provides an introduction to Bulgakov's theory, further exploration is necessary to fully comprehend his motivations and the intricacies of Sophia.

If you'd like a fuller introduction to Bulgakov, I highly recommend John Milbank's lecture about him:

#Christology #CarlJung #trauma #theology

The doctrine of Christ's descent into hell is not an archaic superstition, an obscure facet of Catholic and Eastern Christianity, or an irrelevant line in the creed. Christ's victory over the forces of hell is a profound truth with mystical significance for the redemption of our souls — especially when we recognize that Christ's victory is not only cosmic but personal as well. The same power of Christ that descended into hell is likewise active in descending into the deepest and most hellish places of our souls, bringing divine liberation, triumph, and healing. In this essay, I will utilize Carl Jung's interpretation of the underworld motif to analyze the doctrine of Christ's descent into hell as an archetype for how Christ descends into our unconscious.

The Harrowing of Hades

The doctrine of Christ's descent into hell, or the harrowing of hell/hades as it is sometimes called, teaches that after Jesus' crucifixion and before his resurrection, he descended into the realm of the dead, commonly referred to as “hell” or “hades,” to proclaim his victory over sin and death. The primary scriptural basis for this doctrine is found in 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:6.

1 Peter 3:18-20 says: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight lives, were saved through water.”

1 Peter 4:6 says: “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”

These passages mention that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison, implying a journey to the realm of the dead. Additionally, in the Apostles' Creed, there is a line that affirms Jesus' descent into hell or hades.

The purpose of Christ's descent into Hell is interpreted differently among Christian traditions. Some view it as a triumph over evil and the Devil, while others see it as an act of liberation, freeing the righteous souls who were awaiting salvation. Others even hold it as a basis for belief in the eventual, universal salvation of all. In other words, hell exists, but it's now empty. The theological significance of this event varies, and not all Christian denominations hold it as a central doctrine. Some see it as more literal, and others read it more metaphorically.

Christ's victory over hell is, at the very least, a true myth. By “myth,” I do not mean a lie or a tall tale. Instead, I mean it in the more technical sense, which refers to a people group's deepest sense of meaning, wisdom, and understanding of the world placed into narrative form. Or, as Alan Moore described, a myth is what happens when a story transcends what it means to be a story and it becomes something universal.

For clarity's sake, I'm not denying that Christ actually descended into hell. But I must admit that I have no idea what that event would look like, played out in real-time. Unfortunately, Jesus didn't have a camcorder with him.

But if we get too caught up in trying to create a mental image in our mind of what that camcorder footage would look like, then we might end up missing the deeper, mystical insight of what Christ's victory over hell means. Thus, to help us apply the harrowing of hell, I will turn to the great theorist of myth himself, Carl Jung.

Jung and the Archetype of the Underworld

Carl Jung spent much of his research analyzing and theorizing about common mythological motifs found in stories across different cultures. He utilized the term “archetype” to describe the fundamental, inherited patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and symbols that manifest in various forms, such as myths, dreams, and fantasies. The descent into the underworld is one such archetype that appears in myths and stories across different cultures.

According to Jung, the descent into the underworld represents a psychological journey of self-discovery and transformation. It symbolizes a confrontation with the unconscious, where individuals encounter hidden aspects of their psyche, including repressed emotions, desires, and fears. The descent can be seen as a metaphorical exploration of the depths of the human psyche, a quest for self-understanding, and a confrontation with the shadow — the dark and often neglected or suppressed aspects of the self.

Jung saw this descent as an essential step in the process of individuation, which is the psychological integration and development of the self. By confronting and integrating the unconscious aspects of the psyche, individuals can achieve a more balanced and whole sense of self. Or, as the great philosopher Dolly Parton said, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”

The descent into the underworld often involves encountering powerful mythological figures, such as demons, monsters, or gods. These figures represent different aspects of the unconscious and can be seen as symbolic manifestations of the individual's inner struggles, challenges, and potential for transformation.

If we were to apply a Jungian analysis to the Biblical witness of Christ's descent into the underworld, we create the image of Christ descending into the “hellish” places of our souls to bring victory over that which holds us captive and separate from God. Such a reading would be keeping in line with what the ancient church fathers, such as Augustine and Origen, called an analogous or spiritual reading. These hermeneutical strategies involve taking the truths of scripture and reading them as allegories for the life of faith, such as other doctrines or possible pastoral insight. It is not to deny that Christ ever descended into hell. Rather, it is to take the external teachings of sacred scripture and actions of the divine, and then apply those realities into the interiority of our souls.

If you don't mind a quick, possibly deviating side-note, I'm reminded of a scene in the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Elrond, the leader of the elves, visits Aragorn and hands him the sword of his ancestors that had been reforged and reminds Aragorn of his birthright to be king of Gondor. Elrond says to Aragorn, “I give hope to men.” Aragorn, recognizing his continued trepidation regarding his rightful place on the throne, replies, “I leave none for myself.” Analogous or spiritual reading can be this act of leaving hope for oneself or one's community.

The importance of leaving hope for oneself is especially pertinent for ministering to trauma victims. It's certainly possible to read Christ's descent into the underworld of the unconscious as representing the process of sanctification — the process whereby the Holy Spirit makes one holy. Such a reading is perfectly acceptable. But I believe we must also use Christ's descent into hell as a form of trauma-informed ministry.

The Harrowing of Trauma

Trauma refers to an experience that is too horrifying to be fully processed by the brain. I often liken it to Lovecraftian horror, where extra-dimensional alien creatures are so totally “Other,” monstrous, and horrifying that they exceed the cognitive capacities of the protagonists, often resulting in madness. Trauma is an experience of this sort of terror. But in order to keep us from going mad, the brain will turn off certain functions and, to use a rough analogy, break apart the experience and hide it within the deep crevices of the psyche (what Jung called the shadow), so that the trauma is not experienced in its entirety. In a positive light, this is the brain's strategy for survival which, at the end of the day, is the most important thing. However, because that trauma often remains hidden within the underground of the psyche, it goes unprocessed and unintegrated, thus producing symptoms that can have a negative impact on one's life. Much of trauma-informed therapy involves this strategy of re-processing, in a now healthy and safe manner, those earlier experiences of trauma so that it no longer lingers in the psyche.

Hopefully, we can see where this all connects to Christ's descent into the unconscious. The pockets of trauma residing within one's soul are often experienced as hellish places — areas in our lives where the forces of death seek to have control. But in Christ's descent into hell, we see an image of victory over these forces. That which we believe is irredeemable and alienating is defeated and restored. It is the healing redemption of God permeating the deepest parts of our souls.

To clarify, I fully support trauma-informed therapy, and I am not advocating for forsaking all medical treatment to follow a “pray away your pain” model of healing. Humans are made to be in community and meant to act as Christ would to our neighbors. Thus, I believe trauma-informed therapy, such as EMDR work, is actually playing out this divine intention and ministry. But in addition to being a good neighbor to one another, I believe healing is more successful when we can locate ourselves within a grander, archetypal narrative, and Christ's descent into hell seems like a reasonable fit.

#atmosphere #architecture #psychogeography #capitalism #theology #SergeiBulgakov #atmospherictheology


Ghost hunting has once again crawled out of the ether and is haunting much of pop culture. Television shows like Ghost Adventures, podcasts on the paranormal, countless internet hubs, as well as real-life expeditions seem to have gained a second life. Some interpret this phenomenon as symptomatic of how quickly America is given to fantasy thinking and delusions from reality. Others interpret this as a renewed longing for a spiritual dimension. And of course, there's the Bob Larsons of the world who claim that it's all just demons attempting to trick America away from following Christ. However, what interests me about the phenomenon is not so much whether ghosts exist. Instead, it seems to me that ghost hunting and ghost tours present an interesting form of psychogeography and cognitive mapping of urban and suburban environments. Within this new cognitive mapping of material environments, I believe it's possible to see cracks starting to form within our truncated, secularist milieu. And even though ghost hunting itself does not necessarily purport explicit theological or religious commitments, I think there is an interesting theology of space and material environments that could perhaps emerge from or exist in dialogue with cryptid psychogeography.

My Experience on a Ghost Tour

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It purports to be one of the most haunted hotels in America, and so, naturally, I took a ghost tour.

For background, I am not a materialist or a secularist. I am a Christian, and thus supernatural, preternatural, or spiritual phenomena are a possibility within my worldview. For example, I believe in angels and miracles. However, I'm quite skeptical about paranormal encounters. Perhaps that's a result of living in secular age or seeing firsthand how often claims of numinous encounters can be abused by church leaders. Additionally, despite having numerous religious experiences throughout my life, I have never had a ghost, demonic, or paranormal encounter of the explicit kind one would label as supernatural (at least, that I'm aware of). Nonetheless, I try to keep a critically-open mind because I do believe that the universe is filled with spiritual qualities and high strangeness.

The Crescent Hotel tour was a lot of fun. The genre of ghost tour storytelling was fascinating as well: a combination of historical narrative and the horror genre. Furthermore, the introduction of “scientific” language — such as ghost hunting technologies — is an interesting combination of more ancient spiritual phenomenology (ghosts and spirits) with modernity (technology and science), even if the “science” might make professional scientists pull their hair out.

Unfortunately, I did not have a ghost encounter. Neither did I even have an experience of the heebie-jeebies. But it was certainly fun, and the hotel is quite beautiful and features a dark academic aesthetic, which is certainly worth checking out. Additionally, the experience of navigating a material environment from the perspective of a ghost tour really got me thinking about the psychogeography involved in ghost hunting.


Psychogeography is a concept that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s within the realm of avant-garde movements and cultural theory. It explores the relationship between the geographical environment and the emotions, behaviors, and experiences of individuals within that environment. Psychogeography seeks to uncover the psychological and emotional impact of urban spaces on individuals and how these spaces shape our perceptions and interactions.

The term “psychogeography” was coined by the Situationist International, a group of artists, intellectuals, and activists who sought to challenge the dominant capitalist culture and transform everyday life. They viewed psychogeography as a means to disrupt the prescribed patterns of urban life and create new forms of engagement with the cityscape.

Psychogeographers engage in a variety of practices to explore the effects of urban environments. For example, they often undertake “dérives,” which involve purposeful drifting or wandering through urban areas to uncover hidden aspects and unexpected encounters. Through dérives, psychogeographers aim to break free from predetermined routes and discover new perspectives on the city.

Psychogeography also involves the concept of the “psychogeographic map.” These maps deviate from traditional cartography and instead represent the emotional, cultural, and subjective experiences of individuals in a particular place. They may incorporate elements such as personal anecdotes, historical narratives, and symbolic representations.

The goal of psychogeography is to challenge the mundane and passive experiences often associated with urban spaces. By encouraging exploration, critical observation, and subjective engagement, psychogeographers aim to transform our relationship with the built environment and inspire new ways of perceiving and interacting with our surroundings.

Paranormal Psychogeography

It seems to me that ghost hunting and ghost tours represent a peculiar type of psychogeographical experience. Modern urban spaces are often not designed around spiritual matters, but rather upon the flows and accumulation of capital. One is meant to navigate an urban environment as primarily a cog in the machine of capitalism: either a consumer or a laborer. Of course, this is not entirely the case for every square inch of a city because one could contend that spaces like parks are centered around human interests more than capitalism. But these respites of human interest are still relegated to confined areas rather than permeating the urban space as a whole. The point of psychogeography is then to find ways of navigating a city in a way that brings a sense of the truly human, rather than a machine or zombie-like consumerism.

It seems possible to me that ghost hunting could be one such example of this alternative navigation — especially because ghost tours provide an alternative cognitive mapping of one's urban environment. A cognitive map is a mental representation or internalized image of a person's spatial surroundings, including landmarks, routes, and relationships between locations. It is essentially the way in which landscapes and urban geography — perhaps even one's own culture — exist within one's mind.

Thus, instead of one's cognitive map only being filled with points of consumerism, such as shopping malls, retail stores, and even necessary locations like grocery stores, ghost hunting creates new data points on one's cognitive map. Regardless of whether these places are actually haunted by paranormal forces, ghost hunting adds a sense of spiritual mythology to one's material environment. There is, at the very least, a potential for spiritual places, “thin places,” or locations of high strangeness to break through the cracks of the secular materialist mind into which we are all conditioned.

Ghost hunting trains one's brain to look for the spiritual dimension of a material environment. Even if there is no such thing as a location haunted by a ghost, the very act of delving into the mythological histories of haunted locations and contemplating the relationship between possible spiritual forces and one's material environment can be a means by which we leave open the door for religious materialism.

The Spiritual Dimension of Material

“Religious materialism” is a term I learned about recently while reading the essay “Relics” by the 20th-century Russian Orthodox theologian, Sergei Bulgakov. Bulgakov wrote the essay in response to vandalizes who had desecrated sacred relics of saints. Bulgakov uses the topic of relics to articulate the vitality of the material world from a religious perspective and how, from his perspective, there is no such thing as dead matter.

Sergei Bulgakov's theory of religious materialism proposes that the material world is intrinsically connected to and infused with divine energies and attributes. According to Bulgakov, creation is not separate from God but rather a manifestation of God's presence and creative activity. Bulgakov emphasized the sacredness and spiritual potential inherent in the physical world, rejecting the dualistic notion that matter is inherently sinful or separate from the divine. Instead, he argued, based on the Orthodox doctrines of the Incarnation of Christ and deification of humanity, that matter is a vehicle for divine revelation and the realization of God's purposes, of which the Incarnation of Christ and sacraments like the Holy Eucharist are prime examples. As he wrote, “The spiritual bread, the heavenly, food, is also bodily bread and food; by no means does the spiritual sacrament become incorporeal — rather, it is corporeal to the highest degree, corporeal par excellence. [...] [Christ] came not to destroy the world but to save it. Therefore, in the gracious life of the church, all that is spiritual is corporeal [...].” (Bulgakov, “Relics,” page 9, Boris Jakim translation).

For Bulgakov, the materiality of the world is not dead, but rather something sacred, given that it is thoroughly infused with divine life. However, this picture contrasts sharply with our Cartesian-capitalist paradigm in which matter is a dead resource waiting for exploitation. Material environments, human spaces, and urban buildings become little more than cogs in a wider machine. However, from a Bulgakovian perspective, a psychogeographer can resist such a truncated imagination and cultivate a way of seeing the city as a spiritual entity as well. And perhaps ghost hunting — the investigation of haunted places — might be one means toward that goal.

Ghost Hunting and Numinous Experiences

Related to this notion, I think ghost hunting shows how many individuals within our society are still searching for religious experiences or “numinous experiences” as the theologian Rudolf Otto called them.

If you want to read a full engagement with the topic of ghost hunting as chasing the numinous, you can read this great article by Daniel Wise from the Journal of Gods and Monsters linked here:

To give a shorter summary, Rudolf Otto invoked the term “numinous” to refer to a transcendent and mysterious quality encountered in religious experiences. It represents a unique and awe-inspiring encounter with the divine that elicits a sense of fascination, awe, and even fear in individuals. The numinous is characterized by its 'wholly other' nature, going beyond the ordinary and mundane. Otto described the numinous as a sense of creaturely finitude when confronted with the divine. He emphasized that the numinous experience includes both a tremendous sense of mystery and an irresistible attraction. It involves a paradoxical combination of both fascination and trembling before the divine presence — a type of theological sublime.

Ghost hunting is, for many individuals, both scary and exciting — terrifying and supernatural. To encounter a spiritual entity in the world is to encounter the numinous.

Paranormal Psychogeography as Cruciform Cognitive Mapping

Most likely, however, one will not encounter a paranormal entity whilst ghost hunting or walking a ghost tour — if such an encounter is even possible. Nonetheless, adding “haunted” locations to the cognitive map of one's environment can still be a worthwhile endeavor because the stories behind such hauntings often contain historical-mythological narratives of one's city beyond the conventional narrative of capitalist expansion. Instead, the stories often testify to the underlying trauma of our cities, focusing on the exploited and marginalized individuals who were failed by society.

For example, the Crescent Hotel's foundation for being (allegedly) haunted rests primarily with the original history of a wealthy con artist named Norman Baker selling a “miracle cure” for cancer. Of course, it was a total sham, and many people died horrible deaths under his watch while he shamelessly exploited their illnesses for personal profit. It's a horrific story of exploiting the most vulnerable for greed and profit. The hotel is thus haunted, if not by ghosts, by the history of America's failed medical system and our society's continued apathy toward the mistreatment of those who have illnesses. The full story is way crazier than I could describe, so I'll link the Wikipedia here:

The Cresent Hotel is not the only building in America haunted by tragedy. Cities are often built on trauma: environmental devastation, pollution, exploited labor, racism (such as red-lining), and even genocide (such as the treatment of First Nation and Indigenous Americans). Furthermore, there is tragedy and violence all around us, such as violence and poverty. Often in paranormal lore, places of tragedy and trauma are most likely to be haunted. Thus, by engaging with these stories — even if they are mostly mythological — one can develop a perception of one's material environment that pays special attention to those who need it most.

In this sense, ghost hunting or paranormal tours can possibly witness toward a cruciform hermeneutics of the city. Within the tradition of Christian liberation theology, there is a strong emphasis on God's special concern and favor toward the poor, marginalized, oppressed, and suffering. The crucifixion is often pointed to as a testimony to how God, in Christ, willingly enters into the suffering of humanity in order to co-suffer with them and bring about their liberation from the condition contributing to that suffering.

In a tangentially related vein, ghost hunting and ghost tours often focus on stories of suffering, tragedy, and trauma that happen within the modern city. Death in the workplace. Domestic violence. Murder. Depression. Suicide. Natural disasters. The prison industrial complex. These are all common phenomena associated with hauntings. Indeed, even if ghosts do not exist, our towns and cities are haunted by these tragedies. Ghost hunting and ghost tours ask us to confront these hauntings existing all around us. Now, I'm not claiming that ghost hunting is a form of liberation theology, but there might be a resonance here when both are applied to an analysis of the tragedies produced by human systems.

However, it's not the case that ghost hunting and ghost tours are the anti-capitalist praxis par excellence. Like everything, capitalism is perfectly capable of appropriating the supernatural into its system. A guided ghost tour costs money, and businesses often exploit the “haunted” label in order to attract more customers. But these seem like minor problems compared to other major issues within capitalism, such as climate change, supply chains, and privatized healthcare. Furthermore, visiting haunted locations, embarking on ghost hunting expeditions, or following ghost tours does not necessitate spending money. These activities can be co-opted quite easily through self-organized tours and independent research on the Internet. Doing so even opens up the possibility of meeting more people in one's community.

Against the backdrop of an ever-suffocating and truncating secularist materialism, I think it's great to imagine new ways of engaging with high strangeness so that the spiritual might break through the rusting machinery of modernity. Ghost hunting and ghost tours might be one small tool within our arsenal as we seek to move out of the secularist ennui. And the cherry on top is that developing a new cognitive map of one's urban environment is something that one can begin today. So start researching, start wandering, and let yourself feel a little spooky.

Appendix: As a final thought, I think it's important to mention how sacred spaces should not be neglected when it comes to developing a post-secularist cognitive mapping of material environments. Sacred spaces such as cathedrals, church yards, and prayer gardens (which are often neglected but more common than one might think) can likewise be spaces of high strangeness. Sometimes, they even overlap with ghostly hauntings. At least speaking for myself, I have stepped into several cathedrals and sacred spaces that were so beautiful that it was as if I stepped into another world.

#atmosphere #consumerism #capitalism #architecture #psychogeography

In the famous novel “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski, a family moves into a new house that, at first, appears unremarkable from the outside. But soon, the family begins to notice strange and unsettling things about the architecture: the house is filled with shifting and expanding dimensions, which seem to defy the laws of physics. The family discovers that the interior of the house is much larger than the exterior, with rooms and hallways that seem to appear and disappear at random. The walls of the house also seem to be made of shifting and unstable materials, with staircases that lead to nowhere and corridors that twist and turn in impossible ways. As the family explores the house, they become increasingly disoriented and paranoid, with each member experiencing the house's strange properties in their own way.

I was reminded of this story during my most recent trip to IKEA. There is something about the staging and atmosphere of IKEA that gives it a similar feeling to the house in Danielewski's novel. The winding, labyrinth-like journey through which one must travel takes on a surrealist or “psychotronic” atmosphere as each region of the store is staged with faux living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms that continuously shift in design and affect.

The way in which one must navigate the terrain in an unconventional manner — the long, snaking path weaving through seemingly every crevice of the building — creates an effect that, to me, feels as if the building is larger on the inside than the outside. Of course, the building itself is large to begin with. However, if the labyrinth were not there, it would only take a couple of minutes to get from one end of the building to another. But in its current design, it can take perhaps more than an hour to get through the store. The labyrinthian interior staging is also combined with an element of questing. People go to IKEA looking for bedding, furniture, decor, and interior design inspiration.

To me, the element of questing/searching combined with a winding labyrinth structure creates a dreamlike, quasi-surreal atmosphere. I say “quasi” surreal because I would hesitate to call the atmosphere fully surrealist. Surrealism, in my use of the term, refers to a deliberate effort to create art within the genre of surrealism and requires a well-honed skill in the craft of artmaking. This genre of surrealism is usually characterized by non-sequiturs, archetypal imagery, and the breakdown of rational logic, resembling the logic of dreams more than conventional reality. Or, more properly, it is the combination of dream and reality into a higher reality — a sur-reality.

However, it is also possible to accidentally create something that produces surrealist affective responses, which I call “psychotronic.” Psychotronic is a term used in the film world to describe films that often include bizarre or unconventional content and are typically characterized by low budgets, over-the-top acting, and a cult following. They often feature elements of horror, science fiction, and exploitation films and are intended to elicit strong emotional responses from viewers. I once heard psychotronic films described as “naive surrealism” (I tried to track down the original source of this to credit them, but I could not find it). In other words, a psychotronic film is one that is so bizarre, jarring, or poorly constructed — along with disjunctive, visceral affective qualities combined with long periods of nauseating boredom — that the film creates a dreamlike atmosphere, though completely unintentionally.

Though I wouldn't necessarily call IKEA shocking, I do think it exhibits something of a psychotronic and naively surrealist atmosphere. In a sense, it's like a capitalist parody of a holy site. IKEA is not on every corner like Walmart. Thus, for many people (such as myself), one has to make a long pilgrimage to reach a towering warehouse (like a cheap parody of a cathedral) wherein one traverses an eerie and unpredictable landscape to the point of physical exhaustion — all in order to acquire a new TV stand.

Perhaps this is all a stretch, but I think it showcases how many of our spaces of consumerism mimic sacred spaces of worship. It's as if our drives toward the holy and sacred have been co-opted and redirected toward consumerism. This is something I've written about previously, so if you'd like to know more about this, I'll link the article below.

#aesthetics #atmosphere #postmodernism #weirdcore #sublime

In one of my earliest posts, I analyzed the weirdcore aesthetic and claimed that it represents a type of immanentized sublime produced by capitalism. More fully, I said:

“In the case of weirdcore, we see something slightly different. There is a combination of fear (eerie/weird) and enjoyment (nostalgia), but it is not the same as the transcendence of the sublime. Instead, weirdcore conveys a truncated and flattened 'outsideness.'(...) The outsideness creeping in on us is a hyperreality of postmodern capitalism, in which the production machine of industry, mass consumerist reproduction, and omnipresent media culture — and especially the internet — have created an eerie rhizomatic “outsideness” of space (both virtual and physical space) that conditions our material environment. Notice, for example, how often in weirdcore the image barriers bleed together, giant dark patches consume space like a black hole, singular text phrases are divorced from meaningful discourse, and objects are deterritorialized from their original context. These common elements of weirdcore art are the basic factors of postmodern hyperreality: everything is deterritorialized from its original context and placed into the organizing structure of capitalism, social media is breaking apart discourse into incoherent soundbites, and there is a looming dark presence of de-subjectivizing ambiances all around us.”

I encourage you to read the full article if none of this is making sense to you.

Recently, I was listening to a weirdcore music playlist on YouTube. However, the playlist was not simply weirdcore but incorporated other related aesthetics, such as kidcore and traumacore. The connection between traumacore and weirdcore struck me as interesting, and I realized that my previous theory about weirdcore as an immanentized outsideness of a postmodern sublime might explain the relationship.

On Aesthetics Wiki, traumacore is defined as follows: “Traumacore is a type of aesthetic imagery that delves into the themes of abuse and trauma (particularly sexual trauma or CSA) along with cute visuals to give the whole aesthetic a 'bittersweet tragedy' feel. Mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse are also common themes in traumacore. Traumacore in general tends to be more focused on trauma experienced in childhood, explaining the cute visuals, although adult trauma can also be covered. Many people turn to these images to help them cope with the pain they suffered in the past.”

Full article. Warning: topics of abuse, PTSD, and other trauma-related topics:

In many spaces throughout the Internet, traumacore and weirdcore often bleed together, so much so that different weirdcore forums now have strict policies against posting anything traumacore related. The relationship is born, on the one hand, from their similarity in form. Both utilize a type of haunted, surrealist, dreamy nostalgia permeated by an early-2000s cyber-surrealism. In the case of traumacore, the content within the form, such as the text or images, takes on themes of traumatic experiences. Imagine a glitched-out gif of a CRT television displaying Halo 1 footage with text that reads “Mom isn't coming back.”

In addition to the similarities in formal quality between weirdcore and traumacore, I think there is also a connection via the haunted outsideness of an immanent sublime. An experience of the sublime is an experience of something that combines beauty and terror in such a magnitude that the excess of experience has difficulty being fully registered within one's consciousness. The example I always turn to is that the sublime is like standing on a cliff looking down at the Grand Canyon. It's overwhelmingly beautiful, but there is also a fear that if you fell, the canyon would kill you — not to mention the feeling of finitude compared to the massive size of the Canyon. Weirdcore separates the sublime from its often theological or natural components and instead places the sublime within postmodern capitalist landscapes, such as a McDonald's play place.

Similarly, traumatic experiences bring when them an “excess” that the brain has difficulty integrating. In many ways, trauma can 'break apart' the brain. Or, put another way, the brain breaks apart the registration of the experience into smaller chunks and then 'tucks them throughout one's unconscious and body so as to avoid experiencing the excess of horror all at once, which would be too overwhelming. This is why many individuals struggle to fully remember all the details of their trauma encounters and why many go into the freeze response during a traumatic event. Likewise, this gives trauma a feeling of both outsideness (via the external event of trauma) and insideness (the trauma lingers within oneself). In a way, it's a haunted outsideness of an immanent sublime, albeit a dark and horrific one.

The way in which weirdcore is a surrealist non-sequitur art form, or 'breaking apart' of narrative and coherent meaning, coalesces with the feeling of 'breaking apart' experienced in trauma. This is not to say that people with PTSD or who undergo traumatic experiences are intrinsically broken people or damaged goods. Rather, trauma has a way of disrupting our cognitive faculties and resisting integration into the psyche, which is captured surprisingly well by traumacore's utilization and appropriation of the weirdcore aesthetic. Traumacore shows how these weirdcore spaces are not only found within dead shopping malls and abandoned indoor parks, but also haunt our own psyches as well.

Finally, I will end on a positive note. I want to reemphasize that trauma does not make one intrinsically broken or damaged goods, despite how one might feel. Given my theological background, I will end with a quote from chapter 3 of Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconophilia and Iconoclasm by one of my favorite theologians, Natalie Carnes:

“The cross breaks brokenness by showing that brokenness—sin, violence, torture, death—cannot exclude God’s presence. At one level, the cross announces an absence. It sounds an absence of health, vitality, power, and, in the case of Christ’s wounds, an absence of flesh. Crucifixes, having a dead corpus, even declare an absence of life. Yet by these publications of absence, the cross makes, at another level, a powerful proclamation of presence. Churches, homes, and individuals fill their lives with crosses to mark the ubiquity of divine presence in the world. To put a cross on an altar, whether by painting one on it, like Grünewald’s Christ, or setting one nearby, as Catholic canon law requires, identifies the cross with the proclamation of Christ’s presence in the liturgy of the mass. The cross’s status in the Eucharistic liturgy underscores the way divine absence is bound to divine presence. On the cross, where the negation of the Image would seem to go too far—to overtake and vitiate, rather than unlock, presence—that negation is itself negated. The negation of negation celebrates a new presence, whereby God is present even in death.” (Carnes, page 88)

One of Andy Warhol's famous paintings of Marilyn Monroe.

An Icon of Christ

#AndyWarhol #aesthetics #art #Icons #postmodernism #atmosphere


Andy Warhol's life was often shocking, uncanny, and bizarre. However, a fact that seems to shock people most of all is that Warhol was Catholic. And not simply nominally Catholic. He attended Mass multiple times a week, prayed frequently, and, according to the priest giving his Eulogy, is responsible for at least one conversion to Catholicism.

More specifically, Andy Warhol was a form of Byzantine or Eastern Catholic, being common in many Eastern European countries, from which the Warhola family immigrated. Eastern Catholicism is known for its blend of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox theology and worship. Eastern Catholics remain in communion with the Vatican; however, their theology and liturgical practices — especially their art — is heavily influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy. Warhol's upbringing was conditioned by regular church attendance within this setting. Thus, he spent hours immersed within the sacred atmospheres of Byzantine chapels coated with icons of Christ, angels, and saints.

A Brief Theology of Icons

Within the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox tradition, icons are not merely images, but rather windows into heaven. The presence of icons is not the exact presence of Christ or the saint per se, but rather an appropriate representation or communication of that saint's life in heaven, where they are worshiping God. By having a space filled with icons, the congregation is reminded of how Sunday Services are moments in which worshipers cross the threshold into Heaven and participate within the perpetual worship carried on by the angels and saints who have gone before us.

If one looks at Eastern icons, and then examines some of the work in Warhol's Pop art, it seems as if Warhol's art becomes a type of iconography of Mass (pardon the pun) commercial media culture, such as the fetishization of commodities (parody of sacred relics and venerated objects) and especially celebrity culture (the 'saints' of our culture). But instead of providing a glimpse into the spiritual and heavenly realm, Warhol's Pop art icons act as a window into the broader virtual sphere and hyperobject of commercial culture.

Cyberpunk Asgard

Warhol understood this virtual media landscape quite well. He (or his ghostwriter) directly addressed the virtual space of commercialism in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.

“Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up by themselves. People, I think, are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they’re actually in, because with media you can sit back and still let yourself fill up space on records, in the movies, […] on the telephone and […] on television. […] If you were the star on the biggest show on television and took a walk down an average American street one night while you were on the air, and if you looked through windows and saw yourself on television in everybody’s living room, taking up some of their space, can you imagine how you would feel?” (Warhol, pages 146-147).

In today's world, the virtual cyberspace of commercial media saturates our environments even more than in Warhol's time, remaining present all around us through our smartphones, computers, televisions, etc. It's difficult to carve out spaces that haven't experienced a type of digital transubstantiation. Though it might remain invisible, it surrounds and haunts at every moment. Warhol's Pop art is a window into that landscape that seeks to be invisible.

Whereas the 'other side' of sacred icons is the spiritual and heavenly realm, full of the splendor, beauty, and majesty of God, the 'other side' of Warhol's art is a strange, cyberpunk virtual terrain, created simultaneously by both humans and machines. There is work created by real humans (actors, musicians, 'content creators,' etc.) but is also given animated power and transformed through digital technology, algorithms, cybernetics, the internet, etc. It is never merely human, and it could not be what it is without the magic of technological forces and machines. In a sense, it is a type of Asgard or Olympus populated by Freud's prosthetic gods.

In “Prosthetic Gods, Projected Monsters: Imagination and Unconscious Projection in Narratives of Technological Horror,” Filip Andjelkovic summarizes the prothetic god as follows:

“Technology is a means through which uncertainty is harnessed, a means through which 'man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning.' The telephone serves as an extension of the ear, the television as an extension of the eye. Technology is the material product of an ideal omnipotence and omniscience, an imaginary extension of identity impressed onto the world and operationalized as an actual extension of the body – the realization of the human subject as a 'prosthetic God.'” (Andjelkovic, page 21). Full article here:

Within the Asgard of cyberpunk virtuality, we experience what Andjelkovic calls a “technologized transcendence” (Andjelkovic, 19). As he describes it, “The unseen, supernatural forces of the divine and demonic have migrated from a spiritual and immortal pneuma to a personal and mortal psyche. [...] the popular, literary imagination became the new nexus through which old narratives of transcendence were transmitted and maintained – but with a reworked relationship regarding the human subject” (Andjelkovic, 19). The virtual space of commercialism creates a seemingly infinite immanent plane, which preoccupies hours of our time and energy in an ecstatic waste of consumerism.

Concluding Thoughts

My general approach to Andy Warhol is to see him as, whether intentionally or not, the greatest performance artist of all time, who holds up a mirror to society as it transforms into a postmodern consumerist cyberpunk terrain. He is Duchamp taken to his logical extreme. Or, in this case, he is an iconographer, showing us what we worship. Some people hate Warhol's art, but what I think what they truly hate is the reflection of society depicted by Warhol. Though we cannot separate ourselves from the cyberpunk postmodern world of techno-fueled consumerism, we can find ways of mitigating its effects and rediscover a sense of true humanity in the process. If anything, Warhol's art, and the inverted religion of Pop art, challenges us to rediscover a more authentic notion of the sacred, propel toward seeking out truly sacred spaces, and create new imaginations fueled more by prayer than by Netflix.