January 16, 2021

Fr. Freeman on the Two-Storey vs. the One-Storey Universe

Wonder. Photo by David Cornwell at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Christians must live in a way and learn a manner of understanding that allows the reintegration of the world.

• Fr. Stephen Freeman

• • •

Many of my earliest religious memories are connected with funerals. I came from a large extended family, all of whom lived in the same county. It was inevitable that death would visit my family on a regular basis. Funerals themselves were primarily directed to the living. The dead were respectfully laid to rest. Displays of strong emotion were discouraged. The day of a funeral often concluded with a long covered-dish dinner at my grandparents’, at which children played as always and conversation moved quickly to its perennial subjects: family, farming, and automobiles.

When the dead were buried, they were generally dead and gone. There was little conversation about heaven, even less about hell. The Protestant world had no purgatory; thus no further thought was given to the departed other than to offer comfort to those who felt their loss most keenly. There were no services to pray for their souls, no candles to be lit, and no conversation about their eternal disposition. Death brought an end to this life, and though we were taught to believe in a life after death, our experience was often an emptiness with no thoughts to fill the void.

What was clear in all this was the finality of death. There was an unspoken distance between the living and the dead, and nothing was to disturb it. No one seemed to notice that God Himself was separated from us by the same distance. For if the dead are with Jesus and are now at an unspoken distance, how far away must Jesus be? The distance between God and the world was an unspoken part of the landscape in which I lived. Belief in God was nearly universal, and yet that belief did little to shape daily life. There was a moral connection, a sense that our world was related to God through the things it “ought” to do, or through the things it “should” believe. But a great gulf was fixed between the dwelling place of God and the stage on which daily life occurred. Few things illustrated that gulf more clearly than the absence of those who had died.

The shape of the universe of my childhood was not the invention of Southern Protestantism. It was part of a much larger culture, forged in the crucible of the Protestant Reformation and the birth of the modern world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Today it is the dominant shape of the universe shared by most cultures of the modern Western world. It is the universe in which modern believers live. It is also a universe increasingly hostile to religious belief.

I have come to think of this modern cultural construct as the “two-storey universe.” It is as though the universe were a two-storey house: We live here on earth, the first floor, where things are simply things and everything operates according to normal, natural laws, while God lives in heaven, upstairs, and is largely removed from the storey in which we live. To effect anything here, God must interrupt the laws of nature and perform a miracle. Exactly how often He does this is a matter of debate among Christians and many others within our culture—often measured by just how conservative or liberal their religion may be. The effects of this distance are all-encompassing in the area of religious experience and belief, and frequently in other areas as well.

Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe (ch. 1)


  1. Robert F says

    I don’t see that the “shape of the universe” “shared by most cultures of the Western world”, “in which modern believers live”, is “increasingly hostile to religious belief”. It has certainly limited the degree to which any particular religious belief or religion may influence or control the culture, and it has generated a world in which not all or even most of our immediate neighbors share our particular beliefs. In that respect it has become harder to practice certain forms of religious belief, because we cannot look to society wide practices to support universal religious convictions, nor can we expect the public realm to support particular religious and liturgical habits and practices the way it used to throughout most of history. Yet religious belief is thriving, even if much of it has become privatized rather than being connected to institutions, and even if it is not our particular religious belief. Diversity of faith, faith chosen and held rather than imposed, has been made possible by the world in which modern believers live; it was not possible before. I am grateful for this change, even if it makes my particular faith more difficult to practice and sustain due to the enormous cognitive dissonance created by living outside a religious ghetto, however humble or grand, in which all my neighbors share my beliefs because they are compelled to.

  2. “It is also a universe increasingly hostile to religious belief.”

    And if the attitudes of religious societies in the past (Roman imperial, Temple Judaism) towards Christ’s teachings were any better than ours, I’d be concerned that we’re not “religious”. But they were not, so I’m not.

    • Robert F says

      Don’t forget the hostility of historic Christendom’s religious societies to Christ’s teachings.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And the Born-Again Bible-Believing Evangelicals alone with their Bibles have done any better?

        It was a SCRIPTURAL House Fellowship(TM) that took my head apart in the Seventies, and a “historic Christendom’s religious society” (Romish Popery) that duct-taped it back together in the Eighties and Nineties.

        • Robert F says

          No, they haven’t done better. They’re cut from the same cloth as their predecessors, but at least they have no state church….yet. I

          ‘m glad Roman Catholicism has been good for you, but it wasn’t for me.

    • Christiane says

      what a huge difference there CAN BE between a ‘religious’ person and a ‘spiritual’ person, depending on how the terms are identified.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Problem is, “religion” is a dirty word among Born-Agains.

        Remember “You have a (sneer) Religion; I have a (smile) RELATIONSHIP!”?

  3. Jeri and I were talking along these lines on Sunday morning. She had recently listened to a Catholic radio program while driving, and said that she could appreciate a lot of what the speaker was saying, but not the part about praying to the saints. This led to a discussion of whether the “saints,” or the departed, are still alive.

    Did Jesus not say that God is god of the living, not the dead? Are the dead to rise again? Are they still alive? What is this “great cloud of witnesses,” anyway? We Protestants never have this discussion. The dead are dead, the case is closed.

    Never mind praying “to” the dead; that may be idolatry. But what about praying “for” the dead? Can a Protestant do that? Are the dead alive in Christ or not? Are they capable of ongoing “sanctification?” What about the dead praying for us? Can our loving, believing grandmothers be praying for us even now? Again, we don’t allow ourselves to have these discussions. The case is closed and God is out there, somewhere, somehow guarding the dead from us until a mysterious end time.

    If our Protestant reluctance to commune with the dead keeps us from a full understanding of God and heaven, then in that sense I can agree with Fr. Freeman that we have made for ourselves a universe “hostile to religious belief.”

    • “If our Protestant reluctance to commune with the dead keeps us from a full understanding of God and heaven”

      Our reluctance to take prior tradition in whole cloth, that I won’t back away from. Sorry, too much of received tradition is just aggregated opinions. But… apart from those traditions, which I admit I view with a jaundiced eye, what basis do we have at all for “communion with the dead”?

      • Just off the top of my head, Eeyore, I would point to the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus communed with Moses and Elijah. I think the resurrection “appearances” of Christ imply a somewhat permeable barrier between the resurrected life and our life. The book of Revelation, apocalyptic language and all, imagines two different dimensions of existence — one in this world and one in “heaven” — with vital connections between them. The reported ministry of “angels” in the Bible seems to imply that God’s messengers at least can go between the realms of “heaven” and “earth.” When Peter was miraculously released from prison and knocked at the door of Mark’s mother’s home in Acts 12, those present thought that it might be Peter’s “angel” — apparently they had some belief in a messenger from heaven who could communicate on behalf of people. Just a few thoughts…

        • I don’t want to start a long rabbit trail conversation here, but I would clarify that I wasn’t arguing against supernatural life after death per se – just our expectations about access to it now.

          • No, that’s what I thought you meant. I think my examples spoke to that — to biblical accounts of people interacting with persons in the heavenly dimension.

            • Again, I’m wary of drawing present-day wide applications from specific salvation-history events. That way lies snake handling and expectations that we can raise the dead ourselves.

              I expect I am a bit like Thomas – I need to see the nail prints and stab wounds. That certainly does not make me a top-rank saint, but I’m just hoping to squeak past Peter at the pearly gates at any event. :-/

              • Robert F says

                I think your wariness is warranted. Such a procedure for justifying current beliefs and practices is not all that far from proof-texting. You said what I lacked words to say. Well said.

                • Robert, this seems to have been a touchy area of discussion for you. I hope it hasn’t stirred up painful or difficult things.

                  • Robert F says

                    Sometimes I think I need a blog that performs the equivalent function for former and alienated Roman Catholics that this one does for evangelicals. Know of any?

              • Eeyore, I’m not saying these examples offer “proof” but are merely suggestive of a worldview in which God’s realm and the earthly realm are not separate. I don’t think there’s “proof” of any of this, any more than I seek “proof” when one of my bereaved folks tells me she heard her deceased husband’s voice or saw him standing by the bed at night. In the end, we must choose to interpret what happens to us in our lives based on any number of factors. I’m merely suggesting that the biblical writers (and I would add to that centuries of testimony and tradition in the church) give us at least some witnesses to the possibility of a God-soaked world in which the veil between heaven and earth may have thin places.

                Is that any better?

          • Eeyore, I wouldn’t want people to have unrealistic expectations either. There’s enough abuse of the gifts of the Spirit without encouraging people to go off the deep end. But I don’t buy a complete refusal of spiritual possibilities either. Jesus said, “if you have faith as a mustard seed…” and we all believe in that more or less, but we’d be suspicious of anyone who claimed to move mountains.

            I get upset with the cessationists who deny that the gifts of the Spirit are in effect today. Despite abuse, I believe that they are. And perhaps one of the most important of the gifts is discernment, for us to know the difference.

            • Adam Tauno Williams says

              “””but we’d be suspicious of anyone who claimed to move mountains.”””

              Well, that would be very easy to verify!

            • I don’t deny the possibility of the continuance of charismatic gifts – the biblical case for cessationism has more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese. But neither have I seen charismata done well, or in a manner that couldn’t be explained by psychology.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I think the resurrection “appearances” of Christ imply a somewhat permeable barrier between the resurrected life and our life.

          What Celtic folk tradition calls a “Thin Area” and paranormal types a “Window Area”.

      • David Cornwell says

        Much is still a mystery and beyond our understanding and will probably stay that way. However, I think the dead are safe with Jesus and probably in some sort of conscious state. I also think there is a good possibility that they can pray for us. Whether they are generally aware of our earthly activity — not sure, but I doubt it. I’ve heard of brief experiences of the presence of a dead person to the living. Mostly they seem to be for the purpose of bringing comfort and assurance, not a warning.

        The rest I’m saying here is personal and an opinion: Marge, my wife, had Parkinson’s and a type of dementia that went along with it — with some major differences from Alzheimer’s according to her neurologist. But toward the end, she developed a fast-growing and large cancer. She specifically asked the surgeon if she were going to die from this cancer — the answer was yes. She declined chemo and radiation treatment. But her immediate question was a personal one to me. She asked, with the cancer team present, “David what will you do when I die?” Even with these two serious illnesses, her concern was for her family and for me. I believe this concern is still with her in whatever conscious state she is now in. Her question remains with me. Every single day of my life it’s with me.

      • Eeyore, I was in a hurry to get out the door this morning, and “commune with the dead” was probably a poor word choice. I don’t want to encourage what King Saul did, holding a seance with the witch of Endor.

        But, as Mike mentioned, what do we mean by “communion of the saints” as in the Apostles’ Creed? Are the saints alive or dead? Are Moses and Elijah present now, as they were with Jesus, hundreds of years after their deaths? What about Grandma? Should we pray for her, or hope that she prays for us, even though she’s dead?

        For most of my evangelical experience there has been a flat-out NO to the question of praying for the dead. But what should a pastor do for a bereaved widow who says that she has been praying for her husband? Should the pastor rebuke her and give her a lesson in non-Catholic theology, and explain to her that the Apocrypha, parts of which may support that, is not part of the Bible?

        I guess it’s the NON-conversation that seems frustrating, the refusal to consider possibilities, and that was a focus of the conversation with my wife the other day.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          “”” But what should a pastor do for a bereaved widow who says that she has been praying for her husband?”””

          There seems to be a simple practical question: What’s the harm if she does?

          • Robert F says

            I don’t see any harm in praying for the dead, or asking for their prayers. But what I do see harm in is making prayer for the dead, or invocation of and devotions to the Saints, a requirement of faith.

        • “Are the saints alive or dead? Are Moses and Elijah present now, as they were with Jesus, hundreds of years after their deaths?”

          Alive in some sense, yes. Present here and now? No, because Moses and Elijah were extremely visible to the three disciples, and they aren’t visible now that we are aware of. I am VERY wary of generalizing from specific events like that.

    • Christiane says

      ‘the Body of Christ’ 🙂

      Ted, we are, as Christian people, already living an eternal life.
      The ‘separation’ of death is a physical one but there is still a ‘unity’ of members within the Body of Christ that exists beyond the boundaries of time and death. Love is eternal.

      some thoughts

      • Christiane, that’s something like what I was thinking. The “already / not yet” in the case of us the living. But what is the “great cloud of witnesses,” and does it amount to the same after all as the body of Christ?

    • Ted, the first chapter of his book, as indicated in today’s quote, tells how Fr. Freeman grew up in Southern Baptist churches and the one thing that got his attention, was just what you said — when someone died, they were gone, no more discussion. Despite whatever comments might have been made about “heaven” there was no sense of the dead living on, or of them having anything to do with us anymore. I won’t have any more of that. One of the most meaningful Sundays of the year to me now is All Saints, and I finally have some content to go with the words, “I believe…in the communion of saints.” But you’re right: Protestants don’t generally want to have that discussion.

  4. senecagriggs says

    Lunch with Chaplain Mike is actually on my bucket list. I’ll pay.

  5. bonnie blue says

    We do not go to church and perhaps we will soon. My fiancé always ask our neighbors, who are a nice older couple , where is it in the Bible when he brings up things. We do not own a Bible, is praying for the dead in the Bible? Our neighbors believe that you are sleeping when you die until Jesus comes back? That was new to me and Jerry.

    • My interpretation is that the word “sleep” is a metaphor. When a person dies, it looks as though their body is sleeping. We lay them in the grave and call it their “resting place.” We await the day when they will “awaken” in the resurrection. It’s not meant to be taken literally, as some who teach “soul sleep” say.

      Paul said to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. He said he would rather depart and be with Christ, which is far better. However that all works, I believe those who die are alive and in God’s care. They are in “heaven” — that is, they are with God in a dimension invisible at this time to us. But that dimension is not far away — it is in our very midst. Our loved ones are truly “with us,” though not in the same bodily way they were before. One day that which is now invisible will become visible, God’s dimension will merge with ours (in the words of the Bible, heaven will descend to earth), the dead will be raised and made whole again with new bodies, we who remain here in this dimension will be transformed, and we will live with God in a new creation. What we now experience as separation between ourselves and God and the deceased saints will then be done away with and we shall be together face to face.

      • bonnie blue says

        To the Chaplin, that was very good and nice. I will show this to Jerry. I have never heard it made so plain and it sounds right to me.

    • If I may, I’d love to buy you a Bible. I’ll contact CM about the process for doing that.

      • bonnie blue says

        Rick Ro. That is very sweet and kind offer. There is no need as we are able to purchase one and Jerry mentioned a study Bible. Thank you for your offer but pass it on to those in greater need. Our only excuse is in action. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful offer. Mr. Ro. , Just the offer makes me feel good

        • Rick Ro. says

          Great, but know that the offer still stands! And if you take me up on it, I’ll include a list of scriptures that have meant a lot to me over the years. Some of these have even replaced ones that meant a lot to me in the past but not so much anymore (changing as my walk and understanding of Jesus has changed/morphed over the years).

        • anonymous says


          call the Gideon people in your area
          they will get you a Bible and they will be happy to do it

          • bonnie blue says

            Thanks to all of you, we (I) never felt a need to read the Bible before, now I do. We will surely get one. If we move to Utah we may need to get the Mormon book. also. Rick Ro. I again thank you for your sincere concern and I know it is sincere. I check in here every 2.3 days and I will learn from many here and the Chaplin.

            • Christiane says

              the Mormons will bring you a Book of Mormon right over . . . . just call them . . . . they are not ‘pushy’, but they are kind

            • For what it’s worth, if my kids were moving to Utah, I’d highly recommend they avoid the Mormon book and Mormonism and stick with the Bible and the Creeds. Just my 2 cents.

  6. Fr Stephen mistakes cause for effect. It was the Christian intellectual framework that denuded nature by removing the divine from it. God stands apart from nature. He creates and manipulates it but is not identified with it. The older view died with paganism. This abstraction and distancing of nature was not caused by science but actually made science possible. If there is a “two-story” universe it was created by Christianity.

    And the modern “universe” is not hostile to religious belief but is indifferent to it. It’s easy to confuse the two but in many ways indifference is worse.

    • Stephen, Fr. Stephen would say that the move to a two-storey universe you indicate grew primarily out of Reformation Christianity, not early Christianity.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      When I was in Brazil, I stumbled into a couple of spiritist services where there were healing prayers being made. Strangely enough, I found that the mães dos espíritus quickly isolated me and requested that I leave the service.

      When I asked around about it, I found that specifically Pentecostal Christians were not welcome at Spiritist services. Something about them interfered with their reception. I don’t know whether Baptists and Lutherans were subjected to the same treatment, but there aren’t a lot of Baptists or Lutherans in Brazil, and the ones that are act a lot like Pentecostals anyway.

      Now, this is based on anecdotal evidence, a couple of personal experiences and those of a couple of pastor friends who told me that the macumberos routinely ask before their services; Têm por aí alguns aleluyas? (“Are there any Alelluias here?”, meaning people who would routinely say “alleluia” in their church services). I know this sounds like propaganda out of Charisma magazine, but it was very spooky when it happened to me.

      I also don’t know if I would be welcome now that I am Orthodox. That would be deeply unsettling.

      My opinion is that the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, meant to replace the old blood gods and nature spirits with divinized human beings, as part of the Tikkun Olam. But when the Academy began to replace the Monastery after the Schism as the place where people went to seek wisdom, the spaces were emptied, and we know what our Lord said about spiritual vaccuums.

      • I’m assuming you are a fairly typical anglo in appearance. Could that also account for the suspicion?

        • Burro (Mule) says

          I don’t look Brazilian, of course, but I thought I’d be more likely to be mistaken for a tourist than a Pentecostal, except I did have a Bible.

          What Father Stephen describes perfectly is exactly this itch we have to find a ‘rational’ explanation for everything. It couldn’t be that Screwtape was upset about one of the Enemy’s partisans being in attendance, and that he was able to pass that information to one of his lieutenants on “this side”.

          Father Stephen is fond of saying that when people begin to acquire more of an Orthodox mindset, and begin to move away from a Protestant mindset, they are usually accused of ‘becoming superstitious’.

          One of the priests at my parish is a great young guy, kinda worldly-wise, likes a good spread at the parish dinners, likes his adult beverages. He told me not to worry about demonic influences in my family. After 10 years in ‘the business’ he can tell, he says. Grandma wants to stay in her room and curse during the houseblessing. Uncle Nick snarls when you mention Christ or the Virgin, and shows an avesion to holy water, that sort of thing. It’s strange. A tough-looking Russian with gang tattoos on his knuckles will go as meek as a lamb, but a respectable looking milquetoast sort of fellow will start spewing the most awful atheistic blasphemies at the sight of poor Fr. Chris in his cassock.

          What we call the “real, secular” world just ain’t. It just ain’t, and it sure as hell is not neutral. Every stick, rock, and waterway takes a side.

          • Christiane says

            “It’s strange. A tough-looking Russian with gang tattoos on his knuckles will go as meek as a lamb, but a respectable looking milquetoast sort of fellow will start spewing the most awful atheistic blasphemies at the sight of poor Fr. Chris in his cassock.”

            I LOVED this whole comment, Mule 🙂

          • I don’t know. I spent some a good bit of time in the mid to late 70’s around some crazy pigs in the parlor types. That experience has showed me you find what you go looking for. I decided back then that wasn’t what I wanted to find. But at least I know who call if things do start getting weird.

          • Robert F says

            Believing you can discern the influence of malignant spirits behind weird human behavior on the basis of ten years of experience as a clergyman is a bit hubristic. Your priest is still wet behind the ears.

            • Robert F says

              This comment and the one right above it from me were both harsh. I don’t know your priest and can have no informed opinion about him, much less render verdict on his character. I apologize, Mule.

              • Burro (Mule) says

                He has the makings of a very good priest indeed, as you and I have the makings of very good Christians. Apology accepted, and counter apology tendered.

                • Robert F says

                  I have no idea what it’s for, but I’ll accept your counter apology anyway, so that we can both get on with the work of becoming very good Christians.

      • Norma Cenva says

        I’m wondering if they eject Jews too…(tongue in cheek sarcasm here)

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    JMJ/Christian Monist (JM Jones in the blogroll) wrote and blogged extensively on this very subject.

  8. That about sums it up. We talk about God “in heaven above.” I don’t think there is anything malevolently wrong with that. After all, He is above and beyond our conceptions for sure. Nonetheless, I think many of us are aware that we live and move and have our being in Him. Sometimes we even sense the immediacy of His presence. It’s not Him who is out there somewhere, it’s us!

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