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The theology of up

03 May 2013

Andrew Davison reflects on the coming feast of our Lord

"AS THEY were watching," we read in Acts 1.9, Jesus "was lifted up". Christ did not close the forty days after his resurrection with a descent, nor did he take his exit sideways. He went up. The feast next Thursday invites us to think about ascension: not simply the ascension, but ascension: the very idea of "up".

We can approach this through a remarkable but accessible work of philosophy, Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 1980). Their argument is simple: metaphors are not some special expressive backwater of language; they are fundamental; they make up the warp and weft of speech. Notice that I have just spoken of language as having a "backwater" and of its "warp and weft". These are metaphors. We cannot speak and not use metaphors in the process. Give it a try.

The ideas of Lakoff and Johnson were not entirely new, but few before them had made such a persuasive case. The two Americans also make some far-reaching claims about how metaphors work.

We understand the world using metaphors, they write, and those metaphors clump together. Specific metaphors usually serve as one example or another of some larger structuring metaphor. Those large-scale metaphors, Lakoff and Johnson argue, are usually spatial: they involve up-down, in-out, deep-shallow, and so on. This is because our experience of the world is fundamentally spatial.

Lakoff and Johnson might have explored this with any of many possible examples. Fortunately for us, they choose to devote space to "upwards" metaphors: the home territory of the ascension. Here is what they say: the language of up is associated with happiness, consciousness, and being in control; with quantity, status, virtue, and approval.

Consider the following examples: "I'm feeling uplifted today, but he's feeling down" (happy is up); and "Wake up!" and "She rises early" (conscious is up). Consider: "I have control over him," and "I'm on top of the situation" (having control is up); and "The share price rose" and "Turn the heat down" (more is up). Then there is "a lofty position" and "She's at the peak of her career" (status is up), and "high-minded, high standards, upstanding, underhanded, a low trick, beneath me" (virtue is up).

We need not suppose that this feature belongs only to English-speakers. In the Old Testament, triumph and confidence are "up", as in "my horn is exalted in my God" (1 Samuel 2.1). The Church Fathers make a link between dignity and "up". According to Gregory of Nyssa, in On Virginity, the human form is intrinsically nobler than the body of a pig, because we can lift our heads up and see the stars, but swine cannot.

Each of these ways of thinking in terms of up has positive associations. It reminds us that the Ascension concludes the Easter story as a happy ending. To use another "up" metaphor, the Easter story is ultimately "upbeat", and the Ascension underlines this.

In contemporary Christianity, we can encounter a tendency to wallow in the sorrow of the Passion and what gets called "brokenness". A decade or two ago, we might even have pointed to brokenness as the touchstone of a then-current orthodoxy; it was the Alpha and Omega for a certain commonly encountered piety.

The problem here lies not in conceding the place of sorrow, and even disaster, in the Christian story. Jesus experienced human suffering to the final extreme. The problem is in taking this solidarity of Christ's in our suffering as the final word, playing down his invitation for us to share solidarity in his defeat of death, sin, and evil.

We could put it like this: Jesus embraced human tragedy, but his story is not, in the end, a tragedy. It does not end in bafflement and compromise, with rupture and doom, with a stage full of bodies, or with any of the other marks that a student of literature might tell us represent the essence of tragedy. Application of Lakoff and Johnson's insights over "up" language helps us to see quite how much, after the utter darkness and defeat of the Passion, the ascension confirms the resurrection's note of resolution and victory.

All of this might pose a challenge to those of us for whom a Saturday evening holds no joy comparable to watching a film in a foreign language with a miserable ending. After all, a story that ends well is a comedy, and our culture is liable to find comedies culturally inferior, or even a little distasteful. If so, the Ascension invites - quite simply - us to get over ourselves.

The message of Christianity is one of ultimate consolation. Christ has won the victory. We had better reconcile ourselves to this, however much it might offend urbane tastes for art-house despair.

Here, then, is the heart of the ascension: that Christ, our representative and champion, has been through hell, and back, for us, and that he has triumphed. Through the incarnation, we are summed up in Christ ("up", we might note). Christ has not, therefore, triumphed alone; we have triumphed with him. All that the ascension means for him, all those upward associations, it also means for us.

As Bishop Christopher Wordsworth put it, in one of his characteristically theological hymns:

Thou hast raised our human nature
In the clouds to God's right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
There with thee in glory stand;
Jesus reigns, adored by Angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine Ascension
We by faith behold our own.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is tutor in doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge.

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