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Christ Sol Invictus: A Way Out of Our Christian Epistemological Crisis

In the Vatican necropolis — a sprawling, excavated cemetery beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome — there are many depictions of Christ from the first centuries after his death. A famous one in the Tomb of the Julii shows the Son of God riding on a chariot, with a sunburst halo. The image is a Christianization of the Roman Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun” god. In the same tomb, and in other early tombs, like the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Christ is depicted as the Good Shepherd.

I’ve visited the Vatican scavi many times. The mosaic showing Christ as Sol Invictus has always struck me as especially powerful. The Good Shepherd is a more familiar character to us than the Unconquered Sun. It’s a favorite for homilists, and has many compelling dimensions. Psalm 23 assures us that God our Shepherd fulfills our desires and gives us rest. Christ speaks of his gentle, familiar call. He tells us that he will seek us out of his desire to have us for himself, even if we wander and lose his voice. In the end, he will lay down his life for love of us, despite our sinfulness, our sheepishness. The Good Shepherd is a noble figure: he loves and cares deeply, and he responds with love to the ultimate test. The mystery that God is love is captured best, perhaps, by that image.

On the other hand, Christ the Unconquered Sun appears a more distant, ironically colder persona. He is far above and beyond us. In biblical terms, he is a representation of God as truth — not love. He is similar in type to the burning bush in Exodus, an unquenchable fire that does not consume but rather manifests. The light of the Christian Sol Invictus shows what has been hidden — not in a way that immediately brings judgment and condemnation, but somehow in the same personal mode as the lover who lays down his life for his beloved.

Truth, in this dimension, is something active. It is personal. Truth seeks me and I am comprehended by it. It seeks and comprehends me more than I seek and comprehend it. And in doing so, it reveals a mode of truth that is distinctly, uniquely divine.

This could be a good place to begin untangling the epistemological crisis of faith I wrote about before.

On the surface, love seems to be the divine name du jour. Being sophisticated means acknowledging that love is boundless, absolute; whether that means defending the right to love whomever you wish in whatever way you wish, or the duty to extend love to anyone in any place under any circumstances. The Good Shepherd is a remedy for the problems that inhibit these ideas of love from being truly Christian.

Truth, in contrast, is a byword for stunted, medieval (usually Christian) religious experience. It fights to occupy the same space as sophisticated, scientific truth. By comparison, faith seeking understanding is a feeble alternative to atheistic materialism. Here, precisely, the image of the Sol Invictus is a revolution. It proposes a realistic interpretation of the grounds for a Christian fides quaerens intellectum. Materialism suggests that knowledge is conditioned by finite circumstances, but conditioned absolutely and unavoidably all the same. Christ is the eternal logos that not only conditions and defines truth as we understand it, but also grounds it in a single, intelligible source of being. Divine truth causes universal truths, and enables the very pursuit of truth in an accessible, systematic way.

Truth in its divine mode does not render particular truths any more certain than a ubiquitous material substrate can. But it also cannot be wiped away without destroying the same internal logic that props up determinism or atheistic materialism.

To draw once more from Ratzinger, divine truth guarantees at least a “perhaps” that cannot be refuted rationally, save by a similar “perhaps” that negates it. This is the eventuality we’re left with as human knowers, and it cannot be avoided. But this deadlock can’t be final: it’s intelligible yet indeterminate — we can’t quite be certain which “perhaps” is the real one. We can know that an impotent, material truth cannot be indeterminate; we reason that it must be absolute (even if there’s something “beyond it,” it would be something we couldn’t understand anyway).

The prick of this inevitable “perhaps” in our mind — and the residual horizon it creates — is an indirect perception of the Son of God; the Unconquered Sun who knows us, and whose knowledge of us causes us to be able to know at all. It is a personal insertion of the divine truth into our subjective perception of reality that we cannot escape, and a reminder of the “dialectic” character of the human mind that can only make sense in relationship to another.

 

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