Thursday, February 22, 2018

Lenten Meditation #2: The Coronation of the King

"The soldiers led him away into the courtyard, that is, the praetorium, and they called together the whole cohort. And they clad him in purple, and weaving together a crown of thorns, they set it upon him: and they began to salute him: 'Hail, King of the Jews!' And they were striking his head with a reed, and spitting on him, and falling on their knees they were worshiping him." (Mark 15:15-19)

Jesus Christ is king of the universe not because he is God, but because he is man. Inasmuch as he is God, Christ exists entirely apart from creation, neither needing it nor existing in any relationship with it commensurate to his nature. To God, creation is nothing--or rather, less than nothing. No created thing can in any way either add to or take away from what he is in himself.

God, to be sure, is the cause and end of creation, who created it and directs it according to his will, and in this sense he may be compared to a king. Still, in the fullest and most proper sense, the king is not the one who creates the people, nor even merely the one who directs it, but the one who represents it, who embodies it in himself. A king is a single human person who stands for all the other human persons that make up a people--in his one body and soul, he reflects and embodies and effects the unity of all the other human persons like him. A king, then, is not king by virtue of his unlikeness to his subjects, but by virtue of his likeness. No angel could be king of a nation of men, nor any man of a nation of bees.

In the truest sense, then, God is King of Creation in and through Christ, not in his divinity, but in his humanity. It is as created that God rules over the created; it is as created that Christ reflects and embodies and effects the unity of all creation in himself.  It is as man that Christ becomes King of Creation--but it is as God that he freely shares his own divine life with his subjects, raising them above nature, and uniting them with the eternal, perfect Divinity that is his birthright and inheritance. In and through Christ, the uncreated God is made King of Creation, and the created is made divine.

Like all human kingships, Christ's came into being in time and space and history, the realm of the created. Christ was born the heir of creation, but he had still to enter into his kingdom, to be anointed and crowned, to take his seat upon his throne.

Christ was born the Son of David; he was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his Baptism; but it was only in his Passion that he assumed his kingship in its fullness. It was in his Passion that Christ took on himself the rule of humanity and of creation, through his perfect sharing in its sins and wounds and sufferings and, finally, in the death that is the lot of all men and all creation. It was in his Passion that he received the emblems of his rule.

The Coronation of Christ, the King of the Universe, took place, then, in the Praetorium of the Roman guard, on a Friday in spring in Jerusalem. It was one of the many anonymous soldiers tasked with execution duty who clad the King in his royal garments, another who set on his head the Crown of all Creation, another who gave him his Scepter; and this whole cohort of soldiers and torturers were the very first to pay homage to the newly crowned King of time and space and matter.

This, then, is how the King of Creation was crowned, worshiped, recognized--as the lowest of all things, the mocked and despised and condemned. These are the infallible signs and means of his power: the Crown of Creation, a garland of thorns, twined in gleeful malice and forced onto his head, piercing it in place after place, drenching itself in his blood--the Scepter of Omnipotent Power, a reed hastily snatched up, beating his face again and again until unrecognizable. This is the true and fitting homage given to the Eternal King at his Coronation: utter mockery, unrestrained laughter, the contempt reserved only for that which is most hateful and most despised and overlooked and forgotten.

This, then, is the right by which Christ rules over all things: not that he is the strongest or the most beautiful, or the most recognized or admired or loved or trusted, but that he is the lowest and most shameful, weakest and most despised and forgotten and abused and mocked of all men. This is the right by which God would rule over us.

What gifts, then, would you offer to the King? Money, power, riches? All these are already his, and would have adorned him if he wished it. He did not wish it; he chose instead thorns and a reed and a soldier's cloak. Beautiful words, praises, the honor of your acknowledgment of him as Lord or God? Christ was crowned and worshiped by the utterly indifferent, who hated him--and you think he has need of your acknowledgment?

Christ valued the sincere mockery and contempt of the soldiers more than your proud and self-serving recognition. Whether you choose to acknowledge him or not, he remains King, and you, like the soldiers, will worship him in the end, willing or unwilling.

Christ was crowned in this way to show that there was only one thing that he truly desired, only one gift that you or any other human person or any other creature could truly offer him: yourself.

God became King of Creation not to gain gold or riches or honors or praises or the acknowledgment of men, but to save souls. For this reason, he took on himself all the mockery and shame and hatred and indifference of mankind, for this reason he made himself the lowest and least of all: so that in this way he might win the love of those who are weak and lowly, mocked and ashamed and hated, prideful and indifferent and condemned and sinners. You and I are all these things, and more; but for this reason, we ought to trust in God all the more.

Approach, therefore, the Throne of the King, the Cross. Recognize that God lowered himself to nothingness, to your nothingness, and even lower, so that you might love him. Recognize that for your sake God set himself beneath your feet, made himself powerless and despised and forgotten, so that you might remember him, and weep for your sins. Give him the only homage he desires: repentance from your sins, obedience to his commandments, trust in his love. Give him the only gift he desires: yourself.

It is only when you have given him yourself in its entirety, body and heart and mind and soul, ignorance and weakness and shame and sin, the utter nothingness of your created self, in total trust and abandonment and love, that his kingship will be truly fulfilled: for the true king reigns, not for his own benefit, but for the good of his subjects. For the eternal good of us, who are his subjects, the man Jesus was mocked and tortured and died in agony. For this reason he is, and always shall be, our Lord and King, and the King of all Creation. Let us worship him!

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, King of Creation, you humbled yourself to be crowned and worshiped by sinners in indifference and hatred and mockery; grant that by your omnipotent power we might so humble ourselves as to worthily and sincerely offer our whole selves to you, and so receive the rewards of your eternal Kingdom.

Amen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Lenten Meditation #1: "Then they spat in his face."

"Then they spat in his face." (Matthew 26:67)

There is a sacramental quality to the body that is unbreakable. We are complex creatures, with complex intentions and thoughts and willings, borne of our hearts and minds and souls--and we naturally express these things physically, through our bodies. There is nothing of our bodies, no action or feature or quality, that does not bear a meaning beyond the physical, that does not communicate. The most perfunctory hug is still as a gesture of affection: the touch of a stranger's handshake--a kiss on the cheek--the movement of a muscle in the face--all have their own proper meanings.

So let us consider, for a moment, what is expressed by the spittle on the face of Christ. Christ Jesus became man in order to inaugurate a system of Sacraments, or rather in order to be the one, eternal Sacrament of the love and mercy of God. His every gesture, his every word, indeed his entire being as man, spiritual and physical, was a communication, an expression, of the eternal Word and his love for each man and woman and child. All that he communicated, and all that he received, through the physical, through his body, was communicated and received also by God.

Thus the enormous significance of all that was done to Christ in his Passion, all that was done to and for Christ throughout his life. Christ came to earth to communicate his love physically, through the Sacraments of his body and life and actions--he also came to earth to suffer, in himself, all the sin and disorder and suffering of man. In this suffering, too, he worked out our salvation not only in soul, but in body as well. In his Passion, the sufferings of Christ's soul were signified and expressed and effected by the sufferings of his body. All that was done to the body of Christ by man was done also to the soul of Christ, and hence to God--all that has been done against God was suffered by Christ in his soul, effected and expressed in his body.

Christ did not merely suffer the sins of those who crucified him, or of his contemporaries--he suffered the sins and wounds and sufferings of each and every man who has ever existed or ever will exist, including each of us. He bore our sins in his soul and in and through his body, through all that he gave and received in the body. That which a few men did to Christ in his Passion, then, truly signified and expressed and effected that which has been done to Christ by us all. When Christ received the blows of the soldiers, in them he recognized and suffered the blows of us all.

Think, then, of the action of spitting in the face of Christ. This is, it would seem, a fairly universal gesture--one whose meaning and import strikes us immediately, across cultures and times and places. It is the physical embodiment of contempt.

Contempt, or despising, is not a sin that we think of, perhaps, very often. To define it, though, we have merely to look to the physical gesture, the physical sacrament, which very well both effects and reveals what it signifies.

When we spit, we cast out of our bodies, out of ourselves, something which we regard as superfluous, unnecessary, or even hateful to us. Our spit to us is both valueless and distasteful, not something we prefer to think of at all, a matter for disgust--and so we cast it from ourselves, usually without thought, into places equally valueless and disgusting.

When we spit upon another, then, we treat that person as an appropriate receptacle for our spitting, our casting out of what is valueless and distasteful. Our act of spitting is not intended to hurt, to cause pain, or even to harm. It is intended, rather, to humiliate, to lower, to disregard.

To spit in someone's face expresses this basic reality even more intensely. The face is the part of the body that shows forth the person, the unique, relational being, more clearly and more inescapably than any other. We both express and receive love through the face; when we recognize the face of someone we know, we recognize not merely a body or a mind, but something unique, irreplaceable, valuable, loved and loving, a you to our I. It is in the face we appear as we are, beings defined by relation, existing from and for love. To spit in someone's face, then, is to treat as valueless and disgusting not merely the body qua physical, but the person itself, the unique, relational being capable of love, with a name, a mind, a heart, a soul. It is to degrade and lower and crush not merely some person, but this person, you. I see your face--and I spit in it.

Imagine, then, spitting in the face of Christ. Here is the face of God, the face that embodies and makes effectual his love for each and every person, including you. Imagine the sorrow in his eyes as your spittle strikes the face of God. Imagine your spittle resting on that face, slimy and repulsive, dripping slowly down, in his eyes, his hair, his beard, covering up his features, obscuring, mocking, defiling.

You have taken that face, that love, and treated it as valueless, disgusting, as nothing. You have even taken pleasure in doing so--taken pleasure in the power, the superiority, the indifference, by which you so lowered, so degraded, God himself. You have seen yourself as you spat in the face of God, and have taken delight in what you saw.

Perhaps you think you have not done this, that you have not spit in the face of God, or in the face of any other man. You are mistaken.

We spit in the face of Christ, in the first place, each and every time we willingly despise another human person--whenever we treat another as valueless, disgusting, beneath us, whenever we choose to lower, to humiliate, to disregard. "That which you do the least of these, you do to me": strangers, waiters, sexual objects, political opponents, anonymous Internet trolls. In each and every person whose irreplaceable personhood, name, heart, soul, whom Christ loves and for whom he died, we have not acknowledged, we have despised and spat upon the face of Christ.

We spit in the face of Christ, likewise, when we treat his love for us, expressed in the Church and the Sacraments and in so many other things, as something valueless or distasteful or indifferent. It is difficult to accept the love of God, which requires us to submit ourselves to others, to deny our desires and inclinations and thoughts, and to accept and receive something far beyond our own knowledge or control. Far easier, then, to despise Christ and his Incarnation, and the means he uses to show us his love. Whether that is the teachings of the Church, or one's fellow Christian, or the Sacraments in which Christ offers himself to us, the blow is no less severe. It is most cruel of all when we reject and disregard Christ in the Eucharist, the most perfect sign of God's love, receiving him into our without acknowledging him or giving ourselves to him or desiring to be obedient to him in all things, or perhaps not bothering to receive him at all.

I invite you, then, to contemplate once again the image of Christ, with your spittle on his face. He willingly bears our contempt, our indifference, for the sake of his love. He allows us to despise him and disregard him and humiliate him and lower him, and he takes on himself all those situations in which we ourselves have been despised and disregarded. This is the measure of God's love, that he permits us to treat him, in comparison to whom we are nothing and can have no value at all, as valueless, as nothing. He chooses to love us, although he does not need us, and he allows us to despise him, although we cannot exist apart from him.

This is the extent of God's love for us, and the effectual sign of its omnipotence in regard to us. All that Christ asks of us is that we acknowledge that love, and accept it, that we permit him to love us and save us from our sins. He has willingly borne, and will willingly bear, all in us that is most distasteful and disgusting and shameful, and he will give us in return his own immortal and incorruptable life. He bears our spittle in his face, and gives to us his own flesh and blood. Let us receive him, then, worthily, and love him in our neighbor.

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, as in your Passion you willingly bore the spittle of our indifference and contempt, so grant us both to acknowledge and accept your great love for us and for all mankind, so that trusting in you and following you in all things, we may both love and honor you in all persons, and faithfully obey you in all things.

Amen.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Saint Josephine Bakhita

I love Saint Josephine Bakhita, and the story I find most affecting among the very many of her life is that of her death. After decades living as a free woman and a nun, respected and revered as a teacher and a living saint by those around her, the coming of old age and death meant a terrible and lonely return. On her deathbed, reduced physically, delirious in her last agony, she relived the long years of her enslavement and abuse, crying aloud in chains and scourgings and other indignities. She had been kidnapped at the age of seven, after a happy but brief childhood, and then abused so badly she forgot her own name, so that she was left only with that given by her tormentors, Bakhita, "lucky"; later, freed by the nuns of Canossa, she had received at her baptism a new name of her own choosing, Josephine, for Saint Joseph. Now, though, she was nameless again, an abused child deprived of dignity and identity, a slave utterly in the power of those for whom she was nothing and less than nothing. Over and over again, she cried out to her nurse, begging her to loosen the chains.
Still, even after this last, terrible trial, she awoke one last time, to find herself safe, beyond the power of her captors, and surrounded by those who knew and loved her. When told it was Saturday, the day of Mary, she spoke what were to prove her last words: "Yes, I am so happy: Our Lady...Our Lady!"
Not long after, she awoke again, from a long, dark dream, to find herself safe, far beyond every power and throne and dominion, and face to face with the One who knew and loved her truly, who for her had been bound and scourged and crucified. She is still awake today.
Saint Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Star Trek as Imperialist Literature

I've watched and read and thought about Star Trek a lot more than is probably healthy, but here's something that only very recently occurred to me, at least in an explicit form.

Star Trek, of course, has its origins in the art and literature of Imperialism, in the first place from the naval and colonial literature of the British Empire ("a tall ship and a star to steer her by"), in the second place from Westerns and other literature of the Age of Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny, and in the third place from Cold War, Kennedy-era art about superpowers and proxy wars. Yet I hadn't noticed that even in in-universe terms, there are literally NO non-Imperialist powers, and virtually no non-Imperialist entities, in the Star Trek universe. That is, there are no governmental entities that are not aimed essentially at unlimited expansion, or could not expand without limit.

The majority of both the villains and the allies of the Star Trek universe are single-species Empires whose raison d'etre is unlimited colonization and conquest by this single species over vast swathes of space and other species: hence the Klingon Empire, the Romulan Empire, the Cardassian Union, etc. This much is obvious.

What is less so is that the Federation is also a specifically Imperialist state, only one based on equality and liberal democracy and the extension of these principles. As the various series make clear, the Federation is constantly engaged in expansion, through exploration, colonization, and the frequent induction of new member planets. "First contact" with other species is carried out with the intention of eventually making them part of the Federation; and in many episodes we see new planets in the process of being absorbed into the Federation, with Bajor in Deep Space Nine only the most prominent example. The Prime Directive and the general Federation refusal to engage in wars of conquest is, at least in theory, a limitation on this--but in practice, it hardly seems to prevent or even slow down Federation expansion. A number of wars in the Star Trek universe, for instance, seem to have originated in the encroachment of new Federation colonies on the borders of other powers.

The United Federation of Planets is, in design, a version of the United States of America (down to the "Federation Constitution" with its "Guarantees" a la the Bill of Rights and its strict egalitarian policies banning caste systems and other non-egalitarian social structures in member worlds)--but it is a vision of the USA during its period of Manifest Destiny, that is, as a constantly expanding Imperialist entity aimed at a constantly-expanding "frontier." There is no inherent limitation to this expansion at all (such as a Galactic UN or any kind of necessary tie to a particular territory or culture), and no larger whole that the Federation considers itself subject to; in the long run, there is no reason besides force of arms and diplomatic policy why it would not absorb the Klingons, the Romulans, and every one of its rivals. In fact, if there's an underlying progressive arc to be discerned in the history of the Star Trek universe, its telos would seem to be the entire Galaxy (and beyond) as part of the Federation.

In the long run, as all the Star Trek shows make clear, the Federation, with its egalitarian policies and purported policy of non-interference, is simply far more effective and successful at Imperialism than any of its rivals. The Klingons, after all, no matter how much territory they may conquer, are still all finally bound to their sacred homeworld of Qu'on'os and the particular traditions and culture and religion of their species--and all these things are, in the end, limitations to the indefinite extension of their political power. The Federation, though, has no such equivalents.

There are apparently independent planets in the Galaxy, to be sure, though they get relatively little attention. Most of them are clear targets of the Federation's expansion, future member worlds to be enticed with economic and cultural and military benefits. A few are "neutral worlds" that exist on the margins of larger powers and generally are portrayed as havens for crime and the like. But even most of the "independent nations" we see are also expansionist Empires of various sorts. DS9's Dominion is a multi-species Imperialist federation with unlimited expansion as its goal. The Ferengi are an example of economic Imperialism, their goal unlimited business expansion and exploitation of resources. The Orion Syndicate is an expansionist organized crime group founded by a single species but incorporating many and operating within the network of Imperialist powers that dominate the Galaxy. The Borg, of course, are the ultimate "absorbers" and "assimilators" of species and people. And so on and so forth.

The Star Trek Galaxy, then, is dominated by dueling Imperialist expansionist powers, and everyone else has to find their place in the margins. Independence is, seemingly, scarcely an option--in Deep Space Nine, Bajor really has little choice but to join up with the Federation, since independence (as many episodes make clear) would immediately lead to annexation by a far less attractive Imperialist power (the Cardassian Empire). The Federation would not (and did not before) protect an independent Bajor--the price of safety is assimilation. The formation of any larger institution or whole over and beyond the Federation and its rivals is never even contemplated.

This is a dynamic that, to its credit, Deep Space Nine seems to get, and plays with a lot. The best example is in the speech I've posted here (which is a slight spoiler), as well as in the various non-Federation characters we see.

The normal critique of the Federation you tend to see is that it is economically Communist or really deep down violent and repressive (a la DS9's Section 31) or even just human-dominated and speciesist (a la Star Trek VI). I don't think any of these things are necessarily true--the Federation as portrayed in the various series and movies is clearly very committed to its egalitarian principles and codes of individual rights and principles of tolerance and multi-species cooperation and its very liberal-contractual theory of non-interference. But is the Federation intrinsically and by definition Imperialist? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. There's really no question.

Dependency

Whether we like it or not, we all affect each other, we all depend on one another, we all make claims on each other. By the very fact of our existence, we are in relation, one to another; and these relationships necessarily demand our attention, our energy, our love. Whether we like it or not, we all exist--and this fact has many profound and necessary consequences.

Individualism, in contrast, is an illusion that can only be maintained by homicide; whether this homicide is direct and deliberate or more indirect. If we uphold autonomy as the chief good, violence is the only possible means to that end. Still, no amount of violence can change reality. We have the power to harm or even destroy each other and ourselves; but we do not have the power to make it as though we never were.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Knowledge vs Relation

Thought that came to me tonight while driving in my car: the conflict between Neoplatonism & Christianity (and more broadly between Christianity & a lot of ancient philosophy) can be boiled down to the question of whether we attain union with God, ultimately, through knowledge or relation.
Expanded a little, the question is whether we attain union with God through the conscious operations of our natural intellect, or through a supernatural relation that transcends the intellect (i.e. the Incarnation).
I don't think I'll ever get over just how intelligent the Late Antique Neo-Platonist pagan religious-philosophical consensus was. A vast, hierarchical universe with innumerable powers, but the absolutely transcendent One as the source and summit of it all--a vast, hierarchical human society where people are constantly reincarnated in higher or lower positions based on their merit. At the bottom of the hierarchy, you worship daimons, lesser entities, through blood sacrifice, because they have power over your physical life and must be propitiated. A little higher up in the social ladder, you worship gods, slightly higher, more intelligent entities that exemplify beauty and courage and social virtues. At the very peak, philosophers learn about and contemplate the One directly, setting aside all creation, and achieve true union with him.
As a system, it's brilliant, an almost perfect, symphonic summing up of ancient pagan philosophy as a whole: philosophy subsumes pagan religion into itself, monotheism triumphs over polytheism, yet absolutely nothing is disturbed. To just about everyone, it makes sense. If you're an ordinary pagan, an illiterate peasant or an urban worker or slave, you can agree that yes, you worship capricious gods with sacrifice because they are very close to you and have power over you, over whether you are healthy or sick, whether your crops grow and you eat or they fail and you starve, whether your master frees you or crucifies you. Maybe there's a One God out there, but he has little to do with you and the physical and social world you know, and you're quite satisfied with that so long as things work out for you in the here and now. If you're a philosopher, sheltered from all this harsh world by your social status, you can feel very good about the fact that you alone, who dedicate your life to understanding the difficult arguments to prove the existence of the One transcending all things, to contemplating the nature and attributes of the One God, will attain union with him through these efforts. Everyone, too, gets what they immediately want. The peasant gets rituals to ensure his crops grow and protect him from evil spirits, the Emperor gets social rituals to ensure his citizens obey him, the philosopher gets true knowledge, virtue, and union with Being itself. And, of course, if you do a good job as a peasant, you might one day end up reincarnated as a philosopher, with a shot at the Big Time. Nothing is lost, everything is conserved, and absolutely everyone is made to be content with their lot in life.
Against this, Christianity's stubborn insistence that people of all social classes and levels of intellectual sophistication were immediately called to true and transcendent union with the One God couldn't help but seem both revolutionary and a little absurd. Why should an illiterate slave get the same union with the One as a philosopher? Why would he even want it, and how could he possibly get it even if he did? The slave understands nothing about what the philosopher means by the One; it is not something he knows about, and so not something he can even coherently desire, let alone attain. Christian philosophers certainly understood this problem--but, to a man, they only insisted on it even more the more it was challenged by their pagan colleagues. The slave would get the same thing as the philosopher--indeed, he would get something denied to the pagan philosopher altogether. No one had any business with daimons or lesser gods, since they were all directly and immediately called to union with the One God. The slave would desire God, he would live a life of supernatural virtue far beyond the efforts of philosophers, and attain to an eternal and supernatural union with the One surpassing all the philosophers' desires.
Their answer to how this was possible was, of course, the Incarnation: the coming of the Logos, of the Divine Reason itself, into the physical cosmos, his becoming a human being. God had not left the cosmos or human society as it was--he had come down into it and was now engaged in a death struggle with the rebellious daimons and lesser gods and Emperors who were trying to oppose his reign. Because of this state of affairs, all Christians possessed a relation to God that went far beyond simple natural knowledge. The slave might not understand precisely what the philosopher (even the Christian philosopher) meant by the One, but he stood in relation with that One nonetheless, and could confess the simple creed of Christ's Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection, be baptized in his name, and so be brought into a direct and intimate relation with him, incorporated as part of the body of God himself. By virtue of this, even if the Christian were entirely ignorant, even if he were an eight-day-old infant newly baptized without even the benefit of language, he had, really and truly, attained the highest end of philosophy: the real, actual possession of the Divine Logos.
Against this, philosophers quite naturally protested. Such "faith," the simple assent of the will to a series of nonsensical propositions about the life, death, and supposed divinity of a Galileean carpenter, and participation in a nonsensical set of rituals focusing on that life and death, were no substitute for careful, reasoned apprehension of the philosophical arguments and meditations on the Divine Nature. Christians were ignorant slaves and women who, in an outrageous display of sheer arrogance, dared to claim themselves superior to philosophers who spent their lives studying the divine and contemplating it. They were not true philosophers at all, but madmen, the very lowest of social malcontents.
This was a bitter controversy indeed in its heyday, and both sides certainly drew blood. It can, though, again, be boiled down very simply to the binary of relation or knowledge. For the Neo-Platonist, the natural intellect, working in its own laborious way, with plenty of time and intelligence and social status to work with, was the only possible way to get knowledge of God, and this knowledge was the only possible way to be united with him. For the Christian, all this laborious natural effort, in time and space, could hardly include the vast majority of humanity, naturally fell into all kinds of error, and even where perfectly accurate could not possibly attain its goal, actual union with God. Only a supernatural effort by God himself could establish an actual relation and true union between creature and creator--and once that was established, the operations of the natural, unaided intellect were hardly the only or even the most important thing in the picture. Faith included the intellect, certainly, it could not possibly oppose it (which is why many Christians eagerly did philosophy and laboriously worked through all those arguments anyway)--but it also went far beyond it. Christian faith was a real supernatural relation between human being and God, and that relation included illiterate Christians and infants just as much as Christian philosophers.
I could go on and on and on on this topic, which represents a rather fundamental break both in philosophy and world history, with massive implications for society and culture and art and everything else--I could expand on it with some analysis of the relation this controversy has, in my opinion, to the later controversies of the Protestant Reformation--but I think I will stop there and go to bed instead. Goodnight.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Time and the Self

I have a very good memory, and this is both a blessing and a curse. The line that separates my self in the present from my self in the past is generally very thin. When I am reminded of what I have been before, and most of all when I exist in a place that I have existed before--I experience with immediacy what I once experienced, I perceive in one and the same place my self doubled, tripled, multiplied. This is the strange, miraculous thing, though: that I am all these selves, or rather that there is only one self present, not two, or three, or a multitude. The multiplicity is in fact only an illusion, an error of perspective. This is what I am seeing, hearing, feeling, this is what I saw, heard, felt. I am, I was, here, then. I am here now. This certainly has its downsides, especially when it comes to those things that it is difficult to remember. Much of my life, in fact, I spent in a futile and dangerous effort to escape from what was already past. It is also, in itself, a rather dangerous and deceptive perspective on life. There is, in fact, a difference between what is past and what is present and what is to come. What is present is open to potentiality, open to our action and causation. If we live in the present, we can learn to live well--if we live only in the past, we cannot learn at all anything which we did not already learn then. Only from the perspective of the present can we accept and suffer the past, overcome it and learn from it. The past, then, is the teacher for the present--the present is the space in which learning and action takes place. They should not be confused. Then, too, there is the danger of deception, when we remember falsely, when we perceive falsely. We can be deceived in the present, true, but never so completely as in the past. In the present, we can accept, we can discern, go beyond, learn--in the past, all too often, we find ourselves fixed, trapped, within a single, narrow perspective. What we did not see then will never be seen. All too often, too, we distort the truth of the past through the perspective of the present. We try to see ourselves in the past, but only see ourselves in the present, seeing the past, trapped by it. We lose sight of reality, of one another, are isolated and imprisoned within ourselves. Then, too, we do not remember everything, and so everything we remember is incomplete, partial, pieces to a puzzle with too many missing pieces. It is impossible to perceive the full and complete truth of any time from within such a limited perspectives. Still, one of the great tasks of life is to gradually learn, in the present, with the help of the past, to broaden and to perfect and to unify. In remembering, memory can be purified and perfected--it can become, as memory, something far more true than it was as immediate perception. A key instance of this is repentance, which is in truth a kind of remembering. We remember something as mistaken, as wrong, as false, and by remembering it in this way we perfect it. In repenting, in altering one's mind the past action, the past self, is completed, corrected, perfected. Here, too, is where the relational aspect of the person comes into its own, as we learn to to exist together, to live together, not only in the present, but in the past as well. By remembering together, by existing together, our perspectives are broadened, our reality is increased and perfected and guaranteed. The self is only really stable, it only really exists, in any time, when it exists with and in relation to others. It is, then, one of the great tasks of the human person as person, in time and space, to transcend time and space in just this way: to enrich and perfect and unify the self, all our selves, together and apart, across time and beyond it. Here, though, is the danger, the crux of the whole matter: that this is a task that is, in essence, beyond the grasp of the human person. We can, really, only affect the present--we are so easily deceived--our perspective is so small--we have so little time in which to live, to act, to remember. We, both as individuals and as a community, are unable to be the means by which past and present are unified, by which the self in all times and places is brought together and perfected. We fall through time, and so we cannot transcend it. God, however, is present in all times and in all places simultaneously, and is himself entirely apart from time. Only God can truly touch the past and the present simultaneously, perceive everything clearly, and affect the self at all points in time. This is why only God can forgive sins: because only God can actually touch the self in both past and present simultaneously, can truly alter the past as it is, not merely as it is remembered. He is the real means, the only conceivable means, by which the human person can be truly unified, truly perfected, truly taken beyond time. If God is real, then, memory, human memory, becomes far less important. This is a lesson I have had to learn--that all our efforts to broaden and purify the past, to overcome it, are, in the end, entirely vain. I lose myself in the past--I am unable to escape it, let alone perfect it. In losing myself in the past, I lose all the opportunities and potentialities of the present. I am deceived, lost in perceptions that are false, the present distorted by the past, and the past by the present. Unity gives way to total fragmentation. I have lived this. Given God, though, there is little to fear. The presence of God in past and present unifies the self, guarantees it. We do not have to labor to remember, for we are remembered--we do not have to labor to see, for we are seen. The reality of the self, in each and every time, comes only through God. Thus, any reality of the self beyond time can only come from, can only be entirely in the power of, God, and not the self. To accept this, to accept this ultimate ignorance, this ultimate powerlessness, is one of the most difficult and important things in life. It is this lesson, primarily, which time teaches us--that we are nothing. All our reality comes from God, and without him we have neither past, nor present, nor future. If we can accept this, though, then we will receive all that we have labored to achieve: truth, reality, eternity. We will receive, in the fullest possible sense, a future: a plane of reality, of possibility, entirely beyond both what has been and what is. Our future within time, along with our present and our past, will be taken up into the future beyond time. This is eschatology; the knowledge of, the desire for, the perfect fulfillment of human existence that can only take place through the transcendence of time. So, for now, we live, as best we can, in the present, learning from the past as best we can. The self, all our selves, interconnected and unified, is kept by God, in all times and beyond time. Such is life.