For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit” (Isaiah 57:15)
The View from Nowhere
In the book, ‘The View from Nowhere’, Thomas Nagel explores the tension between what the subjective point of view and the absolutely objective point of view (the titular ‘view from nowhere’). The subjective point of view is the point of view wherein we encounter the world as it appears to us, awash with emotions and the ordinary things we value, lust, love, hate, the tragic, mundane and beautiful moments of life. On the other hand, we can also occupy a perspective that stands apart from our particular experiences. Intellectual progress is possible because somehow human persons are able to stand apart from their own particular position to consider things from an objective perspective. As we come to abstract from our point of view, we arrive at a more objective picture of the world. For example, as we step back from our particular desires and more sectarian values we see that we ought to pursue the good of others as well; and of course the scientific picture is the paradigm of a picture that is supposed to be independent of any particular perspective. The cosmological, quantum etc. laws purport to describe ultimate reality independent of any particular viewer. Such a view point is one that most philosophers aspire towards, to see things in a sense from the perspective of God, or as Spinoza put it, sub specie aeternitatis; under the aspect of eternity.
Nagel, however, notes that the objective view will sometimes conflict and exist in tension with the subjective view. Of course, this is part of the deal — we enter the objective view so as to discern which parts in the subjective view are really appearances and not to be taken as seriously as they were. But the danger is there. A crucial and fascinating area where this arises is with regards to the value of our individual life-experiences and the meaning of life and death. Seen from a point of view whereby our own individual experiences are but one among many and where we are just a small spatio-temporally extended blip in the entire universe, the things that seem so important to us become pathetic, trivial and, as Camus claimed, absurd. Nagel’s task in his book is to describe the tension and make suggestions on how the two views are to be reconciled in various areas of philosophical interest.
The One who Dwells in Eternity
In this essay, I’m not so much interested in Nagel’s task as I am to explore a related worry present in the Christian view of God. Christians affirm God as transcendent, and far above time and space; as the opening quote notes, God “inhabits eternity”. As understood by most traditional theologians, God’s eternality is understood to refer to the fact that he stands outside of time, and his perception of temporal events is one that is as of all temporal directions at once. All of past, present and future are in a sense immediately present to him. As Peter notes, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8). Consideration of God’s eternality and his general transcendence often produces tension and perhaps a kind of emotional dissonance at times with the fact that God is supposed to be a loving Father who tenderly cares for his children. This, in some part, lies behind the resistance to accepting the doctrine of the sovereignty of God: that God ultimately stands in charge of all events and works them all for his purposes. If such is God, high above all human temporal events, it seems impossible or at least emotionally incomprehensible to fathom that he would also be a loving God.
To attempt a full discussion of this is not within the scope of this essay. What I am keen to do instead is to explore the eternality of God and his perception of events under the aspect of eternity to see how it may be reconciled with his tender care and concern for individual persons. To clarify, I am not trying to reconcile the two philosophically. In fact it seems that there is no strictly logical tension between the two. Unashamedly, as a Christian, I begin from the starting point that both can indeed be reconciled — indeed there is none insofar as the biblical authors are concerned. Consider the opening verses again: God both dwells in the high and holy place but also with the contrite and lowly in spirit. He is far and near. But, at least for myself at times, the emotional dissonance persists. I thus attempt a kind of emotional reconciliation here. I want to present the reconciliation as not just possible, but plausible, attractive and indeed sublime. The starting point of my reflection is the recent and deeply beautiful movie, ‘Arrival’. (If you haven’t watched the movie, don’t spoil yourself, go watch the movie now!)
In ‘Arrival’, aliens arrive on earth in order to present humanity with a gift. This gift happens to be the very language of the aliens, which they teach Linguistics professor Louise Banks that she may instruct the rest of mankind. The written language of the aliens, which Banks studies and finally decodes, has a free word order such that its content is not ordered sequentially but somehow presented simultaneously in writing. By a fairly ludicrous extrapolation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (essentially the idea that language structures thought), Banks somehow begins to perceive reality in the way these aliens do: all temporal directions are in a way arrayed before her and she begins to view things under the aspect of eternity.
The narrative of Banks’ interaction with the aliens is constantly interjected by scenes of her interaction with a young girl; at times playing with her, going through mundane events, and at other times we see scenes of the girl in the hospital, hooked up to life support and on her death bed. These scenes are present from the beginning of the film and initially appear to be flashbacks of Banks’ life. In fact, they are flash-forwards — they show us scenes from Banks’ future life, where she will marry and have a daughter who will die a painful death at a young age. The movie in a sense affords us a glimpse of what it would look like to perceive as the aliens and later Banks herself perceives temporal events. From the point of view where the present appears as an arbitrary point in time, where the fleetingness and tragedy of human life is made salient, how does the world look? As she gazes on the imminent and ever immanent heartbreak, the viewer is struck both by the preciousness of the little moments and even more by the brokenness of the coming tragedy. Human events are not diminished, instead they intensify in weight from this point of view. Banks will eventually choose to affirm and willingly make the predestined choice to have a daughter, leading to the fated and foreseen events.
The ability to take such a perspective should not be totally foreign to us, nor the experience of being at once aware that all things are fleeting and yet heartbreakingly precious. Does not the Preacher in Ecclesiastes say that God has put eternity into the heart of man? I suggest that anyone who wishes to experience this open their old cupboards and array their old photos before them. This is precisely what I found a few months back as I trudged through my old cupboards to find some old photos to compile into an album as a birthday gift for my late grandfather. It was as if I could now see my present experience as but one among many. The fact that I was occupying this moment as present became arbitrary. Some things did vanish in importance: the ridiculous cares of getting ahead in life, or the small things I could be irritated with. But it was not as though life became sterile and meaningless, instead I now saw all of those moments as deeply precious and charged with importance. Some things receded into trivilaity, but others magnified in significance. The ridiculous smiles on all of our faces in those photographs, which must have seemed a trifle then, now appeared to me as with an astonishing charm.
God’s Eye View
Perhaps such is the perspective of God. At once he views all things, but not in a way that is distant from them. Instead, all things are immediate and intimate. From this perspective, some things which seem important from our limited perspectives become trivial — to him, the “nations are like a drop from a bucket” (Isaiah 40:15). And yet what may appear small becomes infinitely more precious — a cheeky smile, the love between a husband and wife, the out-of-tune singing in church — and others no doubt infinitely more tragic — death, sickness, sin. Perhaps from God’s perspective he views the world not as one sees it as from a high tower or from a satellite gazing at the earth, with all its multifarious features blurred into a blue daze. Instead all things are somehow immediate, all things are the more dear to him.
Let me close by thinking again about Nagel’s project of reconciling the subjective and objective views. His book provides thoughtful explorations of various themes, some of which Christians can learn from but one which we must ultimately reject as deficient. After all, one may ask, in a non-theistic framework, how are we certain that the objective and subjective views can be reconciled? How can we be so confident that when we obtain a completely objective picture of the world, when we abstract away from all particularity, that there are still irreducibly subjective and personal aspects of the world which are not mere appearances. But if Christianity is true, there is a good reason why even from the most objective perspective, individual persons and the small details of our lives are still charged with importance. After all, if God is the true foundation of reality, then it is simply coherent for the ultimate point of view to be impersonal. Personality is the reality behind the seeming impersonality of the universe, not the other way round. To attempt to abstract away all personality and perspective from our objective view of the universe is not only impossible but wrongheaded.
It is not easy to maintain such a perspective of ourselves and our lives sub specie aeternitatis: it takes not a little for us to be sucked from the beauty and tragedy of life to live for things that from the perspective of eternity are truly lame: being irritated, achieving worldly goals, being anxious about a myriad of trite things and so on. Again and again we must seek the face of God and ask him to “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) We must view ourselves under the aspect of eternity. We must see from the perspective of one who stands in a manner disengaged from all particular things, only that we may engage the world more deeply and truly.
This piece dedicated to the memory of my late grandfather, 29/7/2017.