Under the Aspect of Eternity

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!)

Eternal Perception

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.

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Two Veils: Reflections on a trip to Myanmar

The last few days I have spent with my church on a trip to Myanmar, visiting one of our partner churches there and conducting a summer english camp. It was an immensely encouraging and humbling trip, seeing that we serve a living God who indeed is working in this world and to see his glory in his church. I’ve decided to write down for myself two affecting thoughts that have struck me on the trip.

A Veil on Glory 

The first thought came through a scene that served for me as a parable. On Sunday, we attended the church service of our partner church here. Of course, the service was conducted in Burmese, a language which I barely understood. And yet I sat there listening to them singing their songs with a passion, making out at times the words for ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ’. I wondered then, what glories they must be singing about Jesus, what they could possibly be saying about him? What majestic greatness or tender mercy are they recalling to mind as they sing with such passion? It was as though the glory of God was literally right before me, and yet it was veiled.

The scene served as a parable to me. Surely, the whole of creation reveals the Glory of God! Does not the Psalmist say,

“The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.” (Psalm 65:12-13)

The creation rings with the glory of God! It is all around us, as if we were in a kind of perpetual worship service, and yet we cannot see or hear the lyrics. But ah! What glories might they be singing? And surely it is not just the singing of natural creation, but the apostle says that when we gather in worship every Sunday, we

“come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)

If only we could hear and see these things — we are distracted by the songs we may not like, or the people who might be annoying or our pride that gets in our way, but oh this does not hinder the glory which is veiled from us.

After the service we followed the pastor and some of his congregation to visit a house and attend the death anniversary of a man who was the father of one of our congregants. There I saw what I believed must be one of the most beautiful sights I have laid my eyes on. I saw this girl with down syndrome struggling to sing a hymn in the same language which I did not understand. Perhaps it was the jarring nature of the scene that drew me to it, the sound that she made was to me a coarse grunting and mumbling as she attempted to pronounce the words of the song. I later found out that this girl and her family were relatively recent converts to the church, who cared for and loved them after they found themselves in dire straits. I wonder what God might have heard as she sang. Surely to him it was a voice sweeter than than the chorus of angels and more enchanting and sublime than their music. I imagined that he would break into a smile, beaming as his daughter sang to him. Oh God, open my eyes to see these things all around me!

We had been going through Philippians as part of our morning devotions throughout the trip, but as I read the first chapter again on the plane back, a thought struck me. As Paul reflects on his then incarceration in a Roman prison, writing the letter to the Philippians, he ponders whether he would prefer to die or to live. He notes:

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (Philippians 1:21-26)

Something initially appears strange here. Paul has clearly said that if he dies he will be with Christ, and claims that this is a really great thing. And yet he seems fairly okay with the possibility that he remains to be with the church at Philippi. But surely, there could be nothing better than being with Christ! Indeed this is true, but I am inclined to think with some speculation that to be with the church on earth is pretty comparable with being with Christ in heaven. For Christ is the redeemer who dwells in the presence of his people. Indeed, Paul did not say that ‘for me to live is gain and to die is Christ’ (thought that would be true in a different sense) but that ‘for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ — to live is Christ, to live and to see the church again is Christ, to see the people he has saved and to be among the community of the saints is to be among the people with whom God has promised to dwell with and never forsake — that is Christ. Do we see the church of God in this way?

In my very interactions with those from Singapore and my friends from Myanmar, I felt indeed the glory of Christ with us. These were people from vastly different backgrounds from me, from our team there were those from various countries, life stages, social and educational backgrounds and a frustrating and beloved roommate and team leader; and of course we worked with men and women there with whom we shared even less in common. And yet as I spoke to them, I found a brokenness and softness that I understood and a deep joy that comes from knowing Jesus. I heard of a constant struggle to remain faithful and a burden for the coming of the kingdom and the preaching of the gospel. They felt like my very family. As we all gathered for dinner with our partners and their youth leaders one evening, I remember just feeling such joy as we interacted, truly they were my brothers and sisters and father and mother and children. I don’t remember another trip that I had laughed as much as I did. Who but God can bring such a disparate group together in such a loving way?

A Veil on Suffering 

Yet it is surely not only glory that is veiled from our eyes, but sin and suffering as well. The trip opened my eyes to see that beneath the surface there is so much pain in this world. It was not so much the relative poverty that they were in or the rudimentary housing that they had, it was the broken families, the fathers who left their children, the parents who compel their children to go far off to work instead of studying — it was these that struck me. Knowing more about the stories of these children reminded me that beneath their cheeky smiles might be tears that have dried in the sweltering heat. One of my team leaders wept as she spoke to one of the children there who was compelled to go to the city to work at a tender age, but had come for the first day of the camp because he remembered the fun he had the previous year before he needed to return to work. In my conversation with her I was moved by the heart she had for the hurting, and was reminded by her that surely God’s heart is even more tender than that.

This too is veiled from us. It is no longer the case that we do not know of hurting people in the world, the press and the internet have long removed that excuse. But it is that the suffering no longer affects us, we are no longer horrified or shocked we no longer weep for these things. The tears of Jesus here comfort and rebuke us. The story of Lazarus in the gospel of John was preached on Sunday and I was struck again by how Jesus weeps (John 11:35) as he sees the pain of his friends and the destruction wrought by the fall.

Elsewhere I have written about how Christianity is uniquely a religion for sufferers. And yet in Buddhist Burma, Christianity can hardly claim to be the only such religion. Buddhism too was founded to respond to the suffering of the world. And yet how vastly different are their responses towards suffering! For the Buddhist, suffering is the result of believing or desiring that transient things be eternal. The fleetingness and the passing away of things is but natural, and it is only our attachment to them that makes us suffer. Our tears are wrong because death is not wrong. But Christianity teaches us the opposite. As Christ wept before death and the effects of sin, so our tears are right. Our tears are right because death is wrong, because the world is not as it ought be, because sin and pain and all sorts of abuse are a curse that have come upon the world. People are not transient things weeping because they wrongly believe that they are eternal, we are eternal beings that weep because we have now been made fleeting.

As sin and suffering are a violence, so must our response to them be violent. Did not Christ say that the kingdom of God has been coming by violence and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12)? We must violently lay down our lives at the feet of Jesus, to love others and share with them the good news that Jesus loves us so much that he tasted our suffering and died for our sins. He did this so that one day he would wipe away the tears from our eyes. And then we must come before Jesus and sing with the saints:

“Facing a task unfinished
That drives us to our knees
A need that, undiminished
Rebukes our slothful ease
We, who rejoice to know Thee
Renew before Thy throne
The solemn pledge we owe Thee
To go and make Thee known”