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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“I am Reaching, but I Fall”

Earlier last week, I attended a performance of Les Misérables at the Esplanade — it was really enjoyable. I love the story and the music is great. But since this was probably the third or so time I watched the musical, I had the chance to take a step back to undergo deeper reflection on the structure and themes of the musical. I am no musical or literary expert (haven’t read the book, apologies to the purists), but I noticed a single running thread across the musical during this re-watching that I wish to reflect on in this post. It is difficult to provide a succinct summary of this theme, but provisionally let’s call it the tension between idealism and realism (both used in the ordinary, non-philosophical sense).

I noticed this thread as I watched the last scene where we see both Eponine and Fantine as they lead Valjean to heaven. It puzzled me to see Eponine there along with Fantine, since, well Valjean barely knew her. But as I reflected on the entire musical, I discerned some kind of structural parallel between Fantine and Eponine at the beginning and the ending of the first act. Both of their main songs as well as their stories reflect a similar theme — one of the stark contrast between the intensity and tenderness of their idealistic hopes and dreams, almost to the point of delusion, as well as the indifferent and uncaring realism expressed in their circumstances.

Fantine expresses her longing and hope for the bygone days as well as the darkness of her present situation in her song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ before she sells herself into prostitution, loses her innocence to a random man and is violently beaten:

“I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving …

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now, from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed”

Eponine expresses a similar sentiment in her song, “On my own”, as she describes her impossible longings for Marius’ affections and her own pathetic comfort in pretending that he is with her. Soon after, she will die in Marius’ arms trying to protect him, her feelings ultimately unrequited;

“On my own, Pretending he’s beside me
All alone, I walk with him ’til morning
Without him, I feel his arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes
And he has found me …

I love him, But every day I’m learning
All my life, I’ve only been pretending
Without me, His world will go on turning
A world that’s full of happiness
That I have never known”

This theme surfaces elsewhere in the musical — consider the revolutionaries, their high idealism as they hope to throw off the monarchy and establish a fair republic, and yet the unmitigated brutality of their eventual deaths. Valjean’s life expresses this as well, his hope at a better life and yet the crushing circumstances he ultimately finds himself in; even Javert’s life, to a lesser extent, demonstrates the dissonance between a man’s idea of the world and yet the world’s painfully subverting reality. A pivotal line that they both sing poignantly highlights this theme; Valjean sings it in the beginning of the musical as he wrestles with his wretchedness and the grace shown to him and Javert at the end as he too wrestles with the mercy shown to him by Valjean:

“I am reaching, but I fall.”

Realism and Idealism

There is something about this tension that resonated deep within me; it had an uncanny ring of truth. Art succeeds when it transcends reality in order to truly represent and communicate it, and these two themes are as true in our day as ever.

Let’s take the unrelenting realism represented in the film first. Surely our world is not much different from that depicted in the musical. Reports of terrorist killings fill the papers nowadays on a daily basis and I’m sure that closer to ourselves, we know of the random, perplexing, and sometimes absurd tragedies that befall those around us. A desperately broken family, a friend lost in his youth and an old man having to amputate his leg because of a car accident. The world resists formulation into neat, nice categories; it is inscrutable and indifferent to our hopes and dreams, to our conceptions of justice (think Javert) and indeed to the very demands of justice.  J.I. Packer, in his classic ‘Knowing God’, speaks of the ‘wisdom’ of the Book of Ecclesiastes in this manner:

“Look (says the preacher) at the sort of world we live in … You see life’s background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature. You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control. You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to whether it is deserved. Humans die like beasts, good ones like bad, wise ones like fools… Seeing all this, you realise that God’s ordering of events in inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so.”

What of the similarly unrelenting idealism the musical expresses? That too speaks deeply to the human soul. I have written elsewhere of the strange glory in the strivings of man and indeed there is nothing more human than to hope. Despite the bleakness of the lyrics and their context, there is something utterly beautiful about the two songs ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘On my Own’ — a kind of tender and heartbreaking sublimity is expressed in them.

One response to this tension might be to moderate our expectations. Perhaps we should simply think that the world is a little less decent and cosy as we might have thought and at the same time be a bit less optimistic in our dreams. Such a response would be mistaken — we would be falsely portraying the bleak nature of the world and at the same time be betraying our dreams. No, the world is not a little less cosy than we think, it is full of sorrow and brokenness, and we shall not budge one inch from our hopes. Our pessimism must be as black as night and our optimism as bright as the sun. Chesterton expresses this artfully:

“It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance. But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective … what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralise each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”

A Christian Pessimism and Optimism

How are we to live with this, this heartbreaking dichotomy between our deepest longings and the harsh realities that the world presents us? This Christian worldview holds the key as to the reason for both our hopes and our broken world. It tells us that this world feels broken because it is. It truly is not as it is meant to be. The naturalistic atheist can tell you that the world is unfriendly to our transcendent longings, and yet he cannot say that the world is not as it should be, for to him the world simply is. But that is false, the world is in a state in which it ought not be; it has fallen since the dawn of man, since our ancestors cast scorn on God’s love and decided to trust in themselves. This world has been cursed and it now frustrates us. Yet more, it is not merely the world but ourselves in our inward being we have fallen; we have all turned aside from God and his love and all our desperate attempts at finding meaning elsewhere is painful and disappointing. To stare in the face of this is to no doubt call for a bleak pessimism about the world and the human condition.

Yet this, in a paradoxical manner, calls us also to hope. As Chesterton (again) discovered, that the Christian worldview …

“entirely reversed the reason for optimism. And the instant the reversal was made it felt like the abrupt ease when a bone is put back in the socket. I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do NOT fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the WRONG place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.”

Do not avert your gaze from the horrors of this world, but neither grow desensitised to the extent where you no longer grieve at them. Instead let its darkness draw you to despair of both the world and of yourself, and then look to that familiar silhouette of a man on the cross. We bear our crosses to follow him in this world, and with him both forsaking the world and yet loving and giving ourselves for it. Jesus is our hope for forgiveness and glory, and it is through him that we shall one day have the privilege to see

“a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

The New True Meaning of Christmas

[This isn’t really a post about philosophy, but since its the Christmas period I feel obliged to write something related. What I plan to do here is to analyse our culture’s worldview by looking at my favourite non-Christian Christmas song (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’). Unfortunately, my training in philosophy compels me to write a short summary in the introduction to the biblical framework of idolatry that I use for completeness sake — its largely just the understanding of idolatry from the reformed tradition. I have been much helped in my understanding of this by reading “For Their Rock is not as Our Rock” by Daniel Strange. (Which is really an update and summary of the thoughts of many earlier thinkers.)]

Christmas is a time of celebration, and as a Christian what I celebrate is the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into our broken world to identify with sinners and ultimately to die for their sin. But everyone celebrates during Christmas, and clearly not everyone is a Christian, so it begs the question: what exactly are they celebrating? Some Christians may immediately shoot back: “Materialism!” (i.e. the insatiable consumption of goods. Not to be confused with the metaphysical hypothesis of the same name.) Perhaps some really do see Christmas as an opportunity to satisfy their endless desire for consumer products, but when we see other non-Christians decrying the same materialistic strain during Christmas, we know that this cannot be the root of their celebration.

Man and Worship

The bible’s thesis about humans is that we are all worshippers — all of us have been made to know and to worship God and it is as we come to him that we find our deepest longings and needs met, when men reject God they do not cease to worship but the bible says that they begin to deify and idolise something in creation. Men “claiming to be wise, [have] became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:22-23) Idolatry is not confined simply to physical idols made of wood or stone — idols are whatever our hearts, the core of our beings, find rest, comfort, identity and indeed salvation in; they are whatever we long for and sacrifice and worship.

These idols are counterfeit gods — that they are counterfeit means two things: (1) they reveal something about the sinful hearts of men who created them (2) they reveal something about the God of which they are a counterfeit. To understand what one worships points us to the sin of man, but because we are made for God, even the idols we make resemble God as a cheap imitation. Christopher Wright thus notes:

“The fallen duplicity of man is that he simultaneously seeks after God his Maker and flees from God his Judge. Man’s religions, therefore, simultaneously manifest both these human tendencies.”

A New Christmas Liturgy

What we find in the modern celebration of Christmas is an almost literal exchange of the worship of God for the worship of other things. The best way to understand the new worship is to look at our new liturgy, one manifestation of which is the secular Christmas songs that are heard alongside the old hymns in shopping malls. Some songs are of course, utterly frivolous — ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ don’t really reveal any of the deep longings of humanity. Others, however, do reflect some kind of deep longing, such as ‘White Christmas’ and ’Last Christmas’. The song we will look at is ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. I confess this is partly because its my favourite non-Christian Christmas song — the tune is excellent and the lyrics are utterly poignant. But more importantly I do believe the song reflects something of the heart of modern Christmas. For those who don’t know the song or do not recognise the title:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
Next year all
Our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
Next year all
Our troubles will be miles away.

Once again as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more.

Someday soon, we all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

(These lyrics are from the original song sung in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”)

‘Once Again as in Olden Days’

The first two stanzas hint that we look to the Christmas holiday as an opportunity to rest, to escape from the myriad “troubles” that we face. The world is broken and messy — we are bogged down and exhausted by turmoil at work and relationships and there is the expectation that we will find rest at some place. I think many of us expect this rest to come during Christmas. Even secular people who bemoan the consumeristic materialism of our age and during Christmas as well seek rest from the spiritual exhaustion of chasing after the next flashy consumer product. But what exactly is the rest that we look forward too?

The heart of the song, I believe, lies in the third and fourth stanzas — here we see what we worship, what we long for during Christmas. There are two interconnected elements (1) a sense of nostalgia and (2) the warmth of family and friends. When we come to Christmas, we are overcome with nostalgia for the innocent times of our childhood, perhaps memories of when as children we looked forward to Christmas as the time when there would be parties with our families and all seemed rosy. If we never experienced this in our childhood, Christmas sells us the idea that we can recreate that experience which we never had. Consider the first line of another song, ‘White Christmas’: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”.

There is something sublime that we look for during Christmas, something intimate and precious. We think that we will have it by revisiting the olden days, by gathering our dear friends and family back again. It is to these that we have turned to seek and find our rest. Yet anyone who has been to any Christmas party since their adolescence knows that the hope of recreating what we thought we experienced is a lie — we are made to long for it, but it never finds its fulfilment as we attempt to recreate our past or gather our loved ones.

C.S. Lewis gives an insightful analysis of this longing:

“Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

The last thing we see in the song is the bleakness of the secular worldview. The possibility of reunion is left to blind fate and until the next Christmas, we drag ourselves through the year. Some versions of the song have edited and changed the line “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and replaced it with the utterly facile “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. The original better reflects the sentiment of Christmas — it is the time we huddle as we peer over the dark precipice of the coming year of bustling emptiness. The final instruction is deeply poignant: “So”, in light of the muddle of our world, “have yourself a merry little Christmas now”. We must create and seek these precious moments now, before they are taken forever by the dead fates.

That Little Town of Bethlehem

No, this hopelessness cannot have the last word. The Israelites of old held in their hearts the promise of a day when those who walk in darkness will see a great light (Isaiah 9:2) but indeed this is the longing of all our hearts. We all long to cast off this sense of emptiness and dread and guilt that we feel and to be reconciled to something. Christmas reignites these longings, but we have been looking for this reconciliation in recreating our childhood, by being surrounded by our loved ones — soon we are alone again and the cave is even darker now that the small candle has gone out.

But the image of that town, that manger, draws me in again. The theological paradox which is the incarnation, God become Man, becomes strangely warm. In the still of that night, Christ was born. He was born into a life of labour and loneliness, ultimately dying forsaken — he would become one that men would shun and reject and spit on. But he holds a strange attraction to all who have known brokenness in some way both within themselves and without. Chesterton rightly said that this is “the place where God was homeless and all men are at home”. Christmas day comes and the same strange longing comes to me again as it does to everyone else, but as I think of Jesus it hits me afresh, ‘Ah! This was what I was celebrating all along.’ And then I sing:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.