Friday, January 5, 2018

Lively Hope

A Door Into Heaven

After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.  And the voice I had heard first speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”  --Revelation 4:1

            Recently, I have been reading Embodied Hope, by Kelly Kapic, a “theological meditation on pain and suffering.”  Kapic does not write to defend God in the face of suffering; this book is not a theodicy.  Rather, he talks about how we should live in a world of pain, especially chronic severe pain.  We have to focus on bodies.
Chronic severe pain confronts sufferers regularly with the brokenness of our physical bodies.  Such sufferers know—they are reminded daily—that our bodies are destined to die. 
Put it more baldly: I am going to die.  I am this body, which will die.  I am going to die.  We all know it’s true, but we often put it out of mind.  With severe pain, the body forces us to listen.  So how do we hope?  By means of a body, a very particular body.
Kapic reminds us of basic Christian doctrines.  Incarnation—the eternal God took on humanity, and from the first century orthodox theologians insisted (against the Gnostics) that Jesus was a real man, like us in every way except sin.  Crucifixion—the god/man Jesus suffered intense physical pain (as well as pitiless enemies, betrayal by a friend, and the inconstancy of his disciples), and he died.  None of this was play acting; Jesus suffered and died.  Resurrection—the physical body of Jesus rose from the dead.  His disciples were not persuaded by a phantom or spirit; they recognized him and could see his wounds.  They heard his voice and saw him eat food.  Ascension—Jesus, as a physical body, was taken from his disciples’ presence.  He did not cease to exist; he went somewhere else.
Those who suffer and die, says Kapic, can hope in Jesus.  Jesus suffered in his body and died.  But he rose and still lives.  Those who are in him suffer now and will die, but we will also rise.
None of these doctrines are new.  Kapic is not inventing Christian dogma; he is applying it to the experience of suffering.  We find hope by identifying with Jesus, in particular by identifying with his body.  Symbolically in baptism we die and rise, but we look forward to a literal resurrection after we die.  Kapic’s book is helpful precisely because it is not creative.  Christians do not hope that their immortal souls will be freed from their bodies (that’s Plato, not the Bible).  We hope that our bodies will be raised from the dead and changed.  Pain and death will end, but not bodies.
Now, let’s go back two paragraphs.  About Jesus’ ascension, I wrote: “He did not cease to exist; he went somewhere else.”  Where did Jesus go?  Where is his body?  Where is Jesus?  Kapic’s emphasis on the physicality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection pushes such questions to mind.  The answer, I think, is that we don’t know but are free to speculate.
In the Revelation, John sees “a door in heaven.”  The voice of Jesus invites him to “come up here.”  It’s quite likely that John, a first century Galilean fisherman, held the traditional Hebrew cosmology in which a flat earth and sky separated the heavens from the nether regions below the earth.  (Later in the book he writes of the “four corners” of the earth.)  It’s possible that John would have answered, “Jesus went to heaven, which is up there, above the sky.”
Some centuries before, Greek philosophers and astronomers had already adopted a different cosmology, though John may not have known it.  On this view, the earth is a globe at the center of the universe, with moon, sun and planets orbiting it.  Familiar with this Ptolemaic cosmology, Medieval Christians would have located “heaven” beyond the fixed stars.  Either way, with an ancient Hebrew or Medieval cosmology, Jesus’ body is in heaven.
In the last hundred years we have adopted a new cosmology, replete with billions of galaxies spread over mind-boggling distances.  Interestingly, we speculate (though we are not sure) that there may be dimensions of existence unobservable by telescopes.  Maybe there are many universes!  Now, where is Jesus?  We should still say: In heaven.
Christians need not think that belief in heaven is tied to any particular theory of cosmology.  Today we think there may be extra dimensions of existence; perhaps tomorrow we will know.  Science fiction authors sometimes imagine “portals” between universes.  C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories used such ideas.  At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan makes a hole in the sky to send the children back to their world.  In a children’s story, Lewis didn’t explain how that might be.  It’s just part of Aslan’s magic.  But it’s the sort of move a knowledgeable twentieth century science fiction writer could defend.
Part of the “syndrome” of hope is imagination.  Christian doctrine teaches that Jesus is alive.  The hope of that doctrine gains vivacity when I imagine a door into heaven.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Faith, Hope, and Existential Choice

The Knight of Hope

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself.  Suppose we have.  Than all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.  Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of your is the only world.  Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one.  And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it.  We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right.  But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.  That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world.   I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.  I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.
                                                                                    --C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

            Let us assume, without argument, that faith is a kind of believing.  We can leave open and unanswered the question what sort of believing faith is.  I explained and defended a particular definition of faith in Why Faith is a Virtue, but the reader need not approve my view.  It’s enough, for now, to say that having faith implies believing something.  Perhaps you think faith means more than merely believing something (I would agree), but still it includes belief.  And to believe something means you think it is true.
            Imagine a person—with complete fairness, we can call him Louis Pojman—who was taught in childhood that a person must have faith to be a Christian.  His Catholic education taught young Louis a list of important propositions that all Christians must believe.  “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” Young Louis dutifully learned catechism.  Perhaps for a while he believed every required proposition.
            However, as an adult and a careful, honest philosopher, Pojman confessed that he did not believe some of these crucial propositions, for instance, that there is in fact a transcendent, all-powerful, beneficent and all-wise eternal being.  Again, as a careful, honest philosopher, Pojman did not deny that God exists.  Finding neither theistic nor atheistic arguments convincing, Pojman thought it possible but not certain that God exists.  Unsurprisingly, he came to the same conclusion about other parts of the creed.  If you’re not sure that God is real, it’s hard to believe that the Son of God became a man, being born of a virgin, etc.
            As a mature philosopher, Pojman confessed that he did not have faith.  Nevertheless, being unconvinced by atheistic arguments, he thought Christianity might be true.  And, he believed, if it were true it would be a very good thing.  Thus, Pojman wrote, he could hope that Christianity is true.
            At its core, hope has two parts.  We desire something (the appetitive part) and we believe the thing we desire is possible (the intellectual part).  And by “possible” we mean it is neither certain nor impossible.  Pojman’s attitude toward Christian doctrine fits this definition well.  Is it possible to have genuine Christian hope without having Christian faith?
            Someone might argue that the core definition of hope isn’t accurate when it comes to Christian hope.  For Christian hope, one must desire that the gospel be true and one must believe that it actually is true.  But this objection has the odd result of making Christian hope a singular exception from the general theory of hope.  (It might also be a surprise to Aquinas, who first explicated the core definition of hope.)  So let us put aside this first objection.  Christian hope is a species of hope in general. 
            A second objector might agree with the core definition of hope, but say that in regard to Christian hope the core definition is not enough.  That is, Christian hope involves something more than desiring that the gospel be true and judging that it might be true.  What is that something more?
            The marsh-wiggle Puddleglum illustrates a possible answer.  Puddleglum and the two children, Jill and Eustace, have come to an underground world to rescue Prince Rilian.  After many adventures, they have found Rilian and freed him from the cursed Silver Chair.  But then the evil queen of the underworld appears.  Under the power of her magic, Puddleglum, the children, and Rilian all become confused.  Everything they thought was true seems questionable.  They cease to believe in the sun, trees, grass, Narnia, Aslan, etc.  If faith requires belief, they have lost their faith.
            At the crucial moment Puddleglum stamps on the witch’s fire, producing a horrible smell of burnt marsh-wiggle and a great deal of pain, two things that greatly help Puddleglum to think straight.  Then he launches into the speech I quoted above.  Notice the ending: “I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
            Puddleglum desires that his memories of Narnia, sun, moon, trees, grass, and especially Aslan be true.  He judges that these things might be true (although under the spell of the evil queen’s magic he came close to thinking they could not be true).  And he acts as if these things are true.  Immediately after the words I quoted, Puddleglum says: “So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once…”
            Soren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, wrote that we have a “task” of hope.  He meant, I think, that we need to order our hopes, so that we hope for things of real importance.  We need to clear our hearts of inconsequential hopes, or at least make them all subservient to our central first hope, our hope in God.  If I understand him rightly, Kierkegaard’s “task” of hope is not exactly Puddleglum’s action of hope.  Still, the idea that we ought to order our hopes is cousin to the idea that we act in hope.
            Puddleglum fits Kierkegaard in another, more obvious way.  The Danish philosopher insisted that Christianity requires commitment, what is often called “the leap of faith.”  We do not know that Christian dogma is true, he thought, and we must commit ourselves—with a passion that holds nothing back—without having such knowledge.  When Christians persuade themselves they have proofs of Christianity, Kierkegaard thought, they hide from passionate commitment.
            Now, Kierkegaard uses “faith” language: the knight of faith, the leap of faith, etc.  But it may be that his insights really help us understand hope.  Maybe we could call Puddleglum the “knight of hope.”

Thursday, November 2, 2017

On Endings

On Endings

            Fairy tale: “And they lived happily ever after.”

            The Return of the King (Tolkien): “And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Eleanor upon his lap.  He drew a deep breath.  ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

            With Malice Toward None:  A Life of Abraham Lincoln (Oates): “From Chicago the train ran south across the prairies, taking Lincoln and Willie home now, home at last to Springfield.”

            The Heart of the Sea: “And then I saw, not in imagination but in reality, the waiting faces on the shore.”

            Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends.  At least, most of them do.  I suppose some avant-garde author could try to make a philosophical point by writing a story that has no beginning or end, just sentences.  He could try; I don’t say succeed.
            Some philosophers have suggested that endings only come in stories.  Reality, it might be suggested, just keeps going.  The universe appears to be, and for all we know it really is, one of an infinite number of possible universes that might have followed from the big bang; and in that universe events deterministically succeed each other (except when they succeed each other indeterministically, i.e. by random chance, as allowed by quantum dynamics).  Such philosophers might argue that the imposition of beginnings and endings is merely a human way of looking at things.  By some stroke of chance, we have evolved to find meaning in things (and imagine the meaning is real), and so we invent stories.  In reality, the big bang is the only beginning and the eventual heat death of the universe is the only ending.
            At some point children graduate from fairy tale endings.  They want to know what happens after the princess slays the dragon and rescues her one true love.  Does she get old and wrinkled?  Does the prince start drinking too much?  Do they produce crabby children?
            American history did not stop with Lincoln’s assassination and burial.  His successor, President Johnson, was impeached, but not convicted.  Then President Grant presided over a depressingly corrupt administration.  And then … on and on.
            Sam comes home to Hobbiton at the end of The Return of the King.  But the final scene is followed by hundreds of pages of appendices.  The reader soon learns that Tolkien regarded the adventures of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings as a single episode in a gigantic history of middle-earth.  As the creator of that world, Tolkien was more interested in its languages, peoples, and myths than in the War of the Ring.
            My story, The Heart of the Sea, ends with Denver Milton’s reunion with his wife and son.  What kind of ending is that?  Obviously, it’s not “the end.”  What becomes of little Tervik, anyway?
            So you see, the skeptical philosophers say, beginnings and endings are arbitrary.  Endings serve the purposes of storytellers, nothing more.  The only meanings stories have are the ones we make up.
            Notice that this denial of story-meaning takes the shape of a story, a grand meta-narrative.  It is a new story, the story of the universe as told by contemporary cosmologists.  It bears the imprimatur of science, so the skeptical philosophers present it as barefaced truth.  Other philosophers, who call themselves deconstructionists, delightfully point to the skeptics’ inconsistency.  Why is their story exempt from skepticism?  Jean Francois Lyotard famously wrote: “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”  He probably would include the cosmological story of “big bang leading to heat death” along with all the others.
            I agree with the deconstructionists that those I have called the story-meaning skeptics are inconsistent.  If you want to be skeptical, be skeptical all the way down.  But I agree that all our little stories achieve their meanings within the grand story.  Biographies and histories of nations fit within the human story writ large.  And the human story is part of the natural history of the planet and the physical universe.
            Natural history is part of a grander story still.  And that story centers on a single life, lived in Judea and Galilee two millennia ago.
            Our stories—biographies, histories or novels—give meanings to events by offering explanations.  Without meaning, without narrative, the events of the world are just “one damn thing after another.”  Our propensity toward story, toward meaning, is not just an accident of human evolution.  It is part of are essential nature as creative creatures.  (Here I am thinking with Dorothy Sayers, in The Mind of the Maker, who points out that the creation story—story again!—says that God made us in his image.  We are made to be makers.)
            Someone might object that I have merely asserted that our storytelling proclivities are not accidental.  Shouldn’t I give a argument?  But I already have, in the paragraphs above.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Last Walk 14

The Last Walk 14:
A Year Ago Today…

            I expect this will be my last entry under “Last Walk.”  It’s been almost one year since Karen died.  For a few weeks now, and especially in the last few days, memory has taken me back to the events of last year.
            There is a sense in which years are arbitrary units.  Orbits.  Why should it matter, in a person’s life, whether the earth has completed one of its journeys around the sun?  Mercury’s orbit is much shorter; Jupiter’s much longer.  Unless we are astronomers, we pay no attention.  We don’t live on Mercury or Jupiter.  Earth’s orbit we call a year, and we measure our lives in years.
            (Speculation: someday, perhaps in my lifetime, colonists will live on Mars.  They will almost certainly live “sols,” Martian days roughly thirty minutes longer than Earth’s days.  Mars takes almost twice as long as Earth to orbit the sun.  Will the colonists celebrate Martian birthdays?)
            Whether or not a year is an arbitrary length of time, it is built into cultural memes.  And since we are social creatures, the cultural meme structures our experience.  Without even trying, we inculcate time concepts into our children, as our parents gifted them to us.  So we live in years.
            One year ago today…
            July—Dr. Baros told Karen cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
            August—Karen underwent chemotherapy and, subsequently, a blood transfusion because the chemo hit so hard.
            Early September—Karen’s visit to Kennewick was cut short because she felt a cold coming on and didn’t want to infect grandson Jakobi.
            October 5, a Wednesday—Rich Brown, our lawyer, and a notary public came with documents for Karen to sign.  She signed some, but then said she was too tired.  We’d do it later, we said.  A friend from St. Peter’s brought communion.
            October 6, Thursday—the hospice people brought a hospital bed.  Karen was unconscious all day.  We gave her pain meds in liquid form; deposited between cheek and gum, she swallowed them automatically.
            October 7, Friday—Ron Mock sat with me most of the morning at Karen’s bedside.  For a moment she opened her eyes.  I told her I loved her.  She mouthed words, which Ron and I both thought were, “I love you.”
            October 8, Saturday—Karen slept all day, breathing slowly.
            October 9, Sunday, 9:45 am—Karen stopped breathing.  I called hospice, and a nurse came within half an hour.  Shortly thereafter, hospice people came to remove Karen’s body.
            October 20—We attended funeral mass at St. Peter Church.
            October 22—Karen’s memorial service at Newberg Friends Church.

            I have a friend whose husband died more than two years ago.  She says the anticipation of the anniversary of death can be harder than the day itself.  Maybe so.
            I keep Karen’s ashes in two beautiful urns, a gift from Mark Terry.  The urns stand on top of Karen’s rosewood piano.  Legally, that piano is mine, but I cannot think of it except as Karen’s piano.  I bought a niche at the Friends Cemetery; someday, I presume, either I or our sons will move the ashes to the niche.
            In my life, the earth will probably orbit the sun twenty or thirty more times.  Maybe more, maybe fewer.  And that’s it, the end; our last walk is finally over.  So some people say.  But I hope … Well, if you have read these essays, you know about that.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Last Walk 13

The Photographer’s Resurrection

            Karen was a clinical psychologist for more than three decades, and it was only after retirement she took up photography seriously.  She made some very nice portraits, but her best pictures are art photos.  Insects, trees, and flowers; taken in extreme close-up or in unusual light, they display nature’s beauty in surprising ways.  And some of her work achieves pure abstraction, leaving the viewer guessing as to how the images were captured.
            Many weeks, months really, have passed since Karen made any photos.  She battles cancer, chemotherapy, and pain medications.  Too weak to stand without aid, unable to hold a camera, she also struggles to pursue coherent thought; the studied, inventive attention needed for art photos is beyond her.
            It is possible that she will rally physically.  She could receive more chemotherapy.  Chemotherapy might significantly retard or reverse cancer’s growth.  At this stage we still can hope that Karen will make more pictures.  But none of those things are likely.
            As a psychologist, Karen regularly had occasion to diagnose dementia.  That she often cannot complete a sentence or thought frightens and discourages her.  Along with everything else, she fights depression.
            I approve of Adrienne Martin’s term for hope; hope is a syndrome.  Hope shows up in our beliefs, plans, feelings, and perceptions.  Hope colors our imagination.  I also approve of Martin’s notion of incorporation.  When we have judged that a hoped for outcome is possible and then judged that it is practically important to us, we license ourselves to incorporate the hope into our lives.  We think about the hoped for thing, we perceive the world in its light, and we let ourselves imagine it.
            To that end, here is a bit of imagination.  Please, please, please: I am not saying what will be; I am only imagining what might be.  (The words above were written in September 2016.  Those that follow were written later.)

A Fine Green Morning

            Karen dreamed, but disjointedly.  She was lying in a bed, the hospital bed delivered by hospice.  How long had she been here?  But then, in her dream, she was seated in the blue recliner.  She liked that chair; she bought it for her home office three years ago, and they had moved it to the living room.  For some days, maybe a week, she sat and slept in the recliner until, as the cancer consumed her strength, Phil called hospice for the bed.  She knew she would die in that hospital bed.  Why did they move her back to the recliner?
            She recognized photographs on the wall above the sofa.  She had directed Phil when he mounted them—this one there, that one a bit higher—and the result pleased her.  The photography instructor at the college, John Bennett, had praised her work, and Phil especially liked her “art” pictures.  Close up photos of a cat’s eye, a flower, and green growing things, filled with pristine detail—the pictures satisfied.  If only she had started photography sooner, or if the cancer hadn’t come back…
            Karen shook her head, at least in her dream.  She would not waste strength on regrets.  The photos were what they were.  She had made them, and they satisfied.  The making of them had taught her to look at God’s world.  She had found amazing treasures just walking the streets of Newberg.  Of course, that was before the pain in her back and legs put an end to such things… 
            How long had it been since she had strength to hold a camera?  Three weeks?  Actually, she said to herself, it’s a blessing I’ve gone downhill so fast.  Just a month ago Phil drove me to visit Tim and Tia.  But my gut rebelled and Tim had to take me back next day.  I’m glad to die quickly without lingering.
            She looked closely at the photo of Buddy, the neighborhood cat.  Then she thought: How am I able to get so close?  The pictures are on the other side of the room.  And I’m not in the living room.  I’m in the hospital bed, dreaming of the living room.
            It’s legal for hospice to prescribe strong opiates.  I wonder which one they’re giving me.  I wouldn’t have expected to think so lucidly at the last.  I feared dementia, but this isn’t so bad, not from the inside.  Maybe as I fall deeper into the last sleep, everything happens in my mind.  Phil or Jennie see me lying in a bed and wait for my last breath.  But on the inside, it goes on forever.  Is that eternity?
            She turned her head.  Dining table here, piano there, the door, the windows; everything was in its place.  She certainly seemed to be standing, facing the north wall, alone in her house.  Judging by the light from the windows, it must be early morning.  She took a step forward.  Buddy and the other pictures were within arms reach. 
            I’m here.  I’m really here.
Shocked: Am I a ghost? 
            It took three steps to reach the piano.  She pressed a key and was rewarded with sound.  Not a ghost, then?
            Three decades of psychological study and practice carried her mind like a rushing river.  What an amazing phenomenon!  I am lying in a bed, dying of cancer, and yet I experience a lucid, reflexive dream.  The best dream of my life.
            “Karen, honey.”
            She spun around.  “Mom!”  (In the back of her mind: I would have expected Phil.)
            “It’s not a dream, Dear.  That is why it is I, not Phil.  How do you feel?”
            Karen took in a breath, and it felt wonderful.  She realized at that moment that she felt no pain: no pain in her back, no stabbing pain in her leg, and no mental confusion.  
            “It’s not drugs.”  Betty smiled and shrugged.  “It took me a while to get used to feeling good.  I didn’t have as much pain as you, but heart disease made me feel so worn out.  And I was sick longer.  It was a relief to let it go.”
            “I’ve died, then?”
            “Oh yes.  They told me I could welcome you, and I thought this room would be a good transition.  Is it alright?”
            “It’s wonderful, Mom.”  Karen hugged her, and in that hug, deep wonder began to sink into her mind.  “It’s just like it was.”
            Betty chuckled.  “Not quite.  The room has changed a little since they moved you into the bedroom.  And a while ago, after you died, the hospice men came to remove your body.  Do you know what Phil will do with it?”
            “He arranged for cremation.”
            “Oh.  It doesn’t matter, of course.  But I never liked the idea of cremation.  I’m glad you buried me next to Glenn.”
            “Yes, we did.  In that little cemetery near The Dalles.”
            Betty took Karen’s hand.  “Are you ready to go?”
            Karen felt surprise.  “Where are we going?  Do I have a choice?”
            “You made the choice long ago.  And you know where we’re going.”  Karen’s mother’s eyes sparkled with joy.
            Mother and daughter left the house, walking into a fine green morning.  “Oh, look!”

Saturday, August 5, 2017

HB 18

Hope for the Other

            Friedrich Nietzsche attacked Christianity for a number of faults.  One of them, he thought, was the Christian doctrine of resurrection and a blessed afterlife.  On Nietzsche’s account, hope for immortality is pernicious, in that it encourages a person to be satisfied with a miserable life now because of the consolation to come.
            You don’t have to be virulently anti-Christian to be suspicious of hope.  A contemporary Christian writer, Timothy Jackson (Love Disconsoled), wants to expunge hope from the list of Christian virtues.  The center of Christianity, Jackson says, is the ethic of agape love.  Genuine acts of love are undermined by self-regard, which expects some reward for good deeds.  True agape love must be totally centered on one’s neighbor, willing and acting toward the neighbor’s good without consideration of one’s own good.  Hope brings in consolation, Jackson says, and true agape must be “dis-consoled.”
            There is just enough right in what Jackson says to make it initially plausible.  Love really is the most important of the virtues, the heart of Christian ethics.  We are commanded by Jesus to love as God loves (Matthew 5:48).  Though we can’t actually do that (certainly not by an act of will), but we live as disciples with perfect love as our goal.  Many theologians have argued that God’s love—agape love—is “disinterested,” in the sense that it seeks the good of the beloved without regard for the good of the self.  A classical theologian like Thomas Aquinas would say that God is eternally blessed, complete and entire.  Since God is completely happy, God does not need anything and he is not made happier by human worship or obedience.  God commands our worship because he loves us.  We move closer to our best selves when we obey God.
            Someone might object that Jackson’s view contradicts scripture.  The New Testament repeatedly praises hope as a proper virtue for Christians.  This objection is completely accurate, but Jackson would not be persuaded by it.  If hope detracts from love, he would say, we must shed hope in favor of love.  Jackson is picking out what he thinks is the crucial part of New Testament teaching and trying to be faithful to that.  In practice, many preachers do this by returning over and over to those biblical texts which seem to them to express the more important truths.  As a theologian, Jackson is simply more open about it.
            Nevertheless, Jackson is wrong.  It is simply not true that hope is always self-regarding.  David Elliot, in Hope and Christian Ethics, points to a common scene: a graveside gathering of family whose loved one has been buried.  According to Love Disconsoled, the Christian minister might praise the dead person as a faithful disciple of Jesus and perhaps urge the family to emulate him or her.  But the minister should not talk of eternal life.  “Love’s priority implies the moral irrelevance of an afterlife,” says Jackson.
            How is it an act of love to disconsole those who are grieving?
            Jackson, or someone speaking on his behalf, might say that we hope for an afterlife for our friends and loved ones because we want to see them again.  That is, we sneak in self-consolation by introducing hope for resurrection.  But is that true?  Do I hope that Karen (my wife who died in 2016) will be raised to eternal life so that I can enjoy her company?  Not really.  What I hope is that Karen will experience perfect happiness, what Thomas Aquinas called beatitudo, the beatific vision.  She has moved out of my life (except in memory) and into the life of God.  I would not hope for her to have something less.  If in heaven there is a solidarity and fellowship of saints (so that we see each other again), well and good.  But my hope for Karen is that she experience the highest good, which is God.
            Hope is not opposed to love, because we hope for others as much as ourselves.
            There is another point to be made about resurrection hope.  The New Testament clearly teaches that we hope for eternal life.  Aquinas said our goal was friendship with God.  Perhaps we need to live forever because our real hope is to know the infinite God.  It will take eternity to truly know him.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Lost Worlds

Reflections on a Visit to Pont du Gard

            On a recent study trip in Europe I visited the Pont du Gard.  It is a UNESCO world heritage site.  Fittingly, the visit provoked thoughts about world history.
In the first century, when the Christian movement was just beginning, the Romans built an aqueduct to bring water from a mountain spring to a “colony” town called Nemausus (Nimes) in what is now southern France.  The uneven terrain of the region required a winding route for the system, more than 31 miles, digging through hillsides and leveling out depressions, so that the water could flow downhill all the way.  The aqueduct had to cross a river valley (the Gardon River), so the engineers built a bridge, consisting of three tiers of arches, and the water flowed in a covered canal on the top.
            The Pont du Gard and its bridge are a marvel of precision.  The canal on top of the bridge descends about 1 inch, a gradient of 1 to 18,241.  The 31-mile aqueduct descends 41 feet over its whole length.  Once completed, this gravity-glow system provided Nimes with water for baths, drinking, and fountains.  And the system worked, with little maintenance, for four or five centuries.  (Would your city’s water system last that long?)
            But even Roman engineering breaks down with no maintenance.  The empire fell to invading Goths, Visigoths, and other barbarians.  Without periodic cleaning, mineral buildup clogged the aqueduct and the water ceased.  For more than 1000 years, Nimes, like other medieval cities, depended on wells or local streams for water.  In medieval times, cities often had higher rates of disease than the countryside, because concentrated populations depended on limited or polluted water sources.
            Many Roman structures were destroyed by people who picked them apart, one massive stone at a time, as resources for other projects.  The Pont du Gard, though it no longer carried water, continued to serve as a bridge over the Gardon valley.  Medieval lords could charge tolls for wagons and horse traffic, so they protected the structure from looters.  In the last two centuries, governments have taken care to protect it as a tourist destination.
            What did medieval people think when they looked at the Pont du Gard?  Century after century, it stood there, 160’ high and hundred more than 1000’ long, a massive and beautiful structure, far beyond the ability of any living man to design or any lord to finance.  Most likely, they knew that it once carried water, but probably none of them had any understanding of how precisely it had been built.  We cannot see inside their minds, but we imagine they felt some awe at the knowledge of the ancients.
            The world’s literature has many examples of the myth of the golden age.  The Greeks gave us the lost city of Atlantis, the Hebrews told the story of Babel, the Babylonians told of kings who lived for thousands of years, and there are similar stories in other cultures.  Common to such stories is the idea that our distant ancestors were greater than we are—richer, smarter, longer-lived, and/or more holy.
            It’s one thing to tell a story of the golden age.  It’s something else to see proof standing like the Pont du Gard over a river valley.  For more than a thousand years Europeans could see—not just at Pont du Gard but also at other sites—clear evidence that Roman material culture surpassed anything they could build.  The richest noble in his castle in 950 or 1250 lived much less comfortably than upper class Romans of the first century.  (Besides baths and fountains, the Romans built houses with heated floors—in Britain!)  Reflecting on the Pont du Gard and other such structures, Europeans knew there really had been a lost age, an age when people knew more than they did.
            We can suppose that belief in the lost age was part of a medieval worldview.  But not in the modern world!  The recovery of ancient texts, the discovery of the new world, and especially the development of modern science brought a new idea, fundamental to the modern worldview, the idea of progress.  It’s not that we are smarter than our forebears, but we build on their accomplishments.  So we know more than any previous generation.  In the future we will learn even more, so human progress is potentially unlimited. 
To get a sense of the confidence of a modern worldview, try the novels of Jules Verne, e.g. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  The height of modern confidence in progress probably came in the 19th century.  Science and technology had produced railroads, telegraphs, electric lights, steamships, and inoculations and other ways to fight disease.  With the birth of scientific psychology and sociology, humanity could expect progress on “spiritual” problems as well.
The 20th century was not kind to the modern belief in progress.  People continued to make scientific discoveries and develop new technologies, but the uses of our technologies frighten us: nuclear and biological weapons, pollution of land and sea, totalitarian use of communication, eugenics, global climate change, and others.  Is it possible that people will come to look back on a lost age, an age when our ancestors did not know what we know or do what we can do, as better than ours?
Post-apocalyptic science fiction imagines a world like that of medieval Europeans.  A classic example is A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, a story of monks living in a post-nuclear war world.  That’s not the sort of story I have in mind.  Post-apocalypse stories parallel the medieval experience; in such stories, the ancients are envied because of their knowledge and power, knowledge and power we no longer have.  I have in mind the opposite, where the ancients are envied for their ignorance and lack of power.
Philosophy has always said that knowledge is a good thing.  The post-modern idea that knowledge may be dangerous or bad is philosophically revolutionary.  Without wisdom, technology merely provides power.  So some philosophers of the 20th century (Jacques Ellul, for example) turned their attention to the dangers of technology.  In the 21st century, with technological power in the hands of terrorists or tyrants, we face horrible possibilities.  Global climate change confronts us with not possibility but virtual certainty of hardships.
The Pont du Gard is a beautiful bridge.  It stands as a reminder that engineering can make good things, things that improve human life.  It also symbolizes a lost world, a world lost through the loss of knowledge.  We stand at a time when we may long for a lost world, a world lost by the acquisition of knowledge.