Monday, August 15, 2011

When Should We Then Live?

One occasionally hears advice to "live in the now" or "in the moment." If people who give this advice mean that we should deal with what we have at the present, responsible with its problems and joyful in its blessings, neither disabled by regrets nor bedazzled by pipe dreams, then I agree. I just read today in Plutarch's summary of Caius Marius that thoughtless people "lose the enjoyment of their present prosperity by fancying something better to come," and that they "reject their present success" while they "do nothing but dream of future uncertainties." He's right: Caius Marius and others like him should not have neglected the now.

But if the people giving this advice mean, as I'm afraid most of them do these days, that we should ignore both the lessons of the past and the fears of future consequences, as if all lessons and consequences are mere conventional strictures designed to spoil us of our rightful joy, then I can't agree. I'm sorry to have to say so often that I remember reading something without remembering who said it, but I have to do it again. I remember reading somewhere that among the effects the Fall is the brokenness of time for humans, so that we have trouble seeing the connection between past, present, and future. Part of our Redemption then is seeing that Time is one -- that God has a plan for all of Time and that we play a part in it, that our Salvation came at the fulness of time, that the history recorded in the Bible teaches us in the present, and that all of creation rushes to a future that includes glory for the redeemed.

In his introduction to Bonhoeffer's Creation and Fall, John W. deGruchy suggests that Dietrich Bonhoeffer would also agree with the need to see Time as one. As deGruchy points out, Bonhoeffer taught both that the Old Testament should be read in light of the New Testament, since the declarations of the Hebrew Bible were made possible only by the Word revealed in the New Testament, and that the New should be read in the light of the Old, since the New Testament only makes sense in the context of the history given in the Old. Failure to see the integrity of biblical history and of the biblical message leads to a separation of creation and redemption, a separation of public and private spheres of life, a Gnostic separation of matter and spirit, and -- especially in Bonhoeffer's world -- anti-Semitism.

In the text of the book itself, Bonhoeffer begins his exposition of the first three chapters of Genesis with a discussion of what "the beginning" means, and points out that the human who wrote that sentence could only know about the beginning by having been told about it by Someone Who was the Beginning. But such a person must also be the End. The Bible, Bonhoeffer says, "needs to be read and proclaimed wholly from the viewpoint of the end. In the church, therefore, the story of creation must be read in a way that begins with Christ and only then moves on toward him as its goal." Without revelation about our beginning, he says, humans don't know their end either and thus live on a circle, an isolated path with neither origin nor goal. Although we can see the middle, we can't see the beginning or the end, and yet we know that we are in the middle. Any proclamations about the beginning or end disturb us: they can only come from liars or from the Creator.

I love this opening to the book, partly because it reminds me of several other books I love -- books whose authors I do remember. It first makes me think of Pascal's statements in the Pensées about humanity living in the middle, unable to know either the very small or the very large. Pascal was both right and out of step with his times: made at a time when faith in reason was growing and when some philosophers were starting to say that we could one day understand all there is to know, his humble assertions have proven astonishingly accurate, as science has shown, for instance, that the location and vector of subatomic particles cannot be known simultaneously, and that our observation of the history of the material universe hits an impenetrable curtain at 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang. Of course that last point about disturbing proclamations reminds me of C. S. Lewis's famous "Lord, Liar, Lunatic" argument from Mere Christianity.

But most of all, this passage in Bonhoeffer reminds me of Scrooge, who got it right at the end of his story. With him, I say, "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach." May the Beginning and the End hold me to it.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad to see you talking about Bonhoeffer. I have read Cosf of Discipleship a few times and a recent biography on him also. He is such a pivotal figure to me. He reminds me of that verse in Revalation: "and they overcame by the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death." Only a view of time as a whole can yield that.