The Time Toggle

Work over a drawing or a poem and all sense of passing time is suspended.   The next day, watch television all evening, and you’re surprised at how fast the evening goes.   These are common observations, common enough to abstract into principle: when the senses are full but inactive,  time speeds up.  When the faculties labor, time slows down.  When we are passive consumers of information or entertainment, irrespective of the quality of what we consume, time flies.   When we are producers, time stops.    The intensity of the creative mind is inverse to the perception of passing time.   (By creating, I mean most any active production, from origami to plumbing, as opposed to passive consumption, from reading novels to sitcom bingeing.)

After each of these experiences we sense how they are opposites.  When a session of creative work is over,  we feel integrated, whole.  Consciousness is fuller.   But when we come to our senses after hours of entertainment and realize the hours we lost, it feels like a loss of something we can’t quite say.  We feel a little less whole; the field of consciousness seems to have shrunk.    We feel alienated.

So we can actually punch the time button if we want, and suspend it.  Or, toggle it the other direction and lose time.

Let’s aggregate this insight:  as a society becomes more and more filled with opportunities to passively consume content,  the sense of passing time  grows more acute, individually, and enters the general air as a pop culture mood.    There are ancillary effects.   Hoarding, for example – here’s a phenomenon that has appeared in recent decades in the affluent West, like some emergent disease.  Hoarders collect objects that have touched their lives in a desperate attempt to resist the sense that life is passing away like a flash.   The piles of junk that fill hoarders’ homes are shored-up bulwarks against the empty present.   Mounds of memory.   Fear of death.   Physical nostalgia.

So, this oddity: nostalgia and entertainment culture go together.   I’d go so far as this:  individuals who spend their time creating do not feel much nostalgia.

There are many needed distinctions at this point, but I can only list them.  Each needs longer treatment.   One:  nostalgia and respect for the past are not the same thing.   Another:   reading can be active or passive, it depends on the larger context and not on the subject matter of the book.  Reading good books is to be praised and encouraged, but can be just as passive a lifetime as one spent staring at a screen.   The reader should do something with her reading – write something, sing something, use the information somehow, or let the poem inspire her to create in her own idiom.   Good writing deserves to be responded, and the healthy reader will be UNABLE not to respond to a good book with active production of some kind.  It’s not a rule, it just happens.   Further, none of this contradicts the common and healthy advice to “read for pleasure”, which is good counsel.   Read for pleasure, and with active engagement (but these are the same thing), then do what you will.

There are ancillary insights.   For example, in the same way that time stops when we make things, God, who is pure creative act, experiences literal eternity.

Speaking of theology….in many religious anthropologies, much is made of efforts to fix some supposed heirarchy of the senses, or other.  This effort is, partly, to make any sense other than the visual the one in charge, so it can slow or organize an increasingly fast and chaotic sensorium centered, typically,  around our sight.   Ellul wrote of “the humiliation of the word”;  Postman writes of the loss of the “typographical mind”; the Desert Fathers were concerned about the cognitive “image” obscuring the theoria (or contemplation) of the adept.

The recurrent impulse to make pyramids of the sense-organs is understandable as a reaction to the panic of speeding time, and has suggestions of biblical warrant, ever since Eve preferred a vivid vision (her own picture of her own future) over a fading verbal proposition (“don’t eat from that tree”).

But this mistakes the symptom for the disease.   There are indeed pathological rebellions of one sense over the others, and each unique person will have an idiosyncratic imbalance.   Pathology has random permutations.  But there is no prescribed heirarchy of the senses, either from God, or in historical experience.  None works.

Another impulse is physical solitude.   We sometimes want to just go apart, sit by the Walden pond or in the monastic cell or walk through Yosemite – just to get away from the kaleidoscope.  Fine, if we’re just shutting out most of the world in order to concentrate on work.  But if we’re just retreating from the distractions in self-defense, solitude isn’t the necessary solution.   Work is.   Work more on your own project, and you’ll find your sense-life has suddenly grown quiet and almost contemplative, in the middle of the traffic noises.

There is no correct hierarchy of sense.  There is no redemption in place.   There is only the active man, and the passive man.  As man acts upon the world, craftsperson acting on the material, artist acting on the medium, all the senses swing into perfect harmony automatically,  pulled into their proper roles and relations by the pressure of the external task.   The glorious external task of keeping the garden, building the city.

Modern man is becoming more passive as his world fills up with things to do and watch and he gets busier and busier,  and the dis-arrangement of his senses, culminating in actual mental illness, is a symptom of this entropy — not a cause.

Time will continue to speed up as the world fills with distractions.  In the end,  alienation is experienced more like a narcotic, like a not unpleasant buzz, with occasional startles from noticing the number of the year.

Straw Atonement Theories

One of the dilettante hobbies of the secular liberati is mocking a god who doesn’t exist and who Christians should hate if he did exist.  But it is an amusing hobby, and so persists.  These cheap thrills take many forms – for example, the atonement, as imagined by those who hate the very idea of law, sin, or rescue.   Their idea of atonement would not be good news if it had happened.

The church has fed the scoffers by butchering its own message.  Any given Sunday you can hear from Christian pulpits a cartoon of the biblical vision.  Some words have meanings so poorly understood by the audience they should not be inflicted on the sleepy crowd.  “Sacrifice”, “atonement”.   Such words have only a half-life of meaning for the typical congregation.   Each generation must refresh them as if they had never been heard.

I’m remembering an anatomy book from my boyhood.  I’m not sure they are around anymore, but this one had multiple transparent pages that overlaid one by one deeper and deeper sections of the human body as you flip the pages.  The first page shows the skin.  Lift the page, and the skin is peeled away to show muscle underneath.  Lift another clear plastic page and the muscle is gone, leaving internal organs visible.  And so on.

The modern critics of atonement are looking at the top page and insisting the body could never stand erect because there are no bones.  The reductionist mind, typically, strips the delicate tissue out of a concept then criticizes the corpse for being dead.    They see the crudest satisfaction theory which would represent nothing new in the history of religion and never think to wonder why such a sacrifice would revolutionize an empire.

You see, satisfaction makes no sense if it means Person A, acting on Person B, for the benefit of Persons C.   Structured like this, it is a deracinated version of the biblical truth; it is no advance over a hundred ancient myths.    The entire point of the biblical redemption is not that God acts on His Son for the benefit of the world.  Rather, it is that God acts on His Son who is, in fact, somehow, Himself, for the sins of the world which have become, somehow, His sins.  God does not act on an Other; He is the Other.  God does not act to save a world that is Other; He has entered that world and is bearing the sin.  There is no action on Others; God saves by assuming the ontological space of the Other and exercising justice and mercy at once, and this coinherent logic of agape is the entire point.  If we were not asked to wonder at this new, radically new logic the Bible would be wasting our time rehashing the perennial religion in recycled images.

This unity of Actor, Agent, and Beneficiary doesn’t just drop out of the ceiling wires like a convenient plot device.   The theme has already been played and played again in the magnificence of Incarnation and Trinity, those other chapters in the drama with Persons who are at once distinct yet not separate.   So that when God in Atoning love both acts and recieves on behalf of the world, this union of subject, verb, and object is not new.  In Atonement, as the culmination and Grand Reveal,  the one God in multiple Persons wills to discharge the burden of His own law by exacting and taking His own penalty.

The Christian drama of redemption hasn’t been tried and rejected; it is largely a lost drama.







In the word, the thought

“the Son is in the Father . . . because the whole being of the Son is proper to the Father’s ousia, as radiance from light and a stream from a fountain; so that whosoever sees the Son, sees what is proper to the Father and knows that the Son’s being, as from the Father, is the Father and is therefore in the Father. For the Father is in the Son, since the Son is what is from the Father and proper to him, as there is in the radiance the sun, and in the word the thought, and in the stream the fountain: for whoso thus contemplates the Son, contemplates what is proper to the Father’s ousia, and knows that the Father is in the Son.

Leithart quotes Athanasius, and finds the nugget phrase: “in the word, the thought”. Now that’s full, but you can’t draw a mental picture of it. If you came to this passage looking for a more clear spatial metaphor for your Trinity category, you didn’t get it.

When the Fathers are doing this thing, this attempt to exegete theology, they are not doing what we’ve been doing since the Scholastics, and doing feverishly since the Enlightenment. They are not trying to draw a diagram. What they are doing is poetry — but not what “poetry” means to you.

Not “poetry” in the sense of “expression of feeling as opposed to thought” or “escape from rationality into mysticism” (yuck.) These are modern dichotomies. These are post-line-of-despair categories (cf Frances Scheaffer).

They are doing poetry the way David Hart fills out the word “rhetoric”…RATIONALITY THAT IS SO FULL AND GLORIOUS IT MUST SPILL OVER THE STRUCTURES OF PROSE. So the theological work is not intended to give you a diagram, but it is meant to help you understand it better, by giving you the same truth in a different language.

If you know the English word for “tree”, and the elvish word for “tree”, you are able to see the tree better. The two words are not the same nominal sign, they are two signs to the one thing. So, poetry is not translatable into prose, and theology is not translatable into diagrams. This does not mean theology is not true — least of all does it mean theology is directed at “faith” instead of at “reason” (yuck.) — but that theology is directed at the synthetic faculty, as opposed to the analytical faculty. God is bigger than your mind, so to talk of Him we must rhapsodize, so that He is not falsified to your intellect.


“Eternal Perspective”

“Eternal perspective” as used in evangelical preaching, usually amounts to docetism.  Only what is done for Christ will last, and so on.  The implication — intended or not, people imbibe it — is that only the ghostly souls of men will pass into the next age; spend as little work as possible on things like art, engineering, plumbing, which are Works of Hay and Straw, to be burned up on the last day.

On The Summer Urge To Sit Outside

I can’t claim to understand my own urge to sit among the wildflowers.   Beauty?  Sure.  But even before the candied blooms pop, as soon as green shoots break the spring soil, I’m sure I’m missing out on a secret.  Before the beauty,  nature draws.  Why?

The cliches are many:  “the healing power of nature”.  Again, sure.  But what, exactly, is this “power”, and what is this “healing”?   It’s more than rest, more than just that we ‘feel better”.  There’s an existential longing before there’s any tiredness.

I can sit cross legged in the middle of a daisy field and feel vaguely that I’ve come home.   As I listen to the sigh of wind through the field, I don’t hear anything missing.  That moment is not a passage on the way to, for example, people.   People, even beloved ones, are not missing from this, though none are here.   This field is the means to no end.   Even the history of kingdoms and holocausts, here in the daisies and the wind, does not ask for redemption.   Why not?

It’s a feeling that something important is happening right here.   And that this importance somehow outweighs whatever is the chatter on the evening news.  Western culture adds one more brick on its Hell project, yet somehow the hummingbird sipping at the lantana on my porch seems more important.

No, I have no theory to support this.   I’m not sure the Romantic movement ever produced one; did Wordsworth ever do more than say this in a thousand fine but redundant ways?   And the chance universe of the secular modern is just silent about the meaning of everything.  After all, if what we see around us just happened, then both hummingbird and hell are random collisions of particles.  No feeling means anything.  No thoughts will survive the sun.

Even my own Judeo-Christian and designed universe doesn’t fully account for my pre-cognitive intuitions,  intuitions surely common to churched and unchurched alike.   Unless I’m so audacious to say that the love of the Creator for every sparrow, for every blade of grass, is literally what you and I are feeling.   We feel His affections – His bowels, in that old Hebraic sense.  All nations, races, and tongues feel His pleasures but they don’t even know it.

We feel His paternal love for what He makes, and we mistake what moves through our depths for our own self, but He is in fact closer to us than we are to ourselves.  The Spirit within me longs with longings that cannot be articulated?  Longings for the daisy, the hummingbird, and the lantana, as well as for the hymns and the alms?     Is it You?  Is it really You?