J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’

 

‘Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion. For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.

Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies;even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.

This ”joy” which I have selected as the mark of the true fairy-story (or romance), or as the seal upon it, merits more consideration. Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of
the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know. (J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ pp. 144-145, 155-157)

Existence, Reality, Love, Christ and God

We have seen in previous posts how Dietrich Bonhoeffer connects being human to being in Christ – that in being in Christ, one truly is human.

‘Human beings are called to share the suffering of God in a godless world. Therefore we must really live in the godless world; and may not make the attempt to somehow conceal, to transfigure its godlessness religiously; we mus live in a “worldly” fashion, which means we are liberated from false religious attachments and inhibitions. ‘Being a Christian does not mean being religious in a certain way, or, on the basis of some methodology, to make something out of ourselves (a sinner, a penitent, a saint); rather, it means to be a human being. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world. This is the reversal: not to think first of our own needs, questions, sins, and anxieties, but to let ourselves be pulled into the way of Jesus, into the messianic event that is now fulfilled (Isa. 53:4-5).’
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Karl Barth makes a similar point in his magnum opus ‘Church Dogmatics’:

‎’The Christian life begins with love. It also ends with love, so far as it has an end as human life in time. There is nothing that we can or must be as a Christian, or to become a Christian, prior to love. Even faith does not anticipate love. As we come to faith we begin to love. If we did not begin to love, we would not have come to faith. Faith is faith in Jesus Christ. If we believe, the fact that we do so means that every ground which is not that of our being in love to God in Christ is cut away from under us: we cannot exist without seeking God. If this were not the case, we should have failed to come to faith. And the fact that it is so is a confirmation that our faith is not an illusion, but that we ourselves as men truly believe.

But there is nothing beyond love. There is no higher or better being or doing in which we can leave it behind us. As Christians, we are continually asked about love, and in all that we can ever do or not do, it is the decisive question. Love is the essence of Christian living. It is also the ‘conditio sine qua non,’ in ever conceivable connexion. Wherever the Christian life in commission or omission is good before God, the good thing about it is love. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, pp. 371-372.)

Barth here is referring to Christians – but I will be using this in conjunction with Bonhoeffers thought in just a moment (see 1B below).

Theologian and philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in his monumental book ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs,’ that the worth of human beings and natural rights is grounded in love – affectionate love from God.

‘…I conclude that if God loves a human being with the love of attachment, that love bestows worth on that human being; other creatures, if they knew about that love, would be envious. And I conclude that if God loves, in the mode of attachment, each and every human being equally and permanently, then natural human rights inhere in the worth bestowed upon human beings by that love.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs,’ pp. 360)

So here we have:

1A. Existence grounded in reality. (Bonhoeffer)

1B. Reality grounded in Christ. (Bonhoeffer)

1C.Existence grounded in seeking God. (Barth) Even though Barth here is intending this to refer to the Church, I am taking it one step farther and applying it to human existence on a universal level.

2. Worth of existence and natural rights grounded in the love of God. (Wolterstorff) This has more to do with ethical thought than ontological existence. See 2B below.

3. My assertion, then, is this: that apart from participating in reality and seeking God, there is no human existence. People exist, but not in their truly human form.

2B. While those not participating in reality/seeking God are not truly living in a human sense, they do in fact have worth bestowed upon them by God by His love for them as well as natural rights.

 

Wittgenstein and the Limits of Language, Logic and Limits

 

In the ‘Tractatus’ Wittgenstein attempted to reduce the problems of language and philosophy down to logic – it was this little book that provided much of the backbone to the movement of logical positivism in the 30s/40s. But, as we have seen ( http://wp.me/p1IfS5-40 for the previous discussion on this topic) in doing so Wittgenstein uncovered the paradoxical nature of the structure of language and logic – and it was this that proved to be the death of the positivism movement.

The central problem of positivism (and its more recent relation, scientism) is this:

‘Any proposition whereby one attempts to restrict the scope of human knowledge to some narrow domain, necessarily involves a temporary step “outside” that domain in order to get the birds-eye-view needed to see the broader epistemic landscape so as to formulate the restrictive proposition in the first place. In short, one is sneaking a quick glance from beyond the limits of the proposed knowledge boundary in order to assert knowledge of the boundary itself: a knowledge claim derived from a venue which the knowledge claim itself declares as “off-limits” to human knowledge.’

(taken from http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/11/reading-rosenberg-part-ii.html?showComment=1320429161183#c3603435707464990869)

In short, it is a self-refuting idea – it cannot justify itself within its own system. This idea was key for mathmetician Kurt Godel in his – see http://www.miskatonic.org/godel.html for an excellent introduction and discussion for Godel’s thought and its consequences in philosophy/logic/mathematics.

He proved it impossible to establish the internal logical consistency of a very large class of deductive systems – elementary arithmetic, for example – unless one adopts principles of reasoning so complex that their internal consistency is as open to doubt as that of the systems themselves … Second main conclusion is … Gödel showed that Principia, or any other system within which arithmetic can be developed, is essentially incomplete. In other words, given any consistent set of arithmetical axioms, there are true mathematical statements that cannot be derived from the set… Even if the axioms of arithmetic are augmented by an indefinite number of other true ones, there will always be further mathematical truths that are not formally derivable from the augmented set.‘ (http://www.miskatonic.org/godel.html)

That, briefly, then are some sketches of the limits of logic and language within formalized systems, which is precisely what Wittgenstein was trying to achieve in the ‘Tractatus – Bertrand Russel and A.N. Whitehead in their Principia Mathmatica,’ but, as has been shown, was ultimately a futile effort.

What this shows are the limits of these systems – but, as noted previously, there seems to be a rather paradoxical trait of limits, in that one has to be on both sides (or at least have been on both sides) for a limit to really make any sense. It seems that even limits themselves are subject to the first quotation above – any limit supposes that one is able to step outside that limit in order to affirm that said limit is indeed a limit.

This then raises the question of certainty – of what can we be certain?

 

The God Who Isn’t There

 

Once again it strikes me about just how much the idea of God being hidden is one of the themes of Scripture – particularly the Old Testament. This, to me, seems a little odd. Israel is God’s chosen people – why would He remain so distant so as to earn the title ‘The God Who Hides Himself’? This is interesting.

The easy answer, I suppose, would that God wants us to seek after Him. This does in fact seem to be one of the primary reasons – we’re told in Chronicles how ‘God withdrew in order to test him (Hezekiah)’. This is a theme in ‘The Dark Night of the Soul,’ by St. John of the Cross – that the withdrawing of God is the next step in the maturity of the Christian. The analogy used is that of a mother:

‘Into this dark night souls begin to enter when God draws them forth from the state of beginners—which is the state of those that meditate on the spiritual road—and begins to set them in the state of progressives—which is that of those who are already contemplatives—to the end that, after passing through it, they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of the Divine union of the soul with God. Wherefore, to the end that we may the better understand and explain what night is this through which the soul passes, and for what cause God sets it therein, it will be well here to touch first of all upon certain characteristics of beginners (which, although we treat them with all possible brevity, will not fail to be of service likewise to the beginners themselves), in order that, realizing the weakness of the state wherein they are, they may take courage, and may desire that God will bring them into this night, wherein the soul is strengthened and confirmed in the virtues, and made ready for the inestimable delights of the love of God. And, although we may tarry here for a time, it will not be for longer than is necessary, so that we may go on to speak at once of this dark night.

2. It must be known, then, that the soul, after it has been definitely converted to the service of God, is, as a rule, spiritually nurtured and caressed by God, even as is the tender child by its loving mother, who warms it with the heat of her bosom and nurtures it with sweet milk and soft and pleasant food, and carries it and caresses it in her arms; but, as the child grows bigger, the mother gradually ceases caressing it, and, hiding her tender love, puts bitter aloes upon her sweet breast, sets down the child from her arms and makes it walk upon its feet, so that it may lose the habits of a child and betake itself to more important and substantial occupations. The loving mother is like the grace of God, for, as soon as the soul is regenerated by its new warmth and fervour for the service of God, He treats it in the same way; He makes it to find spiritual milk, sweet and delectable, in all the things of God, without any labour of its own, and also great pleasure in spiritual exercises, for here God is giving to it the breast of His tender love, even as to a tender child.’ (Dark Night of the Soul, Chapter 1)

Here God’s withdrawal is for the believers benefit – the Christian cannot remain a baby forever and must occupy his or herself with ‘Divine things:

2. It must be known, then, that the soul, after it has been definitely converted to the service of God, is, as a rule, spiritually nurtured and caressed by God, even as is the tender child by its loving mother, who warms it with the heat of her bosom and nurtures it with sweet milk and soft and pleasant food, and carries it and caresses it in her arms; but, as the child grows bigger, the mother gradually ceases caressing it, and, hiding her tender love, puts bitter aloes upon her sweet breast, sets down the child from her arms and makes it walk upon its feet, so that it may lose the habits of a child and betake itself to more important and substantial occupations. The loving mother is like the grace of God, for, as soon as the soul is regenerated by its new warmth and fervour for the service of God, He treats it in the same way; He makes it to find spiritual milk, sweet and delectable, in all the things of God, without any labour of its own, and also great pleasure in spiritual exercises, for here God is giving to it the breast of His tender love, even as to a tender child.

3. Therefore, such a soul finds its delight in spending long periods—perchance whole nights—in prayer; penances are its pleasures; fasts its joys; and its consolations are to make use of the sacraments and to occupy itself in Divine things. In the which things spiritual persons (though taking part in them with great efficacy and persistence and using and treating them with great care) often find themselves, spiritually speaking, very weak and imperfect. For since they are moved to these things and to these spiritual exercises by the consolation and pleasure that they find in them, and since, too, they have not been prepared for them by the practice of earnest striving in the virtues, they have many faults and imperfections with respect to these spiritual actions of theirs; for, after all, any man’s actions correspond to the habit of perfection attained by him. And, as these persons have not had the opportunity of acquiring the said habits of strength, they have necessarily to work like feebler children, feebly. In order that this may be seen more clearly, and likewise how much these beginners in the virtues lacks with respect to the works in which they so readily engage with the pleasure aforementioned, we shall describe it by reference to the seven capital sins, each in its turn, indicating some of the many imperfections which they have under each heading; wherein it will be clearly seen how like to children are these persons in all they do. And it will also be seen how many blessings the dark night of which we shall afterwards treat brings with it, since it cleanses the soul and purifies it from all these imperfections. (Dark Night of the Soul, Chapter 1)

The withdrawing of God is seen as a period of refinement, as it were, so that the Christian can be more fully united with Christ.

Bonhoeffer, Being Human and Being Christian

‘Human beings are called to share the suffering of God in a godless world. Therefore we must really live in the godless world; and may not make the attempt to somehow conceal, to transfigure its godlessness religiously; we mus live in a “worldly” fashion, which means we are liberated from false religious attachments and inhibitions. ‘Being a Christian does not mean being religious in a certain way, or, on the basis of some methodology, to make something out of ourselves (a sinner, a penitent, a saint); rather, it means to be a human being. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world. This is the reversal: not to think first of our own needs, questions, sins, and anxieties, but to let ourselves be pulled into the way of Jesus, into the messianic event that is now fulfilled (Isa. 53:4-5).’
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Here Bonhoeffer goes beyond grounding responsible action in the reality of Christ – here he grounds being human in Christ. To be a Christian is to truly be a human, and to be human is to be a Christian. One must be in Christ to participate in reality and to participate in the suffering of God. For Bonhoeffer this is the only way to truly even live in any meaningful way – the reality of Christ is his starting point and grounding presupposition. So not only is responsible action grounded in Christ, but the very state of being human is as well.

This is a pretty radical view – Bonhoeffer doesn’t take the easier route of saying that existence is meaningless without God; he denies that one can even exist in any meaningful sense without God. In a way Bonhoeffer also connects human being to suffering – God’s suffering in the world.

Some Thoughts on ‘Outer Dark’

I’m drawing near to the end of ‘Outer Dark,’ which has proved to be the bleakest Cormac McCarthy book I’ve yet read. His books, as a rule, are sparse. The dialogue is fast and real – I don’t know if anyone has captured various dialects of the Appalachian region as well as McCarthy has in his novels. What’s interesting though is that I’d describe his books as sparse – when only the dialogue is deserves that description. Descriptions of the landscape run on with powerful language – not flowery, not overdone, but powerful and yet it still feels sparse, and so far this book seems to be where his gift for sparse-feeling narrative with rich, powerful use of language shines the brightest.

The terseness that makes up his work is a powerful tool. Events simply happen, and dialogue simply is spoken. There’s no embellishment of either of those in his works. The simplicity with which the horrifying events that create the framework of the narrative are conveyed add to their horror, because they simply happen, in an all-too-real fashion. This, I think, is what makes McCarthy’s depictions of human depravity so bleak. The portrayal of the depths to which people can sink is not shocking or played for any effect. It just is. No special effects, no dramatic pauses. Just simple human depravity.

What’s interesting is McCarthy’s use and description of landscapes. He devotes minimal space to dialogue, but the landscape of the narrative becomes a character in and of itself. It takes on a feel of someone standing in the background, which is different than most narratives. Here, the landscape is almost (almost) a participant. This use of landscape reaches its peak in ‘The Crossing,’ (book two of  ‘The Border Trilogy’).

It’s definitely a less mythological kind of story, at least in its feel, than say ‘The Border Trilogy,’ or ‘Suttree.’ This novel feels much more real, much more bare-bones, but with some of the dreamy aspects of the other mentioned works.

Study of Plato

The next installment of philosopy read-thru/studies are Plato’s three main Socratic dialogues. These dialogues include the ‘Euthyphro,’ the ‘Apology,’ and the ‘Crito.’ The version of these texts I’ll be using is this one : http://www.amazon.com/Four-Texts-Socrates-Euthyphro-Aristophanes/dp/0801485746

For those interested in reading along without purchasing anything, here’s the texts for free:

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/crito.html

I’ll post thoughts and notes here – anyone who wishes to follow along or contribute is more than welcome to post here or on our Facebook group : https://www.facebook.com/pages/Theologians-Inc/225310414175001

Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Responsible Action and Reality

Dietrich Bonhoeffer grounds his ethics in the participation of reality – one must participate in reality in order to do any kind of responsible action or make any kind of ethical or moral judgement. He grounds reality in Christ (see https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/reflections-on-christology/ for an overview of Bonhoeffers grounding of reality in Christ), and thereby ground participating in reality in participating in Christ, and therefore grounds any kind of responsible/ethical/moral (hereafter referred to as ‘responsible action) in Christ. The interesting thought here is this: does this mean that atheists are, with regard to responsible action, helpless?

Bonhoeffer never answers this question (if he even thought of or had it brought to his attention) – so this leaves some room for speculation. I would say that for Bonhoeffer, atheists and the like would indeed be unable to truly participate in reality – which isn’t to say that they can’t in some measure be responsible – obviously non-believers can do responsible actions, but they would be of no real value, it seems, since they would not be participating in reality. So they would be capable of some measure of responsible action – no one including Bonhoeffer would deny that non-believers can be and are good upstanding citizens. But it seems that ultimately on Bonhoeffer’s view, they really wouldn’t be doing much at all.

C.S. Lewis on Foreknowledge, Time, and Eternity

‘Eternity is quite distinct from perpuity, from mere endless continuance in time. Perpetuity is only the attainment of an endless series of moments, each lost as soon as it is attained. Eternity is the actual timeless fruition of illimitable life. Time, even endless time, is only an image, almost a parody, of that plentitude; a hopeless attempt to compensate for the transitoriness of its ‘presents’ by infinitely multiplying them. That is why Shakespeare’s Lucrece calls it ‘thou ceaselss lackey to eternity’ (Rape, 967). And God is eternal, not perpetual. Strictly speaking, he never forsees; He simply sees. Your ‘future’ is only an area, and only for us a special area, of His infinite Now. He sees (not remembers) your yesterday’s acts because yesterday is still ‘there’ for Him; he sees (not forsees) your tomorrows acts because He is already in tomorrow. As a human spectator, by watching my present act, does not infringe upon its freedom, so I am none the less free to act as I choose in the future because God, in that future (His present) watches me acting.’ (C.S. Lewis, ‘The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature’ p. 89)

‘A Sacred Moment At the Shot Tower,’ by Jude Child

‘A Sacred Moment At the Shot Tower’ is a guest post – unfortunately, I’m not skilled enough in the art of WordPress to remove the ‘by Whitefrozen,’ line in the title; the purpose of this blurb is to make clear that this is a guest contribution and not my own work. Hopefully I can figure out how to remove the misleading byline in the near future.

This is the first contribution post – here’s to many more.

A Sacred Moment At the Shot Tower

By Jude Child

————————————————————————————————————————————–

The Meeting

            Last week, I had a problem.  Although theology interests me greatly, I consider myself more of a philosopher right now.  Despite that, I feel there is no topic in theology as underappreciated as “tempus sanctus” – Sacred Time.  As I sat to write a treatise on this topic, though, I realized my mind was in revolt and I could think of nothing clever and original that would do the topic honor.  I was rescued from this dilemma by a call from my friend, St. Dominic Savio.  I casually mentioned my problem, and he said he knew just the thing: “I’ll get a couple of my friends together, and you can talk Sacred Time with them.”

I was very pleased with this news, and so I asked where we should meet them.  “The usual place” my friend responded.  “Pick me up at seven.”

And so at 6:55, I pulled into the parking lot of the now-unused St. Mary’s Church in Dubuque.  Dominic was waiting for me (naturally, the Church is where Heaven meets Earth).  He climbed in, commenting “you’ve got a new car!”  I replied that he hopefully didn’t mind imports.  He laughed, “I’m Italian; what do I care?  Hey,” he continued, gesturing to St. Mary’s, “did you know that this church is modeled on Salzburg Cathedral?”  I had to admit that I hadn’t known that, and asked if that was something you just knew when you’re in Heaven.  “No,” he replied. “I read the brochure while I was waiting.”

I was about to start driving when Dominic continued “do you know how many bricks there are in this church?”  I was curious why they would put that in a brochure.  My friend smiled and mused “they didn’t.  That’s something you just know when you’re in Heaven.”

As we drove off for the Shot Tower Pizza – where we always met our guests – I got around to asking my haloed friend exactly who the people we’d be meeting were.  “Oh no,” Dominic smirked.  “You know I never tell you until they get there.”  Knowing how fruitless it would be to try and change the mind of a now-timeless creature, I settled for that answer and maneuvered my way through the maze of downtown Dubuque.

We were a little early when we got to Dubuque’s finest pizzeria, so Dominic and I stood in the lobby and chatted as we waited for our guests to arrive.  “You probably should have worn a tie, you know,” Dominic mused as he straightened his own bow tie.  I never understood why that little kid always wears a bow tie.

The host smiled and asked who I was waiting for.  “Ask Dominic” I replied sarcastically.

“Who?”

Drat.  I’d forgotten that my friend’s apparition appears only to those he’s supposed to interact with.  I began to reply when the host’s eyes shot open.  “Holy… Father!” he stuttered.

Walking through the establishment’s door at that moment was Pope Benedict XVI, followed closely by a tall Jewish gentleman that I reconized immediately as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

After the necessary reverences were made by Dominic and myself, the astounded host conducted us to an out-of-the-way table.  It was apparent to me that he hadn’t worked here long enough to get used to the usual clientele.

I began by saying how happy I was that these two esteemed theologians on Sacred Time could be here.  Rabbi Heschel thanked me, and said we may as well get right down to business.  And so we began.

The Dialogue

Heschel leaned forward and, jabbing a finger to the table to emphasize his points, introduced the subject.  “My interest in Sacred Time begins with what I believe is a fundamental fact of my religion.  I say that ‘Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time’ and ‘Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year[1].’”

This right away perked my ears up; it reminded me of a similar concept in Catholicism.  I said as much, and Heschel looked pleased.  “Yes, I was an observer at the Second Vatican Council, and I recall that in some of the documents, the Catholic Church uses very similar language; I believe it was especially in Sacrosanctum Concilium.”

Dominic applied his glorified intellect “yes Rabbi: ‘The church believes that its nature requires it to celebrate the saving work of the divine Bridegroom by devoutly calling it to mind on certain days throughout the year.  Every week, on the day which it has called the Lord’s Day, it commemorates the Lord’s resurrection[2].’”

Heschel smiled as the host approached, “yes, that’s it.  Clever lad – how old are you?”

“One-hundred, sixty-nine.”  The host stared; apparently Dominic had become visible to him as well. Dominic apologized, “Oh, but I died when I was fourteen, sir.”  The host nodded dully, then took our order.

Heschel continued where he had left off, “in my theology, Sacred Time is the central reason for religion.  Far from being only a remembrance of past events, the Sabbath especially is an entrance into the very life of God: ‘the words: ‘On the seventh day God finished His work’ (Genesis 2:2), seem to be a puzzle.  Is it not said: ‘He rested on the seventh day’?… we would surely expect the Bible to tell us that on the sixth day God finished His work.  Obviously, the ancient rabbis concluded, there was an act of creation on the seventh day.  Just as heaven and earth were created in six days, menuha was created on the Sabbath[3].’  Menuha is something more than just rest, it represents ‘Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose… in later times menuha became a synonym for the life in the world to come, for eternal life[4].’”

Heschel paused a moment to refresh his lips, and then continued. “To enter into menuha, then, is to enter into the original entity that God sanctified: ‘it is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh [holy] is used for the first time… ‘And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy… the sanctity of time came first, the sanctity of man came second, and the sanctity of space last.’  In fact, the Bible speaks very particularly about events in the past being lived experiences in the present: “we read in the Book of Exodus: ‘In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, on this day they came into the wilderness of Sinai’ (19:1).  Here was an expression that puzzled the ancient rabbis: on this day?  It should have been said: on that day.  This can only mean that the day of giving the Torah can never become past; that day is this day, every day[5].’  Every event of spiritual proportions is a present event to be experienced; that, my friends, is my basic theology on Sacred Time.”

His introduction completed, the good rabbi leaned back in his chair and folded his hands politely for the next speaker.

The Holy Father had listened with great interest, and at this appropriate lull, he now took the stage.  “On the matter of Scared Time itself, Rabbi,” the Pontiff began with his accented English, “the Church can agree with you in almost every regard.  We too have a conception of presently entering into and experiencing past events of spiritual proportions.  Our distinctive difference, of course, is that our ‘events’ are primarily the events in the life of Christ.  The most ‘common’ example would be our Sunday worship, which is for Christians ‘the day on which the new world began, the one on which, with Christ’s victory over death, the new creation began[6].’

The Holy Father paused a moment to put sugar in his coffee that had been brought to him, and Heschel took this moment to ask a question.  “Holiness, I have criticized the Christians in my books for abandoning the Sabbath; with all respect – do you have any particular defense of it?”

The Pope looked thoughtful, and then responded, “The abandonment of Saturday worship by the infant Christian community has been for me, a particularly interesting and revealing fact.  This is how I see it: ‘if we bear in mind the immense importance attached to the Sabbath in the Old Testament tradition on the basis of the Creation account and the Decalogue, then it is clear that only an event of extraordinary impact could have led to the abandonment of the Sabbath and its replacement by the first day of the week.  Only an event that marked souls indelibly could bring about such a profound realignment in the religious culture of the week.  Mere theological speculations could not have achieved this.  For me, the celebration of the Lord’s day, which was a characteristic part of the Christian community from the outset, is one of the most convincing proofs that something extraordinary happened that day – the discovery of the empty tomb and the encounter with the risen Lord.[7]’”

I instantly recognized the passage; Jesus of Nazareth is my favorite book of the Pope’s, and this particular passage is one of my favorites.  What a shame I hadn’t brought my copy for a signature.  Dominic and Heschel looked equally impressed, but of course Heschel had to separate admiration from assent.  The Pope nodded gracefully and Heschel went on, “how is it, then, that the Christian community enters into the Resurrection of Jesus?”

“The Sunday worship is an entering into the Resurrection of Christ, particularly through the Eucharist; “through the Eucharist, the Lord not only gives Himself to His own but also gives them the reality of a new communion among themselves which is extended in time, ‘until He comes’ (cf. 1 Cor 11:26).’  In the Catholic understanding, the Eucharist is Sacred Time meeting Sacred Space; it is an incarnational reality like that of when we believe that the transcendent God became supremely imminent by taking on human nature.  In light of that understanding, St. Paul’s words “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes” takes on a very powerful meaning.  It is menuha for Christians – to have the Lord ‘enter under my roof[8]’.”

We lapsed into silence for a minute, each mulling over what had been said so far.  Then Dominic piped up. “Of course, Sacred Time also enters into the prayers during the week for both Judaism and Catholicism right?”

The theologians looked at each other, and the Pope gestured for Heschel to be first.

“Yes, the Jewish prayers reflect the theology of Sacred Time as well.  The evening prayers which we say are an easy example: ‘six evenings a week we pray: ‘Guard our going out and our coming in’; on the Sabbath evening we pray instead: ‘Embrace us with a tent of Thy peace[9].’’”

“And for the Church” I relayed, “the Breviary is a set of prayers for every day, and they adapt themselves the moment in Sacred Time.  On Friday, for example, the last prayer is Psalm 88 – to enter into Christ’s death.

“Psalm 88” Heschel mused.  “Certainly the darkest psalm in the psalter.”

“Indeed” the Pope agreed.  “And Sacred Time knows no discrimination; I pray the same prayers as a seminarian does.”

“That would also be the reason it is against canon law to fast on a Sunday,” Dominic said.  “When you’re rejoicing, it is inappropriate to fast.  Sacred Time includes not just prayers, but actions.”

“Yes!”  Heschel cried.  “That is exactly right.  Sacred Time is a doctrine of action, not just mental activity.  It is an experience in the present: ‘the higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments[10].’”

“And” the Pope concluded, “those sacred moments are based on the actions of God.  I’ve coined the term eschatological realism: ‘it means that [Jesus’ prophecies of coming again] are not a fata morgana or some kind of fictitious utopia, but that they correspond exactly to reality.  In fact, we always have to keep present in our minds the fact that he tells us with the greatest certainty ‘I will come again.’  This statement comes before everything else.  This is also why the Mass was originally celebrated facing east, toward the returning Lord, who is symbolized in the rising sun.  Every Mass is therefore an act of going out to meet the One who is coming.  In this way, His coming is also anticipated, as it were; we go out to meet Him – and He comes, anticipatively, already now[11].’  In Christianity, past, present, and future, should begin to blur in one seamless experience of the Deity.”

Heschel nodded, “And for the Jewish theologian, ‘Jewish tradition claims that there is a hierarchy of moments within time, that all ages are not alike.  Man may pray to God equally at all places, but God does not speak to man equally at all times[12].’  It is a negative way of saying that some moments are more ‘timeless’ than others.”

At this time, the pizza had come (I’m not sure how the restaurant had managed to make it kosher, but I ask the reader not to think too hard about that), and, our goal mostly complete, we turned our attention to other topics.  When the meal was completed, we took leave of each other, and I stood in the parking lot with Dominic.  I thanked him for his help again and asked him if we could do something like this more regularly.  He laughed and gave me a cryptic answer which made me chuckle as well, and then he began walking and faded quickly mysterious from sight.

It always helps to know good friends.


[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 8

[2] Sacrosactum Consilium, 102

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, 22

[4] Ibid, 23

[5] Ibid, 98

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Heart of the Christian Life (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 17

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth – Part 2 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 259

 

[9] The Sabbath, 23

[10] Ibid, 6

[11] Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 80

[12] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, 98