The Problem of Guilt: Making Sense of the Modern World Without A Narrative of Forgiveness

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Matthew 6:14-15

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Ephesians 4:3

A few months ago I found myself spending some time on the subject/topic of forgiveness. I was stuck on this relationship between our forgiving of others and God’s forgiveness of us. The topic had reemerged for me in attempting to figure out whether I had in fact forgiven some people for an event that happened over 8 years ago but clearly still impacts my life today. And how, if I desired to forgive, I can know that I have forgiven, especially in a case that, at least from the perspective of that which I have control over, is likely not about any kind of actual reconciliation.

The topic reemerged for me this week, first with a podcast/youtube debate between historian Douglas Murray and Theologian N.T. Wright. What struck me is something Murry said, as someone looking at the Church from the outside, regarding the Church’s witness. Reflecting on how it is we find a guiding moral system this side of a post-Christian (or post God) world, Murray called the Church to task for foresaking its witness and essentially assimilating to modern, cultural norms. If Christianity is to have any weight in a post-Christian society it must look different than simply what the world is already offering. Here, speaking as someone who does not believe in the idea of God (or at the very least is agnostic on the idea), he brings up the notion of “forgiveness” as the one idea that he believes sets it apart. The most striking and scandelous and unique aspect of Christianity from a historical-critical perspective is this notion of forgiving ones enemies. A forgiveness that is not offered for the sake of the self, but rather for the sake of the other.

The second thing I came across was a recent podcast from John Dickson called “Guilty Conscience” (Episode 65 of Undeceptions). This podcast explored the idea of forgivness from the perspective of a post Christian culture that no longer has a narrative for forgivness, wondering equally about the implications of living in such a world.

A Competing Narrative of Guilt: From our Ancestors to the God of our Ancestors

Looking to Nietzsche (among others) and the move to excise the idea of God from society as part of his “geneology of morality”, Dickson reflects on how the notion of guilt has thus been relegated to the space of this now outmoded religious identity, which Nietzsche understood grew from the cultic activity of ancestor worship, the idea that in the growing “human” awareness of our ancestors (and our relationship to them) we suddenly inhereted a means of measuring our successes and failures against something external to us, establishing a standard to which we must then measure up. From this comes guilt and responsibility, the result of living together and being connected to an other. This then grew into the idea of a “god” in which we locate our means of dealing with guilt and responsiblity.

It is by allowing ourselves to move past these expectations of having to “measure up” to either ancestors or god, and by stepping into a new and better “godless” future, that we can find true freedom from the problem of guilt. The problem is, the more society has progressed away from the old narratives and towards the modern technological age of the enlightenment values, the more aware we seem to become of the vastness of the world’s problems. And awareness naturally leads to guilt, guilt that we largely can’t do much about. Sociologically and pyschologically speaking we bear more guilt today than at any other time in human history, and for any number of issues and problems precisely because of this increased awareness and the increasing absence of a narrative in which to make sense of and deal with this increased awareness. And the more that technology progresses and pushes us towards globalization, the more guilt we seem to naturally inherit due to our growing awareness of the state of things not only in our backyard, but on the other side of the world.

A New Narrative of Forgivness

What religion did is allow us to make sense of guilt through our relationship to God, and thus it is in relationship to God that we can make sense of our relationship to the created world. What the Judeo-Christian narrative did, speaking from a historical-critical perspective and in line with both the interviewees on Dickson’s show and in line with Douglas Murray’s own confessionals, is take this relationship and formulate it around this notion of “forgiveness” as the crucial piece of the puzzle through which all the other narratives can make sense. This narrative of forgiveness becomes the means by which a relationship to both God and Creation is reconciled, an aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition that begins to move society at large from the Honor-Shame systems that once governed the ancient world and towards a new vision of inherent human digniity. For Murray, and for Dickson, we cannot understand this shift without this unique story of forgivness invading both the larger secularized world and the world’s religious systems. Without a narrative of forgivness the ancients were left relating the weight of their guilt in the created world to their contstant manipulating of their relationship to the gods whom can bless or curse, prosper or destroy depending on appeasement of these gods.

Bearing Guilt Without a Narrative of Forgivness: The Two Sides of the Same Extreme

Back to the quesiton for a second though of how we deal with guilt without a realized narrative of forgivness in which to make proper sense of it. This is a very simplified summary of modern society, but there is real truth to this idea that without god we have been left to look to ourselves for the answer. And thus, as Dickson goes on to point out, we tend to create two sides of a working extreme to make this work, something we can see evidenced around the globe in different societal and social functions. One symblized by the Mother Theresa’s (the moral ideals) and the other symbolized by the Hitlers (the embodiment of immorality). What this allows us to do then is to take up space in the middle. We don’t have to be Mother Theresa, because for as long as we aren’t Hitler we then have a way to take our guilt and put it onto another, sometimes symbolically, and far more often literally. Because there is always that someone else whom we can blame. Further, the problem of course is that for this approach to work and for it to be maintained it necessitates the fact that there always needs to be a Hitler, and thus we have moved from the old honor-shame systems that used to govern the ancient world, through a temporary age of human dignity to the modern age of victimhood. As Dickson underscores, the way to ensure that one is not Hitler is to adopt ourselves as the “victim”, and we do this by heightening and idolizing the particular form of justice that blankets Western society, one that gives us the allusion of weighted scales somehow helping to keep the proper order. Peel back the curtain though and this order is far from evident. The scales can never truly be balanced, and without a narrative of forgiveness we are given to the constant need to judge others, the need to publicize grievances, the need to create heroes and villains, the good and the bad, and to lable others so that we can say what we are not. The irony being that we do this by increasingly repressing more and more of the guilt we carry and rewriting more and more of the narratives that surround us in ways that ensure we are represented as being on the side of the good and the right and the just, using this to justify all sorts of things in the name of true justice. Yes, we do find moral good emerging from this, but with everyone essentially writing their own narratives we are left with little means to actually address the problem of guilt and no narrative through which to define and express actual forgivness, precisely because there is no real sense of what reconciliation even means nor a real desire to pursue it. Justice is simply the bad ones getting their just due, which mean necessary punishment. Any fledgling semblance of forgiveness is whittled down to something that is owed to us as opposed to something we offer to another, and the justice system we depend upon then tends to do this on our behalf.

Forgiveness as an Identity Shaping Exercise: Maintaining the Middle Spaces

For Jews and Christians this is a far cry from the kind of forgiveness we find being experessed in religious thought. If in the ancient world this language of sin or wrong-doing (from which we get this notion of guilt or conscience) is connected at least partially (if, as some scholars are uncovering, it is also a later development) to this notion of a monetary debt, the idea that there is a debt that must be payed and thus can being forgiven, there is a deep sense in which forgiveness then is attached to the very real notion of responsibility to this debt. Further, in the ancient world and within these religious systems which give us the older narratives of guilt and forgiveness the modern world has largely deconstructed and left behind, forgiveness is ultimatley imagined in Jesus, which for Christians is the fullest expression of the religious revelation that governs ancient understandings of the word, to be an outward looking endeavor. It is forgiving a debt that is legitimately owed to another, not simply demanding payment and erasing the guilt As Dickson puts it, forgiveness is both the recognizing of objective forms of guilt (that which we know we did wrong) and the doing away with subjective shame (worry over what we think we did wrong and how that then shapes us as good or bad people). Forgiveness is, in fact, an identity shaping exercise that we are able to afford another. It is enacting mercy in place of guilt, but in a way that contends and concerns itself directly with our living in and having responsiblity for this world, not merely in terms of our individual lives but on the level of the collective. This is one place where the modern justice system remains woefully inadequate. It imagines the balancing of these scales in purely individualistic terms, placing the power of justice in ones identity as the guilty or the innocent as opposed to being able to say anything else about actual human dignity in the process, leaving us to mine our own dignity in contrast to the individual being judged in one way or another. Forgiveness, even outside of the religious language that holds it captive, has a religious but also psychological and social component, and it must play out, if it is to have any form or definition in our present world, in both individual and societal/social contexts. This is how forgivenss gains its identity shaping force. Because of its outward focused nature that takes shape within a community, it actually circumvents justice while also retaining that necessary recognition of what is being forgiven.

And despite the absence of a common narrative and our seeming need to do away with the old narratives, we all still intuiively know what guilt and responsibility is. We instinctually bear the weight of violence and destructive forces in this world whether we know it or not. As the podcast episode put it, we know that stealing an apple is bad. It’s simply that, in this lack of a common narrative we have learned how to consistently repress this sense of guilt by applying narratives of our own making that turn the stealing of that apple into a matter of degree. As long as we didnt steal as many apples as that guy over there we can then convince ourselves we are not the guilty or the bad ones. And we do so to ensure the upholding and consistent manufacturing of these middle spaces that neither require much from us but which can also then declare us to be moral and good and just in relationship to either extreme. This is what allows us to both repress and live with the increasing weight of guilt that comes with that historical and social development of ever increasing awareness of the world around us, the same awareness that once turned our gaze outwards to god after having to contend with our relationship to our ancestors. Only now there is no God to turn to.

The Religious Narrative Problem: The Modern Narrative of Debt, Imputation and Moral Righeousness.

There is another aspect to this as well, which turns the light back on to the failure of religion to retain its narrative within the ever growing challenges of the modern world, which is really what Douglas Murray’s critique of the current state of the Church was all about. In the modern world guilt is often described in the public ethos as a negative, and there is a tendency then to apply guilt directly to the construct of “religion” itself. In this viewpoint, to do away with religion is to do away with that unnecesary weight of imposed guilt, freeing us then to live in true peace with one another without false allusions to that great big authority figure who lives in the sky making us feel like we are either not good enough or driving us to do good for the purpose of securing those inherent blessings. For many this is what religion is (wish fulfillment and fear), and to do away with this is to allow people to simply do good for the sake of doing good. A godless society makes us into more honest people and frees us to apply morality to one simple rule- as long as we don’t do harm to another we are good. The problem though is that this hasn’t resulted in a more moral society, nor has it resulted in peace. It has created the allusion of a more moral society, yes, much of which you can get from modern discourses of reconstituted history rewritten according to the modern narrative of a necessary godless future. But as Murray points out, this is an allusion at best, and something he can admit even as he can’t likewise embrace the concept of god at the same time. We simply haven’t found a true narrative to replace the old one with, and the ones that have come closest to doing so depend on a high degree of irrationality, inconsistency and willfull ignorance just to be function and allow us to “live” together. This is why Murray finds himself wrestling so astutely with the narrative of forgiveness that he finds in Jesus. It has no counterpart or true answer in the modern narrative, which is best understood as a series of “narratives” with no true moral concern or direction.

To return then to Murray’s assertation that religion has long lost sight of this narrative of forgivness within its own witness, this is particularly true here in the West where Christianity in particular has attached itself to the modern rational enlightenment narrative that leaves it not only indistinguishable from anything else, but a shell of what its witness actually once was. It defines its own narrative by the forms of justice that permeate Western (and largely American bred) systems, relegating sin (in the guise of guilt) as a debt we, as a fallen and depraved humanity, must then pay to God as the actualized form of a judge sitting within and demanding allegiance to this god ordained justice system. Our offense has been directed towards God, and thus guilt, like the same ancient systems Christianity both informed and deconstructed, is perpetuated towards an eternal other in the form of blessings and curses. Within the Christian narrative’s development in this highly westernized form, we are left necessarily guilty (total depravity) and in need of the imputation of innocence, or the righteousness that Christ affords us by paying the debt we owe to God and incurring our liberation as individuals on our behalf. The real problem is, approaching forgiveness in this way tends to detach us from the world that we actually live in and to which forgiveness must then apply. It universalizes guilt under the watchful eye of God, but it does so by enforcing these extremes of good and evil so that we can represent ourselves as being on Gods side over and against the evils over there. By making us all Hitler, and in Christ then making us all Mother Theresa, it calls us as the “good” ones, however one sees this imputation of righteousness being employed (defined in this view as moral goodness), to find our measure in contrast to the bad. It empowers us to become the judges under the guise that we are declaring the true justice of God Himself, entertaining scales that can never truly be balanced in this kind of debt-forgiveness moral paradigm. In short, it fails to address the problems and limitations of these modern forms of justice, which lack any real and constitutional forms of forgiveness and reform, and worse yet doesn’t offer anything that these modern forms of justice aren’t already doing in and of themselves. We then live, as Christians, in constant anticipation and demand with the rest of society of God’s work in this world being defined through the constant weighting and reweighting of these sclaes, which then largely ignores and fails to sweep the larger human story up into a greater narrative of forgivness, one that Jesus ultimately embodies in the death and resurrection. And I know those who hold deeply to this view of imputation and moral righteousness will push back on this as an incomplete descriptive of what is going on in the debt-forgiveness paradigm, speaking of total depravity as the means by which we allow God to be the true judge of all and in which we can then rest in that forgiveness, and in the best forms of that then free ourseleves to forgive others precisely because the ultimate justice and forgiveness belongs to God and God alone. God will determine the proper weighting of those scales for those who either have this imputed righteousness or those who don’t. I’ve been down that road many, many times trying to make sense of it, and it only ever comes back to me in convluted and non-sensicle terms. No matter how we parse out that formula, we still have the same weighted scales, the same forms of justice that depend on the impossible balancing of rights and wrongs, and the same narrative of good and bad extremes that tends to allow us to be both judge and jury on Gods behalf.

The Relgious Narrative Reimagined: Cain and Abel, Debt and Forgivness, the Righteous and the Unrighteous.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here, but it’s a question that has been perculating with me for a while. What if we saw the narrative, and more importantly the definitions differently. What if instead of seeing this debt we owe to God in the Adam and Eve narrative, which is where it is often pulled from, we instead see the Cain and Abel as the embodiment of the problem that the Garden narrative images, which is articulated in that passage as one of a perpetual “unforgiveness” that leads inevitably to a world where the the scales can never in fact be truly weighted in such a vew of justice. As the Garden narrative results in the curse or judgment of a people left divided against itself (male and female, female and birth pains) against God (the garden and the wilderness) and against creation (people in toil and hardship with the land), we then get the patterned image and story of Cain and Abel, the embodiment of “Adam” (rendered the whole of humanity) as the priestly image occupying the space in the temple within the wilderness, mirror images of humanity once again divided against another, and more importantly contrasting the divided kingdoms or nations that their names symbolize within this temple text.

At this point they are filling the earth in the manner of the positive call or vocation given to humanity in the Garden, but rather than with true diversity they are filling it with increasing hostility towards one another following this forced migration from the garden. It is here where Cain kills Abel and begins that cycle of an “eye for an eye” form of justice that ultimately fills the world with wickedness and later becomes the basis for the modern justice system. The debt that must be payed. In this world we are left seeing the scales tipped towards a demand for justice in a way that can never be satisfied, because one payment begets another and begets another, which is what the Cain and Abel story outlines. There is no true forgiveness to be found in this narrative. It’s a never ending cycle that ultimately finds its hope in the emergence of a “righteous” one, the same priestly role that Adam represents carried through Noah, Abraham, Melchizadek (where the offices of priest and king find their unified nature), Moses and David. And ultimatley Jesus, the one who comes in the light of this “type” and breaks the cycle in a way the others could only point us towards.

And here’s the important thing. The typology of the ‘righteous” one has nothing to do with moral righteousness. There is no sense in this view of the narrative of a debt that must be payed to God because of our moral failure. The wilderness is not our “just” sentence, it is, rather, depicted in line with the very human vocation that moral failure redirects and corrupts. The debt-forgiveness language that emerges later in monetary terms (and subsequently blood related terms) is speaking of the debts that hold us in the grip of this perpetual and unavoidable narrative of justice, the same narrative of justice that holds the modern, godless narrative in its grip. That which needs to be forgiven is not something we have done to God, but rather what needs to ge forgiven is that which has been done to one another. That is where forgiveness inevitably must flow. And how does it do this? By way of Jesus, who by stepping into our current state and taking all the wrongdoings (the sins) that cannot be balanced and satisfied and which holds us in constant division, on himself and declaring the full forgiveness of sins in its place by way of the death and resurrection. If the effect of this debt driven cycle is ultimately death, then Jesus effectively says, in a world where guilt will have its way the cycle ultimately stops with him, allowing us to find and declare reconciliation not only to God, but to one another, which becomes the source of life.

Life through reconciliation to God by bringing the wilderness and the garden together as the place in which God and humans dwell together (Jesus as the new temple), reconciliation to Creation (by establishing a vision of true reconciliation in the hope of the new creation where God and humanity dwell together), and Humanity (in contrast to the tower of babel story where, as Douglas Murray so aptly put it, the modern narrative leads to necessary sameness, we are then free to live into our given and created diversity through the power of true forgiveness, a power that heals the divide).

Let me restate- this view of the narrative has far less to do with our depravity and far more to do with the ways in which a true narrative of forgiveness is able to shape identities according to the goodness of God’s creation. In God we find freedom precisely because in God the cycles of unforgiveness that perpetuate this debt payment system do not have a home. This is a corrupted image of God’s good creation and God’s good order, one that has held us in bondage and which inevitably leaves us in debt to it. Not to God, but to Sin itself. This is why what Jesus does is so powerful. The righteousness one becomes the one who is faithful to the promise (the root meaning of the righteousness of Christ) to put an end to the cycle, to live into and embody a narrative of life that can restore us to a new and greater order of being. This becomes the very witness that lies at the heart of the Christian message, that we would then be witnesses to this. To what? To a different narrative of justice than the world affords us. One based on true forgiveness that is not directed towards ourselves (the guilt which sin demands a payment for), but rather that forgives our enemies precisely because the cycle stops with Jesus. In Jesus the full forgiveness of sins is declared. We are faithful to Jesus not when we are forgiven, but when we forgive others. And we become free to forgive others because the sentence of guilty placed on us by the modern narrative, one that says that we are guilty and one that then pushes us to deal with this guilt by finding somewhere else to put it, is given a different verdict. Jesus says, lay that burden on me and I will take it, and in its place stop the cycle by forgiving your enemy in the way of Jesus.

What Jesus’ Death and Resurrection Accomplishes: The Actualizing of the Ascencion and Jesus’ Rise to the Throne

Now, one last word here. I know that plenty will point me back towards the picture of the eventual return of Jesus and Jesus’ eventual judgment of this world according to its good and bad deeds (or according to the faith that affords us Christ’s righteousness rather than the ones who remain without this imputed righteousness). But I maintain that this ultimately comes down to which narrative we are reading when we encounter Jesus on the cross and the death and resurrection. And perhaps most notably, given it was recently ascension day, the narrative we are reading when we read of Jesus’ ascension. If the author of Hebrews is right and we find Jesus coming in the light of Adam and in the order of Melchizadek, the typology of the righteous one through whom both priest and king, and eventually prophet come together, then Jesus’ death and resurrection actually accomplish something. As Wright points out in the debate with Murray, if Jesus in fact conquered and defeated evil (the Powers of Sin and Death), then that which judges us to be something other than the image of God has effectively been destroyed. We have a reason to trust in the work forgivness does in affording us a right imaging, a right and new identity rather than the one the old narrative of modern justice employs and enslaves us to. And if the death and resurrection accomplished something, then the assension is no mere image of Jesus retreating from this earth as if to leave us now to our own devices. The assension is in fact Jesus taking the throne and declaring a different narrative to be told and lived in the here and now. Jesus as the great high priest and king who rules by way of a different form of justice. This is the narrative that has been lost to modernism, and it has been lost precisely because of that tricky word “forgivness” that accompanies God’s justice. That an enemy would be forgiven and that a debt to us would be left unpaid is a scandelous idea and one that the modern world and systems could never accept. And, although the modern world would never likely admit this, they could never accept it precisely because it collapses these lines between good and bad. It leaves us vulvneralbe to being the guilty precisely because it hands us the responsibility to forgive. It pushes us straight into the cycle of unforgivness and asks us to do the dangerous work of reconciliation. We do so though because Christ has the authority to forgive as the faithful one who is both God and Human.

Jesus says that in the breaking of this cycle He is making what is wrong right, not by burying the guilt or excusing it, but rather by taking the real stakes of justice (his death) and using that to give forgiveness its true context. It acknowledges the wrong precisely by giving us an image of the right. It says, this is what leaves us bearing the guilt, and this is how we can then declare forgiveness of this guilt, by reconciling with others. And it is in forgiveness of the other that we can then know the true character of God and the true identity of ourselves. In Christ we can relegate both the debts owed to us and the debts we owe to others to the cross, finding freedom in the promise of the resurrection. This then is what frees us from Dickson’s descriptive of both objective and subjective guilt, or true and false guilt. It attends for our reality while giving us a way to declare a different one in our midst.

Douglas Murray and N.T. Wright Debate (Unbelievable Podcast)

https://youtu.be/VN8OUi9MF7w

Undeceptions with John Dickson

https://undeceptions.com/podcast/guilty-conscience

God, Work, Creation: Motherhood and the Central Human Vocation

In James Suzman’s book Work: A Deep History from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, he spends a good amount of time attempting to locate the question, why is it that modern humans hold the relationship to work that we do? As the book develops, he fleshes out what this relationship is, what it developed from, and what it has to say about where we are today.

The Central Human Vocation: To Create

One aspect of Suzman’s theoretical approach, which maintains that assumptions that humans have developed a “problematic” relationship with work, which has been continually gnawing at me is the relationship between our need to work and the seeming relationship between this larger notion of life itself and this need to “create”.

A number of months ago I was struck by how much of the larger Biblical narrative sseems to function as one grand hyperlink back to the Genesis (and Exodus) story, and in particular the first 6 chapters of Genesis in its grand unfolding of the God-Creation-Human relationship, I’ve been spending much of my time since then simply reading and rereading these passages in Genesis. There’s something special about imagining the way the ancients likely would have done the same thing in their own oral context.

And as I’ve been rereading this text in line with the later emergence of the Tabernacle and the Temple as the imaginging of this meeting place of Heaven and Earth, this reenactment of the Genesis story within the disorder that follows the fall, this depicting of God’s dwelling within the created order (and further, within the disorder) as people occupy this space in the temple as God’s image bearers (which in Genesis evokes the whole of the created order in a cosmological sense), this notion of the central human vocation keeps coming up again and again. Just as God creates, speaking creation into existence as a creative and imaginative work, so are we, made in the image and likeness of the creator, called to “create”. This is the emphasis behind the call to be fruitful and to fill the earth. Life begets more life, and creation begets more “creating”. This then becomes the vocation we are called to enter into on the 7th day, the Sabbath day, in which we take up the very human vocation of true “dominion” within the created order (Genesis 1:28), a word that carries with it this sense of occupying both space (the temple) and time (the sabbath). In this we create in relationship to both God (the temple as God’s dwelling) and Land (Creation).

The Loss of the Human Vocation

Perhaps most noted in this call to “create” is this striking notion that in the story of the fall (Genesis 3), the call to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (1:28) is now imagined within this forced migration into the wilderness, something that leads to this quickly expanding vision of people and cultures and cities which echo the very human vocation found in Genesis 1 and 2. Only this filling of the earth, as we read in Genesis 6:5, has led to wickedness, defined not as the evils of “creation” but as the trading of God’s image for (literally in the action of God and humans procreating) making god’s in our own image. As it says in Genesis 1:31, where God “saw” everything that he had made and declared it “good”, Genesis 6 finds God looking at all that humanity has made (created) in its own image and is grieved (sorrowed). At the heart of this observed wickedness is the intent of this “creative” work of God to bring about unity in diversity by being image bearers of God, the essential assertion of the curious phrase of 1:26 where it says “let us make humankind in ‘our’ image, after ‘our’ likeness.” This notion of unity in diversity is being traded for the curse of humanity’s sin, which sees humanity being divided against that which it is supposed to be in union with (creation, one another, and the image of God). This emerges from the lie of the serpent which sees humanity desiring to become “like” God and thus exchange the image of God for a God made in their own likeness- the imaging of themselves.

It should come as no surprise then that this notion of creating, or “work” plays throughout chapters 3-6, with the narrative now positing this creative work as a reconciliatory work, a work that will emerge through the similar call to Noah and eventually Abraham to evoke the central vocation of Genesis 1 and 2, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. There is a duality here in that Abraham’s call to once again pick up this most basic human vocation and create (make nations) and this notion that the larger Biblical narrative evokes of the nations once again returning and being reconciled to God and Land.

Entropy: The Ordered Law of God and Nature and the problem of Disordered Creation

Suzman outlines the essential “laws” of life, that by which our creative work is patterned by, as “entropy”. To read the law of entropy in line with the Genesis text is to uncover the order and disorder of the creation-flood pattern. The flood is at its heart a decreation story, repeating the text of Genesis 1 and 2 and reestablishing it as the “promise” of new creation.

Just as the law of entropy reveals that “unlike almost everything else in the universe, which seemed to tend towards increasing disorder, life insolently gathered matter together and then organized it very precisely into astonishingly complex structures that gathered free energy and reproduced…” Suzman suggests that “life needed to contribute to the overall entropy in the universe”, and he concludes that it did this by “seeking out and capturing free energy, using it do work which generated heat, and thus added to the total entropy in the universe”. Suzman confesses that although “precisely where this energy came from is uncertain… the fact that abiogenesis- the process by which life first appeared- involved work is perhaps the least mysterious part of it.” As the Genesis narrative suggests, we are created to create, and we create within the ordered laws of entropy as this energy making exercise.

Of interest to the Genesis is narrative is this further idea that Suzman points out, which is that some scientists today “are more inclined to think that life may have been inevitable and that entropy, the trickster god, was not just a destroyer but may well have also been the creator of life.” In other words, order comes necessarily from disorder, just as light comes from dark, life from death, healing from hurt, new creation from decreation. Along with this then, in the establishing of order from disorder, we can observe that “the long history of life on earth has been described in terms of life’s ability to capture energy from new sources… over time, its ability to evolve meant evolving to capture and draw energy from new sources and thus surviving in different conditions.”

What I found so curious about this phrasing is this same sense that we find in the Genesis narrative of the call to create in Genesis 1 and 2 repeating itself within humanities forced migration into the “wilderness”. Different conditions with the same vocation. The real question then becomes, to what end or to what purpose do we create?

Order From Disorder: To What End Do We Create?

This is where the Genesis narrative submits that we are tasked to create in the image of God, in the image of the creator, or what Suzman calls and grants, the thing that gave life and order its initial and necessary push therefore established the necessary pattern by which it must then create. If this is true, than Suzman’s theory that humankind essentially repatterned this patterned “image” in its own making when it shifted the narrative from a picture of abundance (trust in our relationship to God and Land) to scarcity (distrust in our relationshi to God and Land) holds a good deal of weight. Rather than patterning our creative, energy producting work after trust in God, we patterned it after our own anxieties, thus giving this notion of scarcity its power over us, forever enslaving us to this idea that we must make more and more because in a world shaped by our own image our wants will never truly be satisfied. The desire for God’s heart for humanity has been exchanged for the human desire for “want”, which takes the abundance of creation and exchanges it for the illusion of abundance, one that perpetuates anxiety and disorder.

This is what we find in the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), which interestingly flows straight from the story of the flood, a shared and universal narrative that all of humankind at the time (in a generalized sense) would have understood and known as a very real experience representing very real ecological and economic uncertainty. If humankind can no longer depend on our relationship to God and Land, then “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens”, a phrase that evokes this picture of the mountaintop on which Noah (representing “humankind”) emerges. Let us elevate ourelves above nature and take the place of the gods. This passage once again evokes an image of the temple, with the picture of “God coming down” and imagining the place in which heaven and earth meet. Note how Genesis 11 likewise culminates in a forced migration followed by the call and task of Abram to then get on with the job of “creating”.

This then is the central conflict of the story, to create in the image of God, and the call to image God to the world stands in conflict with this drive to create a world in our own image. It should come as no surprise then that this precisely the same narrative that emerges in the enlightenment and in the story of the modernized West, a vision for humanity that emerges from economic uncertainty and which forces us to contend with precisely the same questions (and not suprisingly turns the old architecture that was designed with a symetry of vertical and horizontal symbolism, turning our gaze upwards towards the divine while drawing our gaze downwards to the space we occupy on the ground, to the emergence of the skyscraper, buildings that disconnect us from the land and turn our gaze upwards as the imaging of our own creation… the promise of free markets to reach the heavens). The desire we see in this modern narrative is to create a world in our own image, a work that happens in line with this overarching narrative of scarcity as our primary motivation precisely because of the inequality and uncertiainty it perpetuates.

A Story of Competing Narratives: Sex and Death, Life and Meaning

What’s interesting is that Suzman also notes that “Evolutionary biologists have to see life as a story of sex and death. This is what drives us. They are hesistant though to apply this to human work and activity in the same way.” Why? Because this simple biological narrative feels out of place with the laws of entropy that inform the most basic tenants of our human vocation.

In the Genesis narrative, it is energy (life source, the river of life) given by the spirit (the breath of God) that obligates us to then create by using this surplus energy for the purpose of filling the earth with the image of God. In science, this notion is expressed very much in the same fashion, even if it doesn’t or can’t locate it within a clear expression of the image of God. It still recognizes a necessary imaging that flows from the excess energy we inherit from the creative process that precedes us. We are compelled by the source of life itself to use the energy we have been given to create. The question is not so much that we must create, but it is to what end do we create? Why does life require this of itself? This is where things tend to collapse back into the limiting narrative of sex and death as the purely biological answer. In the Genesis narrative, to be fruitful and multiply carries a different and I would argue a more life giving vision, one that hinges on this notion of creating, filling, and making. This is why the story of Jesus holds so much power in the Christian vision, as it is through the narrative of sex and death (remember how the lead up to the flood narrative involves a corrupted and evolutionary depiction of sex in the beginning of chapter 6, something that one can see when they view it in line with the ancient understanding of sex’s relationship to the divine) that Christ then reorders and reforms the God-Creation-Human relationship through the image of the virgin birth and away from the predominant practice of human sacrifice that permated the ancient world and towards the sacrficial giving of the Creator as the means by which we move from death to life. And what’s crucial to understand is that for this narrative to carry us forward into something other than the evolutionary biologist’s reliance on sex and death, it must first transform our vision of “all” of life. It must first reorder us into right relationship with God and Land. To be created means to be given the vocation to create and thus bring about life, and in the Christian story this emerges as something meaningful in and of itself. From creation comes life, and life is declared to be meaningful, we do not need to create meaning for ourselves.

This difference between created and given meaning is crucial, because for biologists, the most they can say is that life exists for sex and death, to procreate and then to die, because this is what we observe within the pattern of life itself. To suggest anything beyond this is to project something onto the pattern. A given meaning. The problem when we apply this to the human experience is that life appears, and feels and seems and intuitively appears to mean something more than sex and death. This is why we work so hard in the symbolic “wilderness” to alleviate suffering. This is why the patterned narrative changed from one of trust in the present to peretual anxiety over the future, because without the kind of given meaning that comes from our relationship to God and Land we are left attempting to create it for ourselves, which leaves us in that perpetuated state of anxiety over the future and the battle over what we percieve to be scarce resources. Meaning gets translated to survival.

If existing only for sex and death, life would not appear to require such concerns. As Suzman suggests, “Humans have always found analogies for their behavior in the natural world”, going on to suggest that “It is clear that the version of Darwinism caricatured by economists, politicians, and others in support of free markets does not have much in common with the way biologists now tend to think of relationships between organisms in the natural world. It is also clear… that while success or failure in the energy quest will always shape the evolutionary trajectory of any species, many hard-to-explain animal traits and behaviors may well have been shaped by the seasonal over-abundance of energy rather than the battle for scarce resources, and that in this may lie a clue as to why we, the most energy profligate of all species, work so hard.” In other words (my own interpretation of his analysis in the light of God), life gains its meaming as we create in relationship with God and Land, not in contention with it. Not in standing above and in control of it. This is how life itself is patterned after the image of God.

The Curious Question of Immortality: The Creative Work as the Eternal Vocation

One of the most oft criticisms I hear regarding the notion of faith (particularly when it comes to the Christian faith which has become notorious for its tendency to view this earth and this life as something we escape so as to go to heaven, a wrong depiction of the Christian vision) is that its need to emphasize a life beyond death, eternal life, is a sign of humanities invention of relgion, something many humanists and naturalists see as increasingly toxic to our ability to live into this world in the here and now. Religion in this sense developed from our anxiety over death and the unknown of the future. A product of increased human awareness of occupying time and space. What Suzman’s book uncovers for me is that this is in fact a puzzling criticism, if primarily because life itself seems to suggest this anxiety they credit to religion actually emerges from the realm of our shift away from religion, our own corrupting of the patterns that entropy holds in play. And the more anxious we become, the more evidence we in fact have of humanities increased striving for forms of immortality. The trajectory of our anxiety laden creative work has always been towards the prolonging of life, the eradication of sickness, the haulting and reversing of the ever evasive mystery of aging, finding ways for human life to persist in the future becuase of uncertainty within the present. This romanticized idealism of that biological narrative of sex and death is simply not rational when set against the sheer amount of energy we give to protecting and making this present life meaningful within its long, struggling and inevitable decent towards the grave. That we now see a life of 80 plus years rather than the much more limited lifespans we faced before as the mark of the fruitful and meaningful life is perhaps the best evidence that this imaginging of eternity is not foreign to humanities understanding of life itself. What makes us believe that we would simply stop at 80 years as the necessary standard of a meaninful life if life’s trajectory reflects a continued upward movement towards prolonging life? Philosophically speaking, what allows to romanticize nihilistic visions of a limited life formed around death is in fact sickness and struggle, and, if we are to place it within the fundamental laws of entropy, the experience we have of that essental vocation to create and to make. It is only when the energy that entropy measures and affords us can no longer be used in the decay of our bodies that we are then motivated to romanticize sex and death as ideals in and of themselves.

What we essentially do as a humanity living within a narrative of scarcity is we apply meaning to the positive side of entropy (creativity) in highly irraitonal ways so that we can justify living in a narrative of scarcity and struggle. Scarcity is thus explained and justified as the outflow of our natural biological drive or need to simply have sex and die, and we explain this by similtaneously attending to the fact that life is more than sex and death by lobbying on to this narrative things this narrative can’t presuppose by itself without some form or idea of a god, whatever this notion of god might be.

We all build our lives on some form of a narrative that understands that we are working towards some greater purpose, that there is greater meaning to what we do. And this meaning is attached to the pursuit of less suffering, less illness, less struggle, increased survival and the prolonging of life (that this happens at the expense of other life, including within our own species, simply uncovers the central problem of scarcity). The irony is, this push has nothing to do with the idea of God itself. This irrationality is actually born from the absence of God, the need to locate the meaning that life without God presumes in ourselves and our own creations, our own ability to solve the problems of economic and ecological uncertianty. That we need to work towards this kind of reconciliation is not a mystery. That can be explained through the study of empathy’s social benefit and contribution to our continued survival as a species. To what end we contribute meaning to this process is where we become less than rational, and we see these irrational tendencies written all over our attemts to justify the modern, human story of scarcity, which is an illusion of our own making that perpetuates it or turns it into a reality as it compells us to abuse both land and one another in response. After all, if we were simply meant to have sex and die, far better for nature to let this have its way without this nasty notion of “awareness” that life must hold greater meaning and thus drive us to do what we do. Lest why expend all this energy on meaningless endeavors that actually set us in contest with creation itself? If the creative vocation has a true eternal purpose, then this changes the narrative and gives it a meaning that we couldn’t otherwise afford it on our own. That it also calls us to reorient ourselves in relationship to God and Land in ways that sacrifice our reliance on our own individual freedoms is where the resistance settles in. And yet it is when we do so that we allow given meaning to emerge as our motivating force rather than leaving us to chase forever after it as a product of our own creation.

The Human Vocatioin and Motherhood: More Than Mere Gendered Complimentarianism

If I may push this idea a little further yet, given that it is mother’s day I think there is something profound in this idea of seeing a mother’s unique role in the “creative”, life giving, meaning making process. It is here, in fact, that we find the power of the human vocation given its most clearest expression as a meaning making exercise. In an ancient world that understood the role of sex and death in very particular ways, this notion of the “we” that permeates the descriptive of the “creator” in the Genesis text, a text that stands in dialogue with this ancient world and its ancient practices, perhaps finds its greatest expression in the declared diversity of the human form the “we” creates in its image. The “us” that emerges as an equal expression of the image of God. This is far more than mere complimentarianism where “man” bears the image of God and “wo-man” then bears the image of god in “man”. What’s profound to me about the Genesis narrative is how it flips this kind of hiearchal and highly patriarchal thinking and imaging on its head. We can no more set the “we” of God over and against itself than we can set the “we”of humanity over and against itself. This picture of man and woman becoming one and thus giving way to the creative work of “multiplying” and diversifying the world (the creative process that we see the Tower of Babel commenting on in its subsequent lack of diversity) is actually best understood from the perspective of the wilderness, as it is from this place of forced migration where we can see this most basic tenants of the human vocation gaining force as the reclaiming of the ordered pattern of Creation itself. To imagine that the only way for the “wo-man” to understand the character of God is by looking at the “man” form which she emerges is not only to misunderstand the word from which we get “adam” (which means the whole of humankind), it is to perpetuate the division that see expressed in the curse of Genesis 3. It is to perpetuate the wrong ordering of creation, or the disorder the flood narrative is looking to deconsruct. By setting male and female within a gender ordered hiearchal imagining we are left to do likewise with the we of God Himself. And thus we end up with a false narrative that misplaces and redirects the meaning making exercise of the central human vocation, the call to create and to be image bearers, towards ourselves as one who assumes the role of God over creation, and the role of God over “wo-man” kind.

As a mother gives birth, they are giving birth to what is best seen and understood as a diversified whole. They are in effect making something new, the result of bringing together that which is divided in an altogether new creation which bears the image of God as this child then grows to fill the earth with its own creations. This is far more, and I would say even altogether different than perpetuating a divided picture of differentiating male and female genders offering a necessarily complimentary picture of the entire image of God. What we find in the Genesis narrative is a picture of a single humankind representing the same work that science observes in the basic division of the cell, this picture of division leading to wholeness and newness leading then to diversity. It is by locating this diversity as a unified and singular picture of the image of God that we can then discover the meaning of the shared human vocation, not as separated gender roles, but as a humanity no longer peretually divided against itself and able to live into the central human vocation as an expression of this ongoing creative work. It’s worth pointing out that this is also what makes the idea of adoption so crucial to the understanding of the family of God. What elevating gender does, beyond leaving us with limiting and problematic depictions of God’s own nature, is it elevates sex as the primary creative force, when God’s act of creation in Genesis is actually pulling it from this sex soaked obsession and applying it to the whole of creation. This is what it means for God to in fact dwell with the created order. Just as the ancient text offered a different vision to the ancients who used gender to divide, so should it offer a different vision to the biological understandings we have today.

This is, I think, why that perspective from the wilderness is so valuable and powerful, because we are locating this vocation from the vantage point of this perpetuated division, the same division that we see in the Cain and Abel story and which plays itself out into the national and global contextst of this growing division between nations and kingdoms and cultures, the very result of this forced migration that needs reconciling.

Here then is what I think mother’s day can teach all of us. It is from within the mother’s creative and life giving work that we are able to impart meaning to the creation. The child finds in the pattern of life’s division the vision of a whole, which it can then breathe out into the world through its own creative making process. And it is through this act of given “meaning” being imparted freely to this child from the postion of an other that the creative process becomes about something far more than sex and gender. It is by making this creative process about sex in fact that the narrative becomes corrupted. The way in which we impart meaning is by this same meaning first being imparted to us in equal portion as a representation of the image of God. Which is precisely what the God-Creation-Human story is all about. As we engage in and with creation through the very human vocation and call to “create”, we are invoking the shared image of God in one another and thus filling the earth with a diversified whole. This is what the Sabbath, an eternal natured idea, is all about. Creation begets new creation, and properly ordered in God’s image this leads to newness, unity and life, which is precisely what allows us to trust and rest in the beauty of the present. Disordered within the creation of socially driven gender constructs made in our own image, this leads to division, inquality, death and decay, which is precisely what causes us to then become and remain obsessed with the future and forever anxious about its provision, the very thing that continues to breed inequality at the hands of these power imbalances.

To say this more succinctly, to be a mother is not a “gendered” vocation, it is a human vocation that finds its pattern most fully expressed in the shared image of a God.

Month in Review: Memorable Reads, Watches and Listens For April 2021

Films

Nomadland (2020)

After seeing and being taken with Chloe Zhoa’s The Rider, one of my all time favorite films, I became enamored with whatever it was that she was going to make next. When Nomadland was announced I eagerly awaited it’s arrival. Which took a long, long time to finally become available. Having read the book in the meantime, I became even more excited to see what Zhoa could bring to the intimate nature of this true life story. The end result is a poignant and emotionally gripping reminder of the world we call home, the spaces we occupy and call home within this world, and the people that give these spaces and these homes their sense of life.

Saint Maud (2019)

A haunting portrait that explores that line between religious devotion and obsession. It gets particularly powerful in the way it examines the nature of past sins and the possibility of restitution, especially where these things connect with important religious ideas such as salvation and transformation. It’s wonderfully atompsheric, giving us a sense early on that something is not quite right, and the film exploits that sense of unsettledness to evoke the weight of its own spiritual concern.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

My first thought after catching up with this older gem from the 1940’s was, they don’t make them like this anymore. This story about three World War 2 soldiers returning home and the life they struggle to reoccupy is epic in nature, rich in substance, character and dialogue, and beautifully structured around the simple power of its story beats. The film has a visible presence in the post war world and captures a world emerging from its rubble while also giving us a sense of these particular American stories. Undeniably perfect in so many ways.

The One I Love (2014)

Probably the biggest surprise for me of the month, this film represents one of the most billiant depictions of relational struggle that I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s creative, incredibly astute, equal parts reflection, joy and devastation, and also challenging in how it posits these ideas of forgiveness, fualts, healing and reconciliation as connected to both matters of the will and choice and the reality of our social circumstance.

Joji (2021)

My first real contender for my top films of the year. And unfortunately, and not suprisingly, no one is seeing or talking about this film much at all. This film from India is an exceptional retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (more inspired by than an interpretation of), giving the themes in that familiar tale some weighty context as it explors the evils and trappings of greed, isolation, family struggle and guilt. It’s a slow burn approach, but it utilizes every ounce of the space that it lives in, which is a contained setting (a large house and its grounds) rich with symbolism, especially in how it imagines these hierarchal systems in terms of this vertical and horizontal movement (most notably as we move from the despair and the sludge of the pit to the nearly royal position of the mansion’s highest rooms). Equally present is the picture of blood, with the blood defining relations, life and death, purity and evil, with the binding relations contrasted with the tearing apart of these relations.

Honorable Mention: What Drives Us (2021) Another leading contender for film’s of the year. A documentary for the hidden rocker in all of us.

Books

Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots by James Suzman

I have written in this space about some of the ways this book inspired me over the course of this past month. It certainly would not have been Suzman’s intent, but his examination of this notion of work inspired my faith and awoken me to some questions about the way we do things (and why) that I had not really considered before. Most compelling is one of his central thesis, which posits that with the discovery of fire, for the first time in human history we have an energy source doing the work normally attributed to us. This changed the force of entropy in terms of our human development and social discourse, and also redirected the evolutionary narrative away from a model of abundance to one of scarcity, which has been the dominant narrative ever since. Scarcity lies at the root of so much of humanities social struggle.

Super compelling book that I’ll be thinking about for a long while.

The Orchard by David Hopen

If ever there was a book that deserved the moniker “compulsively readable” it would be The Orchard. I kept waiting for this story about a conversative Jewish family from a conservative Jewish neighborhood and Church in Brooklyn who move to a liberal neighborhood and Liberal Jewish school in L.A. to devolve into tropes and caricatures of either the necessary secularizing of the religiously conditioned and pious young boy (the central character of the story) or the pitfalls of outmoded religious belief. And yet the book never goes there, instead following this boy’s journey from innocence to discovery, and thus from faith to questions and back to faith again with fresh perspective in tow.

I was actually quite surprised actually with where the story ultimately ended up, which is in a place I did not expect, but what makes this book so compelling is the character development. Structured by way of the months of the school year, as our main character arrives in the summer and begins this new school, watching him gradually come to grips with this foreign world is never treated in black and white terms, but rather captures the nuance of faith’s uncertainy and the world’s allure, as well as the world’s pitfalls the faith’s power. Unconventional in this sense, but I could not put it down.

New Yorkers: A City and Its People In Our Time by Craig Taylor

I absolutely loved Taylor’s book The Londoneers. This one isn’t quite as focused given the nature of his writing process. It’s basically a collection of interviews he derived from different relationships he established when he intentionally moved to New York for a short while for the purpose of this research. He wanted to capture the authentic voice of the city and allow it to speak for itself as it it at this moment in time.

I adore New York City, and so to that end this one left its mark in a way that was different than Londoneers, which compelled me more on an intellectual level. This one carries more of a personal bent with its focus on experiences, and while it has something of a narrative structure to it, the meandering style is easy to get lost in. Not every interview works as well as the next, but taken together they offer a compelling snapshot of a city defined by change.

Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border

We can’t travel right now, so this was going to have to suffice. And it was a ton of fun. The early going is the most interesting as we saunter across the borderlands from East to West. The book does an interesting job at pulling out the history and development of this shared area of our two countries, and in the process links that to the larger history that plays out from these forgotteen spaces. If there is one knock, it would be that it ignores Canada even though its story depends just as much on the Canadian side of the border as the American. I felt like this was short sighted and could have provided a really interesting way into the discussion that we don’t otherwise get. That aside, this is still a well written book with lots of great information, history, adventure and personal experiences. That’s what happens when you set out to travel the forgotten borders with next to nothing.

Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

I highlighted this book like crazy, documenting much of its information on memory for my own personal research. This is another book I reflected on elsewhere in this space, and most of that reflection came from the unexpected attention it gives to the history of memory. This is not a how to book, even though there is a componant of the book that deals with how to strengthen your memory with key memory exercises. Rather this is an exploration of what memory is, what memory does, and why we have lost sight of memory and its importance in our modern age. This the portion that excited me the most, and much of what this book has to say intersects with much of our modern practice in a revealing way. We don’t tend to think of memory as something we are gradually losing due to the way we function in modern society, and yet this is precisely what is happening. We can literally see that we are rewiring our brains. Not only that, our brains are being rewired in artificial ways, redirecting the evolutionary narrative in ways that force our brains to adapt to artifical rather than natural function. A sobering thing to consider.

Honorable Mention: My Salinger Year by Rakoff Joanna (I talked about the film last month, and the book proved to be a great compliment, highlighting and bringing to life in a fresh way some of the best parts about the film)

Podcasts

The C.S. Lewis Podcast with Alister McGrath (Episodes 1-4)

Alister McGrath penned an official Biography on Lewis’ life (titled Lewis: A Life), and he is recognized as a leading expert in C.S. Lewis. I had been eagerly awaiting this podcast which arrived this month, and thus far it has not disappointed. Each episode looks at a different theme related to Lewis, with a short run time making them an easy and breezy listen.

Undeceptions with John Dickson: Childish God (Episode 50)

Guest Justin Barrett wrote a book studying the science of religious belief called Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief. Not everyone will embrace his findings, but ever since he published back in 2012 I have found some of the conclusions to be fascinating. Especially in a world where assumptions about religious belief abound. This was a great refresher on on the ways these studies helped to shape our understanding of belief.

History Unplugged Podcast: The 15-Hour Work Week Was Standard For Neearly All of History. What Happened? (Episode 527)

This was the podcast interview that led to my interest in James Suzman’s book, which also made my list above. If you don’t have time to read it, I would highly recommend this episode as a way into some of the bigger ideas he explores regarding why we have the view of work that we do today.

Myths and Legends: Samurai Legends, The Devil Went Down to Kyoto (Episode 307)

These stories are always fun, and for anyone interested in a mix of history and myth and culture, this episode on Samurai’s should hit the mark.

Gifford Lectures 2018 (N.T. Wright)

This led me to pick up the book based on these lectures by Wright called History and Eschatology, a book exploring a way back into natural theology following years of ignorance and suspicion in our modern age. The lectures are amazing, and so far the book is just as profound.

Music

Amy Shark- Cry Forever

Intimate and revealing, but also bursting with energy, this personal record tells her story while offering us these intricately woven arrangements that invite us into these stories in a way that makes it our own, or at least a participant in them. This intricacy never betrays the simplicity of the melodies, making that the most defining trait of these songs.

Dante Bowe- Circles

A modern fusion of hip hop, R+B, Gospel and truly urban pop vibes. Bowe’s hooks are undeniably catchy, the soul immediately enrapturing, with both of these things sweeping you under its spell.

Eric Church- Heart and Soul

This has been described as a “concept record… about the everlasting power of music” in Bernstein’s review for Rolling Stone. He notes Church’s penchant for making bonafide, simple, Country songs while also quietly and subtly pushing the boundaries of what Country is, both on a creative level and on the level of genre. He stands apart from the crowd in this respect, adn taken together these two albums provide both the heart and soul of what makes Eric Church Eric Church. It’s a church serivce I will always be keen on attending.

The Choir- Deep Cuts

The product of a kind of kickstarter campaign, Deep Cuts was finally brought to life and made available officially to the broader public. It’s one of their most compelling records in their long history of making music, and it’s such a thrill to have them gracing the stage again (and still). It’s recognizably them with its fusion of instrumentation and melody, but it also feels very intentional, deeply personal and genuinely interesting as composition.

Justin Bieber- Freedom/Justice

We didn’t get just one, but two suprise releases by Bieber this month, with Freedom being the biggest suprise of the two given how it came out of nowhere and just might be his most vulnerable, pasionate, and spiritually laden record to date. Taken together this represents a genuine creative effort that hlds suprising power and intrigue moving forward.

Honorable Mentions: Two new singles announce the return of Imagine Dragons to the scene with the dynamic tunes Follow You and Cutthroat singling that they are as strong as ever. Also, Needtobreathe’s Live From the Woods Vol. 2 captures the spirit of this hopeful return to some kind of normalcy in the future with its first live show captured and taking me back when I saw them playing against the backdrop of downtown Minneapolis and the Mississippi river. Memories and hope combine with this band’s unique fusion of gritty country roots rock, spiritual reflection and soulful/singable melodies.

A History of Work and The Celebration of Earth Day: Making Sense of The God-Creation-Human Relationship

My recent reading through the book Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age To the Age of Robots by James Suzman, has really been shaking up my understanding of what work is. I’m sure that this would not be Suzman’s intent, but it has also reawakened and reinvigorated my faith in God, particularly in how it is that I see (and understand) the God-Creation-Humanity relationship.

A big part of the Suzman’s larger thesis has to do with how it is humanity has shifted the human relationship to work from a view of abundance to scarcity. And I think this has much to say regarding the recent annual celebration of Earth Day and all that this day represents.

The basic tenant of the argument goes like this:

The story of human’s relationship to the world (or the earth) used to be focused on the immediate and the present, where they (we) looked out at their environment and observed and trusted in the providential nature of God and earth to provide what one needed. Therefore there was no necessary language for which to assume or describe anxiety about the future. Work set us in relationship with God and land where the functional nature of this relationship (work) trusted in immediate needs being met through the fruits of that relationship, and rest then giving us to the time to reflect on and grow awareness of God and Land.

Anxiety about the future surfaced with the creation and discovery of fire precisely because for the first time in our world’s history we had an external source of energy that demonstrated the idea of “excess”. In other words, for the first time something else did the work that normally would have been attributed to us. This brought about both physical and social/cultural changes. The problem of excess is what then formulates the rest of the human story as one concerned less with the present and more with the future, bringing with it a very real anxiety that undermines the trust of this relatationship to and with God and Land.

The Gift of Free Time

As the author suggests, considering cooking to be one of the primary roles of fire that led to direct changes in human function and physicality, “Perhaps it is because so many see cooking as hard work that we have paid so little atteniton to what may be among the most important of fire’s many gifts: the gift of free time.”

This free time has led to the increased development of more and more external energy sources that do the work for us, creating this unending and interrelated cycle of future oriented thought processes and increased anxiety. When we no longer have a relationship to the present, we instead spend our time obsessing over and saving up for the future, something that has its greatest demonstration in Western development and society. This has flipped our attention from trust in the idea that our needs will be met (that providential relationship with God and land) to to the notion of increasing want. When these external energy sources do our work for us, all of this free time leads to both the positive and negative creation of excess. This shift from need to want has led to a society that attributes to work all manners of external, identity shaping attributes that then demand that we work harder and harder and harder for these wants rather than working less to obtain our needs, and we do this precisely because of all this “free time” and “free energy.” Its a paradox and a conundrum built on anxiety that creates more and more anxiety even as it continues to progress ingenunity and invention at an unprecedented rate. Further, as external energy sources do the work that we once did, not only do we disconnect from God and Land, we also end redirecting the evolutionary process that creative entropy holds together. Most of the evolutionary process is now artificial, from the cities we create changing natural patterns and adapted species to the very rewiring of our brains and the ongoing manipulation of the earth for these energy sources.

One place where we see this most readily is in the movement from fire to the rise of the farming, the structural premise that gives rise to growing civilization and reshapes our relationship to the Land, and thus also the life that shares this land with us. Reflecting on some of the narrative problems that flow from this shift Suzman writes,

“People and their domestic animals now comprise a remarkable 96 percent of all mammalian biomass on the planet. Humans account for 36 percent of that total, and the livestock that we nurture, nourish, and then sense to the slaughterhouse account for 60 percent. The remaining 4 percent are the ever diminishing populations of wild animals…

Descartes had his famous “night of visions”- a sequence of dreams that persuaded him that his ability to reason was sufficient proof of his own existence, giving rise to the now famous disctum, cogito, ergo sum- I think, therefore I am. It also persuaded him that the human body was no more than “a statue or machine made of earth,” and animals like the warhorses that sustained his amry, lacked the faculty for reason and so were nothing more than elaborate barley- and oat-fueled automata….

almost all societies that depended on hunting for meat considered animals to have souls… many also considered the fact that hunters were in effect harvesters of souls to be morally troubling and came up with a different way to rationalize the killing…

For farmers involved in meat production or butchers, there is little room for the intimacy that comes from hunting an animal on foot with a spear or bow. The emotional weight of animals souls would be too great a burden to bear. Humans, though, have evolved the ability to be selective in deploying the empathy that underwrites our social natures… (thus) Farming socities adopted a variety of different approaches to dealing with the ethical problem of killing animals. Some simply chose to hide the messy business (Eastern and Indigenous cultures)… another option was regulation (Abrahamic Religions)… the final option was to take Descartes’s approach and think of animals as little more than machines and so assume that they were already dead even while they still lived….

When he argued that animals are for the sake of man, Aristotle wasn’t only talking about food but also the work done by creatures like oxen, horses, and hunting dogs. This too was part of the natural order of things. Perhaps unsurprisingly he rationalized slavery in a similar way…. the only circumstances he imagined slavery no longer being an institution would be if there was no work for slaves to do. And the only circumstances in which he believed that could happen were if somehow people might invent machines that could work autonomously, “obeying and anticipating the will of others,” in which case “chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters, slaves.”

To him, though, that was something that might only happen in the world of fantasy and the false stories religious people told one another… Aristotle may have built his reputation by using reason to interrogate the nature of uncertainty, but he had no doubt that slaves existed precisely so that people like him could spend their days solving math problems and having clever arguments rather than producing and preparing food. His defense of slavery is a reminder of how people in all societies have insisted that their often wildly different economic and social norms and institutions reflect nature.”

From Human Exceptionalism to Technology: The Age of the New Gods

We are at a tipping point in human history where technology and artificial evolution is taking the place of this planet’s primary energy producing source and therefore functioning as “god” so to speak, with the caveat that the narrative this is following is all based now on the notion of scarcity rather than abundance. This notion of scarcity is precisely what creates this conundrum of a planet that needs to use more and more resources while also anxiously understanding that there won’t be enough resources to sustain us into the future. It also lies at the root of understanding how it is that we moved from fire to farming and modern socio-economical practices, practices based almost entirely on the notion of preparing and storing for the future. Perhaps most notable are the ways in which this model of scarcity becomes the driving force for the creation of inequalaity with fear and uncertainty for the future forcing us to reminagine our relationship to God and Land (in providential terms) and thus to one another.

God, Land, Abundance and Scarcity

Here we have the central quesiton of how it is that life “works”, and thus how we understand our relationship to “work”. The laws of entropy (the simaltaneous destruction of or taking of energy and the making and dispersion of energy) must still be applied somewhere. The real question for this anxiety laden future is how it is that technology as the main energy consumptiive plays into this equation. This becomes especially apparent in modernity where it is assumed that our relationship to God and Land is a thing of the past, and where progress and fear of that uncertain future must be the dominating narrative driving energy producing and energy consuming practices now dominated by technological sources in order to ensure our long term survival.

Interestingly to this end, this is precisely why the problem of “scarcity” is written so sharply into religious conviction, and why in the Abrahamic religions most specificially we have such a strident focus on reclaiming this God-Creation-Humanity relationship. The ancient world bears much evidence towards the basic intuition of this shift from abundance (the Garden narrative in Judeo-Christian Tradition) to scarcity (the wilderness in Judeo-Christian tradtion), with the outcome being perpetuated by this sift being a necessary division between land and people (taking its energy sources for our wants), people and God (no longer trusting in provision but working to obtain it and control it ourselves) , and people and people (inequality based on scarcity). In the Judeo Christian Tradition, desire is the primary word used to understand a definition of sin, from which we arrive at this overarching theme of God’s either dwelling in the cosmos or dwelling apart from it. The mark of human progress captured by the Tower of Babel story in particular, a story that in itself can only be understood in the light of the first chapters of Genesis which defines both God’s dwelling within the order of creation and to call to work in relationship to God, Creation (Land or earth) and People, and the problem of desire which leads to disorder (the flood) and the picture of “empire” that posits a people controlling the narrative of the human story as one of scarcity rather than abundance (by making this tower, let us make a name for ourselves). That this happens continually within our very human awareness of the problem of scarcity suggests that the same order-disorder, chaos and creation story that guides this religious conviction with the ancient world is still very much in play. When natural disasters hit (a pandemic, for example), the fear that the narrative of scarcity brings emerges ten fold. These things then foster a never ending discourse revolving around the human capacity to control the future on one side and concerns over our failure to exist in proper relationship to God and Land on the other.

Which is where we end up with these confused and competing narratives. On the one hand we find the grand story of capitalism that holds human exceptionalism, the very image of the Tower of Babel, in its grip. Suzman writes,

“The only thing universal about market capitalism was the hubris of its most enthusiastic advocates… market capitalism was a cultural phenomenon that emerged as the modern nation state replaced more granulaar, diverse socially grounded economic systems based mainly on kinship, sharing, and reciprocal gift-exchange. The substantivists insisted that the economic rationality the formalists believed was part of human nature was a cultural by-product of market capitalism, and that we should be far more open-mineded when it came to making sense of how other people aportioned value, worked, or exchanged things with one another… wants may be easily satisfied, either by producing much or desiring little. Hunter-gatherers achieved this be desiring little and so, in their own way, were more affluent than a Wall Street banker who, despite owning more properties, boats, cars, and watches than they know what to do with, constantly strives to acquire even more…. potentially for most of human history, scarcity was not the organizing feature of human economic life and hence the fundamental economic problem, at least as it was described by classical economics, was not the eternal struggle of our species.”

On the other hand, we see many looking to reapply a humanist interpretation of the sacred to the natural order as a way of downplaying human exceptionalism. This takes the old ideas of God in relationship to the world and God existing apart or absent from the world and replaces it with a view of the natural order as standing above artiifical evolution in light of God’s absence or non-existence. And yet if the problem of the first view is that it imagines humanity as its own god, and the us the earth’s most sacred and vital componant, this second view attempts to make the sacred the natural order. Both assume a guiding narrative, one focused on the past and the other obsessed with the future, but a narrative nonetheless. And narratives that have a tough time reconciling this notion of work with the distinctness of the human capacity and vocation without either diminishing it based on an assumed elevation of the sacredness of the natural order or elevating the sacredness of humanity above the natural order. We can’t assume the sacredness of the land as something the defines our relationship to it if the land cannot attribute this sacredness to itself, nor does it seem we can maintain the right and godlike ability to attribute this sacredness to ourselves (humanity) without necessarily subsuming the sacredness of the land itself for the sake of humanities future. We are stuck with narratives that have little to say about our (humanities) working relationship to Land in the present.

The Source of Life and Entropy

In any case, I think what is obvious as well is that there remains an uncertain longing for the sacred to be evident within the evident chaos. It would seem that the same storyline that we see in the Judeo-Christian story continues today, with the added question of this picture of cultural and human empire now shifting from people to technology as the new god of our age. Technology is increasingly driving and (re)defining the very defintion of ethics and morality, and will soon, if it hasn’t already, become its purveryor and catalyst. It is for this reason that I would suggest that our primary problem is that age old discussion about God as one who dwells within the created order or as one who dwells apart from the created order.

This age old question (is God absent of the natural order or involved in/present within the natural order) formulates itself in the modern age as a particular concern for this notion of a God who dwells within the created order necessitating a God who then also dwells within the chaos. This is not a question that concerned the ancients in the same way as it does today, but rather these are questions that now emerge from our modern understanding of the chaos in scientific terms. As Suzman writes though, what science demonstrates and what we are discovering more and more is that the creative process of entropy, that energy consuming and energy producing process from which life emerges and is thus contained and sustained, appears to require both the destructive and constructive edges of this process in order to function. Life emerges from death, order from disorder, production from consumption, creation from chaos.

The real question hinges not on the nature of this process (Suzman maintains this is not the essential mystery), but rather on the question of its source. That is, we can see and note the necessary pattern, but this requires something to set it in process, to jump start the laws of entropy and to define its necessary starting point. The process requires a source, a foundation by which it then comes into existence and finds its necessary pattern. Here in lies the conundrum of that ancient question. If God jump started the process, is God then still involved in the process given the evidence of both order and disorder. And if God is not, do we then just imagine that God is not involved at all in the human story. And if so, where then do we locate a reason to exist in relationship to the Land if the human story seems to necessitate a concern for a future that sees us existing apart from (our in control of) the Land? And perhaps the bigger question yet, if humanity is elevated to the position of God (that is, the source and arbitrator of ethics and morality and thus the ones who set the new pattern for life and entropy), how do protect against the exploitation that flows from humanity being in the position of the primary consumer of these energy sources and this energy existing soley to beneift our (now) natural human progress? We are less dependent on the earth now than we are dependent on our ability to harness it and thus tailor it for the purpose of humanities potential future apart from it. It’s a catch 22. Our best hope for the future is to use the earth for human advancement, while this using and coopting of the natural order for the sake of human advancement requires necessary exploitation.

If the entirety of the human story of progress (and even the very physical evolutionary progress and development that led to our unique exceptionalism) is built on “artificial evolution” (that is, evolution that humanity has cooopted and redirected in its participation within the natural order), to what end do we then demand an upholding of the sacredness of the earth? If we are presently in control of the narrative and therefore our potential future, by what means do we then choose to inhibit and hold back this potential by changing the new narrative of evolution for the sole (and seemingly irrational) purpose of elevating nature to a godlike status?

And further yet, what do we do when technology is already re-assuming this rolein our stead? How do we locate the relationship to God and Land that the ancients assumed within a narrative that leaves little room for it to exist? Technology might be the only way we survive in the future by giving us a way off this planet that we call home, but that technology demands the continued exploitation of this place we call home for our the purpose of human progress. This, it would seem, is the natural order of things with humans in the god role. And the reason technology is now subsuming our own position as gods is precisely because it is the product of the continued and necessitated practice of handing the production of energy that once was ours over to that technology.”

These are big questions, and ones that I have been mulling around in my own mind. They seem to especially be pertinant for understanding why it is we should care about and celebrate something like Earth Day, something that seems to be far less about that working relationship and far more about that socio-political lobbying either to protect our god like status or to relegate it back to the natural order in a way that resubmits us to a source that can dictate and control our narrative as the source and virtuous authority. For myself I find myself compelled again and again back to the God-Land-Humanity realtionship that guides the ancient stories, and in particular the Judeo-Christian narrative mentioned above. There is something about the God imagined in this story as one who dwells within both the order and the chaos that continue to compell me, even if it challenges me. It provides me a way to locate the human story within the story of God and Creation as one that emboldens a “working” relationship, speaks to the problem of scarcity, and brings together past, present and future as a measure of trust in something that sits above us and holds it together in the patterns of order and disorder, even if that leaves me slightly out of control of that narrative. It allows me to revel in abundance as opposed to forever reacting to scarcity. And even more so, at the very least it provides me a means of participating within it in a way that makes sense, and even affords me the responsibility that comes from our ability to direct it in ways that don’t succumb to necessary inequality and allows me to respond to the inequality that scarcity creates and demands.

The Memory Making Process: Reconnecting With the Most Essential Human Story

Approching the turn of the calendar year in 2020, I, like most people I think, found myself doing quite a bit of reflecting. Exhaustion with the pandemic and the never ending lockdowns has long since set in and taken its toll. While turning the page to 2021 didn’t actually promise much in the way of hoped for relief, it did seem to, if only for a brief moment, offer something symbolic- the imagining of some sort of a future. This reflecting eventually led to some renewed interest in a personal research project of mine on a subject intimately related to the future- the nature of “memory”.

I have written previously in this space about why it is that I became interested in the subject of memory, so I won’t rehash that here. But while most of my research thus far as been spent on the history of memory (as an idea) and the function of memory (as a science), I had yet to dig in to memory on a purely comparitive level, and in particular the comparitive relationship between memory past and present, and further yet the relationship of memory to how it is that we exist in the present.

To this end, I recently picked up a book by researcher Joshua Foer called Moonwalking with Einstein. While the book does carry a bit of a practical bent, taking its research and applying it specifically to some of the practicalities of memory building and memory strengthening exercises, by and large it is a powerful treaties on this comparitive exploration of memory past and memory present.

What Is Memory

One of the most striking things that I have found in my current research into the idea of memory is the basic admission that we still know so very little about it. Which is not to say there hasn’t been a lot of of headway made towards understanding what it does. At a base level though, much of the how and why of memory function remains as mysterious as those spaces in our brains where forgotten memories seem to gravitate towards. From the beginning of our awareness of memory as a function, recognized in early human development as the means by which we express our minds without the aid of developed language, to the modern age where new information now arrives at unprecedented rates, memory continues to play a critical role in human function, however different these expressions of memory might be and however negelcted these expressions of memory might have become.

What is clear in the pages of this book by Foer is that this is also true at a simple biological level, especially when seen through the simple picture of the human life span. As Foer explains, memory at birth is a curious entity in that it operates without a past. Everything is new at that age, which explains why it is that we then can’t remember our childhood until we hit age 4 and 5 (on average), because our minds as of yet have nothing to attach memories to. Everything is future oriented, essentially leaving our minds engaged in the process of building a foundation through which memories can then emerge. It is only after we have created memories, so to speak, that we are then free to interact with our memories as “experiences” which we can actively comprehend and thus translate into, well, memories. Memories that can then catapult us into the future with a functional narrative in tow. In this way, memory is at its heart a comparitive and creative exercise that requires real and actualized context to develop.

This correlates with the science of how the brains develops. In James Suzman’s book Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, he documents the uniqueness of the human brain by way of synapses. Unlike other creatures we are born basically completely dependent, our brains a quarter of the size of what they will become in our adult years (in comparison to a great ape, where they are born with a brain almost 50 percent of its adult size). This means a child’s brain is full of synapses that take in information and more information. As we grow those synapses begin to get pruned out until we are left with what these functioning synapses that can take this information and form them into active memories, memories that then propel us forward into the most essential human activity- creating, or working. Humans by nature need information, and we consume far more of it than any other creature on earth past or present.

Something similar happens when we get old, but in a slightly different fashion and context. If a crucial aspect of building and sustaining memory is in fact holding and having a future, or working and creating into the future, the very fact that in old age this future becomes smaller and memories themselves that much greater means that those spaces where memories seemingly go to be forgotten becomes increasingly active and aware and harder to retrieve. This is true simply on the basis that these memories no longer have an expansive future to be launched in to. Foer suggests that this is less about the breakdown of our brains or our inability to remember lost informaiton (information never truly gets lost, only irritrievable) and more about the ways in which memory is in fact built and developed. Debilitating diseases aside, it is possible to sustain memories well into old age by exercising our brains and keeping them healthy, but essential to this is enabling ourselves to continue to imagine a future even when that future gets smaller. Curiously, there is a good deal of study that could be done here on the role of religious conviction towards this end, especially as a belief system that understands the importance of, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, the “spiritual imagination”.

What Does Memory Do?

To dial this down a bit further yet in dialogue with Foer’s book, what precisely is it that happens when we engage the process of remembering? As with the picture of a child building a past and then applying that to a broader picture of a potential and imagined future, memory building happens when something in our present becomes distinguishable against that which is routine, ordinary and familiar within our past. If anything from Foer’s book has stuck with me the most it would be this notion- what makes life appear to move fast is when everything blurs together, when there is no ability to distinguish between one moment and the next, or one day and the next. This might sound counter intuitive, because rationality and reason appear to suggest that old familiar adage “time flies when we are having fun”. But the truth appears to be precisely the opposite. At a very immediate and most practical level, this is what makes something like this current Pandemic so difficult for so many. When it first started one could notice a collective sense of fear contrasted by a collective sense of optimism. Having a chance to press pause for the short term and make space for things long forgotten in our busy-ness seemed like a genuine, welcome and desirable opportunity. Fast forward to today and those things no longer feel like novelties. This is because at a fundamental human level we are conditioned to live in a past-present-future co-awareness. There is only so long we can thrive, and sometimes even survive when the days begin to blend into one another without much in the way of distinction. With no way to plan for and anticipate the future, we cease making “memories” in their truest forms and life begins to, retrospectively, feel like it has disappeared or never existed at all. This, by contrast, is what makes life appear like it is moving fast. Memory is something that occurs only in retrospect, flowing from and depending on our awareness of those distinguishable moments that mark our place in time and space. We call this brain mapping. It’s the same exercise we engage in when we read a paperback book, ironically a fading art in our modern world. It is onlly in looking backwards and contrasting that with our present that we can locate these moments and recognize them as a building story full of memories, which has the very real affect of then making life appear to move slowly. To think back on our memories is to gain a sense of a life full and a life lived.

Getting deeper into the technicals, many of which this book helps to outline in an accessible fashion, we get to the following helpful distctions. First is the differentiating between artificial memory, that which we create and can manipulate, and natural memory, that which is generally unconscious and which drives much of our decisions and our choices. What’s important about artificial memory, which makes up the smaller portion of our memory systems, is that these represent the minute ways in which we can actually and willfully affect change in our lives, even as natural memory, the much larger portion of our memory systems, is what allows us to continue to function on a day to day level.

And then there is the difference between episodic and semantic memories. Episodic memories are located in time and space (as Foer suggests, concerned with where and when), while semantic memory is located outside of time and space (free flowing knowledge). This connects directly to the relationship between explicit and implicit memories. Explicit (declarative) memories are things you know that you need to remember, or that you know you remember, while implicit (non-declarative) memories are unconscious memories, things that you remember but that you are unaware that you remember. Thus explicit memories, like artificial memories deal with awareness in the immediate. They provide short term opportunity to enact real change and to shape our stories in specific ways. The unconscious memory in contrast doesn’t travel through the same short term memory circuits as explicit ones do. In terms of what dominates our lives, most of what we remember and what drives our choices is unconscious, while what we knowingly remember and thus can manipulate accordingly makes up a much smaller fraction of who we are. And yet there is an intimate and important relationship that exists between these two kinds of memories in terms of how we function and shape the human story. While one shapes who we are, the other shapes who we become, and who we become requires a very real trust in who we are, which is largely the sum of our unconcious awareness. In other words, memory making is a very real exercise in faith.

External and Internal Memory Making

Perhaps most important for the larger comparitive discussion of the history of memory and the function of memory in our present day is this notion of external and internal memory. What’s important to note here is that while external memory is all about the recording and capturing of memory in physical and material ways external to our being (such as writing it down), our brains developed and are conditioned towards internal memory function, that which we internalize and thus know as functioning knowledge. If there is one defining and disinguishing mark of the work of memory in history and the work of memory today, it is the simple fact that we now exist in an environment where most of our memories are captured by systems external to us. We not only have these external systems that contain our memories, we continue to build more and more of them out of necessity and dependency. This has the very real and measurable effect of eroding our ability to remember in internalizing fashions, and perhaps most strikingly has the most immediate impact on the very real essenence of what makes us “us”- our ability to understand our selves and our life as story through the development of connecting the explicit and the artificial to the unconscious or natural memory. In short, it has eroded our brains abiliy to the do the work our brains were developed to do. We might see it most in an external sense, be it the very real challenge of remembering more than 2 or 3 (on average) phone numbers or birthdays, but where this does the most damage is when we actually dig into that internalized reality, as this is where we make the narratives that define how it is that we function and live in unconscious ways from moment to moment. In the West where memory has arguably been most eroded, we see this most readily in the decline of the art of storytelling. We have grown skeptical of narrative exercises, preferring instead static information and rational “facts”. The problem with this is that our brains are not designed to simply retain facts. Memory itself depends on our brains necessary and adapted ability to filter through information and to forget that which we don’t need and remember that which is most important. It is on this basis then that weave this into a narrative that our unconscious selves can accept and our conscious selves can interact with.

To Remember and To Forget: The Right Ordering of Our World

In this sense, memory depends on the artful process of forgetting. Our minds developed to take in information and order it so as to then recast this information through story and narrative. And we do this for the purpose of building towards the future. This is what allows our memories to give our lives shape and locate us in this world in meaningful ways as something recognizable. When that gets eroded we end up feeling lost and aimless and unrecognizable. Reduced to mere facts that our brains can’t actually do anything meaningful with. As a human species, stories and narrative are as important to our diseminating and applying of truth as facts, and probably even more so. That we have become cynical of narrative “truth” in modern Western society is both a symptom of the erosion of the memory making process and a cause of our own increasing indebtedness to irrational processess, defined as facts artciulated increasingly without actual context through which to be formed and thus understood.

Our minds have long since been trained to forget by nature of how we consume information, just not in the fashion that our brains were actually built to forget. Foer points out that Socrates predicted this long ago when looking at the potential danger of putting what we know internally into print (external memory). Print, followed by indexes (the external ordering of information), and much much later the age of the internet, has played out Socrates’ very real concerns in a prophetic fashion. The world that is being created now is one based almost entirely on external memory systems whereas almost the whole of human history, on which the development of our brains hinges, was built through internal memory processes. As Foer suggests, progress is simply outpacing humanity at an unprecedented rate, and one of the greatest challenges of human society at large is our inability to address the changes this is bringing in terms of this internal/external process, something we can no longer fully engage and recognize because of this progressive lack of narrataive understanding and context. We have lost the ability to tell our stories, and thus our external reality has picked up where our internal process left off, ordering our memories and thus telling our stories for us. We are no longer what our unconscious memories make us to be, but rather what those external memories tell us we we must be.

Intelligence, Dualism and the Decline of Narrative Memory Making

There is another important question to add to this discussion, and that is, what exactly is intelligence? Is it as we have been trained to define it in our modern understanding- data, facts, and information? There is a degree to which intelligence relates directly to knowledge based systems, but as this book points out, knowledge itself is entirely different than actual knowing. As described earlier, intelligence used to be based on our ability to take information, analyze it, and then forget what we don’t need and remember what is most important. It is from here that our brains apply this to a functional narrative that helps us to make sense of that which we can then come to truly know. Over time what has happened in the modern world is that we have been trained to disassociate facts from narrative. Narrative, or stories are untruths that the facts, the science, the knowledge, can set straight. This might be as simple as observing the gradual seperating of academics from the arts, or the subsequent subsuming of the arts into mere existential statements about the rational facts. It is also as complex as the exchanging of one worldview for another, which now sees the right ordering of the universe as the assembling of information rather than revealing and recovery of necessary and narrative shaping truth. This is the basis of enlightenment style rationalism. In any case, what has happened is we have essentially elevated this kind of rationalism as the new god of this new age, trading in the God-Human-Creation relationship that humanity once engaged through story for a new form of dualism. As theologian N.T. Wright often puts it, in this new world, this new age, God can either be out there detached from the world (epicurianism), or God can be non-existent altogether. In either case this is effectively doing the same thing, which is forming a dualistic picture of the world in which the facts exist apart from humanity and the natural order and we exist primarily as beings in service to this capital T “Truth”. We end up with naturalism as opposed to “natural theology”, but a naturalism that has no way of reconciling how it is that humans fit into this natural world in a meaningful way. A naturalism that has long since abandoned its ability to interact with the human story as a memory making process. Progress has become the new obsession, and rationalism is its god. This is the same thing that happened when persistant dualism affected and gradually corrupted the ways in which we are able to imagine the gods actually interacting with the natural world, essentially leading to this familiar divide of facts versus fiction, religion versus rationality, and narrative versus information. The real danger then is this gradual eroding of the very essence of what it means to be human and to exist in relationship to this natural world.

Historically speaking, as Foer rightly points out, back when print first emerged on the scene suddenly the songs, the poetry, the stories that were once synonymous with human intellect and true narrative driven knowledge were no longer seen as bastians and holders and expressions of truth. As the book says, they were free then to become art, but in that freedom they suddenly also became distinct from true knowledge. Dualism at work.

The Modern Problem: A Loss of Imagination

To speak of all of this in quite personal terms, when we pause to take a look at all that we consume today in what has become a society built on mass consumption, which includes in a very real way the mass of information we take in every second of every day, and it becomes startling how little of it we actually are able to remember. We consume so much and remember so little, all the while educating our youngest minds based on data driven memory based systems that, in the more concerning reality, do not have the time to actually settle into our unconscious and natural memory making systems. It is as if we are reconditioning our brains in a real tim, self made evolutionary process to exist perpetually in those first 5 years of our life. This is what defines progress today. There is so much information coming at us all the time, and it does so with a sense of urgency that says progress or cease to exist as a human species, that our world is being redeveloped around external memory making systems where there is no ability to actually reflect on and analyze this information in the way our brains need to do to make sense of it in a meaningful way. Everything is new, and thus in this world everything must be new all the time to qualify as progress. Rewatching films or rereading books or sharing familiar stories, for example, becomes a cumbersome exercise, Traditions become a hindrance. We have a tendency to fill our days unecessarily with work and we structure our lives according to expectations of building entirely towards this obsession with the future. Intelligence gets whittled down to the central concerns of our modern age (environmental concerns, technological advancement, space exploration), while, as the film Ad Astra so aptly captured in its powerful inditment of modern human progress, we stand a very real danger of arriving at the future with no ability to actually make sense of any of it, let alone to even be able to ask the right questions to begin with. To ask the necessary questions is a part of what it means to be human. To fit these questions into a necessary human narrative is a part of what it means to engage the memory making process. What we have become less and less able to do is that which our brains developed to do, which is to apply these facts to a narrative structure. To tell these stories of our lives and our history, of our persons, our communities, of our humanity in a way that can then translate to capital letter Truth regarding who we are and how it is that we live in this world in a meaningful way.

As Foer explains, the Latin word for memory comes from “inventory” and “invention”, two ideas combined to make a whole. Memory in this sense is a “tool of recording and a tool for invention and composition”. It is the process of “making new connections between old ideas”, and as Foer so aptly puts it, “memory makes” or imagines “new things.” We have been trained in this modern world to think of memory as stuffing facts inside our heads. But memory as both a concept and as a very necessary human exercise is not built for this. Memory is by nature an imaginative process that has its roots in narrative making societies and cultures. “Learning, Memory and Creativity”, the bastians of what truth fundamentally is and becomes, are shaped around the same fundamental idea, which is that truth emerges from this interrelated function of past-present-future realities. As the book points out, “the art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images and link disparate ideas” with memories of the past for the sake of the future. This is how story emerges. Creativity, then, as Foer suggests, is the ability to “form connections between disparate ideas or images”, the ability to “create something new and hurl it into the future so that it becomes”… a story. Creativity is “future memory” in the strictest and most fundamental sense of the word. Unfortunately we live in a world today where it is all future and no memory. We dismantle the external markers of our past in the same way we dismantle the internal markers of our past, forging our way into an unidentifiable future ill prepared to give it much in the way of meaning.

The Modern Solution: Building Memory spaces. Memory Blocks and Memory Castles.

So what is the solution? I think the solution remains the same as it always has- recognize the power of artificial, explicit and episodic memories to afford us agency for change. In other words, spend time building conscious memories. This is the way we begin to take back control of our memory making process from those external buildings to constructing internal ones. This is described in technical terms as building memory castles, metaphorical rooms and spaces through which to tell our stories and make meaningful memories. What’s important to note here is that while simply spending time doing meaningful things is important, what gives memory its shape is foward movement, definitive decisions, choices, actions, that shake up the routine and give us something to distinguish our story as a story that is being told, that is developing, that is building.

Secondly, reengage with story and the storytelling process by retelling the stories from our past and thefore giving them new and fresh context as time moves forward. Accept that just as the truth that guides our lives is mostly unconscious, telling stories is the best way to truly know this truth as something other than facts. We need to do away with our modern skepticism and embrace this ancient and human artform and creative exercise as the means by which we can make sense of all of this information in the modern age. We need to trust that our memories will preserve what it is that we need to know to prosper and learn how to step out through faith in our subconcisous and unconscious knowledge of this world and who we are, and yes, I would argue, God. This doesn’t make us less intellectual, it actually makes us more knowledgeable. What’s important here is that for as much as memory depends on forward movement, our ability to remember also depends on giving us the mental capacity to afford the present its meaning. Routine and Tradition is as important as change and progress in this regard, as that becomes the means by which we can then be able to connect the past with the future. One potential of connecting this in concrete ways to curating our explicit and conscious memories is through attaching these stories to concrete things, be it a meal, a park, a building. There is a deep and intimate connection, for example, to memory making and architecture. Seeing a film together in a public space like a local theater builds a visible and tangible marker into our memories in ways that seeing it home cannot.

Third, and in conjunction with the second point, we need to be willing to temper the amount of information we take in by allowing ourselves the space to forget so that we can then begin to remember that which is most imporant. This might look like creating space to connect once again with nature in a way that brings our human experience into relationship with it. This might look like prayer and meditation. This might look like creating Traditions, forcing ourselves to rewatch important films or read important books, sharing familiar stories over the supper table. It might look at resting on a piece of information and submitting it to dialogue and conversation with others as much as we can. It might look like spending time reading or listening to longer forms of discourse or camping out on singular ideas despite that feeling that we simply don’t have the time for this or that we must keep up with this world’s astronomical pace of disemmination. This might look like taking the time to journal or blog or write out thoughts about certain ideas. And like above, attaching these spaces to something visually tangible like a building or a park or a coffee shop or a river side ect. can be a very real thing we can reintigrate into our lives in this fashion as well. It probably looks like all of the above. The more we do this the more we give our brains the chance they need to begin to build these internal systems of memory that can then translate these experiences and this information as necessary or unnecessary for telling the story we are building through our memories.

Space is tied to time, with memory recognizing this as our means of occupying a “when” and a “where” and then knowing and understanding the “why”. For me personally, when I think back over 2020 what I recall is a blurry and indistinguishable mix of activity that feels like it never actually existed at all. And I remember feeling in the past few weeks that this is a frightening notion when it comes to thinking about my life moving forward. My story is marked by pre-pandemic life, with my last meaningful and identifiable memory essentially erasing a year and a half of my life from my mind (and thus my story). This presents a very real challenge for the memory making process in a world where the memory making process is already being eroded. And yet perhaps there continues to be an opporunity for the empty space this pandemic has created to awaken us to this larger reality of our memories potential for knowing and for Truth and identity. However it is that we eventually emerge from this pandemic, if we can allow the experience to empower us back towards the memory making process this can go a long ways in helping to push back on the forces of this modern shift towards external building memory blocks and reclaim control of the human narrative in an internalized sense. Let the past inform our present so that we can reiminagine a future by way of a better and arguably more ancient story.

Eastertide: The Beginning of a New Creation Story

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
– John 20:19-31

If you are not and have never been part of a liturgical Church expression, chances are you are like I was was before experiencing liturgical worship and assume that the Easter season ends on Easter Sunday. In the liturgical calendar the story of God continues with the celebration of Eastertide (or Paschaltide), literally rendered “Easter Time”. This is marked by these weekly cycles that allow us to enter into the story of the Resurrection, culminating in the Day of Pentecost where the spirit given empowers the Church to be the mission of Christ to the world.

The Second Sunday of Easter (also known as Divine Mercy Sunday), is especially relevant because it establishes what for the Gospel of John is this pattern by which can  recognize the new creation reality established in the death and resurrection of Christ. The writer of the Gospel of John builds the narrative of Jesus around a new “Genesis”, a new beginning, and in the end of the Gospel we are brought back in line with the opening phrase “in the beginning” by nature of this being “the first day of the week” of this new creation order. It brings to mind our role as image bearers placed in God’s temple, which in a bit of irony contrasts the “locked” doors of a building and this charge of being “sent” outwards into the world. The beauty of the Cross and the Resurrection is that it is not an exclusive property of faith meant to assure us of our salvation and bolster our fortresses, but rather it is the proclamation of both identity and vocation. “As” I have been sent, says Jesus, “so” I send you. To do what? To live and embody the ministry of Jesus in the new creation. In other words, to get on with task of creating and building that informs the Genesis imagination.

What’s striking to me about this new creation vision is that it begins with the simple words peace which contrasts with the word fear that precedes it. This word peace is deeply interested in and intereconnected with this notion of sending. It’s not simply a message that says, Jesus died for my sins and now I get to go to heaven, as the Gospel is so often understood. It is peace for the purpose of vocation. And how does this vocation get summed up? As a reconciliatory work. A unifying work. Forgive so that you can be forgiven. In other words, the resurrection breaks down the barriers of fear that comes from looking out on a world that feels hostile and uncertain and divided, and affords us this phrase “peace be with you”, a phrase in liturgical circles that actively embodies a time of reconciliation with one another. In the ancient world of this text, this would afford us a new vision of a world no longer bound by the cycles of division that we see instilled and perpetuated in the familiar story of Cain and Abel, one built on an eye for an eye form of justice and the never ending repayment of the sins of the people that flows from this kind of division. In Christ this cycle is broken, and thus in Christ we can move out into the world declaring “peace be with you” precisely by living in this model of forgiveness. This calls forth this great story of a whole humanity (literally rendered “Adam”) divided in order to become one in our divsersity (the fruits of labour bearing the child as a unified whole), a vision distorted by the idolatry of our desire which leads in the narrative picure John is evoking to a humanity divided (Cain and Abel) with no way to become a diversified whole. The competing image is that of Babel, where homogeneuity tells a different story than that of being fruitful and multiplying so as to fill the earth with our diversity, becoming the very template for the notion of nationalism and empire that flows from the term “Babylon”.

In the new creation of the Gospel of John, Jesus occupies the center of the new temple of creation enabling us to begin the reconciling work needed to heal a divided world. It is precisely through setting all that divides us at the feet of Jesus that we can both declare and live the kind of peace that bears the promise and mark of this liberating Gospel message. The breath of life in the Garden is the same breath of life declared in 20:22 and 20:31. Faith then, the kind of faith the Gospel of John contrasts with Thomas’ doubt, is the simple notion of believing that this promise of life is true in a world that often looks quite different. It is the proclamation that in the Resurrection God has been faithful to the promise to bring about this new creation reality. To bear out the promise to make Abraham the father of many nations bound not be this idea that some are made in the image of God and some are not, but so that our true identity as image bearers can once again be made known, and in so doing ushering and bringing the diversity of these fractured and scattered nations of image bearers into this creative vision of a diversified whole. What Eastertide reminds us of on this second Sunday of Easter is that Resurrection is not the end of the week, it is the first day of the week, the great imagining of a new world reality that has only just begun. The great bearing out of this new world reality through this peace giving and unifying vocation as image bearers.

Science, Faith, Determinism, Free Will and Nihilism: A Journey From Faith to Reason to Faith

Back when I found myself stepping away from my faith and challenging a lot of my beliefs, I found myself at something of a crisis point. It started with a process of questioning the rationality of my faith after opening myself up to the wide world of academics and thinkers I had not previously been exposed to, and at a certain point coming to accept that I should abandon my faith on the basis of reason alone.

I then came to a point where I realized that these same academics, including the grand and storied world of philosophy, were basically caught in the exact same space as the religious conviction it wanted to critique. It is one thing to say that this is simply the way the world is, it is quite another thing to make a case for why living in this world must matter in the face of death.

I came to understand that contradictions abounded in terms of reconciling these two things, and if the same rational minds that had convinced me to abandon my faith in the idea of God based on reason alone consistently chose irrationally based narratives as the means by which we can then live in this rationally constructed world in a meaningful way, what then was the essential difference between the narrative of faith and the narrative of materialism or, what I would have described at the time, secular humanism, a term I’ve since come to dislike. If I was taught that faith must be deconstructed on the simple basis of rationality alone, on what basis should I then refuse to submit my lack of faith to the same rules. This becomes especially crucial when it comes to applying a notion of personal responsbility, an idea that continues to inform our problematic understandings of retributive justice.

This is what led me eventually to a nihilistic conclusion of it all, acknowledging that if this is simply the way things are, there is no truly rational answer to the question, why live in the face of death. There are simply answers that we arrive at based on the nature of our circumstance and narratives we choose to accept on often irrational grounds that allow us to then give this life a certain level of meaning.

I had one big problem though. In abanding the world of faith I was also abandoning the specificity of the Christian faith, and in particular the weighty nature of the determinism that soaked much of this renewed interest at the time of my departure in Reformed Theology. As many of my friends were migrating either away from the Christian faith or towards this grand exodus to these neo-Calvinist circles, I came to realize that this faith expression had played as much of a role in my loss of faith as my grappling with the wide world of academics. This led me through an exploration of different faith traditions, but for me personally I continued to be arrested by this notion that I encountered in Tolkien of needing some kind of anchor in terms of locating a “True” story. If anything was going to make sense, landing in any Tradition of faith or non faith needed to rest on a central conviction of faith in something. The only way multi-culturalism and diversity can hold any power in this world and be protected against homogenious tendencies is to find a way to preserve this sense of conviction in something that is capital T “True”. While this part of my journey is colored with plenty of nuance and reasons and stories, I came to undertand that being able and willing to say that Christianity, should one come to that convcition, is the True story that gives all of our other stories their meaning and foundation, the very basis for which Tolkien imagines his own writings, is not elitist or exclusionary or arrogance, but quite the opposite. In fact, I was at my most arrogant and exclusive and elitist when I was pretending that my godless worldview was not based on a simlilar conviction of capital T Truth. What gives all these expressions of faith their meaning and their power is their conviction in this shared allegiance to Truth. However we reconcile this as a diverse people who live in faith of something, we simply cannot ignore this simple fact. I have little to say if I don’t hold a conviction in something, and what makes diverse cultures beautiful and compelling is the fact that this something is in fact a conviction.

Why I am bringing this up? This recent podcast episode linked below from The Reluctant Theologian Podcast (Time, Physics and Free Will With Jeff Koperski, Episode 62) reminded me of a voice that helped give me an in road back into not just the idea of God, but a renewed grappling with my Christian faith. It is an interview with author and physicist Jeffrey Koperski. In specific, it is the work he does on the nature of this relationship between the science of determinism and the human will that helped open me up to the wide range of possibilities in theological thought. He’s not the easiest read, but his brief book The Physics of Theism: God, Physics, and the Philosphy of Science released about 7 years ago is a wonderful and nuanced dialogue of the intersection of faith and science, and really helped to dig underneath where it is we impart and depart from reason alone as our basis for understanding the mysteries of God and this world. The podcast offers a concise overview of some of his central premises, and his newer book, Divine Action, Determinism, and the Laws of Nature is currently available for free in Canada through Kindle reads. For me anyways, reconciling determinism and the will was the most crucial point of perspective for making sense of either faith in a godless reality or faith in God, as for me determinism in theology (via the sovereignty of God) or materialism (via the laws of nature) leads to nihilism, and it is in the ways which we deal with this question with God or without God that breathes meaning into this exercise of faith.

A couple quotes from Koperski,

Even if there are windows through which God can act without breaking natural laws, such approaches have “simply replaced one mode of interference with the world – that in which the laws of nature are set aside – with another, in which those laws are used as tools… The very idea that there are laws of nature is a modern innovation…. Ideally, though, an appeal to mystery occurs after a great deal of progress has been made on an issue.

Divine Action, Determinism, and the Laws of Nature, Jeffrey Koperski

https://poddtoppen.se/podcast/1455521623/the-reluctant-theologian-podcast/ep-62-time-physics-and-free-will-with-jeff-koperski

Nomadland: Chloe Zhoa’s Cinematic Portrait of The Beauty of Communion and The Process of Grief

Chloe Zhoa is a master at capturing the intimate nature of the human story and experience set against the backdrop of the larger narrative of the natural landscape and world that affords these stories and experiences their sense of place and meaning. Having recently picked up and read the novel on which this film is based, the source material ends up providing Zhoa with an amazing opportunity to flex those imaginative and creative muscles. Her previous films incorporate a significant cast of non-actors, and in Nomadland she brings in characters who actually live the lifestyle that Nomadland is highlighting. This allows her to play around with that kind of raw, almost documentary like feel while telling the story she wants to tell with this inspired adaptation, something she does with casting McDormand as the lead. She gives an understated performance that is made all the more powerful by the fact that she has to embody a character in the midst of a cast who are playing themselves, something she manages to do by channelilng the ecentricities of the novel’s main character in an inspired fashion. Add to this the nature of a story that spends a good deal of time in the world that becomes the nomads very real backyard, and this ends up a real marriage of sensibilities and like minds.

One of the interesting things about how Zhoa pens this adapted script is the way she hides the narrative arc within the story itself. It could be tempting to think that there isn’t an honest story here, rather simply a meandering collection of moments and experiences that emerge from our main charcter joining those who live without a house and going through the everyday challenges of adapting to this environment. This includes gaining a picture of the seasonal routine that gives this lifestyle its structure, be it working at campgrounds in the summer or with the Amazon Work Force Program in the winter. The film has a meditative quality to the way it just moves with the flow of this community, offering these stark contrasts between the liveliness of the in seasons and the emptiness and silence of the emptied spaces that follow their departure. Zhoa also does an incredible job capturing all of the different emotions that come with this ebb and flow, including sorrow and sadness, joy, anticipation, lonliness, moments of transcendence and togetherness, and fear and frustration. We get these scenes that are designed to sweep us up into a moment of transcendence only to have it abruptly interupted by an inconvience or the simple, mundane reality of a moment. This switch in perspective affords the film an incredible control over the narrative arc that eventually does emerge with clarity and precision.

And what’s profound about the narrative arc is the way it is able to pull out a powerful theme from the interconnected stories that bind this community. This is at once a film about the larger socio-political reality as it is about the individual struggle within that. And on this larger level the story contains an almost existential concern for the expectations that such a society creates, particularly for those who find themselves suddenly facing a crisis or a tragedy or an unexpected change. At the same time, Zhoa’s eye for this story narrows in on the individual struggle, with the main throughline being about the subject of grief. And not just grieving the loss of someone. The way these stories interconnect provides us with a more comprehensive sense of grief, a process which flows from the notion of unexpected change. Grief over memory of what was lost as life pushed them, sometimes willingly, more often less than willingly into this new life and lifestyle. And within this process comes the need to accept and embrace this new way of living not as less then, but as an opportunity, be it an opportunity to simply survive, to discover a new outlook on life and community, or to even regroup and remigine a way to get back to where they once were.

This throughline of grief however does find its most poignant expression in the story of our main character, a middle aged and quickly aging woman who lost her husband and is coming to terms with a life where he is no longer a part of her world. Her story connects with the stories of others who have lost someone as well, and as the film progresses it begins to give us these different pictures of “home” as preserved both in the memories of the past and the new memories they continue to make in the present. It’s a truly beautiful process that is enlivened by Zhoa’s signature cinematography, which is given the grandest stage yet. I am genuinely grieving myself the loss of a chance to see this in theaters, as these are the kinds of films that are truly made for that experience and with that experience in mind. It both saddens me and enlivens me to know that someone like Zhoa is keeping this aspect of the artform alive in her commitment to making films like this, something that is becoming less and less common in the age of streaming unfortunately. We need to cherish these films while we can, and support them where we can so Directors like Zhoa can continue to champion the artform and continue to grow it in this kind of cinematic form.

Nomadland is poignant, heartbreaking, joy filled, and inspiring. It’s a story about change and the space we make for grieving and growing as the experiences and perspectives we occupy often change with this. It’s an emotionally gripping reminder of the world we live in, the places we occupy, and the stories that shape us within these spaces. In its most inspired moment it speaks of our intersecting stories, coining the phrase “see you down the road” as that which this community symbolizes. There are no official goodbyes in a community like this, only the expectation that our interconnected stories intertwine with an interconnected Spirit that assures us that no matter where we find ourselves on this journey called life our stories will continue, and we will continue to make our stories together, be it in this world or down the road in the new creation. The nomadic community then becomes a grand metaphor for communion with one another, the spaces we occupy and the spaces that occupy us, and God and Spirit, especially in times of struggle. A metaphor for the universal art of living and living together in the spaces that make up this great big world.

This is a film that is perfect for our present times, helping to remind of the beauty that exists and persists in the pain.

Now go ahead and just give this film all the awards now. If this doesn’t walk away with the Oscar for Best Director, Picture and Cinemtography it will be a travesty.

Italy, Buildings, Architecture and Meaning: Allowing the Transcendent to Shape the Present

I can still vivdly remember the trip my wife and I took to Italy, our first time to the Country and our first time overseas together. After scoring flights through an auction sight for $200 a person round trip, we jumped at the opportunity. The only catch was we had to fly out of Chicago. Given that we live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, this meant adding the 12-14 hour drive across the border to the 8 hour overnight flight to the 7 days we had off over Spring Break to make this happen. Most sane people I would imagine would see this as less than rational despite the $200 tickets. My insanity managed to override my wife’s comon sense, and so off we went leaving at 3:00 in the morning to make our evening flight to the great city of Rome. This leaves the story of an adventurous ride home driving on a Sunday on a broken altenator and two purchaesd batteries for another time. Suffice to say that 

As would be expected, before we left I spent a good deal time researching places to stay, tips, and other helpful information that might help us navigate a foreign Country. Nothing prepares you for stepping off that plane though, and the minute we set foot onto those old stone streets we were struck with that sense of being somewhere strange and unfamiliar. This perhaps became most aware after checking into our accomadation and heading out to grab some food. If you have never experienced Italian culture, unlike Canadian culture which moves at a quick space and expects a certain kind of attentive service, there when you sit down to a meal they expect you to linger. Eating quickly and asking for your cheque and tracking down your server is considered bad etiquette. It’s a good thing I didn’t know it at the time, but cutting your pasta is also something considered on offence.

As we would venture further to explore the city the next day, we would discover that it was common to simply shut down at random times to go and spend time with company and food in their many many public and communal spaces. This is frustrating for a Canadian looking to shop or expecting attentive service but it’s also an element of their culture that I eventually brought back with me as something that I valued.

Perhaps most striking of all was the deep connection that Italians had to their streets, their public spaces, their Piazzas, and their buildings. Everything is designed so as to life up your gaze to the tops of their buildings, which are bursting with life and creativity, but then to shift your gaze back down to the funcionality of these spaces. These buildings and spaces are meant to be lived in and occupied, with each structure and space and monument and building telling a story. This was so drastically different than buildings in North America where they are designed to turn our gaze upwards towards progress but never downwards towards this same sense of life life and culture.

The height of our trip of course eventually brought us to the famous Colloseum, a building with a story that reaches far back into the pages of history. A building that I never thought I would get to see in my life time. Walking up to it in the daylight reveals its majestic and towering presence over the cityscape, but it was approaching it in the evening that was most surreal and which left me most humbled. You see it in  pictures all of the time, but to be standing beside it, touching its stone and walking in its shadow is something altogether different. That’s when the lights come on illuminating under the overlooking moon and the stars. I remember pressing my hand to the stone and just standing there beside it for a good long while, eventually finding a seat on the surrounding hillside to just sit with the larger than life image for a while. It reminded me of just how vast and dynamic human history really is. Many of the people who had lost their lives in this space (and others just down the road) I would imagine came with some tough questions about the world they inhabited, and as I considered the crosses that now adord the entrance ways, and how the structure now stands as a symbol of Christian piety and grace, it struck me that for as big as the structure is, the world that surrounds it under the setting sun and the emerging moon and stars is that much bigger. And for as big as our world is and as unfamiliar as this ancient setting might feel for my modern deyes, the story of humanity and God and Creation looms that much bigger.

In the book The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories, author Edward Hollis walks us through the stories of some of the world’s most significant buildings, which then tells the story of humanity, which likewise flows out into our own stories as we consider our place in this world and the ways in which our architecure helps to bind us to it, both in the present and in our historical and cultural memory. Buildings and architecture are not static entities but places that actively invite us through their presence into these interconnected stories, into participation with the human story.

Similarly, Paul Goldberger’s book Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architectue, along with the complimentary and perhaps more emotionally available The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton, help us to see how it is that these buildings, in their construction and deconstruction, participate in our growth and offer us meaning.

Recently I came across a film by Director Eugene Green called La Sapienze, an American born French filmaker with an interest in educating young voices about the power of the arts and artistic expression. La Sapienze is a stylistic and creative expostion on our relationship to the architecture that we create. The film begins with a lecture being given by one of the main characters (Alexandre), a middle aged architect who has seemingly lost his passion for his work and who needs to find and rediscover some inspiration. This scene and this lecture establishes two important elements of this film’s story and arc. First, it establishes the inherent connection between buildings and our worldview. Buildings are at their heart both creative and philosophical exercises, and what we hear in the words of this lecture is the expression of a fundamentally modernist worldview that informs the buildings he creates, and thus also his life. For the architecture that he imagines, these buildings are and must be about progress, and thus to lose one’s inspiration and is to lose sight of how it is that we are able to build forward into the future.

The second thing that emerges from this scene are the human characters that build and occupy these spaces. Here we are introduced to our second main character, a middle aged woman (Alienor) sitting in the audience listening to her husband speak about architecture. In a brilliantly imagined scene, the camera focuses in on her face as the lecture comes to a close and the audience, including her, is applauding, and then it stops and lingers as we see her shift from a smile to a sudden blank expression. This blank expression leads us into the next scene where we encounter the couple sitting across a table from each other at a restaurant locked in a seemingly emotionless gaze.

The Director establishes all of the charcters in this film in an equally emotionless state. Their faces stay static throughout and the lines are delivered in equally static form. It’s unsettling to say the least, but what this does is continually call our gaze to shift from them to the world that surrounds them, specifically the buildings that carry the emotional weight. It’s an intentional contrast meant to capture the way these buildings are as alive as them, able to inspire and to give life.

What’s startling about this Directorial choice as well is that the arc of the film is interested almost entirely in their emotional journey. As the story pushes forward, this couple eventually decides to go on a journey to Italy to try and reclaim some inspiration. Being around that old world architecture might be able to spark some of this within him, and she comes along to be part of the journey. This is something I can very understand from our own journey to Italy. While there, they encounter a younger man and woman (Goffredo and Lavinia) which then sparks this journey of self exploration set alongside this intergenerational dynamic, between Alexandre and Goffredo and Lavinia and Alienor. The relationship between the young man, who is brimming with optimism, and the aging architect seemingly stuck in his cynicism begins to pave the way for a larger discussion of how it is precisely that the past, captured in our buildings as memories, connects to our future. And as this discussion and this journey unfolds, what becomes more and more clear is that these buildings and the philosophy this architecture represents is a symbol of the relatiionship between this couple, and thus the relationships that inform our world as well. To recover inspiration for the creation of and presence of this architecture is recover inspiration for their struggling relationship.

I have long been fascinated with architecture and buildings, particularly the spirit that they exude and the way in which they help to tell the story of a specific place and time and people. Further, what has often been interesting to me is comparing the approaches of modern artchitecture, which tend to be future oriented expressions of idealism and progress, to that of the old world which progress often tears down in its wake. This is one of the great allures of Europe and the East, is a world where history and story comes alive in the protection and persistant presence of its buildings. They invite us into a larger story. And yet, in both cases we find a similar sense of ethos illuminating from the buildings that a society builds, be it this old or new world tendency. As this aging architect is toured around the Italian city by this young man, the film walks through the nature of a building in terms of what it is and what it does. Its ability by design to draw our view upwards towards the focal point of its story, while also having the levels and layers of its story draw us back to the ground level in particular and specific ways. In every great architectural design there is an interplay with light, space and shape as it does this horizontal and vertical dance intended to bring together the creation and the creator, the building and the human story.

What lies at the heart of this film’s interest in this idea of the horizontal and vertical elements is this image of the Church. We learn that the aging architect, a professed atheist, refuses to build Churches. The buildings he is interested in building should be symbols of progress and humanism, not these antiquated ideas of imagining God at the center of our world and our ideas. And yet what becomes clear as he is forced to encounter these Churches in the old world is that the architecture he envisions in its place holds an equal centering presence and force. They represent an equal god if you will by nature of expressing the particular worldview that defines our story. All buildings point to which god it is precisely that governs both the world we occupy and the stories that inhabit it. They all direct our gaze upwards towards something, and then bring us back downwards in order to ground this story within our relationships. We cannot excape this fact. And as the conversation unfolds between this architect and the young man, what begins to boil to the surface is how it is that we can imagine this power playing out in our lives in a meaningful way. At tension is this sense of a relationship between the creator (the architect) and the creation. And the way that buildings humble us as places located in the shadows of the past and in the potential inspiration of the present is by connecting our creation to something other. How it is that buildings imagine the future has a lot to do with how they are able to preserve and tell the stories of our past. As we create these buildings, these buildings then draw us to a greater awareness of the source of this creation that comes from outside of ourselves, the inspiration if you will. This is the very life and light and beauty that inspires us as given Truths, as given mystery that flow from this creation. This is how buildings take on a life of their own, and this is then how we are able to participate in life together, with these buildings centering and anchoring us in something greater than our human accomplishments. They draw us together to the other, to the beauty, to the spirit of life itself. They help to tell the stories that bind us to this other and to one another.

This isn’t necessarily at its core a religious film, but religion does bleed from the crevices of its story and its arc. In actuality, I think this just might be one of the most profound representations and arguments for faith I have encountered in quite a while. It hits on some things that I found quite meaningful, and it wraps it up in some symbolism and visuals, and more pruposefully an emotinally laden and very human arc that really strikes at the heart of what it means to exist in this world and to be empowered by this mystery that creation, be it ours or the greater source that these creations beckon us towards and help us to imagine. I found myself so profoundly taken with how it brings all these working parts of the discussion and the journey together into a really beautiful and immenently cinematic portrait.

It is also, and this is part of the film’s impact, a cautionary tale. Not simply of neglecting the relationships in our lives that point us to that greater meaning, but of neglecting the past and the stories that connect us to the past. There is something about modern architecture that stands in danger of losing sight of what it means to be human in connection to the divine, however that sense of the divine translates for you. Modern architecture tends to be swaddled in this constant interplay between the flat and emotionless nature of modernity and its streamlined and effecient expressions of progress that render them synchronized, economically proficient and given to sprawl, and these grand structures and monuments that point us upwards towards those same enlightenment ideals without anything to bring our gaze back downwards, without a way to contextualize the god of the deeply rooted modernist ideals back into our human story in a meaningful way. It tends to be, for a lack of a better word, detached. This is perhaps no more apparent than the struggle many Asian cities face with the constant push for progress encroaching and hiding, and in many ways burying the richly centered nature of that old world architecture. And as we arrive on Western soil, we can see something similar even with our more recent history. A society built on these images of a past divided between Greek and Roman philosphical influences that reveal remnants of these images peeking out from the rubble of what has largely been bulldozed and forgotten. Images of those grand old monuments with Greek and Roman markers and appeal hidden in the refabricated buildings of our modern sensibilities. The age of the skyscraper continuing to tower over these pieces of our past as the now dominating story. It’s a similar story that plays itself out over and over again across the great cities that populate North America.

The real questions in light of this film’s journey are, what are the stories that these buildings tell. To where do they draw our gaze, and to what end are they able to redirect our gaze downwards with fresh perspective. How do they inspire not just the building of our cities as a present and living memory, but the human stories that imagine them, occopy them and give them life. To where do these buidings illuminate the necessary light that allows us to engage with the mystery of this world in all its shape and profound interest. And how does this mystery then inform our lives and our relationships with meaning, especially in a communal sense.

A powerful film with powerful quesitons that will be staying with me for a long, long time, and it is in these questions that my own memory of my experience in Italy, and the inspiration I brought back home with me from that experience.

Welcome to the Sunrise: Resurrection Faith and the New Creation Story

“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”
Mark 15:33

Mark’s passion narrative has been deliberately structured in three hour intervals. This moment of darkness signifies the final hours of this narrative, telling us that what is happening holds a cosmic (whole “world”) reach. This is designed, following the setting of the Passover which leads us to the Cross, to bring us back to the three days of darkness that preceded the death of the firstborn sons in Egypt, the very thing that awakened the people of Israel to their coming liberation (Ex 10:1-23).

It is directly after this sweeping mention of the darkness moving over the earth that Jesus quotes from the very recognizable Psalm 22, a Psalm that careful readers will note has also played a significant role in Mark’s Gospel as framing the dialogue of Jesus Hiimself. Jesus is playing out the story of Israel. The words “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” bring together Israel’s experience in the wilderness with the fulfilled promise of a liberated people.

To read through Psalm 22 is to encounter another theme that becomes prominant in Mark’s Gospel narrative, Jesus’ kingship. The first time we hear the phrase in Mark’s Gospel, the King of the Jews, is in this narrative, and the writer of mark then inundates the Gospel with references to this kingship. This would recall Israel’s demand in 1 Samuel 8:4-22 for a king in their desire to be “just like other nations’. This very notion is caught up in Mark’s mention of the encounter between Pilate and Jesus that leads to him being handed over to be crucified. Pilate percieved “that it was out of envy that the chief preiests had delivered him up.” Envy that leads our attention back to the central problem of the Biblical narrative, the envy between Cain and Abel that led to this still yet unbroken cycle of violence and division that holds us in bondage. A cycle that is commenting on the envy present in the Adam and Eve story of a people desiring to ‘be like God” (Gen 3:5). This becomes the lie of the evil that hides humanities true nature as God’s image bearers, made in fact in the very likeness of God for the prupose of bearing witness of God’s goodness to the whole of creation, the very creation now cloaked in darkness.

The cycle set in play with the story of Adam and Eve and actualized in the Cain and Abel story as envy incarnate culminates in a world filled with violence and division perpetuated by the “eye for an eye” form of justice that leaves the people calling “upon the name of the Lord.”(Gen 4:26). A cycle that is now being broken at the very foot the Cross, the culmination of this envy that has left Israel a divided people set one against the other. It is on the Cross that the full weight of this eye for an eye form of justice gets heaped on Jesus’ shoulders, leading him to express the familiar cry of Psalm 22 as he shares in the fulness of Sin’s repurcussions.

And yet, in bearing the weight of this darkness something new is happening.

Welcome to the sunrise.

As the curtain of the temple is torn in two with Christ’s final breath, the sweeping narrative in Mark of this temple that must be first deconstructed is being torn down, just as it had in the story of Israel. And just as the stranger in the crowd is swept up into the narrative in order to help carry Jesus’ cross, the great phrase of Mark 16:7, “He has risen, he is not here” beckons us towards this process of moving out of the darkness and into the sunrise where Jesus has gone “before” us in order to participate in the work Jesus is doing. To take up our cross and follow Jesus in the way of the truth that says this cycle of perpetuated violence and division that led us into the wildnerness has been broken. In Jesus’ victory over the cycle of Sin we find true liberation, the ability to lay all notions of judgement and unforgivness at His feet. Where the cross Jesus carried was heavy, ours becomes light as we step into this new temple reality, this new creation reality that Jesus’ Resurrection ushers in. The darkness is no more. Death has been defeated. The weight of sin can be set at Jesus’ feet as we learn to take up the cross and follow where he leads.

This is what enfolds the whole of Psalm 22, a song that captures this wilderness reality with the full hope that God will once again be bringing us back to Eden. The King of the Jews, hung on a Cross with two criminals enthroned on his left and his right, the deep and profound proclamation that we find in the Gospel of Mark is that yes, Jesus indeed is the King of the Jews, a phrase Mark cleverly shifts to say “King of Israel”, symbolic of a divided nation being made whole in the shadow of the Cross, the divided body made whole by declaring the full forgivness of the sins of the fathers held bondage to this cycle of division that has held this story of Israel in its grip. With the great and powerful news being that in the story of Israel, Jesus’ Kingship, this taking on of Israel’s story in His covenantal faithfulness to His promise never to foresake us and never to leave us, is moving out into the whole of the creation in order to bring about the new creation order, the rule of God established in the order of the Cross and its call to service, humily and sacrifice for the other. This is the good news of the sunrise, where we can now sing with Psalm 22 the words, “he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him”, thus “the afflicted shall eat and be satisfied… for kingship belongs to the Lord.”

Which brings to mind these words,
“How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! This tree does not cast us out of Eden, but opens the way for our return.”

– Theodore the Studite