Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy Independence Day!

The well known Christmas azaleas
Today is Independence Day. Congratulations to all of us.

In American Samoa, today is two days, as the islanders decided that the calendar should go from December 29th to December 31st, with no December 30th in between. They can do that, and they did. As the Christian Science Monitor put it, they "lost December 30, 2011 forever." That's right: it's gone, and it's NEVER COMING BACK! What's more, they lost Friday.

"The time present is seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment, and we are forced to supply its deficiencies by recollection or anticipation." -- Samuel Johnson, The Rambler #203

We just had Christmas, of course, and I am sure you all enjoyed my constipated philosophical traction-pull on time and tide. Based on the number of comments I got, I would say that it managed to make a month at Mal-Wart shopping for Air Jordans seem like a healthy occupation. It's ok. At least I agree with you: it was boring. This time, I promise to only be repetitive.

Do you remember December 31st, 1999 or 2000? Did you feel a tingle when the clock switched from 11:59 to 12:00 AM? If so, were you touching an electrical wire or engaging in a sex act? When you woke up the next morning, did you find that all of your prior notions were subtly different? Did you find that your attitudes toward, say, cutting and pasting information in a business report or a scholarly study were softened? Did you notice that your memory was worse (permanently, I mean)? Did you say, "Hey! I'm not in the same country I went to bed in! I feel like the nation-state has lost its boundaries as a meaningful geopolitical unit?"

I ask this because, just as "by the year 2000, the #1 problem for Americans will be too much leisure time," so also "in the twenty-first century" everything has changed. You didn't notice? You thought that these things were slowly moving, some on a glacier and others on a surfboard? Well, that's because you weren't looking at the calendar the right way. You were being Samoan.

Call this the "Samoan version" of the same photo.
I don't blame you if you ignore the quotations I sometimes include in my essays. Johnsonian quotations in particular can sound so balanced as to be self-negating and nugatory. However, his quote this time is about the present and how we're not busy enough (by the year 1800, excess leisure will be the #1 problem for the English, someone surely predicted) to occupy our full attention, and so we either remember the past or dream of the future. For Sam the young man, that was a cue to wag a finger at the folly of vain imaginings and delusions. For me, though, it's something else.

I've made the point many times that you rarely or never see a map with "You Are Here" at the corner. That label is almost always in the center, because the sneaky truth is we make the maps, not nature. The terrain is as it is, but we organize it for our maps, and we make sure to spin the world's expanse out from our observing pens. The map is a reference in two senses -- we refer to it, but also it is a marker of a spot we occupied when we constructed it.

The calendar is a reference as well. Time is the thing we live in, through, and with. It courses through the blood firing out from the heart and fitfully returning. It allows all that metabolism to take place. It makes for growing and growing old. It says warm and cold. It doesn't care about our calendars. Instead, our calendars try desperately to match it.

He put away childish things

The New Year comes along, by the calendar, but nothing will change this time more than another time. Any given packet of time that we call by name is just an agreement -- a handshake whereby we agree on when to arrive and depart the party. However, we can use these names because we all learned them, all agreed to them. If the town clock were ten minutes fast, and every citizen set his watch by it, the clock would not be ten minutes fast until someone from another town came by.

Samoa has done what any one may do. They have decided which position in the calendar they will agree to. They had been in the United States's day, and now they wish to be in Australia's day. The BBC World Service has been interviewing people and expecting them to act the way that the British did when they updated their calendar by Act of Parliament. in 1752, when the British were supposed to have rioted and demanded their eleven days of life back. The Samoans seem to be "happy campers" with regard to the calendar change, and well they should be. They have made their own decision on where they are, and when.

Time as it goes through us, as nature makes it and as it pumps through the veins of the world, cannot be argued with. As I grow older, and as my charge has new complaints, I know that there is no arguing with biology, no prevailing on time. If the weather says that we will have water and sun enough for azaleas on Christmas, then so it will be, and if January 1 happens, the world does not know or care.

We are not twenty-first century women and men, nor twentieth century. Like calendar dates, those are references -- words meant only to themselves (the words) stick to one position while their subjects (time, nature, people) move on. You are free, reader! No Mayan, and no abacus clack of days, can master time as it flies, as it slows, as it endures, as it pulses and beats upon our broken shores, nor signal when we recollect or anticipate. We are free of dates, days, and time even as much as we are their subjects.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Let us make it clear: this is not about the Christmas spirit, or about the solstice, or about a Fox News personality's paranoid frisson. This is, first and foremost, about time. “Time and tide,” we say, when the words are synonyms in Old English. When it's “Eastertide” or “Christmastide,” the “tide” means “season” and “time.” This, then, is about Advent tide, and why that isn't Christmas.

I will acknowledge right off that I am peculiar. I am an anti-rationalist (which has nothing to do with irrationality, by the way) and a Christian humanist, and so I'm attracted to mysticism. I follow a long parade of better minds in this regard. From Kierkegaard to Wittgenstein, philosophers who have dealt with the insane limitations of enquiry have come to the conclusion that IF there is a Something Grander, reason won't go there.

However, liking mysticism is rather like being an inhabitant of Greenland. Someone lives there, you know, but they'd have a devil of a time getting you to visit.

Like Anglo-Saxon, Greek had more than one word for time. “Chronos” is the word used for time in general, and it's the customary word. However, the New Testament famously (ok, famously in the circles of people who read Greek) uses the other word, “kairos.” Even if you reject the tradition of Christian writing on the New Testament, the word “kairos” carried with it a sense of “right time” or “particular moment.” Therefore, a translator might say, “And at one particular time she was to be delivered,” but that can also mean, “She was due” or “When it was correct” (Luke 2:6).

W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (or vice versa) have an essay in The Dyer's Hand about /kairos/, and I read it when I was young and impressionable. I didn't like it. I hated it. Consequently, it has informed my outlook ever since. Auden ties the breakthrough between supernatural reality and quotidian reality to separate cycles of time, whereby our natural, plodding time will assemble itself through myriad acts of free will and necessity into these few shocks of transcendent history, when God's history and our history converge in the “fullness of time.” (It turns out that I am a liar or a doddering fool, as I have searched electronic versions of The Dyer's Hand and found nothing, but I have found “For the Time Being” by the author. I have also discovered that Kierkegaard had quite a bit to say about “fullness of time.”)

Precision is impossible with these concepts because of how fluid they were. W. B. Yeats wanted to find history circling itself in “gyres,” where there would be moments of contact between the coils of the unwound spring. These contact points would be transcendent, as a single grand narrative played out over and over again. The French Symbolists, especially as they suffered revival by T. S. Eliot, saw a second world's signification lying beneath the scattered and broken objects of the war-ravaged landscape. While they silently held onto a priesthood of art by having the Poet be the one who could see the hidden, they also overtly secularized transcendence. It was supernatural, anti-rational, profound in the literal sense, and timeless.

By The Four Quartets, Eliot's mysticism was more classically Christian. He had, instead of a counter-narrative in life, the counter-narrative of humanity and, even below that, a rhyming, pulsing sense of spirit in time. I think Eliot would not have liked Kierkegaard, or anything that denied essence, but the two visions fit well.

The reason I am rambling through all of this is to show that this feeling, “like a splinter in your mind,” is hoary and persistent. Some of our more sensitive and thoughtful people have also found in it not a grand illusion, but a grand truth. For myself, I have to go back to the real before I can find anything super-real.

Metaphors of Life
How do we speak of life and time? We speak of the “circle of life” and the “river of time.” Sometimes we use a metaphor of a train, a journey, or growth for life, and the interconnected events of nature are sometimes phrased as a balance. The Magna Mater is kind of rare these days, but sometimes Mother Nature shows up, if only in advertisements for personal hygiene products.

The circle of life is both value neutral and nullified. It is purposeless, perpetual, and indifferent. We can only break it by caring or evading it. Further, it is a metaphor of biology and science, as it focuses upon eating and reproducing as the meaning of living. Since every time we speak the language, our language speaks us, this metaphor betrays our desires or infects them.

The “river” of time has been around for thousands of years. While Heraklitus might himself have meant to propose a stoical and mystical end, the metaphor is quietistic. It is fatal, as it suggests the particulate nature of the speaker, the hopelessness of understanding, much less commenting upon, the current, and the inevitability of events.

I was out in the managed wilderness yesterday, and I closed my eyes and listened. To listen, there must be sound instead of noise, and being far from a highway allowed me to hear things as they were without our intentionality splattered across them.
Digression for pastoralism
I apologize for being a self-indulgent jerk (it's ok: I forgive me), but this is what occurred to me while I was out there.
Most of all, the birds and the wind sound. The wind does not sigh, at least not here, not often. It swells a chorale, the chords shifting gracefully like curtains sweeping across the land, and the tree limbs and leaves, those freed corpses rolling about as tides of memnto mori until they bed in graves about the path, sing and shake rhythm and counter melody beside. And when the wind falls silent, it is only thinking of the next long syllable to play on the world. The lake's surface knows in its body what we cannot hear in our ears: there is always a breeze, for what else is the current?

The birds play tree specific notes. Sp! Sp! Is all the straw-blended sparrows say, until one says, Food. As each peeps and sings, the songs clash, but that mixture and burble is the hillside in winter. Besides, the loudest call, and most common, comes from the one who respects no season: the red tail hawk who is always complaining to no one in particular about the one that got away. When it is silent, it is only because it has no complaint.

The respiration of nature
Nature's order is each of the things we have said of it, but it is something more basic, too, something we carry in ourselves. It is wax and wane, ebb and surge. The natural world respirates, and respiration carries within it the cycle and the motion, for we never have the same breath twice.

When we humans set out order, we plan, and we will. We intend, and we let either a goal or a past event (history) set forth our intention, but the natural world accommodates by allowing any individual item to be whatever it is and still set the growth/release model.

The Anglo-Saxon tide is a period of time, a season, and an area of time when things are right. Like /kairos/, it is fullness, fitness, appropriateness. It can also be “area of time surrounding on a calendar,” but that is only true in a very limited sense. This is Christmas tide.

The Advent, for Christians, is not a time for simple meanings. The signal events in the Christian story are the ones most difficult, most ambivalent, calling for joy and grief simultaneously, for awareness of birth and death. I heard a young man pray in thanks for Christmas, because “Fathagod” it was “the time when you took all that sin on yourself.” For that young man and his dualist theology, he could only think of Advent as the birth of the crucifixion. The life of Jesus was hardly there at all.

The birth's meaning is far greater than his understanding, I think. As Auden and the others were saying, this is a moment, for Christians, when the three times intersect, when the natural order and the narrative order and the divine shatter. The moment of incarnation is parallel, proleptic, and also unique. Mary's response to Gabriel in the annunciation mirrors Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and the taking up of her flesh mirrors the words of institution at the last supper. (In other words, the flesh is important, in all its suffering.) At the same time, it is when the first sin, when Eve and Adam wanted to know what evil was and got their wish, is given the complex answer in the new humanity. All of that is involved, and so every sign repeats, leaps forward, calls to something from before, and evokes in such a way that any effort at pinning it down to “Happy baby” or “Whew, the cross is coming” or “He will ascend” is missing everything for trying at something.

No one knows when Jesus was born, not even the year. The traditional mass and feast for Jesus was set for December 25th in the west. For many Sundays prior, traditional lectionaries have readings to prepare for the feast, as this is not a question of Christmas, but of the Advent, nor of a day nor time, but of a tide.

Monday, December 19, 2011

First miracle/ First sin

"If the light is,
It is because God said, 'Let there be light'" - Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "At Sunrise"

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that light is the first miracle, so my constant reader will not be surprised that my title refers to that. In fact, I don't care if my readers are pagans, Zoroastrians, or Raelians, (a church whose founder names himself after "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" and recruits via "go topless day" is something North America deserves), the Hebrew account of Genesis is an amazing organization. I personally do not view it as a scientific or historical organization, or at least not as we routinely use those words, but that is because the Hebrews were quite capable of writing science, quite willing and able of writing history, and they had these genres already (the question goes to 10th and 6th centuries, extant texts, and internal indications of generic conventions that would mark a structural history). They simply didn't need Genesis to be either of them in our sense. (As I said, this is a personal view and not one I want to push. It has nothing to do with the foolhardy "evolution" spat, either.)

It should be apparent by now that I'm attracted to mysticism, but mysticism is something like Greenland: you know that it's there, and some people love it, but it's really hard to convince anyone else to visit. The creation story in Genesis is logical, emphatic, and also reflecting some pretty deep mystical realities. In other words, what may be true in physical science and what is certainly true in perception, affect, and interpersonal communication are sometimes at odds, and, when that happens, it is better to know the latter than to insist on the former. People who insist on mathematical and physics-based realities when the hot confusion of the world throws dung at them tend to end up in a wooden shack in Montana. (That the Unibomber was a mathematician has more than some logic to it.) (Don't take this from me, by all means. Ask Sartre (both of those links were interesting) and read that nasty little Camus's tale of shooting innocent Arab men.)

In the case of the first miracle, though, we're in luck, because physicists shouldn't have too much of a fit if I say that light is a miracle. I am probably wrong (and we live in a probabilistic universe), but my understanding is that there is light and dark. The paradigm of "on/off" still applies. Light either is or is not, and it does not allow for "0.5 of light" or "potential light." There isn't a calculation with "0.2 photon applied to 2.4 roetgens."

June, 1998
We have to retreat, when we want light, to "let it be." We either have light, or we cry out for it. We either have relief from light in a time of true dark, or we suffer for the overload. Either way, light itself is too basic to be understood in any component part. All we may do is accept it as a whole and find attributes to it, like color, wavelength, and diffusion, but it is either there or not.

I said, above, that Genesis goes in emphatic order, and you probably thought that I meant it went from least to most important. In a sense, it did -- a moral sense -- but in another sense it is organized from most powerfully complex to least. Light out of the continuum of darkness, the land from the continuum of sea, the starry sky heavens from the terrestrial, then grasses before angiosperms, division of terrestrial time into its familiar seasons, days, nights, etc., fish and birds (and God told them to multiply that day, and by the next day they have populated the seas and skies and earth, which is kind of a clue that the readers of the story originally would not have thought of 24 hours), then we get cattle and insects, and then man in God's image. This order reflects the systems that require greatest interdependence, in many cases, to those that rely upon the prior. Man is the last and least in some sense -- the island creation, sitting atop the mass on the throne of the garden. (Genesis 2, you know, tells a different story.)

The order presented in the two accounts is harmonized. It is essential. In this creation, there is a dynamic order at work rather than a rigid one. Like light, like respiration, there is an order of wax and wane, growth and sustenance that needs no rule in order to reflect a very real rule.

As for the first sin, we all know what it was. It was the desire to understand, to create, to "be as gods, knowing good from evil" (Gen. 3:11). It wasn't any apple. the disobedience is in the acting on a desire to take on the responsibility God had of knowing what lies on the other side of creation. Inside the paradiso, mankind is part of creation, united with it in being innocent -- unable to create and murder, unable to create goodness because unaware of evil. The enemy offers them the chance to be creators, to take on the responsibility, to wear God's shoes, to find out about what one creates from and what parenting keeps at bay.

So we have an elaborate doctrine of original sin. (If you're dusty on why babies are damned, etc., then read that: it's the Roman Catholic doctrine summed up pretty well. This is not my view, but it's the view that all the other churches in the west are reacting against.)

There are a lot of things to say about the first sin. All I want to focus on, though, is the fact that we can't handle the truth.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality. -- T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

We cannot handle very much, indeed, of that sort of reality, because we remain inside of the created universe, the physical universe, and if we ask questions about its nature, about the state of "not/is," we are asking ourselves to take on a perspective beyond that state. We cannot question God without being like unto gods, and we cannot be like unto gods so long as we are ourselves. We are imperfect. We do not know, any longer. We do not hear the song, rise and fall with the divine breath, see the light behind light.

Our fellows read Paul's epistles and fixate on the change of "nature" from "sin nature" to a heavenly one and miss entirely the fact that we still see as through a glass, darkly. We're still small vessels with cracks in them. Paul's epistles are like,
"...that wonderful piece de Interpretatione which has the faculty of teaching its readers to find out a meaning in everything but itself, like commentators on the Revelations who proceed prophets without understanding a syllable of the text.”  – Jonathan Swift, Tale of a Tub, Section II

In every thing that we do, we repeat our first sin. We now can create, but broken things. Our hands, hearts, and minds are incomplete, broken, and so we have the urge we asked for, the knowledge of both the chaos and the order, but we only make ourselves over and over again.

We strive for Eden and make dictatorships, because our orders never manage dynamism. Worse, we amplify ourselves in our creations. We magnify our desires with our assemblies, exaggerate our loneliness in our social networks, and testify loudly about the brittleness of our attainment when we claim to have found solutions.

I fear this has become a rant. I did not start out that way. I, too, will never overcome flaw.