Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Oh, heavens... not Neanderthal man!

I hope I don't sound too irreverent here - when I laugh at others, I'm not mocking, because I laugh longest and hardest at myself. I have a special passion for reflecting on eschatology. The trouble is that it makes perfect sense to me when I'm at prayer or meditation (and, somehow, I can write essays on the topic), but I don't understand a word. You can imagine the identity crisis - me with my combination of clouds of unknowing and burning a candle before the Infant of Prague (well, it worked for my mother.) I don't have the slightest idea what the Incarnation, resurrection, parousia, creation, or any of it means - though I believe every word of it and have no problem at all with any of those concepts when I'm at prayer.

Recently, I attended a lecture series related to Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope, of which the main topic was eschatology. One woman who attends the presentations, to whom I'll assign the fictional name of Phoebe, seems very full of herself - and I can see that without knowing her personally. I went to the coffee hour last week, for example, and Phoebe was telling a few others about a portrait she'd painted for some organisation. It wasn't on the order of "...and I'm very glad they were pleased - and that I had some inquiries for further work as a result." Oh, no. She must be the hottest artist on the market, because she went on about how everyone just raved, and they were astonished, and that once someone sees her work they all want portraits... I think you already get the picture. I noticed that, at the presentations, Phoebe has a habit, which I think extremely rude, of sort of lowering her head, placing a cupped hand to the forehead, and either shaking her head or silently laughing, as if whatever was read (even if it is Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Richard Hooker, and such other mental midgets) is too stupid to be believed. (I shall never forget her look of scorn when one of Hooker's works mentioned the perpetual virginity of Mary.) When she does respond, she has to refer to having been a journalist.

Well, in the discussion about afterlife and images of same (Tom Wright treats of how Jesus was not speaking of a kingdom 'out there,' or heaven 'up there'), Phoebe of course had to contribute. She first informed all and sundry that she is "very 'into' spatial relationships." (What the connection is there is beyond me. Perhaps because journalists always write of things which happen within time and space? I was puzzled for a moment, because the last time I heard that specific term was when I was involved with construction of a new building, and the building services' guys used it to mean how to fit furnishings into rooms. I'd forgotten how yuppies worry about their "space.") With a certain look of disgust, she was saying she cannot fathom the resurrection - hundreds of millions of people, all different levels, how would we get along, what if she had to (I swear this is a quote) be in the company of cave men?"

Quietly, with an air as if I were just having a random thought, I muttered (audibly) "perhaps we'll learn we are not quite as smart as we believed."

I haven't the slightest grasp of science - about my only understanding of the atom is that I wish it had never been split. Recently, when I sat my final exams, one of my papers for philosophy of religion was about eternal life, so I was steeped in Swinburne (...maybe Phoebe can sit near him), and all sorts of other writers who raised lots of questions that had never entered my mind. I never really thought about maintaining personal identity, reconstituting bodies, objective or subjective existence, and all of those other concepts. I just don't consider that degree of detail. (Belief in the communion of saints leads me to believe that our personal identity will never be obliterated - but I think the restrictions of our "time and space" perception keep God in a box.) Yet I have yet to know of anyone's speculating on whether she'd be disgusted at having to share eternity with the cave man.

The Cappadocians got me hooked on the idea of ever-growing, always more intense, white hot love enduring for eternity. That God cannot be fully grasped is an exciting image for me - we'll somehow ever grow in knowledge of and intimacy with Him, without ever finding that quest ends. Cool! I never stopped to think of the resurrection as the ultimate in over crowding, or of eternity as emptiness, or darkness, or obliteration, or any of the other things which my studies showed enter others' minds.

One priest whom I know is brilliant and has a stunning education, but he never did quite get past his evangelical roots. (I'm not being nasty - neither did Newman - but Father X was sectarian Protestant, which is somewhat more damaging.) He also attended a series on Pope Benedict's "Eschatology" - a superb work which I enjoyed immensely, and just might re-read for Advent. Most of those present just 'didn't get it' - they were asking questions such as 'how do we recognise Anti Christ?' or "when do we know the end times are here?," which of course had nothing whatever to do with Benedict's work. Father X ( whose face sometimes is filled with warmth, but at other times clouds... though, unlike C. S. Lewis, he is very handsome, like 'Jack' he shares the trait of being capable of envisioning Narnia or hell-fire alternately) suddenly, solemnly intoned (somehow, intoned is the only word): "The best part of death is that we won't be able to sin any longer."

Even Augustine, who seems to have been so harried by the unexpected call to episcopacy that he envisioned heaven as where he could rest, wasn't so dour as that. I hope, nonetheless, that the Cappadocians meet me at the pearly gates (yes, I know the Thomists don't envision, per se, a heavenly society - but I do, and I want to speak with Basil and Gregory just as soon as I find out how my parents have been doing...)

No comments: