CHRIST THE KING

Since 1970, the Roman Catholic Church has celebrated the Feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. It is fitting that this feast should close a year that began with Old Testament prophesies of a coming Messiah, a Messiah who Christians believe is Jesus Christ.

The scriptural readings (Cycle C) that the Church has chosen for this feast day introduce us to three distinct but related aspects of Christ’s kingship:

First, a reading from 2 Samuel recalls the inauguration of the historical King David, chosen by God and ratified by the leaders of Israel’s twelve tribes:

“All the tribes of Israel came to David in Hebron…all the elders of Israel came to the king in Hebron, and at Hebron King David made a covenant with them in the presence of the Lord; and they anointed David king over Israel.”

Jesus, of course, is of the House of David and therefore has a valid hereditary claim to David’s throne. As David’s successor, Jesus represents the historical kingship of God.

Yet Jesus never suggests that he should have universal political authority. He did not come to depose Rome and inherit its empire. In fact, absolute political power was the third and final temptation offered by Satan, and rejected by Jesus, during Jesus’ 40 days in the desert (Mt 4: 9).

Instead, Scripture and the Church teach that all political rulers, whether emperors, kings, presidents or legislatures, derive their authority from God and maintain that authority only in so far as their policies are consistent with God’s laws.

Christ the King is not Christ the Bureaucrat. God does not dictate the details of public policy but rather establishes guidelines and principles that all laws, if they are to be valid, must respect. No law of ‘man’ is binding if it conflicts with a law of God.

So, Christ’s royal authority does extend to the historical realm but it is exercised through the agency of secular rulers chosen according to the unique culture and tradition of each political entity (e.g. nation).

The second reading is from Paul’s Letter to Colossians:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and invisible…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together…For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross, whether those on earth or those in heaven.”

This is not Jesus, the historical successor to King David. This is the Son of God, the King of Creation, Ruler of the Universe.

Colossians makes a series of bold claims for Christ that are especially relevant to today’s world:

  • All things in heaven and on earth were created in him, through him and for him.

Christ is the locus of creation (in him), the agency of creation (through him), and the aim/purpose/end (teleos) of creation (for him).

  • All things hold together in him.

It is only because of Christ that what we call ‘things’ constitute a universe.

  • Through him all things in heaven and on earth are reconciled for him.

Through Christ, conflicts are resolved into contrasts and contrasts into harmonies.

Today, most members of the cognoscenti believe that Universe came into being on its own. In the terms of the Scholastics, Universe is causa sui. Modernists that we are, we take it for granted that this is at least possible. But what if it isn’t? What if an independent, self-created universe is intrinsically unstable and therefore impossible?

It is beyond the scope of this essay to resolve that question but the question per se underscores the importance of Colossians for contemporary cosmology. Safe to say, Colossians presents a very different model of cosmogenesis than we are used to hearing. Imagine a visiting professor from Colossae addressing a classroom of eager graduate students at Cambridge:

“In order for a non-trivial Universe to emerge, evolve and endure, a number of factors must come into play simultaneously. First, there must be a creative force that gives rise to novel entities (events); second, those entities must occur within some sort of defined ontological locus; third, all the events that make up Universe must be oriented toward a common end (teleos); and fourth, the creative force must not only bring novel entities into being but it must also work ceaselessly to resolve conflicts among those entities.

“Creation is as much about the ends of things as it is about their beginnings; it operates throughout the entire life of every entity. Ultimately, it is a process by which a multiplicity of simple things becomes a complex unity. It is that process that binds entity to entity in a way that constitutes Universe.

“Otherwise, anything that might emerge randomly and spontaneously from the void would either be isolated and stagnant or cancelled out by conflicting events. The net informational content of any such universe would always be approximately zero.”

Now one of our ‘sophomore’ cosmologists might be expected to interrupt vehemently at this juncture:

“Sir, you are quite simply insane. We know exactly what holds our Universe together; it is electromagnetism, gravity and the strong force…not Christ.”

“Not so fast,” our professors retorts. “Can you fully explain the nature of any of these forces? Can you explain how it is that each has the exact quantitative value it does? Do you understand that if any one of these apparently arbitrary values varied even slightly, Universe as we know it would be impossible? Is it not much more likely that these forces are simply the physical manifestations of something deeper in the structure of the cosmos? Something like Christ, for example?”

The final reading, taken from the Gospel of Luke, tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion:

“The people stood by and watched; the rulers meanwhile sneered at him and said, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.’ Even the soldiers jeered at him…they called out, ‘If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.’ Above him there was an inscription that read, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

“Now one of the criminals hanging there (Jesus was crucified between two ‘thieves’) reviled Jesus, saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us.’ The other, however…said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He (Jesus) replied to him, ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”

Enigmatically, Pontius Pilate had ordered a placard, reading “King of the Jews”, nailed onto the cross above Jesus’ head. The Jewish leaders complained to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews’, but that he said, ‘I am the King of the Jews’.” But Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

The ‘rulers’ and the soldiers overseeing the crucifixion turned Pilate’s affirmation into a taunt:

“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”

The first thief joins in:

“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”

But the second thief surprises:

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

This is the first time that anyone (other than Jesus himself) has clearly acknowledged the other-worldly nature of Christ’s Kingdom. Before Pilate, Jesus says, “My Kingdom does not belong to this world…my kingdom is not here.” Before that he has tried many times to educate his disciples on the eschatological nature of his reign – without any apparent success.

But the so-called ‘good thief’ gets it…and just in the nick of time at that; Jesus reassures him:

“…Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The reading from Luke’s Gospel introduces us to yet a third aspect of Jesus’ Kingship. While his laws are normative on Earth, they are often ignored in practice; but in the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ is the supreme ruler.  That is what we mean when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”

Looking for Heaven (aka Paradise)? It’s at the intersection of History and Eternity! It consists of historical entities but historical entities that have somehow been ‘glorified’ (i.e. reconciled and eternalized). When Colossians speaks of all things being “reconciled for him”, it is describing the Kingdom of Heaven.

So on the Feast of Christ the King, we justly celebrate Christ as Sovereign of this world, Ruler of the Universe, and Heavenly King. But how are these aspects of Christ’s kingship related?

The reconciliation of all things through Christ and for Christ can only occur based on the consistent application of specific values. Beauty, Truth, Justice and Kindness are some of those values.

How do we know which values must be followed for reconciliation to occur? Assume the opposite. Would reconciliation be successful if it was based on the absence of Beauty, Truth, Justice or Kindness, i.e. if it was based on ugliness, falsehood, injustice or cruelty?

Obviously not! In fact, such moral failings are the main sources of conflict in the first place. Ugliness is inherently unstable as the urge to beautify is universal. Falsehood eliminates any objective basis for consensus. Injustice is the principal cause of conflict in our world. (Who has not chanted, “No justice, no peace!” at least once?) And cruelty is the very definition of objectification and marginalization, two states of affairs radically inconsistent with reconciliation.

By making a list of various values and their opposites we can rather quickly identify the sources of conflict in our world and the avenues available for the reconciliation of that conflict. These values, once identified, are the same values that must guide all valid law-making in the historical realm. Laws that explicitly and intentionally undermine Beauty, Truth, Justice and Kindness, for example, are invalid on their face.

(Note: we are not concerned here with legitimate differences of opinion. For example, well-meaning people may disagree about which laws would be most effective in promoting justice. It is the purview of secular governments to choose among such potential laws; any one of those choices would be valid. What would be invalid is a law that aims to undermine justice per se.)

So we see that there is a single thread that unites Christ’s historical, cosmological and heavenly kingship. It is the set of values that form the basis for universal reconciliation, that are normative on earth and that are realized perfectly in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Of course, we know from other essays in this collection that these values constitute the Good, God’s very nature. Therefore, Christ’s three fold kingship is inherent in the nature of God himself. What better way to celebrate the end of the liturgical year!

#christtheking #aletheia #philosophy

THIS IS US

The fall of 2016 saw a new comedy series, This is Us, added to the NBC line-up. Through a sometimes bewildering sequence of flash-backs and flash-forwards, this sitcom follows the lives of ‘triplets’ (sort of) from birth into middle age.

In Episode 5, “The Game Plan”, one of the triplets, Kevin, ends the episode with a soliloquy on life and death that raises a number of interesting philosophical and cosmological issues. Here it is (in part):

“Life is full of color and we each get to come along and add our own color to the painting…and even though it’s not very big, the picture…you sort of have to think that it goes on forever…to infinity…

“So at first when I was painting I was thinking, you know, maybe up here, that was that guy’s part of the painting and then, you know, down here, that’s my part of the painting. And then I started to think, well, what if we’re all in the painting everywhere?

“And what if we’re in the painting before we’re born? What if we’re in it after we die? And these colors that we keep adding, what if they keep getting added on top of one another, until eventually we’re not even different colors anymore? We’re just one thing, one painting.

“…Just because someone dies, just because you can’t see them or talk to them anymore, it doesn’t mean they’re not still in the painting…There’s no dying, there’s no you or me or them. It’s just us!”

As he speaks, Kevin is showing an abstract he painted to his two young nieces. The painting is small and, of course, finite but he asks his nieces to imagine that the painting “goes on forever…to infinity” (or perhaps to some exceedingly large cosmic bound).

The painting, of course, is Kevin’s metaphor for life, even for being itself. Its colors reflect the fact that “life is full of color”. At first, Kevin imagines that each of us is limited to a certain region of the ‘canvass’ corresponding to the space-time boundaries of our biological lives.

Then he has an insight: What if we’re all painting everywhere on the surface? What if we were in the painting even before we were born and what if we remain on the canvass after we die? If that’s the case, then we must all be painting over one another. The individual contribution of each ‘artist’ must be submerged beneath the evolving holistic image. In that case, “There’s no dying, there’s no you or me or them. It’s just us!”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Consider the notion of an infinite surface. Normally, that would be problematic. On a ‘normal’ infinite surface the probability of any two finite brush strokes intersecting would approach zero.

Kevin overcomes this brilliantly: “What if we’re all in the painting everywhere?” He is describing his picture as a hologram. On a ‘holographic canvass’, the entire image is fully present everywhere. Zoom in, same image but less clarity; zoom out, sharper image, more detail…but the same image.

With this insight Kevin solves the problem of painting on an infinite surface. Every brush stoke appears everywhere so the probability of any two brush strokes intersecting is not zero but 100%.

The idea that our universe is a holographic surface is very popular today among physicists and cosmologists. It is one possible implication of string theory. Plus, if we are living on a 3-dimensional holographic surface, that surface would contain all the information we encounter in ‘normal’ 4-dimensional space-time.

If Kevin’s canvass is a 3-dimensional holographic surface, then we are all everywhere in the painting all of the time. This is a more sophisticated formulation of the old theory of ‘block time’: everything that ever has been, is now, or ever will be exists simultaneously…at least from the perspective of some class of observers.

This is a tricky concept. It doesn’t mean that our act of painting is unreal or illusory. It’s just that from at least one perspective the process of our painting is both instantaneous…and eternal.

Each of us makes a unique contribution to the image but that contribution is limited, not by ‘death’ but by the contributions of others. That ‘limitation’ is what allows our contribution to harmonize with the contributions of everyone else to form a much more interesting whole. Our contributions are unique but they are not isolated; they do not stand alone.

Counterintuitively, it is the limitation of our contributions that ensures the transcendence of those contributions. Our contributions acquire meaning in the context of their subsequent harmonization into the ‘image of the entirety’.

Philosophy, in the context of 4-dimensional scalar space-time, defines limitation as ‘death’ and sees in mortality grounds for nihilism. Consider Macbeth’s final soliloquy:

“…All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death…Life’s but a walking shadow…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

In the context of 3-dimensional holographic space-time, however, limitation is the necessary and perhaps sufficient pre-condition for transcendence and meaningfulness.

Subjectively, we each paint a limited number of brush strokes and then we are done; but objectively, our strokes harmonize with the brush strokes of every other contributor. In the context of that harmony, they always were, are now, and ever will be; and in that same harmony, the categories known as “you, me, them” are resolved into a single primary category, “us”.

The notion that “us” is the primary unit of being did not originate with Kevin. Sorry, Kevin! 2500 years ago, the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander, proposed that potential entities did not become actual entities until they gave each other “reck”, i.e. until they harmonized with one another. 500 years later, the idea that being is relationship was captured in the Christian doctrine of Trinity. Finally, less than 100 years ago, the existential theologian, Martin Buber (I and Thou), wrote, “In the beginning is the relation.”

Still, it is not often that we encounter groundbreaking cosmology and challenging philosophy in a TV sit-com; but This is Us, on at least on this one occasion, provides just that. We are invited to re-conceptualize our everyday experience.

We seem to live our lives in 4-dimensional scalar space-time, chiefly characterized by entropy and mortality. We dissect that space-time into infinitesimal regions which we call ‘I/me’ and ‘you/them’.

But what if we actually live in a 3-dimensional hologram? What if order is constantly increasing (“…these colors that we keep adding, what if they keep getting added on top of one another, until eventually we’re not even different colors anymore? We’re just one thing, one painting”)?

What if our so-called mortality is merely a precondition for the harmony that leads to a more complex and meaningful whole? What if ‘I/me’ and ‘you/them’ are just aspects of a more fundamental ‘we/us’?

This is precisely what This is Us is proposing. Proposing…but not proving. So which view of life is right, Kevin’s or ours? And really, how can we ever possibly know?

Now prepare to have your mind blown: It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter which is right or whether we can ever know for sure. In fact, these questions themselves may be meaningless.

The 4-dimensional scalar world we experience everyday may be telling us much more about the operation of our brains (or minds) than it tells us about the ultimate structure of reality. Stephen Hawking has proposed that the ‘arrow of time’, the ‘arrow of entropy’ and the ‘arrow of perception/memory’ may be one and the same arrow. If that’s true, then we can only experience the world the way we do. But that doesn’t mean that that is how the world really is.

So if everyday experience tells us nothing about how the world is deeply structured, how then do we find out what that structure really is? According to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, there may be no such ‘structure’ or, if there is, that structure may simply be unknowable.

According to Copenhagen, we naturally make models of reality (e.g. 4-dmensional scalar space-time, 3-dimensional holographic space-time, etc.) and each is ‘true’ precisely to the degree that it can successfully account for everyday experience. Logical Positivists (e.g. A.J. Ayer) go further: each is true precisely to the degree that it make predictions that could be falsified by experiment but that have not yet been falsified by experiment.

Over the past century, physicists and philosophers have been actively exploring the possibility that there may be ways to describe the world using something other than 4-dimensional space-time. In the course of these explorations, they’ve discovered that the same fundamental physical processes can be accurately modeled in many different space-times.

Conclusion: two (or more) different space-times can both be right, and if so, then we can say that they are ‘mathematically equivalent’ or complementary. For example, you can describe the laws of electromagnetism using 4 dimensions…or 5   (Kaluza-Klein). So which is right? Both are. So which is better? Well, the 5 dimensional model is much simpler and easier to use so, arguably at least, it is the ‘better’ model…even though it seems to conflict with our everyday experience of the world.

So which should we use? Either, but why not pick the model that is most aesthetically pleasing and most computationally useful?

Now apply this logic to our current dilemma. Should we choose a 4-dimensional scalar space-time to model our world? Or would a 3-dimensional holographic space-time work just as well? As long as the two models are mathematically equivalent, as long as they both model the data of everyday experience, the choice is ours: there is no right or wrong answer.

So which model would you prefer? One is based on isolation and entropy and leads us logically in the direction of solipsism and nihilism. The other is based on community and harmony and leads us logically in the direction of transcendence, meaning and eternal life.

You choose! Do you prefer to live in Macbeth’s world…or in Kevin? For at the end of the day, they are the same world.

#thisisus #aletheia #culture