WHY WE HAVE NO CLUE

A 5 year old grandson of mine explained the difference between immortality and eternity in a way that would have made Augustine of Hippo cry. Three years later he pointed out a natural model for the Holy Trinity that made St. Patrick’s shamrock look, well, childish.

A 7 year old granddaughter rejected the notion of temporal symmetry concluding that living in the present is always and under all circumstances better than having lived in the past, and a 3 year old granddaughter made a model car out of playdough and couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t start.

Kids get it; adults…not so much!

How come? We’re too ‘smart’. We know too much. Sadly, we have learned to view the world, not through the ‘unenlightened’ eyes of childhood but with the ‘pseudo-enlightened’ vision that passes for adulthood in our society.

Recall Jesus words in the Gospel of Matthew: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” (11:25)

Ironically, the more educated we become, the more we master the arts of language, mathematics and logic, the further away we get from an accurate vision of our world; the less we actually understand!

No, this is not a grand conspiracy foisted on us by the government or by the educational establishment. Rather, we are victims of our own success. Using the contemporary tools of communication, calculation and reason, we have subjected vast swaths of the world to our collective will. And we like that. And we reap copious rewards from it.

But the better we are able to control the world, the less we actually comprehend it. (Perhaps this is a new version of Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle!) We have satisfied our desire for power and wealth…but at the expense of truth.

Let’s begin with language. The syntax of most modern languages conditions us to understand an event as a one way flow of energy, an ‘action’, a ‘vector’: Billy hit Joey (active voice) or Billy was hit by Joey (passive voice); same event. two different voices.

Of course, on some levels we know that this is at best an oversimplification of a much more complex process. Most likely, the real ‘event’ here is a complex web of social interactions involving Joey and Billy and perhaps others but we continue to resort to the oversimplified active/passive voice because it’s easy…and because it’s practical: we need to punish someone!

Two recent books and subsequent TV series, The Slap and Big Little Lies, make this point brilliantly. These stories are entertaining but they may also help us understand that an event is more a matrix than a vector.

But we don’t need to rely on contemporary TV shows to understand this point. 430 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton wrote: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” It’s his Third Law of Motion. Of course, he was speaking about mechanics, but we all know that the same principle applies where human actions are concerned.

We sometimes call it ‘karma’. Crudely defined: what we do to others can come back and bite us in the a**; more colloquially, ‘what goes around comes around’.

Judeo-Christian morality states the concept less crudely:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” (On some level you are your neighbor.)

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

“It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” (St. Francis of Assisi)

“Blessed (happy) are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”

Actions flow at least two ways. We are as much objects of our actions as we are subjects.

Anaximander, the father of Western philosophy, expressed a similar insight. To paraphrase: “You come to be what you are coming to be by letting others come to be what they are coming to be”. Empowering others is the ultimate act of self-creation. Let go…and become!

Interestingly enough, there once was a third voice in many languages, called the ‘middle voice’, that carried with it this idea of reciprocity. The middle voice captured the reality that subjects are also objects of their actions. Unfortunately, this crucial way of describing reality has vanished from most modern tongues. In the few languages that retain it (e.g. Icelandic), it has generally degenerated into a weak form of the passive voice.

Contemporary language is not the only obstacle to our recognizing truth. Arithmetic is another culprit. One of a child’s first intellectual achievements is learning to count: “One, two, five, ten, seven…” Over time, the sequencing of numbers becomes more accurate and eventually the child comes to understand that counting is an infinite linear process that proceeds by uniform intervals from the fewer to the more numerous.

Except that’s not true. Or at least it’s not always true. Consider Modular Arithmetic : 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 (or 0), 1, 2… Now counting is circular, not linear. It’s the face of a clock.

Later on, the child learns the properties of arithmetic: The Commutative Property, the Associative Property, the Distributive Property and the Transitive Property, for example. All of these ‘properties’ reinforce the idea that the world is governed by linear regularities.

Consider just the Transitive Property for inequalities. If x > y and y > z, then x > z. Seems logical, doesn’t it? But it isn’t! Consider a game of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’: P > R and R > S but S > P. In real life, values are not always arrayed linearly; sometimes relative value is context specific.

This same thought habit spills over to logic (including geometry). If C is in B (physically or as a subset) and B is in A, then C must be in A (and A certainly cannot be in C).

Yet Judeo-Christian scripture is full of propositions that violate this basic principle of Euclidean geometry and Elementary Set Theory.

John quotes Jesus as saying: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (Jn. 6: 56)

The entire doctrine of Eucharist, in fact, rests on this point. When we ingest the body and blood of Christ, we incorporate his body and blood into our own; but simultaneously, we are incorporated into his ‘mystical body’, i.e. into him: A is in B and B is in C but C is in A.

In the Gospel of John alone we read:

“…The Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (10: 38) See also 14: 10-11.

“…I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you.” (14: 20)

“…Remain in me, as I remain in you…Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.” (15: 4, 5)

So where does this leave us? If we believe that Elementary Set Theory is absolutely and universally true and not just a useful, limited approximation of the truth, then we must reject all of this ‘nonsense’ outright. We may either label it ‘false’ (like Existentialists) or ‘meaningless’ (like Analytics) but we cannot rationally label it ‘true’ (like Christians).

Language, mathematics, logic – is there a way that we can summarize the disconnect between the world as it is and our post-Enlightenment understanding of it? For that I think we need to turn to topology for an analogy.

When we think of a space, we almost always think of the kind of space that is called ‘orientable’. A piece of paper has two sides, not one. A container has an inside and an outside. When you seal it, liquid stays in (or out) but not both. If you build a wall (whether in Berlin or on the Rio Grande), it is either to keep people in or out…it is NOT to bring them together. Within any orientable space, it is possible to segment that space, to create semi-autonomous regions that correspond to discrete objects and events.

But there is another type of space, not surprisingly known as ‘non-orientable’, with radically different properties. In a non-orientable space, a piece of paper will have only one side, a ‘container’ will not have an inside or outside, nor will it hold water, and a wall will ensure that the people on both sides co-mingle.

Wild! But do such non-orientable spaces actually exist? Yes. Are they difficult to create? No. Any 8 year old can do it! Am I joking? Absolutely not!

Take a strip of paper, say 2 inches wide and 24 inches long. Bend the strip so that the edges come together to form a cylinder. Got it? Now if you scotch tape the two edges together in this way, you will have created a very simple example of an orientable space (or surface). The paper has two sides, the inside stays ‘in’ and the outside stays ‘out (forgetting for now about the ‘holes’ at the top and bottom).

Yes, but we don’t want an orientable space; we want a non-orientable space. How do we make THAT?

Very simple: when you bring the edges together, before you join them, rotate one edge 180 degrees so that the bottom of that edge is now aligned with the top of the other edge. Now scotch tape them together! Voila, you have created a non-orientable surface (or space).

The paper only has one side and there’s no inside or outside. It won’t keep anything in…or out. (It’s called a Mobius Strip.)

Ok, way cool, but so what? Imagine you’re a tiny creature, perhaps an ant, walking anywhere along the surface of this strip. You walk and walk. As far as you’re concerned this surface is like every other surface you’ve ever walked on. As far as you’re concerned, you’re walking on an orientable surface…but of course you’re not.

Now imagine you’re a human. Imagine? Sure, bots are welcome to play…as are other animals. It seems like you’re walking through an orientable space…but what if you’re not?

The properties of reality that we associate with spirituality are much more closely aligned with the properties of non-orientable spaces than orientable spaces.

Consider this passage from the Gospel of Matthew: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.” (10: 32-33)

Heaven and Earth are not irreconcilably separate realms. The Incarnation acts like the twist in the Mobius Strip. It means that what happens in one realm happens in both. “On earth as it is in heaven”. The surface has only one side, not two.  Life is both temporal and eternal.

Young children are not yet enslaved by the linearity of language, arithmetic and logic. They are not yet high priests of pragmatism. Blessed to be a grandparent many times over, I have learned that children are more likely to think in patterns and thereby grasp with relative ease concepts that are counter-intuitive for adults.

In the real world, linearity is at best a ‘special case’ of reality, at worst just a ‘useful’ abstraction. Thinking that linearity is all there is prevents us from understanding, or even seeing, what’s actually happening.  As a result, we accept the recently formed tenets of engineering as dogma and reject utterly the millennia-old insights of revelation, theology and spirituality. Confronted with real life, we have no clue…and that’s why!

2000 years ago, St. Paul already saw the problem. He wrote, “Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12: 2)

We don’t just need to learn new facts; we need to learn to see and think in totally different ways. We need to think less like modern adults and more like children!

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SAINT SARTRE?

Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist philosopher prolific from 1938 to 1980, is not often linked with Leo XIII, Pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 1878 to 1903. Yet both men paid a great deal of attention to the concept of freedom and their ideas, as we shall see, have remarkable and important synergy.

Let’s begin with Leo. His pontificate occurred in the early days of the modern era of unbridled permissiveness. The cult of ‘freedom’ was rapidly replacing the practice of ‘morality’ as the foundation of Western civilization.

To young people in particular, morality was associated with rules laid down by parents, teachers, politicians and priests – rules that were enforced selectively…and often brutally.

To many, freedom meant finally being able to do whatever you wanted to do without fear of consequences. In the 1960s, for example, we were fond of saying, “If it feels good, do it.” And many of us did just that; and many of us became sick, maimed, addicted or dead. Turns out, there were consequences after all.

Nor were all the implications of our actions merely personal. Our behavior had consequences (good as well as bad) for folks around us, for folks who loved us, and for society as a whole. Even if social laws are relaxed or suspended entirely, natural law is harder to repeal.

Leo understood that what was passing for freedom in his day was often just a form of selfish indulgence. Consider, again, the 1960s in the U.S. Under the banner of ‘freedom’, folks worked for civil rights, international peace and economic justice; under the very same banner, folks (sometimes the same folks) eschewed work, abused drugs and alcohol and engaged in uncommitted sex for its own sake.

Freedom is not just ‘freedom from’ (constraint); true freedom is also ‘freedom to’ (create). Nor is free behavior to be confused with random behavior. Consider the Brownian motion of molecules: it is totally ‘unconstrained’…but it is certainly not ‘free’. In fact, it is the antithesis of freedom. Randomness undermines free will just as surely as does determinism.

(This insight gives us a glimpse into the unique ontological character of freedom. We’ll talk more about this when we get to M. Sartre. Suffice for now to note that indeterminism is the opposite of determinism but BOTH are opposites of freedom. In this case at least the enemy of my enemy is not my friend.)

Freedom is a function of ‘will’ and will is always a will to create. That’s what will is. It is will that empowers human beings (and perhaps other entities) to formulate projects and carry them out. Will requires the freedom to execute a project once conceived; but it also requires the capacity and inclination to formulate the project itself.

The essential element of ‘will’ that allows us to formulate projects is a set of ideal values, freely chosen, that we use…

  • To evaluate the current state of our world.
  • To conceive and evaluate potential projects to bring that current state into closer harmony with those values.

To whatever extent our ‘ideal values’ are imposed on us or our ‘choice of projects’ is dictated to us, our subsequent actions are not a function of will. By the same token, if either our values or our project are selected randomly, then our actions are not a function of will either.

Will requires freedom; in fact freedom is the essence of will. The famous phrase ‘free will’ contains a redundancy. Freedom is only operative in the context of will and will only exists in the context of freedom. They are the same thing seen from different angles.

When will, motivated by our ideal values, commits to some project, we implicitly designate that project as ‘good’. (‘Good’ is synonymous with ‘our set of ideal values’.)

In doing so, we identify something outside ourselves as ‘good’ and when we designate something outside ourselves as ‘good’, we affirm the reality of an objective, transcendent Good that qualifies our project as ‘good’. In turn, of course, we affirm that our values are both objective and transcendent.

A value is objective when it applies always and everywhere in every relevant situation. It is objective when its validity is not subject to personal opinion or cultural variation. Of course, the interpretation and application of a value will vary widely from person to person, culture to culture and situation to situation. But the value itself never varies.

Example: every work of art aims to be beautiful. Beauty is a core value involved in the creation and appreciation of art. However, different artists and different cultures understand beauty in radically different ways. Furthermore, what is beautiful in one context might be much less so in another. But the value itself, beauty, never varies and never waivers! Without the value known as ‘beauty’ there is no art.

Likewise, a value is transcendent when it is not derived from anything in this world…or in any possible world. A value has its status a priori. In that sense, a value exists (logically at least) before the world exists. Even if there were no world(s), justice would still be justice.

Stated differently, it is impossible to imagine a world where ‘justice’ is not a value. It may be ignored, perverted or even rejected but the value itself never goes away. A society that ignores or rejects justice is simply…’wrong’.

It is time to let Leo speak for himself:

“Liberty is a power perfecting man, and hence should have truth and goodness for its object.” Immortale Dei (ID)

For Leo, ‘truth and goodness’ (in the person of God) is the summum bonum.

“…The supreme end to which human liberty must aspire is God.”  Human Liberty (HL)

Freedom “…is to be regarded as legitimate in so far only as it affords greater facility for doing good…” (HL)

This controversial and counter-intuitive proposition should be understood as a tautology. The fact that it is not read that way is grand testimony to the crisis of intellectual life in contemporary Western society.

Freedom is the opposite of slavery. When we choose a project that is ‘sub-optimal’, we are giving in to some compulsion (biological, psychological or social).

“…To exchange the unchangeable good for evil…is not liberty but its degradation, and the abject submission of the soul to sin.” (HL)

“…The possibility of sinning is not freedom, but slavery…Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin. (John 8:34)” (HL)

So here we are, like little boys, imagining that when we are the naughtiest we are the most free. In fact, the reverse is true. How incredibly distorted our view of reality has become!

As Immanuel Kant wrote earlier, “…A free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same.”

Earlier still, the Psalmist began the Book of Psalms: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather the law of the Lord is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night.”

Jean-Paul Sartre approaches the question of ‘freedom’ from a diametrically opposed point on the ideological spectrum. He denies the existence of God and, perhaps ‘worse’, states (like Lucretius) that even if God did exist, he wouldn’t be relevant. Like Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ayer and Wittgenstein before him, Sartre rejects outright even the possibility of objective, transcendent values.

Without God, “there could no longer be any a priori good, since there would be no infinite and perfect consciousness to conceive it… (If) God does not exist, we will encounter no values…that can legitimize our conduct.” Existentialism is a Humanism (EH)

Even so, Sartre recognizes that life without values is impossible. In so doing, he accepts a major part of the Leonine thesis (summarized above). According to Sartre, if there is no God to source our values, then it is incumbent on us to invent them.

This view offers us an important glimpse into Sartre’s ontology. As we shall see later, for Sartre human beings take on many of the functions reserved for God in other cosmologies. But let’s return to the subject of values:

“…If I have eliminated God the Father, there has to be someone to invent values…To say that we invent values means neither more nor less than this: life has no meaning a priori. Life is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning we give it.” (EH)

Brave talk! But this is little more than what young boys (and now girls) do when they play Cowboys and Indians (sorry, Cowboys and Native Americans) or Pirates. They invent rules and establish values and act accordingly; at the time they are felt in earnest but all is erased when mom calls, “Dinner!”

Their rules have no objective validity and their values have no transcendent worth. They are ‘made up’ and they remain operative only so long as their ‘play’ continues. (How long will our ‘play’ continue?) One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Tempest:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air; and—like the baseless fabric of this vision— the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

However, to his great credit Sartre avoids the trap of moral nihilism that doomed Nietzsche, Camus, Ayer, and others. He finds a very clever way out. Sartre discovers another sort of value in ‘freedom’ itself.

Earlier we noticed that ‘freedom’ has a unique property: it is the antithesis both of determinism and of indeterminism, even though they are antitheses of each other. How is this possible?

In Sartre’s ontology, freedom is closely related to le neant, negation. Freedom negates both determinism and randomness (both entre en soi). In doing so, it demonstrates that the determined and the random are fundamentally identical. They both characterize a world devoid of purpose, choice, etc… Morally, it makes no difference whether events are determined or random; either way they are meaningless.

According to Sartre, unique among the categories of existence, the concept of freedom entails its own value. This is eerily reminiscent of the ontological argument for the existence of God, according to which the concept of God entails the existence of God.

But Sartre’s view raises questions:

If freedom is a value in itself, from whence does it derive that value? After all, freedom per se (and by definition) has no content; it is merely ‘freedom’.

Not so, says Sartre: “Freedom, under any concrete circumstance, can have no other aim but itself…(man) can will but one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values…The ultimate significance of the actions of men of good faith is the quest for freedom itself.” (EH)

Let’s unpack this: Is freedom “the foundation of all values”? Yes…and no. Values would have no relevance in our world if we lacked the freedom to adopt those values and to formulate and execute (to the best of our abilities) projects that embody those values.

On the other hand, freedom cannot be “the foundation of all values” per se. Those values must have a reality beyond freedom itself. Freedom wouldn’t be freedom if values were hard-wired into it or if it merely empowered us to adopt values randomly. (As we saw above, pre-determined values and randomly selected values are morally and functionally the same.)

Earlier we observed that freedom empowers ‘will’ and is its essence. Now it is time to turn the tables: without will, freedom is meaningless. But will must be directed at something outside itself. A will that merely wills itself (freedom) is circular and vacuous.

That ‘something outside itself’ must possess intrinsic worth if it is to stimulate the will to act. (Why else would will undertake action?) That worth must be a function of values embodied in a freely chosen end, values that are objective and transcendent.

Let’s restate: Will operates only in the context of purpose (end). To will some ‘end’ is to endow that end with value. It is the values embodied in that end that give it worth; and it is those values and that end that give worth to will itself and therefore to freedom, which is its essence.

The sum of all projects freely chosen by the will because of their intrinsic value constitutes the worth of ‘will’ per se and therefore the value of freedom that empowers will.

“Man is free. Man is freedom……Man is nothing other than his own projects.” (EH)

Wow! Humanity is not only ‘free’, humanity IS freedom; and yet that freedom is simply the sum of the freely chosen projects will empowers us to undertake. But as we saw earlier, projects imply choice and choice implies value.

Traditionally, God is understood to be supremely free and, in some formulations at least, freedom itself. Sartre preserves this ontological structure but puts humanity in the place of Godhead. But he doesn’t stop there:

“There is no difference between free being – being as project, being as existence choosing its own essence – and absolute being.” (EH)

Again, God is traditionally understood to be ‘absolute being’, sometimes referred to as ‘the ground of all being’. Again, man plays the role of God in Sartre’s ontology and man plays it qua freedom.

Finally, Sartre defines God as the entity whose essence precedes its essence; he defines humanity as the entity whose existence precedes its essence. Nicely said! But Sartre misses two key points:

First, in God essence and existence are one.

As Leo XIII wrote, “…The infinitely perfect God, although supremely free…nevertheless cannot choose evil.” (HL)

God gets it…always and perfectly! God’s perfection does not compromise God’s freedom. Sartre misses this. For him, God is hard wired. He is not a free being who chooses good unfailingly; he is a being whose essence defines him as good and robs him of the freedom to choose. If that were true, perhaps God would indeed be irrelevant…but it is not!

What makes God good, supremely good, is that God freely chooses to embody the objective and transcendent values from which all worth is derived.

Second, “God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. (Genesis: 1:26)

God and human beings do not form a template as Sartre beautifully imagined. Rather human beings and God share a common ontological nature: freedom. We are co-creators.

Of course, there is a difference; but it is a difference of degree, not of kind. Remember Kant: “…A free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same,” and Leo: “…The supreme end to which human liberty must aspire is God.” (HL)

Freedom is the ever new, infinitely active power to choose the eternal and unchangeable ‘good’.

In popular consciousness, Leo is viewed as the arch-enemy of freedom (as it is commonly conceived); Sartre, on the other hand, is viewed as its champion. Yet Sartre’s ideology of ‘freedom’ leads away from the moral nihilism of Nietzsche, Ayer and Camus and back to objective, transcendent values a la Leo. Two great men whose views are diametrically opposed? Or not!

 

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PSALM 22

There are 64 books in the New American edition of the Holy Bible. One of these books is Psalms. The Book of Psalms consists of 150 psalms of which Psalm 22 is one. Yet this one psalm is a thorough presentation of Judeo-Christian spirituality and, by extension, theology.

The Book of Psalms is first and foremost a book of prayer. Catholic Christians especially are fond of saying lex orandi, lex credendi. Very loosely translated, this means that how we pray ultimately determines what we believe.

Logically, we might imagine that we would first develop a creed (via reason or revelation) and then fashion a prayer life based on that creed. This is certainly how an artificial intelligence would proceed.

But not us! We are human beings, not computing machines. We always begin from our experience of ourselves in the world (facticity) and it is that experience that leads first to prayer and only later to belief. There is no better example of this process than Psalm 22, excerpted below:

I

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day but you do not answer: by night, but I have no relief.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the glory of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted and you rescued them…

But I am a worm, not a man, scorned by men, despised by the people…

Since my mother bore me you are my God. Do not stay far from me, for trouble is near, and there is no one (else?) to help.

II

My life drains away; all my bones are disjointed…Dogs surround me; a pack of evildoers closes in on me. They have pierced by hands and my feet; I can count all my bones. They stare at me and gloat; they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.

But you, Lord, do not stay far off; my strength come quickly to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the grip of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth, my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.

III

Then I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the assembly I will praise you. You who fear the Lord give praise…For he has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me but heard me when I cried out. I will offer praise in the great assembly; my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him. The poor will eat their fill.

IV

All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of nations will bow down before him. For kingship belong to the Lord, the ruler over the nations. All who sleep in the earth will bow down before God; all who have gone down into the dust will kneel in homage. And I will live for the Lord; my descendants will serve you. The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.

Psalm 22 begins with the Psalmist in the throes of an existential crisis. St. John of the Cross referred to this as “the dark night of the soul”. Where is God? (How often have we all asked THAT question?)

The Psalmist does not doubt the existence of God. He knows that God heeded the cries of his ancestors and rescued them. Why then is He not heeding my cries? Why is he not rescuing me?

Since God is not fickle, the Psalmist comes to the only possible conclusion: he himself must not be a human being, at least not in the way that his ancestors were.

Psalm 8 asks, “What is man that you (God) are mindful of him?” If God is not mindful of me, it can only be because he doesn’t care about me; and if God doesn’t care about me, it can only be because I am not a ‘man’, worthy of his care and attention. Whose fault is that? Mine, obviously!

Some philosophers deny the existence of God. Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and others proclaim his death. But the plight of someone who believes that God exists but doesn’t care about him seems much worse. I am unlovable, I do not deserve to exist in God’s world.

Yet the Psalmist cannot turn his back on this cruel, disinterested, absent God. He has believed in God from birth and, of course, there is no one else to turn to. The Psalmist hurls his prayer into the void, despairing of being heard…or hearing.

From ontological annihilation, the psalm turns to physical annihilation: death. The Psalmist does not sugar coat it. He expects a horrible death in which his body will be mutilated and all his ‘works’ destroyed. This vision of death goes beyond mere mortality; our Psalmist imagines that his very existence will be erased from the face of the earth.

Still, he cannot turn his back on God. (One is reminded of Job.) He is without hope, yet he clings to hope. (One is reminded of Abraham.)

And his ‘faith’ is rewarded; he is rescued after all. But it is important to realize that his faith is not a Sunday school faith. The Psalmist accepts that God has rejected him; he despairs. He clings to God merely because he has nowhere else to turn.

But God does hear…and intervenes. Now his horrible lament gives way to enthusiastic praise and he caps that praise with acts of social justice.

Then begins the eschatological phase of the psalm. At the outset God was spiritually and physically absent from the world; now the world lives only for God. Not only are ‘all the ends of the earth’ and ‘all the families of nations’ turned to God but also ‘all who have gone down into the dust’ and ‘people yet unborn’.

God’s eschaton binds the entire universe, past, present and future into one eternal moment of love and praise.

Finally and most importantly, the Psalmist declares, “I will live for the Lord.” The eschaton is realized one soul at a time.

As prayer (orandi), Psalm 22 spans the gamut of possible human experience. It moves from a recognition of ontological nothingness, through fear of death, into celebration and thanksgiving and finally into all-consuming and eternal love. Wow! Can’t wait for the movie!

What can we learn from this prayer (orandi) about our faith (credendi)? First, ours is not an incremental faith. God does not gradually infuse himself into our world; he does so suddenly (at the moments of creation and Incarnation, for example). God created the world and the world subsists in God; yet God is incarnate in Christ and subsists in the world.

Second, ours is not a compartmentalized faith. It is all or nothing. We cannot hang God on a wall or put him on a shelf; we cannot spend a few hours with him and take care of our other concerns the rest of the time.

As ‘nothing’ and without hope, the Psalmist nevertheless cried out to God; and when God, answered him, he began to “live for the Lord”. In the end the entire universe lives for the Lord; all the ends of the earth, all the families of nations, all people who ever lived, are living, or ever will live live for the Lord.  And living for the Lord is not a part time job; it is an all consuming vocation!

 

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