Sunday, April 1, 2012

Repetition and reaching for the Infinite

I don’t know why I even try to write.  Some smart-aleck kid like Marc Barnes shows up, slams out a witty, whimsical and insightful piece like “Christopher Hitchens and Groaning During Sex”, and blows everyone else out of the bathtub.  It’s like trying to run old Dobbin the plowhorse against Seabiscuit.

Oh well, God is good.

You really have to read the whole thing to get Marc’s flavor.  But here’s a sample bite:

Think about it: If you gaze on the face of your lover again and again, you dive into her infinite worth.  No one would say, “Alright, I’ve got it!  You’re a 9!  No more and no less!”  No, the cliché “words cannot express how beautiful you are” is simply a statement of fact: Who can express the infinite?  So your gaze becomes a ritual, you gaze again and again.
Or returning again and again to a truly beautiful piece of music — again you dive.  For who among you can imagine saying, “I’ve discovered all Mozart’s Requiem has to offer!”?  No, it’s precisely in feeling we could never discover everything a piece has to offer that we feel fulfilled.  Ritual — the again and again — unveils the infinite.

Of course, since the point of the post is to demonstrate how Hitchens didn’t quite “get” so many Christian concepts, it was inevitable that one of Hitch’s disciples would write in to claim that Marc didn’t “get” Hitch — and unintentionally prove Marc right.

The thing that [Hitchens] finds so abhorrent about the literal Christian heaven is being forced to do something that he does not want to do (worship God) for all of eternity.  The key component here is the part about being forced to do something against his will.  The earthly dictatorships he mentions in the video have done this to their people, but this torment is limited by mortality. He argues that the heavenly dictatorship would be worse because only it has the power to force its inhabitants to worship for all of eternity [bold font mine.—TL].

Such a point would be all too valid if — let me stress that again, if — it were any part of Christian orthodoxy that people get dragged into heaven willy-nilly.  That isn’t Christian doctrine, though; the only people who go to Heaven are those who want to spend eternity praising and worshipping the Lord.

Of course, the opportunity cost of refusing Heaven is going to Hell.  Free will is a bitch, ain’t it?

Marc wasn’t writing about final justice and people getting what they deserve, but rather about erotic love as an experience of transcendence and ritual as revelation.  And this is where I think he and the atheist both got tangled — the equation of repetition with monotony.

First, let me make the metaphysical point: Heaven and Hell are outside of space-time.  Therefore, we would experience nothing in series; whatever we would experience, we would get at once and without sense of either waxing or waning.  The praise and worship of God would be one unceasing action; we would never get the sensation that we were doing it over and over again or that it was (to speak loosely) going on a bit long; in a sense, the moment would be frozen.  The same is to be said for the pains of Hell … except the less said the better.  Monotony would be hardly the word to describe it.

Monotony is the boredom associated with repetition and lack of variety.  One of Marc’s readers quotes a passage in G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.  But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.  It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.  It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.[1]

How can anyone, whether God or child, “exult in monotony”?  It’s as much an oxymoronic idea as being invigorated by lassitude or rejoicing in despair.  Perhaps the meaning of monotony has changed in the century since Orthodoxy was first published; in any event, I can see our atheist’s point when he accuses Marc of self-contradiction.

And yet, repetition is not necessarily monotonous.  Certainly sex for many couples isn’t monotonous even if they follow the same patterns every time.  Differences still creep in: the time, the place, the history before, the feelings now — even the actors themselves are different.  And each instance calls up feelings and experiences that are both similar and different even though they’re brought to fruition in much the same manner as they were in previous iterations.

But is it truly a reach for the infinite?  It all depends on what you bring into the encounter. 

Our atheist says, “I do not view sex as an attempt at infinite joy, nor do I grasp the infinite during the act.  While it is almost always a very enjoyable experience, I would never deny its limited nature.”  Nor would I deny its limited nature; by definition Man’s ability to grasp the transcendent is limited, otherwise it wouldn’t be transcendent.  Man is built in the image of God (Gen 1:27) … but an image is all he is.

But because Stevie Wonder has never seen the stars at night, it doesn’t follow that they’re illusions.  Some people can perceive the transcendent no more than some can understand basic mechanics, or comprehend advanced mathematical concepts, or plumb the depths of a poem, or see the artist’s message in a painting. Our atheist’s inability to grasp the infinite during sex (unfortunately) says far more about him than it does about the quality of Marc’s insight.

The difference between the addict and the mystic is that, for the addict, the experience is “all about me”, the physical and emotional stimulation s/he gets out of the sex act.  That is what’s limited; that is what leads the addict to say, “Is that all there is to this?”, and seek out new, more dangerous ways to get the thrill back.  For the mystic, the experience is all about the Other — the wonder, the danger, the fear and the passion, the hidden things that come to light and bring new revelations which lead the mystic to say, “You mean there’s more to this?”  An inner eye is either open or shut to the Immanent.

For while Heaven is a promise of a final accounting for how we’ve spent our lives, in a sense this is so only as a secondary function related to its real purpose — final union with God in reciprocal love.  In that sense, all our moral choices flow from our decision to either desire or not desire that union, a decision God allows us to make without compulsion — but not without consequence.

It’s also in this sense that no one can deserve Heaven.  We aren’t owed Paradise as a reward for having grudgingly phoned in a nominally good life; it’s not a celestial vacation resort where one can spend a lazy eternity sipping mojitos and grabbing some angel tail.  Heaven isn’t so much a place as it is that final realization of immanent union with God, which will rectify and justify all which came before: “‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

But those who don’t wish such a consummation don’t have to go.  Choices have consequences, and not all the evil that befalls a person in his lifetime is undeserved.  Life can be unfair — but it can be terribly, horribly fair as well, had we the wisdom to perceive it.

“There are only two kinds of people in the end,” George MacDonald tells the narrator in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, “those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”[2]  To those who say, “I want Heaven my way or not at all!”, God gently replies, “I hope you change your mind, because you won’t get it your way.”

It’s out of love that we wish Heaven for good people, even those whose goodness is phoned in.  It’s also out of Love that people don’t enter Paradise against their will.  You should never demand of God what you deserve, because you might just get it.

[1] Chesterton, G. K. (1908).  Orthodoxy.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, pp. 65-66; bold font mine.  Also available on Wikisource:
[2] Lewis, C. S. (1946).  The Great Divorce.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 75.