The Eternal Turn

The turn of the intellect away from the world and toward eternity is a forecondition of informed and confident adult belief in orthodox Christian doctrine. Most theological confusions, and ergo most misprisions of doctrine, most doubts, most schisms, and most heresies, arise because it is so difficult for us to break the habit of thinking about theology in any but the mundane terms under which we live our daily lives. As we learn to reason under the aspect of eternity – a feat no more difficult in principle than reading English, a score, water, the sky, a proof, but nevertheless always somewhat tricky – the confusing fog of apparent paradoxes and contradictions slowly resolve into clarity.

When we begin thinking about God, we naturally treat him as supreme, to be sure, and unique, but nevertheless one being among many, as we are. And this notion is not after all wholly incorrect, for God does play a causal role in the world, not just as the theater, language, stage, director and author of its play, but as an actor; viz., the Incarnation, the manna of the Eucharist, the scriptures, the Church, and so forth. So it gets doubly confusing.

Things get much clearer when we realize that, while God is indeed a participant of our world – walks about in the Garden in the cool of the day, enjoys a meal of fish, olive oil, bread, and wine, gets killed, rises from the tomb and ascends into the sky, sits a throne in the New Jerusalem, comes riding on the clouds as King at the van of his Host Sabaoth, etc. – he is not bound by the world and its terms, but is rather himself the bound and engine and coherence thereof.

How do things get clearer if we turn to the perspective of eternity? Take for example the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In merely mundane terms, it is simply incomprehensible. The argument of the Catholic Church is that Mary was the first beneficiary of the Atonement, and so was conceived already reconciled to God. But in the order of time, Mary’s conception was over and done with by the time the Atonement got started. It would seem then that the Atonement could not have had any causal effect upon the character of Mary’s conception.

We forget that worldly things have their existence, character and meaning from God. He is prior to them, and to everything else. They are what they are by virtue of what they are to God; the order of their being is his. So their natures are constrained by him, but not vice versa.

The order of time – the temporal structure of this world, the events thereof and their causal relations – completely supervenes upon God. It precipitates out of him, as it were, and that all at once. So far as God is concerned, the Atonement and the Immaculate Conception – and all other events – happen now. Each of our nows is a participation in his now (this being the ontological basis of Advaita (a, “non” + dvaita, “dual”) Vedanta). He informs each such event in view of its role in the whole story of all the worlds. So each event bears the stamp of all events; in this is the causal coherence of the worlds. Thus since time eventuates in eternity, there is no contradiction involved in Christ’s Atonement of any events, where or when soever.

Jesus & Mary in Eden

Jesus & Mary in Eden

3 thoughts on “The Eternal Turn

  1. One thing that seems to be poorly understood with respect to temporal vs. eternal thinking is the notion of judgment for one’s sins. Is the entire life of the person judged as an eternal unity, or just the end state at the moment of death? Theology seems to lean towards the latter. But this logic runs into a limitation — e.g. I glanced at your earlier article, where you lean heavily on the logic of judgment-of-the-end-state (“if a piano falls on a fornicator’s head before he repents, he goes straight to Hell; but otherwise lust is a less dangerous sin than pride”) and end up grudgingly making an unpleasant conclusion — your logic leads you to have to say that the common strategy of “fool around in your impetuous youth, and then repent” is ‘not totally disconnected from reality’, whereas it is intuitively obvious that such thinking is not only wrong, but damnably wrong.

    It is obvious that there is something fundamentally wrong about the whole “sin, planning to later repent” idea, but I haven’t seen a good explanation of it. “Ontological diminution” is perhaps a first stab — if I become an alcoholic, I lose the ability to drink in moderation; and if I spend my youth in hedonic dissipation, I haven’t used it on any better thing. Thus there is simply less salvageable material in my life for God to form a complete person out of at the Last Judgment. But this sounds far too lenient relative to the common binary model of salvation vs. perdition — it is practically a universalism with respect to children, while perhaps simultaneously being a dire damnationalism for adults set in the ways of godless modernity.

    (The common binary model of salvation vs. perdition may in fact be inaccurate — even and perhaps especially as conveyed to us by the saints. How am I so audacious to postulate that the saints perceived this matter inaccurately? Well, they reckoned themselves foremost among sinners, and almost certainly expected to find themselves in Hell — at the very moment that, as we know, they were most beloved by God and incomparably further than anyone else in their spiritual advancement. So their perception was inaccurate in how they conveyed it according to human doctrines. But was their perception unimportant to their piety, or inaccurate in the spiritual essence? So perhaps they are in a situation that cannot be expressed in categories of linear time. The issue is certainly not with the saints, but with the philosophical categories that they have to communicate in.)

    From experience, I know that when I repent and experience a spiritual resurrection, I sever connection with my sinful state and enter into a moment which is connected more directly to earlier moments of my life, before I suffered that particular sin, whereas when I fall, I am plunged back into communion with the worst parts of my nature, and my story suddenly becomes a slide along a one-way slope, with the obvious and seemingly inescapable destination of Hell; and then the foremost challenge is to remember God and not to despair. CS Lewis expressed a similar notion in ‘Great Divorce’: when I am in Heaven, I was always in Heaven; when I am in Hell, I was always in Hell.

    In general, as I struggle against sin, my life begins to fracture into two such parts — which respectively have the potential to grow into a Heaven and a Hell in eternity, or can be likened to the ‘old man’ and ‘new man’ of the apostolic wisdom. Taken literally, there is a danger here of self-dissociation; I effectively split into two people, and tell myself that when I sin I literally become a different person. But at the same time, with respect to repentance, self-dissociation is to an extent the goal — I can’t renounce the external consequences of my sin, but the goal of repentance and spiritual renewal is to be able to face these consequences with the strength of someone who did not commit that sin. Therefore I must effectively become a different person from the one who committed the sin, to such an extent that, because I am a different person, the notion of being condemned for the (other-me, the ‘old man’) who committed the sin does not meaningfully apply, on the one hand; on the other hand it is a situation I cannot survive without humbling myself, because I am bearing the consequences of “someone else’s” sin — something that is intolerable to even a slightly prideful soul — and yet because all of this happens from a re-creation of my self which — looking at this way — it is obvious that it is impossible to deserve it by any merit of my own.

    Thus I can only understand it in parables, with good and evil growing in the same field for a time — and I am not the one able to sort them out in the end; or with the matter of the sower, who threw seeds everywhere, regardless of whether the soil was shallow or deep or rocky. Because I do not have discernment to tell the stony ground in my soul from the fertile ground, I must sow, sow, sow repentance, and not even look back to tell if it’s sprouting, because there is always more ground to cover, and I may not even have reached the fertile ground yet.

    Well, I suppose I’d have to flesh this picture out a bit. But it is what I find useful to encourage me to get up.

  2. Well, if salvation wasn’t digital, we couldn’t ever repent and accept it at *any* time, because the distance between even a tiny peccadillo and the perfect sanctity of the blessed is infinite, and we could never pass it. Thanks to Calvary, even the laborers who busy themselves in the vinyard for even a moment get a full day’s wages.

    That salvation is digital does not however mean that we shall be excused from a full and complete payment for and purgation of our sins. The reason to become a saint early in your career is that you minimize that payment!

    Sinning while planning to repent is damnable because sinning is damnable. Such bad faith is fundamentally wrong, and wrong-headed, because sin is fundamentally wrong and wrong-headed. Intending to repent is no use at all. Only actual repentance is any good. Has another moment passed in which you have said to God, “not yet”? Then you have said to God, yet again, “no.” The road to Hell is paved with “not yet.” Life everlasting is “now, Lord – here am I – send me.”

    Lukewarm is not hot. It is cold, and will be spewed forth. Let your yes be yes.

    Keep on sowing. Someday, if all works out, you’ll look back and see a mighty forest.

    Miserere mei dominus.

    By the way, the essay you link is Bonald’s.


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