Friday, January 11, 2013

The Vine

Today’s Gospel tells us that after Our Lord healed a certain leper, people talked.
The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.
– Luke 5:15

Again we are reminded that while the Incarnate God could and often did heal ailments afflicting the biological life of the body (bios), that wasn’t really the Problem of Evil that God came among us in human flesh to solve. Sin and death were. Christ came to give us life everlasting (zoe) through the conquest on His Cross of sin, and the consequent conquest by His Resurrection of the death that sin brought into the world of men.

This is the plainspoken Good News consistently proclaimed throughout the New Testament and the Patristic writings of the early Church. But why should we trust the witness of the early Church? What if right from the beginning, it was just some delusional cult?

Today’s first reading instructs us:

If we accept human testimony, the testimony of God is surely greater.
Now the testimony of God is this, that he has testified on behalf of his Son.
– 1 John 5:9

To be sure, if there is a good God, and if the Gospel is His testimony, then we should of course trust in His testimony; we should have faith. Assuming arguendo in this post that we have independent warrant from Aristotelian metaphysics for thinking that there is a good God, why should we assume that the Gospels are His testimony? Is the God of the philosophers the God of Israel? What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?

In today’s readings the Psalmist sings:

Glorify the LORD, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion.

He has proclaimed his word to Jacob, his statutes and his ordinances to Israel.
He has not done thus for any other nation; his ordinances he has not made known to them.

Psalm 147:12,19-20

God’s long intervention in the life of His people Israel may be adduced as warrant for the skeptics of the Areopagus to look to Jerusalem for Athens’ Unknown God. This will be less persuasive to the modern reader who thinks that Biblical archaeology has overthrown the Old Testament. But even assuming arguendo (again) in this already overlong post that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of classical theism, is this God of Israel also the Father of Jesus Christ? Prophetic foreshadowing of the Cross of Christ has been seen in the Old Testament from the Apostolic Age of the Church and ever since. Again, these will fail to impress many a modern.

Those denominations given to evangelizing door-to-door often have more success with the emotivist warrant claimed in today’s first reading:

Whoever believes in the Son of God has this testimony within himself.
– 1 John 5:10

And, indeed, the best proof of Christ is life along His Way, in His Truth, toward His Life. But, again, this will not persuade the skeptic to take Kierkegaard’s leap of faith.

So I ask us to return to today’s Gospel. If Aristotelian classical theism warrants belief in the omniscient, omnipotent, good God of the philosophers, then the agnostic worldview of Buddhism or Confucianism is incomplete without Him. And yet, in a world of sorrow, the classical theist is left with theodicy’s Problem of Evil.

The Hindu henotheist faces a similar problem, and concludes, so far as I know, that the sorrows of the individual are illusory, for the individual is really a spark of the dreaming God. The Abrahamic solution, the answer provided by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is that sin, not sorrow, is the true evil, and thus the evil we should expect God to concern himself with. And, indeed, in the Tanakh, in the New Testament, in the Qur’an, human conduct, not human pain, is the evil that the good God concerns Himself with. Does this mean that human pain is illusory, not a true evil, as in my potted pop Hinduism? No. Christ on the Cross is God in radical solidarity with our very real pain.

But if, as Augustine avers, human sorrow comes from human freedom exercised as sin, then sin is the root of sorrow, and the good God of Abraham is attacking symptomatic sorrow at its root. (Indeed, just as Melkor mixed his malice into the creation of Arda in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë, perhaps the prior sin of Lucifer lay long ago at the root of all the Darwinian cruelty and pain for nonhuman animal creation baked into the physics of our cosmos in the beginning.)

If this Abrahamic account is correct, then where and how should we expect God’s counterattack against the sins of Lucifer and Adam to be mounted? Today’s Psalm tells us to look to the God of Israel. But how might the God of Isaac and Israel be a blessing to the gentiles? Islam universalizes monotheism and law, opening the covenant of Abraham to every son of every Ishmael. If adoration of and obedience to God is enough to solve the problem, then this is a plausible solution.

But the very Aristotelian-Thomism that warrants my belief in the good God at all tells me that the problem goes deeper: that sin is a fundamental deformation of the relation of the form of the soul to the matter of the body. For this, mere spiritual submission (“Islam”) would seem insufficient: too Gnostic. Something organismic, something fleshly, feels needed. Why?

Following Flatland, let us try to think four-dimensionally about salvation: the redemption of living “spacetime worms.” To enable this, reduce space in your mind to two dimensions. Imagine that all the history of every galaxy in every instant could be laid flat like a Mercator map, with a single great sheet of paper standing for a complete Borgesian map of that moment. Bind these leaves into a book; lay the book flat upon a table. Kneel down beside the table and look up and down the spine of the book–with the first page of the book at the top, and the last at the bottom. Your eyes’ traverse widthwise along the spine is through the third, temporal, dimension. As the book passes from the first page to the last, each page is a moment in time. This book of the world is a kind of cosmic flipbook.

The first page of the book begins at the Big Bang with an infinitesimal dot. (Really, physics would say it should be an infinitesimal page, since spacetime is a unity, but we’ll let that pass). Flip forward a few billion years and hold up your magnifying glass to the tiny, tiny part of the page with the Earth on it. There is another dot. Let that dot be the first living cell. Turn the page.

The cell has been fruitful and multiplied; the little dot is a growing blot. Flip through the book. All over the world, there are cells. Single cells. Great towering green cities of cells: plants. Giant lumbering caravans of cells: animals. Look at the first animal, flattened on our two-dimensional projection of space. Every time that animal reproduces, the pictures of animals spread out from wherever their parents were.

Go grab some scissors and knives and glue. Go back to the page with only the first cell. Cut out that dot. On the next pages, cut out the spreading blot of cellurlar life. Paste it on top of the dot. Keep doing this on every page: cut out the all the parts of the page with organisms on them, and paste them directly on top of the ones you cut out from the prior page.

When you are done, you will have an upside-down cosmic flipbook that only maps the living world, with the evolutionary past’s first page at the bottom and the present at the top. Because life has expanded from a single cell across the face of the Earth, your new glued-shut flipbook will look not like a book, but like an unrooted family Tree of Life. At bottom will be a single cell, the keen point of an inverted cone of ever-expanding life. As you move up the conical trunk, you very soon will reach eras where life spread through spores on the wind, through discontinuous mats of algae being carried along by currents, through clouds of eggs in the sea, through legs ambling overland and the beating of wings. Because such ways of reproducing and moving about mean that, unlike that first tiny blob of reproducing cells, organisms are now separated by space, the top of your inverted cone will no longer be solid. Instead it will have myriad tendrils branching off whenever one organism lives separate in space from the others. As your eyes move up the Tree of Life you’ve made, it will therefore be constantly branching off. If it were really alive, it would look less like a thick-trunked tree, and more like a brambly bush burning with metabolic activity. From a four-dimensional perspective, then, all of life looks like a single shimmering superorganism.

Look closely at the small part of your tree, very near the top, where the evolutionary lineages of the primates curl their tendrils around each other in spacetime whenever men walked past monkeys in the brush. Find the slender stems of the hominid lines. Once, says a very old story, two of these hominids, Adam and Eve, received through special creation rational souls in addition to the sensitive and vegetative souls they shared with their ancestors and their tribal neighbors. They could do more than emote and engage in the primate politics of the troop. They were really free to choose adoration of God or idolatry of the self. They sinned.

From that fateful moment of rational freedom abused as sin, a stinking corruption spreads along the bough of the human branch of the Tree of Life. Perhaps it spreads, in some retrocausal way beyond our ken, backward down the bough as well, bringing death and physical pain with it to all the rest of the single organismic Tree, thus mixing into life from the beginning the malice of the the malevolent angel represented in our old tale as a serpent coiled cleverly round a branch.

The whole Tree is sick with pain and death; we humans reek of sin and sorrow. Something new must be grafted in. And so, the Lord who once appeared to Moses in the burning bush comes enfleshed to us, and this Incarnate Word declares Himself the Vine, and we the branches. Perhaps this Visitor from beyond our flatland sees a four-dimensional superorganism in need of an enlivening graft. How else but through serpents coiled round boughs, than the Vine and the branches, would you explain a four-dimensional rescue mission to ancient shepherds and fishermen? Would you teach them modern physics, or teach in parables? Which would be more likely to work? Which would be more relevant to your mission–teaching physics, or slaying sin in the hearts of your hearers?

If classical theism warrants belief in a good God, and Abrahamic theodicy leaves us looking for the will of Him Who spoke from the burning bush and declared himself the philosophers’ ground of Being, then it is to the Vine, in Whom we see fulfilled against the corrupting serpent coiled round the Tree of Life the figure of Moses upholding a different, brazen serpent upon a staff in the desert, like a Man upon a Cross amidst desolation, that we ought to look for a graft of zoe for the corruption that plagues our mortal bios. And how might this Bread of Life, this Wine from a new Vine, be transmitted into us, that we may take our place as part of the new superorganism, the healed bough upon the tree of life? Are mere words of belief upon His Name to be enough, a sort of Calvinist recapitulation of the Gnostic heresy of Islam that says that mere spiritual submission suffices? No.

We should expect the graft to be organic–even superorganic. Our first reading tells us:

So there are three who testify, the Spirit, the water, and the Blood, and the three are of one accord.
Yes, we need the fiery breath of the Spirit. But we need, too, to be united into the new life of the enfleshed God, the sacramental waters of baptism, and the wine of His Precious Blood received with the Bread of His Body at the Holy Eucharist. The miracle of transubstantiation allows us to really physically partake of His Body and Blood, to really be engrafted into the new superorganism. Once this has happened, then Christ really will, if you let Him, slowly and subtly begin to witness the heart that it is He Who speaks through the Gospel. Taste and see. The proof is in the partaking.

1 comment:

  1. Thomas,I have read nearly all of your posts from this month, and I have to say that this is, by far, my favorite. The imagery is so intricate. It had me spellbound and completely absorbed. I could envision this tree of life twisting and turning,strangled by sin. Then brought back to life anew with the hope and promise of our Lord; branching forth,bearing fruit and vitality. I was completely enthralled and inspired by your exquisite writing and zeal. Thank you for sharing this with me. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, tonight and always. Good night dear brother. I love you and your magnificent brain.