Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Last Things and the Modern Age: Reflections on Re-Visiting the Alma Mater

Psychoanalyzing one's theology can be illuminating.

There are days that I wonder if Freud and certain other modern atheist psychologists were on to something. Some have followed the trend of reducing man's religious impulse to naturalistic explanations - often some sort of unmet emotional needs, or at least contending that they develop to as serve some other practical purpose for individuals and/or societies. There are days that I might seem like one suffering from a religious neurosis. There are days that I am quite ironically aware that my theological tendencies or opinions can often form under the need to comfort myself, or in order to fulfill feed some psychological deficiency. 

This is perhaps especially true of the direction my thoughts often turn as I consider the eschaton; that is, my thoughts on the last things, the end of the world, and the nature of the Kingdom of God.

The modern world, as many have noted, is hyper-mobile. In pre-modern societies, it was common that an average individual would spend their entire life in a single community. Their relationships, significance, and identity all revolved around and existed in this one place that remained in some comparatively significant degree, intact. In the modern world, we are constantly in motion. Alvin Toffler writes brilliantly about this in Future Shock, in which he considers the consequences of the hyper-mobility of the modern age: relationships are always transient, identity is constantly fluid and infinitely reconstructable because we are constantly moving from one place to another and so is everyone around us, etc. We're constantly coming together and breaking apart, and expecting most things in our life to be temporary. We guard ourselves against intimacy, rootedness, or having a solid identity. 

I don't like this arrangement very much. I hate change. I hate goodbyes. I hate transience. These can be relatively normal and expected feelings of mine. I don't think this hyper-mobility is terribly healthy or quite 'natural,' and to be discontented with it is understandable.  On the other hand, however, this situation is somewhat unavoidable and must be adapted to in some meaningful way. And living in fear of or constantly at war against change is harmful (and always has been). I am self-aware enough to realize that my disdain of change can go too far, and that I can have real attachment issues by which I can cling too tightly to the past. 

and sometimes my psyche and all its deficiencies, I nowadays quite readily acknowledge, likes to play with my theology. 

I am currently visiting my alma mater, one year after my graduation. On this visit, I watched yet another graduation take place. Watching other friends graduate and see them gearing up to spread around the world and see the end of their temporary time together was painful in and of itself; both via empathy and because many of them are my friends. They have been many miles away from me throughout this year, of course, but having them all here in one place was comforting, with some notion in the back of my mind that back there things are continuing on in some sense like they used to (read: as I had lived it). But more than this, it was even more painful to watch and see it serve as a catalyst to re-living my own graduation and all the emotions that came with it. To put the icing on the cake, there is also the renewed realization that little by little, my visits will become less frequent as those I know leave, and others I have never met replace them. Not to mention that the dispersion of my own cohort becomes ever wider. Some, thankfully, will be moving closer to me in coming years. Some are going far away. 

In short, I was very quickly a basket-case of emotions, bemoaning change in all the many ways it came to torment me. 

Even though we would laugh about the inane over-usage of the politically-correct term 'community,' thrown around at my alma mater, having since met people who went to different sorts of schools does give me a renewed appreciation for the sorts of seemingly unique relationships and dynamics that are/were formed at my alma mater because of the sort of place it is. My school was small, and drew students of particular tendencies, qualities, and interests (as I guess all schools do - but a Christian liberal arts school has a somewhat consistent aura that fits me better than other contexts would). There was some sense of consistency - seeing more or less the same people on a regular basis. Most people were known/recognizable to most others and as I result, I had some sense of feeling known. Many in the community had long roots there, and I was constantly meeting grandchildren of my old family friends, meeting professors who taught a parent or an aunt or uncle, etc. I often walked over the bridge where my grandparents got engaged. We were small enough to have a deep sense of sharing in a great many of the same experiences; many inside jokes, pains and joys experienced together, stories about peers and professors that we could all feel some sense of attachment to. And, most importantly, I formed many deep and extremely meaningful relationships during those years.

We all knew that this arrangement was going to be temporary. That we were living there in order to establish ourselves for our futures; which could take us any number of different directions. But the sense of place, belonging, intimacy - yes, community - and its relegation to the past is, quite naturally, painful. One of the relatively unique pains of the modern world.

Of course, I have realized, it's not just this mobile world in which things change. Even a life lived in a consistent, pre-modern, community will be filled with various vicissitudes (nice alliteration, eh?). There is a great deal of truth to the realization we attribute to Heraclitus: you never step in the same river twice. This world is inherently transient. Nothing is permanent. Even those things we hold as whole memories ('my time in high school') are nothing but a long list of changes with perhaps certain regularities we can point to to give it some sense of completeness, sometimes perhaps rather arbitrarily. When you put the present under a microscope, you realize how unique are the particularities of each specific moment. These things we feel nostalgic about are, in some sense, mental constructions. A formulated sense of permanence that didn't ever exactly exist quite in that way. 

In a vast sea of different theological views opinions about the end of the world, all with long names, I find myself jumping around a few different camps. I tend to believe, quite strongly, that the resurrection of Christ is intended to announce that the New Creation long promised by Yahweh has now begun to exist and grow right here in the middle of this old world. The Jews were expecting a resurrection at the end of history. For Jesus to be resurrected in history was the announcement that the new world had started right now. He was the first fruit of a new creation that we take part in. In Him we are a new creation; the old has gone the new has come. We are being made new day by day. This new world, among many other things, is one of restored intimacy and community. It also provides a certain sense of place, for we are being formed for life in a city (a New Jerusalem). 

N.T. Wright has made this powerful statement: 

"What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God's future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom.” 

And here's when my psyche waltzes in, to play speculative theology.

I believe that the fellowship we share in this life are among the first building blocks of the New Kingdom. In some (limited) sense, we are literally entering into Kingdom, eschatological, life right now through our relationships in Christ. I wonder if this might also stretch beyond just people, but also places and experiences and times. 

I wonder if our Christian communities, friendships, and the senses of place that we build around these fellowships have some part to play in the Kingdom. And one day, everything old will collapse and all the transient pieces of the Kingdom will no longer be hidden and ephemeral, but NOW. Things are not merely to be wiped away and started anew - the new is already here and there is a clean relationship between the new in the now and the new in the future. Our intimacy, community, relationships, are the beginning of heaven coming to earth; the descent of the New Jerusalem. 

I am tempted to believe believe that, in a real sense, my time at my alma mater (and in some ways, 'parts' of every moment I have lived in Christ) is the beginning of the new world. Those moments, those places, those memories, those relationships, will in some real way be there because they have already begun to be part of the coming-here, which is eternal. Maybe we will visit the 'places' that form part of our life of the New Kingdom in our pasts. There is a certain eternal permanence (which is at the same time pregnant with infinite possibility for newness) hidden, mixed up, in the things that when we put under a microscope are nothing but a long list of changes and minutes passing.

In our hyper-mobile world, the promise of the eschaton is particularly poignant in its promise to fulfill the things our transience has taken ever more irrevocably from us: true intimacy, community, permanence, a substantial and lasting sense of place and belonging and roots. Perhaps nostalgia is a particularly modern form of 'longing' for heaven. A particularly modern form of desire, like the 'stabs of joy' Lewis wrote of. I recall when I first read about this notion of Lewis's being struck with a sense that I knew exactly what he was talking about. I believe many have felt the same. Lewis often described feeling these stabs of joy in certain aesthetic moments. And indeed, I have too. But I often find (especially as I live through one of the most transient periods of my life - young adulthood) that these longings appear most often in an intense and piercing desire for the 'past.' Nostalgia. 

I still believe we can live forever 

You and I we begin forever now

Forever now


I still believe in us together
You and I we're here together now
Together now
(Switchfoot: Where I Belong)

We (or at least I) desperately grasp on to whatever ephemeral moments of Kingdom-life we can hold on to. That last coffee with a friend before she leaves without any clue when you will see her again. That moment you catch yourself dozing and wondering if your old roommate and friend is across the room, sleeping, like he used to be. Cueing up that piece of music you performed when you were in the college choir. Trying to catch a glimpse of a tree blowing in the sunny spring wind, reminding you of a myriad of beautiful spring moments spread across the years - playing in my backyard as a kid, sitting at my desk writing poetry in high school, napping out on the quad in the middle of finals week. That gathering back at your old favorite restaurant with your high school friends, while you're all back home for the holidays. Taking an extra long stare at that shirt which reminds you of the one your dad used to wear when you were a kid and would go outside to wash the car with him.

 In these 'Gatsbian' moments "... we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby);  trying desperately to hang on to the past, and find a fulfillment for the nostalgia.  

As stated above, senses of nostalgia are based upon partially romanticized versions of the past - attaching a sense of permanence and place to things that are really somewhat arbitrary and ultimately transient; piles of particularly prevalent particulars. But maybe our senses of place which largely form our senses of nostalgia represent a longing that will have some very literal fulfillment in the end. Maybe the things, places, sights, sounds, memories, of our past will in some way or another be part of our eternal Home. Nostalgia is a longing for reunion, for intimacy, for so many things that 'once were' yet are at the same time nothing that this world can fully satisfy until time as we know it has collapsed in the final death of death. Nostalgia for something that sort-of-has-existed, but which is also still yet to come. A going-back that sometimes I mistakenly believe I can clasp and possess, but is actually only to be found in going forward. That's the trickiness of nostalgia, I guess. You don't feel it until things have passed, and that which you long for is somehow more substantial and more permanent than it was when it was the present. It is at once a longing for the past, and a future permanence that is both 'old' and 'new.' Somehow past, present, and future. 

Going forward will feel a little bit like going backward. 
Maybe Plato was onto something. 

And here we get to the long and short of it.  If nothing else, these ideas helps me with my attachment issues. They will get me through another night with tears at the brim - thinking of that afternoon I said those last goodbyes on graduation day. It provides a way to deal with the memories that find themselves rolling down my cheeks and landing in a wet spot on my shirt.

 I need to something to hold on to in order to believe that this pain means something, and that it will be healed. Maybe an individual of greater faith than I can be more at peace in trying to desire Christ above desiring my memories and my time with my friends. To have a faith that is ready for anything, and to be satisfied in all things in Christ. And I strive for that; to be satisfied in knowing that whatever the end will look like, it will be good. But this pain wants them and that time and that place. And I need to believe that this pain is from a hole that they, along with and through Christ, will fill. I don't think this has to be a contradiction, but maybe my desires need further sanctification since they are, after all, suspiciously similar in content to the neuroses of my own psyche. But I need them tonight. 

There is work to be done and we must go about it somehow, striking a balance between stoic peace and passionate longing, being in peace no matter what happens and yet allowing ourselves to ardently hope to find whoever may be counted among your 'you's; the 'second-persons' in your life; the loved ones who have been right in front of you at various stages along these rivers and these roads: the 'you' of you, that you are longing to one day reach again in a state of permanence, the desire for which I suspect is at the root of our nostalgic longings.  It is good to maintain connections with old friends, enjoy the past, celebrate the good, make friendship and community a priority. We should be cultivating healthy longings for heaven - healthy senses of nostalgia. We must be cultivating in ourselves a love so rich and so intimate that the 'not yet' of this life indeed causes us pain as we wait for what is to come. And yet we must continue on; trying to remember that we are pilgrims, following Christ from one station to the next, trying to be contented in Him and at peace with where He has us. Trying to also live in the Kingdom-life that is right in front of us: loving those with us, relishing the communities we have in this season. We can long, we can desire, we can relish and encourage closeness and community and intimacy. But we can also follow Christ into the transience with hope. I hope some day I can be better at doing so. 

Until then, my heart hangs onto whatever semblance of a theological explanation and source of comfort that I can pull together. 

a year from now we'll all be gone

all our friends will move away

and they're going to better places

but our friends will be gone away

nothing is as it has been

and i miss your face like hell
and i guess it's just as well
but i miss your face like hell

been talking bout the way things change
and my family lives in a different state
and if you don't know what to make of this
then we will not relate
so if you don't know what to make of this
then we will not relate

rivers and roads
rivers and roads
rivers 'til i reach you

(The Head and the Heart: 'Rivers and Roads')



  1. Thanks Kyle. The longing for permanence in change has been filling my hear most of this year. Your words remind me of one of my program director's lessons: that I need to stay present to our emotions for a reason. If I hurt it is for a reason, and figuring it out can be one of the best things for me to do. Unfortunately, that is harder to do than to say. Like Christ, emotions are powerful, mixed things that have no easy answers. Often my searches are never solved but transformed.

    Your comments on longing for permanence also remind me of my favorite JRR Tolkien Quote:
    "Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. .... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can
    what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires."

    Now I suspect that you don't believe in transubstantiation, but I believe that this is also describes one of the beauties of the Cross: a death that leads to permanence and life.

    Thanks for sharing and God Bless.

  2. Zeke,
    Thanks so much for your kind and engaging comments.

    No, I do not really believe in Transubstantiation per se. But I am not a Zwinglian either, and find myself in full agreement with Tolkiens words :-)