In the last story of David Szolay's fine collection of short stories "All that man is" we find an accomplished man in his seventies facing his death after surviving major surgery. He is staying in Italy north of Ravenna on the Adriatic coast and he goes to visit an ancient monastery. He finds engraved on a tombstone in Latin "Amemus et non pertura". Having studied Latin years ago he translates it as "Let us love that which is eternal and not what is transient." Later, after he survives a car crash and his mortality is even more upon his mind he thinks to himself:
So what is eternal?
Nothing, that's the problem. Nothing on earth. Not earth itself. Not the sun. Not the stars in the night sky.
Everything has an end.
We know that now.
The last sentence is haunting because it indicates that this knowledge, that nothing is eternal, is a recent discovery. It points to the demise of the medieval world view, that slow slide taking over five hundred years in which the eternal is erased from our minds. It could be that Szolay has summed up the modern predicament in total. Our problem, our unease, our existential dilemma is that we now know that nothing eternal exists. This means that we float through time unanchored. In the face of this dread knowledge nothing stands, even the closest love of child, country, husband, wife, all will pass and this knowledge makes us giddy. Our greatest accomplishments will not last.
Some kind of explanation as to how this came about can be found in the turn to nature that occurred with Hooke, Boyle and Newton. All these three wrote theological texts. Their aim was to produce a seamless tapestry between the new discoveries in natural philosophy and Christian theology. In the process, key conceptions in theology were transposed into the objective. For example, the troublesome concept of transcendence became, in the mind of the common man, to indicate the difference between the material and the immaterial or spiritual. This means that the immaterial was but a species of the material, but spooky. As the attack on the supernatural gained steam, most of us became materialists and we inherited the notion that nothing was eternal because nothing material was eternal.
It is this realization that has hollowed out our lives, has left us to "live for the moment" and has blunted our resolve. Nihilism has become the order of the day. Death, the enemy of the eternal, has become the final and omnipotent power. Everything will be swallowed up by death with no remainder.
But what if we jump out of the Western materialist narrative not by reasserting the existence of the supernatural, (that is a lost cause) but by a rediscovery of the medieval understanding of the eternal, not in the continuance of objects but in the continuance of truth? This truth is hinted at in the Nicene creed with its reference to the "seen and the unseen". Rather than referring to the material and the immaterial or supernatural, the unseen refers to that which has not yet been revealed to us. Instead of understanding the "above" in the phrase "seek the things that are above" in terms of place, as in heaven and earth, we think of the "above" as that which is unseen by human eyes, that truth that is revealed to us in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The progress of humanity is not understood as a progress between places, earth and heaven, but a progress towards the ever-deepening truth that is at the centre of all of our lives. This is the truth that reveals who we are and does away with all of our imaginings about ourselves that are self-serving.
Is it now possible to understand that the eternal does indeed exist, that; "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."(Matt 24:35) We may be sure that we may lose ourselves in death but that this one true thing, those events lived out in this one man that break the iron clad laws of death, will never cease to exist. The life in freedom evoked by this one true thing is eternal even though we, as individuals will die.
The great theological mistake of the ages is to confuse the things of God for the things of humanity. When Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and gave some to Adam, they reached across the boundary between the divine and the human and precipitated the alienation between the divine and the human. This, of course, may not be read causally but descriptively. The primal sin of humanity is to reach after the things of God. When we fancy that the human soul is immortal and will carry our consciousness across the other side of death we claim the perpetuity that can only belong to the truth of God. When that happens, the sentence given to the first couple becomes real for us:
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return. (Gen 3:19)
The last two sentences are picked up in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday when ash is placed on the forehead of the people; "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return, repent and believe in the gospel."
By contrast, we find in the Eucharistic liturgy the phrase; "The body of Christ keep you in eternal life." This indicates that eternal life is an ongoing experience that is sustained by the Eucharistic meal. If we hold this together with the liturgy for Ash Wednesday we come close to understanding that the promise of the gospel is that we will participate in eternal life, life that is not deadened by sin, and that in the face of this reality, the power of physical death over life is itself put to death. This is why Christians should not fear death, because something greater than death, something that is eternal, has dethroned it.
When we are ruled by death we are ruled by impermanence. The symptoms of this rule may be seen all around us in shallow cynicism and self-constructed hope. Such concepts as the bucket list, of living for the moment, of a life that is defined by style otherwise known as lifestyle, of a pervading obsession with food and drink and celebrity and, dare I say it with the never-ending rounds of sport. There has never before been such an abundance of distraction. When it is generally agreed that the eternal does not exist then we opt for substitutes that eventually turn to ash in our mouths. We are now experiencing the consequences of loving the transient.