Thoughts for the New Year 2017

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If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;
 the old has passed away,
behold, the new has come.
 II Corinthians 5:17

And he who sat upon the throne said,
“Behold I make all things new.”
Revelation 21:5

 

Without the most stubborn resistance, everything in nature is falling apart, running downhill, tending to decay and dissolution over a longer or shorter period of time.   If one does not brush one’s teeth, clean the car, paint the house, these things do not just sit there, they enter actively into the process that leads from the fullness of being to nothingness, causing pain and difficulty along the way.  On an existential level, this is why whatever can go wrong will, and why, statistics to the contrary notwithstanding, the toast will fall jelly side down.    

          Standing athwart this process of decay occupies much of human energy; we do brush our teeth and polish the car.   Call it civilization.  The entire medical profession is trained to meliorate the signs of finitude and to stave off the inevitable end.  There is now an army of preservationists of several kinds, those who interfere constructively in the tendency of Mount Vernon, Faneuil Hall, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, St. Patrick Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, and the Great Pyramids to turn, slowly, into dust. 

          What these good people are resisting on behalf of us all is what Saint Paul described in Romans 8, when he depicts creation as we know it, that creation which He allowed to persist after the great rebellion, as having been subjected to futility by God, not willingly, but in hope that the promise given Abraham might be fulfilled in a people of obedient heart, dwelling in a renewed creation.   But along the way through the groaning and travailing of man and nature, that futility makes itself evident in ways too numerous to catalogue. 

          The tendency of things to go wrong, of best intentioned projects to curse rather than to cure, these are the existential, day to day, representatives of something that on a macroscale is called the law of entropy; everything is running down.    Saint Paul knows the reason.  With the sin of Adam a principle of decay, disorder, and death entered the cosmos, a principle whose effects may be mitigated, but which will ever be characteristic of life in this world.  Resisting it, with a cool, clear eye to the facts, is among the noblest of human efforts, especially when one considers that failure is inevitable. 

          Against this background it is remarkable that the prophets promise a new life and a new world.   Sometimes they speak as though God’s promise will be fulfilled in history, in a new and better Jerusalem.   But throughout the long course of their prophecies their words are pointing toward something new that lies beyond this world’s history both personal and cosmic.   They foresee a race given a new heart, righteousness within it, destined for life in a new creation when the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God.   The guarantee of this new order of things is the gift of the Spirit who makes it possible for everyman to become a new creature.  

          You have a duty to be charitable, but your charity will not defeat poverty. You have a duty to be a wise steward of creation, but as the witness of countless dying stars tells us, the most relentlessly pursued environmentalism will not save the planet.  You have a duty to care for your teeth and your body, but these preservation efforts will fail in the end.     

          What will endure is the one thing that by the generosity of God and the merits of Christ may not be subject to the law of entropy; the one soul that you have been given, that self-conscious something that indeed is you.   It is on display in our every thought and action, and when like Nineveh and Tyre we and the world we know are dust, that soul will live on forever.   Caring for it is the only preservation effort that may ultimately be effective.   Time does bear all its sons away, but that soul created by God with the gift and promise of eternity will live forever.  

          Every civilization has shared the intuition that a person is more than a body and further intuition that there is something of each person that transcends time.  It was a contribution of the Greeks to teach that the soul is eternal, and that the soul is the remembering, thinking, willing mystery that is a person.  Some, including a great Christian theologian Origen, believed that souls pre-existed, an opinion repudiated by the Church in favor of the belief that every human person is a unity of body and soul, with the soul informing the body.   That soul, known to God from eternity, is created in and with the body when sperm meets egg and at that moment is given an eternal existence.     

          In the New Testament we meet the presupposition that the soul is more than just something alive.   It is that blessed self-reflective capacity by which it can be said that we know ourselves.  United forever in the human person, body and soul play different parts in life.  Jesus recognizes this organic unity of body and soul and at the same time the essential superiority of the soul when He warns us not to fear those powers of evil who can destroy the body but who cannot destroy the soul, but rather to fear those who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28).  It is better that the soul should discipline the body than to have both body and soul cast into eternal fire.   And He tells the story of the rich barn-builder, who entered into conversation with his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years, take your ease, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 10:18).   This soul whom the foolish rich man addresses is not a concatenation of electro-chemical responses;  it is not, as Descartes believed, located in a particular spot; it is the self-aware mystery  at the heart of the human person, never, in the end, when Christ returns, existing apart from the body with which it was born.   It is the gift of the self-conscious form of our very being of which, as with the rich barn-builder, God will require an account.  

          It is a characteristic of modern translations of the Bible that the word soul has been suppressed in favor of “life” or “self.”   One can suppose that this is done to prevent the modern reader’s succumbing to the dualism that belongs to the Platonic tradition as it occurs in the various systems of contemporary theosophy.   In the Greek language there are good words for “life,” the bios in biology, the zōē in zoology, and for “self,” the autos in autonomous, but none is even a near synonym for “soul,” the psychē that occurs in psychology.  That is the you, better the I, that will exist eternally, and that is what, as Saint Paul said in Second Corinthians, God can make new.  Even as the body falls prey to entropy, the soul can grow closer to the perfection for which God intended it.   And that is the best project for 2017.  

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