Saturday, February 21, 2009

Reflections: On Tragedy and Comedy

This is the first of a series of parallel writings to complement my "Contemplations in Theology." These "Reflections" will concern issues that aren't really theological, or are only tangentially related, or are unsuited to any particular point in the discussion.
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In my eighth "Contemplation in Theology", I referenced a broad argument from literary theory.

In "Stranger Than Fiction" (a great movie, especially for English majors), one of the characters playing an English professor says tritely: "If it's a tragedy, you die; if it's a comedy, you get hitched."More broadly, tragedy signifies an end; comedy signifies a new beginning.

Dante's Divine Comedy begins and ends with the same tableau: a man alone, wandering in the woods. Through three volumes and 100 cantos, Dante relates the story of his odyssey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. He recounts the seven spheres of each, the characters and stories which he finds there, the guides helping him and the angels showing him the path. Yet after a final climactic glimpse of the Presence of God, he returns to the same woods that was his departure point.

If we were to stop at any point in the Comedy, even if it were at the highest level of Heaven or in the midst of glimpsing the Beatific Vision, the odyssey would be incomplete, and the Comedy would be, frankly, tragic. It is only after that glimpse, once that sojourner has gone "There and Back Again," that the entire story dons the mantle of Comedy.

God's experience in the Incarnation was ultimately tragic if viewed from the perspective of His growing ministry and His sudden death. His life can be defined as comedy, broadly construed, if we consider the seeds He planted in his disciples, the rapid growth of the early Church, or (more theologically) the fact that He was resurrected and lives on eternally at the right hand of the Father.

Our lives are tragic is solely taken from the idea that we are mortal, that we will die. The story of civilization is as great a tragedy as ever was writ; for, as Nietzsche writes, by evolution we may reach the pinnacle of human potential, yet one day our sun will dim, the planets melt, and all that will remain is the Twilight of the Gods. There can be no more majestically tragic image that that, the fate of mortal humanity. Yet if man has an immortal soul, then tragedy is transient, and comedy is the fate to which man is called.

Tragedy is essentially defined by ending, by finitude. Comedy is defined by the infinite, the story without end.

Nor is infinite a necessarily progressive idea; Oriental cultures, among others, define infinity not as a straight line without end, but as a circle which doubles back on itself, reinforcing and informing its own past. Memory contains as great a portion of infinity as prophecy; history is as great an adventure as politics; infinity elevates the past, just as much as the future.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Confessions: #2

Man possesses an infinite soul; he transcends tragedy. Heaven help me, I know better than most the addicting satisfaction of a tragic mindset--the previous school year was immeasurably difficult for me for this very reason. I have always had a keen awareness of my intellectual gifts, and the distance between me and my peers that it caused. Yet I did not give glory to God for giving me this unique mode of worshiping him, but rather resigned myself to his service. I felt like the servant given ten talents during the master's absence; I was duty-bound to increase those talents until my King returned, yet never able to live up to His expectations. I did not "consider all things joy," but rather considered life to be a responsibility.

I cannot begin to describe how aesthetically satisfying this self-perception was, to consider myself a "tragic hero," a victim of the noble sacrifice.

Nor can I begin to describe how numbing and utterly soul-sucking this self-perception proved to be. My soul was weather-beaten, atrophied, consumed from within as though by disease. It produced both pride and self-loathing, excruciating despair and total apathy. I rarely (if ever) showed this side of my life to my friends or mentors--I wish I had not been so convincing an actor in this regard. But even had I wished it, I'm not sure I could have expressed my sickness. It was an ineffable sin, an inarticulable cancer of the spirit.

If there was any single cause for my spiritual rejuvenation, it was the decision to cast off this misconceived vision of my life. I still believe that it is the most deadly heresy into which we may fall. I should sooner curse the God who loves me and the Son who gave up His life, than fall back into that pit of tragic apathy. "I wish you were either cold or hot. But because you are lukewarm... I will spit you out of My mouth" (Rev. 3:15-16).
In the sphere of Venus I learned war;
In the sphere of Saturn, my heart leapt for Joy.
While bathed in light I accepted your mystery;
when wreathed in shadow my heart discerned God.
God, by your Word, grant me peace in your Name.
My heart is a King's, yet my soul is complacent.
Grant me, God willing, respite from this numbness.
Lord, judge me! Savior, forgive this lukewarm spirit!
Give me the freedom to care and to cry.

God, forgive my complacency. I know Your lovingkindness, that You have borne the weight of sin and defeated the power of death. I am witness to Your suffering, in bearing the weight of tragedy and the curse of the Law. From the instant of Creation You have endured the entirety of suffering that we might not be crushed, for You are the only One who could bear such things. Your hands are scarred; let me touch them! My soul is numbed to the potency of Your love. Console me, reignite my passion to live, place in me a pure heart, to delight and to feel.

Oh! God, my heart is searching Yours; grant me my prayer! Teach me to cry out to You!

Contemplations in Theology: #8

First, let me acknowledge my friends who have helped me through the last few chaotic weeks. To them, and to all who have consoled their friends, I send peace in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Before launching into my argument directly, I must mention the high degree of symbolism in medieval cosmology, particularly in the order of the planets.

Mercury is the nearest planet to Earth, meaning that the characteristics of Mercury are the divine personalities we can most easily grasp, and most easily recognize in Jesus Christ (God become Man). This is why John spoke of "In the beginning was the Word," for that was the characteristic of Mercury.

As we move outward--from Venus to Mars, to Jupiter and Saturn--we move away from the Earth, but closer towards the Divine Empyreum. This was the infinite heaven, beyond the sphere of the stars or even the Primum Mobile (the demarcation line of Nature, through which God directed all things to move). The Divine Empyreum signified the "third heaven" of 2 Cor. 2:12, the immediate Presence of God Himself. Thus, we should expect those more distant planets to be further removed from our reason--they will be more difficult to comprehend--yet at the same time contain greater and deeper mysteries.

The two planets furthest from us--closest to God--are Jupiter and Saturn.

Of the two, we instinctively identify God with Jupiter, the persona of King. We acknowledge Jesus ben-Joseph as Christ, Savior, Messiah; we worship God the Father, Author of Creation. Within the personality of Jupiter are found the Majesty, Omnipotence, Benevolence, and everlasting Glory of God. The redemptive power of God, too, arises from his kingship, for as Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings: "The hands of a king are the hands of a healer." The medievals recognized Jupiter as Fortuna Major--the Greater Fortune--for blessings were the province of Christ the King.

Almost immediately after reading "The Discarded Image" (C.S. Lewis's detailed summary of medieval cosmology, where I first encountered the complete model), I was struck by a paradox, a thorn in my intellectual flesh. For Jupiter is not the closest planet to the Empyreum. It is placed beneath Saturn.

And who is Saturn? Saturn is the Latin name of the Greek god Kronos: Father Time. In art, he is depicted with an hourglass and a scythe--symbolizing the finiteness of life and the necessity of death. Consider the adjective "saturnine": Saturn is the god of melancholy and morbidity, despair and depression, torpidity and tragedy. Is there any wonder why the medievals call Saturn "the Greater Misfortune"--Infortuna Major? Yet this is the planet they placed closest to the Divine Empyreum.

What heresy is this? The medievals based their cosmology on astronomical observation and classical polytheism. But how could they accept a model in which the planet astronomically closest to God was also the god theologically furthest from Him? In this model, the planet most reflective of God's personality is the planet we least wish to associate with Him. Can we really worship a God of tragedy?

This problem gnawed at me for several weeks. There are greater and deeper mysteries here; I can only hint at one.

At only one point in history has God entered the Creation; at only one moment did He chose to limit Himself to space and time. That moment was the Annunciation of Mary, the conception of Jesus Christ. And what was the Christ's experience while here on Earth? A promising youth, a growing ministry, the promise of greater acceptance by His chosen people... followed by utter disappointment. "He was despised and rejected by Men" (Isa. 53:3); He was subjected to humiliation, torture, and an excruciating death by asphyxiation. His life on earth epitomized the essential qualities of tragedy.

But His suffering was far greater, for he bore the full weight of sin upon Himself. Why do we rationalize His cry, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me"? The Father had turned His eyes away from the Son, that He might endure the full wrath of judgment. The moment of crucifixion was a moment in which in which God was utterly divorced from Himself.

If we believe in God's foreknowledge, then we must accept that the experiences of the crucifixion were known from the instant of Creation, when God first created the framework of space and time. Likewise, if we recognize the timelessness of God--the doctrine that He experiences all things in a perpetual present (reflected in His Name: "I AM")--then we must accept that if Christ was allowed to feel isolated from the Father while on the cross, God experiences that same feeling perpetually.

The Intelligence moving the planet Saturn is the highest servant of Christ, the greatest "steward of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor. 4:1). It is the personality of God that exists in time, and the same that reflects the suffering of Christ, in the qualities of tragedy. How fitting that the Greek god Kronos--the polytheistic source of Saturn--is known from mythology as the firstborn of Gaia and Uranus (Mother Earth and Father Sky), just as Christ is known from Scripture as the firstborn of Creation.

Saturn is the planet most removed from our intellects and therefore the most difficult to understand. "We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:23). Yet it is also the planet closest to the Presence of God, and the source of the greatest mysteries and Truths.

But let us shed light on another mystery. Christ did not expire with the cry "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?" No, it was succeeded by the triumphant call: "It is finished!" The spirit of tragedy was defeated by the spirit of divine comedy.

Do we need any more proof of that we may discern God's handwriting even among the Pagans? For the polytheists' account contains a type for Christ, and for the story of the crucifixion. Saturn, the suffering Son and firstborn of Nature, begot Jupiter, the everlasting King; and Jupiter overthrew Saturn.