Supreme Court Eschatology

Supreme Court Eschatology

Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his plans to retire on Wednesday, a bit of a surprising move given the near-certainty that Trump will nominate a conservative judge opposed to Roe and Obergefell. The Republican majority in the Senate and the uncertainty of mid-term results means Trump’s nominee will likely get through without too much trouble. McConnell and the rest of the Republican leadership played their cards well (though not necessarily ethically) with Gorsuch and consolidated their power to push a nominee through even with a straight party line vote. That started with Chuck Schumer’s removal of the filibuster for lower courts and government jobs.

All this to say: the court will have a solid conservative bent by the time this nominee fight finishes.

Conservatives are elated that their Trump bet is paying off. For them, this is the reason they elected him, and this is what they’ve waited for through all the Obama years. Their victory is now certain, it seems.

But those on the liberal side of politics are not quite there. For example, I count eight pieces Slate has published about Kennedy’s announcement, and without fail they all throb with heartbreak and fear. Exemplary of this, Lili Loofbourow writes:

The party ruling our country has demonstrated there is no principle it will respect, no norm it will endure. My rights as a woman are in danger. Civil rights are in danger. And the republic is in danger. I am sad, above all, because the damage being done now no longer feels like it can be stemmed—let alone reversed—with a single election. This will last decades. The downturns my generation has already weathered—the 2008 crisis that hinged on obscure derivatives traded by a privileged few, robbing wealth from millions—were only the beginning. Education is now a luxury. Pensions barely exist. Health care is under threat. Retirement is, to those my age, a cruel joke. We’ve been waiting. For recovery, for relief, for some semblance of an American dream we can access. It is clear, now, that there was nothing to wait for.

Read those last three sentences again:

We’ve been waiting. For recovery, for relief, for some semblance of an American dream we can access. It is clear, now, that there was nothing to wait for.

Those are the words of someone heartbroken that the country they thought was theirs and the future they thought imminent now seems forever away and, perhaps, simply unattainable. The horrifying thing is that many conservatives will read that with joyful glee. The people who love to call liberals “snowflakes” and watch Fox News see this as their ultimate triumph, the destruction of the American-hating Democratic agenda, and the pain of those who fought for it.

But both responses might share the same flaw.

If Yuval Levin is right that both political parties are driven by a nostalgia for a supposed golden age now passed, then this event brings those longings front and center. For conservatives, the election of Trump and his ability to shape the future of the Supreme Court is an eschatological judgement in favor of their vision of America. They fought through the Obama years–Obama, of course, doing everything he could to destroy America, as many conservatives have told me–and now have come out the other side victorious. The triumphalism of Fox News isn’t tempered by the reality that this is just political maneuvering, that the pendulum of America might swing away from them very soon, and that the pendulum of history will certainly swing the other direction eventually.

For conservatives, this is not a temporary moment of success, where a temporary good might be accomplished and a set of particular moral issues might be redressed. There isn’t a long view here that recognizes winning the debates in America today ensures nothing except that, today, in America, you won the debate. 2020 will come, and with it (maybe) a new president. In any event, a backlash is likely at some point.

Even if Trump is the hero of fiscal and social Republicans and sets America back on a path to prosperity and conservatism, that path will eventually take a turn to the left.

The issue is that for Republicans this isn’t about doing as much good as they can in the times they’ve been given. This is Judgement Day, and the universe has judged the liberals and rewarded the conservatives.

And vice versa too. Democrats had the political momentum for a while. Even now they might have it, long-term. I still wonder if Trump’s victory will be seen in retrospect as a random fluke. But this political momentum has, at least for now, come to a screeching halt. And now they’re left realizing, as Loofbourow says, “We’ve been waiting. For recovery, for relief, for some semblance of an American dream we can access. It is clear, now, that there was nothing to wait for.”

Democrats kept making the argument that the long moral arc of history was on their side. One day Judgement Day would come and the conservatives would be tossed into outer darkness and the liberals would be rewarded. Left-wing activists fought for the right side of history, and history would reward them.

Of course, these are deeply eschatological claims. The idea that history has a long moral arc is an inextricably theological idea. But here, for conservatives no less than for liberals, the power orchestrating the flow of history is not a god but the rightness of their ideas. If only the right political maneuvers were executed, and the right members of Congress and the White House staffed, and, of course, if only the right justices were on the Supreme Court, then justice would roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Or, if you’re a conservative, it might not be justice rolling down; it might be self-ownership or responsibility or something like that.

But the reality is that when we surrender our lives to the orchestrations of history, history will break our hearts. For many Democrats, they feel that now. But conservatives have felt it before and they will feel it again. Anthony Kennedy’s retirement is not salvation and no matter how many Scalia-clones Trump appoints the Supreme Court will never usher in justice and peace. The Supreme Court is not strong enough to heal reality. It may be strong enough to fight discrimination against gender and sexual minorities or uphold campaign finance laws or overturn Roe but it is also strong enough to break our hearts. The thing it isn’t strong enough to do is save the world.

Which makes this a time for neither triumphalism nor heartbreak. It’s a time to listen to those we disagree with and hear their heartbreak or happiness and recognize it as our own, if not now, then someday. It is also a time to let go of the Supreme Court and political idolatry.

Should we push for policies and judges we believe in? Sure. But America is not the Kingdom of God and it never will be. America is no model of virtue, tolerance, and equality. It never will be.

Someday America won’t exist. Perhaps something better will. Perhaps not. For some writers and novelists the future they envision is apocalyptic. For Cormac McCarthy, it’s post-apocalyptic. As his father and son roam the burned out remains of a once-flourishing America in The Road, politics no longer seems important. Everything Americans fought for, in this future, was destroyed apparently overnight. All that’s left is to survive and to take care of those close to us. And yet something deeper remains, something throbbing beneath the surface of the charred landscapes and hunger and pain. It’s a long moral arc of history, sure. But it’s also something more personal.

The boy in the story, near the beginning, thinks he sees another boy hiding off the side of the road. He can’t find him and the man assures him it was a hallucination. And yet as the man lies dying and the boy weeps over him, he can’t help but ask:

Do you remember that little boy, Papa?

Yes. I remember him.

Do you think that he’s all right that little boy?

Oh yes. I think he’s all right.

Do you think he was lost?

No. I don’t think he was lost.

I’m scared that he was lost.

I think he’s all right.

But who will find him if he’s lost? Who will find the little boy?

Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.

Maybe Trump will continue to degrade the human and civil rights of immigrants and minorities. Or maybe 2020 will sweep Democrats into office and abortion will be enshrined as an inviolable hallmark of our society. Either way someone will end up asking who will find the lost and abandoned of society. We need a better answer than, “the Supreme Court.” We need to know that Goodness will find them, just like Love will. It has before. One day, it will for the last time. Then, it will never need to again.


Knowledge Will Not Save the World: A Reading of A Canticle for Leibowitz

Knowledge Will Not Save the World: A Reading of A Canticle for Leibowitz

Back in November, some friends and I started a book club. We plan to focus on the classics (we first read Oedipus Rex, right after Thanksgiving, to cheer us all up), but we took a detour into “modern” classics this past month with Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I slacked off and didn’t finish the book before the meeting. Consider this my attempt to think through the book on my own.

Since the Enlightenment it seems the Western world has labored under the myth that knowledge will solve our problems. As Stephen Toulmin makes clear, Descartes embarked upon his quest for an objective Method in no intellectual vacuum. Rather, the violence of the religious wars and the perceived failure of theological inquiry to produce agreed upon, workable, universal knowledge drove him to find truth through some purely rational Method. If only we all follow the right logical sequence, he thought, we’ll end up in the right place. 

Of course, he was wrong and few today would support such a radically Cartesian agenda. But many of his other, more subtle assumptions, have endured. Among them is the rather dangerous idea that sneaks its way into policy discussions and even Christian circles to this day–the idea that perhaps knowledge can solve our problems.

Given the failure of theology, we’ve handed knowledge-producing off to Science and Reason and, of late, computers and technology. This only makes sense because, if knowledge is our savior, Science and Reason seem to produce the most consistent, reliable results. Curiously, this hand-off hasn’t eradicated religion. We now have a rather different, religiously-charged pursuit of knowledge. As Neil Postman put it:

All experts are invested with the charisma of priestliness. Some of our priest-experts are called psychiatrists, some psychologists, some sociologists, some statisticians. The god they serve does not speak of righteousness or goodness or mercy or grace. Their goes speaks of efficiency, precision, objectivity. And that is why such concepts as sin and evil disappear…they come from a moral universe that is irrelevant to the theology of expertise. And so the priests…call sin ‘social deviance,’ which is a statistical concept, and they call evil ‘psychopathology,’ which is a medical concept. Sin and evil disappear because they cannot be measured and objectified, and therefore cannot be dealt with by experts. (Technopoly, pg. 90)

Sin and salvation are not concepts we can escape because they refer to the (empirically provable) fact that something is wrong, and the (somewhat less empirically provable) hope that something can be done about it. But when we replace a broken heart with a deficiency of knowledge, our vision of sin and salvation warps and we end up in a different “moral universe” that requires new priests to mediate god and new rites to approach him. For a long time, our priests were our scientists and our sacrifices were (at minimum) the first 18 years of our lives followed by (if we wanted a good job) four more years.

I’m not sure, but it may be that this redefinition of sin is changing in the 21st century. It seems as though arguments over social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are premised less and less, on both sides, on “they are wrong because the science says so,” and more, “they are wrong because they are bad people.”

Regardless, this vision of knowledge can still be detected in the sheer horror with which both conservatives and liberals discuss each other’s positions. There’s a strong sense that it is simply inconceivable that someone–in the 21st century!–could think this way. It is simply inconceivable that someone–given all of history!–could disregard the past so simply. And hiding in those exclamations is the assumption that knowledge should have been enough. Hiding there is astonishment that everyone could have all the same facts and come to radically different conclusions.

Christian apologetics seems peculiarly stuck in this Enlightenment rut. The idea that there could be such a thing as “evidence that demands a verdict,” evidence that speaks for itself outside any frame of reference, seems more Cartesian than Christian. After all, if we take Romans 1 seriously the problem with humanity is definitely not a lack of knowledge but a lack of properly directed love. It isn’t that people need to be educated, they need to be changed.

All of this is important background to understand A Canticle for Leibowitz. The author, Walter Miller, flew planes during WWII and participated in the destruction of the Benedictine monastery in Monte Casino. The Canticle seems like his attempt to exorcise the demons he encountered in WWII. Perhaps, however, it is actually an attempt to exorcise humanity, to understand how the human race, with so much science and knowledge, could slaughter hundreds of millions of people in the course of one short century.

The book is told as a triptych and progresses mostly as a set of foils. Every smaller story presents an abbot that plays an important role, a younger monk or character that plays a role, an outsider to the monastery, and Benjamin (who seems to be Lazarus still wondering the earth after several millennia). These successive characters play off each other and illuminate different aspects of the story.

The story tracks a small monastery founded after the order of Leibowitz (a fictional saint) as it: 1) attempts to preserve knowledge shortly after humanity nearly wipes itself out through nuclear holocaust, 2) guides humanity through a new Renaissance, and, 3) survives as humanity wipes itself out, yet again, through another nuclear holocaust. Saint Leibowitz, the founder of the Order, died preserving the “Memorabilia,” a miscellaneous set of documents that preserved some of the scientific and literary accomplishments of human civilization. The Order takes it upon itself to continue the preservation.

During the first story the monks preserve the knowledge contra mundum, with the outside world hostile to their cloistered lives. The first story, to me, seems primarily set-up for the thematic developments that follow. By the time we reach the new Renaissance, the story slows down and follows a young secular scholar, Thon Thaddeo, who comes to visit the monastery to examine the Memorabilia. The abbot at the time, Dom Paulo, is resolved to welcome outsiders to the knowledge the Order preserved, but to keep this knowledge squarely within a Christian frame. “And this time, thought Dom Paulo, we’ll keep them reminded of who kept the spark burning while the world slept.” (pg. 146)

Thaddeo, however, is hostile to this desire. For him, the Memorabilia represents huge advances in learning that could move civilization forward in leaps and bounds. Paulo’s hesitancy is nonsensical to him: “If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.” (pg. 225) Thaddeo styles himself as a savior, which explains some of his hostility. Thaddeo sees the majority of the world still disease-ridden and poor, laboring in medieval economies and agrarian communities. He wants to move the world forward, and sees knowledge–”wisdom”–as the key to doing this.

Thaddeo’s vision is clarified early on when, looking out a window at a passing peasant, he says:

‘Look at him!’ the scholar persisted. ‘No, but it’s too dark now. You can’t see the syphilis outbreak on his neck, the way the bridge of his nose is being eaten away. Paresis. Be he was undoubtedly a moron to begin with. Illiterate, superstitious, murderous. He diseases his children. For a few coins he would kill them. He will sell them anyway, when they are old enough to be useful. Look at him and tell me if you see the progeny of a once-mighty civilization? What do you see?’

‘The image of Christ,’ grated the monsignor, surprised at his own sudden anger. ‘What did you expect me to see?’ (pg. 129)

But crucially, Thaddeo’s vision is not just pessimistic and degrading. It also prioritizes knowledge:

The scholar huffed impatiently. ‘The incongruity. Men as you can observe them through any window, and men as historians would have us believe men once were. I can’t accept it. How can a great and wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely?’

‘Perhaps,’ said Apollo, ‘by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else.’ (pg. 129)

Thaddeo cannot imagine that a civilization with incredible knowledge could have gone wrong. But the Church places knowledge in its proper place, at least some of the time in the story. If one is only great and wise, the Churchman says, one can still be lost. In fact, greatness and wisdom may be dangerous themselves.

In the middle of all this is the rather curious figure of Benjamin. Mistaken for Saint Leibowitz at the beginning of the story, Benjamin is the last Jew on planet earth. He also happens to be Lazarus raised from the dead, but a Lazarus who took Jesus command to rise again not as identifying Jesus as the Messiah, but as commanding Benjamin to wait for the Messiah. And so, Benjamin wandered the earth for millennia and continues to do so throughout the centuries that the book charts.

None of the characters in the book are quite sure what to do with him, and neither am I. He’s enigmatic, but it seems like his primary function is as a foil to the monks of Leibowitz. While the monks wrap themselves up in the politics of the world, attempting to guide the world’s appropriation and development of knowledge, Benjamin sits in the hills and waits for the Messiah, uninterested in the developments of mankind.

In an especially poignant moment he mistakes Thaddeo for the Messiah, only to realize his mistake and slink away. Benjamin floats in and out of the story, reminding the characters that he, at least, is still waiting for a Messiah–reminding them that he, at least, sees no salvation in knowledge.

The third story contains one last set of foils important for this reading. In the last few weeks before the human race annihilates itself again, Miller presents us with one more abbot, Zerchi, and another enigmatic figure, Rachel. Miller doesn’t make entirely clear who (what?) Rachel is, but he does hint that she may be Mary reincarnate. In any case, the specifics are irrelevant to this interpretation.

Zerchi and Rachel both play the same role. Zerchi gives advice to a mother and daughter affected by radiation poisoning after the first nuclear missile launches. The doctor advises the mother to euthanize the child, and Zerchi strongly opposes it (being a member of the Church). The mother still decides to euthanize her daughter and Zerchi drives with them on their way, in a desperate final attempt to dissuade her.

He delivers a sermon, pontificating on the evils of murder. The mother responds: “The baby doesn’t understand your sermon. She can hurt, though. She can hurt, but she can’t understand.” (pg. 316) Zerchi keeps talking, frantically offering every argument he can. Finally, he says:

‘I’m not asking you. As a priest of Christ I am commanding you by the authority of Almighty God not to lay hands on your child, not to offer her life in sacrifice to the false god of expedient mercy. I do not advise you, I adjure and command you in the name of Christ the King. Is that clear?’ (pg. 318)

Zerchi fails. But shortly after, another bomb drops and the monastery caves in on Zerchi. As he is dying, Rachel comes to him. She doesn’t say much, but somehow she gives him the Eucharist, one last time. Zerchi cannot say anything, but Rachel can. She only gives a single command: “Live.” (pg. 336) Both Zerchi and Rachel came to someone at the door of death, but Zerchi provided knowledge, commands, wisdom, and power in the face of death. Rachel showed love. The mother didn’t respond, but Zerchi did:

The image of those cool green eyes lingered with him as long as life. He did not ask why God would choose to raise up a creature of primal innocence from the shoulder of Mrs. Grales, or why God gave to it the preternatural gifts of Eden–those gifts which Man had been trying to seize by brute force again from Heaven since he first lost them. He had seen primal innocence in those eyes, and a promise of resurrection. One glimpse had been a bounty, and he wept in gratitude. Afterwards he lay with his face in the wet dirt and waited. (pg. 336)

The Canticle is an attempt to explain Miller’s experiences. A civilization endowed with unheard of knowledge and power had managed, in the 20th century, to annihilate large segments of itself and step right up to the brink of total self-destruction. The Enlightenment and Renaissance proceeded on the notion that religion created division but knowledge engendered unity. Descartes and his successors believed that with the right knowledge and proper method mankind could save itself, but Miller saw knowledge and method become the instruments of destruction.

Miller’s ultimate critique is simple: he is Benjamin, sitting outside the struggle, positive that knowledge is not the Messiah but certain that someone is. A Canticle for Leibowitz rails against the dangers of knowledge and deconstructs any savior complex knowledge-producers have. Miller will have none of the idea–whether baptized into Christian lingo or not–that education and knowledge will save the world. Christian education does not change lives. Data will not reorient hearts. Books are not enough. Materially great and materially wise people and civilizations have not put up guardrails against self-destruction, they may have actually paved the way for it.

As Miller himself says:

“The answer was near at hand; there was still the serpent whispering: For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened; and you shall be as Gods. The old father of lies was clever at telling half-truths: how shall you ‘know’ good and evil, until you shall have sampled a little? Taste and be as Gods. But neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.” (pg. 238)

When the serpent came to Eve he lured her with the promise of knowledge; and the temptation to know, to deify knowledge, remains with us still. To believe that knowledge will fix the world is to believe that our original sin can save us, that we can get back into the garden by being thrown out again.

But knowledge is not our problem. Sin did not primarily deform our heads, it deformed our hearts. Eve thought that the tree of knowledge was desirable, good, beautiful, delicious. Thus, the Christian call cannot be to turn to a different, sanitized tree of knowledge. Ignorance is not our problem. As Miller puts it, we don’t need wisdom and power to return to Eden, we need love.

On Cosmic Ethics and Proverbial Fish

On Cosmic Ethics and Proverbial Fish

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ethics and Christianity for several different reasons, but especially because of Reinhold Niebuhr’s An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. In the book, Niebuhr critiques modern moral theory on the grounds of its temporality and inability to incorporate the eternal and infinite into ethics. His approach emphasizes the deep significance of time, temporality and eternity for ethics. Unfortunately, Niebuhr doesn’t develop the reasoning behind this significance as much as I would have liked, but he got me thinking.

The relationship between the eternal and the temporary is a complicated and esoteric one. Perhaps the struggle comes in that we don’t really know what time is, but find ourselves completely bound by it. It is not possible, as far as I know, to really conceive of eternality or even of temporality. We find ourselves as the proverbial fish unable to understand what water is.

Thus, how time and timelessness can impact ethics is an even more difficult matter. Niebuhr, however, cues us onto an answer. He argues that modern moral theory is concerned with this action right here, in other words, it sees the ethical quality of an action as essentially temporal. “All modern moral theory may be briefly described as complacent finiteness.” (pg. 67)

Niebuhr goes on to explain Christianity’s combination of eternality and ethics:

“The distinctive contribution of religion to morality lies in its comprehension of the dimension of depth in life. A secular moral act resolves the conflict of interest and passion, revealed in any immediate situation, by whatever counsels a decent prudence may suggest, the most usual counsel being that of moderation–’in nothing too much.’ A religious morality is constrained by its sense of a dimension of depth to trace every force with which it deals to some ultimate origin and to relate every purpose to some ultimate end. It is concerned not only with immediate values and disvalues, but with the problem of good and evil, not only with immediate objectives, but with ultimate hopes. It is troubled by the question of the primal ‘whence’ and the final ‘wherefore.'” (pg. 5-6)

Enlightenment ethics fits this analysis perfectly. For the two big Enlightenment theories, every action is evaluated purely temporally. Kant tells us to universalize the particular action we are considering, and Mill tells us to predict the consequences of this particular action. They are both unable to transcend this action to locate ethics in some eternal end or purpose. Ethics is a matter of this moment right here.

Kant gives us not a moral rule but a moral method. Mill offers us no ultimate rules but a simple criterion to judge morality by. Mill’s criterion comes close to achieving a telos, but still fails. Maximizing happiness may be a good goal, but still sees happiness as a matter of the temporal and the finite.

What, then, is Niebuhr’s solution to this? How does eternality and temporality affect ethics? Here is where it becomes unclear, at least on my reading. Thus, at this point, I don’t pretend to be offering Niebuhr’s answer, just mine. It seems to me there are two  answers to this.

First, if we assume that virtue ethics is the biblical ethical system (a point Jonathan Pennington defends exegetically) we must recast ethics slightly. Any ethical question is not just a question about this action here but about the habit that this action tends towards. Does this habit cultivate virtue? This approach wisely recognizes that actions are never isolated but connected to each other (a point we’ll come back to), such that one action opens up the way for a broader habit. As all of us who have violated boundaries know, once you’ve broken a rule once it becomes far easier to break it again.

To steal a phrase from Alasdair MacIntyre, an ethical action is a virtue-producing habit extended through time. We are now questioning habits of a lifetime not decisions of a moment. But this still ultimately binds us to temporality. Aristotle, for example, ultimately has no other end goal but happiness. Granted, the way he envisions happiness is certainly not the most un-Christian vision in history, but neither is it quite Christian. Aristotle is not envisioning a lifetime in heaven or the deep, time-transcending happiness that comes from experiencing the love of Jesus.

Christian virtue ethics combines eternity and the temporal in a simple way. Since Jesus, eternity made flesh, is the ultimate moral exemplar that we imitate (imitation being the staple of virtue ethics), we are not just imitating dispositions and habits that are temporally wise. Rather, the ethical Christian life dictates that we imitate the eternal dispositions of God, incarnating them in history as Jesus incarnated them.

This is all over the Biblical text. John is constantly emphasizing that Jesus and God are one, and the way Jesus loved us (dying for us) is the way we should love one another (i.e. imitation of God). In fact, we are to be virtuous, just like God is virtuous (Matt. 5:48).

By imitating God we incarnate his eternal dispositions in the everyday. Thankfully, Jesus has already given us the habits that will inculcate these eternal dispositions in us (serve others, pursue reconciliation, don’t divorce, walk an extra mile, pray in secret, etc.).

The other way one could incorporate time into ethics is likely not what Neibuhr had in mind but my personal favorite. Taking a cue from MacIntyre, we know that any action is only intelligible in the context of a narrative. MacIntyre gives his famous example of a man who, standing next to him at the bus stop, suddenly looks at him and says, “The name of the common wild duck is histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.” Without a story this action is unintelligible but:

“We would render his action of utterance intelligible if one of the following turned out to be true. He has mistaken me for someone who yesterday had approached him in the library and asked: ‘Do you know the Latin name of the common wild duck?’ Or he has just come from a session with his psychotherapist who has urged him to break down his shyness by talking to strangers. ‘But what shall I say?’ ‘Oh, anything at all.’ Or he is a Soviet spy waiting at a prearranged rendez-vous and uttering the ill-chosen code sentence which will identify him to his contact. In each case the act of utterance becomes intelligible by finding its place in a narrative.” (After Virtue, pg. 210)

Ethics presupposes meaning. The mutterings of a man in a coma have no ethical status. They may be tragic or heartbreaking but one can hardly pretend to assess their moral value. If an action has no purpose or intent it has no moral value.

But as MacIntyre makes clear, only within a narrative can an action have meaning. Modern ethics locates that meaning within some temporal story, but such temporal stories are inadequate. As Niebuhr makes clear, we require a grander story, at some level, to make sense of the world. We need to be dealing with “the primal ‘whence’ and the final ‘wherefore.'” We might say that honesty will bring moral satisfaction (a narrative) but we have to ask why moral satisfaction is really worth anything at all. We ask this not in some annoying philosophical sense–”well why would we even want to be happy at all?”–but simply a question about how we can render the action of moral satisfaction intelligible.

Let me explain: if I ask you for a hammer, that request is only intelligible in light of a narrative. For example, I might be building a house. But why am I building a house? Once again, this only makes sense within a narrative. I would like a place to live. Why would I like a place to live? Eventually we end up, as ancient thinkers have often noted, at the simple desire for happiness. They are right, of course, that it makes no sense to ask personally why you wish to be happy, but it is worth asking why this thing or that thing produces happiness. And, we must ask if there is not some better way to achieve happiness, some greater good that satisfies at a deeper level. Temporal narratives leave us guessing and hoping–”I feel pretty happy right now,” we are forced to say, with no idea whether what we are experiencing is really happiness, if it will really last, or if it is even ethical. We just know it makes me happy.

To solve these problems we need an eternal narrative. We need to know something about the goodness of desire and the possibility of satisfaction. We need to know that we are created to desire all sorts of things–contra many Eastern religions–and that these desires are good and can be satisfied. We also need to know why they can be satisfied–because the Good has created them, and their goodness flows from his nature.

Now are are telling stories, cosmic ones, that give deep meaning to even the simplest of actions. This impacts ethics in all sorts of ways. From a Christian perspective, creation itself is involved in a narrative of recreation, and the evil within reality is not just temporal evil but eternal, cosmic evil. Theft doesn’t just fail a test of universalizability but it actually disorders reality further, fighting against the inevitable New Creation.

Thus every single ethical action, on the Christian stance, either moves us and reality towards the New Creation or away from it. It either reorders reality–perhaps simply by reordering our own hearts–or destabilizes and disorders reality. It either draws us back to our final Good or pulls us away from him forever. For the Christian, ethics is cosmic.

Importantly, this is not just esoteric theologizing. This changes our vision of daily choices. In deciding to yell at my brothers I side with the old world and move myself away from my real good and happiness. I disorder reality just a little bit more for myself and for my brothers.

When tempted to lust I am pulled in two directions: do I destabilize the proper relationships between human beings and turn an eternal soul into a pure object for sexual pleasure, or do I rebel against disordered reality and attempt to incarnate the love of Jesus towards this woman in front of me?

Paul channeled this in Philippians when, confronted with a life in prison and a deep desire to die, brings together eternity and the present: “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He describes his inner struggle between being with Jesus and reaming “in the flesh” to help the Philippians. He concludes:

“But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for you progress and joy in the path, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (1:24-26)

Paul brilliantly brings together the eternal and the temporal. Remaining the temporal, he says, is necessary for the Philippians “progress and joy in the path” of eternal salvation. All of this will cause the Philippians to glory in the eternal Son of God because Paul is coming to them again soon. Every decision and ethical dilemma Paul presents here locates the meaning, intelligibility, and moral status of the decision in an eternal and temporal narrative.

And so, Niebuhr seems to have put his finger on something important. I’m not happy with any of the thoughts I’ve given here, but they at least have clarified in my mind some of the relationship between time and ethics.