Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Winter walk; thoughts on the year's turning.

A week ago the first day of winter, the shortest day of the year, coincided for the first time in 372 years with a total lunar eclipse.

372 years ago the event would have been interpreted, just as centuries before that shrines would have been visited and oracles consulted. Everyone would have had an opinion.

The days are already lengthening, imperceptibly. Spring is a tightly coiled potential turning in on itself, concentrating strength until the sun and softer air trigger a riot of bloom. The blossoms fall into a brilliant carpet underfoot as the summer sun waxes, and then the leaves themselves catch fire and fall into even more brilliant carpets underfoot as the summer sun wanes. Soon the carpets are scattered by the winds and covered with a heavy white mantle of snow.

Today my world was covered in snow, glistening like diamond-embroidered silk in the full sun, under a perfectly clear, perfectly blue, flawless canopy of sky.

I take the same walk all the time, almost every day that it is possible; it is never been the same. The time of year and time of day fashion delicate variations on the landscape. The soccer field, weeks ago covered with noisy geese, is a barren sheet of glittering styrofoam. Walk into it and the snow crunches beneath year boot, the brittle crust giving way to the fluffy stuff underneath. It is beautiful in a particular way, in its own way. The trees are Durer etchings, the vistas are Breughel and Hopper.

[For the Winter Walk Gallery, click here ]

As I walked, I was thinking about the year's turning, how the planet rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, while the sun spins a mad spiral through the universe dragging us along. These are not circles, they are cycles, unraveling in space and time.

But that's an extreme long shot. Cut to the planet, with its approximate population of four billion individual human beings. Bewildering. Close-up on a life. Any life. It appears coherent, it is somehow recognizable, but it is only an approximation, a generalization, and beneath the surface, it explodes in a thousand different, hidden, unperceived directions, participating simultaneously in coincident realities, in parallel universes, in numberless dimensions. Those connections are beyond our ability to perception; we cannot see them, touch them, hear them, or taste them. But we experience them, and interpret them the best we can.

We make the connections necessary to render existence coherent to ourselves. The intellectual heritage of mankind is at our disposal. Religions offer tidy scenarios, and beyond them is the thornier thicket of individual struggle to make sense of it without benefit of clergy. There are science and philosophy and the school of hard knocks. It is thornier because to struggle to understand the nature of things is far more complicated and arduous than being born into a belief system which is taken for granted, actuated, and never seriously questioned by most, and never totally believed by others. It is convenient.

Unraveling the mystery of one's own essence is demanding work. It also means examining all of our significant human connections, because, IMHO, the significant human connections in our lives fulfill a function, many functions, as different as the individuals themselves are different. They serve a function for us, and we for them. Each is an opportunity to learn, to exchange energy and ideas, each is a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of who we are and what is going on. By knowing others we expand our notion of the possible; at the same time, we learn about ourselves.

I will not make a list, but if you got this you are part of my constellation and I wanted to share a thought with you, something that occurred to me on my walk today. Not really a thought, but a comparison, a side-by-side view of apparent opposites. I am speaking of Marxism and Christianity.

No great detail here; just the outlines, in broad strokes.

Marx asserts that man originally existed in a state of “primitive communism.” The development of this social formation is examined in Engels's “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.” That classless Eden was rent by the inevitable and inexorable development of the productive forces, or, as Marx would say, at a certain point the productive forces outgrew the mode of production. Through robbery and force a portion of the population set itself apart, seized control of the means of production, introduced the age of private property, and, eventually, slavery, which created the great Classic civilizations.

Marx postulated that this profound split in society on the basis of private property set in motion the following millenia of class struggle. Each time the productive forces outgrew the mode of production, great civil strife created new relations of production, first the feudal forms, and finally reached perfection in capitalism, which corresponded to the socialized production of modern (19th century) industry. And as the other forms of exploitation had before it, it created its own antithesis, socialism. The old necessarily creates the new by virtue of its own internal contradictions. Socialism represented the relations of production that properly corresponded to the most advanced productive forces.

But socialism was not an end in itself; it was a means. It was another phase of human advancement that, as it developed, destroyed itself. Marx referred to this as “the withering away of the state.” The state withered, he posited, to the extent that an even higher social organization rendered it superfluous, a stateless classless social organization he called Communism. Marx said very little about communism; that would have been speculative. He devoted most of his analyses to how capitalism operated, exposing its basic mechanisms and fallacies, and showing how, with rigorous exactitude, it created its own gravediggers.

Years later, Lenin approached the question of what lay on the other side of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat – the state form of the socialist transition. He says little more than Marx on the question of what it might look like once the state had withered away; essentially he restates the vision of a harmoniously functioning social organism, liberated from class antagonisms, about which one could truly say that each would give according to his ability and receive according to his needs.

If this were a fresco cycle, the last panel would be an exquisitely beautiful composition of natural abundance and human achievement, a return to Eden but at a higher level, the fulfillment of human history and potential. It is the new heaven at the end of the story.

That, in the shortest and crudest truncation, is the “eschatology” of Karl Marx.

What about the Christian movie of human destiny?

Most of the elements are far more familiar to everyone. The key plot points include the creation, the expulsion from Eden, Noah's Flood, ensuing millenia of Jewish history and prophecy, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, a tribulation, a rapture, a last judgment, and finally a new heaven and earth, the complete fulfilment of God's designs.

But the order in which things happen depends on what church you go to. The is no single, coherent, authoritative narrative of this eschatology, revealed piecemeal in passages from the Old and New Testaments and with modern elaborations by contemporary Christian sects. The most culturally pervasive End Times scenario, taught at Dallas Theological Seminary and Bob Jones University and popularized by LaHaye and Jenkins in their megablockbuster "Left Behind" series, was that of John Nelson Darby, an independent thinker in the Church of Ireland in the 1830s, who gradually developed a following and set up independent Christian Assemblies based on his view of Christian eschatology. Darby contributed the pre-Tribulation Rapture to the scenario.

It goes roughly like this: there is a rapture, the true Christians and all children are called up to heaven (naked as the day they were born in “Left Behind”). The nations descend into chaos. A (false) world leader arises, ushering in seven years of peace. He reveals himself as the Antichrist. Armageddon rages until Christ returns. Christ judges the nations and sets up a 1,000 year kingdom, preparatory to a new Heaven and Earth.

A lot of plot was added to the Tribulation and coming of the Kingdom in order to push the best-selling book franchise to 16 volumes. Suffice it to say that during the thousand year transformation, evil will be erased from the fabric of human nature. New heaven and new earth will be created.

In either case, the story begins and ends in Eden.

In the paradise which God created, Man and Woman sinned and were expelled. Their loss of innocence is the motor of the human drama; sin is the fuel and the road is human history. From the Christian perspective, the birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament's prophecy of a messiah. To the Jews that was heresy. To Christians it is the logical fulfillment of divine prophecy.

Plot point: Jesus comes the first time.

He is scorned and persecuted and finally executed. He dies and is resurrected. His disciples and followers continue to spread his word. A religion is born. Within three centuries, Emperor Constantine converts. Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman world.

Around 1000 a.d. numerous millenial sects expected the end of the world. Many were still waiting at the 2nd millenium.

As the last act begins, believers are drawn back to the bosom of Abraham, leaving havoc in their wake. For those who remain, the world is consumed in civil strife, war, agony and despair. That is the Tribulation.

Marx didn't bother to account for the Creation; he accepted creation as a given and turned his attention to human social activity. Yet he began in the same place as Christian doctrine: Eden. Marx's Eden was based on primitive communal social organization, which he and Engels conceived as harmonious but eventually prone to internal pressures as knowledge, population, and technology grew. It may have lasted a very long time before it tore itself into class society and underwent the staggering process we know as history.

Eden is distrupted and this distruption gives birth to the drama of human history, which develops through the constant dialectic of human achievement and human greed. Viewing the splendor and extent of the Roman world, Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Marx replaces Original Sin with Original Theft, delineating in detail how private profit is based on the theft of a worker's labor power in all the various historical forms that culminate in modern wage slavery. Long and violent struggles inevitably occur, just as an old shoe becomes painful to a growing foot, the old forms periodically ripped open by the emergening new ones.

In both stories a logic drives the narrative. At the apex of human greed and degradation the old order is superseded, not without blood and suffering, and replaced by a new order. The new order is the great transition. Call it the Dictatorship of the Proletariat or The Kingdom of Christ on Earth; either way, it is a transition to the complete realization of a new heaven and earth.

The single and complete difference between these two stories of Eden Regained is what drives it.

For Marx, human history is the history of class struggle which the ideological superstructure of bourgeois culture tries to obscure.

For Christianity -- in its broadest sense and not in its American Christian Evangelical sense -- the engine is sin which prevents man from experiencing God's love, making him blind to the light and dumb to the word. The American version much more explicitly makes capitalism a divine gift. The chaos at the end of the world is the culmination of human sin. The 1,000 year kingdom of Christ differs from the dictatorship of the proletariat only in who is in the driver's seat. Not much print is given to what the New Heaven and Earth will be like. Just as Marx did not care to tie himself down in speculation, Jesus did not go into detail on any of this either. They largely devoted themselves to a critique of existing human society. All that could be said of the new Eden was that justice – true and eternal – would be the Operating System.

I raise this because I have been comparing Plato's Republic, Theocracy, and the DOP. Not surprisingly, all three are overt dictatorships. In each case this dictatorship is seen as the necessary prerequisite to... you guessed it. A just world. Heaven on earth. A new Eden.

I'm trying to understand what comes next, what it is and how we get there.

As an old colleague used to say, "the future is bright. Maybe not for you, but the future is bright."

Cold comfort on a snowy winter night.