Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Conflict of Perspectives: The “Eternal Perspective” Vs. “The Here-and-Now”

Growing up in a strong Christian-Catholic environment, I was often told to look at everything with the “eternal perspective.” Simply, this means looking at all of our actions, inactions, relationships, etc. through the lens that we will either end up in heaven or hell.

On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense. I want to understand the consequences of my actions in order to better choose. We use this same logic to discuss financial choices: What is the long-term consequence of me spending this money on such-and-such, or investing in such-and-such? Let’s remember that this Christian idea is based in a real belief that life is not over when we are lifted into our graves.

But there’s something in me that finds the idea and phrasing of the “eternal perspective” discomforting. I have to admit that some of has to do with the common issue with preaching this idea: that it seems to be used to give hope to the hopeless, that is gives those whose lives are poor and miserable a bit of meaning. This may not sound too bad. However, it is often argued that the actual preaching of heaven-and-hell and the eternal perspective is used to keep those who are poor, marginalized, and powerless in their same positions. “Blessed are the poor, for the kingdom of God’s is theirs.” Power structures are not prone to change when those outside the system are told that their powerlessness is in fact their greatest strength.

While I don’t doubt that this has been used as such many times, this isn’t the heart of my problem. That the idea has been used incorrectly is no proof for its inherent incorrectness. The idea of heaven-and-hell may lend itself to misuse, but its misuse is not necessary. There is a very positive and healthy approach to the eternal perspective that doesn't partake at all in suppression or oppression; it is simply a reorienting of one’s life in light of the fact that life is longer and more important than most of us treat it.

No, my problem runs a bit deeper. I find that the eternal perspective can sometimes be a rejection of the here-and-now, as if our present life on earth had no real meaning – as if the present is devoid of lasting value, and has no significance apart from its attachment to the end goal: heaven. But isn’t this false? It’s not as if life on earth is essentially illusionary, and once we enter eternity things matter. Aren’t we taking, right now, the beginning steps of eternity?

But to really understand my discomfort, I need to bring up a point I’ve brought up before: the “Rewards/Consequences Version of Christianity.” This is epitomized by a Christian living a good and upright life in order to get to heaven, and for no other reason. I won’t have sex outside marriage, get crazy drunk every weekend, or cheat on my taxes because these aren’t the straightest roads to heaven. It’s not that refraining from sex outside marriage, deciding not to get drunk every weekend, or abstaining from tax evasion are good in-and-of-themselves. They are simply rules followed for their end result: an eternity of bliss.

Camus had this problem with Christianity. He loved most of the tenets the Church preached, and thought it got closest to some of the deepest truths of mankind, such as our responsibility to one another and other like ideas. But he rejected the idea that we should be doing good for and to our brother in order to gain a reward. Now, although I reject Camus on grounds that a Christian isn’t asked to “do good” simply for the reward; but I can’t disregard the fact that there seems to be a lot of Scriptural basis for this interpretation. Doing good should be done for its own sake – and if it happens to lead us to heaven, then so be it. But it’s hard to not separate the ends from the means when the ends are so weighty and potentially glorious.

But shouldn't what is good for us long-term, according to the eternal perspective, be good for us now too? Do I need always to keep in mind what will be leading me to heaven or hell, instead of seeking what is good in the moment, in the here-and-now? (This isn’t a call for “feeling good in the moment,” by the way.) For example, the abstaining from sex outside marriage is not good simply because it helps me get to heaven; it is good because it is a rule that helps me stay physically, psychologically, and spiritually healthy. In fact, it is because of this that it helps me get to heaven.

I understand that a man who thinks the grave is the end and one who thinks there is much more are going to look at individual actions in this life with a different perspective. But does the Christian need always to ground his decisions in the eternal perspective, and not in the simple fact of acting holy in the moment? Is not the eternal grounded in the here-and-now?


  1. Was it a strong environment that was also Christian/Catholic? Sorry for the snide picking of nits; I can't help it when I've worked for the last 3 years correcting SAT grammar errors. (This would be a Adj/Adv Usage error on our diagnostic sheet)

  2. Now for a more thoughtful (I hope) and worthwhile comment.

    1) Camus' problem reminds me of my British analytical philosophy prof's problem with Christian ethics: he thought it insufficient to say that God's commands/declarations make things moral or immoral. And Parfit (my prof) and Camus are right, of course. The God-Decides-Ethics and the Reward-Based-Ethics are decidedly beneath the dignity of humans, or at least less 'truth-ringing' than the so-called humanist accounts (even if those are themselves ultimately unsupported).

    However, as you point out Camus is misinformed as to what the Christian account actually is (as is my prof). So we should not be confused into defending some distortion of the Faith that becomes the favorite target of the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, and other shallow thinkers of the pop atheism in vogue today. Which leads me to...

    2) the 'eternal perspective' then seems to be perfectly appropriate precisely for the here and now, or perhaps rather precisely appropriate to the human person, who lives in the here and now but existence expands beyond this one dimension. The eternal perspective, rather than being an anti-human instrument of power, is exactly the metaphysics* that yields an ethic of love and demands for the just use of power. As you again point out, people will act differently depending on their view of death as an ultimate end vs. as a transition.

    3) then this Christian metaphysics inspires (or is part of) the whole tapestry of Christian living, in saecula saeculorum. But let us not again let this metaphysics be distorted into a straw-man mythology, in which the 'happy/blessed/just man' of the psalms and Jewish tradition be only the man who kept the rules and who is then granted entry into the promised land of fruitfulness and freedom from suffering, want, etc. In reading Benedict XVI (esp. Jesus of Nazareth), I've come to see the scriptural meaning is far less mechanistic.

    It strikes me that it is particularly Modernist to analyze time and eternity as two separated chronological quantities, the one a line segment, and the other a line (or perhaps a ray). In this vision, the segment truly is reduced to nothing next to the line. It seems to me then that the Christian 'eternal perspective' is not merely (or only) a recognition that after this life will come another. Or at any rate, that wording is very susceptible to misinterpretation.

    Thus on one level it is completely true that an awareness of eternity will reveal that a life spent storing up material treasure is nonsensical. But perhaps the more important meaning, the one that we seem to see the saints using, is that life does not consist only of its material surface: human persons have a depth that stretches out beyond, or transcends, time and space. To me this adds to, rather than subtracts from, 'the here and now.' The problem is really that without the eternal perspective the here and now loses significance. (And it was this point I think that Camus really was stuck on, with the Absurd; the Eternal Perspective renders the absurdity meaningful, as the Spirit hovered over the chaos and drew forth cosmos. Camus could not believe what he saw as inauthentic 'escape', and he would be right, if not for the person of Jesus).

  3. Thank you once again, Basil, for your thoughtful and apt considerations. You took off where I left: exploring how the two perspectives fit and compliment one another, both logically and within a theological structure.

    While I agree with every single thing you wrote (I think), perhaps my issue is that your ideas are…not exactly naïve, but, from a realistic standpoint, not in line with the way things have worked out throughout history. This is, of course, on account of our fallen nature.

    For example, in response to your #2, which explains how the eternal perspective (EP) is not a tool for power but in fact the perspective necessary for understanding human dignity, I think most often this hasn’t been the case. Now, this isn’t an argument against you or your idea, which I agree with, but simply a pointing out that the EP seems to lend itself to problems.

    Perhaps I may get labeled a Marxist, or too left leaning, for thinking that people have used the EP for the sake of stagnating power structures, and thereby perpetuating hegemonies, but I think it’s true. But this is for another conversation. I’m more concerned here with how the EP can stagnate our discussion of theology and ethics.

    For example, there’s a lot of Christians – mind you, I’m not saying Christianity – who might see Christianity like this: There’s an afterlife that will reward/punish you for how you’ve acted on earth. In order to attain afterlife-bliss, you must avoid X, Y, and Z. I think there’s a lot of people, faced with this sort of equation, who would just avoid X, Y, and Z for the sake of the afterlife-bliss. They don’t care to know the inherent goodness/evilness of X, Y, or Z, since they have reason enough not to partake in them. I find this a simple enough reaction.

    What I am calling for is a correct, full interpretation of how both perspectives coexist. I think Christian circles, or perhaps strong vibrant Christian circles, do well in emphasizing the EP – but they could well in also understanding and emphasizing the here-and-now. Thinkers like Benedict and JPII, with their comprehensive understandings of the human person and theology, do this well; and I think others should follow suit.

    As with a lot of theological issues, the answer is the same: Look to Benedict and JPII.

  4. Ha ha! I like your last answer, and I second it. I am curious, however, about the paragraph above it, and specifically what you mean by "both perspectives." Do you mean both "here-and-now" and "there-and-then" (i.e., both a space-time perspective and a EP) -- in which case, as I tried to write in my comment above, I think that is a misreading of EP, in much the same sense that "supernatural" means "more than natural" rather than "unnatural" or "not natural." Or do you mean the EP containing both a sense of heaven as a future after-life and a sense of the depth of this life beyond the space-time?

    I agree with you that Christians might see EP as a prolonged rewards system. And that is a task for preachers, catechists, and evangelists (the last including us, I suppose). So I don't think we can say that the EP "lends itself" to that misinterpretation... Poorly explained, perhaps it does, but then the problem seems to lie in the explanation/explainor rather than in the EP itself. [You might be able to say the same about the very belief in heaven itself.]

  5. hail Brethren,

    I have to admit this question was casually bothering me the other day. A particular coworker was attempting to "encourage" us that the end times are at hand. (don't worry there was plenty of old testament fire and punishment cautioning as well)

    The warning of the end times, while daily working for a human rights organization, seemed to smack of absurdity. How does one spend their waking hours working to improve the state of the world while whole-heartily believing that it will end in their lifetime? In one sense I'm glad the person doesn't think it through, a I am more or less convinced that conclusion would have very little to do with working towards a better world.

    I assume that if the thought has been carried out, the discrepancy is resolved by some manner of rewards based version of Christianity. Though, given the dedication and commitment of this person it's hard to think that their daily fight for justice stems from a seemingly selfish(?) desire for paradise.

    On a different note: Didn't Screwtape have something to teach us about this? Ah yes here it is:

    “The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present — either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.”

    and as a supplement:

    “Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays. Hence the encouragement we have given to all those schemes of thought such as Creative Evolution, Scientific Humanism, or Communism, which fix men’s affections on the Future, on the very core of temporality. Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. Do not think lust an exception. When the present pleasure arrives, the sin (which alone interests us) is already over. The pleasure is just the part of the process which we regret and would exclude if we could do so without losing the sin; it is the part contributed by the Enemy, and therefore experienced in a Present. The sin, which is our contribution, looked forward.”

    love me some Screwtape...

  6. Ok and one more small segment:

    "To be sure, the Enemy wants men to think of the Future too — just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow’s word is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present."

  7. @Ananke: Great thoughts. And those Screwtape lines…just perfect for the conversation. I want to write a post simply on these. I guess I need to get back to Lewis.

    @Basil: When I say “lends itself to misinterpretation,” I am not, obviously, referring to the actual truth of the eternal-perspective. Truth is truth – nothing more and nothing less. However, I think we live in a specific age – replete with its analytical philosophies, ability to reason and dissect – that tends to misread the EP. Of course, the problem is therefore with the time and age, not with the EP. That said, individual people are not responsible for what piece of space-time they occupy.

    For example, take Augustine’s “Love God, and then do what you will.” There’s a basic truth to this. However, I wouldn't say this without MUCH explanation to people of a certain age and temperament. I would say it “lends itself to misinterpretation” within certain contexts, even though it rings of absolute truth.

    And hence with the EP. Yes, it is up to preachers and catechists, and all of us, to make sure people understand the EP in the larger theological context. Perhaps this very conversation is us (attempting) to do just this.

    Also, my comment about the “two perspectives” is reflective of our modern analytical process: we can dissect pieces and categories very well, but we don't always see the connections. I think it is possible, on a semantic and logical level, to separate the EP and the HAN (here-and-now). Of course, neither makes true Catholic sense without understanding the other. In reality, as you put it, they’re part of the same perspective, not two different ones. But since we’re able to dissect them, I referred to them as two.

    Plus, I’m pretty sure I’ve been taught, catechized, and encouraged to consider the EP when it wasn’t taught in its completeness. (Adolescent questions: “Why is this wrong? Why do you or the Church say such-and-such?” Adult response: “It won’t get you to heaven, and that's your goal, right? It’s wrong because it won’t get you to heaven.” Meanwhile, it won’t get us to heaven because it’s wrong – the adult response has it backwards.) Perhaps you’d say this wasn't the EP then, since the EP only exists meaningfully within the same conversation as the HAN. But for the sake of the conversation, I just referred to it as the EP.

  8. By the way, it's nice to have a conversation via the blogosphere again.

  9. Got it, thanks for the clarifications! And indeed it is good again...makes me think of some sci-fi story of people in a future world in which their sole communications occur via technology. I think there could be cool conflicts in the story, i.e. as one encounters other's avatars or what have you, the doubt as to whether any other person actually exists. The story could engage also some of the ideas of Wojtyla's Toward a PHilosophy of Praxis and L&R... Hmmmm I may have to sketch this one out...

    Jason, how are things? Thanks for the Screwtape quotes. Just when I thought I couldn't love Lewis any more...