Saturday, April 22, 2017
Polishing Brass on a Sinking Ship
In Douglas Adams' masterpiece of cynicism and sacrilege, he pictures time travelers visiting a restaurant situated at the very end of time, where patrons regularly watched the entire universe come to an end around them. As they watched all of reality burn to nothing, the MC made some comment about how they had all in their own time worked hard for the sake of the world but now, in the end they saw that it didn't matter anyway.
This is a problem we must face as we look at the world--the fact that it will not be around forever. This world, this universe is going to come to a conclusion some time and many people think it will be sooner than later. The modern western world has made great progress, though the dream of progress has been ultimately frustrated--but even if it had reached a perfect success, it still would have been a temporary success. We might bring about the millennium on earth; and then the millennium would come to an end and so would the earth. No matter what our perspective, we must come to face with this reality. No discussion of a worldview would be complete without discussing the end of our view--and the end of the world.
The problem can be put very briefly this way: can there be any meaning for life when life (not just our life but ultimately all life) is going to come to an end? That was the question of Solomon considered in Ecclesiastes, and he said that all life under the sun--that is, human life considered simply as human life--is pointless or empty--it is vanity of vanities. Because, in the end, everyone dies and all their work means nothing. Wisdom is better than folly, but the fool dies and the wise man dies and in that they are indistinguishable. (Ecclesiastes 2:15ff) We can play our parts with all our wit and skill, but in the end the curtain will come down and it will all be over. This is the essential problem of the world and we must face it, one way or another. Even Christianity does not, as such, remove the problem. The church has been accused (not without reason) of being almost morbidly obsessed with the end of the world. Christians have divided “on every conceivable notion” about the end of the world, but they all (or almost all) agree that it is coming. In any kind of insane Darbyite scheme with twelve second comings or seven millenniums (each with its own scheme of interpretation), still, in the end, it all comes to an end. The title of this article gives a succinct form of this problem. The question is not original with me and is usually used in connection with an idea of the imminent end of the world. But even if the end of the world is not for several thousand years, the same problem remains. The ship of this world is doomed. It will sink and nothing we do can possibly do more than delay the inevitable for a few seconds. The best of all human actions comes to nothing, so it seems, than polishing the brass on this sinking ship.
Of course, many people throughout history have believed in some kind immortality or afterlife. You could say that when the ship sinks, we are all going to be picked up by a rescue ship or, maybe, that we will just sink into the ocean and become mermen. But while this is a far more cheerful idea than thinking we're all going to drown, it does not solve this essential problem. If we are going to travel on in some other ship, that still doesn't give much meaning to polishing the brass on this one. Of course, how well we polish the brass on this ship may have some baring on whether we get a ride on another ship and so, in that sense, it may be a necessity, but it still doesn't seem to have much purpose. That is all we have with a pagan concept of immortality and even in a lot of what passes for Christianity (much of which is merely a particular kind of paganism). It would seem that all we do is pointless, since it is all doomed to end along with the world in which we do it--it would seems that even the best of all human endeavor is merely polishing brass on a sinking ship.
However, before we can discuss the end, we must begin with the beginning. As I've stated elsewhere, we must begin all our thinking with the existence of God. Everything else is contingent, while He is primary. The fact that this world is going to end is not really as significant (in one sense) as the fact that it very possibly might not have begun. This entire world might not have been--or it might have been something entirely different. Only God exists of Himself and everything else exists for Him. “For thy pleasure they are and were created.” (Revelation 4:11c) It is not that God stumbled upon our ship and decided to help it or to sink it. God was the financier for the ship, as well as the shipwright and the captain. God created this world to manifest His glory and to be the stage on which mankind could come to know Him--to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Originally, this trip was to be--in a sense both true and awe-some--a pleasure cruise. But then man, in his disobedience, drilled a hole in the bottom of the boat and we have been sinking ever since. We do not know what, if any, consummation God intended originally for this world--we do not know for what strange, exotic port we may have been bound. But we were not meant to sink and that is exactly what we ended up doing (or bound ourselves to do). One by one we were doomed to stumble on the crazy, tilting decks and fall into the churning waves while the ship from which we fell slowly fell with us.
God was our captain but not a passenger and so he was no involved in the doom which we wrought for ourselves. But the strange part is that He did partake of it. The captain booked a passage in steerage on His own ship which he knew to be sinking. He booked a passage on a doomed voyage and even fell and drowned like the rest of the passengers. And yet He lived and nothing has ever been the same sense.
Because Jesus was a human being, experienced human death, and rose from the dead, a new path has been opened in the black, blank wall of reality. Humanity will not simply sink beneath the waves and disappear with the wreck of the world we wrecked. “Man will live forevermore/Because of Christmas day.” This is not simply immortality in the philosophical or pagan sense. It is not simply “then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” If that was all we believed, it would still be “Vanity of vanities... all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7-8) The truth is something more complicated and far more interesting. The promise we have is not immortality, but resurrection. Just as Jesus rose from the grave to a renewed, human, physical life in a new body (that yet had continuity to His old body), so will His people rise (at the last day) to a renewed, human, physical life in new bodies (that yet will have continuity to their old bodies in some sense). This is the fate of humanity, of all humanity--even of the wicked, though of their resurrection we know very little.
At first this distinction may not seem to make much difference and this may be why the doctrine of the resurrection lays in limbo for so much of the Christian world. But there is a tremendous difference involved. The essential point is that there is continuity (though also discontinuity) between our present life and our future life. This world and the next have more in common than we commonly imagine. The sinking ship and the rescue ship are very much alike (though also very different)--because they have the same Builder and the same Captain. And it is possible that the port to which He will guide us in that ship is the same as that to which we originally embarked in this one.
But this metaphor of two ships is really misleading. What Christianity teaches is something more like this--that after the ship of this world sinks beneath the waves, there will be a swirl of bubbles and for a moment nothing--and then slowly but grandly from beneath the rolling foam will rise a new ship, gleaming in the sun. It will not be the same old ship but it will not be a different ship, either. This morality is not going to end and then be replaced with immortality nor shall this corruptible wither away and then give place to some new incorruptible thing. Rather, in the end it will be that “this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortality shall have put on immortality.” Death will not triumph because it will not succeed. Nothing is going to stay simply dead, which is why it can be said that “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54)
I do not deny that when we look to that which lies beyond the end of all things we should feel a sense of awe and, almost but not quite, fear. The final home of the blessed must be something strange and, in Charles Williams' phrase, “terribly good”--terrible as an army with banners. But coupled with this feeling should be another feeling. God made us as we are, though sin corrupted His design. God is also making that final home. The New-Heavens-and-New-Earth are not a place that just happens to exist and to which we just happen to go. It is a place which God went to prepare for us--the same God who made us and made this world for us now is making another world for us. In one sense, when we get there, we will feel that we have come home. This is one significance of the Resurrection. Our life here--our physical life with all its distinctive properties--is not a mistake. It is corrupted; it is incomplete; it is temporary--but it is not a mistake. It is not a wrong stitch which God is going to tear out and sow somewhere else. It is going to be set right by becoming something more than what it is--not by becoming something less or something else entirely. This ship may be sinking, but it is a good ship, and we are quite right in hoping and believing that the next ship will be like it.
There are two obvious, common errors regarding eternity which seem to afflict by turns (and sometimes almost simultaneously) the mass of Christian and semi-Christian thinking. People either think of the next life as by exactly like this one or as being exactly unlike it. And the ironic thing about these opposite errors is that they have the same net result. A life which simply extends this life indefinitely seems dull and vapid, and a life which is nothing like it all seems undesirable. (And I think this is why our thinking tends to swing back and forth between them so restlessly--because neither are satisfactory resting places.) I want to emphasize the resurrection as something which quite firmly shatters both ideas--since the resurrection as taught in Scripture is something both decidedly like and unlike our present life.
Moreover, the Resurrection reminds of us one important connection between this world and the next. I said in an earlier article that in Creation man was made as a family or community and that in redemption, he is redeemed as a family or community. The Resurrection of the Body is the proof that this follows through in the New Creation. We are not, in the end, simply absorbed back into God or plunged forever into an isolated experience of God. We are raised in a human body as a member of the human family. Olin Curtis argues that bodily existence is essential to our communal experience. “Without a body a man could be a person; but without a body a man could not be a social person. The philosophical significance of the body is that it is the machinery of personal expression. By means of his body a person breaks isolation, and goes out, and gets a community.” (The Christian Faith, Chapter 10) While I think it is possible that there is some interpersonal experience without the body that does not change the fact that our body is the tool or mechanism by which we relate to other people and without which we cannot even imagine relating to others. And the important point here is the new world Christ is preparing is a world of interpersonal fellowship. It is not an individualistic experience, but a “holy city.” There are great many gospel songs which picture our future life solely in terms of a family reunion in another world--I think this picture is false and dangerous for reasons to be discussed later, but it is good in so far as it reminds us of this--that our destiny is not to be lost and absorbed in the cosmic whole nor to be forever alone with our God. God made us as a family and that family will last forever. Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever--but neither here nor hereafter does man either glorify or enjoy God solely and isolation. Our experience of God and our glorification of Him is centered squarely on the communal aspect of our humanity. This reminder does give some degree of meaning to our work here--perhaps the brass will be lost, but the crew will survive, and whatever we do for them, then, will not be lost.
As I said, the Resurrection shatters most of our concepts of the future life. We will not die, but live--live again in a way that is both like and unlike how we live now. We do not know what this means for us or our work in any practical sense. Our work will be tried by fire (1 Corinthians 3:11-15) but what will happen to it then we cannot now imagine. Though some have speculated (especially Tolkien in Leaf By Niggle) that our work here may in some sense survive and be resurrected--that the new ship will have shining brass because we polished it before it sunk--it is hard to imagine how that would work in most cases and I will not push such a view here. However, with that being said, it is here that we find the first answer to our question. Our work, even our temporal work, can have a sense of purpose. The ship may be sinking, but it is no accident that we are on the ship or that it has brass to polish. This world is a sinking ship; it is not a waiting room. God did not give us the work of this world as a parent gives an impatient child a toy to play with to pass the time until something else happens. Nor is it a test which God arbitrarily selected to try us; nor are the works we are commanded to do here merely crosses which we will shortly discard. God made us and this world for each other, which is evidenced by the fact that the next world will be like (though also unlike) it. The work He calls us to do here may be temporary, but it is not alien or arbitrary. And I cannot help but think that even the most seemingly mundane and prosaic and even undesirable work which God may give us here will not be echoed in some way by work He will give us in that world. At worst, our work now has been but practice; perhaps we polished the brass on the sinking ship only to be ready to polish it on the new ship. (We tend to view eternity in terms too static or too involved with rest. There will almost certainly be work to do there, though we cannot yet conceive what it is.)
However, while that is part of the answer, it is not the whole answer. For a farmer, struggling with hard earth under a burning sun, it is a blessing to remember that his toil is not forever--it may bring him joy to think that perhaps in eternity he shall know what it means to be a farmer on earth with no curse--but none of that gives him any help in his work at the moment. To spend long, weary hours putting in a crop and to remember that for anything he knows the entire Cosmos may collapse before Harvest and it be all for nothing--this is the Vanitas Vanitatum of Ecclesiastes, and if we are to find the answer to it, we will find it where Ecclesiastes finds it. But to understand that answer, we shall have to take a slight detour.
One of the simplest acts of kindness is giving water to the thirsty--whether it be the heroic draught carried by David's mighty men, the water given to the enemy which is like coals of fire, or simply the cup of cold water given in the name of Christ. Imagine a non-human mind, highly intelligent but completely unfamiliar with our world or any world like ours and able to see things only in their basic, scientifically-defined nature--imagine such a mind observing any of these cases. What would he see? He would see one particular carbon-based organism transporting a given quantity of the compound H2O across a set distance and putting in a certain spacial relation to another carbon-based organism. He might have the most exact knowledge of everything involved--he might know with exactness the position and movement of every molecule of the act--but the one thing he would not know would be what the act was. He could look at every atom and never discover that it was an atom of kindness. He might study for ever, but he would never be able from his viewpoint to find out whether the act was “For only comfort or contempt,/For jest or great reward.” He could never find out because the essence or definition of an act does not lie in its composite particles. (And the idea that anything can be reduced to such knowledge is one of the most pernicious errors of the modern world.) I realize I am now treading on a tangle of philosophical knots and I have neither space nor skill to attempt untying them now. But we can broadly say that we, as humans, know what our non-human intelligence does not. We can see the act for itself, not merely in its composite elements, and so can judge it. We realize that to give someone a cup of cold water is, under certain circumstances, an act of genuine kindness, while under others it might be a mere trivial formality, while under others (perhaps) it might be a cruel insult. There is a difference and a meaning to all these things which we can see, because we have the ability or perception to see them--something which could never be seen merely by looking at the movement of the molecules involved.
But let us imagine a different kind of observer. Suppose you are out with a friend in his truck, crossing a burning desert. You have stopped for a brief rest and to have a sip of water from the large water cooler in the back of the truck--for you are still several hours away from anywhere. As you are stopped, another truck drives up a few yards away and the driver staggers out. You know the man. He is a man from the same town as your friend, a man who bares a pointed and poignant animosity for your friend because of his race or his religion, a man who has done everything in his power (and he has some local authority) to make life difficult and miserable for your friend, a man who has managed to alienate several of your friend's closest allies and stopped several of his most important enterprises. Normally, this man is a man of arrogant and cocky bearing. But not today. For he has been traveling for many hours across that desert. His truck broke down for a period and he had to fix it, delaying him. In the process, his water cooler sprung a leak, and he has been without water. Half crazed by thirst he begs--his pride is all broken--for just a sip from your friends water cooler. For a moment, there is silence in the desert. Then your friend rises silently, turns to the cooler, and fills a Styrofoam cup with water and then dismounts from the truck. As you watch, you can't help but wonder what he is going to do. You know how much cause he has to hate his enemy and how little reason he has to help him. Does he intend to give the water, to take the path of compassion and mercy? Or will he, before the face of his thirsty enemy, drink the water himself or pour it out in a taunt?--that is, you know, exactly what the other man would do if the situations was reversed. There is a moment of anticipation as your friend, holding the cup of cold water, moves across the desert sands. Then, without warning, he clutches his chest and falls to the ground--dead of a sudden heart attack. For just a moment, you and his enemy lock eyes in shock and bewilderment. Besides the natural shock of seeing a man suddenly die, you are struck with one great realization. With your friend's death, neither you nor his enemy will ever know exactly what that last act of his was. It might have been an act of kindness or cruelty, of justice or mercy--but you will never know, because it was never brought to completion. The man and his actions are dead and you are a fool if you think you will find out what he was doing by performing an autopsy or a chemical analysis of the water he carried. The only way someone could know would be if some higher mind, capable of perceiving the kind of thing we perceive only in a greater measure, a mind capable of seeing the unfinished act to completion, as it were--only such a mind could judge the action and see exactly what it was.
But this is a picture of many of the actions we take in this world. So many things we start are, by necessity, never brought to completion--and if the end of the world came tomorrow, than none of them would be. The only way our work can be evaluated--and have value--is if some higher mind, capable of perceiving the kind of thing we perceive only in a greater measure, a mind capable of seeing our unfinished acts to completion, as it were--only such a mind can judge all our actions and see exactly what they are. This is the final answer to the blank nihilism of Ecclesiastes: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (12:13-14) This both our greatest hope and our greatest fear--our work, our toil, our actions here do have value, because they will be evaluated by God. Once the ship sinks and resurfaces, the Captain's first task will be a general inspection. Confronted by the reality of the Judgment, we might prefer to go back to the original idea that this life is meaningless--this is rather too much meaning. But that does not change the fact.
In Linda Sue Park's book A Single Shard, a boy is charged with taking a sample of his master's pottery to the king who was interested in commissioning some pottery work. However, during the long journey, the boy is ambushed by robbers who destroy the work he carried--he was able to salvage only one fragment of the pottery. But in determination, he carried this to the king. And from this one shard, the king was able to see the excellency of the original workmanship. This is our hope--when this world and our life is shattered, we will carry the fragments to our King and He (and He alone) will be able to judge their quality.
This life does have meaning because the very God who first made our life, who gave us life, who will give us new life--He (and He alone) will judge it. This is not an alien judgment by some unconnected power who happens to stumble across us, but by the author and captain of our world and of our faith. Whether that makes it more or less terrible is an open question, but it does establish the essential coherence of our life. Our life now, the judgment, our life then--they are all bound together in God, who is the Life.
And that brings us to the final aspect of this matter. As Christians, our work is not done merely for its own sake. If the ship were sailing on a smooth sea, one might do a good thing for its own sake--but not when the ship is sinking. The paradox of our present human condition is that nothing can remain merely itself. Everything that will not become divine will become diabolical. Everything that refuses to put on incorruption will be corrupted. To give a cup of cold water is a good thing, but if it to have lasting meaning--if it is to receive a reward--it must be done in the name of Christ. As Christians, we do not do anything in this life merely for its own sake. “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” Our work is not done in reference to itself or to us or even, solely, in reference to other people--but to God. An old couplet stated: “Only one life, 'twill soon by past/Only what's done for Christ will last.” This is the reality of our present condition, though we usually define what can be done for Christ too narrowly. Paul told the slaves of his day that even in their lowest and most prosaic labor, they could be working for the Lord and not for men. (Colossians 3:23) The destruction of this world does not destroy the meaning of our work if our work is not done for this world. If it is done for God, the world can be end and it will still have meaning, for God will continue.
This is the fundamental mistake of a great of semi-Christian and even Christian talk about Heaven--why the “Christian's hope” has ceased to be a particular vibrant or even appealing doctrine. I mentioned earlier that a great many pictures of Heaven show it as merely a family reunion on the other side. Others, far worse, put it almost in terms of a retirement home or a resort. (I remember, with something of a cold chill, running across a gospel song in some old book which talked about taking our “vacation in Heaven.”) They are right, as I said before, in so far as they remind us that our destiny is communal and not solitary. They are good in so far as they give us any kind of hope beyond the grave. But in the final analysis all of these pictures are wrong, and catastrophically wrong, because they do not give us the right center for our hope. In these pictures, God is left on the side lines if He comes in at all. He is the host of our reunion or the manager of the resort but nothing more and one sometimes feels that people would be quite happy without Him. But Heaven without God is not what we have been promised, because Heaven without God is Hell. The new world, like the old world, will no doubt have beauty and pleasure and the joy of fellowship with other people--but all these things will be there and will be enjoyed only because in them and through them we enjoy and glorify God. “Our Lord must be in all and over all. Let us not have any longing for anything which can exist outside of him. Let us not only in our thinking and in our imagination build the entire company of the redeemed into a solid race of which Christ is center and source, but also find our interest in eternity itself, as Saint Paul did, through our desire to be forever with our Lord and those who love him supremely.” (Curits, The Christian Faith, Chapter 33) Our life in Heaven will have meaning for the same reason our life now has meaning--because we do not life for ourselves or for this world, but for God.
And having said all that, we can very briefly state the essential answer to the question of this article. The ship of this world is sinking but it will not remain below the waves--but on the sinking ship and on the ship which isn't sinking we polish the brass for the same reason and find the same essential meaning and purpose in it--because we want to please the Captain. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)