Sunday, November 29, 2015

And so we enter a new season

No, this is not only the climax of the college football preliminaries (the run up to rivalries, bowls and playoffs.) But also, for Christians, we begin the season of Advent in which we anticipate in joyful hope the coming of a child, of New Life. (This probably works better in the northern hemisphere; every year I wonder how it feels to spend Advent in a place where the turning of the earth signals an onrushing midsummer.)

Change is coming and we are enjoined to hope that something better is ahead.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place ..."

How contemporary.

In The Ransom of the Soul, Princeton historian Peter Brown explores how early Western Christians' understanding of the collapse of the empire of the day (Rome), and of wealth, bled into each other in an Augustinian piety in which inescapable sin required perpetual almsgiving for the construction of clerical institutions.

To get there, he describes the relation of money and the afterlife in the understanding of the first Christians, the ones for whom Jesus' warming of "rumors of war" and "not to lay up treasure in heaven" were more immediate.

I found Brown's picture of that early Christian understanding compelling:

... the notion of treasure in heaven gripped the imagination because it seemed to join apparent incommensurables. To transfer money to heaven was not simply to store it there. It was to bring together two zones of the imagination that common sense held apart. In an almost magical imaginative implosion, the untarnished and eternal heavens were joined to earth through "unrighteous mammon" -- through wealth that was the most transient and, indeed, with all that was most sinister, on earth -- all too heavy with associations of violence and deceit and, even when honestly come by, still smelling of the grave. If the brutal antithesis between heaven and earth, pure spirit and dull matter, could be overcome in this way, then all other divisions might be healed.

Not the least of these divisions was the gulf between rich and poor. In the Christian imagination, the joining of heaven and earth was refracted (in miniature, as it were) through the joining of two persons (or groups of persons) in incommensurable social situations -- the rich and the poor -- through the gift of alms. Hence we should not imagine that the relation between rich and poor in Christian circles was governed only by compassion and by a sense of social justice. Christians could be compassionate. Their reading of the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) kept them fully aware of the passionate concern for social justice of the prophets of ancient Israel. But both Jewish and Christian giving to the poor involved something more than that. Almsgiving was not only a matter of "horizontal" outreach to the poor within society. It evoked a symbolically charged "vertical" relationship. It tingled with a sense that almsgiving created a bridge over a chasm that was as vertiginous as that which separated earth from heaven, and human beings from God.

For, like God, the poor were very distant. Like God, the poor were silent. Like God, the poor could all too easily be forgotten by the proud and the wealthy. Sense there was an imaginative weight, for early Christian readers, in the seemingly matter-of-fact reminder of Saint Paul in his Letter to the Galatians "that we should remember the poor." But remembering the poor, pious believers (Jewish and Christian alike) took on something of the vast and loving memory of God. God never forgot the poor, while human beings -- whether because they were proud or simply because they were too busy -- found the poor to be, alas, eminently forgettable.

In this way, "to remember the poor" was seen as a joining of opposites that echoed, in society itself, the paradoxical joining of heaven and earth, of base money and eternity, and of God with humanity. Without such perilously anomalous bridges (each of which flouted common sense), the universe itself would fall apart. The rich would forget the poor. The living would forget the dead. And God would forget them all.

For Brown this was prologue. I find quite enough to contemplate here without, yet, going further.

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