Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Backwards and Onwards

John Henry Newman said, “we walk to Heaven backwards.”

What he meant by this could be seen from a couple angles. First, we can only rest in the deeper nature of our innocence when we commune with the Divine. That requires us to step back from grasping on to the contents of our mind. It is almost like a falling back away from the conditional world while we become more rooted in an unconditional (heavenly) absolute.

The walk backwards could also mean the re-cognition of first principles. While there are no permanent outcomes, there are permanent values. Sometimes we need to go backward to go forward, and with this I believe Newman was espousing the value of (heavenly) tradition.

There are two countervailing impulses of human history: Arcadianism and Eutopianism. The view of Arcadia holds that everything was perfect in the beginning, such as the Biblical Eden, and that all corruption is the result of man's fall from original innocence. The project of Arcadianism then is to return everything to its original state, reverse the effects of the fall, and shed all of the accretions of the fallen world. We see this with traditionalists, eco-radicals, Romantics, perennialists, some eastern religions, etc.

The Eutopian view asserts that the situation was not ideal in the beginning, and that our focus must be on man's progress. The goal is therefore to build the Great City of Zion. The City of God is subsumed into the City of Man. We see this with modernists, evolutionists, Hegelians, some Judeo-Christian movements, etc.

As with most things, the truth is more nuanced than either of these impulses. We can’t resolve these tensions, but maybe we can inhabit them.

While things were probably never pristine by any stretch of the imagination assuming we could take a ride on the wayback machine, the sense of original purity is not to be dismissed. It points us to the deep feeling-sense that something is not quite right today. The real issue is when we compensate that vertical loss for some horizontal gain towards progress. We reject the transcendence for some false good to be immanentized in the world. But the sad truth is such a transformation can never be completed in history, but only in ourselves.

I believe evolution and progress should be seen more as man's progress towards Godliness. Man's salvation/liberation/sanctification is individual, happening to one person at a time, and constitutes a metamorphosis of the person into a more mature, God-like entity. Natural selection and civilized advancements are not the key factors here. The evolution of mankind as a species and life on Earth at large, in which natural selection and man-made advancements plays its real role, has to be understood in light of building up the City of God, a city fit for gods to inhabit.

Maybe we need to walk backwards first.