Thursday, October 31, 2013

Page a Day: One Hundred Eleven

            I woke to awareness of my mastodon. She lay beside me in noisy darkness, facing as I did. I slid behind her senses, and saw that we were in some great vault. The smell of ancient machines hung very heavily, like the most fierce of summer storms. Men in silver Profusionist armor shouted and walked swiftly all around, though none were very near. The rest of the herd slept ahead of us or munched on grass outside the walls. It was cold, though of course to my mastodon this made no difference. Behind us a great door opened, though we saw nothing but a flat line of brown-green grasses beneath a graying sky. My mastodon was very glad that I was finally awake.
            I sat up, too quickly to be prudent. My head swam, and my arm cradled the soreness of my chest and stomach. Swiftly, I returned to my own senses so that I would not bother my mastodon, who trumpeted uneasily. I sent her reassurance and the desire to sleep again. And found that a strange wrap of metal surrounded my limbs and head and torso, flowing around everything but my eyes and ears and nose and mouth. It felt heavy and cold at first but warmed and moved as I moved. The metal I wore was Profusionist, of course. I wore a suit of ancient armor, though soon I did not feel it. I could now tear down a tree if I so chose, or leap far above my own head. As it was, I stood very cautiously, for I remembered everything that happened.        
            But I found that I could walk. I did, then, toward the open sky. Along the way I passed others like me, men who slept in armor or cradled arms or legs and groaned beside unquiet mastodons. That unnerved me; it took a great deal of pain or stress or urgency for the Never-born to make any noise at all. But those who passed me walking in the darkness carrying crates or racks of quickswords or extra suits of Profusionist armor did not pause in their labor. Nor were all of them the size and shape of Never-born. Indeed, most of them were not.
            Outside the wind was blowing strongly and the glare from the clouds was very bright. Now there came the loamy smell of the tundra and small animals and birds and fresh water somewhere to the west. I turned all around, seeing the line of the Gidwinn Mountains rumpling the southern and eastern horizon and in the northern distance the long grey line of the ocean at the top of the world. I saw also, of course, what I had already guessed: I had woken in a greatship, one of those vessels which has plied the waters of my world since the time of the Profusion. A city unto itself, the greatship stood fifty paces high and eight hundred long, all the silver of Profusionist machines. Its size beggared the imagination. I had of course only heard of them, as they never came so far up the river into my city Ariel. How this one had come so far inland I did not know.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

These Essays: Some Objections to Augustine

The trouble is that not all Scripture can be interpreted in love - at least not simply so. Some Scripture has nothing obvious to do with love, such as those narratives of the Old Testament about the destruction of peoples or cruelty and violence against women. 

We are not the first people to notice this. The Augustinian solution, and the solution for many ancient readers of Scripture, was allegory, the strict substitution of a historical reality (ie the Church) for a metaphorical figure (ie the beloved) in a text (ie the Song of Songs). This can change the meaning of whole passages of Scripture, so that the Song of Songs, in perhaps the most famous example, becomes not a series of poems about the erotic love between man and woman but about the chaste love between the soul and the Church. With sufficient work along these lines, even the most inscrutable passages of Scripture can build up the love of God and neighbor.

Now obviously we today have some objections to this. It seems too disregarding of much of the realities of the texts themselves. It’s hard to imagine that when Christ instructed his disciples on the double commandment of love, he desired them to interpret allegorically those passages of Scripture which did not openly support Christian charity. 

Today, the best of our first-tier interpretive criteria, gained through many hundreds of years of scholarship, strive to embrace the contents of texts in a more straightforward manner. So we might say that both Christ and Matthew wanted their disciples to understand love as a way of living in the world that both demanded sacrifice and promised reward in the form of the Kingdom of God – or something along those lines. The point is that where the text itself seems more fluid, ambiguous or complex, we now try to bring our understanding of that text to the same level.

But there is a deeper problem with Augustine. For him, the point of Christian doctrine was that all things must point to the Trinitarian love of God, which sounds great generally but has very specific problems. Ultimately, Augustine would have had the signa, the sign that is Scripture be enjoyed only as a means to (usus casui) the enjoyment of the res, the thing, of God for God’s own self (usus frui). 

And we are going to have the same problem with this that we do with allegory: not all things do point directly to the Trinitarian love of God. We feel that many things are good simply in and of themselves as gifts of God. Song of Songs, for example, truly seems to be primarily poetry about erotic love, which makes the encouragement of erotic love the simplest explanation for why we have it.

We don’t think, and shouldn’t have to think, about the selfless love of the Trinitarian God every time we kiss our beloved, or every time we eat a bowl of cereal. At some point, such considerations actually end up diminishing the quality of things as gifts. This is one of the wisdoms of the Reformation: we are saved in creation as we are and where we are, not through some ascetic contemplation that values only the pure love of God and nothing in between. 

It’s not only our final destination that matters. Even within the Augustinian scheme of loving God and neighbor it surely becomes problematic if we love our neighbor solely because doing so leads us to love our God for the sake of our own salvation. Actually, that doesn’t end up sounding like love at all.

Now this may well be a bad reading of Augustine. I don’t know. Almost anyone has read him more thoroughly than I. But if my reading is correct, then Augustinian interpretation needs a measure of correction. It seems too theoretically simple, too abstract, too weighted toward eternity to allow us to understand the Scriptures in the best way that we are able. It passes far too quickly over many urgent interpretive criteria. 

What about historical context? What about the culture of the reader and the imagination of the author? What about textual form and grammatical structure? A less cohesive, unified understanding of interpretation would allow us to honor the diverse details the texts themselves actually consider. We must attend to the complexities, multiplicities and intrinsic qualities of the Christian scripture that we have.  

Because of its position on the second tier of interpretive criteria, salutary force may allow us to do precisely this. Healing, like Scripture itself, is set clearly and primarily in this world. And healing, like interpretation itself, is judged primarily in retrospect: this interpretation has healed, this fractured bone has mended. 

My own argument is similarly retrospective: interpretations which have healed have hewed more closely to Scripture’s content, form, and transformative purpose than those that have not. (It is only with practice that our judgments will improve: this way of reading a text is often helpful, I can tell by looking at it that this cut is on the mend.) Healing is no excuse, no end-around a Biblical text itself.

That Augustine may have allowed for just such an end-around in his interpretive practice is no excuse for us to do so in ours. Salutary force commits us to the contents of Scripture. If the truth is going to set us free, surely we must first know the truth, or be known by it. Only by being faithful to texts will all our various psychological, linguistic, and historical studies of Scripture carry through the understanding that heals. Only by being true to our understanding of Scripture will our explication of Scripture lead us toward the transformation which God intends to impart. Only if it springs from fidelity to the given words of Scripture will salutary force be a viable, additional criterion for determining the validity of Christian interpretations of Scripture.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Page a Day: One Hundred Ten

             On the third day, I go back. The pregnant priest meets me inside the door and motions for me to follow. We go down several flights of twisting stairs. The building is larger than it appears. We pass through a succession of doors, not all of them obvious. Going down through several basements, we meet several people who call her sister. Finally, we come to a very deep, narrow room below everything else. Its left wall is glass. On the other side of the pane are two smaller rooms, stacked one atop the other. Storage creches – remnants from the Black Orchid ships that had settled each and every one of the Profusionist worlds in the first place. They are ubiquitous and nearly indestructable. 
            The top one obviously holds the “wine” that shares the memories of the community. But the one below it holds what looks like a storm of whitened sand.
            “You are an officer,” the young priestess says. “Faith Gata, yes?”
            I nod. “Chief of internal security – and much electronic paperwork.”
            She smiles, a crinkle in her eyes.  “And you are unsettled,” she declares. “We all are troubled. We have so little, no weaponry and very little money and still less talent. The bureaucracy of the Profusion gathers all these things, yes?
            “All we have is patience and time and this,” she says, pointing to the top creche, “the Blood of History, named for our dear founder. But we have had them for four hundred years. Her memories and ours, generation upon generation. Everyone adds something. And things add up.”
              She smiles. “You know, they always said religion was really about some collective unconscious. Now I would say that we’re finally aware of it.  So we have made this.”
            She points to the lower creche. “We call them the White Swarm. And something’s going to happen when they will be required. It will, because it always does. Someone, a small group of people will think they might have everything, and that this will be for the good of everyone. And they will set about getting it, to the ruin of all that is human in the universe.”
            She looks at me a moment, considering. “Perhaps this is already happening. You are not the only officer among us. But the White Swarm is for precisely such a time. Its machines eat machines. They absorb, override, or rewrite much past and present programming, and dissolve sophisticated metals. We would like access to the military tech, of course – and to gain the means to disperse them. Then they will be able to consume all. So these would do no good on one world alone.
              “We do not want to use them. We do not want to cause the death of anyone. We are not terrorists. But neither are we only martyrs, willing to die silently whenever the Profusion decides it wants more control. Think of us also as soldiers, a third side on behalf of all.”
              She waves the creche walls to what must have been their default opacity.
            “Well, Guardian Faith Gata,” she concludes, “it seems that now you truly have a choice.”

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Page a Day: One Hundered Nine

            I keep thinking about work. It worries me. The citadels have always been willing to alter or enhance psychological conditions. Nanites in your skull record every waking memory or speed up reactions, suppress emotion, and clarify tactical thinking. But now the science heads have gone just one bit further.
            One of the Rim worlds in rebellion happened to have deserts that consisted of black sand, and produced fierce storms. Well, the last big sandstorm on the planet hadn’t been natural. It was nanotechnology, making new inroads in psychological alterations. A rebel village within the test area had switched allegiance within hours of the storm. Their betrayal had led to a significant victory for the reoccupation, and a beachhead for further operations. The shifts of perception and priority among the infected had remained for days after exposure. There had been few casualties. Now the world was turning loyal. Black sandstorms covered the planet. The Profusion had just found a new way of war.  
            Maybe that’s why, the third time, I don’t leave after service. Still another priest approaches, a pregnant woman clearly in the first years of her adulthood. “Everyone should have a choice, yes?” she says, and I nod as though I know what she’s talking about. She picks up the bread and wine she carried over. “But how can you choose,” she said, “if you don’t know?” She tips the basket and winks as she pours wine into a glass from a silver carafe. 
              “I’m not supposed to do this,” she says as she dips the bread in the wine. “But then, I suppose, you probably aren’t either.” She presses a single finger to my lips as I gulp down the saturated bread.
              And I understand why these people devote so much time to personal stories, and why they take their food from a common source. The wine isn’t just wine. I feel the memory nanites working through my blood as soon as the bread goes down my throat. And then I know the pregnant woman’s memories, walking through days of her in moments. I laugh. By the Profusion. The Church of Blood are running around with some bastardized version of the military’s instruments of oversight. And they aren’t telling their own stories, they’re telling each other’s. I laugh and leave, not knowing what to do.