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The Narrow Gate

19 Nov

Kierkegaard: “Only the Eternal is … always present, is always true. Only the Eternal applies to each human being, whatever his [or her] age may be. […] If there is, then, something eternal in [an individual], it must be able to exist and to be grasped within every change.”

One of the critical mistranslations from New Testament Greek to modern English happened when aionios (Greek, eternal) became everlasting. From that fateful moment, upon a careless decision – or was it intentional? – of the translator, Christianity lost its original concern for the real presence of mystery and became – or rather degenerated into – a religion of the afterlife.

Jesus had been deeply focused on that moment of disillusionment when the really real (he called it God-power or the reign of God) breaks through our illusions of separateness and superiority and reveals our essential oneness with our neighbor. Christian orthodoxy not long thereafter began to move the primary objective of salvation out of this world and into the next.

Eternal simply means “timeless.” In time we are always living on the invisible threshold between a past and a future. Everything up till now has conspired to give shape to the ego and its personal world; everything after now can only be sketched out along a scale of probability, following the trajectory of momentum carried over from the past. What we call an individual’s character is only the part of the personality that has been so conditioned by his or her genetic and personal past as to be fairly predictable and enduring.

When we observe the past and future from where we stand, they seem to fit and flow seamlessly; what is called “the present” is elusive and impossible to pin down.

But it is precisely the present that is timeless, transcendent to the flow of past and future. The present is ineffable, since whatever word you may use to render its meaning is itself the product of a previous effort. You think you have it? Look again: you are holding only a relic of the past, however recent.

This is why my preferred reference to ultimate reality plays creatively with the terms “presence,” “mystery,” and “reality” – as in (1) the present mystery of reality, (2) the real presence of mystery, or (3) the mysterious reality of presence. It is about what is really real, what is elusive and ineffable, and what is here and now.

Kierkegaard says that the Eternal is “always present, always true” – and here true refers not to the accuracy of a statement but to the reality or authenticity of something. True, in this deeper sense, is not the opposite of false but of fake, counterfeit, illusory, unreal. (By the way, this is why Nietzsche refers to a doctrine or theory as an “untruth” – because it sets up a screen between us and the reality we are attempting to describe.)

A recovery of concern for the eternal over what merely lasts forever marks a transforming moment in awareness. Because so much of religion and religious orthodoxy is preoccupied with the project of getting the soul out of its body and into the next life, the possibility of a living faith in this present moment has been displaced by a frozen set of doctrines one must believe to be saved. In its deeper and original sense, however, faith refers to a mode of awareness and life that connects us to the present mystery of reality.

This is what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of our need to enter God-power through “the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13). A living encounter with divine presence is only possible in this moment. Our tendency as individuals to miss the moment and dwell instead on the past or future is only amplified by tribal religion, where sacred tradition or apocalyptic expectation can conspire to distract an entire society from the present mystery. We scurry back and forth across this vibrant threshold countless times a day, and the blood we shed in defense of our tradition or to advance our mission is poured out – always – on holy ground.

Eternity, then, is not after or outside the flow of time, but “within every change,” as Kierkegaard observes. Although he hasn’t used the word yet, I suspect that he also regards faith as something like a primary attitude of existence whereby an individual opens his or her life to the real mystery of presence.

The distinction between ego and soul (explored in my previous conversation with Nietzsche, Watts and Heschel) is especially relevant here. My cultural identity as a member of this tribe, a person with masks to wear and roles to play, is conditioned by a past and oriented toward a future. Ego is always in time – but is just not able ever to be on time, fully in this moment and free of “me-and-mine.”

Meanwhile, my grounded presence in reality, here and now – which is to say, the soul of myself (rather than “my soul”) – simply abides. One part of what I am waits for the other part to slow down, drop in, and let go.

The first movement of faith is letting go.

 

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