The Humanization of Reality

December 29, 2017 Length: 29:18

In the Incarnation, God assumes not only human nature, but also human experience. With respect to this, Fr. Pat Reardon talks about human memory, human speech, and human resolve

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In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Were I to entitle this morning’s sermon, it would be this: “The Humanization of Reality.” Now what do we mean by “reality”? God, and everything else. I’m leaving aside any analogy of being or anything else like that. I do know that to be is not the same as to not to be, so we have at least that in common with God, that we are, although I know that “being” means something different in the two cases, but reality is God, and everything else.

The humanization of reality is posed by the mystery on the threshold of which we stand today. Christmas means the enfleshing of reality. It means, first of all, the enfleshing of God. The theological term in the Orthodox Church is sarkopeisis, shortened to sarkosis, enfleshing. The word sarx in Greek means “flesh.” For some reason or other, Orthodox Christians in the western hemisphere have adopted the Latin word: incarnation, which comes from the Latin equivalent of sarx, which is caro. If you look at them closely, they have the same sounds, don’t they? Sarx and caro have the same sounds, going back to ancient language closer to Sanskrit.

In Jesus the Messiah, says St. Irenaeus of Lyon in the second century, we behold the glory of God. For this text, in his treatise Against the Heresies, we don’t have the original Greek. The earliest sources we have are in Latin, Latin translation. The way that reads in Latin is this: Gloria Dei est vivens homo. The glory of God is a living man. Not talking about any living man; he’s not talking about man, fully alive. That’s all humanistic. He’s talking about a specific man, the Word incarnate. Gloria Dei est vivens homo. The glory of God is a living man. It’s the life of that man, not just his nature—we talked this morning at matins about his assuming of human nature. He assumes more than human nature; he assumes human life. It’s not just a matter of change of essence; it’s a question of an adoption of an existence.

Irenaeus goes on. Vita hominis visio Dei. The life of a man is the vision of God. According to Irenaeus, the vivens homo is Jesus of Nazareth. In the life of this man, vita hominis, is the vision of God. To speak as I plan to do this morning of the humanization of reality, it seems essential to start with God’s determination to humanize himself. Now, this theme is the burden of the second chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, which contains our earliest commentary on the eighth psalm. The question posed—and it’s not, in Hebrews, considered a rhetorical question; it may be what the author of Hebrews was thinking, a rhetorical question; Hebrews does not consider it a rhetorical question—Mah enosh? What is man? Mah enosh? What is man? Uben adam; or the son of man? Hear the word adam in there, ben-adam? Mah enosh uben adam? This double question goes to the heart of the humanization of reality.

Christmas, beloved, proposes a very simple thesis: that the path to God is through a specific human being and the life and destiny of a specific human being. There is no true God apart from the One revealed in his Anointed One, in his Meshiah, in his Anointed One. We do not know God except through man. That’s why anthropology is the only foundation for theology: anthropology. But we do not understand man except through this Man, and that’s why the foundation for anthropology is Christology. We begin with Christ. In the Messiah, God humanizes himself in such a way as to become the path for all humanity to go to God. He assumes, we celebrate today, not only human nature but also human experience. That’s something that none of the ecumenical councils dealt with because it was considered so obvious that there was no controversy. The ecumenical councils dealt with the natures; they did not deal with the existence. That was just too obvious in the gospels.

With respect to human experience and the humanizing of reality, I want to talk this morning about three point: first, human memory; second, human speech; and third, human resolve. Point one: in the Incarnation, God’s Word assumed human memory. That was the burden of both the epistle and the gospel this morning. The epistle recounts the lives of the saints of the Old Testament, puts Christ in a context of historical memory; and the gospel, of course, is the gospel of the genealogies, [which] puts Christ in the context of a specific history. In the Incarnation, the Word enters history, both incorporating history into himself and then incorporating himself into history, and this is the burden of the genealogies in Matthew and Luke.

What we find in the Incarnation, therefore, is the humanization of time. We speak about natural history, which has to do with the development and the evolution of plants and animals, but we’re not using “history” there in a proper sense; we’re using “history” in a metaphorical, applied sense. There really is no history until you have human beings. The humanization of time is accomplished by the expression of memory to coherent narrative. Some of this is going to be a little hard to follow, I think; as you see, I’ve made it as simple as I can, but this is not easy stuff. The humanization of time is accomplished by the expression of memory into coherent narrative.

To explain what I mean here, I want to start by clarifying a problem, and I think a very serious problem. Inarguably most cases these days, we do not use the word “memory” in its proper sense. In fact, we haven’t for many decades used the word “memory” in its proper sense. In common usage nowadays, the term “memory” is taken to signify the mechanical qualification of data. Our computers are said to have a memory. In fact, I suspect we use the word “memory” with regard to computers more often than with regard to human beings, and there’s a problem there, because computers have no such thing. There’s no memory in a computer, none at all. All there is is the mechanical quantification of data. That’s all there is; there is no memory.

I don’t want to sound like I’m opposed to computers; on the contrary, I love computers—at least I love mine. A computer is a very useful machine, and it stores a vast amount of information in the form of electrical signals, and that can be a rather great blessing. Yesterday, without much else to do, because I have a very leisured life, I opened my computer and I googled Bix Beiderbecke’s “I’m Coming, Virginia.” I found on there a recording of this in 1928, so next year will be the 90th anniversary of that recording. It was wonderful. I sat there and listened to really sweet, sweet jazz. Mom and I missed out on Beiderbecke. I think he was dead—at least he was out of the scene; he died early from alcoholism, as so many musicians do. We were raised on Louis Armstrong and Al Hirt, weren’t we, Mom? Anyway, I was listening to Beiderbecke. My computer is what allows me to do something that Mozart could never do, and that’s to listen to all of Bach. Mozart probably only heard a fraction of Bach, because there was only one way to hear Bach. Nobody could hear all of Bach, because we don’t have all of Bach, but we can hear all of Bach that we’ve got, because of the computer. I don’t want to sound like I’m opposed to computers.

See, this is very fine, but if we mostly use “memory” in that sense, we begin to think that that is the proper sense of the word. We start to imagine, implicitly, that real memory, human memory, consists in the capacity to store information in the form of electrical signals. We start to think that the brain is something like a computer; it’s absolutely nothing like a computer. A computer is a way of mimicking some of the lower functions of the brain—just the lower functions of the brain. In human physiology, in fact, we’ve even begun to speak of “muscle memory.” If that isn’t an improper sense, I don’t know what is. We declare that someone has a good memory if he has an instant recall of an enormous amount of data.

But this is not what the word “memory” means. As understood in classical philosophy, to say nothing of the Bible, memory is inseparable from narrative. This more recent usage is simple another example of what René Guénon calls the reign of quantity. By the way, I do recommend that back. René Guénon: G-u-e-n-o-n: The Reign of Quantity. So the computer becomes the human standard.

I remember back before they would let me into Southern Baptist Seminary, many, many decades ago, they made me take a GRE. I suspect many of you had the GRE. It was divided into two parts, what they called verbal and quantitative. But what was most noticeable about it: it was all quantitative. All of it was quantitative. I did not have to write a single sentence, much less a single paragraph. All I had to do was know, oh, what year Dante was born. That’s not verbal; that’s quantitative! Even the verbal was simply quantitative. How much stuff do you know which proves that you’ve been through college and they’ve stuffed a bunch of stuff into your head? That doesn’t even require an education.

There’s a difference between qualitative and quantitative thinking. I thought about that a lot this week. The other day when I was driving back from taking holy Communion to Lucine and Marie, I was stopped at a red light—I do that—and I said, “What is the difference between quantitative and qualitative thinking?” And I thought of a very simple example. Compare a cemetery with a golf course. Quantitatively, they’re both just fields with holes in them. Well, that’s all they are; they’re both just fields with holes in them. Therefore, they’re pretty much the same thing, aren’t they? Well, of course not! It’s ridiculous! We start with the idea, not the thing. We haven’t said how big the field is or how many holes it has in it. Normally in a cemetery you have more than 18 holes. But, see, even to pose the question is to sound ridiculous.

It’s important, beloved, that we resist whatever dehumanizes the human being. Now, memory is a dimension of human history: history as experienced by human beings. Jean Lukacs—I think he’s 93 years old now; he’s still going—there’s a new movie out, by the way, which is based on a book of his. I think the movie is called Darkest Hour. Haven’t seen it yet, but it’s based on his book, called Five Days—or two books: Five Days and The Duel, those two books. Jean Lukacs says that history is an unavoidable form of thought. The humane understanding of history is what humanizes our knowledge. Let me give you a quotation from William James. This is William James:

You can give humanistic value to almost anything, by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, or humanities, when taught by reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to whom those sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature remains grammar; art, a catalogue; history, a list of dates; and natural science, a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.

Arguably, the greatest theoretical physicists of this past century, Werner Karl, Heisenberg, said that the history of quantitative theory is quantitative theory. Let me quote Lukacs again: “The history of anything amounts to that thing itself.” History is not a social science. It was probably one of the most serious mistakes ever made in academic history: to put history in social sciences. It should have remained in literature. History, it is said, is not a social science, but an unavoidable form of thought. Even when we think of the future, we do it by remembering it. The Church has always know this, hasn’t it? The Church has always known this. We remember the future. We’re going to do it this morning:

Calling to remembrance these saving commandment, and all those things which have come to pass for us: the cross, the grave, the third-day resurrection, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming.

We call these to mind; we remember them.

In the Incarnation, beloved, God’s Word enters all dimensions of human memory: the past, the fleeting present, and the future. We confess this whenever we recite the fundamental formula of human memory, which is called the Nicene Creed. The narrative of the Nicene Creed: past, present, future.

Second, the Word took on human speech. One of the most distressing things I’ve ever had to do in my life was to teach cultural anthropology. I needed the job, and I read the first cultural anthropology textbook I’d ever read in my life, because most of the stuff I’ve taught all my life, I’ve never had courses in. I read the first cultural anthropology, that the purpose of language is the conferral of information and feelings. I had to get a good strong grip on myself. Also, I resolved not to drink in the next five days, because that would drive me to drink: that the function of language is to convey information and feelings.

Human history is impossible without human speech. No other animal uses speech to convey memory. This is specifically human. I’ve been studying this a lot lately. I’ve given a lot of thought to this, hours of thought to this. There are three cats in our household. I’m only on speaking terms with one of them. He recognizes his name, he reacts to his name, and it’s not necessary to start a conversation with him; he will start the conversation with you. In fact, it usually goes better that way. His name is Tiglath-Pileser III. We named him after an Assyrian emperor. I hoped in doing that I would inspire him to study Assyrian history. [Laughter] That is, so far, only mildly successful. [Laughter] But Tiglath-Pileser III is a hard name for a cat to memorize, so we just call him Tig, and he knows his name.

Tig is the only cat, I think, with whom I’ve ever been on speaking terms. He initiates the conversation. It’s given me endless opportunity to sit there. You think I’m kidding! Mom has watched me do this. I sit there. He’ll come up when I’m sitting in the chair after supper; that’s a good time. He comes up to talk with me. I sit there and chat with him, ask him questions, and he poses this thesis and that. I’ve noticed certain things about cat-speech. In cat-speech, the verbs tend not to have tenses; everything’s present. This is not surprising, because the cat has no narrative memory. I really wish he would. I wish he would say, you know, “last week.” If he’d say it clearly enough, I would pick up on that. Or if he would say, “tomorrow,” but I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t really expect it.

More important, the cat’s verbs do not appear to have modes. It seems to have only the indicative, with a touch of the imperative. If there is an imperative there, I usually know it, and I look around to figure out what it is. It’s usually his litter box needs cleaning or he needs to be fed, his water needs to be taken care of. We have a living stream right there in the kitchen. But certainly the cat verbs do not possess the subjunctive. That is to say, the hypothetical is not part of the feline mind.

This might seem light-headed to you. This is extremely important, that one of the distinctive characteristics of the human mind—not the angelic mind, just the human mind—is the possibility of the hypothesis. In some sense, the hypothetical is almost the defining quantity of the human mind. That’s the reason why the subjunctive may be the most significant and humane aspect of speech.

We see this in our children’s minds: the natural aptitude for the hypothetical. A stick can become a sword. A frog can become a prince. Rapunzel’s hair can become a rope. The most important words, arguably, in human experience are: Once upon a time. That summarizes it. Once upon a time is the key to the human experience. “There was a certain man who had a large banquet. Ten maidens, once upon a time, awaited the arrival of the bridegroom. In illo tempore a man found a treasure in a field.” The mere conveying of information is the least human aspect of human speech.

Human speech embodies human history. That is why it is futile to even think about making up another language that everybody can speak. It’s not a language any more; it’s something inhuman to do that. They tried that with Esperanto, but they at least had the sense there to borrow from some of the other languages. Human speech is the major means of humanizing reality. God speaks to us. God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spake in times past, in ill tempore, and to our fathers, by the prophets, hath, in these last days, spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things.

Third, the Word took on human resolve. What do we mean by that? Let me start to explain that by pointing out a difference: the difference between a sociologist and a historian. The sociologist deals with data; he deals with fact. The historian not only deals with fact; he deals with the hypothetical. Not only with actuality, but with potentiality. What changes potentiality to actuality? Human resolve.

I mentioned a few minutes ago that new movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but I know what it’s about because I know what books it’s based on. It’s a book about May 24-28 of the year 1940. We know that England did not back down in the face of Hitler. We did not know on May 15 whether that would happen or not. Why didn’t it happen? Chiefly because of the resolve of one man. One man, who became prime minister of Great Britain that month, and within the opening days of his service, was faced with this. The historian deals with that. It was not inevitable. What happened was not inevitable. It was brought about by human resolve.

Many years ago—this is back to pre-Denise, actually; I used to have some fun before you came along; not much, but I had some—I was standing on a cliff, looking out over the Bay of Salamis, and remembering what happened there in September of the year 480. We know that the Athenian fleet defeated the Persian fleet. They did not know that in August of 480. It could have gone the other way. The Battle of Lepanto could have gone the other way. The Battle of Midway could have gone the other way. All things could have gone the other way. We need not have been saved! Theoretically, it could have gone the other way, but somebody made a resolve.

It was this human resolve that changed the potential into the actual. The human resolve that said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word.” The human resolve says, “Not my will, but thine be done.” Now that transition which constitutes drama. God humanized history in a specific way when he sent his only-begotten Son to share his own life with us.