Monday, March 22, 2010

Only kairos touches eternity

In a chapter entitled "Religion and Socialism" from C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium: Six Essays on the Abolition of Man, Peter Kreeft takes up, as Lewis did, the idea of Progress. My stillborn graduate thesis many years ago was to be about Lewis's criticism of this idea. Kreeft does it better:
...[Y]ou may think [that] this gloomy picture I have painted of a spiritual Dark Ages is only half the picture. What of all the progress we've made?

Well, let's look at the progress we've made. It can be divided into two kinds: spiritual and material. Let's take spiritual progress first. I think there has been some significant spiritual progress in modernity in at least one area: kindness vs. cruelty. I think we are much kinder than our ancestors were, especially to those we used to be cruel to: criminals, heretics, foreigners, other races, and especially the handicapped. I think this is very real progress indeed. ....

Our civilization certainly has produced astounding, magnificent, utterly undreamed-of successes in understanding and mastering the forces of nature. I think every intelligent human being born before the Renaissance, if transported by a time machine to today, would be stupefied with wonder, marvel and admiration at the awesome progress in science and technology, i.e. material progress, in our world.

But now I ask a strange and unusual and very upsetting question: is there such a thing as material progress at all? Or is this a confusion of categories, like a blue number, or a rectangular value? I am not sure of this, but I want to suggest, for your consideration, the possibility that there is not and can not be any such thing as purely material progress; that only spirit can progress.

The reason I think this surprising and unpopular conclusion is true has something to do with the nature of time. To see this, we must speak Greek for a minute. The Greek language is much richer and subtler than English when it comes to philosophical distinctions, and Greek has two words for time, not just one. Kronos means the time measured objectively, impersonally, and mathematically by the motion of unconscious matter through space. For instance, one day of kronos is always exactly 24 hours long, the time it takes for the earth to rotate. Kairos, on the other hand, is human time, lived time, experienced time, the time measured by human consciousness and purposive reaching out into a future that is not yet but is planned for. Only kairos knows anything of goals and values.

For instance, when St. Paul writes, "It is now time to rise from sleep, because your salvation is nearer than when you first believed," he does not mean by "time" something like "June 30 of the year 50 A.D." "It is now time to die" does not mean "it is 3:20 P.M." Ends, goals, and purposes measure kairos, and these things exist only in consciousness, in spirit, not in mere matter.

The reason why I think only spirit can progress is because only spirit lives in kairos. For only kairos touches eternity, knows eternity, aims at eternity. Progress means not merely change, but change toward a goal. The change is relative and shifting, but the goal is absolute and permanent. If not, if the goal changed along with the movement toward it, we could not speak any more of progress, only change. There is no progress if the goal line recedes in front of the runner as fast as the runner runs. ....

The essence of modernity is the death of the spiritual. A modernist is someone who is more concerned about air pollution than soul pollution. A modernist is someone who wants clean air so he can breathe dirty words.

A modernist cares about big things, like whales, more than little things, like fetuses; big things like governments, more than little things like families and neighborhoods; big things like states, which last hundreds of years, more than little things like souls, which last forever.

A modernist, thus, is one who puts his faith and hope for progress in precisely the one thing that cannot progress: matter. A traditionalist, on the other hand, is one who "looks not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen, for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (II Cor 4:18) A traditionalist believes in "the permanent things," and the permanent things cannot progress because they are the things to which all real progress progresses.

Perhaps I should modify my stark statement that matter cannot progress at all. Perhaps matter can progress, but only with and in and for spirit. If your body and your tools and your possessions serve your spirit, make you truly happy and good and wise, they contribute to progress too.

But this modification does not help the progressive at all, since it is pretty obvious that modernity's technological know-how and power has not made us happier, wiser, better, or more saintly than our ancestors. When we speak of modern progress, we do not mean progress in happiness, in contentment, in peace of mind. Nor do we mean progress in holiness and moral perfection or wisdom. We speak readily of "modern knowledge" but never of "modern wisdom." Rather, we speak of "ancient wisdom." For wisdom is to knowledge what kairos is to kronos: the spiritual and purposive and teleological and moral dimension.

Incidentally, this point about kairos and kronos liberates us not only from the ignorant worship of the nonexistent god "Progress" but also from the ignorant lust to be "up to date." A date, being mere kronos, has no character. It is almost nothing. It is a one-dimensional line, the circumference. A line can have no color. Only kairos, only a two-dimensional segment of the circle, can have character, and color. Since a date is only a point on the circumference, it has no character. Nothing can ever be really "up to date." What a wild goose chase is our lust to be "with it" or "contemporary"! What a waste of passion and love and energy! .... [more]
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