Thursday, December 20, 2018

Reflecting on "incurvatus"...especially in contemporary culture


Among faith communities, certainly among Christian faith communities, there is at least a veneer, if not a concrete foundation, of sacralising the past. Hallowing the past, beginning with “the Garden” and the “Birth” and the “Crucifixion” and the “Resurrection”. The Eucharist celebrates The Last Supper, in which Jesus accompanied his disciples prior to his death.

Nevertheless, without in any way rejecting or even disdaining the stories carried forward from scripture, Jurgen Moltman writes a theology entitled, The Future of Creation.

After Moltman calls creation “in the beginning a system open for time and potentiality,” he then posits a corollary: “we can understand sin and slavery as the self-closing of open systems against their own time and their own potentialities. If a person closes himself against his potentialities, then he is fixing himself on his present reality and trying to uphold what is present, and to maintain the present against possible changes. By doing this he turns into homo incurvatus in se. (That is a life lived “inward” for oneself rather than “outward” for God and others.) If a human society settles down as a closed system, seeking to be self-sufficient, then something similar happens: a society of this kind will project its own present into the future and will merely repeat the form is has already acquired. For this society, the future ceases to offer scope for possible change; and in this way the society also surrenders its freedom. A society of this kind becomes societas incurvata in se. Natural history demonstrates, from other living things as well that closing up against the future, self-immunization against change, and the breaking off of communication with other living things leads to self-destruction and death…..We can therefore call salvation in history the divine opening of ‘closed systems’. The closed or isolated person is freed for liberty and for his own future. A closed society is brought to life so that it can look upon the future as being the transformation of itself…..

Closed systems bar themselves against suffering and self-transformation. They grow rigid and condemn themselves to death. The opening of closed systems and the breaking down of their isolation and immunization will have to come about through the acceptance of suffering,. But the only living beings that are capable of doing this are the ones which display a high degree of vulnerability and capacity for change. They are not merely alive; they can make other things live as well. (Jurgen Moltmann, The Future of Creation, SCM Press, 1979, p.122-123)

Suffering, of the kind that others impose by bullying, or of the kind that the universe delivers through disease, loss, alienation and death, has been co-opted as the “enemy” against which much of contemporary culture has declared a “zero tolerance policy”. And while legal justice is relative, it is not the most important end goal of acts that inflict suffering. Legal justice invokes a kind of punishment, calling that punishment “justice” without pausing to reflect on the spiritual, psychological impact and “gift” of the suffering. That pause and reflection, especially if it is allotted a significant amount and degree of time and energy, is too often considered self-indulgent, self-pity, and it is especially disdained by those who chant, “That was in the past; let’s leave it there and get on with the future.”

An “open” person, paradoxically, opens his/her eyes, ears, mind and imagination to the suffering s/he has experienced even through acts and attitudes that s/he has committed against others. An “open” societal system, too, remains open to accepting, acknowledging and then fully owning the pain/suffering it has brought about against those within, and especially those without the system. We live in a period of history in which pain/suffering are the focus of much of the public discourse, including the media. And we almost universally do this with pointed fingers at the “other” as agent of the pain/suffering while demanding judgement be meted out to that “deplorable” person/agency. The universe, including our private, inner voices, however, does not relegate pain to the agency of “the other”. The universe and our “inner voice” (as if they are one both) know that we too are vulnerable to the prospect of inflicting pain and suffering. And the pain that we inflict carries with it a penetrating potential of “waking us to truth and reality” to which we were previously blind, ignorant and insensitive.

A person, ensconced in the concrete of blind innocence, denial, and willful ignorance of the pain/suffering s/he has inflicted and continues to inflict, remains “closed” and primarily, if not exclusively, for him/herself. Similarly, a closed society that remains blindly innocent, in denial, and willfully ignorant of the pain/suffering it has and continues to inflict, is also existing exclusively for itself. In the vernacular, we used terms like “narcissistic” to depict a “closed” person and a closed society gestalt.

Not surprisingly, closed individuals breed other closed individuals, just as ‘open’ individuals also breed open individuals. And a society fossilized in the “closed” and inward gestalt of armies of “closed” persons, will effectively breed more in conformity with the societal norm.

It is not an accident that we are currently drowning in rhetoric that divides between “closed” and “open” persons and society. And the implications of this “either-or” pitting the “closed” option as the preferred, and allegedly legally and institutionally emboldened one is dangerous from so many perspectives.

The gestalt breeds an inordinate burden of the health care systems of people so self-defining. Withdrawal, isolation, alienation, segregation, classism, racism, ageism, sexism…..these are all contributory factors in the pervasive process of justified “closed” persons and systems. And the implications are ubiquitous: in our ER’s, our cancer wards, our courts, our prisons, our schools, and even in our own homes. It is not mere the health care budget that struggles under this “drain.”

There is also a “price” for every organization in which “closed” persons seek and find employment. Looking inward, exclusively “padding” the resume without caring an iota about the culture in the workplace, and the hidden “downside” to a growing cadre of “closed” persons, once again, develop almost inadvertently, a culture in which “closed” becomes the norm, and “open” persons struggle to find a place, given the charges of “innocent” and “apple-polisher” and “sycophant” to the authority structure. Remaining “closed” and looking “inward” becomes easily and readily justified in a cultural rationale that goes like this: “We really do not wish to stick our noses into another’s personal life!” even if and when we know that another is so burdened with pain, and so isolated, for any of a number of “reasons” (most of which do not qualify as such) of being different.

An “open” person, given the context of our culture, is also exposed as “different” if not even considered “deviant” given the norm of “closed” that so infects so many cultures, especially ecclesial organizations. And this “closed” persona is also reinforced by the “closed” society of the church establishment, locked as it is in avoidance, denial and refusal to own the plethora of ways it participates in the infliction of pain and suffering, and even directly inflicts that pain directly. Barring themselves from pain and transformation, churches reinforce a cultural norm and an indefensible social and personal “ethic” that paradoxically defies Moltmann’s theological thesis.
By definition, closed persons and closed systems are far more likely to inflict pain, given the natural disposition that undergirds all life, to be open, and receptive to change.

Canada, as a nation, is especially subject to a diagnosis as “closed” in both the personal archetypes of its people, and in the organizational norms of its various groups. Recently, in a conversation with a professional fully engaged in the prevention of homelessness among Canadian youth, I heard these words: “After all the research and the programs and the worthwhile efforts to prevent homelessness, we still find that even youth who have become housed, are still distinguished by their aloneness and their loneliness and we are still working on that.”

Preserving a culture that is “closed” while reinforcing a similar model of closed for aspiring individuals, is a sure way to guarantee that aloneness and loneliness will continue to prevail after all the work to devise and implement innovative systems to prevent homelessness. My wife and I have live on our street for going on five years, in a small Canadian town; and with some dozen houses on our block, one individual has gone out of his way to extend a hand of friendship and neighbourliness, while another two make it a habit to say “Hello” if and when we meet on our respective driveways, coming or going from our homes. Mostly, though, this kind of neighbourhood prevails across the country. And the archetype simply reinforces itself, as if it has been and will continue to be the Canadian model of citizenship.

Of course, if there is an emergency, on our street or on another, immediately upon become aware, neighbours will often shed their “reserved” closedness.
Research evidence continues to mount, too, about the increasing feeling of aloneness and loneliness that pervades the young people in our culture, in spite of the four hours most of them spend every day locked on their cell phones, supposedly in “contact” with their friends.

It is a shared collective and collaborative future that is sentenced to death, with the deepening penetration of the “closed” incurvatus person and/or organization. And, it will take a tectonic shift in both perceptions and attitudes to link the original “creation” to the final eschaton, rendering every moment past and present as an integral and intimate part of the eternal future. Such a shift might have some potential for those who consider themselves Christians, with easy access to Moltmann’s thought and theology.

Releasing any clinging to the past as “sacred” will make such a shift in attitudes and perceptions feasible and accessible. Clinging to an obsession with legal retribution and vengeance will preclude such a shift. Are we up to that shift?

It is important theologically, spiritually, psychologically and culturally!

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