Standing beneath McGraw Tower at midnight is akin to experiencing the prolonged death throes of an eternity. Every day becomes as the instar of all time en miniature. Sunrise came today at 7:16, and sunset came at 16:34. Every passing minute sends another crumpled leaf falling in a perishing semicircle; long-since dead, each has now given up clinging to even a semblance of its former life. The flood of light at the sun’s rising and the onset of twilight mimic the life-story of the universe as a whole, the first inklings of energy stretching the cosmic fabric outward, and, having vented their smoldering fury to the point of exhaustion, their eventual extinguishment. The bells begin.
“Still in dämmriger Luft ertönen geläutete Glocken,
Und der Stunden gedenk rufet ein Wächter die Zahl.”
“Quiet in the twilit air, the pealed bells resonate,
And mindful of the hours, a watchman calls out the time.” -Hölderlin, “Brod und Wein”
Paul Tillich once defined theology as the science which concerns itself with all that may make or unmake us, as existent beings. At its most basic, theology concerns itself with the question of why something, anything at all exists, as opposed to not existing. This is an ethical and a moral question, to which the scientific method can offer no satisfying response. How, all the same, are we to discern these make-or-break phenomena within the rude noise and ceaseless bustle of 21st century life?
The first striking of the bell is incitement to revolt, against still-born creeds, atrophied emotions and demystification. Time has not and never will suffer itself to be halted. It cannot be blackmailed into obeying our feeble notions of “progress”; it is likewise the grossest misnomer to speak of “being on the right side of history.” There is no moral progress which we may effect on our own. Time is a duplex maw, twin abysses crushing the life out of a present moment so infinitesimal and fleeting that it may as well not exist. From one rooted beginning the thread carries to an end beyond all human reckoning, but very much a real one. The beginning of the universe exists, and its end exists too. Only God Himself, one continuous action enthroned in eternity, may be said to have any possession over it at all.
“Sieh! und das Schattenbild unserer Erde, der Mond,
Kommet geheim nun auch; die Schwärmerische, die Nacht, kommt,
Voll mit Sternen und wohl wenig bekümmert um uns,
Glänzt die Erstaunende dort, die Fremdlingin unter den Menschen,
Über Gebirgeshöhn traurig und prächtig herauf.”
“Look! And the shadow-image of our Earth, the Moon,
Comes now in secret as well; the effusive night comes,
Full of stars and perhaps with little care for us,
And there she, the astounding one, the stranger among men,
Grieving and magnificent glows over the heights of the mountains.” -Hölderlin, “Brod und Wein”
The stillness of night, the stranger in our midst, is blank like a canvas. The faces of the clocktower pour out their bitter lights and gaze outward, unblinking like divine eyes.
The night is moonless. The light has long since died from the sky, and in its place fear lies pregnant in the dome of the night. An admonition, lest we forget: the bedrock of all that is valid and true is invariably what is the hardest, darkest, and most ancient of all. Fear, above all, of God, a fear of beginnings and a fear of ends. How palatable this may be to modern sentiment is of no import. Truth is autocratic. It remains sovereign and utterly aloof of humanity. It cannot touch us without scalding us to purity. Like a Roman locutor, it metes out justice with a steady, unmoved hand. We fall weeping at its feet.
“Sól tér sortna, sígr fold í mar,
hverfa af himni heiðar stjörnur…”
“The sun goes dark, the earth sinks into the sea,
The hot stars fall from heaven…” -Völuspá
Where am I, in the scheme of beginnings and ends, and of the one true beginning and the one true end? Nowhere at all, I stand on a foundation of time that slips away from me, eludes my every grasp.
Time is the most ruthless slaver of all. It leaves men to flounder like desiccating fish on a retreating shoreline, scratching futilely at the sores of their misfortune, like Job. The harshest affliction of all is mortality, which time wields like a cudgel. Time stretches its hand out to strike us, and sends us detested and despised down to Sheol.
Each peal of the bell is the better part’s passing of an hour, an inexorable noose’s tightening around the neck of the most wretchedly stupid creature on Earth, Homo sapiens. Knowing man, knowing what? If he knew, he would not act as he does.
Consider the Old Testamental history of Israel; these suffice as a historiographical case in point (esp. 1/2 Kings). The ironclad promise binding these moralia-histories together is that humanity will always stumble. A mistrust of human intentions is their rationale, and the persistence of sin upon heaped sin down through generations is their sine qua non. Human life-ages are vacillating blips, upward spikes and hopeless downward spirals on a moral seismograph. So measured, guilt, punishment, and perfunctory redemption shudder as they chart the will of God, spurned a hundred times more than it has ever been embraced.
We now see ourselves forced into a predicament: either time is regulated and ordained in its operation by an all-powerful, all-knowing being, or it is not. Perhaps that being is only somewhat-powerful, somewhat-knowing. Perhaps no such being exists at all. If that being exists, perhaps it does not care for us. Perhaps it hates us. Perhaps it dooms us to sputter out abject, furious lives, and then to cease before our time.
“Aber Freund! wir kommen zu spät. Zwar leben die Götter,
Aber über dem Haupt droben in anderer Welt.
Endlos wirken sie da und scheinen’s wenig zu achten,
Ob wir leben, so sehr schonen die Himmlischen uns.”
“But oh my friend, we have come too late! It is true that the Gods live,
But they live above our heads, up there in another world.
They act endless there and, so it seems, care little for
Whether we live or not, so greatly do the heavenly ones avoid us.” -Hölderlin, “Brod und Wein”
Call it Marcionism reconsidered. The God of Abraham is a grubby, greedy being whose irascible bloodlust is not to be sated by any mortal obeisance. His material creation is a tragic Missgeburt, a misfire that still torments us. Creation all about us is an ending cacophony, and the only consistency which we may reasonably expect is our own wasting away. Abraham’s God is playing second fiddle to a God whose works and ineffectual kindness are hidden from the world.
Are we willing to accept powerlessness? Those forces which direct the life-stories of stars and atoms are overwhelming in their strength. They bear us no malice or goodwill at all.
“Ἡ Οὐαὶ ἡ δευτέρα ἀπῆλθεν. ἰδοὺ, ἡ Οὐαὶ ἡ τρίτη ἔρχεται ταχύ.”
“The second Woe has gone. But see, the third Woe is coming fast.” -Revelations 11:14
The bells reach their halfway mark, and the hands of the clock burn paralyzed at the zenith of their track. The course of one woe progresses in a line, inscrutable in its workings and unimaginable in its course, promising to drag us down with it into the inextinguishable lake of burning naphtha.
The fear of Hell is the most reasonable thing in the world. There is no more logical idea in the universe than Original Sin. A life in which the universe did not start arrayed against us would not be a life worth living.
If a day is a miniature life, the habits of a day are the habits of a life, if we let them be so. Inculcating a healthy suspicion of our lower selves is the greatest achievement of true religion. Our fancies, our conceits, are malicious, leering psychopomps wishing to lead us off the path of righteousness. We may know as much when we see how our appetites thrash and mutilate us inwardly when we starve them: libido, porneia, gluttony, etc. Flabby morals are the most unforgivable indolence.
By what right do we, wormlike, ensouled apes all of us, raise our hands in accusation against God? Who may claim, like Job, that his innocence will plead his case with any shred of credibility in the court of heaven, before the founder of the world? On what grounds may we claim that order does not exist purely because we may not distinguish it? Orthodoxy is all that can save us from ourselves.
Nine, ten, and eleven sound, resound and die. They reach twelve, and the new day.
Before my eyes stretches a phantasm. The peal of the bells ceases to be sound, but falls as gold-tinged light upon the finery of an altar, the paten and the chalice before the eyes of the faithful. The outstretched wings of angels ceaselessly curl and uncurl in mosaics stretching to heaven and back.
I attempt to approach, and am rebuffed. My legs fail me, as if they were rooted in place. I feel myself deposited on the peak of a desert mountain. I see the dim outline of Canaan swimming in the distant heat. Before I hazard my first steps down the rock-strewn hillside, I am again denied entry. It is right and just.
What one makes of the inherent iniquity of the universe is ultimately irrelevant. Life is often too short, and occasionally too long. But, plucked up as we are in the talons of necessity, we have no reason to complain: the workings of the divine are inscrutable by design. Perhaps that is a blessing to us.