Sunday, February 14, 2010

Quinquagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 / Luke 18:31-43

For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect has come, that which is imperfect will be done away with.

From the nineteenth century, there developed a widespread notion, still widely held by the public at large if generally rejected by professional historians, of historical progress. On this view, apart from occasional missteps or slides into barbarism and decay, the history of the human race can be seen as a march forward, as a taking one step in front of the other, bit by bit, a true progression. What was new and improved, according to the myth of progress, was always better, and so any demonstration that something had changed in any sense for the better was in and of itself a demonstration of progress as such.

This view was powerfully critiqued by the philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood. In his posthumously published but highly important book The Idea of History, Collingwood asserts, contra his peers, that historical progress is in fact rather rare, much rarer than people suppose. He asks his readers to imagine a fishing village. Now, suppose some industrious chap discovers a way to catch twice or five times as many fish as could be caught with the old method. Is this progress? Not necessarily. You see, much of the life of the village, how people spend their time, how they make use of their resources of food, what they do for leisure, and the like, were all bound up in the time it took to catch fish. If the new method is implemented and the fisherman work as they had before, they will catch more fish, perhaps even deplete the stock of fish, but in any even things will not be as they were before. Or, should they not desire to increase the food supply, they would then work half or a fifth the traditional time, but then what to do with the time that remains? Collingwood does not ask us to dislike the change; what he asserts is that for all the good of catching more fish, other goods, certain goods of economy and social organization, would be changed and perhaps lost. What seemed a clear case of progress turns out to be merely change, alteration. To be true progress, one would need a change which provided a good one did not have before without any loss of the goods already present.

This is why Paul's assertion that the perfect does away with the imperfect rings false, and even more than that, is less than comforting. We have, after all, been fooled so often in life by so-called improvements in our way of life, in our work or leisure, in our patterns of worship or our arrangements of social welfare. We have been fooled because what we thought was the perfect doing away with the imperfect ended up making our life more complicated, perhaps more sophisticated, but in the end not so much better as merely different, and much of what we value we found to be lost, even irrevocably so.

One imagines that it is something like this anxiety which clouded the understanding of Jesus' disciples. Jesus, who has been so successful in his ministry of preaching and healing, of liberating his people from the oppression of demons and the undue burden of human imaginings obscuring the Law, now tells of his being delivered over to the heathen, of his being mocked and spat upon, of being scourged and put to death. The promise of his rising, of his consummation of all things that have been written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man, does not seem to provide any comfort or clarity. What they hear and envision in the turning to Jerusalem is a change, an alteration, the real loss, perhaps irrevocably, of the goods they have known in Galilee.

But this is not the perfection Paul has in mind. Paul does not speak of perfection in the sense of the next, or even the final, best thing. He does not have in mind something or someone who supplants, supersedes, replaces and discards the goods we have known. The perfection Paul has in mind is that which perfects what it encounters, that which completes and consummates, the one who draws to fulness from the echoes, pledges and foretastes already present in what has been. The perfection of which Paul speaks, the perfection accomplished by charity, by the merciful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, is a perfection in which all is crowned and nothing is lost, save that false security that the partial and imperfect was the whole and the best.

Our life in God will have plenty of change and more alteration than we might prefer. Some of it may be the passing from difference to difference. Some may really and truly entail loss, but only of what was never meant to be ours nor conduce in the long run to our final flourishing. Our confidence, our hope in the Gospel, is that nothing that completes us, nothing that fulfills us, nothing that perfects us, will ever be lost to us in the love of Jesus Christ.

No comments: