All Joy Wants Eternity
Part of this morning’s sermon preparation involved thumbing through Charles Taylor’s magisterial work, A Secular Age. That sounds unbearably pretentious, I know—as if it is my regular practice to consult dense works of philosophy for my weekly sermons. As soon as I finish with Taylor, I’ll get on with the rest of my weekly tour of really, really smart people who have written really, really long and impressive books that I understand perfectly, and will wonderfully and relevantly and seamlessly synthesize into an easily digestible sermon for Sunday. Sure.
At any rate, I had intended to explore Taylor’s ideas about the secular narrative as a “subtraction story” of inexorable “disenchantment,” but I got sidetracked, predictably, on a passage about death and joy and meaning. I found Taylor’s musings about Nietzsche’s famous phrase from the mouth of Zarathustra, “Alle Lust will Ewigkeit” (loosely translated “All Joy Wants Eternity”), to be fascinating indeed, not least because I spent a good chunk of yesterday afternoon talking with a dear old saint about themes of pain and loss and death.
I realize this is a long-ish passage, and that Charles Taylor is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea, but I thought I would post it here nonetheless. This comes from a chapter intriguingly titled, “Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity”:
One of the things which makes it very difficult to sustain a sense of the higher meaning of ordinary life, in particular our love relations, is death. It’s not just that they matter to us a lot, and hence there is a grievous hole in our lives when our partner dies. It’s also just because they are so significant, they seem to demand eternity. A deep love already exists against the vicissitudes of life, tying together past and present in spite of the disruptions and dispersals of quarrels, distractions, misunderstandings, resentments. By its very nature it participates in gathered time. And so death can seem a defeat, the ultimate dispersal which remains ungathered.
“Alle Lust will Ewigkeit.” I interpret Nietzsche’s famous line to mean, not: we’re having such a good time, let’s not stop; but rather: this love by its nature calls for eternity….
Now the implication of much atheist discussion of Christian or in general religious ideas of eternal life is that it is another facet of the childish attitude which takes its wishes for reality, that growing up means abandoning this…
This dismissive attitude often assumes that our desire for eternity is simply one to live on, not to have our lives stop. It is the kind of desire which the famous Epicurean reasoning is supposed to still: as long as you’re aware of the problem, you’re alive; when you’re dead, it will no longer be a problem for you. But there is something shallow about this understanding of what’s wrong with death.
If we could separate happiness as a thing of the moment from any meaning, then we could enjoy some great moments now, and after pass on to some great moments later; rather as we enjoy good meals. Maybe in the old days, there was another kind of cuisine. We regret mildly its passing. But there is good food now, so let’s tuck in.
But that’s just the problem. The deepest, most powerful kind of happiness, even in the moment, is plunged into a sense of meaning. And the meaning seems denied by certain kinds of ending. That’s why the greatest crisis around death comes from the death of someone we love.
Alle Lust will Ewigkeit; not just because you might want it to go on and on, as with any pleasant experience. Rather, all joy strives for eternity, because it loses some of its sense if it doesn’t last.
What is true of reflection upon the meaning of death is true in other, less existentially weighty matters as well. I spent yesterday evening putting up Christmas lights with my kids. It was a predictable enough affair, on one level. There were the usual broken and burnt out bulbs, the tangled cords, the struggling to get up the tree, etc.
But as I was inwardly grumbling and longing for the warm couch and the Champion’s League soccer game that was cruelly beckoning, my kids were absolutely beaming. Our modest display of plain white lights did not stand out, on any reasonable calculus. There are far more impressive Christmas light shows on our small town street alone. But my kids were practically dancing with joy. “Isn’t this exciting, dad?!” “We’re getting in the Christmas spirit!!! “It’s so beautiful!!”
Yes, it was. It is. In a few years, the kids probably won’t get so excited about something like putting up a few strings of Christmas lights. And I’ll probably think back to last night with a kind of fond and wistful longing. “Remember when they had so few inhibitions?” “Remember when their joy was so uncomplicated and reflexive?” “Remember the childlike wonder and delight?” Even though there will be new and different joys and delights, I’ll probably wish that I could relive moments like last night.
I am greedy hoarder of joy. Indeed, all joy wants eternity.