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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”:

Taylor_Secular_compOne 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.

96502380What 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.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great thoughts Ryan. I’ve been thinking along similar lines lately as I prepare to say goodbye to a loved one…I love Taylor’s articulation here. In my view it helps colour in Lewis’ idea of “joy” and “desire” in “Surprised by Joy” and “Pilgrim’s Regress”

    December 5, 2012
    • Yes, there are certainly some strong similarities to Lewis in how Taylor frames things here, Travis. I wish you all the best as you wrestle with meaning and joy and hope in the valley of the shadow…

      December 5, 2012
  2. Paul Johnston #

    “Rather, all joy strives for eternity, because it loses some of its sense if it doesn’t last.”…so true…and requires able story tellers to mediate and maintain it’s presence.

    Is anybody writing solely to maintain what needs to be kept eternal, anymore?

    A subject for another day I suppose?

    I am happy for you and your family in your sharing of the details regarding the Christmas lights. On that note I am consciously engaging my loved ones in sharing our experiences through conversations after events like these. If not creating memories at least pausing to recognize that some moments matter more than others and deserve reflection, individual perspectives and hopefully a few laughs.

    There is so much noise, best off ignored or quickly forgotten. Other thoughts and experiences need to be remembered.

    Champions league and U2?!!! Tell me it’s not your fault, tell me you fell on your head, early and often, during your formative years! 🙂

    Thanks for the sharing, my friend.

    PS. I remember our good friend, Ken being an advocate of Charles Taylor and this book in particular. Ken, if you still read here, you are in my thoughts and prayers today and I hope all is well with you.

    December 6, 2012
    • Is anybody writing solely to maintain what needs to be kept eternal, anymore?

      I’m not sure what you mean by this, Paul. Care to elaborate?

      Champions league and U2?!!! Tell me it’s not your fault, tell me you fell on your head, early and often, during your formative years!

      I can only assume that you are joking here. Unless you are referring to said drop on the head knocking some sense into me :).

      And yes, I remember Ken referring to Taylor periodically. I, too, hope all is well with him.

      December 6, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        Well I suppose it’s cynical but not without some merit. Literature seems to have become so commercialized and “branded”. So driven by what is deemed marketable. How does an author even remain true to an honest rendering of an “eternal voice” in the public sphere today? And if they try, they’d better talk fast? Trends seem to appear and disappear rapidly.

        Would Tolkien take the time to imagine middle-earth today? Would a publisher wait for it?…

        Yeah, I’ve mostly intended humour when discussing the merits of music
        and sports with you. Though, at times, the disparaging tones haven’t
        helped.

        Soccer is a useful game for guys who can’t play big boy sports. Helps get a lot of the pent up tears out, as far as I can tell….and U2 does have some great songs. “All I want is you” will always be a favourite love song for me. I just wish Edge hadn’t digitalized the playing of guitar to the extent that he has and I’ve never quite reconciled their Christian, humanitarian postures with the economic colossus their tours became.

        If you fell on your head, it was in the good way. 🙂

        December 6, 2012
      • I’ve wondered about similar things, Paul. Increasingly, ours is not a culture that seems capable of producing a Tolkien or a Dostoevsky or a Milosz, etc. Trendy, immediate, and “branded”—yes, all of these things and more. We have, in a very general sense, lost our meaningful horizon and with it, perhaps, the patience and vision to produce these kinds of works.

        Soccer is a useful game for guys who can’t play big boy sports.

        Riiight… Big boy sports like American football where they where full body armour and take a 1 minute break after every 10 seconds of action… or like baseball where they swing a bat four times in three and a half hours and get a ball hit to them occasionally… or basketball, where you can’t play unless you’re 6 feet or taller… Or even hockey, where bloodlust is alive and well (don’t even get me started on UFC, boxing, etc!!). Along with 9/10 of the world’s population, I’ll take (real) football any day… And I will pray for your confused, wayward soul… :).

        Re: U2, I must agree with you… at least on the “economic colossus” tours bit. I could never figure that one out either, even if I enjoyed the one concert I attended. And, yes, “All I Want is You” is simply brilliant.

        December 6, 2012
  3. Paul Johnston #

    The more I think about this one the more I think all humanity, secretly or otherwise, craves eternity.

    What are the alternatives? Sadomasochism and alternating persona’s of self loathing and self worship? If we can’t believe in something more then ourselves, something beyond human construct, history finds and will find us, seriously more screwed than we would otherwise be.

    December 10, 2012
    • Amen, amen, amen.

      December 11, 2012

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