The Ascension - and something about irregular verbs

Today is the Sunday where the story of Jesus' Ascension into heaven is often explored (Click here if you want to read my address from last year which is connected in key ways with this one). Although I'm not at all sure that this odd story tells us anything useful and empirically verifiable about the nature of the world I remain convinced that, in the way we in this community use it, much meaning can be found.

Again Wittgenstein can be helpful to us here:

"Christianity is not based upon a historical truth, but presents us with a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not believe this report with the belief that is appropriate to a historical report, - but rather: believe, through thick and thin and you can only do this as an outcome of a life. *Here you have a message! - don't treat it as you would another historical message!* Make a *quite different* place for it in your life. - There is no paradox about that!" (Culture & Value 37e 8-9/12/1937)

So, today, as with all our other Christian stories, I'm trying to make a quite different place for the Ascension in our lives by being absolutely clear at the outset that I take it, not as an historical account, but a story which is encouraging us to enter into a certain way of life, the meaning and efficacy of which we can believe through thick and thin. I do it because I firmly believe that engaging in such a way of life (and Christianity is but one possible way and simply the one we inherit by being on this bend of the river and not another) we may, as Jesus promised, have life and have it more abundantly. By being careful to make a different, which is also to say 'special', place for it I hope we may begin to reintegrate ourselves into whole beings. I'm simply trying to take St Paul's advice that we should to do things decently and in good order (I Cor. 14:40).

Now, without sneaking under the door any surreptitious metaphysical points - remember I'm increasingly of the opinion that, like scripture, metaphysical statements don't really tell us anything meaningful about the world apart from the use that is made of them - we seem to experience the world in two distinct ways.

On the one hand we can have those sublime moments when we enter what feels to be like a unity beyond rational comprehension - what I called a couple of weeks ago "that mysterious active totality in which we participate and commingle". Many Christians have talked about this as entering into unity with God - the beatific vision after which we can say with St Paul that, although before the experience we saw as "in a glass darkly", now we have seen God, in some fashion, "face to face" (I Cor. 13:12). I'm very fond of Margaret Fuller's folksy way of putting it - it is that state of mind in which we can say loudly and with passion that we "trust the universe!". However, over-indulged in and forced, such peak experiences can make us pretty blissed out, useless, utterly disconnected from the realities of everyday life.

On the other hand we most often experience the world in a far from unitary fashion - it becomes to us simply one of infinite variety and particularities. At its worst this experience can be damagingly confusing and chaotic; the peace and wholeness (the same word in Hebrew and Arabic) we experienced in our occasional visions of unity is lost and we feel fragmented, apart and disconnected - only now the disconnection is with any sense of coherence and cohesion.

Traditional religions - including our own - have always seen the peak experience as helpful and useful but they have also always sought to bring it back to the everyday world. They have understood that, for the leading of a truly balanced and integrated life, one must learn to move effortlessly between these two perceptions of reality. On the one hand it means learning to accepting the beatific vision of an underlying unity as a graceful gift of God's when it comes but, at the same time, not fetishising it in the world of things. On the other hand, it also means accepting the richness and diversity of things but without fetishising them to the point where there can be no access to any unitary aspect and, therefore, also to any sense there might be meaning to life as a whole.

So, you might now be asking what on earth has all this to do with the Ascension? Well, I think one way we may use the story is to help us identify and practice crossing between the two ways of viewing the world – of commingling and reintegrating what we call heaven and earth

Here is the story as it is found in Acts 1:1–11 (NRSV):

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

If you look closely at it you will notice that it has an ending which is, in its own terms, very puzzling. "Jesus will come again in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" - well, surely that would be a very good reason to keep looking! You wouldn't want to miss that would you?

Might not the angels of the story be saying to the disciples something like: "Look, chaps, the reality you know as Jesus is now commingled in both the unitary nature of reality - with God in heaven – and also in the world of things, with you in your daily work, in the breaking of bread and wherever two or three of you are gathered together. Just get used to it, get back to your daily work!”

But that is where it gets difficult and the only way I can show what I want to show here is by turning to a passage in Virgil's first Georgic - from his famous series of poems about farming. This might look like a non-sequitur but stay with me for a moment. Early in the text (l.50-52) Virgil writes (C. D. Lewis' trans.):

"But plough not an unknown plain: First you must learn the winds and changeable ways of its weather, the land's peculiar cultivation and character."

It is wise advice. You may have to hand general unifying texts about agriculture which tell you how to till this type of land and that type of land, you may even have many years of farming experience in another place but this is never sufficient if you are to be successful farmer. You must always recce this land actually before you. Before you begin you must make efforts to know it in its contexts, i.e. with its seasonal patterns of wind, rain, sun and snow.

David Slavitt, in his extraordinary 1972 trans. of Virgil's poem (which he freely admits is also a kind of commentary upon it) he offers us the lines we have just heard as follows:

All knowledge is hard won;
a farmer must know his field, its soil, its weather,
and from years of trial and error he learns which land
grapes thrive upon, which will produce corn
better or earlier so he can beat the market's
glut. A week, a weekend can make the difference
between comfort and bare survival, survival and loss.
It is all particularity -- as in grammar:
to farm is to conjugate irregular verbs.
Beyond the rules, you must learn the brute words themselves
by rote and with stern hunger for schoolmaster." (p.94)

The ‘language’ of unity, in which we try to articulating to each other in this world that simple unifying connectivity we sense courses through everything, is formed rather like regular verbs are formed. Once you know the basic rule the rest is easy. However one can get over confident and hopelessly carried away by this fact. Standing in front of the complex world but still rapt in the beatific vision we are (and I am) sometimes tempted simply to say (along with George de Benneville): "The inner Spirit makes us feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things."

But, in our world of particulars, where "a week, a weekend can make the difference between comfort and bare survival, survival and loss", this kind of statement is really utterly insufficient unto the day.

The language we must use to negotiate meaningfully the world of diversity, difference and particularity, is much more complicated and nuanced than the easy but comforting ‘regular’, universally applicable language of unity; everyday language is formed rather like irregular verbs are formed. Knowledge of how to live in this bit of the universe, and not that, is always hard won.

It seems to me that stories like the Ascension are vital because most of us need to be commanded by angels and schoolmaster to go back to the world after our occasional glimpses of the calm, regular ease of unity because no one wants the grinding hassle of learning irregular verbs. "Why can't we have a language, a life, a religion that is thoroughly regular - an Esperantoesque way of being!" we cry; but fortunately that is not how it is. Nature - the angel and schoolmaster - always calls us back to the schoolroom of life where wisdom and knowledge is hard won.

However, once learnt, the hard earned knowledge of irregularity opens us up to a richness impossible to any simple universal law driven life, language and religion. The Christian stories help us to live on this bend of the river because Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules. They just are! Which can, I know be frustrating but, hey, that's the deal.

Anyway the Ascension story clearly concludes by sending the disciples back to this world. It seems to me that one authentic way of using the Ascension story is, therefore, to encourage us to get back into the world but, since Jesus also said “the kingdom of Heaven is within (or among) us” to undertake such a descent is also to make some kind of ascent. Now if that isn’t irregular use of language I don’t know what is! But to understand this use of the language (the story), to get its particular crop to grow in your heart, you just have to learn it, in situ, in your own life of faith. I wish it were otherwise but, alas, such knowledge is always hard won and I would be failing in my duty as a Christian teacher (albeit on odd one) if I were not to insist that you can only learn the irregular verb that is the Christian faith (and, of course, any other faith) word by word, story by story, act by loving act across a whole lifetime.