Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Sky Does Not Speak

Warning: unapologetic religion, of the Christian existentialist variety. You have been warned.

In his short essay “Pascal’s Sphere,” Jorge Luis Borges traces the history of the sphere from Xenophanes’s declaration that God was an eternal sphere to Plato’s insistence that the sphere is the most perfect shape, from Bruno’s description of the Copernican universe as an infinite sphere—its centre everywhere and its circumference nowhere—and finally to Pascal’s very modern despair in such a view:

In that dejected century, the absolute space that inspired the hexameters of Lucretius, the absolute space that had been a liberation for Bruno was a labyrinth and an abyss for Pascal. He hated the universe and yearned to adore God, but God was less real to him than the hated universe. He lamented that the firmament did not speak; he compared our lives to the shipwrecked on a desert island. He felt the incessant weight of the physical world; he felt confusion, fear, and solitude; and he expressed it in other words: “Nature is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.”
I do not know how accurate a description of Pascal this is; I do know that much of this description is fairly accurate when applied to me. I too yearn to adore God, but God is less real to me than the universe; I too consider our lives to be like those shipwrecked on a desert island; I too feel the incessant weight of the physical world, and respond with confusion, fear, and loneliness. I find myself alienated from that to which I declare allegiance, and I see this alienation—acknowledged or not—in all of us. A labyrinth and an abyss indeed.

But there is one way in which this description is inaccurate: I do not hate the world and I do not lament the silence of the firmament. Oh, there are many things about the world which I find deserving of hatred: the world is filled with limitless suffering, more than I can imagine or bear, and my scant incomplete knowledge of this unremitting suffering sits like a hole in my chest. But I cannot bring myself to hate the world, and its speechlessness in particular I find lovely. I look at the mountains piled above Vancouver, distant and stony; I look at the hummingbird flitting about my feeder, dependent on the sugarwater my neighbours and I provide but thoroughly indifferent to us; I look at the toiling ants on the pavement and the silverfish swimming across my bathroom floor, incapable of even perceiving me; and I am enchanted by them. Their indifference to me is the twin of my incomprehension of them, my inability to imagine myself in their place. They are wholly other to me, and in this they free me from my suffocating self-concern. In this they also remind me of the distance of other people, people with whom I am tempted to exaggerate my empathy and affinity. And they also remind me of God, the distance and self-sufficiency and ineffability of God. I am not sure why, but these reminders calm my soul. I bask in their otherness and at least feel connected, in this way, to the otherness of God. God may feel distant, but at least God's distance is near to me. The firmament does not speak, and for that I love it.

This is my reminder to myself: I can try to cross the silence of the sky, but I shall never truly know it; I can try to read the silence and the speech of friends and strangers, but I shall never fully understand them; I can reach out into the absence I perceive God to be, but I will never totally plumb those depths. And yet my failure to succeed perfectly does not encourage a failure to try. There is a beauty in trying.

The sky does not speak, and I shall listen.

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