Sober reflections on Orthodox Christian thought, culture, and spirituality

  • In Praise of the Ephemeral

    With the introduction of every new technology, the gain is offset by loss. Tools help man to mold his environment, to adapt to change, and to disseminate means of progress. With every new tool created, a commensurate skill is learned; yet these abilities often replace or alter the use of our innate, divinely-given tools: our hands, our eyes and ears, and (most importantly) our voice.

    While experts may debate theories concerning the evolutionary development and emergence of human language, the Scriptures inform us that our aptitude is a reflection of the Creator. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This Word who “proceeded from the silence of the Father” (St Ignatius of Antioch) is an eternal reality we in turn image each time our inner thoughts pour forth in speech. The first finite words ever uttered were a reflection of divine wisdom as Adam named the creatures according to their logos or inner principle. And the next statement made was likewise a prophetic utterance: ““This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man” (Gen 2:23). Yet our dialogue with God would soon end, beginning with our lack of fidelity to him and our refusal to accept blame. Adam spoke duplicitously, and hence his progeny have struggled to speak to Go ever since.

    Reconstructions of the earliest dialects, based on common roots found across many later linguistic families, point to a concern for basic necessities. Of the 23 English words which may be traced back to prehistoric roots (circa 13,000 BC) we find mother, fire, man, and hand (the only animal indexed is worm, which originally meant “snake”). Words pertaining to the gods, to heaven, or other religious concepts did not make the list. And yet archeological finds from that epoch paint a different picture. The remains of a temple discovered at Gobekli Tepe dated to at least 9,000 BC—thus predating the rise of agriculture and sedentary life—reveal that peoples from across the region made pilgrimage there to worship various deities and offer sacrifices. It seems the hunter-and-gatherer sons of Adam did indeed reach out to the numinous, even if their speech was distorted by sin.

    Gradually, pictures evolved into a written means of communication, and later into alphabets representing the sounds that comprise a spoken language. This new technology enabled the rise of great civilizations like Sumeria, Babylon, Egypt, and Greece. And with the rise of lettered societies there was also an explosion of religious and philosophical contemplation. But what was lost with this shift from an oral/aural culture to a literate one? In what ways did this new technology hamper the spiritual progress of such cultures?

    Socrates lamented this transition to writing for two reasons: first, it leads to a loss of memory, as minds become dependent on visual aids; and second, it insufficiently replaces the experience of a first-hand encounter. The latter concern needs some unpacking. Here, Socrates explains the dilemma to his interlocutor:

    “You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offspring of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.”

    A text may capture the precise words of a speaker, but it fails to capture the spirit in which those words were first delivered, and also precludes the possibility of interaction. There is something lost in the process of recording. The moment has now passed, and all that remains of it are artifacts.

    Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, we have invented more and more ways to record our experiences. Whereas images once had to pass through the mind of the painter or sculptor, they can now be directly photographed or filmed for later consumption. And whereas words and music once had to be written or composed on some medium later to be read or performed, we now have a myriad of technologies with which to replay sound over and over again ad nauseum. No intelligence or imagination is necessary to retrieve the information or performance being presented; and no context is proffered the recipient of that message.

    We lose something in exchanging the ephemeral for permanence. Every event is unique and unrepeatable. Every word spoken, every gesture made, every note played is meant for those physically present, even if they are seemingly passive recipients in the dialogue. Perhaps this gets at what Gadamer described as das Spiel: life is worth living when it is a playful dance between I and Thou. The tempo of this conversation is set by our conscious interactions; but there is also a subtle backbeat that floats beneath the melody line—a hidden but very real dialogue between two subconscious minds (a phenomenon observed by Jung as he conducted therapy). “Abyss calls out to abyss” (Ps 42:7) as two souls coalesce and reach affinity. Perhaps this is obvious when referring to one-on-one communications; but it is also the case with a performer and an audience. There is an energy—a noetic discourse—that fills the void between the parties and makes connections in a way that cannot be reduced to empirical phenomena, nor reproduced after the fact. Once an event is converted into waves or digits it becomes a monologue devoid of the nuances apparent to those first recipients.

    Of course, this is not to say that nothing should be recorded. Without Plato we would never have known of Socrates’ discussion with Phaedrus. And without the Apostles we would never have encountered the words and works of our Saviour. Something can be said for the authentic experience that occurs in reading or hearing something that was actually delivered to a very different audience. This applies to modern events as well. A vinyl record or compact disc or MP3 makes it possible for me to hear a performance of B.B King or the Buzzcocks or Brand Nubian. And YouTube enables me to spy both tragedies and triumphs from around the world, allowing me to share in the lives of people outside my local community. I believe I am better because of such vicarious encounters.

    However, our access to recording technology means that even the most trivial, mundane, inane, or even ugly aspects of human existence are also captured and published for all to imbibe. Every folly or frailty is exposed for the world to see—the little free time we have each day being inundated by nonsense. And what’s more, we often experience our own lives second-hand, through the lens of a camera or as an image on a screen. We spend more time taking selfies of events than directly participating in them. In the end, we may find we possess evidence of what happened but lack any authentic memory of the occasion. On my deathbed, I would rather have a soul full of personal encounters and beautiful experiences than a thumb-drive packed with pictures (there being something of a mutual exclusivity to this).

    There is only so much time in a day, and only so many days in a lifetime. Beyond our daily drudgery—those tasks we little enjoy—we should fill our intervals with glimpses of beauty. Yes, some of those experiences should be instances of enshrined beauty: moments affixed in art, in literature, and in recordings of important and meaningful things. But so much more impactful are those sublime, ephemeral moments when we directly encounter God, his creation, and our fellowman. We witness this beauty in every liturgical celebration, in every sermon. We witness it in when we hike through the wilderness, when we pause to hear the crickets and songbirds. And we witness it whenever we gather with friends or family to share our joys and sorrows. So much has already been documented; let us at last find opportunities to be present in the fleeting sensations of life.