When the Center Does Not Hold

At the moment I am somewhere in Oklahoma with our oldest son, trying to provide moral support while he struggles with some very difficult issues. My wife joins us as she can, given her work; and our friends are praying for us.

It’s unbearably hot here, sometimes almost unbearably hard here, and overall it’s very depressing. I try to keep a chipper public face, especially where I am somewhat in “public” (e.g. on Facebook) … but I’m not chipper. Nor is my faith at the moment.

That's the setting, the emotional and spiritual context, for what follows. It applies to the situation of my loved ones here, but as I pondered it all, things quickly went "global" on me earlier today. With that condition in mind, I wasn’t surprised at what was whispering through my head as I woke up today.

It was in that dreamy half-state – half-asleep, half-awake, eyes open but seeing more of the “inside” of my soul than the “outside” of my world – that I began to realize I was remembering the words of the poem “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. Word by word, it all shimmered up out of the depths and began to float around in my head, in front of my spiritual eyes:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Those words were haunting me, I realized, even before they had returned to consciousness early this morning. They all bear careful reading, rumination, meditation … all of them apply to what follows ... but I found myself focused on the opening four lines, over and over: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … .”

Of course, I thought of the ugly, chaotic mess with which our son struggles: the Center is gone. God no longer is acknowledged in other than perfunctory ways by so many of the key actors here. God may be perceived as a kind of Christic Cheerleader, rah-rah-rah’ing various individuals along in their vindictiveness … but the God who demands transformation in our lives is missing. The Lord Jesus Christ has been reduced to a Messianic Marshmallow: lay your head here, it’s nice and sweet, warm and cushy, and this “god” of Mine will make you feel wonderful wonderful wonderful forever and ever and unto the ages of ages Amen.

Actually it all reminds me of the closing words of John Cheever’s novel about the emptiness of life in suburbia (and the violence which so easily can flourish in empty souls), Bullet Park: everything continued on as before and everything was wonderful wonderful wonderful wonderful wonderful.

Except of course it wasn’t.

And it isn’t. The Center is gone from almost all of our world. “Wonderful” is mere daydreaming, illusion, delusion.

Charles William’s novels feature – as I read them anyway, and the following is my reading -- the emergence of ancient archetypes into our world. Archetypes, as used by psychologist Carl Jung and (I presume) adopted fairly closely by Mr. Williams, are patterning force fields around which space/time matter/energy organizes itself ... or, perhaps more accurately, which organize space/time and matter/energy. The specifics of what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell -- of what is available to us through our five senses -- are the "contents" of the archetypes; but the archetypes themselves are hidden far within, or behind, everything else. Think of a magnet underneath a table, atop which is spread iron filings: the magnet here acts like an archetype -- it organizes, by the force field of magnetism, the iron filings ... just as the archetypes do our world, or at least our consciousness.

However, while the archetypes may sound fascinating, even intriguing and (in the old poetic sense) Romantic, they can become fierce and destructive under certain conditions. Specifically, if the central-most archetype -- the "God archetype" -- then chaos can set in, and each archetype, thus unleashed, easily can become bloodthirsty, vicious and annihilating.

In our world -- made too painfully visible to me during this heartache of a struggle here -- the Center is withdrawing. God is distancing Himself from our world. The Center cannot, does not, hold because … well, perhaps because the Center, like the Glory of God dwelling in the Temple in Ezekiel’s day, has departed (Ezekiel 10).

So the rest of the archetypes, now loosed from any central unifying order, or ordering power, run dangerously wild. Like – exactly like -- the wild beasts of the Psalms and the prophets, and Charles Williams, they lurk and pounce, tear and devour and destroy.

And my mind has quantum-jumped from family heartache and struggle to our world’s fractures, heartaches and struggles, although the two are intimately intertwined of course.

I believe, and so confess, the Center of our world is distancing itself -- God is distancing Himself -- in our day. The Glory of God, unacknowledged on virtually all hands save as the bland, sound-bite mantras of civil religion and noisy shallow patriotism – and happy-clappy entertainment show-biz Christianity, at least here in the West – is withdrawing.

And I believe, and so confess, this is what we experience as the "anger," the "wrath," the rebuke of God on our lives and our world. By withdrawing, God is turning our lives and our world over to the momentum they already have created by the foolish and ultimately godless choices and decisions we all have made.

Understand, please, "withdrawing" is a figure of speech. There is a "distancing" of the Glory, of the healing, saving power, a metaphor following on Ezekiel 10. These and others like them are symbolic, or metaphorical, ways of saying that while God is every immeasurable bit as close to creation as ever, it is now in a different way -- a "letting-go" way, a turning-over-to-the-consequences way.

I for one believe God’s wrath means our actual, minute-by-minute, daily experience of God withdrawal. And that means we find ourselves increasingly turned over to the momentum of the godless choices we already have made. In the words of a psalm in my daily reading earlier today:

“You rebuke the nations, and the ungodly man destroys himself… .”
(Psalm 9:6a [LXX])

How does God's rebuke "work out" in our world? The actions of the ungodly, directed against creation and often against the weakest members of the human community within creation, turn back on the ungodly: they destroy themselves. In a (or at least in my) spiritual reading, God’s “rebuke” is in fact God’s withdrawal of the Glory. People and processes, things and events all are left increasingly to their own godless momentum – to the momentum of their own free choices. God’s judgment simply is the result:

“The Lord is known in the judgments He makes; the sinner is caught in the works of his hands.” (Psalm 9:17 [LXX])

A kind of Christic Karma is at work –- Christic because it is not the blind, mechanical cause-effect karma of Eastern religions, but rather the Personal Act of the Personal Triune God acting in and through the Second Person. Person person person, not machine machine machine.

In Orthodox and biblical terms, the archetypes are the logismoi (“words” uttered by the Word at creation; “ideas” in the mind of God, worked out into space/time matter/energy by the act of Creation, and more specifically the Second Person of the Trinity). They are the Principalities and Powers at work behind the scenes of our world. With the Center (God) in place, they are intended for our good (Romans 13:1ff). When our individual and collective rebellions result in the Center withdrawing, the logismoi, the Principalities and Powers, begin to go their own way. Ultimately they run riot. Adam and Eve went their own way. Ultimately Cain ran riot; Lamech ran riot (Genesis 4); and so it goes, age after age, unto ages of ages Amen.

I never have been, am not, and never will be a “fundamentalist,” a “literalist” (in the popular senses of both words) in my faith and in my reading of the Bible. That is why one of the myriad of features of Orthodoxy that has drawn me in, is its insistence on a spiritual (versus superficial, literal) reading of the biblical text.

Accordingly, I believe the “last days” are always at hand. The Beast (of Revelation) is always rumbling around in history to some extent – more in one era, less in another, but until the ultimate Transfiguration of space and time, the Beast always a fact of our world. The spirit of the anti-Christ is always at work, at least to some degree, and in every era a fact of our world (1 John 4:3).

So when I say the Center has withdrawn, I do not mean the “end of the world” is literally at hand, in some ultimate, final apocalyptic sense.

Rather, I do mean the world as we know it is ending, and ending fast: so I believe, so I confess. The Center does not hold because the Center is a God who freely, sovereignly draws, now near to us, now withdraws and leaves us increasingly at the mercy of our own foolish decisions and their consequences. And our God – the God of food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, freedom for the prisoners, clothing for the naked, welcome for the immigrant legal or not, compassion for the despised and outcast – our God is withdrawing from a world that increasingly, frankly, does not give a damn and insists, instead, like Adam, like Eve, on going its own way … and foolishly welcomes the momentum it brings.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I for one find the vision of what we are being released into – the momentum of ours to which God is turning over now – in the prophet Jeremiah’s vision of the Uncreation (reversing the creation recounted in Genesis 1) bout to be unleashed in Israel because of her sins (Jeremiah 4:23ff).

Certainly we are choosing Uncreation on all hands. Creation itself – our astonishingly, almost heartbreakingly beautiful, nay, haunted world -- now is valued primarily as raw material for satisfying our greed. God world is rapidly turning into a toilet for the waste produced by greed: the air, the water, the land itself. The notion of anything being “good” just because it exists (Genesis 1) is wildly dead, an oxymoron that fits our world in the most terrifying of ways.

Pick your categories. We are choosing Uncreatin by our inhuman and inhumane standards of what constitutes “real personhood” (insert male or female, gender and roles alike, as you choose) … on our ridiculous notions of who we truly and deeply are (consumers and patriots, basically, self-focused throughout, and not creatures in the image of God called to recover the likeness of God throughout our earthly lives and infinitely beyond) … of who really counts (take your pick, but in this culture it does not include people of color, poor people, hungry people, gays or lesbians, illegal immigrants, and you easily can add more: each and all precisely the unloved, the often unlovely, in whom the Christ dwells incognito, then and now [Matthew 25:31ff] … of what the good earth itself is “here for” …

Pick your category, fill out the ellipsis howsoever you choose. Through it all we have chosen the opposite of creation. The Center is withdrawing because we have pushed the Center, our God, out of the Center in all ways except insipid civil religion hymns and chants, and for purposes of Christic Cheerleading on the sidelines of the world.

Day by day, we are inheriting more and more of the dread momentum of our choices. The world we know is ending, and by now it appears to be ending in the most awful of ways. Tsunamis and massive, unprecedented heat waves are not being hurled at us by a God who is angry enough to hurl the world's lamps and dishes around the house: the wrath of God simply means these consequences of our own actions, our own choices, are being allowed, now, to have their way … because we never had any intention whatsoever of reconsidering.

May I close, first, with a secular vision of what this “Christic Karma” is bringing – unnerving words from author Toni Morrison, written 15 years ago … and then the chilling vision of the prophet Jeremiah himself:

When our fears have all been serialized, our creativity censured, our ideas 'marketplaced,' intelligence sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned; when the theatricality, the entertainment value, the marketing of life is complete, we will find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly un-intelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen darkly."
-- Toni Morrison, "Racism and Fascism," The Nation 260:21 (May 29, 1995), p. 760.

“I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger. For thus says the Lord: 'The whole land shall be a desolation, yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed, I have not relented nor will I turn back.”
-- Jeremiah 4:23-28 (NRSV)


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