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By Martin Westerholm


The Montréal Review, April 2022


History began for us when the mourning doves did not return to San Felipe de Jesus.  One year there were hundreds, the next dozens, and the next none at all.  Few noticed the change, and those who did were glad.  The doves had always come, part of their migration through Guatemala, and had been nothing but a nuisance.  They flapped about the church square, hunting scraps of food, bothering the tourists.  They made nests in the spires, and soiled the facades.  The yellow walls and red towers that drew visitors to the church had to be repainted every few years.  It seemed a blessing in the midst of much sorrow when rising temperatures kept the birds north of the mountains.

            But histories are strange things, their meanings often concealed in events that command little notice. It was five hundred years after the birth of Christ before a recluse monk suggested that history should be reckoned from the date, and a full thousand before his own Church adopted the practice.  The revolutionaries in France were, by contrast, quick to declare their triumph the marker of a new year one, but their history did not reach school age before it was folded back into old stories of rivalry and bloodshed.  We are, in the moment, poor judges of what makes our histories.  We are drawn to colour and flair.  The dance of the kite holds our eyes.  We are slow to learn that the dance is shaped by atmospherics that are visible only through their effects.  The birds are often more attuned to the forces that shape our histories than we are.

            The birds are gone, and with them a world has passed away.  Our actions are the same: we rise, wash, eat, work as we are able, and return to rest.  We do as our parents did.  We see what they saw.  An inattentive inertia sustains an illusion of continuity, but the atmosphere is changed, and similarities are enveloped in a difference that converts them from a comfort to a threat.  The wind has dispelled the assumptions that gave substance to old routines.  The emptiness of our actions is a continual reminder of questions we cannot escape.  What is this history in which we are living?  What now counts as purpose?

San Felipe de Jesus stands down the road from my childhood home in the northern section of our little town.  I could see its spires, cascading from a central peak down into lower ranks, above the tall brick walls that lined our road.  The spires are a fanciful departure from the baroque solidity that is otherwise typical of the area.  An earlier congregation dreamed a mismatch of styles that fit neither their era nor ours.  For a time, the local people disliked the church, but its distinctiveness attracts visitors on whom the local economy depends.  A market developed in the church square that transformed a curiosity into the hub of our community.

            When I was young, routines around the church formed my sense of time.  Catechism sessions after school accompanied the rainy season, when weather is warmer in northern countries and few visitors come.  Mornings sweeping up feathers around the church square meant cooling temperatures in the north, and the arrival of the doves as the vanguard of an army of warmth seekers.  Afternoons selling lime drinks in the market meant dry season, and the high times during which the coffee farms and handcraft stalls that employed most of the local people could sell their wares to tourists.  Preparation for Easter celebrations, which lasted a couple of weeks, marked a frenzied crescendo just before the sudden ending of tourist season, when rains returned and hastened the doves northwards again.  

            It was natural that my life should be formed around the church.  Men from one branch of my family or other had been priests for several generations, and everyone was active.  My grandfather and father had felt the call of family life more than of priesthood, and worked as carpenters and wood sculptures.  Their paths saved their lives, but left them bearing a burden that drew them ever more closely into orbit around the church.  My father’s brothers, who both worked as priests, were murdered by the army during the civil war.  After their deaths, my grandfather and father tried to honour them by providing what ministry they could.        

            My grandfather, in particular, was moved into a frenzy by the death of his sons.  The question of the meaning of history came to be the centre of his life and work.  He was part of a generation that was formed by a new vision of Christianity as a message of liberation for the poor.  He said that we are not, as Guatemala s native people had believed, living through unending cycles of oppression, struggle and pain.  We are instead part an inexorable movement towards liberation.  The spirit of history has determined that oppressors do not triumph.  Their comings and goings are adornments on a kite that answers to a different wind.  That wind is the liberating movement of God.

            My grandfather came to be consumed by this vision.  All through the civil war, he worked quietly to spread a message of hope.  When people asked, he told them that it was the wind of history that kept him moving.  His head would rock back, his eyes would look beyond the horizon, and he would insist that liberation would be ours.  They do not understand the deepest rhythm of things, he would say.  He would ride the bus to a library in the city to read about history, the movements of God, and liberation.  He bought select books as he was able, and urged me to read them after him.

            It is his question that has stayed with me, and it was his books that I turned to when his answers no longer seemed sufficient.  He raised me on a spirit of hope, but it has dissipated in changing winds.  I am part of a generation that faces a new kind of question, for the posterity of the history that has ended is a horrifying literalisation.  Histories are matters of atmosphere, and the atmosphere is seeded with a destruction that will choke off whatever aims we wish cultivate.  Metaphor has become destiny. Inescapably, irrevocably, empyreal forces will grind down the billions of perspectives that now open out on the world.  What possibilities may then be left, I do not know.  The limits of a history are not visible until it is over.  What remains is a slim margin of uncertainty enfolding the recognition that we have inherited neither the recurring cycles nor the harmonious consummations of the differing groups of the faithful.  We are left with the question of history unmoored from purpose and hope.

My grandfather’s books have been my guide as the question of history has become my own.  My best understanding begins with this.  Histories are made by our sense of what is possible.  They begin and end with the formation and rupture of our conception of what may be.  I am a reluctant subscriber to this idea: by nature, I am drawn to the concrete—the landing of the conquistadors, the fight with the spouse, the chair in the corner—with little concern for airy-seeming questions about what might be.  But, for a long time, nothing was more concrete for me than the guilty unease that I felt around my grandfather.  My alienation from his world did not begin to make sense until I grasped that we inhabit different histories that are rooted in different senses of the possible. 

            It was my grandfather himself who gave me the clue to the idea.  He said once that Peter and Pontius Pilate had different accounts of Christ’s empty tomb because they had different understandings of what may be.  Peter’s story of a resurrection reflects a sense that God may act in the world and interrupt ordinary processes of death and decay.  Pilate’s story of a plot to steal Jesus’ body reflects a horizon that is delimited by human capacities.  Both saw what their conception of the possible allowed them to see.  Both told stories that conformed to that vision.  My grandfather said that our sense of the possible is the lens through which we look at the world and the grammar that we use for our stories.  He said that we need only follow Peter in seeing the world in terms of what God can do in order for the possibility of liberation to become visible. 

            I have come since to see that my grandfather took these ideas from his books.  A great deal about the workings of our histories became intelligible to me as I probed them further.  There is, on one side, the striking continuity that exists between conflicting stories that are shaped by the same sense of the possible.  Opposing sides will have competing accounts of the origins of a conflict, but these accounts will echo, rhyme, and admit of being folded into a broader story where they are shaped by a common picture of the possibilities that came to realisation: antagonism, suspicion, betrayal, and so on.  There is, on the other side, the discontinuity that exists between stories of the same event that are shaped by differing senses of possibility.  Belief in tectonic plates produces a different picture of the possible, and a different understanding of an earthquake, than belief in volatile nature spirits.  Conviction that human beings are capable only of selfishness will generate a different interpretation of the work of nuns than belief in generosity and self-sacrifice.  Our accounts of what has happened are cut to the shape of what we think can happen.  They are sometimes of interest primarily for the image that they throw up of assumptions that otherwise lie hidden.

            My alienation from my grandfather began to fall into place when I shook off attachment to the concrete sufficiently to realise that we share histories with those in different times and places with similar senses of the possible more than with those around us who disagree about what may be.  The realisation helped me to see that my grandfather and I shared our spaces, but not our times, for his times were given shape and direction by a sense of possibility that I could not sustain.  The difference came with a sting, for it is not easy to feel distant from a relative of whom others speak well.  But the hope that moved him is, for my generation, like a visitor from a different world.  Shared spaces only heightened the dissonance of disparate times: it was as if, in a crowd of strangers, we saw old friends and greeted them with relief, only to have a sense of isolation redoubled by the discovery that they no longer speak our language.

           Understanding the divide between his history and mine came for me as a second step when I read of the outsized role that particular periods play in shaping collective senses of history.  My grandfather’s books taught me that, on one level, each of us inhabits a tensional point at which experience of the world and a sense of the possible push against and mould each other; but that out beyond our private histories is a level on which the consciousness of entire groups is shaped by stories about periods of intensity in which the highest reaches of human possibility seem to have been manifest.  The time of the Greek heroes was one of these.  The ancient Greeks were among the first to record reflections on the meaning of history.  All through the period of their flowering, their sense of history was shaped by tales of the war with Troy.  These tales fixed a vision of the heights and limits of human possibility by which Greek history was measured.  What you could and could not aspire to be was delimited by their content.  You may spend much of your life bound to the necessity of scratching sustenance from pitiless land, but you may at times rise above brute necessity in service to a homeland, and win a kind of immortality through heroic action.  To be a good citizen was to dream that, in you, the needs of the people may be met in a new incarnation of the spirit of Odysseus or Achilles.

            The relation of the Greeks to the stories of Troy exemplifies a pattern that marks a great many histories.  One of the default postures of the human psyche is yearning for the recurrence of some paradigm-forming period, a time of revolution, perhaps, or peace and prosperity.  We rarely look forward without looking back, for our dreams are shaped by models that show what is possible.  But it is equally important that we rarely look back without looking forward, for desire for the return of some golden age is usually accompanied by the dream that we might ourselves be the Hercules, Tecun Uman, or Lincoln of the new recurrence, and that we might inhabit these archetypes with enough distinction to enlarge a people’s sense of the possible through our achievements.

            My grandfather s books gave me the tools for understanding that histories are made by periods of intensity that set the terms for collective visions of possibility.  In so doing, they have given shape to a nebulous feeling of alienation from my grandfather’s world, and have shown me why the question of history has come alive for my generation.  It seems to me now that we stand on the far side of a formative period that has redrawn the lines of the possible.  The question of history presses in on us because a decisive epoch has left us unable to sustain the sense of possibility that moved our parents and grandparents.  The routines that they passed down to us have become hollow because the possibilities that they sought to realise are no longer open to us.  If my grandfather’s books have led me straight, then understanding our new history requires that we grapple with the possibilities that are encoded in this new period of intensity.

The final lesson that I have taken from my grandfather’s books is that grappling with any paradigm-forming period requires entering the sphere of myth.  This entry might seem unnecessary for us, for our formative period is hardly shrouded in the mists of a distant past.  But one consequence of the connection between history and possibility is that histories have always been formed by exercises in myth-making.  Histories are rooted in tales that illustrate the bounds of the possible, and any tale that would accomplish this task must indulge the extrapolations and exaggerations necessary in order to suggest that something paradigmatic has occurred.  The making and breaking of histories has always involved the making and breaking of myths.  The recognition that we stand in a new history is, for me, the recognition that we require new acts of myth-making if we are to grasp the terms that have been set for our lives. 

            My own attempt to understand my times has led me to myths that centre on the relation between two paradigm-forming periods of intensity.  One is the recent time that stands between my grandfather and me.  The other is an earlier interval that provides a singular point of reference for the significance of the later.  The earlier time served as the point from which we had all come to count our history.  One writer sought to capture its freight by describing it as the fullness of time.  The teasingly ambiguous phrase has become pregnant for me as a clue to the transformations of history.  I have come to associate it with eras in which an existing history peaked in a realisation of its founding possibilities, and faced a challenge to its logic that broke it open from within.  Understanding our new history is, for me, a matter of tracing the relation between contrasting periods in which a history peaked and was broken open.

            The original occurrence of the fullness of time played out in the difference between two narratives that shaped my grandfather’s world.  The first is his story of creation.  This story centres on the thoughts of separation and order.  It tells of an earth that was formless and void, and a divine spirit that hovered over the waters.  A creator’s voice spoke.  Distinction and demarcation were the result.  Light separated from darkness, water from land, plant from animal, human from non-human.  Things came into being through acts of separation.  They were then set within an order in which they could remain themselves only by abiding in their given places.  Day would cease to be day if it stepped over into the place that belonged to night.  Land remained land by virtue of not giving itself over to the waters.  The creation and preservation of things was achieved by establishing separation and order as governing principles that set the limits of the possible.

            Articulation of these principles makes of my grandfather’s creation account a kind of ur-story whose logic has operated even where it was never heard.  That rulers rule and farmers farm has been sufficiently fundamental to social functioning that we are drawn towards understanding our possibilities by analogy with the day and the land.  We are beings who occupy determinate places.  We remain ourselves by inhabiting the possibilities that accompany our place.  There are the generalities of living as human, in distinction from God and animal: follow reason and not appetite; accept fallibility and finitude.  There are the particularities that set each of us apart from others: you are male, and not female; master, and not slave; a soul of gold, and not silver or iron.  Know your place is the ethos encoded in the thought of creation.  No phrase can sum up under itself the wisdom of a wider set of histories.

            For the fullness of time first to arise was for a history shaped by an ethos of place to come to a peak, and be put to the test.  The peak was marked by Rome’s highest flourishing, when the pax romana established a benchmark by which later governments would measure themselves.  An appearance of peace predicated on Caesar s power to keep all others in their places appeared to bring a vision of separation and order to its culimination.  The dream of a new Rome has animated rulers and kings.  But set within Rome’s peak sit thirty years that relativised its possibilities.  Their logic took centuries to seed itself and millennia to flower fully, but their triumph was inevitable, for their measure was not the possibilities of emperors and heroes, but the possibilities of God.

            The tale of these years is contained not in my grandfather’s story of creation, but rather in his account of redemption.  The essence of the account was a movement of God down into human life and a movement of humanity up towards divinity.  The downward movement was a matter of the incarnation of God in human form.  The Christmas mass has entrenched the essential expression of the idea in my mind: ’the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’.  My grandfather set alongside this picture of incarnation the idea of an exchange through which the divine took what is human so that the human might take what is divine.  The movement of God down towards the human was, for him, aimed at lifting up the human so that it might share in divinity.  He loved a summary of this idea that emerged from intense debates about how to describe the history-making power of the first fullness of time: God became man that man might become God. 

            My grandfather took this story of redemption as a tale of liberation because it showed the lowly being lifted higher than any oppressor could reach.  It broke open a history that seemed to have come to its peak because it ruptured an ethos of place.  God became human.  The human may become God.  These notions are absurdities to those schooled on the logic of separation and order.  For them, the divine and the human are set apart by the qualitative differences between time and eternity, change and changelessness.  Exchange between them is as unthinkable as a square circle.  The admission of exchange into the cultural imagination wiped clean the horizon.  If the divine and the human do not occupy places characterised by unqualified separation, then the bounds seem to be thrown open.  How may any distinction hold?  How may anything be bound by place if neither God nor humanity are fixed in theirs?  Otherwise unthinkable vistas of possibility were opened up.  The conquests of the Julius Caesar and wisdom of Marcus Aurelius had expanded a sense of human possibilities around the edges, but my grandfather’s story of redemption opened a new history by suggesting that human nature admits of an infinite reforming that reaches even to infinity itself.

            How to understand this new history is the question that we face in trying to grasp the transformations that have remade our world.  The question is not easy, for it is as if the work of creation had been undone, and whole new measures of possibility had to be invented.  The creation story had told of a world that was formless and void, and had been given shape and order by God.  The idea of the human becoming divine opened the dizzying thought of a world that is again formless and void, a space not of given places but of boundless potential.  How to measure possibility in a formless space was the decisive question.  Some sought to preserve familiar limits by suggesting that the creation and elevation of the human remained the exclusive privilege of divine agency.  Others sought to abolish limits by suggesting that the story of redemption signified the liberation of the human spirit as creative power found its proper home in the sphere of the human.  The task of defining the new history played out as a contest between privileging the divine or the human.

            I cannot understand the unfolding of this history and the transformations to which it led apart from the idea that human power stepped in for the thought of a human place as the decisive measure of possibility.  The mystery left to us by this history is how human beings can have lived as they once did.  I begin to see an answer only when I try to imagine how it must have felt to approach the world so kitted out with the promise of divinity that both self and world could seem formless voids awaiting a creative word.  There were rulers and farmers, masters and slaves, but all open to rearranging according not to what a person is, but to what they have the power to become.  There were forests and plains and rivers, but all shapeless, devoid of the delimitations of purpose, and open to a new work of separation and order: a wall sundering field from forest, a road segmenting endless plains, a dam dividing headwaters.  Self and world remade in the image of human strength seemed the birthright of those born to the dream of divinity.   The only measure of what was to be done was what could be done.  For the heirs of redemption, the aspirations of the Caesars could seem as nothing.  Land and people are not determinate things that are waiting to be conquered.  They are formless voids that are waiting to be created.

            For myself, the story to be told regarding the original occurrence of the fullness of time involves an ethos of power supplanting an ethos of place.  I am drawn to this story because I can understand more recent transformations only by putting them in relation to an earlier time that made creator gods of humanity.  I am conscious that I am generating intelligibility through myth.  Both the sharpest critics and staunchest defenders of my grandfather’s faith preferred alternate stories, ones in which a world open to boundless human making emerged from the death of God, understood either as an achievement that liberated the human spirit, or a catastrophe that drained meaning from the world.  I do not care to contest these accounts.  Absent a god’s eye view from which causation and correlation can be separated out in swirling clouds of spiritual and material, geographic and environmental, social and political forces, we are all indulging the illusion of neat Newtonian lines that bisect the quantum entanglements of history.  We need simply say that our myth-making answers to new demands.  Our task is to reckon with a making and unmaking of the world that is unintelligible on any scale short of divine action, and with a newer period of thirty years in which the unmaking came to term.  We best position ourselves to grasp the formative power of these later years by setting them in parallel to nothing less than an incarnation of God. 

A history founded on a vision of infinite possibility would seem, in principle, unsurpassable.  The passing away of the unsurpassable is rooted in a second period of intensity that rewrote the terms of the possible.  Consciousness of its significance was slow to develop because its dimensions are not clearly defined.  Did it begin in 1988 or 1994CE, or somewhere in between?  Did it end in 2016, or 2024, or somewhere else entirely?  We cannot be certain.  We see the dance of the kite and not the atmosphere itself.  The kind of direct observation that permits precise demarcation is impossible.  Was Christ born in 2BCE or 4CE?  Did he die in 30 or 36CE?  We do not know, and this is as it should be.  What we know is that, standing across from his life is another period of thirty or so years through which a parallel reordering of history took place.  The terms of a new era were set by those years. 

            What occurred is best understood as a second coming of the fullness of time.  There dawned again a period in which the possibilities of a history came to their limits, and were put to the test.  A first occurrence had broken open a logic of place, and bequeathed the power of creation to human beings.  A second arose from the negation that inevitably accompanies human acts of creation.  Whatever power we are promised, it belongs to our place that we make neither self nor world apart from exercising a power of negation.  The tree is cut down to make the chair, or clear space for the road.  Traits and positions with which we are born and formed are negated in search of the self that we desire.  The very time invested in one vision of self or world is the negation of some other use.  Creation is inseparable from negation.  The ancients had seen this, and drawn back in fear.  Shaped by the thought of order and place, they made tragic figures of those whose work overstepped human bounds.  The heirs of the incarnation, by contrast, revelled in the creative force of negation.  They supposed that all things must pass through their own negation in order to become themselves, and made heroes of those who negated all constraint in search of maximal self-creation.  Their history came to its fullness at the limits of negation’s force.

            This limit is marked by a culminating test of creative power: the test of self-annihilation.  When all other form has been negated and remade, our power is limited only by the forms that we ourselves are.  This body, these relations, this time, this place — at a final limit, we must decide whether we will accept the limits of our own constitutive forms, or reach for the consummation of creative freedom in negation of our very selves.  Proximate expressions of the tension between our freedom and our form proliferate: the self-reinvention of those who cut ties and move to a new place; the diets and regimens of those who wish their bodies to reflect their wills; the rebellion of the middle-aged against the moulds into which their lives have hardened.  The tension comes to a culminating expression in the half-heroic suicides of the artists who sought mastery over one last form.  The fullest expression of our power is inseparable from a final act of negation.  At the logical limit of our reach stands the test of self-annihilation as we buck finally against the constraints that we ourselves are. 

            A history founded on the idea of infinite possibility reached its culmination when humanity as a whole arrived at this test.  The arrival was built into the logic of the history, and could have taken many forms.  In the end, it was occasioned by the great burning that stood, half-concealed, at the heart of human making.  The purposes of the creator gods wrapped themselves so tightly around the world that heat from this burning could not escape.  Rising temperatures threatened the possibilities of life itself.  For thirty years, human beings knew that they had set themselves before the test of self-annihilation.  They had either to affirm life by adapting their making to constraints that sustain it, or to embrace the negation of life in an affirmation of creative power.  The choice concerned the essence of the human: life or power, inhabitation of the forms and relations that sustain our being, or assertion of self-negating sovereignty over all form.  Arrival at this choice represented a history come to its term, and a second coming of the fullness of time.

            Our new history is determined by the possibilities and limits that were revealed in those thirty years.  They are to me as Christ’s life was to my grandfather, the mystery at the heart of my world.  No reflection has yet brought me to their end.  There is a response that, with horror and revulsion, I could fathom.  Come to the final test, these gods might have come together and asserted that boundless creative power formed the essence of their humanity, and that life could be left either to reinvent itself in forms emerging from their power — in re-engineered bodies, on different planets, encoded in digital machines — or to reveal by its extinction that it never was a vessel worthy of human ambitions.  The choice of power over life would cohere with the logic of their history.  But no misguided titanism took place.  As with Rome before, the possibilities of their history were not affirmed and inscribed forever, but rather broken open.  What was revealed was not the finality of measureless power, but rather correlations between power and powerlessness that broke open a vision of the possible.  A second fullness of time revealed that power is not an unqualified word, but is rather rooted and completed in forms of powerlessness that are essential to humanity.

            The first form of powerlessness involves an emptiness that is the hidden source of human power.  This emptiness issues from weakness: in ourselves, we do not possess the power to be sure that breathe will come tomorrow, or food will be found next month, so we continually search outside ourselves for the means to extend our reach.  This search, driven by weakness, is the root of a distinctively human form of emptiness.  In contrast to the lion and the lamb, human beings have not lived from a determinate stock of capacities that fixes for them a form and a place in nature’s system, but have rather cycled through different forms of life as they have adapted themselves to different means of extending their power.  They have been creatures of stone and wood, bronze and iron, engine and flame.  Inhabitants of these different forms have occupied different places in nature’s structures.  Some have been symbiotic companions alongside the lamb.  Some have revelled in ruthless mastery over the lion. 

            The lesson of our history is that, weak and vulnerable in ourselves, we are constituted by an essential shapelessness that allows us to mould ourselves around resources from which we draw strength.  This shapelessness has emerged as the paradoxical root of our strength, for it has allowed us to harness the power of much that we meet.  Were we of more fixed form, we would find harder limits set on our capacity to draw  power from others.  We might have found that we could adapt ourselves to stone and wood, but not to bronze and iron.  A more substantial would be a less adaptable humanity, but we have proven to be so nearly nothing that few limits are set on our harnessing.  We may continually surpass ourselves as adaptation to new resources creates new forms of life.  Our history has shown that our power stands finally in dynamic correlation with our shapelessness, for its measure is not what we possess in ourselves, but how far we can hollow ourselves so that we are free for endless adaptation.  We have sometimes been able to persuade ourselves that our power is boundless.  The tacit condition of doing so is a capacity to see ourselves as sufficiently shapeless that no limits are set to what we can harness.

            But any dream of unbounded possibility is unmasked as the powerlessness that is the root of our strength finds a companion in a form of weakness that is the end of our might.  A fundamental helplessness emerges as our end because the tools to which we adapt ourselves come to define and determine our possibilities.  Where we draw our power from fire, our possibilities become those of fire; where we draw from the hammer, our possibilities are those of the hammer; and the correlation again proves to be dynamic because the further we attach ourselves to a source of power, the more it determines our possibilities.  To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  Those who are most effective in drawing to themselves the power of a particular medium find that they are bound and defined by it.  Those who are shaped from top to bottom by the power of money know no form of action other than the transaction.  Those who are adapted to the power of machines can proffer no solutions other than new machines.  These instances of the human have experienced the growth of their power towards a fundamental powerlessness in which only one form of action is left to them.  They discover the new helplessness of being mastered by the means of their mastery. 

            It is the entanglement of power and powerlessness that was revealed in the second coming of the fullness of time.  We were empty, and drew in power from outside ourselves.  We took power, and made for ourselves a new form of emptiness.  The forms of powerlessness that found and end our power were revealed when those who stood before the test of self-annihilation acted neither in willing affirmation of life nor in wilful embrace of negation, but rather found that they had no will at all.  Those who stood at sufficient remove from the power of money and machine to call for an affirmation of life were undone by their powerlessness.  Those who stood in sufficient proximity to counter the negations of money and machine were undone by the hold of these powers on their very being.  There was revulsion and protest, deceit and recrimination, but not a fusion of imagination and capacity in a space between forms of powerlessness.  Impasse between the helpless vision of the young and the blind habituation of their elders was the defining symbol of a paradigm-forming period of intensity.  A history that had been seeded by a vision of power was broken open when the fullness of time revealed that power sits in a vanishing middle between species of helplessness.  The possibilities of a new history were set by a generation that stumbled into self-annihilation because it could not locate the power to do anything else.  

In Jewish Scriptures a story is told of a flood that rose to cover the face of the earth.  The story trades on the thought of separation and order.  It supposes that human beings had overstepped their given bounds, so God allowed the waters to transgress their limits and engulf all but a few righteous.  The righteous were borne on the waters in a great ark.  When the rains stopped, the ark beached on the top of a mountain, and hope hung suspended until a dove returned to the ship bearing a leaf.  The leaf was a sign that the waters had retreated to their proper places.  Hope was fulfilled in an affirmation of life under the sign of separation and order.

              Christian Scriptures recount an event that later thinkers took to be rich with echoes of the flood narrative.  The incarnate Christ appeared, and was ready to begin teaching.  He set himself to be baptised by a prophet who was proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom.  He was submerged.  Waters closed over him.  Hope held its breath, for the waters threatened to swallow any promise of divine presence.  But the waters parted, Christ reemerged, and the spirit of God descended on him in the form of a dove.  The dove affirmed the boundary-breaking presence of God in creation.  A voice from heaven identified Christ as the bearer of a message that all should hear.

            My grandfather loved the coming of the doves.  For him, the dramas of history are encapsulated in the tension between the dove and the waters.  Back to the very foundations of creation, the divine spirit that hovered over formless seas was to be pictured as a dove that called life into being.  Oppressors are chaotic waters that seek to flood the earth, but the doves come as a sign that the waters will draw back.  Their yearly arrival was an occasion for my grandfather to speak about the surety of hope.  He would turn to Christ’s teaching on the birds of the air, who find provision even though they take no thought for the morrow.  ‘Therefore do not worry about tomorrow’, my grandfather would read.  The doves are a renewal of the promise that waters do not triumph.

            The waters are rising, and the doves are gone.  They appeared as a seal of blessing on a history of separation and order, and on a history of freedom and power.  What is left to us who have seen both histories end?  We have had histories of place, and histories of power, and histories that sought to hold the two ideals in tension.  Only the waters are left.  We have no thought of tomorrow.  Our possibilities set by the failures of histories that stood under the sign of life.  What is left to a history that stands under the sign of death?  

San Felipe de Jesus is also called the Church of the Entombed Christ.  The name comes from a sculpture of a kind once common in Spanish-speaking lands.  It is a Cristo Sepultado, a depiction of Christ lying dead in his tomb.  The sculpture was displayed in the church year round; but every year, on Good Friday, it was mounted on an enormous wooden platform and carried through town in a solemn procession.  The procession marked the high point of the local year.  More than a hundred men from the area helped to carry the platform.  Thousands came to watch. 

            Memories often remain impressed on our flesh long after they have lost significance for thought.  I can still feel the weight of the platform pressing down on my shoulder as I took my turns in the procession.  The memory of those turns has long seemed a relic of a different world, but it has crept from flesh back into thought as a history that is set under the sign of death has settled on the horizon.  The weight of the platform now presses on my mind.  It presses with the weight of desire.  Our best understanding indicates an end that is certain, but we are creatures of myth and imagination, not so imprisoned by appearances of necessity that we cannot dream of alternatives.  Desire to find grounds for hope engulfs me.  I find myself searching old stories for some sign or pattern that points to the possibility of life.     

            The Easter story presses with singular force because it inverts the drama of our history and answers its formative questions.  The drama of our history plays out in a movement from powerlessness to powerlessness.  We came from an empty inability to fulfil basic desires to an imaginative imprisonment to the means of our power.   We have dreamt of power that is accompanied by freedom, of a middle moment in which we possess the means to realise our ends without those means defining our ends.  The tragedy of our history is our slide from weakness to weakness without inhabiting the space between.  By contrast, the triumph of the Easter story is an inversion of this drama in a movement from power to power.  The story tells of a God, bearing the power of creation, who was incarnate, crucified, and entombed.  The powerlessness of death seemed, for a weekend, a final word, but resurrection marked its end, and the inauguration of a new power of salvation.  Easter represents a movement from power to power.  Helplessness was no more stable a midpoint for its protagonist than power fused with freedom was for us.

            The inversion is loaded with meaning because it gives what is, to all appearances, a conclusive answer to questions that form our histories.  The questions are reflected in the choice presented to Achilles: grow old and die in peaceful anonymity, or know pain, grief and an early death in order to win a hero s immortality.  Achilles’ preference for a hero’s end founded a history because it answered questions that are formative of our histories: how may death be anything other than an end?  What form of life, or pattern of action, transforms death from an end to a gateway?  Our histories have their origins in tales told for the sake of fulfilling the promise of immortality to our forebears, and extending the promise to those who might live as they did.  There is no story that we can tell without allowing its subjects to reach beyond death, and pointing implicitly to patterns of action that may course through our own lives and carry our memory into the future.  Protest against the finality of death is built into our histories.  The Easter story seems matchless as a maker of history because a promise of resurrection seems a final transmutation of death into a gateway.

            But as I have sounded the symmetries of the Easter story, I have been struck not by new echoes of hope, but rather by a silence that settles in right where a decisive harmony ought to sound.  I can hear reverberations of an appeal to have faith, to believe in a life plucked from death, either, as for Noah, in a restoration of the earth, or, as for martyrs, in a paradise set beyond death.  I pick up thrilling intimations of what it would feel like to hope for a recurrence of this pattern.  Faith and hope call to me, but I cannot hear the distinctive chord in which they harmonise together.  The absence is jarring, for it is only within this chord that the two retain their musicality.  Faith without hope is sterile, an investment in an event, pattern or ideal that is void of any power to illuminate the future.  Hope without faith is empty, a blank look forward that, abstracted from anything that is invested with meaning, does not know what it looks for.  Faith and hope may attach themselves to gods or heroes, pleasures or ideals, wealth or revolution, but any history that would sing to us must set the two in harmony.

            It is just this harmony that is missing from the tones that echo back from the Easter story.  Desire for hope presses down on me, but I have come to think that I cannot permit myself the venture of faith because it would amount to the negation of hope.  Faith fixes itself on patterns of meaning that may be cast forward in hope, but the consequence of turning to faith is that the fulfilment of hope can never appear in the form of surprise.  Faith teaches hope what to look for.  The result is that the fulfilment of hope may bring relief, delight and gratitude, but it can never bring unqualified surprise.  A faithful hope is excluded from surprise, and it is just this exclusion that we cannot allow because those who stand under the sign of death know no hope other than surprise.  To reckon truly with the stamp of death is to accept the physician’s prognosis and acknowledge that any alternative could arise only through rupture of the logic that governs our condition.  For those marked by death, surprise is the only hope, and hope must create space for surprise by detaching itself from faith.  Old stories may show us lives that harmonised faith and hope, but we cannot inhabit these lives because we must deny faith for the sake of hope.

            It is this condition that marks the new history in which we live.  My grandfather taught me that histories are made by our sense of the possible.  Sounding the Easter story has clarified for me the impossibility that is at the root of mine.  Past histories have drawn their force from a harmonisation of faith and hope, but we cannot sustain any euphony.  We stand under the sign of death.  There is no pattern of meaning that we can summon up and cast forward in hope because the patterns we know have brought us to this end.  Any fulfilment of hope would break them wide open.  Faith and hope thus cannot cohere.  An impotent stumble into self-annihilation destroyed the conditions under which history may harmonise.  Recurrence of the fullness of time neither fixed a lasting record of what may be, nor presented us with renewed vision, but rather devoured the possibility of having a history at all.     

The apostle who first spoke of the fullness of time understood it as a period of winnowing.  He addressed himself to two ways of seeking meaning in history, one that probes timeless patterns that play out on the screen of time, and another that reads the signs of the times in an effort to anticipate the future.  He associated the first approach with wisdom and the second with knowledge.  These ideals formed the cultures by which he was surrounded.  He shocked his readers by arguing that the fullness of time exposed the hollowness of both.  This period was, for him, a test of how far wisdom and knowledge can apprehend the singular events that prove to be the makers of history.  That both were confounded reveals that both are too limited to bear meaning.  For the apostle, three things only remain to us: faith, hope, and love.    

            We have had a second coming of the fullness of time, and a second winnowing.  The casualties this time were faith and hope.  These two lie deeper than wisdom and knowledge, more open to the meaning of singular, unrepeatable events, and the meaning-making power of affect and imagination.  They have structured histories after wisdom and knowledge have dropped away.  But the test of self-annihilation destroyed the conditions under which they may live.  Under the sign of death, hope seeks a shadowy half-life by detaching itself from faith, but neither survives the separation.  We feel desire for hope but we cannot embrace the thing itself, for we can give life to hope only by turning to faith, and the turn would falsify any hope that was born.   

            The periods of intensity that have made our history have stripped us of our means for grasping purpose.  Wisdom and knowledge, faith and hope have fallen away like the loci of meaning that age peels from us until, purged down to our barest essence, we are wheeled into the palliative ward.  If the apostle’s reckoning is right, the only thing left to us is love.  Love was, for him, the greater third that endured beside faith and hope.  Deprived of the worlds built by the latter two, we are left exposed at the deepest level of what we are with our love.  We should expect nothing less: when all else gone, parents still shield the young, lovers cling to each other, and the beloved s touch can summon response.  Love knows a spontaneity that is independent of calculus of purpose, and can fly in the face of knowledge.  It embeds itself in basal layers untouched by history’s excavation. 

            I have neither faith nor hope that love, a lone survivor of a ruthless winnowing, can step forward and create new constellations of meaning.  There have been idealists who dreamed of histories measured by the possibilities of love alone; but the gratuity that insulates love from voidance by history prevents it from giving shape to history.  Love’s groundlessness has meant that it must harness to itself some other power in order to shape events, whether the moral energy of a group of the faithful, or the coercive power of a system of education.  Left without the means to amplify itself across space and time, it will do what it has always done: endue a small circle with a light and warmth, beauty and delight, affect and investment that outstrip the meanings borne by our public histories; but also with irreducible tragedy because the subjects and objects that it couples will pass away.  The peculiar cruelty of a history that takes from us all but our love is the assurance of both the reality and the sting of loss.  We are left without the means to resist losses large and small, and with the means of an affective investment that ensures the pain of each loss. 

            The question that remains for me is not the role that love might play in a time without history, but rather the role that love might once have played when enough else was left for it to make a difference.  Our histories have never existed in isolation from love: a history of place expressed itself in love of a structured form of beauty; a history of power in love of openness, novelty, discovery, and creation.  The question of history itself, in its deep interconnections with desire for immortality, rests tacitly on a spirited love that reaches towards eternity.  But these are only some of love’s forms.  There is another that has run through all histories as a condition of their being without rising up to determine any particular one.  This is the love through which we give of ourselves.

            What this love might once have done is a question for me because the symmetries of the Easter story point elusively to its resistance to entrapment in power.  Early hearers rejected the story because they supposed that it is rendered incoherent by the capacity of power to ensnare.   These hearers were formed by the dream of immortality, and associated the perfection of power with a capacity to hold oneself apart from change and death.  The life of the divine seemed to them to embody this perfection; but they supposed that its cost is enclosure in a changeless eternity that is hermetically sealed against the negations of time.  Possession of perfect power seemed to trap the divine in eternity, unable to enter time and suffer loss, no less than the extension of our power trapped us in the means of our might. 

            But those who probed the logic of the Easter story held that it reverses the movement of our entrapment because it tells of a self-giving form of love.  They held that power is perfected not in maximal extension of itself, but rather in exercising itself without trapping itself.   Freedom, the use of our power apart from ensnarement in power, and not self-maximisation, seemed to them to represent power’s perfection.  They identified the condition of this freedom with self-giving love.  The entrapment of blind habituation follows where we continually deploy the means of our power in pursuit of our ends, but we hold open spaces of imagination, of freedom, where we make ourselves the means of others’ well-being.  Every gift of self is a reversal of a habituating assertion of self.  The gift of self is, at the same time, a gift to self of the possibility of freedom within the exercise of power.  The echoes of the Easter story locate the perfection of power in a freedom that is granted by self-giving love.

            I am left in the end to wonder if we find ourselves history-less because we never understood the things that are most essential to us.  The second coming of the fullness of time brought us to a choice between life and power.  At stake were two visions of humanity, two conceptions of freedom, and two stories of creation.  We were compelled to ask what was more essential to our humanity, the given forms and limits that make life possible, or the power to abrogate all givens.  The alternatives encoded differing conceptions of freedom: the one, an embrace of the limits that attend our place; the other, a license to pursue the realisation of any desire we wish.  Behind the alternatives stood opposing stories of creation: an earth, formless and void, in which all has been given a determinate place by God; or an earth, formless and void, that human beings may order in their image.  Our history has played out in the tension between these visions.  It has been the drama of either submission to or supersession of the divine. 

            But the choice forced by the fullness of time was, simultaneously, the revelation of false alternatives too little shaped by hidden thirds.  It is not the earth that has waited, formless and void, to be given shape, but rather we ourselves.  We are constituted neither by place, nor by power, but rather by an emptiness that abides until we adapt ourselves to means that bring our ends within reach.  We wait, formless, until these means give us form, and set for us our place and our power.  There have been peoples of wood and of iron, of oxen and of engine, of fire and of atom.  All have been of different places and powers.  Some were symbiotic neighbours to the lamb, and some were not; some were set below the lion, and some were not; some lived and left space for the future, and some did not.  Our place and our power do not set the terms of our making so much show how we are made by the means of our making.  Our freedom has never consisted in accommodation to the place or extension of the power given by our tools, but rather in an investment in others that protects us from mastery by these tools.  

            Perhaps just this has, all along, been the difference between any history that can claim the impress of the divine and those that time has broken open.  We have thought about differences between the divine and the human in qualitative contrasts: the eternal and omnipotent, on one side; the temporal and limited, on the other.  Our histories have been shaped by a dream of overcoming death, of aping the power of eternity.  But in and of themselves, power and eternity tell us little about the quality of a life.  Eternity may trap our gods and constrain their possibilities no less than time seems to constrain ours.  The afterlife visited by Odysseus was peopled by shadowy, miserable spirits.  We have asked what would make us immortal.  We have given too little thought to what would make us free.  Just this was the freedom that my grandfather taught: a love that is sufficiently invested in others that it is not trapped by power.  He took oppressors to be imprisoned by fevered pursuit of their own might.  He taught a love that resists this pursuit in the name of liberation.  His history is not mine.  I can sustain neither his faith nor his hope.  But I am haunted by what his love might once have done.


Martin Westerholm was born and raised in Southern Ontario, and studied philosophy and theology in Canada and Scotland before taking up a position in systematic theology at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.  His research interests sit at the intersections of theology, philosophy, and ethics, and have come recently to organise themselves around constructive conversation with Augustine and contemporary Augustinians.  His wider interests include literature and poetry, as well as gardening and hiking together with family.


Image: The Crucifixion with Saint Jerome and Saint Francis (Detail), tempera on wood by Pesellino, probably c. 1440–45; in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington; Samuel H. Kress Collection


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