God says that man can rest secure if he loves God and neighbor, but man would only love God and neighbor if he already rested secure.
This maze began in the Bible. It eventually makes it back there. We are reading through the book of Hebrews in my community Bible study. A couple months ago, I was splashing about in an ocean of novelty, unsure of who I was away from the familiar context of home and family. I had been talking a lot of philosophy with my new friends and debating theology too. With so much confusion and so little stability, I began to doubt my ability to say anything worthwhile. Then I had this epiphany. I’ll try to guide you into and out of this mini emotional-philosophical-existential-theological crisis. I’ll be your Ariadne. The ball of yarn that gets you out of the labyrinth is my belief in God.
Hebrews 4: 1-11 (excerpted; you can go read the whole thing. I don’t interpret out of context, but check me.)
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.
….. his works were finished from the foundation of the world…..
And God rested on the seventh day….
Since therefore it remains for some to enter it…. he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,
“Today if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”
…. strive to enter that rest ….
I went through italicizing important phrases or repeated words. (So much for emphasis. Everything is important!) These are the points that stuck out to me:
- God has a “rest” and “rests.”
- Faith is associated with open ears, soft hearts, and individual action.
- Everything God has done is finished already.
- Since we are time-bound, we must live responsible for our own actions. Every day – that specific day called “today” – we experience the choice to harden our hearts against God.
What irked me about this passage was not the age-old predestination vs. free will seesaw[i] but the word “rest.” Two problems have bothered me for a while:
- Free will seems inextricably linked with sin. It is to choose right or choose wrong. Is it possible to have free will when the separation between God and man is broken? As Jesus says,” Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess, in heaven and on earth…” When God appears in majesty, can anyone help but follow the Good that will always lead to happiness? Can anyone help living in harmony with the universe when the light floods the world, and all knowledge and all right becomes clear? When everyone is forced to acknowledge God’s existence, does the individual’s will disappear?
- How can God “rest?”
My problem is understanding the meaning of “rest” as God uses it. We are created in God’s image, but we are different types of being than him. In order to catch a glimpse of what God is communicating, I have to understand our different ways of being. God revealed himself to us through our language. He is the ultimate King, the ultimate Vine, the ultimate Life – but how can I understand that in a world of flawed kings, diseased vines, and painful lives? In these notes, I hope to figure this out a bit by dissecting our ideas of what constitutes “being,” “self,” “identity,” “life,” etc.
Heidegger[ii] sees existence from a hermaneutic perspective, understanding the whole based on understanding of its individual parts, and understanding the individual parts based on understanding of their whole. This is sensible enough – it prevents the rotten practice of quoting lines out of context, a famous example being: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. (Meant as part of a low prank, you can now find it in inspirational graphics on Pinterest. It has lost its original meaning and been hijacked by modern perceptions!)
The practical problem is figuring out what to consider an individual part, and what to consider the whole. Parmenides thought only the whole existed and any distinctions, including time, were illusory. In Biblical textual hermeneutics, “the whole” is the Bible. Heidegger thought the whole was everything experienced by a person. The “Dasein” is an unfolding space of meaning that a human is born into and inextricably woven into. Being and time are linked in a sort of horizon. In Sein und Zeit, he asks: “Does time itself reveal itself as the horizon of being?” Plato believed self was a chariot of the soul propelled by passion and spirit and directed by reason. Aristotle refuted him by mixing the body together with the soul to form a holistic, unitarian organism. Heidegger takes the idea of self outside of the self by mixing the body and soul together with a way of being – an evolving space that limits itself and unfolds itself out of possibilities into in-world experiences.
Dasein is a self-referential way of being, hermeneutical. Being is an experience, not a thing accessed or analyzed objectively and isolated from other things (a hammer without a nail and something to be nailed would be meaningless), but something we observe from within it – it is both potentiality and actuality; past, present, and future. Because we view it from within and cannot immediately jump to understanding, we must start with our perception of an everyday experience and move out from there to analyze the Dasein as a whole. That starting point will later be reinterpreted when the hermeneutic circle comes back to its start. And as the cycles continue, the relations of the interpretations and their evolution can be analyzed to come to an even higher understanding.
Let’s go back to my problem with rest. Why do I have a problem with imagining God at rest? It is because I associate “rest” with a lack of being. I looked up ways we use rest online:
“a bodily state characterized by minimal functional and metabolic activities”
“freedom from activity or labor”
“a state of motionlessness or inactivity”
“the repose of death”
“peace of mind or spirit”
“a rhythmic silence in music”
I looked up the Greek word used in the Bible (κατάπαυσίν) and its use in other contexts. It is used in reference to a calming of the winds, and as an idiom for abdication of political authority. In the Bible, it refers to the Sabbath and the Promised Land. The Greek and English interpretations both associate rest with inaction and the absence of movement. The word has a positive connotation, yet it stinks of morbidity. For what is the ultimate rest but Death?
As Hamlet soliloquizes:
“To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.”
Yes, to die is to be freed of the endless struggle – doubt, anxiety, fear, anger. But to rest, to sleep, is to surrender joy, hope, desire, communion, courage as well. When consciousness dies, everything dies with it, the best and worst parts of the Dasein. It is all banished in the inferno; all is thrown into the furnace. How do we understand “rest” without sliding down the slippery slope to horrible non-being?
God says he sent his Son so that we could have “everlasting life,” not “everlasting death.” So, when God uses the word “rest,” he uses our limited vocabulary to speak of something different from the shadow of death, the night of the consciousness that immediately appears to terrorize our sin-bound minds. In the human sin-bound Dasein, we must go unconscious in order to rest. We enter a shadow of non-being, a shadow of hell, in order to live the next day. We associate peace with lack of thought and movement. In our current state, in order to live, we must continue to practice death each night.
God exists outside of the Dasein. He stands “at the still point of the turning world” (Eliot, 4 Quartets). I think we must concede God’s rest to be rather different from what we experience daily here on earth.
For what creates the need for rest on earth? Exhaustion. What exhausts us here on earth? The struggle between our muscles and gravity (weariness) and the struggle between our minds and time (anxiety).
Space and time exhaust us.
A few months ago, I walked over to a practice room with two friends around 8:30, expecting about 2 hours of music and then hitting the books back at the dorm until midnight. The clock chimed. We looked up from our perch by the sycamore tree under the stars, and the hand clicked to 4:00. If we had been together for eight hours, and it was nearly dawn why was I not weary?
I was experiencing the mental and physical activity associated with the words “life,” “lively,” and “living” at a time when those things should have been dimmed in sleep. I was ecstatically happy and had no thought for the next day or the day before. All I knew was that I was existing, and existing well. I was, in a way, experiencing “being” separate from “time.”
But how could I be living in reality when reality is timeless and I am time-bound? Think this:
Without past and future to give me context, by my own perception I am not in time. I am unconscious of time, but by being unconscious of time, I am fully conscious of being. If I live in the present, I do not live in time but only reality – Sein and Zeit have been separated. They are compatible, but not dependent. And Sein is so much more powerful when isolated! See, if the past is what was and the future is what will be, neither actually exists. What is real is the “is.” What is real is the present. But the present is only the knife’s edge between past and future. We don’t really live in “is.” “Is” is the absence the absence of time.
But what happens when (or if) we make Dasein fully “is,” with no thought of past or future?
Ooh. Weird thing. I am no longer experiencing Dasein because to my own mind I exist outside of my own narrative. There is no more self-interest and desire’s movement of the self towards that interest, which is built on experience. Egoism is dead because there is no ego.
Unconscious of my past experiences and unconscious of a future existence, I have no self-consciousness. And yet I exist. My Dasein, which I will rename “Self,” is gone. But my being remains. With the banishment of time comes the banishment of Self, but not the banishment of being. Being just becomes a new kind of experience.[iii]
But even if this might exist in heaven, this way of being is not practical in the world, not sustainable, and probably not possible. Is there any way to escape exhaustion within the bounds of time and the ego?
As I stated previously, exhaustion comes from the struggle against gravity and other such physical constraints. I see no way to get rid of that without getting rid of bodies, which isn’t practicable. But the other source of exhaustion is the struggle against time, the struggle to continue existence – what I term “anxiety.”
We struggle against death by being good learners. Organisms that can adapt survive when others don’t. Experience and reason are the two modes of learning. One makes intuitive decisions based on past experience; the other uses logic to weigh pros and cons in the present. They work together. We learn so that we can survive and thrive. Memory and logic are therefore keys to a good life. But the only reason we need memory and reason is because from our vantage point the future does not exist yet as one path but as an infinite number of branches. Reason and experience give us the ability to assign probabilities to each in order to choose the better (or, hopefully, the best) path.
But what if somebody outside of time who could see our universe like we see a picture on the wall told us where all the different paths would lead if we took them? If we believed him, we would no longer struggle with past and present to understand future. We would no longer need to stare at the past like an auger stares at bird guts or strain our eyes to peer into the darkness, but following the voice that calls us in each individual moment through his word which is unchanging, eternal, and written in our hearts, we would advance with confidence. We could rest in simple being.
The poet Holderlin wrote,
“Wo aber die Gefahr ist,
wachst Das Rettende auch.”
But where is the danger,
there also grows the saving power.
There is still the struggle between faith’s transformative power and the inclinations of the flesh, but God is a good master to his slaves. When we murdered and faced death as punishment, he sent his Son to die in our place. And so we are secure. Although we know our wills lead us down wrong paths, we have faith that God gives us faith to return to harmony with his will.
In an uncertain world (which will continue to be uncertain so long as it continues to exist in time), the only certainty comes from faith in someone who has the ability to be certain (and must therefore be somehow removed from time). We base our decision to vest faith in that person on some time-bound criterion, but it is not the revelation itself we trust, but the Person himself – his character, his voice, his realness. It is, as Heidegger might say, a hermaneutic circle. We place trust in an individual part of revelation which leads us to place trust in God, which allows us to place trust in individual parts and revise our original understanding of them. That is not a faulty system of analysis, if, as Heidegger proclaims, we must analyze our very selves that same way.
And so that is how we can understand God’s kind of rest. It is the death of the Self. It is the death of time. It is the bliss of being separated from the necessity of self-preservation in the kind of paradox expressed in Luke 17: “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.” It is letting go of the rope because you know you will never hit the rocks beneath. It is something the poets sing of, the kind of thing that leaves logicians banging their heads against walls.
The difference between “rest” and “non-being” appears to be hope. Sleep feeds wakefulness, and music is built by silence as much as by sound waves. Drawings are defined by negative space as well as by the form of the line. Each night, we lie down and lose consciousness. We rise in the morning, refreshed, but we have experienced a hint of death. The difference between sleep and death is that sleep has hope of wakening while death is the end, the complete and unremitting darkness – in music, the eternal silence. This is why Christians do not fear death. We will never experience it. We will fall asleep, and when we wake, we will be with God.
So, given all this, now that we’ve gotten here, do we have free will in heaven, when the option to stray no longer exists?
Yes. Because once we are there, we are free of the sin. We are free to live secure – finally, after our free giving of our free will to God, we are able to surrender ourselves utterly to him, to love him as we have longed to love him, and to be with him knowing that our sinful nature will never possess us. The chains that prevented us from willing what we would will are gone. We are free of everything in this world that is bad and have what we chose when we had free will: to not have free will but only do what God wills because that is where we find rest and life. And so we have escaped self and time but have kept our identities. The danger (free will) is inextricably linked with the saving power.
As T.S. Eliot puts it:
“You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.”
In Matthew 5, Jesus proclaims that those who desire only material riches have received their reward in this life. Then, in Matthew 6, he shows us what true faith is:
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?[p] 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”
See! The ego is gone. The person no longer needs to struggle towards self-interest because all is in God’s hands! The struggle is finished. “Is not life more than food?” Life is more than feeding Self. Life transcends that. When the Self is made subordinate to God, life finds its actuality in restfulness.
[i] First of all, for the purpose of clarity in the following discussion, I would like to explain my definition of free will. Based on Biblical passages like this one, I am a compatibilist, by which I mean that the universe and everything that happens in it is pre-determined by God from an objective, non-temporal standpoint, but from our subjective standpoint we experience the ability to choose freely. In my view, free will is nothing more than the ability to do what occurs to me as desirable – whether it be to start going to church, or rob a bank, or eat a cupcake. We don’t possess it on a higher level than that. Like Schopenhauer said, I believe that “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
Holding “free will” as a pure “I must have total autonomy in my willing process and will what I will will” is plain old fatally flawed. For one thing, this concept of God as non-interfering sounds theologically an awful lot like the deists’ “Prime Mover,” who sits back and lets people make their own messes and face the consequences. It doesn’t sound much like the loving shepherd who hunts down his stray sheep to set them back in the flock, or the one who causes all things to work for the good of those who love and obey him and are called according to his purpose. When “free will” annihilates God as “Predestinator,” it surrenders the fate of every human being into the hands of Biology and its daughter Human Psychology, the sister of History, all three of which have well-supported claims to human decision-making processes. You didn’t decide when or where or to whom you were born. If God didn’t predestine that, other people did by the decisions they made which were based on other peoples’ decisions (causal chain set off by Prime Mover). And, by the way, those beliefs you thought you chose on your own – you learned them from your parents, or emotional experiences, or due to associations of disgust your brain formed in the past. (A study has shown that if a person washes their hands before filling out a political survey, he is more likely to fill out Conservative answers. Likewise, another study showed that the nearer a subject is to a hand-sanitizer dispenser, the more Conservative his answers will be. Looks like we aren’t as in control of our decisions as we perceive ourselves to be!) There isn’t much point in staking everything on this meta version of free will. It elevates humans to the level of God – which we clearly aren’t! – and then it falls apart.
[ii] I haven’t studied Heidegger. Most of what I know comes from talking to a friend who took a phenomenology course last semester.
[iii] Neuroscience seems to suggest that we have multiple “selves.” Our understanding of “I” depends on the context the “I” is put under. In the normal sense of self-awareness, our sense of identity is unitarian and egoistic, but the reality may be quite different. Buddhism and some other religions or practices try to transcend the normal perception – bring heaven to earth, I suppose, if heaven is like anything like that timeless Sein I was talking about sort-of experiencing a hint of at 4:00 a.m. that day.
“These results suggest a fundamental neural dissociation between two distinct forms of self-awareness that are habitually integrated but can be dissociated through attentional training: the self across time and in the present moment … Narrative self-reference stands in stark contrast to the immediate, agentic ‘I’ supporting the notion of momentary experience as an expression of selfhood … This hypothesised cortical reorganization following MT is consistent with the notion that MT allows for a distinct experiential mode in which thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations are viewed less as being good or bad or integral to the ‘self’ and treated more as transient mental events that can be simply observed (Williams et al. , 2007 ). As such, the capacity to disengage temporally extended narrative and engage more momentary neural modes of self-focus has important implications for mood and anxiety disorders, with the narrative focus having been shown to increase illness vulnerability (Segal et al. , 2006 ). Conversely, a growing body of evidence suggests approaching self-experience through a more basic present-centred focus may represent a critical aspect of human well-being (Davidson, 2004 ) …”