That You May Know

The Resurrection culminates in the Ascension. It complements an essential insight common to a number of different intellectual and spiritual traditions about the priority of an eternal and everlasting principle that underlies all reality. “Never that which is shall die,” as a fragment from a lost play by Euripides puts it.

The Ascension is the exact opposite to some of our contemporary assumptions. It is emphatically not about a flight from the world. It is the homecoming of the Son to the Father, as Jesus makes clear. And that, in turn, is our homecoming, the making known of the end and purpose of our humanity as found not in the world itself but the world in God. As Thomas Traherne cogently remarks, “You never learn to love the world aright until you learn to love it in God.” The Ascension is the gathering of all things back to God through the going forth and return of the Son to the Father. “We ascend,” as Augustine puts it, “in the ascension of our hearts.”

John Lukacs’ The Question of Scientific Knowledge in At the End of An Age quotes Ludwig Feuerbach, the German radical theologian who influenced Karl Marx: “The old world made spirit parent of matter. The new makes matter parent of spirit.” This is, Lukacs suggests, “as good a summation of the historical philosophy of materialism as any.” He goes on to show rather convincingly that “matter … is increasingly dependent on spirit … that the human mind … both precedes and defines the characteristics of matter.” In his view, this is one of the important features of quantum physics. We cannot remove ourselves from the equation about knowing and thinking nature. Or as Neil Postman puts it about the forms of technological determinism, “there is no escaping ourselves.”

The reading from Psalm 47.5 about “God going up with a merry noise” locates the Ascension in the eternal and divine motions of God himself. It is, as the theologians of the Church in the Patristic period put it, “the exaltation of our humanity.” Prayer is really about the lifting up of heart and mind in the lifting up of all things to their end and source in God. It does not negate the physical and material world but signals its redemption in God. This way of looking at reality contrasts with our increasingly virtual world in flight from the real world and ourselves.

Three modern approaches to thinking nature conflict with one another: first, the idea of our humanity as completely separate from nature and utterly dominant over the world, as if it were just dead stuff to be manipulated to our so-called ends and purposes; secondly, the idea of our humanity as simply collapsed into the world and indistinct from it which renders impossible any kind of accountability or knowledge of either self or world; and thirdly, the ‘post-modernist’ idea that nature and culture are just linguistic and social constructs that we invent but without any content or meaning. We are just talking to ourselves. But rather than competing and conflicting ways of thinking, these three need to be seen together and to complement and be integrated with each other. This is the point in part of the “old world” thinking, or better, the kind of thinking that is implicit and explicit in the wisdom of the past. It is there for us in the present.
These musings on the Resurrection and the Ascension were complemented in Chapel with the reading at the Junior School and Grade 10 services about the forgiveness of sins. It, too, is a powerful concept which challenges the various conflict narratives of our world which pits cultures and peoples against one another in terms of power and domination. In the healing of the paralytic, Jesus says, “thy sins be forgiven thee.” It is an insight into the principle of life that underlies all life even in the physical forms of disease and suffering. The story is testament to the uniting of matter and spirit. The “scribes say within themselves that this man is blaspheming,” meaning that he is claiming for himself a power which belongs only to God. It does, but that is the point. Jesus is God with us making visible the eternal life of God for us.

Jesus makes this clear by healing the paralytic but only by showing that the greater healing is the healing of our souls. “That you may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins - then said he to the sick of the palsy - arise, take up your bed and go home.” The forgiveness of sins is what God wants us to know. It transcends the divisions and animosities of our lives; it does not negate the disorders and destructive tendencies that inhabit our “thoughts, words and deeds” (as we confess at every Chapel service). It lifts us up out of ourselves and recalls us to who we are in God which is the point of confession.

The forgiveness of sins flows out of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. It belongs to the idea of the transformation of sorrow into joy, of sin and death into life and goodness. Christ’s first word on the Cross is “forgive them for they know not what they do.” In the story of the healing of the paralytic, Jesus shows us what is wanted to be known: the divine life that restores and perfects through the forgiveness of sins. Why? Because that life is prior and greater than all sin and evil. The message of forgiveness builds on Socrates’ insight that it is far worse to do wrong than to suffer wrong; another counter to our culture of resentment. At the very least, these readings offer another way of thinking about our relation to the world and to one another. 

If we see the world as something completely separate, indifferent, and even hostile to us, as in Sartre’s La Nausée; in short, as nauseating, it is not a big step to seeing one another as enemies such as in his play Huis Clos (‘No Exit’) where “hell is other people.” The forgiveness of sins and the Ascension remind us of another way to think and live.  Christ’s last word on the Cross complements the Ascension. “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” It signals the gathering of all things to their home and our home in God; a different relation to nature and to one another.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy

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King’s-Edgehill School is located in Mi'kma'ki, the unceded ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq People.