Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sign Of The Human

I am more used to my backyard than perhaps any other space on God's earth. Five years ago we put a picture window in the back wall of the kitchen providing an uninterrupted view. I see trees and plants, squirrels, groundhogs, deer, once or twice a fox, a turkey, and one night I swear there was the yowl of a coyote!

Nothing could be more natural.

At the same time I sit at the table in front of this window and I look at words and images on my computer screen, speeding their way across hyperspace. Inches or thousands of miles in seconds or less, it doesn't seem to matter. What could be more artificial? The leaves on the trees bud, mature and die in one narrow fixed space over a whole season. My thoughts and the signs that carry them fly about their electronic universe like winged silicon gods, without any solid body to hold them.

But wait...

This distinction between natural and artificial, between solid and electronic, is it so real, so assured? That leaf up there, quivering at the end of a branch, is it not just as much a product of complex information transfers, of enzymes, gravity, photons?

For sure, we see and describe these things in terms of quantifiable energy, but energy states are not actually different from information states once we get down to subatomic physics and how particles move and shift at that level. For example, in photosynthesis a packet of light (photon) is absorbed by the leaf to make it grow, but in a slightly different form (i.e. at a different wavelength) it is the means by which we see!

The only final difference with information, therefore, is the "mirror" of the human brain which captures things in images and signs. It is the fact of the human observer.

Today we are so intensely aware that in the midst of all the small particle transfers of energy there is this incredible fact of human meaning achieved through signals in and around us. The world of computers and media has enormously increased my sense of the flow of energy/information. It has plugged me into an exploding world of signs and shown me how everything human is wonderfully made out of communication. What we call a human being is something like a center of communication through signs, like the arrivals and departure screens at airports but not just for's for everything!

Another way of saying the same could be that a human being is the tipping point of the universe where creation begins to reflect back to itself its own energy/information process and and it does so as signs. The universe has become the scene of meaning as human sign...

Enter John's gospel and "In the beginning was the Word..."

Wow! How cool is that, that two thousand years ago the "theological gospel" understood that everything begins with signal, sign, word, Word? John of course is not talking just any sign or word. He is talking Jesus. He is talking the nonviolent Crucified and Risen One. Here is the sign or meaning that starts everything over and starts it for the first time. But it also establishes thereby the general principle that the human world is composed of the sign, and does so long before computers made it factually obvious. In my opinion, this one liner and everything it means have been a pivotal factor in bringing forth our world of hyper-communication.

The gospel is communication. It is good news. And with that outbreak of information the modern age was truly born (and inside that its wilder child, the postmodern age). Gone is the thick mythic world of gods and demons, heavens and hells. Gone is the lofty world of ideas belonging to a pure realm of thought. Gone even is the comforting fate of inevitable death. Instead we have the explosion of communication, of talk and story. And at the heart of talk and story there is the endless concrete choice between killing and forgiveness, retaliation and life. And within that, and because of it, there is the nagging insistence that even beyond death the word of life will pursue us, not allowing any complicity with fate and its violence.

What a stunning word! What a sign! And now because of this singular Word, because of the way it has shifted the character of actual culture, it means a crucial amount of the sensed information of our world is full of God. The God of compassion and forgiveness known in and through the sign of Jesus is broadcast through the actual contemporary sign system in all its immense variety and vitality.

The spiritual human consequences are immense. Anyone anywhere knowing her world through its signs is necessarily impacted by this God. The impact may not be powerful, it very probably will not be conscious. And, equally probably in many, many cases, it will be resisted, opposed, even hated. But anyone with an eye and a heart of compassion will pick up all around them this wonderful new human reality.

In the past this kind of experience has often called contemplative and indeed that is what it is. But the word contemplation has a tone of heavenly truths--the framework of Greek thinking which sees truth as abiding in a perfect place beyond this world, or, at least, belonging purely to a spiritual order and accessed in a purely spiritual way. But the fact of the matter is that Christian contemplation has always been very concrete and sensuous, awakened by historically concrete signs and images. The "visions" of the mystics testify to this.

However, what I am talking about is much more general and diffuse than a saint's pure-hearted love and identification. It really is a cultural condition: one mixed in with a great deal of other stuff, some of it neutral, much of it negative, but in the last analysis it is the constant presence of Christ at the heart of our concrete world.

Our world is under the pressure of Christ at an internal generative level. Once again this is not any kind of mathematically obvious fact; it does not impose itself by force. But it does mean that a Christian does not and cannot look outside of her actual human world for the truth of Christ. It means that the human world is itself the stuff of the divine, that God has become an organic part of the human system. It means your neighborhood, your city, your mall, it's all a virtual church! It means that despite the contradictions, the killings, the betrayals and the danger, Christ indeed has the victory. It means that forgiveness and peace have become the one and only true meaning of the world: Satan has indeed fallen like lightning and the semiotic reign of violence is collapsing.

It means love is the normal and constant sign of being human. It fills my backyard just as much as my computer, my computer just as my backyard...

Tony Bartlett