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Searching for meaning

Jessica Chastain and Tye Sheridan star in a scene from the movie The Tree of Life.

Do we matter: Jessica Chastain and Tye Sheridan star in a scene from the movie The Tree of Life.

By Dr Matthew Tan

IN a lament to God over the loss of her son, a mother in the Terrence Malick movie The Tree of Life exclaims – “Who are we to You?”

It is a line that resonates with and stays with the viewer long after the movie is over.

Many a church-goer would be familiar about that most basic Scriptural narrative, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son (John 3:16) and in his Son the whole universe obtains salvation.

“Maybe for the world and the cosmos”, some might quietly reply.

“But what about me? Where is the evidence of this cosmic transformation in the grains of my own individual existence?

“Or is this concern for salvation in the particularities of my own life a narcissistic concern for things that do not really matter in the greater scheme of things?

“Will I only start to matter when my earthly existence ends?”

It is easy to think of oneself as the recipient of God’s transformative power when times are good or when such power is demonstrated in extraordinary circumstances.

Such times however, are so rare, and the experience of trauma or bitter disappointment so frequent, that one might wonder if as the norm he or she could ever be the specific recipient of anything beyond the Cross, whether any specific consolation is the reserve for that one in particular.

It is easy to think in such circumstances that God’s salvation and mercy is as the norm the special reserve of more “universal” and thus more important things like “creation” or “humankind”, and not any human in particular.

After all, many might say, Isaiah did write that “all mankind is grass … the grass withers and the flower wilts” (Isaiah 40:8).

Far too many Christians have this impression that, when it comes to the operations of God, one’s own life must necessarily be secondary to the greater good of all of creation, as if the particularities of one’s own existence stand in the way of the universal impact of God’s grace.

It is true that the love of self can disrupt the economy of grace, as St Augustine of Hippo reminds us, but that does not necessarily mean that there necessarily has to be a dichotomy between one’s particular circumstances and the transformation of creation in its entirety.

To put it in more abstract terms, is the particular necessarily separate from and subordinate to the universal?

Speaking on Platonist metaphysics, the political philosopher Adrian Pabst sought to point out that the dichotomy between the universal and the particular, which is often attributed to Plato, is more the result of caricature than analysis.

What an analysis of Plato’s metaphysics should reveal, argues Pabst, is that the universals must spill over ecstatically into the particular, so that the particular becomes a real manifestation of the universal.

And as students will learn in mediaeval philosophy in places like Campion College, the Christian faith grows out of this neoplatonic foundation.

It is what underpins our understanding of the sacramental life, and that life is also what undergirds the Christian view of the world and God’s relationship to it.

The economy of grace is not confined to some abstract universal, but will spill over and seep into every fibre of the particular.

The first creation account in the book of Genesis was meant to show that the God of the Hebrews transcended the particular.

And yet, the patriarchs, the prophets and the psalms show time and time again that it was through one particular life that the universality of God’s operations unfolds (God lifted up Abraham out of obscurity, a nation out of slavery, a poor man from the dungheap).

A similar picture appears in the Gospels.

The seemingly abstract gloss of God “each and every one of us” cannot ignore the fact that the particulars of “each” and “one” is bound up in the meaning of the sentence.

In announcing the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus not only announced commandments called for by the new universal sovereign, namely God.

The universal sovereign’s version of salvation involved stooping down to pick mud up to smear on the eyes of a blind man, lifting a girl out of death, healing a haemorrhage through the hem of his cloak.

Even in the passion, one must not forget that it is through the particularity of a wooden cross and a body of a 33-year-old Hebrew that salvation of the whole cosmos came about.

This logic continues in our sacramental life, especially in the Eucharist, when the universal Lord is fully manifest in a particular piece of bread which is then consumed by a particular body, entering through the gates of an individual’s mouth.

This means that, in the operations of salvation, particulars do matter, and as such, we matter in particular.

A God who has an account for “every hair on your head” will not leave the beneficiaries of his grace to something as abstract as a universal, since the universal unfolds itself in the particulars of our existence.

Dr Matthew Tan

Dr Matthew Tan

Thus, while creation “groans in waiting for manifestations of the Son of God” (Romans 8:19), while we rightfully wait for the salvation of the world, each one also rightfully makes this expectant claim “restore me again to health and give me life” (Isaiah 38:16).

Dr Matthew Tan received his doctorate in Political Theology at the Australian Catholic University in 2010. He is the visiting Assistant Professor in Catholic Studies and in the Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at De Paul University, Chicago.

Written by: Staff writers
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