If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the “heaviest of burdens”. If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?
…. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to earth, the more real and truthful they become.
Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.
What then shall we choose ? Weight or lightness?
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
If there is no God, then time itself has no bounds; it has no source, and it has no goal. It is the one Infinite of our lives. It is the Eternal to which we bend our knee. We are, as the quote says, “nailed to eternity.”
And though our True Sovereign might be Time itself, what we truly spend our energies pursuing and fighting over are various arrangements of the finite atoms that make-up the universe. Whatever arrangement of those atoms is most attractive, brings the most pleasure, or fires our neurons in a certain way, we dream, fight, and long to have it.
And yet, if there are a finite number of atoms in the world, and matter can be neither created nor destroyed, and Time is infinite, then at some point, every arrangement of atoms that exist must exist again. What we do now will be re-done. Who we are now will be lived again. Our actions and our beings will be forever trapped in a cycle of eternal return.
Nietzsche struggled with this greatly. Many times, he wrote about this despairingly, thinking it made meaningless life and actions that could otherwise be of great beauty. He called it “the heaviest of burdens”. But, it seems, there were moments when something in him knew that in this idea of eternal return was a kernel of truth, that if embraced, could lead to the greatest Beauty of Beauties the world has ever known:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more” … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”
The truth is this: during Lent this year, as we’ve been talking about how the God of this Universe, in some mysterious way, has an aspect of “slain-ness” and “suffering” to his nature. Further, the Bible says that this world came into being “through” the slain God, and so echoes the life of that God within its workings and history.
In a sense, history, time, suffering, happiness, love, relationship, and such are “eternal returns” (or, you could say, “recapitulations”) of the Life of God in the Trinity, namely in His Son (as we’ve talked about).
Kundera is right to attach this idea of eternal return to the Cross of Christ, because in that truth is the liberation from the “heaviest of burdens” that we would face: purposelessness, meaninglessness, or a loss of telos, or goal.
One aspect of the eternal suffering of Christ must be, it seems, that he has had to bear this heaviest of burdens; that his suffering and death would be re-played out over and over and over again in the lives, actions, and beings of that he calls his Creation and those he calls his creatures.
This is why Catholic crucifixes still have Jesus on the Cross; this is why the bread and the wine are the body and blood of Jesus. Just like the Cross itself, these are the temporal in-breaking of the eternal slaying of Christ.
He endures all this from eternity past, and then breaks into our world and lives this out in a body, and then dies.
But the good news for Him, and for us, is that this was not the end of the Story.
This suffering and this “eternal return” was not meaningless, purposeless, or without telos. It had a goal, it had a purpose: Resurrection.
So it is, that Jesus himself, in his Incarnation, enters into the void of eternal return and comes out the other side, fundamentally altering it. And so now, because of Him, the life that is now repeated over and over again, is a life leading to Resurrection and New Creation. And, as Kundera implies, this helps us live life here and now.
And that, dear friends, is an arrangement of atoms I can live with.
“What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
[image credit: Brian Utesch on flickr]