In 1849, the French writer Alphonse Karr mused, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Karr’s observations brought him to the conclusion that the only enduring thing is change itself. Such a thought was far from nouveaux. Some 2,500 years earlier, the Presocratic philosopher, Heraclitus (c. 535 - c. 475 BC), famously said, “All things are in flux,” and, “Everything flows.” Heraclitus believed all things are in a process of becoming. Nothing rests. Heraclitus’ philosophy of becoming seemed to receive scientific confirmation with Charles Darwin’s macro-evolutionary theory in the 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species. Darwin then applied his findings to mankind in The Descent of Man (1871). Humanity, too, finds itself enveloped within the evolution process of becoming its future self. Here, then, we have a fixture of our contemporary thinking apparatus — progress. Meaning, hope, fulfillment, identity, all of it lay in the future into which humanity progresses. We inevitably progress. We progress of necessity. There is no time for rest when becoming, for becoming bespeaks of movement, constant movement. This blanketing worldview presents an existential crisis for all.
The downside to the cult of progress, evolutionary paradigms, and the rapidity of change is how both the past and present are devalued as comparatively unimportant. Humanity, such that we are, is not the future. In fact, we do not have a future. As we are increasingly told, the future of humanity is posthuman. Consequently, one can expect increasing disassociation with our experience of this “phase” of humanity. This transition from binary sexes, complementary unions, and biological offspring to gender spectrum, sexual fluidity, and reproductive bioengineering goes by the name of transhumanism. “Trans” means to “move across.” More movement and, therefore, displacement. More change and, therefore, restlessness. All things are in flux. Past assurances give way to anxiety. Present dependability gives way to depression. Our disassociation is not just with time (which is ever accelerating), it is also with societal expectations, which shift like sand. What is the point of faith, family, and patriotism when the future is post-Christian, post-familial, and post-national? No one perceives this disassociation and displacement more acutely than those 24 years of age and under, for whom suicide, drug use, and psychological disorders have reached crisis proportions with no sign of abatement.
Heraclitus’ theses of change, progress, and becoming did not go unchallenged. They were met by sharp antitheses. Parmenides, sensing the existential need for solidity, permanence, and identity stabilized by being, argued that “Whatever is, is.” There is that which persists and endures, insisted Parmenides. “Being” is necessary for stable values and meaning. The tension between Heraclitus and Parmenides was not settled in their day. In fact, it would reemerge throughout history.
That tension, the tension between being and becoming, may be the one thing most characteristic of our day. There is a driving, dominant narrative of becoming and progress. It is existentially disruptive. We feel the rapidity of change in culture, media, news, technology, education, and politics. We feel adrift from a past which we have been cut off from. The frenetic pace of time measured by nanoseconds and an expectation of immediacy heightens the sense of missing-out on life itself. Indeed, on not just time slipping away but also our unmoored selves with it. Progressivism goes hand-in-hand with a consumer culture, where products are constantly improving, updating, modernizing, but also cheapening, replaceable, and easily discarded. Progressivism and consumerism reinforce each other with the imperative to advance, achieve, and become. All things are in flux and humanity that cannot rest becomes a mere steppingstone to the future of the adaptable.
That tension, the tension between being and becoming, may be the one thing most characteristic of our day.
Yet, we need rest. People need it as something basic and essential, as something calling us to be authentically human in the here and now. We rest so there may be a future. Humanity needs something solid, permanent, and stabilizing lest we become altogether callused and stop caring about, well, everything or we too slip away into the meaninglessness and hopelessness of posthuman oblivion. Saint Augustine embraced this existential longing for being when he wrote: “O Lord, You have created us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their repose in You.”
The modern phenomenon of “selfies” bespeaks of the longing of the human heart for solidity.
While historians of culture date the first photographic self-portrait to 1839 by Robert Cornelius, with the term “selfie” originating from an Australian man’s 2002 posting of a bloodied self-image following a drunken bender, selfies are so commonplace, so constant that any person with an iPhone can nearly reproduce their life in an unbroken reel by merely scrolling through their selfies.
Counterintuitively, selfies are not a record of change and flux, but the pursuit of solidity; the quest for being amid a world awash with becoming.
German philosopher Byung Chul Han analyzes what facial close-ups principally do, not so much to the selfie-taker, but to the world: The background is blurred and becomes unimportant. “The close-up brings about a loss of world,” writes Han. There is a sort-of indictment of becoming, of a world in flux, by stabilizing the self as the center or focus of a selfie amid a myriad of changing backgrounds. While the face appears caught-up in itself and becomes self-referential, disconcertingly, one’s face is “no longer world-containing,” which means it is no longer expressive of the world. “A selfie,” explains Han, “is precisely such an empty, expressionless face. The addictive taking of selfies points towards the emptiness of the ego.”
The background world has moved on, has changed, and so there is nothing to express about it. So, the selfie is set over-against Heraclitus and Darwin’s world-of-flux that Karr observes. The selfie refuses to evolve. It stamps itself in the foreground of ever-changing scenes and scenery. Icons, like statuary or architectural monuments, do not get front billing anymore because their once enduring meaning has been overturned by denunciated imperialism, critical race theory, victimization mentality, and degenerates or disintegrates. They are very much of the past, in the past, and so their meaning has passed. Stripped of the status of being monumental, they become accessories to the selfie or mere canvases for vandalism. Meanwhile, selfies attempt to monumentalize life in a world now devoid of monuments.
But they do not, and they cannot.
Amid the world constantly transitioning, individuals seek a solid identity. But the transitory and impermanent nature of everything “becoming” inevitably affects individuals, destabilizing them, and making them insecure. “And just this insecurity,” explains Han, “this anxiousness about oneself, produces the addictive taking of selfies, produces a self that is idling and comes to rest.” In other words, the obsessive taking of selfies itself is restless, an endless kind of production. “Faced with its inner emptiness, the sublet of the selfie tries in vain to produce itself.” The result, tragically, is the production of empty forms of the self, framed by a world with no stability. It is a world of subjectivity in which conforms to human impressions rather than impressing itself upon humanity.
British author A.S. Byatt, an avowed atheist who openly describes herself as “anti-Christian,” saw this development a decade ago. Byatt lamented the loss of the Christian metanarrative which once provided Western culture with its existential orientation manifested through conversation, communities, and communion. Now, she noted, with the grand biblical story effectively purged from public discourse, all we have are autobiographies, anonymity, and autonomy. To sustain existence in a world of evolution and transition, however, one must selfie. I selfie, therefore I am. One’s identity is forged and altered and altered again to sustain self-actualization. But the whole endeavor fails because neither the selfie image itself exists in reality and the quest for stability is itself enslaved to the endless and obsessive production of selfies.
It was the Christian metanarrative—monumentalized through the Word proclaimed and sacramented—that told us who we are, where we are going, and what it all means. It did so, because it connected us to and articulated the world with the being of God — “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6). Without this picture of reality, observed Byatt, we Facebook. Facebook is synonymous with “Selfbook” or, similarly, selfies, where living takes place before the digital mirror reflected by our iPhones and tablets and through which the imaged self-legitimates the spatiotemporal self. “It is a mirror,” she explained, “because there is no picture.” By “picture,” Byatt means the same things as Han. Namely, an objective world about which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17), the external referent to the real. To sustain this picture over-against the dominant evolutionary or progressive worldview requires work: Storytelling, rituals, and deference to the governing story — the story of Jesus Christ, the One who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). It requires monumentalizing that story in the world.
It was the Christian metanarrative—monumentalized through the Word proclaimed and sacramented—that told us who we are, where we are going, and what it all means.
This is the role of the preacher: Herald the unchangeableness of God in Christ, and the stability of and endurance of the individual united to Christ in Holy Baptism and that reality reinforced and confirmed through Holy Communion — the monuments of God which anchor reality in His being and self-giving. The preacher makes explicit the connection between the unchangeable God, the completed work of the crucified Christ who is risen (monuments in time and space), and the Christian himself. James says as much in his epistle: “Every good gift and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (1:17). God’s Word is as Himself and so His Word possesses inherent immutability: “God is not a man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19; also reference John 1:1-3). Therefore, the existential anchor for Christians is the enduring, unalterable reality that “[God’s] faithfulness endures to all generations; You have established the Earth, and it stands fast” (Psalm 119:90).
Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, while unreliable in some areas of theology, rightly stated that the time of Christ (the Advent) was the only real time. It is the kairotic moment—from His conception to ascension—that monumentalizes and validates human time and space, since time and space both before and after the Advent either culminates in it or extends from it. It is to this very same and unchanging, supremely meaningful Word-made-flesh to whom Christians are united through the monument of Holy Baptism. Baptism is a fixed and unchanging, unalterable event. It is a historical phenomenon serving as a monument in the life of the baptized and the identity of the baptized into Christ Jesus. The monument of Christ, then, the monument that is Christ, establishes and sustains the continuity of the self. Christ maintains and stabilizes the continuity of the believer through time since, “...your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), even though an unbelieving world asserts that, “All things are in flux.”
Note four themes:
- Things which endure are grounded in the faithfulness of God’s being — “He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).
- These things are of maximal value and pertain to life, even eternal life, itself.
- They are found in the Word of God and the Word is God.
- And monumentally, His Word and being are objectified for us in and through points of contact within the material world, supremely in preaching and the Sacraments.
Preaching with these theological realities in mind perpetuates the motto of the Conservative Reformation from Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever (verbum Domini manet in aeternum)” (Isaiah 40:8).
Consequently, preaching needs to recover the recognition that it is a monumental event, setting forth through proclamation the monumental Gospel, monumentalized in the life of the believer by a spatiotemporal font and altar, that is, by Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Therefore, every sermon ought to include references to the Gospel manifest for the sinner in baptismal waters and objectified in the Eucharist. Preaching needs to recover an ability to convey the sense that the Word of the Gospel is not about data distribution, information dissemination, but establishing a monumental forum through which Christ monumentalizes Himself amidst auditors.
In this light, Karr’s maxim needs be modified to something like, “The more things change, the more we need endurance.” Only Christ, the Rock of Salvation and the source of all being, can provide rest, the repose, which satisfies what the human heart longs for — something that permits our endurance, our stability, and our rest. Monumental preaching is the Christ-ordained means by which the self is established