A few weeks ago, I finally got around to watching Werner Herzog’s documentary about Prehistoric paintings in the Chauvet Cave. For ninety minutes, I sat, mouth agape at cave lions, woolly rhinos and buffalo. Even though over 32,000 years old, they look as if they were painted yesterday because they were sealed for millennias by a rock slide. So fresh and new, Picasso could have painted that procession of lions. Those ancient charcoal-and-torch artists seemed to be of our time. Just as eerie, a historian was able to play “The Star Spangled Banner” on a reproduced Prehistoric flute because humanity was already using the pentatonic scale tens of thousands of years ago. Eerie. Eerie. Eerie.
We complain of a world of constant change, where nothing is sure. You know the Great Compliant Litany as well as I do: “From technological tailspin, from changing social norms, from ringing cellphones, from the collapse of the family and from climate change, Good Lord, deliver us!” It seems these fluxing gyrations of inconsistency are the only constant. Yet, I think we all secretly love occupying this changing world because it leaves room for optimism. We like change because it means things can change for the better.
I, too, have been an optimist. I believed that this was the (mostly) best of all possible worlds. I couldn’t even imagine what all this change in the world would bring, but I knew it would be something good. I knew it was something divinely appointed from the deus ex machina. God had my back and there was wind in my sails. I’m not really an optimist, anymore. But, nor am I a pessimist, either, because both optimism and pessimism require a belief in a changing world.
I reject the idea of change. I reject a world that changes, has changed or will change. Now, to be sure, we can kill each other faster, we can communicate over greater distances and we’ve explored farther than ever — but, have we changed in our essence? Has the human heart changed?
What is the real difference between Paleolithic grunts, cuneiform tablets, illuminated manuscripts, a page from a printing press, or an iPad? What is the real difference between fists, spears, gunpowder or nuclear warheads? What is the difference between the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church and Twitter? What is the difference between the shaman’s potions, the blood-letting leaches or a surgeon’s scalpel? What is the difference between a caveman’s flute and the one played by Jean-Pierre Rampal? What is the difference between the 32,000 year-old paintings in Chauvet and a Picasso? When the medium is removed, all of these things are same in essence.
Has the human heart changed? Why is it that I can read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and still see many, many similarities between its characters and my supposedly enlightened Postmodern life? Or, listen to an Opera of that immoral anti-Semite, Richard Wagner, and hear something that speaks to my experience? Why is that I understand the characters of Shakespeare, even though we are several hundred years removed? How can this be if the world is changing so much?
And, what could be farther from me than those 32,000 year old cave paintings? How is that I could see something so familiar in those cave paintings when I watched “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”? For, in those cave paintings, I saw the same heart that struggles with the same questions about the impermanence of existence. I saw the desire to create something of beauty and skill that was lasting. I share these desires when I pick up the pen and push it on the paper, or type at the keyboard.
What we lack in our day is the ability to stand back; we lack perspective. So, of course, every little thing is an apocalyptic portent. We struggle to keep up with all these “changes”, not realizing that things stay mostly the same. Standing back far enough, optimism is a lie. All things are small. All things remain and all things are forgotten as all the proud empires rise only to pass away.
The past is now and the future is now, gathered up in this present moment. As the nearly-ancient writer of Ecclesiastes put it: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9) Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. Let’s stop pretending that there is. Let’s stop living like there is.