Recent posts about the United States and England, and especially those concerned with the decline, decay and ultimate disintegration of England have prompted my musings on the mutability of nations and cultures. Is everything subject to change? If so, is there any permanent value attached to these mutable things? Why bother about the USA or England if they are doomed to die?
Christians will agree that God is immutable. He is the eternally same, unchanging Thing. Christians will also agree that everything else is contingent upon God’s will. This being so, everything in our affections and our philosophy should be subject to our understanding of God. As such, putting our patriotic feelings towards our country before our fidelity to God is a perverse inversion of the correct ordering of things. St. Thomas More provides us with the timeless example of the correct way of seeing this relationship in his assertion that he was the King’s good servant, but God’s first. My country right or wrong is never permissible; when my country is wrong I owe it to my country to put it right.
But let’s return to the problem of mutability. It is a paradox that even the mutable things are in one sense immutable. It is, for instance, true to say that a thing both is and was at the same time. We can take almost any example to illustrate this point but let’s take the case of Napoleon, for no other reason than that he has just popped into my head. Napoleon both is and was. He was a great general and emperor of France, but it is also true to say that he is a great general and emperor of France. Napoleon is a fact. He lived and did things. In this sense he not only was but is. You cannot look at the history of France without looking at Napoleon. He is staring you in the face because his presence is real – and his presence is present. He is as well as was.
In order to understand what I am trying to say, we need to understand the relationship of Time to Eternity. With our finite perception, we can perceive only the past. Even the present, by the time that we perceive it, has become the immediate past. The future, on the other hand, can only be a figment of our imagination. It is what might happen. The nearer the future is to us, the more predictable it might be. I might intend to go to a café for a coffee this morning and in all probability I shall do so. The further the future is from us the less predictable it becomes. I can’t even be sure of the place in which I’ll be living five years from now.
For God, however, there is no past and there is no future. For God everything is Present. This is the deeper meaning of Divine omnipresence; not that God is present everywhere, though He is, but that everything is present to God. For God, therefore, we cannot say that Napoleon was but only that he is.
Where is all this leading? Well, in the case of England, we must insist that England is eternally greater than those who happen to be wandering around today on the geographical stage on which the drama of England has been performed. Most people walking around on the “English stage” today have no idea what England is, or who they are. Thankfully, however, England is not dependent on them. Like the souls in C. S. Lewis’ Great Divorce they are pathetic shadows of who they are meant to be. They are relatively insubstantial. They are certainly less real as Englishmen than Alfred the Great, Bede the Venerable, St. Edward the Confessor, Chaucer, the aforementioned St. Thomas More, the hundreds of English Martyrs, Shakespeare, Austen, Newman, or Tolkien. All of these people are England. Please note: they are England.
Seeing true England through the perspective of the Triune splendor of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, we know that such an England can never die, not because it lingers like a fading coal in the memory of mortal men, but because it exists as a beautiful flower in the Gardens of Eternity. This is the England to which, under God, I owe my allegiance. Deo gratias!
Editor’s note: This essay was published in the St. Austin Review.