The Key Concept

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HANS KÜNG, in his book Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View, records the satirical line about the late-Renaissance pope Julius II — the Warrior Pope — in which the commissioner of Michelangelo’s infamous Sistine Chapel ceiling inserts the keys to his treasure vault into the locks barring entrance to heaven’s gate and is thereby denied.

I could see myself making this same mistake, although I must point out from an error of differing origin. I have seven keys on my key chain, and a drawer of perhaps another thirty. I’ve no certain idea concerning the function of all but three of these keys — the ones I use daily. A year ago I brought myself to throwing out a handful of the things, accumulated over the years and kept at the ready to open locks about whose location I can only speculate.

How did I end up with so many mysterious keys to so many mysterious things? One can lose a bicycle lock or two along the way, but a drawer’s full of keys begs for an account of another sort. For a time I had a house with several doors, including a garage, and an office with cabinets. Come to think of it, the little plastic cabinet into which you put your CDs had a lock, goodness knows why. The building into which I next moved had a storage unit and a laundry room, both locked. Years ago I had a barbeque and propane tank, and it occurs to me that there was a lock on these also. And a cash box which I used for everything but cash. I think I may have had a luggage lock and a briefcase lock also, long long ago. And ….

Once the accounting is underway you see how many things can be, and are, locked. Short of a chastity belt I suppose I’ve encountered them all. When you buy a Gibson or Fender guitar, they give you a silly little key to lock the case. You get a key for the gym locker and a key to feed your friend’s cat when she’s away, and long after the cat is dead and the membership is expired, there they are — jostling with the keys to other things of which you divested yourself years ago.

Or maybe you didn’t. A disturbing parallel exists among our latter-day keys — the PINs of our many online accounts. If I don’t log in every few days or so, I forget how. As a result there are a couple dozen places where I have to get a new password emailed to me every time I want to log in.

I must have sixty or more accounts scattered across the Internet, only a few of which I use in a typical week. But eventually you’ll come to the gate without the proper keys. The inevitable forgetting of one’s credentials, a by-product of the PIN obsessed society, is built into the works. It’s become impossible for any one of us to prove we’re who we say we are. It’s even become impossible to keep track of who I claim I am, because part of the game of security in the modern world is coming up with an identity marker that “works” only insofar as it defies personal identification. Don’t use your birthday as a password, they say. Try “#9%dHYetr9jt13q9” instead.

So I hold onto all the keys, because you never know. But over time I’m in the fog with no idea which key goes into which lock and which lock I’ve visited recently and may need to visit again. The locked places proliferate, as do the means to open their doors. Over time you are increasingly less you, forever implored to confect more clever ruses in order to simultaneously identify and mask yourself. And as a logical corollary to this, the ruse can never finally work, a more elaborate fiction forever being required. But then, even if I did lose my keys, no one else could make use of them — because even I don’t know what they mean any more.

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