Saturday, April 2, 2011

On The Road to Damascus

All nature is but art unknown to thee;

All chance, direction thou cans’t not see;

All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good;

And spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,

One truth is clear, ‘whatever is, is right’


Alexander Pope


My Lenten activity this year has been to join our Rector, Pam Werntz, and a group of Emmanuelites, as we call ourselves, in the study of Paul's epistle to the Romans. It was this or give up chocolate, so the choice was easy. I am very wary of Paul. His writings seem to me to be in many ways damaging, yet in many ways beautiful; they are very inconsistent, their meanings often conflicting, and he therefore is, to me, annoying. I have been doing background reading, books about Paul and books about the Bible. I read A.N.Wilson's "Paul, The Mind of The Apostle," which presents an interesting, complicated character, a provocative promoter and business man, in contention with just about everyone and also achieving really great passages of Poetic insight.


"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

We sit around a table in the Emmanuel room, enjoying food and one another's company, discussing what Paul meant here or there, the critic, perhaps I should say skeptic, in me thinking- sometimes saying- look at these words, don't they mean what they say? And if they don't, if it takes 1,900 years of modification and explanation to arrive at the meaning then is it really Paul we are speaking about or some convenient construct to which we choose to attach ancient authority?

At one point I blurted out "the guy's a crank!" to which Pam suggested that perhaps I was projecting. Touché, no doubt I am, projecting myself, my expectations, frustrations and concerns. And worst, "no worst there is none!" I fell into exactly the trap which frustrates me most in Paul, and in life in general: I made a statement poorly explained and open to exactly opposite interpretation from what I intended. I will expand about it here.

This particular outburst of mine was triggered by one of my friend's statement that the world is seriously wrong, and Paul was addressing that. I exclaimed that the world is exactly what it is supposed to be, and it is our job to deal with it constructively. Allow me to give this a context. The proposition is that the first person sinned in disobedience, condemning the human race to the darkness of evil, from which it is necessary to be "Saved," this, either as a group- by the sacrifice of Christ- or individually, saved either through "Grace," by which can be meant a number of complicated concepts, or through "Works," which are defined variously. Actually Pam makes sense of this, but I am pretty sure it is Pam and not Paul in whom the sense resides.

Some time ago I started to think very carefully about the quote from Pope that I have at the head of this entry. The line that was a real stumbling block for me was "All partial evil, universal good" sometimes Pope is as bad as Paul; whatever could he mean by that? The subject of evil in the world is prominent in any discussion of the nature of God and the subject of evil in the individual seems to be the motor of Christian religion- what is it that is meant by this word evil?

I think that one reason I am attracted to Pope is that I have found that it is easier to understand the world and my fellow man if I avoid words that denote abstract notions of evaluation. This is because of the eternally fascinating conundrum that when we speak these words we assume in our listener a complete understanding of concepts whose definitions are in fact very subjective, vague, at best culturally defined often individually defined, and circular. One of my favorites is "perfect" which means without flaw; perfectly clear until you start a discussion of what constitutes a flaw, which inevitably becomes an extremely subjective question. There is a very important aspect of the Japanese aesthetic that an object without any flaws would be very undesirable- not "perfect" perhaps. Evil, in the OED has many interesting meanings, but the entry starts with this:

"In Old English, as in all the other early Germanic langs. exc. Scandinavian, this word is the most comprehensive adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike, or disparagement. In mod. colloquial English it is little used, such currency as it has being due to literary influence. In quite familiar speech the adj. is commonly superseded by bad; the n. is somewhat more frequent, but chiefly in the widest senses, the more specific senses being expressed by other words, as harm, injury, misfortune, disease, etc."


One of our company spoke of insects. When she was a child she thought of them as being bad because they bit her- "why would God make anything so bad?" As an adult she sees how her limited understanding of the world as whole determined the formation of her question. It is a very simple example of a very human tendency, to view a thing as bad because it bites me. The first definition of "evil" in the OED is:

"Bad in a positive sense."


So, the insects are evil. They do harm to me; pollination not withstanding.

When one thinks of the recent tsunami this gets very complicated. I would not be surprised at all to find that some people's faith is shaken by such a disaster. I asked myself about it, but really, those villages and power plants were built very consciously in low lying areas, in full knowledge of their vulnerability, for reasons of economic convenience; for reasons of the flesh as Paul might determine. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not new, and the disaster a result more of men's greed and laziness than an act of God.

In 1968 I moved to Ireland, moved from my secure upper middle class suburb, to attend the National College of Art, and I ended up living outside of Dublin in the countryside. I rented a room in a "County Council Cottage"- rural poor housing, with a friend and was immersed in a society in which meat was seen on the table perhaps once a week, children never had new shoes or clothes, and drinking water was a ten minute walk away. The woman I was renting from had never been more than five miles from this cottage, in which she had been born, claimed never to have had all her clothes off at the same time- with no plumbing bathing was always from a basin, and with no heat the incentive to not disrobe was strong. These folks were well off among their peers, after all, they had an extra room and were renting it for cash, so they didn't have to reuse the tea leaves as often as otherwise. This all seemed very romantic to me, but I acknowledge that I had a return ticket to the US so I wasn't trapped in it as they were, nevertheless I realized something rather surprising. All the hardship didn't seem to affect anyone's happiness. The profile of personalities in the community was pretty much the same as at home. Some were lazy, some were energetic. Some were religious some were "ferocious anti-clericals" and most importantly, as I got to know the community at large I was surprised to find that compared to my affluent, white, upper middle class hometown, about the same percentage were content and happy and the same percentage were discontent and unhappy. The same turned out to be true for me, my level of happiness was not affected, going from a warm well fed home with showers and laundry, to potatoes, reused tea and warm water on rare occasions. I found the same to be true when I was in Bulgaria under the Communists. I found the same to be true of my fellows during the period when I was held in jail during 2006, and I wouldn't be surprised to find amongst those folks sheltered in halls and gymnasiums in Japan, once the shock had passed, that the happiness that an individual has in relationship to their society reasserts itself and is not much determined in the long term by the externals of circumstance. As I say in the right hand column, happiness is something we do, not something we find.


So what is bad? What is evil? I once read a definition of evil as being that which runs counter to the aims of society. A good definition, because it points up the subjectivity of the word. That Pastor in Florida has staged a trial and shown that Islam is evil. Of course much of Islam feels that Christianity is evil. The difficulty is that by definition both are correct, because in both cases the other is counter to the aims of the particular society, and that is how we determine evil.


We are all children of the same God however. At least that is my belief. It has been much discussed, even in the ancient days in which Judaism was forming, whether "monotheism" means there is only one God, or that only one God among several would be worshiped, but I believe, and I think most Christian, Jews, and Muslims agree, that there is only one God. It then follows that any act of sincere worship is directed to that God, and would it not then follow that in calling other religious groups evil we are projecting our very human prejudices into a much larger sphere? "Verily, Verily, travellers have seen many monstrous idols in many countries; but no human eyes have ever seen more daring, gross, and shocking images of the Divine nature than we creatures of the dust make in our own likeness, of our own bad passions" as Dickens says in Little Dorrit.


Such is the problem with words of evaluation, and in this is rooted the basic meaning of my statement about the world being the way it is supposed to be. The word bad, or evil, implies an inherent quality; I think it is fair to say that that is how we tend to use it. So a distinction must be made in our discourse, whether we mean, when we say "the world is bad, is badly wrong," that we don't like the way things are going, or whether we mean that the world is inherently bad, structurally evil. The range of meanings could be anything from "I really don't like the way people are wearing their hair this year" to "the nature of creation is so badly damaged, the human soul so destructive, that our own actions are to no account." Whether Paul, whoever he was, was intentionally saying the later I think that that is the meaning that is often taken away from his writings, and I find it disrespectful to the creator.


When I say "the world is just what it is supposed to be" what am I saying? That it is inherently good? Good is just as slippery a word as bad, just as subjective.Things are what they are.


There is an interesting design exercise: to take a thing, or a color perhaps, that one dislikes, and base a design on it. When given to a group of students what results is often their very best work. It seems ironic, but the activity is to look beyond one's prejudices and preferences, one's comforts, and see the potential that any thing has to offer. There are no bad things. Some things offer one advantage, some another. Some may be useful to me, some may be useful to that crow I see hopping around outside my window. I don't think a whole lot of worms, but it seems to like them.


The world has many uncomfortable corners. It has certainly been no bed of roses for me, viewed one way; but no, it has been a very challenging, interesting, and at the end of the day, satisfying place to me, that's viewed another way. All facets of creation are linked in the most amazingly complex chain, and even the bad, the evil if you will, are links in that chain, sometimes are in fact the golden links in the chain. The world is just what it is supposed to be because there isn't any other way for it to be. This is my revelation, my incident on the road to Damascus, if you will. It came to me in an equally dramatic way (though after reading Oliver Sacks I start to wonder if it was actually Migraine-no matter.)


In Job, chapter 38, The Lord asks "Where wast thou... when the morning stars sang together and all sons of God shouted for joy?...Have you entered the places where the snow is kept? Have you seen the storerooms for the hail?" I come to believe that it is the greatest part of faith to accept not just that we don't understand, but that we can't understand; to trust that which isn't understood. That which is seen as evil is the partial evil Pope is referring to, and it is a link in the chain of universal good. That what we see as bad and what we see as good are in that dark glass, and we often can't distinguish them. That in that dark glass is our understanding of ourselves, of others and the world at large; and the only badness, or goodness, is contained in our acceptance of our own responsibility to love all of this world and all of it's creatures of the dust.


2 comments:

Sue said...

Great post and perspective -- the world is not wrong it's our job to be constructive in it. Hope you are well!

saratbaker said...

Mike, I read this with great interest. I also have had some problems with Paul. Thank you for sharing your experiences as well as perspectives. I was particularly struck with example of the art exercise.

I miss communicating with you. All best!