Saturday, November 22, 2008

History in Front and Behind

I think that I've put my finger on a pervasive assumption here in the U.S. It is that things cannot get as bad as they were in the past.

The camps are closed, we think - at least closed within our borders. (Did you think that there never were any? Research "Andersonville".) There will be no more starvation, we think, no more economic collapse and the terrible want that follows in its wake. There will be no more epidemics that kill millions. There will be no war within our borders. There will no more great and terrible events of the sorts we read about in books of history. We are past all that, we assume.

It is one of my deep convictions - one on which I often dwell - that this simply is not so. (Is this historical blindness something we share with other peoples at other times and places? Perhaps those who know more than me will tell us.) We have no reason to suppose that we live in a privileged era, an era in which there is no history in front but only behind. Calamity is as likely to strike us as it was the Germans or the Russians, the Jews or the Gypsies. Pray to God that you and those about you never have to endure such events. But remain strong in your faith, for you just might.

Religion for the Extreme

Religion must be good not only for the times of prosperity and of joy. It must be good too for times of want and of pain. Religion must be good for the camps.

The camps? Those places where humans have suffered the most, where they have done their worst. If your religion cannot aid you there, throw it out, even if when life is good it seems a help to you.

Is your religion one of health and of prosperity? Does it tell you that those who are favored by God will inevitably prosper? (Such religion is common in the United States.) Throw it out. Many who were no worse than you - indeed many who were better than you - found themselves in the camps. They suffered there. They died there. You might yet find yourself there. If so, your religion will be of no use to you.

Is your religion one of domination and of power? Does it tell you that you are among the favored of God and that it is your right to rule? (The Islam that dominates the news seems to be such.) Throw it out. The mighty have often been brought low. The mighty have often been made to suffer. How will your religion of power and of right benefit you when you fall?

Is your religion one of an inchoate spiritually that has little depth and requires little or nothing of you? (I have friends who profess such a religion. They call themselves spiritual but have little else to say about the matter.) If it is, it would be of no help to you were you confront genuine human evil - the sort of evil that wishes you to suffer and then die, the sort of evil that wishes you to watch your people suffer and die. Throw it out.

Find a religion that can console at the extreme of human endurance. Find a religion that can allow you to raise your head from a wooden plank when you are starved and exhausted. The first (and perhaps the only) test for a religion must lie here. What can it do for the poorest? What can it do for those who suffer? What can it do for those at the moment of death - a premature death, a death in prison, a death from disease, and death after all you love have died. Religion must be religion for the extreme, religion for the worst. If it is not, it is worth nothing.

Time and Loss

I now understand why grandparents so delight in their grandchildren.

They deeply regret the loss of the childhood of their children. I have begun to feel this. My children are now 9, 9 and 7. They are not little any more, and at times I'm deeply sad - sad in a way that I know cannot ever be remedied - that those days are irretrievably gone. There are things now past that can never be had again. Not even God can give us them again, for of absolute necessity the past is past and will remain forever past. A strange thought, this - a lack, an absence, that not even God can make better.

The flow of time involves loss. Perhaps it brings new goods, but it leaves behind very great goods that one can never retrieve.

Pray To Do

Do not pray for the ability to do.

Do not pray for the desire to do.

Pray that you will do, for ultimately it matters not that one was able or that one desired but rather that one did.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Aporia of Sin

Those who know my views will recall that I believe sin to result from spiritual immaturity. The world is a classroom, and pain its primary mode of instruction.

But for a moment I began to doubt that this is so. Let me explain.

There are men and women who seem to sin in full knowledge of what they do; and among such, there are many who are quite wicked. They murder. They rape. They steal. They enslave. How can we attribute this to mere immaturity? To do so seems to miss the very sinfulness of sin. Sin is terrible, but it is sometimes chosen though it is known to be terrible. How can the claim that sin results from spiritual immaturity capture this fact? It seems to me that it cannot.

But if sin is not a result of spiritual immaturity, what then is it? The one response that seems possible is this: sin is deliberate rebellion against a God who is known to be God. This does seem to capture the sinfulness of sin. It does not reduce it to mere ignorance. It makes it out to be what it is - odious and destructive.

But sin-as-rebellion in turn seems an impossible view. For how can we possibly explain rebellion against God when it is known that it is God against whom one rebels? If one knows that one rebels against God, one must know that one will lose. One must know that one will suffer. One must know that there is nothing that to be gained and everything to be lost. Thus to suppose that sin is rebellion against a God who is known to be God seems a psychological impossibility. We would never chose to do that which could not benefit us in any way.

Here then is our aporia: embrace sin-as-spiritual-immaturity and miss the very sinfulness of sin, or embrace sin-as-rebellion and make the genesis of sin absolutely inexplicable.

At present, I do not see my way out of this bind.