Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Whole Duty of Man, Part III

"And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)

I was at a Christmas party this past weekend and found myself in a conversation with a delightful Christian fellow who is working towards a PhD in Philosophy. His chosen subject is the philosophy of beauty and aesthetics. Now, I don't pretend to know anything about that, but the idea certainly sent my mind racing.

For me, beauty conjures up majestic images of mountain ranges, great oceans, forests, and natural wonders. Theologians sometimes use these as proofs for a loving God. Maybe that works for some but, to me, they are monuments to natural indifference (at best) or places hostile to life (at worst). I should know since I've been lost on a mountain in Montana and caught in a riptide in the Gulf of Mexico.

Upon further reflection, I affirm the insight that beauty lies in the thwarting of man's compulsion to assert and define himself (original sin and bondage). Or, more specifically, the cessation of man’s striving. That, and the creation of faith. And, more often than not, this thwarting and creation is ugly to human eyes. When eyes are taken off technically correct dogmas and formulae and set upon the ugliness of the creation of faith, there is nothing

left to do but mourn.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4

This is the difference between a wild-eyed and desperate acquiescence or liberation that comes from death and the interruption in human history that we believed happened two thousand years ago. And we actually believe (as mentioned in Luke 2 above) that This Child arrived in a place and manner that was below human achievement and glory. The glory of God was manifested in a troublesome backwater that had no value in the progressive march to Man’s triumph.

And if this recession, an addiction, or anything else has destroyed what you and everyone else perceives as value; and you find yourself faced with either the Albert Camus/desperate freedom of death or the Luke 2 version, hear these words from Martin Luther:

"If Christ had arrived with trumpets and lain in a cradle of gold, his birth would have been a splendid affair. But it would not be a comfort to me. He was rather to lie in the lap of a poor maiden and be thought of little significance in the eyes of the world. Now I can come to him."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Whole Duty of Man, Part II

“…his only reasonable transaction in that commodity would have been to buy it for as little as he could possibly give, and sell it for as much as he could possibly get; it having been clearly ascertained by philosophers that in this is comprised the whole duty of man — not a part of man's duty, but the whole.”
- Charles Dickens from Hard Times

My last post and this one were inspired by the powerful words of Dickens above. Just a lonely portion of a paragraph in a book that no one thinks is his best. And it is a sledgehammer of a thought. Pure death. And death is exactly what I want to talk about in light of this Christmas season.

We left off discussing our uncontrollable need to present ourselves as valuable. When our output is either deemed as worthless or trumped by another's output, so goes our identity. The very definition of who we are dies. It is the inner drive of "justification by works" that most theologians tend to gloss over as they pant after ethics.

Death, it must be said, is quite the liberator. "What would you do if you were to die tomorrow?", is the common question. The implication is that the doer would be free of all constraints. All of a sudden, things get complex. After being condemned for murder and coming to terms with it, the protagonist of The Stranger thinks:

"With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe."
- Albert Camus from The Stranger

Tragic words. Death (either the physical, final sense or society's pronouncement of obsolescence) can liberate in many ways. It can be anywhere from going to see Mother for the last time to entering into the narrative of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. It's the great void or the "vanity of vanities". "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose," says Kris Kristofferson.

And this brings us to Christmas. Despite what you see outside and on the television, this holiday brings a profoundly grown-up message. But, since I don't want to short-circuit the insight of Dickens and Camus, it will have to wait for another post.