When Evil Comes, 3 -Star Wars

“May the Force be with you.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars

Happy May the Fourth! Today is “National Star Wars Day” to those who are into that modern-day saga of the struggle of good and evil. 

We have lately visited the Cosmos’ dualism. The Star Wars universe is one of almost pure Dualism – the “Light Side” versus the “Dark Side”.  The good-guy Jedi wield light sabers of white or green light while the bad-guy Sith wield light sabers of hellish red light.  The good guys can always be tempted to turn to the Dark Side and follow the current Sith Lord, who is a master plotter, calculator, and manipulator, and filled with the power that comes from anger and hate.

In the original trilogy the Sith Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi standing , “Luke, release your anger and find your power,”.  Luke does not know that Vader is his fallen father, once a powerful Jedi himself.  He will learn this later.  Vader had been seduced to the Dark Side by the secret Sith Lord, Darth Sidius (insidious!).  Together Sidius and Vader had established the Galactic Empire to replace the moribund, corrupt, semi-democratic Galactic Republic. 

For Sidius it was all about power, used however necessary to gain absolute control.  But Vader had been motivated by revenge and anger and a desire to control the Cosmos in the name of “the greater good” of universal peace.  The problem was that this peace was like the Roman peace of earth’s antiquity: “They [the Romans] created a wasteland and called it peace,” as one Roman historian daringly quipped.

The Star Wars saga is one of the great cultural allegories of our time, embodying most of the great questions that lie at the heart of human civilization and society.  All the great conflicts are subsumed – social and political order versus personal freedom, individual rights versus societal duties and demands, economic advantage and exploitation versus personal needs and security, individual wellbeing versus collective wellbeing, etc.  In the telling, we meet the Tempter over and over again.

But the Emperor-Tempter does not force Vader to “turn” to the Dark Side, just as Vader cannot ultimately force Skywalker to turn.  The choice must be made freely.  Even if the temptation seems overwhelming, consent comes from personal choice.  Vader and Skywalker are the protagonists, one seeking to turn the other.  Skywalker believes against any reasonable evidence that somewhere deep inside, a little spark of good, of true light, still smolders in Vader.  In the end, he is proven right and he “redeems” Vader as they destroy the Emperor together, although Vader gives his life in the doing.

In the last instalment of this blog series, we suggested that there is a cross-over between the personal face of evil and the impersonal events we call “Acts of God” which inflict more widespread, generalized pain, suffering, and misery.  Star Wars makes this connection too.  (It would be interesting to know just how much of all this George Lucas was consciously incorporating in his greatest masterpiece.)

Let us consider for a moment how Lucas presents it.  In the original series it is not as clear as he makes it in the second trilogy.  In Episode 1 (actually the fourth film in chronological production), the Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn’s apprentice, the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Queen Padmé of Naboo discover Anakin Skywalker, a young boy who is a slave on Tatooine, a planet on the fringe of the Republic.  Anakin has an extremely high “Metachlorine” count which indicates a child with a very powerful connection to “the Force”, the fundamental energy of life and the universe.  The Force has a light and dark side (like Yin and Yang) and takes personal, incarnate form.  It is in everything and everyone, but some people have a much stronger connection, or presence, than others.

Of course, there is no exact parallel between this allegorical universe and ours.  But, as in the Star Wars story, we all experience the very real, personal manifestations of the forces of nature as both beneficial and destructive.  We also all have within us the ability to use our own power and ability to good or ill, benefit or harm towards ourselves, others, and the rest of the creation.  My response to what is can be on the light side or the dark side.  Even when life and the Cosmos throw pain and suffering at me, and even death, there is still that choice.

I may be a helpless, hapless victim in the sense that what comes to me and those precious to me brings the evil of death, pain, suffering, and misery.  It doesn’t matter that the cause of the suffering is some impersonal “natural” power.  It is evil because it does evil to me and mine.  But I am not entirely powerless, for I still have the power to choose how I will meet this evil.

As we said last time, it is no good to say that the coming of these afflictions is not evil.  For you and me when they come, they are.  Occasionally we find some mystics and saints calling even these events good because of their faith that they are ultimately God’s doing, even if only because God permits them to happen instead of stopping them and protecting us from anything bad that could happen.  For these great souls, the good breaks through as they learn to suffer well and praise the Creator for giving them the grace to go through them and find Him/Her there in their midst.

In a perfect spirituality, I do not disagree with this perspective, and have had some experience of it myself, as have many people I know.  But that has never taken me to the point of the great mystics welcoming the coming of evil in whatever form it takes as an opportunity to know my Creator better and more intimately.  If that is a result of what comes, it is great, but I won’t go looking for it, and, frankly, I personally don’t know anyone who would.

I recognize the Star Wars universe with its light and dark.  It is everywhere around us, but, as C.S. Lewis put it in his essay “Evil and God” (see previous post), evil is a parasite on good.  It is not an equal “partner” in truth and what is meant to be.  Darkness is the absence of light; as soon as light breaks in, the darkness begins to fade.  As soon as truth breaks in to our awareness, the wrong and the lie begin to fade away.\

And so with our sense of why death and pain and suffering feel “wrong”, not “normal” in the ultimate sense.  Even now, even with COVID devastating society, the economy, and many thousands of individual lives, families, and communities.  All through history we see the battle fought over and over – to restore and even create life and peace where there has been destruction and rampant death and evil.  Only very warped and deranged people want war more than peace, death as an amusement over peace and life and harmony.  Hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, droughts, etc. all come and will continue to come and wreak havoc on us and the other living creatures of this world.  But they are never “right” and “good” in any meaningful sense.  Instead, what we have always seen afterwards is resurrection and renewal in the natural world, of which we are part, despite our schizophrenic behaviour towards it.

As long as the human race lives, we will not just “lie down and die” and meekly submit to “the inevitable”.  We are not made that way.  We are made to rise, to overcome, to create, to renew, to enhance.  Our innermost soul tells us this even in the midst of the worst.  Most often, our soul tells us without words, but nonetheless with great clarity through our drive to live, to repair, to make better.  Our “dark side” too often disrupts the truth of who we truly are meant to be, but, as Saint Paul puts it in one of his letters to an early Christian community called the assembly (church) in Corinth, “Death is the final enemy”.  Even so, “Death has lost its sting.”  He calls death a personal power, not an abstract, inevitable result of evolutionary law.  It is wrong and not meant to rule or have the final word.  The final word goes to Life, perfect Life, the very Life of the Creator imparted to human beings through the mediator of the Creator’s personal presence among us – Yeshua ha-Mashiach, who truly died but was raised as the personal guarantee that pain, suffering, misery, and death do not have the last word.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 2

“If evil has the same kind of reality as good, the same autonomy and completeness, our allegiance to good becomes the arbitrary chosen loyalty of a partisan.  A sound theory of value demands something different.  It demands that good should be original and evil a mere perversion; that good should be the tree and evil the ivy; that good should be able to see all around evil (as when sane men understand lunacy) while evil cannot retaliate in kind; that good should be able to exist on its own while evil requires the good on which it is parasitic in order to continue its parasitic existence.”

C.S. Lewis, “Evil and God” in God in the Dock, Chapter 1, 1970

When evil has a personal face, it is easy to recognize, at least for “sane men” as Lewis points out in his brilliant little essay quoted above.  It is when it comes anonymously, as in a killer-virus such as we are now experiencing, or a terrible tsunami, or some other “Act of God”, that it is not so obvious. 

Evil is, as he so aptly describes it, “a mere perversion”, a “parasite” on the good.  Most of us can pretty readily accept that good health is good, but disease and injury are not, at least not in any meaningful personal sense.  Disease is a “perversion” of what normal life is meant to be, what we believe we are truly made for.  That is why we work so strenuously to avoid it and prevent it, and, when it comes, to overcome it and restore “normal” life as much as is possible.

We may get bogged down here by racing after the rabbit of evolution and its “laws” of natural selection and survival of the fittest.  The sociological counterpart of these “laws” is the doctrine of inevitable progress towards a more and more perfect society where everything becomes better and better for everyone over time.  From those two perspectives (which are really manifestations of the same belief system in different domains), some apparent “evils” are really good because the dialectical process (Hegel’s contribution to the endless progress ideology) demands a constant see-saw between the two poles (“thesis” and “antithesis”) in order for progress to occur. 

In other words, our whole modern-post-modern foundational perspective and ideology are actually built on a deeper worldview of Dualism.  In the essay quoted above, Lewis makes devastatingly short work of this ideology, leaving it as exposed as the Emperor with no clothes whom everyone ignores for the sake of living in peace because we are afraid to admit that insanity rules.

Lewis’ point is that Dualism itself is a false trail.  He concedes that it is better than admitting no evil at all exists, but its deception is that evil has an independent status on the same footing as good, “the same autonomy and completeness” reducing good and evil to simple partisan preferences of equal validity.  The Hebrew prophet Isaiah once commented on this kind of thinking and belief by denouncing it: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who change darkness into light and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)  As Lewis sums it up, “A sound theory of value demands something different.”

The proposal that an immoral and even evil course of action is justifiable because of the “good” end benefits, whether at a personal or communal level, is the subtlest end-run around “a sound theory of value”.  We have all heard this as “the ends justify the means”. Thank you for that pearl of cynical wisdom, Machiavelli!  The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck phrased it for politics and state-craft as “Realpolitik”. 

In a perfect world we would not have to deal with such thinking, but we have all run into conundrums in our own lives about whether or not to tell the truth, or perhaps “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.  Whether or not to “snitch”, be a tattle-tale.  When is it more right, or better, to withhold the truth or part of it, to perhaps allow a little larceny to produce a much better result for someone (or oneself) which will promote a greater long-term good?  Or perhaps to protect someone from harm and even death – as in sheltering a Jew during the Holocaust?  Or a fugitive slave?  A human-made law in and of itself is not necessarily right.  We all understand that there is a “higher law”, a “sound theory of value” that we are all yearning for.

At the personal level normal people have a conscience to guide them regarding good and evil.  Children need to learn not to hurt others, not to take what is not theirs, not to lie, but there is an innate sense that there are good and bad things – even if only at first in learning that some behaviors result in bad consequences.  But the ability to differentiate is already inborn.

Evil has a personal face, all the time.  A natural process is not “evil” of itself, but can have evil effects on the living creatures sometimes caught in its path.  Since we do not control these processes, we call them “acts of God”. 

But the Creator is not “evil” for creating a cosmos in which its elements and processes may bring pain and suffering on the beings inhabiting it.  Those beings are also part of that cosmos, but the difference is that some of them are aware of how things proceed, of the kinds of effects some actions can produce – both on themselves and on other creatures, and even on the non-living part of the cosmos.  That is where the moral element enters.

This is a very complex issue and relationship, much debated by philosophers and theologians since humans could record their thoughts.  The Biblical Book of Job is possibly the first treatise dealing with it in depth ever written.  It is still a compelling read, even for people who do not normally look into the Bible.  If you have a few hours during your present confinement, I recommend you (re)read it!  The end is rather shocking but quite a revelation and certainly humbling.

So what of the issue of God and evil, as per Lewis’s little essay?  Is the existence of evil, in all its forms, impersonal “acts of God” and personal acts of malevolence, a convincing “proof” that no eternal, infinite, all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator can possibly exist?  Or perhaps it proves, as per Dualism, that there are really two battling deities at war in the Cosmos?  Or is it really, contrary to modern-post-modern received wisdom, proof that there is such a Creator as the West’s traditional all-good, all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator?

As Lewis tells us (if you look up his little essay it is a ten-minute reading gold-mine) in “Evil and God”, the Dualism choice is better than the first one in the above paragraph, because it explains more of what we really meet in the Cosmos as it is.  But it is much inferior to the third choice he offers.

Our problem is that we westerners have so little foundation in metaphysics and spiritual formation that we do not have a way to fit a God who could allow evil to exist into any box we are capable of constructing.  Our scientific, materialist mindset insists that any Deity who can really exist must be measurable and reducible to categories that our finite minds can create. (Of course, if we could so delineate and define God, He/She would not be God!)

The paradox is that we don’t want to be told that there is an absolute truth and standard that is above and beyond what we are willing to accept either within our society or within our personal lives.  After all, I am an autonomous, independent, self-aware, self-determining being.  How dare some God tell me, in any way, what I am really made for and how I can best discover all I am meant to be!  We want the right to tell a Creator what He/She ought to do and be, and how!

However, despite all our Ophelian protests to the contrary (Hamlet saying of his lady-love, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much…”), our nature tells us that we are made to know that there is a Creator and that we are made to be in personal relationship with Him/Her. 

Somehow, when we arrive there, the good-evil dilemma, dialectic, paradox, etc., begins to take on a different face.  We become the “sane man” in Lewis’ phraseology, who is “able to see all around evil (as when sane men understand lunacy) while evil cannot retaliate in kind”.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 1

“… we ignore evil except when it hits us in the face.  Some philosophers and psychologists have tried to make out that evil is simply the shadow side of good; that’s it’s part of the necessary balance in the world, and that we must avoid too much dualism, too much polarization between good and evil.  That, of course, leads straight to Nietzsche’s philosophy of power and by that route back to Hitler and Auschwitz.  When you pass beyond good and evil, you pass into the realm where might is right, and where anything that reminds you of the old moral values—for instance, a large Jewish community—stands in your way and must be eliminated.

“… we are surprised when evil hits us in the face …”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (IVP Books, 2006), pp. 24-25

I am not among those who regards evil as an evolutionary social convention evolved and adopted in order to protect the community over many millennia.  There has been change, or evolution (which just means change, after all) in the way people perceive morality and apply it in ethics.  But humans are built and born with a sense of right and wrong, good and bad.  It is part of being self-aware, self-conscious, human.

The evolutionary adoption and adaptation theory of morality is the prevailing paradigm of the West’s intelligentsia.  But a strange thing happens “on the way to the Forum” when a whole community, rather than an individual or family here and there, is confronted with the close personal tragedies of death and severe illness, or other traumas.  The intellectual construct of a sort of evolved, community-approved code of evil drops away like a mask in a Greek tragedy and the malevolence of some things in the Kosmos becomes very personal and very real.

For me and everyone I know, when death passes near it has an amazing faculty of clarifying the mind and focusing the spirit.  This seems true even for those who choose to deny that they are spiritual beings as well as physical.  In the community where I live and another one just a dozen kilometers down the road two seniors’ residences have been very hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Multiple people have died and are dying, many are quite ill, and the courageous staff are under siege.  Because of the quarantine, the rest of the community is powerless to do anything of the usual “practical” stuff in the face of this tragedy.  Those who pray believe that is at least something, while the rest voice moral support and offer whatever other aid the afflicted sub-community can accept.

Today we are witnessing what Bishop Wright stated above: that we only seem to clue in to the existence of real evil, not a mere intellectual construct, “when it hits us in the face”.  For us here in our town, we are staring into the very real face of evil, and it has taken on a very personal dimension.  The pain, suffering, and anguish are right at home.

Why have we as a people become so divorced from the reality of evil, so unwilling to name real things that are just plain WRONG?  Tell the suffering that they have been “selected according to the laws the universe” and see what they say.  The laws of survival of the fittest and chaos theory bring no comfort to the “chosen” and their loved ones.

As Jordan Peterson tirelessly points out in 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos, if you trundle along through life adopting the posture of the victim of cruel fate, the personal prey of a sort of dark conspiracy “out there” to crush you, you will sink into a quagmire of bitter despair and hopelessness.  Then we all become the butt of a supremely cruel joke, sentient beings who seem innately built to seek and find meaning only to discover that there is none—unless you somehow contrive to invent one for yourself.  But is there an alternative?  God, perhaps?

The heirs of the Enlightenment, as Steven Pinker calls the West’s intellectual elite, Voltaire’s Bastards as John Ralston Saul terms them (and among whom he numbers himself), cannot countenance putting God anywhere near the equation, let alone in it.  But, in that universe, when the shit “hits us right in the face”, all that is left is to “rage, rage” like Dylan Thomas, cursing the soulless universe as we go into the night of oblivion.

Every generation has a wake-up moment or two.  It comes when evil hits them right in the face without a mask on.  Remember 9-11?  This is one for us now.  Even an impersonal “act of God” (a phrase now quite inappropriate in our culture) is really intensely personal when it is your loved one killed by brutal terrorists or dying in the disaster.  There seems no justice in death’s selection process, good and evil people died together on 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina.  Or perhaps it is perfect justice, since we are all condemned to die by some means at some time. 

We are told over and over again that evil is the main reason we should not believe in God.  Well, maybe it’s OK to believe in a sort of impersonal, generic Power that generates everything and keeps it being and moving.  “The Force” anyone? 

But that is not whom we curse when the virus is slaying thousands, the bullets and bombs are flying, the terrorists are destroying, and ISIS or the SS is carrying out genocide.  Dylan Thomas, Voltaire, Nietzsche, et al, all go raging into “that good night”, (which is not a good night at all, in case the ironical meaning of Thomas’s poem escaped you) because, underneath it all, they intuitively know that it all really should mean something, not just appear to.

Who says about the mass-murder victims, “Oh well, that’s the luck of the draw?”  No one!  Instead, we turn in rage against the Personal God we spend so much time denying exists or totally ignoring because, way down in our heart of hearts, we wish and believe that He/She could and should exist.  Way down in our innermost soul we know that that Being is our only real hope.  The deep truth is that we cannot live without hope that somehow, sometime, things will and must “be set to rights” as C.S. Lewis puts it.  But we know very well that we can’t do it.  Only a real, personal Creator with all the power and wisdom necessary could ever do that. 

Viktor Frankl’s landmark work on Holocaust survival (Man’s Search for Meaning) was conclusive in pointing out that those who found God or a spiritual anchor like God in the midst of the most senseless horror conceivable found the will to live.  By contrast, those who did not tended to die much more often despite not being chosen for summary execution/extinction.

While COVID-19 is not a human genocidal agency, it is still evil come in the guise of the brokenness of the world and a universe where natural things have gone terribly awry.  Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornados, hurricanes and typhoons, blizzards, forest- and bush-fires (those not caused by human neglect), are more “spectacular” natural agencies of death and destruction.  But a killer-virus-generated pandemic is another form of this evil face of nature.

It is easy to identify evil as bad stuff that humans do to other humans and life-forms.  It is less obvious to call an impersonal natural force “evil”, but our gut tells us that when nature runs amok, it is inflicting great suffering and mass death on us and, as with the typhoon and volcano, on all the other living things in its path.  All this death and destruction cannot be good, can it?   

I am not advocating a return to animism or the polytheism of capricious gods and goddesses playing deadly games with us and the world as their toy-box.  I am suggesting that we take a reflective look at our culture’s inadequate categories to relate to and understand the kind of Kosmos that actually exists.  We ignore the evidence at our peril – both individually and collectively.  As Peterson says, the universe is not a placid, benevolent place.  There is a duality to it all, everywhere we look.  Powerful forces and entities abound, with the ability to affect us for good and ill.

What is within moves us to act benevolently or maliciously.  We are capable of both.  More simply, the spirit within wills to use the body without to do good or bad things.  If we are honest, we can all recall things done by people who we know acted from an evil intent within.  All of us have the capacity to choose either mode of action, but sometimes we meet people who we know have taken the dark road.  They exude it even when they are not actually acting it out.  That’s why some people just make us feel “creepy” or “cold” when we are around them.  The more darkness we choose, the less light we have.  The more often we choose to do right and good stuff, the easier it gets to keep doing it. But the converse is equally true.

The ancient Christians educated new disciples about this dual path to life or death in a document called The Didache.  It is still worth reading.

But what about a virus?  Does it choose to be evil?  Of course not!  It is just doing what its chemistry and nature make it do.  It is not a conscious agency.  Same for the wind and the earth and the chemistry of fire raging out of control.  Then why does it feel “evil” (although not in the same way as the Nazi SS doctor coldly selecting victims for the gas chamber)?

The short answer is that we humans are also made to work according to our nature, to see and sense things farther than a mere calculation of the preponderance of one or more physical factors over another or others.  It is who and what we are, creatures who see inside, who look beyond the seen into the unseen.  For we have another kind of sight.  We have In-sight, the power to see within, to see into.  Call it the spiritual nature.

Humans are creatures which bridge the physical and non-physical sides of reality.  Unfortunately for we Westerners (and, via our invasion of every other culture, everyone else now too), we have cultivated and inculcated a way of seeing (or, more accurately, not seeing) without reference to the unseen.  In other words, we have deliberately forsaken Insight, the very human and precious ability to See In.  Thus, we have crippled our humanity.

Ergo we have a very hard time even admitting that real evil, evil which is not just a convenient, malleable social convention, exists.  We are often self-blinded when it takes personal form and, on occasion, even inhabits actual living persons and beings.  We excuse perpetrators of horrendously wicked deeds as somehow “victims” themselves – of bad parenting, of social conditions, etc.

But how does this transfer to the non-living side of nature and being? 

TO BE CONTINUED

Resurrection

The ancient world abounded in stories of death and rising.  After all, nature puts on this show every year.  Even semi-tropical areas see vegetation lapse into dormancy for several months, and the animal kingdom has its “mating seasons” often coinciding with the time of vegetative dormancy.  The subsequent birth of young comes as the vegetation awakens and the seeds break open to release the new shoots of plant life, ready to feed the new shoots of animal life.  For some plants this is the season for flowering to entice insects and birds to bring them mating pollen.

The first civilizations went a step beyond this sort of simple observation of the natural cycle.  Many (all?) of them attributed the natural cycle of dying-and-rising to a divine display in the natural world of actual divine activity breaking through to where we could see it.  The gods were saying that the divine order moved within this same kind of cycle, linked to the sensible realm.  This truth was communicated in myth, and various forms of such myths were propagated and disseminated at large so that many cultures told similar stories with similar elements.

Thus, the sun dies every evening and must be escorted through, or perhaps battles its own way across, the underworld of death and shadow to come forth once more and give heat and light to the visible cosmos.  The moon lives as a light in the shadows, waxing and waning until it too fades into the dark underworld, finding its way back once more in a few days and gradually regathering its strength, only to fade and die again.  And ever on.

Specific important deities were named and identified with the stories of the conflict between light and dark, also conceived as good and evil.  For example, in Egypt Osiris, the great and good King and giver and maintainer of life and order, son of Amon-Ra the Sun, is slain in jealous rage by his treacherous brother Seth, Lord of the dark realms which he rules.  But Isis, Osiris’ Queen, defeats Seth and raises Osiris, at the price of his return to the underworld each night. 

In Greece there was the story of Persephone and Hades, who had allow her to return to the world of life each spring to allow the earth to flower once more.  The Egyptians also told the story of the Phoenix, a bird which, when it died, turned to a great flame from which it emerged regenerated, ready to once more fulfil its appointed role as a harbinger of the will of the gods among humans.  You get the idea. 

Our modern/post-modern, scientific worldview reduces all these concepts to quaint tales told by the primitive, or at least prescientific, ancients who had no sophisticated knowledge of how all these natural phenomena actually work according to the laws of chemistry, biology, and physics.  But I think it is fair play to have the ancients turn the tables on us, who are the greatest reductionists and over-simplifiers in all recorded cultural history.  It is we who have reduced the natural, created order to dead, demystified, mere “stuff” made of atoms and all-sorts of micro-atomic bits and pieces.  We are all about reduction and deconstruction till we become blinded by our microscopes and telescopes.  As C.S. Lewis once said, we no longer see the wonder and beauty of a tree.  We have reduced it to a mere collection of cells doing things which convey nothing of the miraculous wholeness and unity of the tree as a tree, let alone the amazing phenomenon of a vast forest of such creatures.

Even with all our scientific calculation and sophistication, we still hit the wall.  “What wall is that?” you say.

The wall of life versus death, or, if you prefer, life versus non-life.  And, by extension, life and death.  We can measure and study and speculate and presuppose that we will one day reduce it all to the measurable and studiable as much as we like, but we still meet the same mystery as our ancient forebears met.  We still stand and laugh and cry in awe as a baby is born, emerging inexplicably from the combination of two independent cells to form a whole new living being.  We still weep and grieve in utter bemusement about what is actually happening and where that once so vibrant soul goes as we watch with a dearly loved one as their miraculous life-force slips out of its flesh-bone-and-blood vessel.  The ancients saw all this with appropriate awe and wonder.  They observed with other eyes than the two organs of light reception in their upper head.  They saw with the eyes of the heart and soul.  So looking they gained some genuine insight into what these twin ultimate mysteries portend.

If nothing else, the mystery of life and death remind us very graphically and regularly of a few very basic, fundamental realities.  First, that we did not make ourselves.  We were/are made;we are creatures of a Maker.  Second, we are finite – we are born, we live for a while, we die.  We have a beginning and an end to our existence, at least insofar as we can measure it according to the super-sophisticated precision of our ever-developing technological prowess.  The corollary of this temporal finiteness is that it is also spatial.  But, paradoxically in all truly significant respects, our wonderful tools of observation of the material realm are ridiculously crude and next to useless in measuring the reality of life and why it even is.

As one ancient sage put it, “We see through a glass (an old term for a window) darkly” as far as anything beyond what our senses can tell us.  (And, yes, the ancients actually had glass windows, at least the well-off did if they fancied them and wanted to pay for them.)  No matter how great a telescope or microscope we may now have and yet invent, with it we will still only see mere stuff, “dark matter”, maya as the Hindus call it.  Light and life still lie and will always lie beyond any sort of material construct or model we can concoct. 

Saul-Paul, the ancient sage quoted above, meant something like this: “Our bodily senses (and all the aids and accoutrements we make to enhance their abilities) can only take us to where material stuff ends, and not even that.  Beyond that you need another kind of sense.  But if you don’t even accept that there is another whole dimension or domain beyond “mere stuff”, then you can never see beyond you own limitations and confined perceptions.”  He goes on after that to say, “No eye has ever seen and no ear has ever heard what the Creator has prepared for those who love Him/Her.”

You may groan that we are heading back to religion.  My answer is that in fact you cannot escape “religion” – even if you’re an atheist or agnostic.  But we are not talking about a particular “religion” in saying this.  At this point, it’s irrelevant to ask, “Which religion?”  We are not talking about “converting” to some set of performance criteria for appeasing a Deity of whatever description.  Rather, we are talking about the Latin (as in the language of the Romans from which we get the term) sense of religio – the system, the principle that ties “it” (the Cosmos) all together, that binds up all the loose ends and begins to make sense of them.

“And what, pray tell, has any of this to do with Easter and old myths about dying and rising?” 

Everything!!  As we age (as I am doing), those willing to pay attention see it more and more clearly.  Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gently into that good night [death]; Rage, rage, against the fading of the light.”  Yes, he was a great poet.  But he died a bitter, addicted man at age 39.  He was an atheist, but he felt intensely the “wrongness” of death, of the “night”, the fading of life into feeble old age (“the fading of the light”).  He preferred to die young and raging against the injustice of the universe because he longed so intensely to find meaning but still knew he was lost.  Our scientific brain says life and death are the natural order, the way it has always been since the first single-cell life form wiggled into life in the primordial slime and replicated. 

Let us say that as long as what lives is not self-aware and self-determining, which we humans are, at least to a respectable degree (setting aside discussion of the philosophy of determinism and the theology of predestination for the moment), I guess it’s just, “Sound and fury signifying nothing” as Shakespeare had Lady Macbeth say.  You’re born; you live for a bit; you die.  The universe could care less.

But Shakespeare did not really accept that.  Lady Macbeth was not Shakespeare speaking soto voce.  Shakespeare was giving voice to the despair lurking behind having no Creator to give things meaning.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the ultimate realist and super-philosopher of the modern and post-modern West, did not really believe it either.  His own inability to concede what all his great rational philosophizing told him drove him insane and to suicide.  “God is dead and we have killed him.”  But in “killing” God/the Creator, we have only killed our souls.  The Creator still lives, and we cannot expunge this knowledge from our hearts and souls.  We can deny it, and work very hard in doing so, but we cannot expunge it.

Charles Darwin, who constructed the evolutionary worldview expressly to remove the need for a Creator from the reality of life and existence, did not really believe it.  He confessed as he neared his own end that he regretted having written what he did and feared he might have led the world astray.

François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, the quintessential Enlightenment philosophe and professed atheist, the trenchant mocker of Christianity, did not really believe it.  On his death bed he lamented that he knew there was a God and that he feared he was going to hell.  But, having lived as an atheist and scorned the “simplicity and gullibility” of “believers”, he would not accept having a priest summoned.

They all desperately wanted their lives to mean something.  They all desperately wanted their thoughts and influence to carry on after them – somehow.  They all wanted, somehow, to defeat death, to live beyond it.  It was the desire for eternity bred into their very souls breaking through all the manoeuvres of a life-time seeking to deny it and repress it. 

Many of us now find ourselves twisting and turning every which way in the same tortured dance.  I too once danced that dance, and will not say that I never have the least doubt to this day.  But the wonder of an incredible but real Cosmos that can only be here because a Creator fashioned it, and me within it, overthrows all the objections.  Even the hardest ones – the pain, the suffering, the evil-doing, the senseless (from our perspective) catastrophes – must give way to the fact that things are and that, being there at all, they are “fearfully and wonderfully made”.

In the Hebrew (Jewish) Scriptures a verse says, “The Creator has placed eternity in their (humanity’s) hearts.”  It is a thunderous statement!  It reputedly came from the most learned and “wisest” man of his age, in a book called Qohelet, which can be translated as “teacher” or “preacher” – a bit of both. 

Qohelet was King Solomon writing under a pseudonym.  As any teacher will tell you, all teachers preach, because they all have their worldviews and believe the students in front of them need converting.  They need to be brought into wisdom, which the teacher-preacher happens to believe they have to some degree.

“Eternity in our hearts” is what this Easter thing is really about.  It’s about the ultimate fulfillment of the old stories of death being defeated by life.  It has nothing to do with denying the “natural order” or the “self-evident laws of evolution and natural selection and survival of the fittest”.

Easter is a Western tradition about life returning.  In the pagan era, it was focused on the winter gods and spirits giving way to the gods of new life and fertility.  But by a few hundred years into the “Common Era” it had been transformed into the celebration of actual resurrection – the promise of life returning to the dead, their being raised into an indestructible, eternal body to live in all the fullness of all the best that could be.  It was centered on the ultimate resurrection, the resurrection of God-come-in-human-flesh, the returning-to-life-from-actual-real-death story of a real man who was also the real Creator-God.

That story is the Jesus Story, which was treated in the series previous to this one on this blog.  We will leave this discussion here.  Anyone so inclined is invited to see the previous series on “The Jesus Story”.  Or, better yet, you could seek it out in the original sources.

Lent 4 – Quarantine, Lead Us Not Into Temptation

The year 2020 will now be long remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We find ourselves in unprecedented territory, at least for the last hundred years.  It is just beyond 100 years since the Spanish flu pandemic, the last real global “plague” of a highly contagious disease.  SARS, H1N1, Ebola, were mere scares which, happily, never lived up to their advanced publicity.  Unless you are someone in sub-Saharan Africa with Ebola or AIDS.

The Spanish flu of 1918-19 lives on in the memory of the West because it hit hardest in those countries – carrying off perhaps 50 million at the highest estimate – at a time when the world population was much lower (about 1.5 billion) and a terrible war had depleted resources and weakened many people’s health and constitution through long-term privation.  The Spanish flu did not discriminate against the elderly but was most devastating to the young.  My father caught it at age six and was at death’s door for at least a week.  (Obviously, he survived.)

We know that an effective quarantine is the best way to limit the spread of deadly disease.  It is not a cure, but must be done to protect those who have not been infected, while providing the best care possible for those who are suffering from the disease. 

It is interesting for those of us of Christian conviction (for me at least, at any rate) that this pandemic is hitting its global stride during the season of Lent.  Of course, from a scientific standpoint, this is irrelevant and mere coincidence, of no more import or interest than if it happened during Ramadan (Islam), Sukkot (Judaism), Diwali (Hinduism) or some other religious season for another major faith.

But its occurrence is calling the whole world, even its most wealthy and powerful, to mindfulness about the most basic issues of existence – what we live for and why we find life so precious that we are (or being made to be) willing to shut down all sorts of things that we normally choose to spend so much time, energy, and resources on.  Things like amusements and entertainments and public gatherings, shopping and restaurants.  Vacations and trips of all kinds cancelled.  Emergency centers and measures which we normally would resent or ignore being applied under government auspices, and, for the most part, with ready compliance because the potential consequences of non-compliance and pursuing blithe self-indulgence are too risky.  Or perhaps we simply fear being shunned as selfish and so self-absorbed that our peers would despise us.

The English world ‘quarantine’ is lifted right out of French – quarantaine – meaning “about forty”. 

In the Bible forty is a much used and symbolic term.  It first appears with Moses in exile from Egypt for forty years before God speaks to him in the burning bush. Then it recurs with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years, and Moses up on Mt. Sinai for forty days before God gives him the Ten Commandments.  Forty seems to symbolize a period of searching and preparation, withdrawal to regroup or retreat, to find the way.  In the New Testament, Jesus fasts for forty days as he begins his public life, being tempted by Satan and learning the will of God.  And at the end of his earthly sojourn, he visits his disciples off and on over a period of forty days before his ascension.

Here we are with a once-in-a century phenomenon of a world practicing quarantine (quarantaine again in French).  We are told to practice social self- isolation.  As we do, we cannot help reflecting on life’s fragility and death’s randomness.  We can hardly help getting back in touch with the most basic questions about why we live.  A century ago in 1918-9 the Spanish influenza had the same effect at the same time of year.  It seems that most of us in the West will not turn aside from our frenetic pursuit of so much that is frivolous and far from what is really important unless forced to by some sort of personal crisis.  Now we have one for all of us at the same time.

We have an opportunity to take stock.  What have we made our lives about?  What have we made our civilization about?  What are the great idols in our lives which rule our hearts and minds?

When Jesus spent his self-imposed quarantaine fasting and praying and meditating, we are told that he faced three “temptations”, or great questions.  The first was hunger.  The second was to prove how holy and tuned in to God he could be by daring to try something only God could do, or could save him from.  The third was to turn away from God to worship a false god and in return receive all the success and power and worship and adulation this world can offer.

Jesus did not give in to any of them, but they were very real temptations, very powerful attractions for a human wanting to find a formula for success or an easy way to get through life with the least hassle.  Jesus was a real human, so resisting these allurements was neither easy nor automatic.

In his first test the Tempter had said, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.”  He had just completely fasted for forty days!  I will not debate whether Jesus had the real power to transform stone into bread, but there are the stories of his turning water into wine and multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish into enough to feed thousands.  But what Jesus faced is exactly the sort of thing we all face every day, but hardly ever think of in that way. 

Now, I can’t turn smooth round stones into loaves of bread. My temptation is to worry about how my needs and my family’s needs will be met, whether there will be enough, or whether we’ll find a way through our present trials and tribulations, whatever these look like.  Bread represents the day-to-day basics we can’t get along without. Maybe now more than ever as many face unforeseen loss of income on a massive scale.

Jesus was in the Judean desert (which I have seen and gone through) and there was (and is) nothing to eat or drink for many kilometers.  In some way and at some point, almost everyone faces a desert where there looks to be nothing to sustain us.  For many right now, that point is now. Jesus’s response to the Tempter was “Man (humanity) does not live by bread alone (mere physical bread), but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  For me, I may not see how my needs and my family’s and loved ones’ needs will be met or how we will get through our valley of the shadow of death. But, like Jesus, I can say that the Creator will meet me/us and walk through to the other side with me/us – and in the process provide what we really need, beyond what the appearance seems to tell me/us that I/we need.

In the second test the Tempter takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.  For doesn’t the Scripture say that God will not suffer you to fall or even dash your foot against a stone?” 

I don’t expect to be taken to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome or some other great holy place of renown and splendor and be tempted to jump.  And of course that’s not the point.  This is about the second path people often choose to “lose their lives while seeking to save/find them” as Jesus puts it in another place.  It is the path of religion and striving to be known as a great spiritual leader, guru, mystic, model, shaman, witch, ayatollah, priest, bishop, preacher, etc.  It is the path of making religion and recognition for spirituality one’s god rather than turning to the Creator Him-/Herself to find the way to truth and peace and harmony – “Shalom” as the Bible calls it.

It is the path of making God serve me rather than me serving the Creator, imposing my agenda and ambitions over those that come from His/Her heart and mouth.  For those of the population still hungering and thirsting for something deeper than the “stuff” and all the pleasure it can offer, this is a great temptation.  I can become someone respected and looked up to and listened to if I can rise as a holy person, a gifted person who “hears from God” or is “in tune with the spirit-realm” and able to channel such energy or “bring in the lost”, etc.  Or perhaps, if I do some heroic thing of self-sacrifice and self-immolation I will win a great reward and a place of honour.

This is a road I know something about, but it is a dead-end.  Religious performance and “getting it all right” as per a set of dogmas and rules will not create a bond with the One who made me to be part of His/Her family.  Jesus had some of his harshest words for people who were all about religion and hardly at all about caring for the needy and helping those who needed a little practical love so they could feel the love of the Creator.

The final test Jesus faced was to bow down and worship the Tempter himself.  In return, all the kingdoms of the world would be put at his feet.  He would have all the power and dominion possible for anyone to have.  Jesus’s answer was, “It is written, “You shall worship the Lord God alone, and He alone will you serve.””

I don’t expect to be offered great riches or worldly power any time soon (or ever).  Or fame and fortune and acclaim to make me the envy of millions (or thousands, or even a few hundred or dozen).  But once again, the temptation Jesus faced is generic – to bow down to the great idols of success of our culture, which the West has so idolized and made the great symbols of “success”: Money, Fame, Acclaim, Reputation, being envied by others, having the best job, car, house, stuff, nicest partner, best (most accomplished) kids, etc., etc.  To do whatever it takes to get there, to reach the top of the heap. 

The promises of the Tempter are all empty.  They may fool for a time, but in the end they whither and fade and leave the deluded one empty in heart and dead in soul.

Now, back to quarantine.  We have an opportunity, while we are waiting for the return of ‘normalcy’ so we can all turn back to running after our own particular set of goals.  Before we turn back to making sure of where all the stuff I “need” will come from, putting on a good show about how spiritual I am, and seeking to climb to the top.  The opportunity is to use our own “forty” days in the wilderness that we have been collectively given to turn away from our vanity and turn towards the only two things that really matter: finding our home in the Creator’s heart and arms, and sharing His/Her love to take in the others around us as we find that home, that Center.  In the old language it was called “Love God with you whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Love your neighbour like you love yourself.”

Lent 3: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”

The New Testament: Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20

Spring begins to warm our lives like hope returning as we march through March.  The cycle of nature promises renewal.  The sun warms our bodies and hearts just as it awakens the ground from its death-like slumber.  The somber landscapes of winter (not lacking in austere beauty at times) will soon give way to the bursting out of new things, new life.

The physical reminds us that the spiritual, mystical life also has its cycle – joy and sorrow, advance and withdrawal, activity and reflection, peace and upheaval, harmony and disarray.  Human psychology marches in tune with these things just as nature does.

The timing of Lent corresponds with the winter-spring transition.  It is a time to step back and take stock of what has become sterile, barren, and dead in our lives and to find paths back into life and renewal – first with our Creator, but equally with our fellow human travellers, and finally with the natural world in which we all live and move and have our being.  For the Creator made it and made us to be in it and tend and nurture it.

As we consider this, we cannot avoid the climate change debate.  It has become an obsession which so polarizes people that we seem incapable of admitting that, whether we put ourselves on its “left” or the “right”, the creation is groaning in great travail, as the Apostle Paul comments in Chapter 8 of his Letter to the Romans.  Whether you accept that the world is warming dangerously or not, we must all see that we, the human species, have recklessly pillaged Earth’s resources and polluted our whole nest from top to bottom, stem to stern.

It began many generations ago, and we have not stopped doing it.  Now, however, we are without the excuse of ignorance.  Our rape and pillage is deliberate and totally devoted to present comfort and convenience with no regard for what is to come in a few decades.  It is of little use to point fingers at the parties we choose to hold (most) guilty – we all participate to greater or lesser degree.

We are told that prosperity depends on this exploitation, that fundamental rights and freedoms are involved in allowing it to continue, that a free and democratic and liberal society holding out the promise of life without poverty depends on it.  Free enterprise demands that we leave things run their course.

A reflection on Lent is not the place to debate whether Capitalism or Socialism is most compassionate and appropriate.  The key problem is deeper than a vehement debate full of vituperation against the evils of one or the other.  It is a problem of the brokenness of the human heart and our emptiness of the soul. 

Poverty is the lack of the most basic and essential things that make a decent life possible.  We lose sight of its terrible effects on real people when we turn it into a statistical exercise by reducing it to a question of income.  Talking about it as a question of money eases our conscience because we can then advocate remedies such as offering more money and more services to the poor with a measurable, impersonal price-tag.  Those of us who are not poor can regain some perspective by volunteering to help at the Food Bank or the Soup Kitchen or the Goodwill or the Street Ministry.  All good things to do, of course.  And they need to be done. And getting out of our comfort zones may lead to where we really need to go- to get in touch with our own poverty of spirit.

The deepest poverty is referred to by Jesus as “poverty of spirit” – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven [God].”  (Matthew 5:3)  Luke has him saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)  It is good that we have both, for we must not lose sight that both forms of poverty exist.  Someone might suggest that the Luke verse is saying that actual material poverty is somehow good.  That is certainly not what he is saying!

But let us begin with poverty of spirit, and why Jesus says it’s a blessing.  First, it is the opposite of self-sufficient pride and confidence in our ability to get along without the Creator.  It is not an automatic posture, especially in the 21st Century West (if it has ever been automatic).  It is actually a rather rare revelation.  Few humans attain it for very long.  It takes a lot of counter-intuitive cultivation to “arrive” there and abide in it.  (I make no claim to abiding there!) To the extent that we do and can, Jesus assures us that we actually begin to experience God’s real presence – for by getting our self-sufficiency out of the way, we make room for the Spirit of the Creator to break in. 

We discover humility: humility as a dependent creature acknowledging my personal emptiness; the hole in my soul which only knowing my Creator can fill.  Humility is knowing that I cannot earn my way into this; I cannot perform a bunch of good deeds and sacrifices to enter this fundamental relationship.  Until I humble myself before the One who made me and seeks for me that I might come to know Him/Her, I remain locked in my pride and arrogance, my illusion that I am, in effect, a god unto myself.

If I can begin to live in poverty of spirit before God, I can begin to see my fellow humans as other lost souls desperately trying to fill that inner void.  They may well be unaware of it themselves, but, knowing my own poverty, I can relate to them in real compassion and humility and offer to come alongside them.  Not by preaching or cajoling or showing off my advanced spirituality, but by offering to walk humbly and openly with them and bring what is needful where they are. 

The materially poor are often already aware of their spiritual poverty and may well be beyond me in that understanding.  To those who are deluded by the illusion of control over their own lives, I can offer relationship when the illusion begins to dissipate amid the inevitable tribulations of life.  But no one can (re)enter or discover their true identity as a son/daughter of the Creator without first coming to poverty of spirit.

Finally we must come to the creation with that poverty of spirit.  It teaches us that we do not own it and it is not mere “stuff” for me, for us, to use, abuse, chew up, and trash when we’re done with it.  I understand that, like my loaned (lent) life, the creation has been loaned to us, that we do not own it, that we are responsible to care for it, to steward it, to bring it into its best state.  We are meant to appreciate it for what it really is, the Creator’s amazing gift, where He/She has placed us for whatever short span of years we have. He/She has also given us the potential to enjoy and glorify it in gratitude for allowing us to love all He/She has made in all its incredible wonder and beauty.  And we too are part of the incredible wonder and beauty to be enjoyed and brought to be the best we can be.

Lent is a good opportunity to deliberately choose one or two small ways to cultivate poverty – first, of spirit – but perhaps also alongside the materially poor.  Perhaps I will find myself actually meeting the Creator more intimately as I move this way.  If you ask, He/She will doubtless show you.

Lent 2, Sowing and Reaping

“Do not be deceived; you reap what you sow. If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.”

Dwight L. Moody

As a culture and civilization the post-modern West of the 21st Century is quite peculiar.  It (we, really) do not have much regard for tradition, for customs, for the ways of our ancestors.  Most cultures and civilizations (and there are still quite a few others out there despite our Western global encroachment on everybody else) still place a high value on the things that have made them who and what they are.  Somehow, we have gone in an almost diametrically opposed direction.  Somehow we expect to survive and thrive by turning our backs on most of what has made us what we have become.  We also prefer to denigrate and devalue most of the people who once upon a time played the greatest roles in that becoming.

In a (relatively) short blog such as this it is impossible to explain or describe with any justice how this amazing state of affairs has come to be, let alone the “why”.  And naturally, for any sense I could propose to make of it, a myriad of other voices, more potent and noteworthy, would rise up to denounce or disprove my interpretation.  Which is at least in line with what the West has been for the last three hundred years – a society open to the challenge of new ideas which can be debated and accepted or rejected, or perhaps nuanced into something more true and balanced.

My point here is that for those of us noting and to some extent currently observing a certain season called “Lent” in English, we now find ourselves in a twilight zone, a cultural back-eddy, while the vast majority of our co-travelers on  the S.S. West are either oblivious to it or could care less even if they have heard of it.

Here are two of the probable reasons for our amnesic cultural disregard of Lent – a chosen amnesia which is symptomatic of the greater current we find ourselves in on our ship’s journey.  For Lent is a practice found only in Christianity, although, as we previously noted, other traditions have their own times of fasting, self-denial, and spiritual reflection.  And, in the West, until perhaps sixty years ago, awareness of this season would have been pretty general throughout the ship’s company, even if many of the voyagers did not observe it.

I rather like the play on words which the English name for this solemn season opens up – even though it doesn’t work in any other language I know of.  “Lent” reminds me that my time aboard Spaceship Earth has been “lent” to me by our Creator or, if you prefer, the universe.  I do not own my time.  It is a gift to me, lent to me for as long as I live and breathe.  There is a Bible verse in the Book of Acts which reminds me of this, when a man named Paul tells the great philosophers of his day in Athens that everyone lives on borrowed time, that “the Unknown God” is the One in whom we all “live and move and have our being”.  Basically he’s telling them (and us via them, for we are very much like those skeptics of two thousand years ago), that we didn’t make ourselves, that we have very little power to change the nature of reality (self-delusions aside), and that there is a Power far higher and greater than any we can conceive of to whom we owe both life and even our feeble ability to understand existence itself.

Thus, Lent points us to something that, Christian or not, sceptic or not, atheist or not (as many of that crowd of the intellectual elite of that age were), we must all face: we are not God; we  are not gods; we did not just appear as some sort of cosmic hiccup that the ever-gyrating maelstrom of universal energy suddenly and quite unintentionally just barfed up one “day”.  And yes, even back in Paul’s long-ago day, that was a serious philosophical and proto-scientific proposal which both Greek and Roman thinkers had considered – Democritus on the Greek side and Lucretius on the Roman side being two examples of such thinkers who were taken quite seriously by the great professorial and sartorial dons of Athens to whom Paul spoke.

The second part of thinking about life being (like) “Lent” is that something “lent” is supposed to be returned to the lender.  If we realize that this “lender” is in fact the Creator (once we get past our arrogance and blinding pride about being “in charge or our own life and forgers of our own destiny” – or perhaps our call to “self-actualize” in this age’s usual ultra-individualist formulation), it puts a whole different perspective on who we are and why we are here (two of the most basic of all questions of existence, questions everyone who thinks asks at some point).

But what do we make of someone who refuses to admit they have borrowed, or been given, the most basic thing they have, with an expectation from the Lender, or Giver, that that precious thing will be returned in good working order?  Or perhaps rather that it will have been used to enhance the lives and general well-being of all the rest of what the Giver had created.  What will the Lender-Giver make of such an outcome as refusing to accept the conditions or mandate of being gifted?

In our dominant current Western way of thinking about it (or, rather, adopting an avoidance-strategy in order not to think about this), if there is indeed a Lender-Giver, He-She-It-They will just be so kind, generous, and loving that it won’t matter.  It’ll be a big shrug of disappointed love at worst, but have no real bearing on what, if anything, follows.

We are not going to rehash the old debates about heavenly rewards and hellish punishments.  There is, however, the issue of reaping and sowing.  If I sow a life-course that is based almost entirely on personal satisfaction and self-fulfillment, what return have I made to the Giver for having invested in me as a contributor the Big Vision of creating a better, more harmonious universe?  It does not take Christian theology to know that, eventually, generally, “you reap what you sow” and “if you sow the wind you shall reap the whirlwind”.  What we all find as we come into the world is what is being reaped from our ancestors, their works, their words, and their deeds.  This sobering realization begs us to think about what we are bequeathing our own descendants, at least once in a while.

Lent is a good time to consider our sowing and reaping, our use of what has been lent to us by the Creator, or, if you prefer, our ancestors and the universe.  It is a good time to consider how to improve our use of the great gifts we have been given, and how to stop abusing them – whether those gifts be other people and their gifts of love to us, or the gifts of resources and time we find all around us.

Fasting is a practice often associated with Lent.  In line with sowing and reaping and learning to truly appreciate and value the gifts we have, and the Giver who gives them, practicing a little self-restraint to teach ourselves to begin returning love for love and appreciation for the gift of life, which comes before all others, would not be out of place.

Which is where tradition comes back in.  Tradition is a way of acknowledging how much has been passed on to us by those who have preceded us.  Traditions recognize that our forebears sowed into our lives and created things we enjoy.  They gifted us, in many cases with loving intent, and with a faith that what they were passing to us would make our lives better, would enhance our ability to give back in the future.  In our trendy phrase, they are saying “pay it forward”. 

The West has by and large chosen to discount many of the best gifts of  the previous generations, especially those coming out of the religious and concomitant moral aspects our cultural heritage.  Consequently, the West has also by and large lost its coherence and way. “Without a vision for the future, people perish,” and struggle to find viable ways to maintain any coherent sense of worth about both themselves and their world.

So we now find our ship S.S. West aimlessly meandering, perpetually searching for some anchorage. The port of haven is proposed in the shifting target of the supreme humanist values of individual identity and rights and freedoms. As good as these may be theory, they have to be continually redefined to suit the newest trends.  It is time for the  West to begin practicing some of the old Lent discipline and turn towards the compass of a much Higher Ground of Being than mere personal preferences.

The foundations are shaking, and it may just be that the Creator is allowing the ground to quake beneath us and the whirlwind to stir around us, according to the old law of reaping and sowing. The wake-up Trumpet may be tuning up.

Lent, 1

I will begin this post with a thank you to all my regular readers and subscribers for your faithful support and interest.

We are now in the season of Lent, which will end on Easter Sunday, April 12.  The word “Lent” in English is derived from Old English lencten, referring to the time when days lengthen or a long period.  Latin-based languages such as French derive their world for the season from the Latin word for forty –  quadraginta – of fortieth – quadragesima, e.g. – French la Carême.

During this season, i.e. for the next five or six posts, we will be taking a break from the usual fare of this blog.  There will not be a fixed theme, except along the line of what our topic today indicates – things appropriate to Lent.

Once upon a few generations ago in the West, this season of about forty days was publicly acknowledged and discussed as a time to dial back our usual bent towards self-concern and self-indulgence.  It was even mentioned in public institutions and political and cultural events to encourage people to “get a grip” on their bad habits and help one another out.  The purpose was to commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The forty days was as an imitation of Jesus’s time in the wilderness before he set out on his public ministry.

Whether you observe the traditions of Christianity or not, dialing back and slowing down, taking the focus off oneself for a season, deliberately finding a time and some self-discipline to regularly turn aside from “the usual” – the  pursuit of self-fulfillment for good ole Number One – cannot be a bad thing.  Other faiths do it and encourage it too (Ramadan in Islam is a prominent example), and even the sages of the health and well-being industry who promote forms of alternative spiritualities or secularized forms of such things (yoga is the most common) tell us that periodic fasting and self-denial is a good thing, especially when we mix in some genuine altruism to get our heads out of our own belly-buttons.

Many people set themselves a goal of “fasting” in some way during this time.  In the “old days” when most people in the West were at least nominal Christians, this meant doing without some favourite foods, for example.  Many people still do this, and add in more focused attention to daily prayer, meditation, and devotional reading.  Other forms of “fasting” might be setting aside forms of personal entertainment, abstaining from social media obsession, or watching less or even no Television or videos.

Now we live in a culture which hardly registers Lent as a blip.  There is a good side to this.  As a Pastor friend pointed out when we were talking about church attendance and declining numbers, the good part of this is that the people who are in church or “walking the walk” these days are there because they want to be and are committed. 

Some dominations and affiliations within the “Church” (I use the word here in its “catholic” sense of “universal” – the One Church which crosses all the denominational boundaries and enfolds everyone who follows Jesus, regardless of their affiliation as “Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, etc.” – are more deliberate and formal about this whole Lenten season and making it a real observance.  I encourage those of you in that persuasion to “go for it” with all your might.  For others who may have more of a hesitation about being so deliberate and intentional about “observing days and seasons” as if they can create more godliness in us or impress God somehow, I would encourage them to see this season as an opportunity to more consciously implement the kinds of disciplines their background values.

No one can compel us individualist Western Christians of the 21st Century to do much of anything “religious” these days.  We love to say that faith and salvation are an individual choice, “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).  Coercion and manipulation by guilt or social pressure are pretty much done for most churches and individuals in North America and Europe.  All the statistics about religious adherence and practice demonstrate this.  But our self-indulgence and claim to individual rights cross into every aspect of how we live our lives.  Lent is one of those.

We might say that we have the same choices to make every day God gives us to continue enjoying (or enduring) our lives.  True enough.  But if all days are the same, no day is special.  The truth is, we really don’t live the rest of our lives that way at all.  We all want and need to feel unique and special, to have special occasions and days.

Our cultural hypocrisy then excludes this from the religious and spiritual side of our humanity.  And this is just another manifestation of what has occurred over the last century.  Despite all the attempts to remove religion and spirituality (the old Enlightenment progressive code-language for Christianity in particular) from the public sphere, humans are innately spiritual, even those of atheistic bent.  There is a hunger and need at our very core.  We deny it at our peril.

The point of Lent is to stop denying it and awaken it, encourage it to search for what can finally bring us to real  fulfillment – to set aside the counterfeits that can never fill the hole in our soul.

Of that, more next time.

The Third Way, 58: Saviours and Salvation, 13 – Boomers

“The three most formative thinkers of the darker moments of the modern era are Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche.  In one way or another, most baby boomers were fed a steady diet of heightened awareness of human exploitation, oppression, and illusion, coupled with the insight that the received world of common opinion and tradition was a chimera.  Suspicion of progress and optimism, and dread of a world breaking down, became de rigueur.  After all, most… baby boomers were highly receptive to the radicalism of their teachers and the books they thought important…. our culture was lost to the homogenizing influence of Hollywood, public policy was massively influence by the power structure, marginal peoples were oppressed… consumers were passive dupes of subliminal advertising and the corporate manufacture of false needs…

“…. Baby boomers were a generation with a deep desire for commitment, yet, ironically, many were persuaded that all bonds were distorting and colonizing, and that they should commit to nothing permanently.  While a corrective to platitudinous boosterism of the status quo, this teaching was also highly corrosive to civic trust, partisan loyalty, or pride of inheritance.  Indeed, the image of a human being it vaunted was that of a drifter: Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur who is a detached street voyeur, Claude Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur who deconstructs and sifts ideas, compounding them at will, Jean-Paul Sartre’s skier who leaves no tracks.  There is neither commitment nor investment required by such lives, which surf above life, where traditional pieties give way to chic cynicism and disassociation.  It allowed baby boomers the sophomoric mien of being against “the System” without having to commit to a specific alternative.”

Peter C. Emberley, Divine Hunger, Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout.  (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd,, 2002), pp. 36-7.

Being of the Boomer Generation (first cohort), so deftly described by Professor Emberley in our lengthy opening citation, it is the one I am most familiar with.  He evokes the ethos of the late fifties and the sixties very well.  While most of us did not consciously adopt Baudelaire’s or Levi-Strauss’s posture towards society and life (few of us having actually read these authors), many of us practised it, having been seduced by its illusion of “freedom”.  Having no obligation to commitment meant “free love”, “tripping out”, “being cool” rather than having to grow up and take responsibility.  There were plenty of more accessible models of these postures (e.g., The Beatles, Timothy Leary, etc.) than these rather esoteric, heady ones. 

Emberley gives a short list of books which signified this whole cultural shift, particularly in the Canadian universities.  Here a few of the better known ones, at least to Canadians (his list gives only Canadian authors of that era): Marshall Macluhan’s seminal and ground-breaking Understanding Media (to which I would add Macluhan’s other, more accessible offering, The Medium is the Message), John Porter’s The Vertical Mosaic, and Pierre Vallière’s White Niggers of America.  Many non-Canadian titles were as widely read in Canada as in the U.S.  I am sure that some readers of this blog could offer their own list, but here a few more that come to my mind: Thomas Harris’s I’m OK, You’re OK, Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, Leonard Cohen’s (another Canadian) Beautiful Losers, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, John Robinson’s Honest to God, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Neil Sheehan, et al.’s The Pentagon Papers,Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,etc. 

In that age, everything was up for questioning and the sense of crisis and radical change in values and old patterns pervaded every domain of life, at least in the West.  Music, drug shortcuts to temporary nirvana, fashion, moral values, ethics, the sexual revolution accompanied by easily accessible and usable birth control, government turmoil, the threat of nuclear annihilation, brutal war (Vietnam) waged in full Technicolor on TV, and civic disorder and violence seemed to confirm  the diagnosis of the end of the old world and the desperate need for a new way of doing things at every level.  A few paragraphs cannot capture or convey the “feel” of that time, any more than they can that of any other generation and its time. 

Emberley goes on to describe the enormous letdown that ensued when the dreams of “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” disintegrated in disillusionment in the ‘70s.  Having questioned everything and come up mostly empty and short of any real solution to what so obviously seemed a need to fundamentally change the way power, economics, and society work, by the ‘80s boomers “had a paradoxical relationship to the workplace.  Many boomers achieved a level of success and affluence which… bordered on the obscene.  Both their real spending power and the senior positions of influence with which they were already flush in their forties represented a new apex of worldly success.” (ibid.)  Thus, the boomers who had eschewed commitment in their libidinous and “sophomoric” youth stood it all on its head by insisting on and getting posh pension and benefit plans in addition to fat salaries and wages.  If they had to now “work with the man” and even “be the man”, they would redefine what this looked like and negotiate their own terms. 

In the name of freedom and equality for all, the 60s activist impulse was diverted from idealism to cynicism in a scramble for “a fair piece of the pie”.  Luxury items and lifestyle took the place of failed ideals.  “Bliss out” was replaced by “drown out” the pain and the repressed gloom with stuff and games and substances.  Depression became the new epidemic, and Prozac (or cocaine) the new drug of choice.  The quest for personal freedom to enjoy life and not “be screwed by the system” or “ground down by the Establishment” had to be diverted into “making the system work for you”.  You could now use that old evil of money to capture life on your own terms with whatever amusements and pleasures took the place of the old ideals of “universal love, brother-and-sisterhood, peace, and freedom”.  However, the old inequities and class divisions had not really gone away and the rich got progressively richer and the poor fell farther and farther behind – which is where we find ourselves now.

The boomers had largely abandoned the old, inherited paths to salvation through tradition, established ways, adherence to religious custom, respect for class and appropriate expectations for one’s inherited position, marriage and family, financial reward for hard work and integrity, and “doing one’s duty”.  Now it became all about personal expectations and agenda.  The old paths to “salvation” out of chaos, failure, and disorder had been replaced by finding one’s own way to meaning.  Salvation was in whatever you chose as your personal path to “self-actualization”.

As Emberley points out, some reverted to “that old-time religion” as they aged, but moved to more energetic and active forms of it in Evangelicalism and Charismaticism, or perhaps into soft forms of oriental faiths, especially Buddhism and Yoga—which are still very popular.  In fact, recent data on religious affiliation and practice in the US suggest that, next to “no religious affiliation”, Buddhism is the fastest growing faith preference in North America.  Many serious scientists have been quietly turning in that direction as well in order to seek inner peace and meaning as they deal with the semi-mystical and elusive realities of Chaos Theory and the Quantum Universe.

“Personal peace and affluence”, as Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the age even as it unfolded, was the boomer road to salvation, the way of escape from despair and hopelessness.  Every society which exists and has ever existed either lives by a path to meaning which has already been established and generally accepted , or, if that established path has collapsed or been radically uprooted, sets out to find another one.  When such upheavals occur, the times are troubled and great turmoil ensues.

The Boomers sowed the wind when, as the Chicago 1 album put it, it sought to “Tear the system down, tear it down to the ground”.  Lamentably, as they forsook their old idealism, they went over to the hedonistic side of their “cultural revolution”.  Now, forty years later, what they seem to be leaving to their Gen-X children and the Millennials resembles a cultural wasteland filled with a whirlwind of violence and expectations of impending apocalypse.  The planetary environment is in severe distress and the socio-politico-economic infrastructure is strained to breaking point and quite unsustainable for much longer.  Yet the boomers still control and refuse to relinquish their self-serving stranglehold on the levers of power in the corporate, social, and political institutions which dictate most of what life will be like for the 99.5% of the rest of humanity who support the elitist paradigm.

For the Millennials and Gen-Xers who will soon be and already are moving into the positions of executive power (as in Canada where our two-term Prime Minister is a Gen-Xer), they have the opportunity to learn from the Boomer debacle.  Rather than being irresponsibly seduced by false promises of some sort of hairy-fairy Aquarian Utopia built on romantic dream-castles, they see quite well and more practically that the old ways are disintegrating, and have been for decades.  What is also clear is that their parents have done very poorly at managing the foundations as they have pursued a completely unsustainable paradigm of luxury retirement built on unceasing GDP growth .

The big question is where the upcoming movers and shakers of the world will turn to for their answers. What will be their salvation strategy to preserve enough of Planet Earth to continue as a living, thriving “Garden of Eden” in a universe that seems to have produced only one of its kind?  At the very least, it seems that they can hardly do worse than their immediate forebears.

The Third Way, 57: Saviours and Salvation, 12 – The Jesus Story, 9: The Third Way

“Jesus called himself the Son of God and the Son of Man, but he laid little stress on who he was or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the Kingdom.  In declaring that he was more than a man and divine, Paul and his [Jesus’] other followers, whether they were right or wrong, opened up a vast field of argument.  Was Jesus God?  Or had God created him?  Was he identical with God or separate from God?  It is not the function of the historian to answer such questions, but he is bound to note them, and to note how unavoidable they were, because of the immense influence they have had upon the whole subsequent life of western mankind.  By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume One.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), pp. 456-7

Not all readers of this blog or all Christians will agree with H.G. Wells in every detail of this citation from his magnum opus The Outline of History.  I would agree with his view that it is not the historian’s function to pass judgment on questions such as Jesus’ ultimate identity.  He is fair in recognizing that Jesus did accept the titles of “Son of Man” and “Son of God” as proper to himself.  He is right in saying that Paul (and the other Apostles and first disciples) opened up “a vast field of argument”.  These arguments came in later generations, but, while they had disagreements among themselves, the Apostles did not disagree about Jesus’ identity.  As Wells says, perhaps the later arguments were “unavoidable” and have been historically significant “because of the immense influence they have had” on all the generations since.

I would not agree with Wells that Jesus “laid little stress on who or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the [coming of the ] Kingdom [of God].”  If one considers only the three “Synoptic” Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one could reach that conclusion on a superficial reading.  But the major emphasis in John’s Gospel is the central issue of Jesus’ identity.  It focuses on his proclamation that the Kingdom of God had arrived in the form of his person.  The heart of the message was really that the coming of the Kingdom was not just coincident and correlative to his own coming among humanity with a new teaching at a specific time and in a specific place, but that it was intrinsic to his being present.  It was and is bound up in his person, and entering that Kingdom was and is through him, through commitment of one’s life to God through him.  When we look carefully at the Synoptics[i], we will still find Jesus declaring this. 

The difference is one of “optics”—focus and perspective.  The focus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (synoptic means seeing the same, taking the same perspective) is Jesus’ public ministry and persona as seen by the witnesses involved as he travelled through Israel and met his death, and then rose from the grave.  By comparison, the perspective of John is an intimate look at how Jesus related to those closest to him and with those who opposed him and eventually engineered his crucifixion. 

Wells is effectively doing what so many have done when trying to sort out “the historical Jesus” from “the Jesus of faith”; he is reducing him to a message, a set of teachings and admonitions to be applied, comparable to what the typical mystical prophets, philosophers, and sages have done for millennia.  But, as we said in our previous episode, we cannot reduce Jesus to that; he does not fit the mould or stay in our neat categorical boxes.  His message was really himself, and in that he is really and truly unique among all the great religious figures of history. 

Buddha, Muhammad, Lao-tse, Confucius, Zoroaster, etc. did not say things like “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father/Creator except by/through me.”  We could give many more examples of Jesus making such statements.  Here are a few to reinforce the point: “I am the door; I am the bread of life; I am the Good Shepherd; … I am the resurrection and the life,” etc.  Any of these others “greats” saying such things would have rightfully been declared a megalomaniac.  As C.S. Lewis so cogently puts it, “He does not leave us that option.”  He is so sane, so manifestly not a Lunatic!  So manifestly not a Liar!

Jesus also openly claimed to be sinless and publicly challenged his critics to produce one instance in which he had sinned.  He had lived a very public life for at least a couple of years by this point, and had been shadowed at every turn by hostile critics who should have been able to produce at least one tale of his having acted badly.  There were no takers.

Jesus did indeed teach extensively, often in parable form.  He challenged hypocrites wherever he found them.  He discredited stereotypes, stood up for the poor and downtrodden, and commented critically on many issues such as the way the powerful control, oppress, laying heavy burdens on people and inflicting suffering.  He criticized the wealthy and their lack of compassion. 

He said that his followers needed to be different from all this—to be like him!  Everything he brought to the table as a new way, a Third Way, was bound up in knowing him and following him.  It was not about a new set of rules or a new philosophical insight, or even a different way of performing religious rituals and routines—or not performing them, for that matter.  He elucidated and illuminated what they already knew, declaring that the scriptures spoke about him.  As we have said before, it will not do to confine him to being a sort of nice, peacenik guru saying “All you need us love, so stop being selfish and nasty.” 

Certainly, we need to stop being selfish and nasty, but the problem is that, in and of ourselves, we just can’t do it very well, at least most of us can’t, no matter how hard we try. There area few who somehow manage it much better than most, like Buddha, for example.  But even most of the prophets, gurus, and sages come out pretty splotchy when we dig a little deeper.  Most of us are like the Prophet Daniel’s dream of a giant statue of a King-God made of massive, shiny, metallic sections of gold, silver, and bronze.  We (try to) look shiny, powerful, and impressive, but we’re standing on clay feet which cannot support us at all when the waves crash in.

At the end of our citation Wells says, “By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Unfortunately, this part of his assessment is all too true.

At the end of The Third Way 56, we noted the tremendous positive and progressive impact of the legacy of Jesus and the best of the work of his disciples over the last two millennia.  As Wells puts it—the “charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Too often though, we have seen large segments of those followers turning inward on one another, “agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments” with one another about God’s nature, Jesus’ nature, the Holy Spirit’s nature and work, questions of Church order and government, questions of right ritual and observance, and on and on.  And when the workers turn in upon one another, the anathemas proliferate and the love evaporates, evening  climaxing in war sometimes.  This does not even include the completely twisted notion of crusading to convert or crush “the infidel” or “heathen” of another religion.

When the Church, which is really just the community of his followers which Jesus commissioned to be “the light of the world and the salt of earth” loses its way and does those things, it has gone over to the “Dark Side” and lost its salt.  It breaks faith with its Founder and shames and dishonours itself.  So do all who take Christ’s name in vain by using it to say and perpetrate things and actions which in the end he will denounce and declare dreadful distortions of everything he is and calls those who follow him to be.

Nevertheless, Jesus has always had followers “muddling through” to act and be as he calls them to be and do.  There is still and has always been a remnant of communities and individuals who are “doers of the word, not mere hearers” and fancy talkers and theologians.  Now, at this time in history, and especially in the history of the West, faithful hearers and doers are more needed than ever, for much of the earth is in spiritual famine and dying in its vapid materialism and self-absorption, without hope or vision.  “Without a hope, without a vision for the future, people perish,” says a verse in the Book of Proverbs.

The core of the Christian proclamation is about hope—Good News—which is what the word “Gospel” really means.  That Good News is the coming of God’s Kingdom into our midst.  And it has come and continues to abide in a living Saviour who promises to “be with you always, even to the end of the age.”  He said, and says, “In this life, in this world, in this age, you will have trouble.  But take heart, for I have overcome the world.”

The “First Way” is the way of Religion—seeking peace and safety through appeasement of the universe and its dominant forces by the right kind of actions and staying out of the way of what can destroy us.  The “Second Way” is the way of Power, the way of control and manipulation and domination, to (re)make the world in our own image, even if it is just our own corner of it.  The ultimate form of this kind of counterfeit safety is world mastery—political, economic, and social domination and forcible conformity.

Both of these “Ways” of trying to make sense of reality are alive and well.  None of us is entirely free of them, either within ourselves or in our dealings with others, or even with nature.

The “Third Way” is what Jesus offered and offers—to cease from the first two and become truly free, as only he can make us free: “For if the Son (Son of God and Son of Man) shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.”


[i]  “Synoptics” = Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  These three take a similar, more or less biographical perspective to Jesus’ public career.  They see Jesus through the eyes of witnesses who were there, although takes a somewhat different witness perspective.  Matthew’s perspective is very Jewish – Jesus as the fulfilment of Torah and its reinterpreter for the New Age, the renewed or new Covenant.  Tradition says that Mark’s perspective is based on Peter’s stories about the Messiah Yeshua.  For much of the account, Jesus seems to be keeping a low profile, but is finally revealed to be the Son of God and the Messiah.  He is then arrested and crucified.  The end is wonder and amazement, and there is scholarly controversy about the last part of the final chapter being a later addition.

Luke takes a more scholarly approach, systematically accumulating evidence and eye-witness testimony.  Tradition says Luke was a well-educated, articulate, very literate physician, perhaps even a Gentile convert of Paul’s.  His story focuses on the humanity of Jesus while including details of healings and relationships which a doctor would note.

With this understanding, John’s approach becomes more illuminating as a bridge from the very public record of Jesus to his more intimate, personal dimension and the things he said about himself both with his closest followers and those who challenged and opposed him.