When Evil Comes, 6 – The Two “Wisdoms”

“Behind the technical revolution of the last two hundred years there is a much deeper spiritual process. . . This process begins with the Renaissance, leading on to the Enlightenment, and beyond it to the radically positivist secularised man of today.  Modern technics is the product if the man who wants to redeem himself by rising above nature, who wants to gather life into his hand, who wants to owe his existence to nobody but himself, who wants to create the world after his own image, an artificial world which is entirely his creation.  Behind the terrifying, crazy tempo of technical evolution, there is the insatiability of secularised man who, not believing in God or eternal life, wants to snatch as much of this world within his lifetime as he can. . . . the tempo of its development is the expression of his inward unrest, the disquiet of the man who is destined for God’s eternity, but has himself rejected his destiny. . . the necessary consequence of man’s abandonment to the world of things, which follows his emancipation from God.”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, Volume II. (London: Nisbet & Co., Ltd., 1949, 1955), pp. 4-5.  (Originally given as the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrew’s University, 1948)

Brunner’s analysis and diagnosis has lost nothing of its validity in the last seventy years since he first pronounced it.  If we exchange a couple of words (technology for “technics” and humanity or humankind for “man”) it is as bulls-eyed as when he first composed these lectures.  Of course, if you are one of the secularised of whom he speaks in general terms, you rejoice in the “emancipation from God” but deny that humans have rejected their destiny as eternal beings made to be in relationship with their Creator.

Notwithstanding, how better to describe modern-post-modern Westerners than striving to “redeem [themselves] by rising above nature” and wanting “to gather life into [their] hand[s], who want[] to owe [their] hands to nobody but [themselves], who want[] to create the world after [their] own image, an artificial world entirely of [their] own creation. . . . who want[] to snatch as much of this world within [their] lifetime[s[] as [they] can. . .”?  Other than his politically incorrect use of “man” to refer to the generality of the human race, would Brunner need to change one word of this to describe our ultra-frenetic media-obsessed and information and sensory overloaded society of the 21st Century?

What is the relation of this to our discussion of confronting the evil we find in our faces?  A great deal.  We ended #5, “Know Thyself”, by suggesting that the fundamental disconnect in our present (mis)understanding of ourselves is “on the level of who we are really meant to be, or what we have really been created for.  In other words, we were not meant to be (become) agents of evil, and, being such now, we are not meant to remain in that condition.”  Much of the evil we find distorting and even destroying so much of what is good and noble and admirable, worthy of value and life-enriching, is perpetrated by our own species on us and nature because of our blindness, our loss of “In-sight”, and our failure to grasp who and what we really are and are meant to be.

It is easy in our scientific smugness to lament the superstitious ignorance of our ancient and Medieval forebears in their idolatry and ritualistic flummery.  We mock their use of idols and temples but fail to see our own equally and perhaps even greater idolatry and flummery.  If the old priesthoods and shamans were reprehensible in their manipulation of the poor masses they bamboozled, we are even more guilty because our manipulation and control is more occult, for we pretend to be enlightened and to no longer need to use such deception as we practice it even more powerfully via our technological prowess.  

Meanwhile we have bamboozled ourselves that we owe nothing to anything or anybody, except perhaps to some mystification of the Cosmos that unaccountably could burp up such creatures as ourselves who cannot prevent themselves from believing that they are somehow destined for eternity.  As Qohelet said, we are made with “eternity in our hearts” and cannot seem to expunge that conviction, no matter how hard we try to eradicate it by science, technological overstimulation, and thundering, Goebbels-style [Josef Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, 1933-45] repetition.

Socrates is still sitting in the agora warning “Know thyself!”  Jeremiah is still in the temple courtyard thundering, “Your hearts are above all things deceitful!”  Buddha is still calmly admonishing, “The self you think you are, that is illusion.”  As Brunner points out so well, we have rushed forward with proud science and technology outstripping any moral and spiritual advance we fancy we have made.  In fact, if we believe the evidence of history, we have regressed in the very areas which raise us above the level of mere sophisticated animality.  Unless we really are just cranially enhanced animals .

“In-sight” allows us to see the wonder of the Cosmos and especially of our living planet and of our own incalculably astonishing nature as beings who can in fact “see into”, look above and beyond and deep into the depths and nature of what is.  Our reductio ad absurdum conceit that we understand what the universe, life, and being are because we can see how much of it seems to work is the height of hubris and conceit.  Describing how in no way defines what or tells us why.

By denying the wonder and incredible, unfathomable character of what is and where and who we are, we are laying the foundation of evil itself.  The root of evil lies within, just as the root of knowing the potential for all that is noble and beautiful and worthy lies within.  We encompass within ourselves the ability to conceive and perceive both, and to enact what portrays and produces both.  What is wonderful and terrible both lie in the human heart, and so we see both coming forth in our personal lives and in the history of families, communities, and whole nations and peoples. 

“. . . no one can  tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing,” said James the brother of Jesus in an ancient text admonishing the early followers of Jesus. 

He goes on to contrast the two types of wisdom that flow from the human mind and heart.  One directs us to pursue ambition and pleasure and self-fulfillment.  This, he says, is “demonic” because of the bitterness which it produces like a curse on our lives.  It is “restless poison”.  “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”

James describes the other wisdom as “from above. . . pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.”  (This discussion is found in the Christian New Testament Letter of James, Chapter 3.)

For many of us, the last few months of living with a global pandemic have, perhaps for the first time ever or in a very long time, brought us up against some of the deeper questions that we have buried or pushed out of sight.  Occasionally we may have glimpsed them when someone dear to us has died or when we ourselves have skirted the shores of Charybdis and seen Hades approaching.  But we usually succeed in rushing on with a fleeting concession that “someday I’ll think about that stuff, but for now I’m basically a good person.”  For many, too much procrastination amounts to the day of taking account of “that stuff” never coming, or finding it comes so abruptly that there is no time to find the path through it.

This moment is an opportunity for many to actually reconsider what we are here for, what our being is about, why we live in the crazy way we do, how much time, energy, and money we spend on “vanity” as Qohelet put it.

The other thing that swims to the surface is this whole issue of evil, whether of the variety that comes anonymously from a natural source, or the very personal kind coming from a fellow traveler or group of bandits on the road, or even from within our own hearts.

If we confess that there is real evil, we must also conclude that there is real good, and that there is a choice to be made.  As James puts it, which “wisdom” will we pursue?  Where has “emancipation from God” actually brought us?

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 5 – Know Thyself

“Know thyself.”

The Oracle of Delphi and Socrates

We finished last time with this Hebrew Bible quotation: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick.  Who can fathom it?”  (Yirmayahu/Jeremiah 17:9)

If you are like me, you don’t usually see yourself or your heart as “deceitful” or “desperately sick.”  The culture of the late 20th Century and 21st Century West encourages us to see ourselves in exactly the opposite sense.  “I’m OK; you’re OK.”  I/you/we don’t do anything really bad, so we’re all good people.  And, if you hold with an afterlife, we all get to “go to heaven”, whatever that might mean.  In other verses, the Bible even tells us to love ourselves, and to love others the way we love ourselves. 

It would appear that loving ourselves and understanding how deceptive we can be and often are about what’s really going on inside are different issues.  It can be quite a challenge to love myself when some of the dark stuff buried inside my heart leaks up into the light.  If I can be honest about that, it should make it easier to have compassion for others in their brokenness, even when their darkness lashes out at me or others. It it about loving myself just because, or despite what I sometimes manifest in my nature that is quite unlovable? And does loving myself have anything to do with knowing the truth about myself? These are deep questions which we are now sadly ill-equipped to deal with.

Despite our pop psychology about all being “good people”, I am (and I suspect you are) ready enough to see the deceit in others.  The world is not out to get me, but our common behavior in a competitive society encourages us to fudge our own self-aggrandizing antics and exaggerate the failings of others.  Knowing myself with some clarity (even if only in a backhanded way) makes me suspect their good intentions, for mine are all too often less than purely altruistic. 

Another ancient Hebrew proverb declares, “Many proclaim their loyalty, but a faithful person (or person of integrity) who can find?”  I am adept at hiding my own deceit behind rationalization and evasive manoeuvres resembling fine motives.  I’m so good at it that I have become largely immune to my own slipperiness.  I don’t care for too much personal examination of my less admirable motivations lurking in the shadows, but I quite readily impute such subterfuge to others.

When Socrates taught that the road to wisdom began with “Know[ing] thyself”  was he preaching pop psychology 101 of the “I’m OK; you’re OK” variety?  Asked what he meant by such an enigmatic declaration he said that few ever care to learn what’s really buried inside them or to learn the truth behind their common preconceptions.  His “Socratic Method” of perpetually and dialectically probing was designed to uncover the deepest roots of what is hidden.  He made so many people in power so uncomfortable that they decided to frame him as an atheist and a subverter of good morals and social order. He was condemned to death for “leading the youth astray”.

Socrates still makes people uncomfortable.  The Oracle of Delphi named him the wisest man in the world.  Asked why, Socrates replied that the only way that made any sense was because he understood that he really knew nothing.  Knowing how little we know is the first step towards wisdom because it is the first step to teachability, correctability, and taking responsibility for finding out what we don’t know but pretend or delude ourselves that we do.

We see the same idea reflected in an even older source – the Proverbs of Solomon: “The fear of Adonai ⁄ the Lord ⁄ God is the beginning of wisdom.”  The unfathomable Creator is the true Source of all that is, including our personal being.  Surely wisdom begins with a bit of healthy fear of the One who made all that is!

Again, we are confronted by the contrast of our modern-post-modern paradigm of our innate, basic goodness which, in the end, approves us as all “good people” regardless of any amount of destructive and hurtful stuff we’ve perpetrated over our wind-puff lives of a few decades.  We reassure ourselves constantly with this refrain about being good people when we dig deep even as we live mostly selfish and self-indulgent lives.  We can rime off some good deeds along the way and think that that much shorter list compared to the other one erases all the not-so-good stuff.

Of course, if there is no Creator what does it matter in the cosmic scale anyway?

Our version of the Creator is of a sort of Super-Being made in our own image, rather than the much more ancient idea about us being made in His/Her image.  Inasmuch as a Deity is accepted in 2020, He/She is a Great, Loving, Grandparent up above who could  never think badly of us no matter what we are and do.

After all, why should I fear my loving, supremely indulgent Grandparent above?  How can fear rather than love be the beginning of wisdom?  How does Socrates’ insistence on digging and probing into what goes on underneath help us anyway?  Exploring your inner stuff, as in psychotherapy, never ends, because we are masters of self-deception.  We comfort ourselves with being a good person because what we really mean is “because I/he ⁄ she never do ⁄ did anything really bad, we must be “good”.” 

As numerous scientific polls and personal discussions about people’s belief in an afterlife tell us (think about all the funeral-parlor visits, wakes, memorials and funerals you’ve attended), we are ready to believe in some sort of heaven or nice “place” for the departed, but very few (even self-proclaimed Christians and Jews) believe in a “Hell” any more.  After all, the loving, grand-parently Creator whom 60-70% of us now believe in could not send anyone to hell just because they were wicked.  Well maybe a few especially sordid individuals like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, or mass-murderers and sadistic killers, rapists, etc.  Even the Great Heavenly Benefactor must have a few limits, right? After all, even we have a few limits.

However, it seems rather counter-intuitive that good people often seem to die more cruelly and earlier than bad ones.  And too often as victims of the bad ones.  This is an observation found in numerous ancient sages and modern commentators on the human condition.

Perhaps that isn’t the way the Creator intended it to be in the first place.  Perhaps there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of our truncated empirical, physical-material worldview.  Perhaps, as we saw from C.S. Lewis, we have gone “blind” to anything but the atomic structure of trees (and anything else we believe we can sum up by measuring it), so that we no longer have “In-sight”.

Maybe, if we could begin to lift our eyes from our self-absorption and take our noses out of our navels, we might begin to fathom what Socrates meant about “Know[ing] thyself” and what Jesus meant when he said things like, “Those who have eyes to see, let them see,” and “If you want to save your life, you must lose it.”  Buddha and other Oriental sages said, “What you imagine to be your self is illusion.  You are not that.”

In the Christian Bible, the Apostle Paul spoke about “the mystery of iniquity” and “the son of lawlessness.”  There is also talk of the “spirit of antichrist”.  Our own duality remains very much a mystery.  As the ancient Christian teacher (Saint) Paul observed in one of his letters to a group of Christians in Rome (Romans 7), he found the evil inside himself baffling.  He wanted to do good and be righteous but found himself doing the nasty things he despised.  He cried out, “Who will deliver me from this?  How can anyone be saved?”

His answer was that, contrary to our modern-post-modern conviction, we actually can’t bootstrap ourselves out of breaking our own internal commandments (let alone any we accept from the Creator), even simple things like New Years’ Resolutions.  We need help on two levels.

First, we need help to find the strength to fight the battle of defeating the continuous urges to do and say all kinds of stuff that, in our honest moments, we know is going to hurt someone, or whole groups of someones.  Why do we have such urges?  Because we get some advantage over others in comfort, nice rewards, pleasure, feelings of power and control, etc.  It is natural to want pleasure and control and safety and the rush of power, of victory.

Why should we even fight to repress these urges?  Some today would say we shouldn’t, just learn to wait for the right moment to indulge them. But there are many reasons to resist them, not the least of which is that we may end up as pariahs. A list of reasons to resist the evil within us would be long and tedious.

What is Paul’s second level where we need help?  It is on the level of who we are really meant to be, of what we have really been created for.  In other words, we were not meant to be (become) agents of evil, and, too often being such now, we are not meant to remain in that condition.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 4 – Conspiracies

“Christian dogma …. is dead, at least to the modern Western mind.  It perished along with God  [cf. Nietzsche’s declaration about where we have brought ourselves in our quest for freedom from dogma and superstition].  What has emerged from behind its corpse, however—and this is of central importance—is something even more dead; something that was never alive, even in the past: nihilism, as well as an equally dangerous susceptibility to new totalizing, utopian ideas.  It was in the aftermath of God’s death that the great collective horrors of Communism and Fascism sprang forth (as both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche predicted they would.  Nietzsche, for his part, posited that individual human beings would have to invent their own values in the aftermath of God’s death.  But… we cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls.  This was Carl Jung’s great discovery…”

(Italics are in the original source.)

Jordan B. Peterson.  12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos
(Random House Canada, 2018), p. 193

The COVID-19 Pandemic has quickly taken its place as a conspiracy theory. As with most conspiracy theories, some of the current rumors about Novel-Corona doubtless hold grains of truth.  In fact, some quite reputable sources are asking some very serious questions about what we’ve been told and evidence that very plausibly points to some rather unsettling origins and actions or inactions related to its rapid propogation.

History illustrates all too starkly that there really are dark and sinister people and forces working to undermine society, world order, and democracy.  Many of the current batch of these agents of evil are blatantly obvious.  Fascists, neo-fascists (China is nominally Communist but, if you compare it to Nazi Germany, it is really now a Fascist State), Islamists, Anarchists, Cut-throat Capitalists, and Communists who hate Capitalism.  Throw in the numerous haters of liberal (or any) democracy and the West who would love to bring it down so their version of Utopia might somehow emerge from the chaos and ashes.  

The haters are part of the society they hate, projecting on it and their fellows their own alienation from humanity.  They wear ideological disguises or simply wallow in sociopathy. 

Amoral, unscrupulous people and organizations always improvise in order to reap the maximum selfish profit and benefit out of any opportunity for whatever nefarious purposes they aspire to achieve.  Such behaviour sometimes inhabits a national leadership elite and will use completely immoral methods to undermine the societies of their real or perceived enemies.

Some conspirators are Capitalists without a conscience seeking a freer rein for their corporate greed and predatory practices.  Some conspirators are in positions of great political and social power and influence, both within nations and in international affairs.  They include financial super-players and mega-corporate entities in the economic and socio-political realms.

Conspirators pride themselves on being master manipulators of the gullible classes and masses, the ordinary, “unenlightened” regular people just striving to live a reasonably peaceful, productive, and happy life.  Many conspirators are fanatical ideologues (religious or other) whose agenda is a new world order according to their vision of utopia, with themselves at the helm, of course.  Before taking power, Fascists in Italy, Nazis in Germany, Bolsheviks in Russia, Maoists in China, etc, were all conspirators hiding in plain sight.

Because such people like to move and manoeuvre out of the public limelight, they leave that plane to the next level below them – the ambitious and idealistic (or just plain greedy and self-serving) cadres who seek to gain access to government and para-government agencies where power and control over public policy can be had.  Their ambition makes them vulnerable to suggestion, subtle bribery, and blatant manipulation.  Meanwhile, the masters move in the shadows, content to use money, spider-web connections, the media, and social networks to pull the strings from the shadows.  History is chalk-full of the records of all this, from Ancient Egypt to modern-day ISIS, drug cartels, and internationalized crime syndicates.

For the great unwashed mass of humanity who never see this level of power and have no or very little notion of it, save a caricature perhaps portrayed in popular literature and film, all of this sounds very much like mythology and hyper-imagination.  Do the Illuminati exist?  Is there really a Bilderberg Group?  Have these groups morphed into a new incarnation (the Davos select super-elite?) devising a scheme to impose a world government on the unwary common crowd?  According to the conspiracy watchers, the elect pull all the strings from the back rooms of the UN and its super-national agencies (e.g., WHO, IMF, UNESCO, World Bank, etc.)? 

Every institution and organization is political.  Politics by its nature is full of back-room secret meetings and hidden agendas.  The wheeler-dealers manoeuvring for position, influence and control are hardly likely to raise a flag to identify themselves and openly declare their plans and intentions.  What appears in public is the tip of the iceberg, whether we are in a liberal democracy with freedom of expression and association or in an oligarchic totalitarian society such as China.

In the present case, the rumors are that this COVID thing is a clever and choreographed dress rehearsal for the next step in moving the world to accepting the necessity of a central direction for the whole planet.  After all, could we not once and for all end world poverty if we had a central authority to (re)distribute the world’s resources more equitably?  Could we not end famine if we could centrally direct the food supply so that the great surpluses in some places could readily be sent to alleviate the dire need in others?  Could we not end war if there was a central political authority to resolve international disputes?  Could we not save the planet’s ecosystem if we could centralize an authority to rein in the unconscionable rape of nature?

None of these ideas are very new, except perhaps the new awakening to the perilous climate situation.  A conscious plan for One World Government (under UN auspices as the most obvious route) is not a far reach, and the European Union has evolved as a functional working prototype for the One World Movement.  It is certainly not difficult to credit the One-World idea as an eventual goal among the leading internationalist intellectuals and plutocrats.  Some of them have even said publicly that they hope for this.

Of course, the underlying question about a One-World Cartel system is who would be at the top?  We can quite plausibly see much of the international manoeuvring as the game of positioning for that role.  Obvious rivals are China and the US, and China still has to supplant the US and bring the West into disrepute to take its place.  Thus some of the rather disturbing questions about this whole COVID outbreak and its (mis)management.  The economic and social damage done to the West has been monumental while China seems comparatively unaffected and now can portray itself as the great benefactor – a role it has already been playing in the less developed world.

Attempts to create international agencies and apply versions of the One-World ideology have been made in both ancient and modern times.  “World Empires” were one method – the Roman being the most effective and long-lasting outstanding example.  This is undoubtedly one the main reasons it fascinates so much to this day.  (See blog Archives – “The Allure of Rome”)

I would not presume to diagnose where we are on the road to instituting a One-World System of ultimate political, economic, environmental, and social control.  But there is a huge amount of history behind this gradual process.  Since the Scientific, Industrial, Economic, Intellectual, and Social Revolutions began to take hold in the latter half of the 18th Century, the “System” has been generating itself almost like a living entity evolving before our eyes.  The catalyst was the Enlightenment. 

In all probability the historical trend to one-world is not the result of a single (human, at any rate) conscious mind or even group of minds working within and through a well-knit secret elite society such as the Illuminati or the Freemasons or the T’ang, Islamist Mahdiism, or a Super-Corporate Cartel such as Davos or Bilderberg.  But perhaps such groups are taking a serious hand in the present phase of this movement.

There are undoubtedly groups operating, manipulating, conspiring, and using aspects of the system in the present exceptional circumstances to further their own agendas, among which a One-World System would be included as a means to achieve their own vision.  Some of those listed above may well be manoeuvring to help the process along, and even functioning in temporary alliances of convenience.  Regardless of the extent to which any of this corresponds to real people, organizations, and events past, present, and future, at bottom they are manifestations of something much deeper and more hidden.

The term “occult” means hidden from view.  Conspiracies of all kinds are, by their very nature, in that sense, occult.  Those who foment and participate in them want to remain hidden so that they can manipulate and move in the shadows.  Only at the end do they emerge from that realm to take the place of final power and control to triumph in the revolution they have executed.

All things occult crave hiddenness, and thus darkness.  The occult’s native language and modus operandi is conspiracy.  Its nature is to undermine, to distort, to corrupt and poison until it overthrows and destroys the thing it hates.  Conspiracy is a kind of evil engendered at the most destructive level of deceit, lying, defrauding, calumny, misinformation, and a long list of many other practices – all steeped in the “dark arts” that lead to theft, death, and destruction.

At this point some readers may think I am speaking about “Occult Arts” like Black Magic, Satanism, necromancy, séances, etc.  While these are certainly “occult” in their naive and rather superficial (but nonetheless possibly nasty) way, I am talking about the kind of occult activity that is practiced by hosts of people who would never self-identify as practitioners of the above “Occult Arts”.  I am speaking about the heart of evil that has haunted humanity since its inception – however people account for human nature, whether by direct fiat creation by a personal Deity, by the ineluctable processes of evolution with its brutal universe of survival of the fittest and natural selection, or, as many religions suggest, by the existence of a purely malevolent set of beings conspiring to destroy humanity.  Or a combination of all or some of the above.

But, whatever the origin of evil, humankind has been its own biggest destroyer, its own worst devil, its own greatest enemy.  The evil that proceeds from deliberate human choice and action (or inaction) and speech has done far more than any natural disaster or “Act of God” on record.  In that sense, as we have said throughout this series, evil always wears a personal face, and it is not God’s.  It may be Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s, Pol Pot’s, the Grand Inquisitor, or an African tyrant or Islamic terrorist at different moments, but, beneath them, and following the lead of such horror-creators, it wears the face of “regular folks” who decide to do as their told because of some benefit or reward they believe will be theirs, or perhaps because they have swallowed the Big Lie about doing it “for the greater good”.

We cannot depersonalize evil.  And, as Perterson points out in our opening quote, we can’t blame God any more.  The bankruptcy of the claim that religion (God) is the cause of almost all the really evil stuff humans have done to one another has been exposed as utterly wrong.  It is not religion, it is the moral corruption and deadness of the human heart and soul, now left with no fall-back at all without God as a convenient whipping-boy.

Even the Devil, Satan, or whatever term we use to name the evil power at work in the occult realm (remembering the root meaning of occult), is not ultimately to blame for what we do to one another.  Perhaps such a power conspires and seduces the human perpetrators, but the humans choose to execute the terrible deeds. 

The issue of God ordering some horrible things done is really a red herring.  The ‘normal’ pattern is human decision to be evil for selfish purposes born of the evil in our own hearts.  The oft-repeated accusation of an all-good God ordering genocide is usually a dodge to avoid facing the innate capacity of humankind to do great evil on its own hook. 

Whether any or all or none of the latest batch of conspiracies hatched and hatching out of the COVID-19 crisis prove to be true, we need to recognize the root of all of it, past, present, and future.  One of the oldest comments on this wretched situation is this one from the Hebrew Bible: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick.  Who can fathom it?” (Yirmayahu/Jeremiah 17:9)

TO BE CONTINUED

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 5- Forgiveness

“Forgive us our debts/trespasses as we forgive those who are indebted to us/have trespassed/sinned against us.  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  

For if you forgive those who sin* [make a mistake, offend] against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 

But if you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”  

(Matthew 6: 12-15)
  • Greek; paraptomata – is the word used. It has a heavy connotation of owing a contracted debt you must pay.  It implies that the only way to get off is for the debt to be forgiven, written off, by the one to whom it is owed.]

Last time we spoke of temptation and what Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness, dogged by the devil and temptation, teach us about ourselves and our own struggle with our own demons.  Just to recap: Jesus’s “demons”, the things the Tempter thought he could most entice him with, were (1) worry about the provision of the most basic things, (2) achieving superstar religious recognition, and (3) achieving worldly power, fame, fortune.

#1 is about the stuff it takes to make life work from day to day.  The Tempter says, “Hey dude, you’re famished, literally dying of hunger.  So if you are the Son of God, then just turn these stones under your feet into bread, and voilà, problem solved!  No big deal; just a little perk for being God’s Son!  Who’s to know, eh?”  But Jesus refused to use his special position, power, and status to gain an advantage and take the easy way, answering, “Man shall not/cannot/must not live by/on bread [the physical stuff our bodies demand] alone, but by every word that comes from God’s/the Creator’s mouth.”

#2 is about achieving superstar religious recognition and status by showing off how spiritual and totally lined up you are with all that people expect from a Messiah – a really spiritual person.  The Tempter smarms, “Hey Jesus, if you’re really God’s Son, the promised Messiah, make a dramatic arrival on the scene by throwing yourself off the summit of the Temple in Jerusalem.  After all, doesn’t on of the prophecies say that you could throw yourself down and God would send his angels to catch you so you wouldn’t even stub your toe?  Imagine the impact!  Everyone would know immediately how great and anointed you are and follow you just like that.  No need to go through all the performance-criteria to convince the big-shots of the Temple and Sanhedrin.  Even the Zealots and hothead fanatics would be convinced!”  Jesus rejected this too, saying, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” 

#3 – Finally, the Tempter plays his last Ace.  “All right then.  If those two things don’t appeal to you, and you really are anointed and appointed by the Holy One to be Israel’s last King and the world’s Saviour, I can spare you a lot of struggle and war and grief and pain and suffering – not only for yourself, but for everyone else too.  See, I actually have control of things down here, and I can hand it all over to you – today if you like!  Remember how Adam and Even listened to me?  When they did, they gave me control.  Even you have to admit that.  And today I’m offering that control to you.  All you have to do is one little thing – not very hard, really.  Just bow to me and worship me, just this once, just for a second or two.  And I’ll just fade into the background and let you have it all, all the power and glory and fame and acclaim.  Just think of it, man!  No wars!  No slaughters!  Just take the throne and I’ll get them all to bow to you.  I’ll do all the finagling and convincing.  How could that not be a good thing, huh?  Even your Father would have to agree this is a great thing – to stop all the wars and selfish slaughters and personal ambition all these human rulers operate by.  Just a bow to me!  Just this once, eh?”  And Jesus answered the Tempter, “Get away from me, Satan.  It is written, “You shall worship only the Lord your God, and Him alone shall you serve.””

Jesus defeated the Tempter in these archetypical allurements.  We all must face the specific manifestations they take in our own lives.  He was modeling for us that there are no shortcuts to a real relationship with the Creator.  He was portraying the character of what we each will face as we travel our roads.  We will struggle and worry about provision; we will seek spiritual wisdom, or at least the answer to the meaning of who we are, what this reality is, what it’s about, and whether there is anything beyond what our material perceptions tell us.  We will be greatly drawn to make that meaning a question of what we can achieve and become noted for in the eyes of the world (kosmos, in Greek).  But what Jesus shows us is that it all turns on knowing our Creator first and foremost, and recognizing our own personhood as a gift, given out of pure love from Him/Her, and for which we are accountable.

As he said more than once, it all boils down to two basic things: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.  And love your neighbour (fellow humans) as you love yourself.”  Loving God is not a thing done in the abstract, but in the world where you live.  It is an inner orientation which flows out by loving the other humans God made in his/her own image, just like He/She made you.  And that also extends to loving the Garden of Planet Earth He/She made you and me to inhabit and look after.  All the Creator’s creatures and creations are, in that way, our “neighbour” too.”

However, we all stumble and fall and make mistakes and act, sometimes, in terribly selfish ways.  But the Creator is concerned enough about that to have sent His/Her special envoy, or Son, to show you the way out, in fact, to be the way out.  The Creator is ready and willing to forgive your mess-ups, even the really bad ones.  But it’s not just about getting a free pass, no matter what you do.  There is a promise that you will be forgiven almost anything, no matter how gross, terrible, atrocious, etc.  Just one exception – something called by Jesus “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” – which we will not deal with here and which is much debated to this day.  No one is quite sure what that is, even since the very earliest days of the Jesus Movement.

There’s this one other thing too, a thing that doesn’t get much attention in our eagerness for total, unconditional forgiveness and love.  The problem is that “unconditional love and forgiveness” cannot be found in the record of what Jesus said.  As we said, it’s not that he, and God, are not willing to completely forgive everything you could ever do wrong, (except that mysterious blasphemy of the Holy Spirit).  But there is one condition attached to my receiving full pardon.  You can see it in the citation that stands at the head of this post.  It’s how we forgive those others who have done us wrong.  After all, they don’t really deserve to be forgiven; you just don’t know how badly they hurt me!

Our human automatic fall-back position is “tit-for-tat”, this-for-that – revenge, in other words.  You did me wrong, so I want justice.  You deserve to be punished and hurt just like, or with the same measure which, you did to me – even more!  (After all, it was me, the most important person who’s ever lived, that you hurt!)  Jesus’s statement is very sobering and powerful: “If you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”  If I won’t forgive, neither will the Creator.  If I forgive, so will He. 

I really wish that verse wasn’t there.  It feels like a sword of Damocles hanging over my head.  Especially if I get to the end of my journey and have stubbornly held tight to my “right to be avenged, to demand justice.”

That’s why Jesus, citing the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly, says things like, “Go and learn what this means; I (the Lord) desire mercy over sacrifice,” and, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities (nasty deeds), then who could stand?”  Who has more right to demand justice than the Creator, whose creation has been violated, raped, pillaged, defaced, wasted, and ruined since humans first rebelled against His/Her offer to live in relationship and harmony with Him/Her?  Who has more right to say to all of us who have mistreated and abused our fellow humans made in the Creator’s image just as much as I and you are, “You can’t be my son or daughter after denying that other people are by the way you treat them and think about them and reduce them to mere animals or things by the way you act towards them?”

But instead, this all-loving, all-merciful Creator comes to us in Person, even as a human Person, and says, “You can be fully forgiven.  Just forgive one another as I forgive you, and accept that if you hold unto me, I’ll see you through into God’s eternal Kingdom.”

Refusing to forgive one another is retaining the posture of rebellion, of making myself judge and jury – in other words, still claiming the prerogative of being my own little god, to make the final decision about right and wrong, good and evil, just like that original lie of the old Tempter.

There we have it!  Full circle!  The Tempter again: “See, honey, you can’t trust God to do what’s right.  You have to judge right and wrong for yourself, because that Creator is just too damn lenient.  You’ll never get justice [vengeance] if you rely on Him/Her.  Take it from me!  I know!  He never gave me the recognition I deserved.”

We are nearing the end of this Lenten season.  Good Friday is just ahead, followed by Easter Sunday.  Good Friday – so ironic!  A “good” day – on which the ultimate innocent and best Person who ever walked the Earth was taken and convicted of. . . .  what exactly was His crime again?  Pilate, his judge, said, “Why?  What evil has he done?  I find nothing deserving a death sentence.”  But then he sent him to be executed anyway – not in a nice, clean, modern “humane” way, but after horrible torture and unspeakable abuse.  And in the most excruciating fashion ever designed by the cruel refinements of human ingenuity to inflict pain and suffering on another human.

But even as he was drawing his last breaths, he asked the Creator for mercy, not justice, on all those who had done all this to him.  “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Incredible!  After being beaten, spat upon, whipped to within an inch of his life, mocked, and abandoned even by his best friends: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

First there were the ordinary people, soldiers and just regular folks – who screamed for his blood, mocked and spat on him, even as they worried about Temptation #1 about how they would meet the needs of the day. 

Then there were all the religious types and claimants of righteousness before God/the Creator.  Temptation #2:  Do you hear them saying, “Hey Lord!!  See how well we keep your laws, do the sacrifices, perform the ceremonies, pray and give a good example of how to live right?  Pretty impressive, eh?  So we really deserve to be in your Kingdom, right?  And look, this wretched poser and quasi-Messiah, we just got rid of him for you.  He would have undermined everything we’ve done for You.  He kept saying that none of our stuff impresses You, that all you want is to love us, have us love you back, and love one another.  But we know it takes a lot more than that!”

And then there was that Roman Governor and those Herodians saying (Temptation #3): “We can’t let a dude like this become too popular.  His whole message will undermine our whole message – telling people that their true King is God, the One God, the Creator, and that he, Jesus, is the one true Anointed and appointed spokesperson and embodiment of the Creator’s actual Person.  He’s telling them that all the power and glory of Empire is an illusion and only leads to oppression and disillusionment.”

So there isGood Friday, and there is Jesus, hanging by his nail-pierced wrists and bleeding out through the slashes and gashes of his head-to-toe, front-and-back flogging, the thorn piercings through his scalp, and the spike holes though his wrists and ankles, his face swollen from the punches and blows of his mocking captors.  Even then he says to his Father from the Roman cross, “Father, forgive them.  For they don’t know what they’re doing.”

So if I want forgiveness, I’d better remember whom I have not forgiven in my self-righteous, petty-god clinging to my “right to justice”.  I’d better consider what Jesus says about God’s forgiveness to me.  I’d better realize that his stipulation has no loop-hole that allows me to claim the right to vengeance.  I’d better put this in front of me like a moral and spiritual GPS: “But if you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Yikes, friends!  Just YIKES!!  It’s time to give it up – that old grudge, that “right” to be right; to “have justice”, seek vengeance.  If you insist on straight justice against that person, you are insisting on it against yourself too.  That’s what it means.  So choose, remembering that Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, mercy triumphs over justice!”  But to receive mercy, you have to extend mercy – real, undeserved, pure grace mercy. I would much rather have God’s total mercy than cling to my (illusionary, after all) right to demand justice.  And the Creator would much rather give you full mercy and pardon than leave you standing naked before the Judgment Seat where the Son will sit when it comes down to the last and ask you, “So why didn’t you forgive?”

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.