30 October 2009

Missing the Undercurrent

A normally busy metropolitan interstate at the peak of rush hour is a place in which there are many things going on. But it is probably not the best place in which to discern the rather less obvious virtues and talents of your fellow-drivers.

In the same way, I imagine there are many people in this world who seem slow and stupid, for no other reason than because their gifts, talents, insights lie so much farther beneath the Surface - that heavy, dull, thudding, unresting, unrelenting interstate of life! - than most of us could ever fathom with even the best of human teachers. Or perhaps it is because these individuals' native wisdom (such as it may or may not be) is of a more diffuse and subtle, quietly sifting nature than is detectible by the rather heavier senses of the rest of us. Sometimes quiet things need Quiet in order to be raised - like the unassuming guest called unexpectedly to take her place at the Table's head - to their right pitch, and true volume. In this present wise Age a hard, callous, caustic disposition can often seem not only "practical" and necessary, but overwhelmingly impressive and even admirable. But how much does our admiration blind and deafen - and deaden - us to!

* * * * *

"You're absolutely ruthless, aren't you?" observes the sharp, glaring-bright woman in the Irish TV sitcom whose name I forget. "I like that in a man."

And then I consider what a happier, more discerning, more interesting place this world would be, if more people didn't.

24 October 2009

The Spawn II, III, IV etc

This Thing - what do you suppose it is? What is this most virtuously vicious, hateful, hideous thing that has entwined itself in the bowels, and now presumes to arrogate to itself the very soul, of modern Sunni Islam?

Well, if to know what a thing is, first and foremost, is to know where it came from, then I'd be lying if I told you I knew. What I will tell you, however, is something of which I'm all but certain. This Thing, whatever it is, did not get to where it is today all by itself. And while I can claim no expertise in the field of Islam's ancient and medieval varieties, I'm aware of nothing in the religion's history that offers any exact parallels to this latest modern craze, this if-necessary-all-must-die-so-that-God-may-live obsession. The closest I can get to it - maybe - is that particular mindset, not unknown during the Cold War, which underlay the phrase "Better dead than Red."

Nor do I know the whole story of how Saudi Arabia became the febrile spawning-ground for such an apocalyptic hatred, not only of all things Communist, but of most things Western, human, kindly, decent, etc. But I do know of a country which for at least three decades now has enjoyed, through its Saudi allies, a warm and many-faceted relationship with Wahhabi Islam. Of course one can't be sure the US was exactly present at the conception of this other, later, and to all appearances thoroughly modern monster known as Islamofascism. But I have no doubt America was both present and participant in the baby's delivery.

As I recall, the immediate pretext for the 1980s radicalization of Afghan Islam was the de-stabilization of the Soviet bloc; the long-term goal was the destruction of Russian Communism. The Soviets were godless, so presumably the Saudis and Pakis who hated them were proportionately godly. In any case, by now it must be clear religion isn't everything. On the contrary, we Yanks are of all fools the most miserable if we presume that Totalitarianism is clumsier today at wielding the sword of religion than it was 50 years ago brandishing the knife of atheism. There is nothing inherently anti-religious about the Totalitarian Beast. Think about it: If you truly believe it is not History or Progress or Freedom, but God Himself who is commanding you to kill or control somebody, does that make your coercive act thereby harder to execute, or easier? And will you do it with a worse conscience, or a better one?

But we Americans are twice-shamed fools if we suppose this Thing that crawled out of the AfPak border madrassas has no chance of landing on other religions' doorsteps - let alone slithering all the way inside. Remember, like any edition of Monopoly, Holy War in the Name of Global Dictatorship is a game not just for two, but three, four, maybe even five or six players. Sooner or later every major religion may want to get in on the stakes. And where will it all end, given the present direction and speed of our advance? Well, my own best hunch is that, by the time the smoke clears, the holy warriors will have got the Global Dictatorship part of it right. Whether it will be the result they all intended is another matter; though by then I doubt if it will matter what any of us intended. By then, I more than suspect, religious freedom as we presently know it will be a quaint piece of history. Mind you, I don't believe humankind will be by any means finished with religion per se; I only suggest that in the interests of global peace it may be deemed necessary to confine tolerance to just one form and object of worship, and one only. As to which lucky religion will draw the winning number I don't so much as care to speculate, because frankly (cf. Daniel 11: 37-38) I don't even think it exists yet.

23 October 2009

A Lowly Perfection

"Why are you standing here idle all day?"

So inquires the owner of the vineyard - Matthew 20: 6-7 - of the famous 11th-hour workers (whom very shortly he is going to pay the exact same wage as his full-timers). And their reply?

"Because no one has hired us."

I can't say I've had much experience of Nature, or Nature's God. But how like the God of the Bible is that vineyard-owner! How like One who is always making a big deal out of absolutely nothing. How annoyingly like Him, to take what is (based on all available evidence of past performance) hopelessly inert and unusable and unemployable, and not only glorify it needlessly, but make it actually useful, perhaps even - for its brief span of time - integral(?), to the whole operation.

But then every span of time is brief relative to the whole Operation; every beginning is a tiny rumor or whisper of shoreline relative to the Ocean of Time surging behind it. And no one, to my knowledge, has yet measured that ocean, either in depth or in surface area. But now suppose evolution should prove to be a Divine no less than a human truth. What late-comers to the vineyard will that make of us proud, wage-sensitive, indignant humans! Imagine a bunch of 10+ hour workers haggling over their time-cards with a Worker who has put in, at last count, something like eleven hundred quadrillion hours.

And yet what strange, to all appearances largely unproductive work He has been about. Think of all those megabillions of years of Universe in which not much of anything seemed to be happening - or happening so slowly that the pageant of Life by comparison seems no bigger than a single footnote in the Oxford English Dictionary. Again, how like this Biblical God - and how subtle, and humble, of Him - to make Mount Everests out of molehills. How like this God, to take the most unpromising, featureless, futureless rudiments of what we so patronizingly call "Nature," and from out of them, coax results of such exquisite, tapestried, unimaginable promise as even the creature Man is still known to be on occasion. It all makes no sense. One might as well make something from nothing; a keen, battle-hardened soldier out of a bumpkin who laps up stream-water like a horse from a trough; a missionary out of a streetwalker; a martyr from a tax-collector. Why would any self-respecting deity want to make himself look so ridiculous? Besides taking so bloody long getting on with it?

Then again, if we're going to say we believe God (and not just in Him, whatever that means), then perhaps we ought to consider the possibility, not only that He knows what He does, but that - even then - He knew what He was doing. No doubt He had His reasons. Just this once, do you suppose we might give Him the benefit of a doubt? Maybe, after all, there is nothing in "Nature" so idle, so adrift, so accidental, that it cannot be made purposeful. And maybe there is nothing truly natural - even in us, or in any living thing - that is so malfunctioning, nothing so genetically deranged and deformed and disfigured, that it cannot at some eleventh hour be made perfect. Though not necessarily by us humans, just yet. Or at least, not in our present state of derangement.

19 October 2009

The evil whose name we dare not speak

As I never tire of repeating, in today's Globally Enlightened World there is no shortage of fierce verbal political enmities. Really, it almost strains the imagination to think they could get any fiercer without guns going off. Yet somehow, in the past year or two, this same globe appears to have taken yet another of its astoundingly nimble turns, if not for the worse, then for the more incredible.

What seems to have emerged is two distinct, completely non-overlapping classes of political opponent. In other words, there are now two rigidly separate categories of people whom you and I politically don't like and don't trust. There is that first and more familiarly contemptible kind, towards whom no suspicion is too unfounded, no accusation too improbable, no epithet too extreme or exaggerated, no verbal weapon too damning, either in this life or in the next. No, nowadays we don't weigh our words any too carefully around our domestic political enemies - mainly (I suspect) because, when you get right down to it, we're really not all that afraid of what these folks might do to us. And then there's that other class of opponent, around whom we tiptoe with the utmost verbal delicacy, because basically we're more or less - well - terrified. And so it is that, eight years on, an ideology which manages to clothe the most hellish atrocities in the language of holiness and God goes tripping along its merry global way. And for the most part - notwithstanding all our fancy weapons and wars and espionages - nobody so much as says "Boo!" to it.

Then again, even supposing anyone had the courage to mutter that one syllable, when would we Americans find the time? Most of us are already too busy screaming "Bigot!" and "Blasphemer!" at each other.

Funny, though. I don't remember anyone being afraid to call Communism evil. At least not the Russian variety . . .

08 October 2009

Some Brisk Words for Busy Christians

There's just no mistaking it sometimes. There are times, I sincerely believe, when God desires a radical, wholesale, thoroughgoing change in the life of a particular human being other than you or me. And sometimes it is equally plain that God intends you to be the means or instrument of that change. And then there are other times when you're equally mistaken - whether as to the nature or degree of the change God intends, or in your notion that you are be its instrument.

We all make mistakes, even when we're absolutely right about something. Indeed, it is precisely then that the false impregnability of our position often leads us into the most grievous mistakes. That is why it is of the utmost importance, whenever you believe you're being called to be the means of massive change in somebody's life, that you see much more than the total wrongness of that individual. Much more important is that you try, and make up your mind, to see as much of the totality of that individual as God's Spirit permits. This is doubly true when your aim is to dislodge some entrenched and very likely deluded set of opinions. I don't care if the person for whom you're praying has just joined the Revolutionary Communist Party - or al Qaeda. There are always going to be more aspects of anyone than even you can possibly see at any one time. And possibly in any one lifetime. All the more reason for you to be open to, and willing to draw upon, any or all of these less visible or prominent aspects. And particularly if you plan to marshall for this glorious Project of Change not just your own best energies, but his or hers. In sum, if you want to do your part in making the whole man (or woman) happy, then you must make your appeal to the whole of him - and especially those parts of him that are most unhappy, and in all likelihood no less oppressed and miserable (under the yoke of his entrenched position) than you or I would be if we had to live with him.

Notice just now how I stressed the "totality of that individual as God's Spirit permits." But I'd like you to read that last proviso more as a window to see through than as a wall to be climbed over. For there is no room or suite of rooms in the entire house to which God's Spirit will not give you entry, provided you're willing to love. It is only as you love that you're able to see, as sympathetically and transparently as any human can - not just what it is to pray for, or preach to, or proselytize, or convert, or even give your life for - but what it is to be that creature, in all its folly and misery, in all its hope and glory. Nor need you worry how tightly a given door is bolted. There is no door into any human creature which Love cannot, eventually, open; no room into whose furthest recesses Love does not have abundant light to see, and see accurately. And, as often as not, even kindly.

Indeed there is no telling how many slumbering or otherwise buried rooms within each of us Love cannot resuscitate. And the more the better, too, for all concerned. After all, if your supreme prayer for another is not only that she may make herself do God's will, but that she may make herself happy in the doing of it, then you're going to need all the allies you can get. Duty is necessary, but unseasoned by joy how quickly it becomes drudgery! How much better, if the one who is your "prayer project" can truly say with the Psalmist, not just "I am obliged . . . ," or even "I am determined . . . ," but also

"I delight to do thy will, O God:
Yea, they law is within my heart."

How much better, if the long-awaited change you see emerging isn't just the one you wanted right along, but one that he or she likes too.

Bless the (Bad) Beasts and the Children

There must be few things more nauseating than to watch somebody - be it man or beast - getting way too much of something they really didn't need in the first place. Especially when the person administering the dose, the gift or the favor happens to think it is exactly what is needed, whether the recipient agrees with him or not.

I'm reminded of a saying ascribed to the American comedian and actor W C Fields:
"Any man who hates dogs and children can't be all bad."
I don't recall what my reaction was when I first heard it, but I imagine it must have been something not too far down the road from horror.

But then I look at this wondrous, breath-taking, even suffocating global Age of ours. And I see how wisely we post-moderns have come to love our dogs and our children, and with what exquisite discernment of their true needs and natures and characters we have brought them up in the ways that they should go. And I begin to see how the not-all-bad man, sick to death of all this great gushing "love," might even - on occasion - feel more than a little tempted towards the opposite sentiment.

Surpassing the Pharisees

I'm not saying America's on the brink of an ideological civil war (although you couldn't prove it from the testimonies of our national unity-loving political media). But there does seem to be in this country a large and growing number of people, of nearly every persuasion, who think they're better than other Americans because of the political opinions they hold. Now I find this thought more than a little disturbing, if not tragic - especially when you consider the large and possibly growing numbers of people beyond our borders who seem abundantly prepared to destroy - or perhaps I should say sacrifice? - all of us, and for reasons that lie quite outside any familiar spectrum of American political and religious views. In short: if Now is not a good time to get a more proportionate view of of our domestic differences, then When?

But even if you don't consider apocalyptic Islamism the deadliest of threats to human life everywhere, I still think you have good reason to be disturbed by our present levels of domestic contempt. Think of it - to despise, or in some cases even hate, someone else, on account of a mere opinion! I could sympathize much better if the provocation had been some sick, twisted ideal, for which our opponent was prepared to kill and destroy and even die himself. Some Cause for which he was sure he'd go straight to Heaven (in which case, really, who else would want to go?) But of itself an opinion is such a thin, filmy, transitory substance on which to base and judge your superiority over someone else. Especially nowadays, when the current battle lines of opinion have been mostly pre-drawn for us little ones, and by media as public-spirited, as broadly patriotic, and as free from all taint of sordid motive as Fox and MSNBC.

In any case, even the most well-grounded, firmly-held set of opinions is seldom more than an infinitesimal pinprick of a point, perched uneasily atop that most intricately-vaulted and -corridored pyramid we call a human being. In other words, there are more things in human nature than are dreamt of in anyone's philosophy. Even, I am told, beautiful, delightful, unimaginable things. Things for which, blessedly, we have an archaeological Guide more reliable than even Hamlet, or Hamlet's author. And One who is, besides, an immeasurably more interesting writer than either Karl Marx or Ayn Rand.

On the other hand, maybe we should be grateful our various and conflicting claims to superiority stand on ground as flimsy as a political opinion. What if we had more solid reasons for looking down on the next guy? Perceived superiority is always a dangerous thing to take too seriously, whether in ourselves or in others: and all the more dangerous when the perception is accurate. For all we know, the Pharisees may have boasted innumerable moral and spiritual advantages - and I mean genuine advantages - over their Sadducee rivals. But I don't notice it helped them much when there arose a Moral Test for which even they were unprepared.

05 October 2009

Exiting Kabul: A Popeye'd Perspective

"Which way (out of) Afghanistan?"

Or so runs my paraphrase of a question that seems to be on a growing number of official lips these days. Which proves - to me anyway - that you can do just about anything reasonable with a conclusion except jump to it. Oh, no doubt it would be a mere nothing at all to get out of Afghanistan, compared to the really big danger - er, challenge - that lies in wait for us. For if the past 20 years have taught us anything, surely it is the nature of the Ultimate Problem: How to get away from Afghanistan. Apparently this tortured country has become the instability that keeps on bleeding . . . and infecting . . .

On the other hand, I suppose nothing would be more tempting than to conclude that, in proportion as we Americans have been wrong about their country, in the same degree the Taliban have been right. And certainly one does have to give them credit for being tenacious, resilient little bastards. I imagine there's very little they don't understand about (their region of) Afghanistan. Indeed they may have a magical finger on the pulse of the country as a whole - except for that percentage of its people who'd be driven stark raving miserable under their holy rule. A percentage that is all but sure to grow exponentially once Sacred Victory has been achieved. Really, have these guys learned nothing from 1970s Cambodia?

And does that ever bring me back. Phnom Penh May 1975. The Khmer Rouge had just spent the previous 4 years learning in spades what clumsy, heavy-handed, half-hearted occupiers we Yanks were. And then their own proudly home-grown version of earthly hell broke loose. Funny how the Khmer Rouge never managed to turn their same, US-oppression-exposing mirror back on themselves. If only they'd bothered to learn half as much about their own people - not to mention their people's neighbors (e.g., Communist Vietnam) - as they'd obviously come to learn about us. In the same way, I suspect the Taliban know us Americans, along with our proverbial weaknesses, follies and stupidities, far better than they know their own people. I want to say these new poster-hero "we-beat-the-Americans" guerrillas: "You maniacs just have to live in the country you so delight in tormenting. The rest of us have the unenviable job of having to live with it. And worst of all, never knowing when we may quite literally have to go back in - again."

So naturally - no matter how well or badly things turn out - any American thinking with all her brain is going to continue to keep a respectfully (as distinct from contemptuously) vigilant eye on Afghanistan. She knows how quickly the misery of people on the ground can become the misery-and-horror of people in distant skyscrapers. She understands how easy it is to disrupt locally before hammering globally. Of course one may still question whether the US should be in AfPak for a long military haul. And I'm sure those who do have a number of valid concerns. But before we conclude anything rash, we Yanks would do well to recall the example of a cartoon hero from a more edifying period of our history - a hero who, if I remember correctly, detested bullies of all stripes, no matter how locally-grown or righteously-inspired they might fancy themselves. What was it Popeye often said, from out of the thick of battle with his worst enemies? Something like "I can take it if you can"?

Getting the Things right

Who says Human Progress is an illusion? Personally the only progress among humans I've ever found to be remotely illusory is the moral and spiritual kind. In other words, the more things change, the more we remain the same. But what of it? Who on earth is going to care whether you or I become saints? Who's going to remember you or me a thousand years from now anyway? Aha. So then it's really not we the makers, but the things we make - the systems and empires, the gadgets and monuments and citadels - that count. Right?