“The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.”
Might I paraphrase a quote from a dear old film that’s none the worse for age and wear? The original Lost Horizon (1937) may not be to everybody’s most fashionably hypermodern tastes. It’s stiff and hokey in places, though delightfully homely in others. Though I have to admit, the qualities called to mind by that last adjective – basic human warmth, and an extraordinary patience in the teeth of even our worst kinds of impatience – are hardly the virtues most likely to commend the film to some of our more ideologically purpose-driven souls today. Thank God He hasn’t appointed our generation to be the final arbiters of all wisdom. And as regards homeliness, who’s to say that the truths we first learned at home – at the beginning, so to speak – may not also be the truths we’ll most need at the end?
In any case, one of the things that most fascinates me about the film is a certain line it contains, that I believe is true of all of us, and no less true today than when our first parents first sinned. Somewhere near the climax of the story, Ronald Coleman’s character, Conway, makes a very interesting observation about a certain much-older-than-she-looks young “local” woman, the Russian-born Maria. Here is a “girl” who has no realistic idea how long she has been living in the - to all appearances - mysteriously youth- preserving confines of Shangri-La. For all we know, as the movie unfolds, it may be well over a century. All we can be sure of is that it seems to her like an eternity. And yet, like any healthy, vigorous young person, she more or less assumes she’s got at least one or two more eternities to go. As Conway reflects on the prospect of her leaving forever the lengthiest “home” she’s ever known, he insists (to his differently-opinioned brother) that “she is a fragile thing, who needs to live in a place where fragile things are loved.”
True enough about Maria, one may safely suppose. After all, she’s a movie creature, and must needs live and die on the movie’s terms. But what about us real-life creators, as we prepare confidently to extend and perfect our human longevity into a superhumanly indeterminate future? And in particular, what about those commandingly efficient souls among us who, as all markets know and proclaim, shall alone be the ones most fit to lead and prod us into this bold new world?* At first glance Conway’s cautionary note may not seem to apply to us at all. And certainly not to the “best” and most enterprising of us. And even if we were all as fragile as Maria, it would not exactly be the easiest thing about us to detect.
*Or else leave us behind in the old one?
It so happens that we humans have this most brutally-ingrained mental habit, as old and as foolish as Creation’s first murderer, of worshiping strength and despising weakness. And all in the apparent belief that it will make the world a better place. Or in any event a more interesting and challenging place. But while this habit may speak volumes about the kind of creators – or even the kind of gods – we’d all like to be, it doesn’t say beans about the sort of creatures we really are. Nowadays, perhaps under the influence of more recent and very different schools of film-making – well, we may not exactly equate strength with badness. But I think as often as not we find ourselves assuming that the two are at least directly proportionate: the badder we are, the stronger we are. Or even, the stronger we want to be, the badder we must become? And much of our experience of “life” may, at least for a time, seem to corroborate this assumption. But what about those strengths of ours, so admired and applauded by the “prosperous” world, that only work to hide our weaknesses from us, until such a day as we find out – much, much too late – how weak we really were? And what about those strong, sturdy vices we cultivate, again so conducive to the world’s “prosperity,” that only serve to divert and distract us from the good we might have been, until at length we stand – again, much too late for the doing of any good – before the throne of Absolute Goodness?
The truth is that nobody is ever either as bad, or as strong, as we think they are. Or even as bad or as strong as they themselves would like to be. At least not in this life. No, the consummate “perfection” of evil in any human soul must wait for its fulfillment in another life, in a very different kind of existence, which I pray none of us may ever see or attain.
Meanwhile, back in this present life, what sort of creatures are we? We are, it seems to me, the sort of creatures who have been most graciously and generously limited by God in this matter of how bad or how strong we can be. And what limits us is this precious, abundant thing we have already been made, as distinct from the rather meager and less-than-precious things we try or succeed in making ourselves. And the more the distinction between these two has become apparent to me, the more thoroughly I’m persuaded of two other things. The more I am convinced that we humans are:
(1) much less morally different from each other – much less “better” or “worse” – than we think we are; and
(2) we are much more fragile than even the strongest and wisest of us could ever humanly conceive.
So fragile, in fact, that it’s precisely when we strive most proudly and manfully, as it were, to transgress or transcend these God-inwoven limitations that we do the most harm. It is then that we go the furthest in breaking and shattering, not only other people – and them often irreparably, so far as their goodness and usefulness in this life is concerned – but our own best selves too. Of course, there is nothing we break that God cannot put back together. But that’s another, much broader and deeper story.
In the first place, I have no doubt the differences separating the best from the worst of us aren’t nearly so great in God’s sight as they are in ours. Just think about it. God being all that He is, and all that He does, how could it be otherwise? Our Maker is not “of a piece” with the best of us, nor is He three or four grades above the best. Rather is He outside the grading-scale altogether, being both its inventor, its paymaster, and the one who supplies the health and strength by which the laborers work. On top of it all, every so often He’s been known to revise that scale, in sometimes the most drastic, unexpected, and even disconcerting ways. Only our Maker could make a sage out of a beggar, or a dunce out of a CEO. And I think that means our God is such, in effect, that even today’s most esteemed and accoladed CEOs would be unwise to boast in His presence, or to presume even a direct lineage or kinship however remote. And I've been told more or less the same holds true of the most perfect and righteous Pharisees. Or even our own most brilliant and self-dependent entrepreneurs.
“Not nearly so great in God’s sight.” There remains of course the question of our own sight, which these days – at least in the realm of economics (if not politics) – often appears to be all we’ve got to go on. But even there, where the human moral divide may seem at times a yawning chasm, surely the gap at its worst has never been anything that Divine grace, humanly embodied, cannot bridge? Or that Divine love, humanly expressed, cannot close? Indeed I don’t see how we can believe anything else, and not also believe that God died a human death - and passed on to us a Divinely-human Life - for nothing.
In the second place, the “strongest” of us are not so very different from that decades-long “prisoner” of Shangri-la, Maria – the fragile rebel whose dreams and ambitions for a better life (not unlike Satan’s?) so vastly exceeded both her wisdom about life, and her knowledge of herself and her origins. And who in consequence began her journey out, across the Himalayas, with the physical constitution of a twenty-year-old, and ended it with the corpse of a centenarian. Like Maria we are all fragile things, who need to live in a place where fragile things are loved – and not despised. Indeed, how else, if not by means of this Place and this Love, is our fragility ever to be made strong? or our strength ever to be made holy and pure? But if we keep on mocking and deriding, and being ashamed of and disgusted with, our fragility – both our own and each other’s – if we continue to press on down this road of self-attenuation, of self-mutilation that we call Power and Growth and Progress, then I’ll tell you one thing of which I’m certain. We shall not only continue to eviscerate our hope of ever finding such a place in the world to come, but we shall destroy, root and branch and seed and soil, all vestiges of such a place in our present universe as well. And then, having run out of worlds to conquer and “be strong” in, where shall we go?