19 July 2011

Beyond the House of Pain

Isn't it funny, how often we humans think of the visible world not just as our dominion, but as our preserve, our monopoly, our source of raw materials and field of free-ranging exploitation? And yet - no less do we feel exploited and victimized by it(!): as if we ourselves were somehow cut from a finer cloth, and had been exiled to this gross material realm as to some incomprehensibly strange place, alien and repugnant to our pure spirits, and hostile to our spiritual growth and progress. But what is it precisely we feel exiled from? Is the "enemy" in this case merely a sum total of all the other, subhuman creatures, who've been all along secretly ganging up on us, and now threaten to entangle us pure humans in a materiality that promises only the further suffocation and devouring of our souls? Is this thing, this "world" we find so alienating and corrupting, merely outside of us - and so by implication a thing more comfortably inherent in, or "natural to," subhuman creatures? Or is it something in whose creation - in whose producing and expediting - we humans have been at least partially instrumental? And even something that, in its turn, has made this once very differently configured earth an exile and a prison not just for "old Adam," as it were, but for each and every other creature of the Garden?

I'll tell you what I think. Inside every living creature, I believe, there is that which belongs to this World and is more or less at home in it, and revels in that fact (or thinks it does, or pretends and parades in front of others that it does). Inside every living creature - to whatever degree it is able to will and do anything - there is that which delimits and determines and defines, and resolves and plans and calculates, and drives and executes and intimidates, and ultimately terrorizes and, yes, sometimes even kills. And there is that in it which stops dead in its tracks, and is quiet, and remembers, and ruminates. And yearns. And these two aspects of the same creature are very, very different things. And while no doubt some measure of the first aspect is necessary to that creature's survival in this present order of existence, it is the liberation, if you will, of the second aspect that is most necessary to its rebirth in the world to come. Or - perhaps - even to its carving-out of some (large or small) oasis of peace in this one?

Now I can imagine how improbable and bizarre all this must sound to modern rationalistic ears. What I can't imagine is why it should in the least strange or bizarre to Christian ones. Especially if our Christ is indeed a prince of peace, and if the Grace He sheds abroad truly builds on the Nature He has made. If that is so, then surely somewhere in the nature of the fiercest predator, or of the busiest beaver, there must be something that desires rest and peace, no less than it delights in work and war. Otherwise, it seems to me, we make our Messiah into little more than a celestial Dr Moreau, and His Kingdom scarcely better than a heaven-descended House of Pain, in which not only our creaturely animality, but all our species' native dispositions towards aggression and strife must be tortured out of us.

But if that is so, how do we explain the many passages throughout Scripture - both Hebrew and Greek - that testify of seemingly the whole subhuman creation eagerly awaiting its liberation at the hands of One who is to come? Are these lions and sharks and scorpions naive or what? Can't they see how their "basic natures" are going to be brutally suppressed? That

"they shall neither hurt nor destroy in ALL my holy mountain"?

Or is there - just maybe - something in the nature of lion, no less than of lamb, that hungrily awaits such deliverance as only a Prince of Peace can give?

15 July 2011

When Slave Becomes Master

Once upon a time we were told, on very good authority (Genesis 11:6), that there's no limit to what we human creatures can accomplish when we are of a unified mind and purpose. Neither have we been exactly wanting in diligence since then, in the seeking out, as Ecclesiastes 7:29 puts it, of many inventions. What is unclear to me is the cumulative moral result of all these myriad inventions. Has their net effect so far been such as to make us more pleasing to our Maker, less pleasing, or about the same as when we started? And so, as is nearly always the case with me, I have a question for the present Age.

When, from out of our various automations and automatons, we succeed in creating gods of our own, gods eventually so vast, that we mere men shall be able neither to encompass them, nor to enter into every part of them, nor to heal nor judge nor save them - when we invent gods so greatly superior to and superseding of ourselves, and yet bearing so much the imprint of our fallen selves in everything they think and do, that there'll be hardly a sentence we start that they won't be eager to finish (and rolling their eyes as they do so) - in that event I can't help but wonder: Will these gods, who came from us, be anything like the one we came from? Will these gods we make be anywhere near as merciful and patient, as tender and humble and exquisitely self-identifying with our poor human clay, as the God who made us?

Do you suppose it was mere rhetoric, when our Lord warned His servants that not one of them could ever be greater than his Master? Or did He - just possibly - have in mind another, wholly unexpected meaning than the one we most commonly assign to the word "greatness"?

10 July 2011

All the Confidence of the World

Civilizations, it seems to me, may go on for centuries and even millennia before they finally die or peter out. But nations' powers and pre-eminences can come and go with astounding rapidity. Including those nations whose influence seems endlessly popular or fashionable, or capable of infinite self-renewal. Whatever may be the future of American civilization, there remains yet, I think, one big sticking problem with American power in the post-Cold War era. On the one hand, we've grown far too full of all the glorious things we've accomplished - particularly in the realms of economics, and technology, and just plain getting-stuff-done. On the other hand, we've grown far too empty of any sense of how indebted we are, for whatever good there is in those accomplishments, to anyone or anything either before, or besides, or even beyond ourselves.

In short, we've grown royally stuck on ourselves over the past 20-odd years. And even where the original causes and inducements for it are long gone, conceitedness is a hard frame of mind to get unstuck from. Amazing, too, how it can filter down imperceptibly into every tissue and pore of a society, and into all manner and kind of individual and community (rap, anyone?), even as there's less and less of real accomplishment to justify it in one's country or civilization as a whole. And frankly I fear that, at the rate we're going, this attitude may be the ruin of our American country, even as it seems - for now - to have extended the "relevance" and popularity of our American civilization. In any case, isn't history full of sideliners who are happy to admire and applaud your bravado - until, that is, such a time as the whole charade blows up irrevocably in your face?

I mean all this particularly, though not exclusively, in light of a fast-ascendant China. What a miserable thing it is to have seemingly nothing with which to reply to a competitor's mounting arrogance. Other than more of your own, I mean. Especially when your own has likely played no small part in provoking or fueling your competitor's worst arrogance in the first place. But even with no overconfident mainland China to contend with, I think it still would have been only a very short time before we'd found ourselves stuck between inevitable rock and hard place. Nor is it a matter of us Yanks being vainer or more vicious than other folks. It simply stands both to reason and to human nature as we know it: Whether you're a civilization, a country, a company or an individual - the more you think you have to be proud of, and the less you think you need to be grateful for, the more brutally disregarding you're apt to become of the needs of others. And then eventually - as this climate of brutal mutual disregard spreads - how much more wary, and distrustful, and pre-emptive shall we all need to become, of each other?

An Immor(t)al Future

We all know what it's like to take somebody for granted. But what will happen, do you think, when we start living so long, that that nasty habit becomes virtually hard-wired into the routine social life of the species?

Do you know what is the all-time worst way to treat those closest to you (or even Facebook-close)? Like they're never going to die.

05 July 2011

The Most Vicious Circle

“America is such a young country.”


Do you mean we’re younger than Canada? Younger than Australia, or New Zealand, or even Argentina? Will somebody please tell me what on earth that phrase - which I must have heard times past counting over the course of my life - is supposed to mean?

I suppose it might mean there’s no nation on earth with greater powers of self-renewal and self-reinvention. Or no nation more blithely dismissive, if not brutally devouring, of its own Past (to say nothing of other countries’). Or is it meant more as an excuse for why so often we Yanks not only refuse to learn from, but even more often despise, the lessons of our Past? I know, I know, this time (read bubble) is different.

Anyhow, so much for our perennial vices. As for the youth(fulness) of the Present American Age, ah, now there’s a subject about which, for some reason, I feel far less mystified. In fact I'd swear we’re living in one of the great Cult-of-Youth ages. A revolutionary youth cult so hands-on, so business-driven and corporately-mandated, I can imagine it stirring the capitalism-and-America envy of Chairman Mao himself, at the height of his Cultural Revolution. Then again, why shouldn't we glorify and heroicize youth(ful management)? Hasn't our population - not to mention China's - been getting younger all the time?

Indeed, today we dream as never before of a (medically- and technically-perfected) Fountain of Youth. And so, as if a voice spoke from heaven, there goes out unto the firmament the global command:

"Let nothing and no one ever be old."

At least in spirit. But in that case I wonder, how does anyone ever really grow up? Surely that's one of the more unforeseenly unpleasant side-effects of never growing old - that there may be some life-phases we never quite grow out of? Imagine - no matter how aged you may become physically, or jaded morally - imagine never outgrowing the wisdom and maturity of your 18-year-old self. Or of your 28- (or even your 38-) year-old self.

That is the problem with our American youth today: It starts out much too early (who needs childhood anyhow?) and finishes way, way too late.