17 August 2011

Some Work That Has a (Human) Future

We humans are not the only makers in the world. And that is, I think, an important point to bear in mind when we consider that every single thing we do make once came from something else we did not. But even if it were both lavishly possible, and infinitely profitable, to make over every tree on earth into something else, that doesn't even remind us of a tree, I think it might still be worth our human while to keep at least a few "unmade" trees around. The reason is that every tree we keep alive and around is a door we keep open, whereas every dead tree is a door more or less permanently closed. Any living tree is a door, or at least a window, into an aspect or a facet of the mind of God that we ourselves can never hope to recover, or reproduce, or make reoccur - no, not even in our most munificently-endowed space laboratories. The most spitting-image clone we make, and that of the healthiest tree we choose, is still a tree refracted through our minds, our hearts, our hands. Whereas the most pitiful living tree we chance to stumble on is by comparison, as it were, not stale or hothouse, but fresh from the mind of Another. And not, of course, just any other, but One who knows us both in our innermost entireties, because He is both its and our Maker.

Which brings me to what is, I believe, quite probably one of the biggest questions we Christians are likely to face, both at the present time and in our imminent future. A question on the answer to which may hang not only much of our future understanding of that strange, ongoing work we call the Universe, but the future of our own, human, work too. The question is which of the two is more revelatory - more intimately and confidingly self-disclosing - of not only the mind but the face of God (to say nothing of His heart and soul): that tree, or tortoise, or hare, or human being as they've been made; or any, or all, of these creatures as we humans have made them over.

One might argue, of course, that any answer to that question is necessarily a contingent one. That it depends, among other things, on the degree of complexity or sentience or even selfhood, that is already in the creature we're trying to make over. And also upon our own motives in trying to remake it. There is, for example, that wheat whose "nature" we domesticate for our otherwise unsupportable human population-growth, so that a mere grain becomes the basis for whole new civilizations. And then there is that monkey whose nature we distort for our own amusement or self-exaltation, in the hope of making it behave more like a donkey; which practice of cruelty can become the basis for whole new barbarisms. One might suggest even further, perhaps, that the ultimate quality of our motives depends on that part of us - or that place in us - from which those motives come. Suppose there was a "place," as it were - even in us busy hypermodern humans - a place that was most sensitive to, most reluctant to stifle or adulterate or mutilate, the pre-existing selfhood of another living thing. As distinct from some other, more aggressively proactive part of us, which might be prepared to treat even higher living things - and even "unmade" human beings - as just so much "material," like our unfortunate monkey: as things having scarcely more pre-existing selfhood or consciousness than the clay from which one molds a sculpture. Of the two "places" in us, is there one that might be more truly reflective of the nature - or even the Image - of God? Or at least of that face towards us which He "turns" when He is most pleased with us? As distinct from that other face He sometimes shows us, when He finds us most pleased with ourselves? And might not that former place be the source of all the best in our motives? And even - or especially - of those motives by which we Grace-fully remake, or "cultivate," ourselves and each other? This is a matter which I think we'd best leave open at this point: though it is a point to which we'll be returning shortly.

But for now, let us both repeat and expand on our original question: Which creature, in this present and fallen world, is more consistently revelatory of the nature of God - that is, of our Maker as He most longs and yearns to reveal Himself: the man-revised, or the un-man-revised, human or other living being? And if our answer depends, in turn, upon the kind of revision being made, which revision is the more God-revealing: That change which more nearly respects the original nature and personality of the creature being revised, in an effort to discern in them both some original purpose of God (assuming there is any); or that change which more nearly runs roughshod over both nature and personality, in an effort to bend them ever more rigorously and thoroughly to our own purposes? On the answers to these two questions, plus one other, I believe, there hangs the future of our human work. And particularly whether that work is merely great, or truly good.

Because, it seems to me, all work we do that isn't bad or mediocre is either mostly great, or mostly good. Now great work is quite easy to recognize, besides being extremely if not monotonously common these days. Great work essentially is of the kind that dazzles and overwhelms (and sometimes even disorients) you, spinning you around and tossing you head over heels; it can be taut and gripping as a movie, and exhilarating - or nerve-racking- as a videogame; but in any case it's always of the kind that makes you follow, if not chase frantically, after it. Except that when it's "over," you as often as not find yourself wondering just what has been accomplished, or even generated, other than more work. Indeed, one of the strangest things about great work is that it never seems to stop at all. Which is one of the reasons, I think, why it's much better done by all the hyperglorious devices, and systems, and procedures, and ultimately even persons, that we humans create - and will create - rather than by any of us mere humans ourselves. Just watch, I'm telling you, our future superintelligent androids in the making. Watch them take to that same great work, in which we mere land-creatures are presently all but drowning, as a shark takes to water. I question how far any human creature - including the most aggressively driven and enterprising among us - will relish the prospect of swimming with those kinds of workers. Or owners, for that matter (give it time, give it time).

Good work, on the other hand, can be much harder to recognize (especially as it is often so closely interwoven with the great - and in some cases may be all that makes the latter truly purposeful and fruitful). But in any case its results are also, as a rule, much easier and more pleasant to live with - besides being much more humanly (or at least successfully humanly) proportioned. Good work is the kind that does not run away with or from you. And the reason it keeps pace with the one doing it is because it above all it is faithful. Faithful, first of all, to its purpose; but also both to the doer, and to the one(s) on whose behalf that work is being done. In short, good work hews - or adheres - closely to three things:

1) its aim;

2) the nature and the capacity of the worker;

3) the needs - and not just the wants - of those whom that work is meant to benefit, or bless.

And so it follows that any good work, if it is to remain good, must be very deeply and investedly concerned with the lives of those living creatures for whom, by whom, and (in some cases even) around whom it's being done. Which is to say, good work never quite ceases to remember that those human and other creatures who are its means and its ends are, when all's said and done, still God's creatures, and not its own.

And yet even here, much as good work is pleased - and even enraptured - to see the hand, face and heart of God at work in any living thing, it is never content to rest in that knowledge. Rather does it long to be taken, as it were, by those same hands of God to approach, and by those same eyes of God to see into, and even behind, the face of the creature itself. "But whose face?" you ask. First - and most immediately and urgently - the human face, of course. And yet not in such a way as to exclude the faces of those lesser creatures we may encounter, in whatever degree they may be said to possess personality. After all, you don't love the Person of God better by despising, crushing or mutilating the personalities of any of His creatures, any more than you would love the author Dickens more by hating Mr Micawber. Or, for that matter, the author Collodi by hating Pinocchio.

And so finally, as I mentioned earlier, there remains one other question, on which I believe the future of all our good work depends. It is the question of to what face in any creature are we appealing - or better yet, again, what place in that creature are we visiting - when we attempt and resolve to do good work. For there really are, after all, only two places in any living thing, human or otherwise, that we're seeking chiefly to satisfy in any work that we do. Earlier I tried, in a very tentative and rather poor way, to define these two places more or less as the proactive, and the responsive. But I think now may be the time for some rather more thorough - albeit far more poetic - attempts at definition. First, and most familiar to our everyday lives, there is that place, flawlessly level, smooth-paved, sun-baked, endlessly (and exhaustingly) wide and long, in which any creature is most dependent upon itself, and can easily become most conscious and proud of that self-dependence. And then there is that other place, cool, shaded, rippling-streamed, secret as the soul, in which that same creature is most needful -  indeed most haunted and pursued and possessed by the memory - of its Maker. My point is that all meaningful and rewarding work, even when it's being paid for, is an attempt to satisfy some creature's want however shallow, or some creature's need however deep. And of course, in any living being - in any of us - the most pressing and immediate of things crying to be gratified are normally also the most outward. But now suppose that the whole Key to satisfying rightly even the most surface of our wants were found to lie ever further and deeper inward. How then could we know we'd met even our shallowest wants intelligently and wisely -  apart, I mean, from some consideration also of our deepest needs? How could we be sure we'd even begun to satisfy that broad-paved, sun-beaten, most starkly and drily "independent" place in any creature? Until, that is, we'd made at least some attempt to enter into that other, most dependent place of all, dark and cool as that first evening in the Garden when the Lord God walked abroad and Man hid himself, because he knew he was naked, and was afraid?

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