All posts by larkington

A Rainbow Connection, Darkly

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 Caspar David Friedrich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve heard the proposition that evil is nothing but the complete absence of good. We Christians especially seem to like this way of thinking about where the bad in the world might have come from. It’s a tidy solution to the conundrum of whether or not God created evil (if God created everything) and whether God can really be good if He did create evil. If evil is just a void, we don’t have to worry about where it came from; it came from nowhere.

I don’t think this solution is true, though. My life has been safe and sheltered, so my encounters with anything I’d characterize as real evil have been few and brief, but whenever I’ve had that contact, I’ve been left with the indelible impression that what I’d encountered was not just an empty space. It had form and substance. Flavor and color even, strangely.

I suppose it’s conceivable that evil started out as an empty space, but if that was ever the case, something seems to have shown up to fill it.

I don’t know very much about the theology of evil and its myriad possible sources (and it sounds like a terrible topic to explore, so I’m not likely to in the near future), but I’ve come to think of humans as a series of tubes. We either let God & goodness or evil come through us into the world. (Or possibly, I guess, we can try to just stuff ourselves up and not serve any function at all.) This is probably not how the cosmos works, but I find it useful shorthand to explain to myself the mess the world is in and my role in it. It gives me a handhold to grip. It means that even if we’re helpless to single-handedly heal the tragedy we find ourselves witnesses and parties to, there is still a direction we can move toward.

It means that we can let light in.

I find it easy to get bogged down in the negativity of my religion in this place and time. We’ve let the culture wars push us into a position where we base our corporate identity in opposition, an innately negative place to be. I’m not the only Christian to voice concern that we’ve become publicly defined by what we’re against, a list that too often—at least at face value—includes help for the poor, mercy for the prisoner, refuge for the alien, and justice for the oppressed. As much as I’d like to believe that the most outrageous of these oppositional stances are the unnuanced exaggerations of a vocal minority, I’m sore from hearing Christians in my own circle say heartless things without reservation or regret about people we supposedly believe God made and loves AS MUCH as us. In this climate, it’s difficult for me to hold the image of God as loving Father in my mind. The more loudly I hear my coreligionists declare that people deserve what they get, the harder it is to believe that we serve the same God that Jesus described in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

The harder it gets to believe that God is good.

This is funny because God being good is the whole point of Christianity. According to John, the message of Jesus was that, “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” You know, all that sight-to-the-blind and release-for-the-captives stuff. Rebirth from death into incorruptibility. The kingdom of God among us. Burdens lifted. Sins forgiven. Freedom. Light that the darkness doesn’t overcome. All that outrageous, impractical stuff that tends to get spiritualized, qualified, symbolified, or that-was-then-ed out of the picture of how we live and think about ourselves and others. The Sunrise from on high is a little too bright, cuts too sharply. We tend to prefer to act as conduits of a more manageable and rational half-light.

Grace, after all, has never been the pragmatic approach to behavior modification.

The temptation for those of us who want something more than this dimmer-switch modification of the Gospel is to form a double negative identity around being against the Christians who are against these other things. But this amounts to trying to increase the light by stopping ourselves from letting in half-light, and that isn’t the same as opening ourselves up to let the true light flow freely. And, of course, if the problem is that what others see as light seems to us more like darkness, we should know better than to try this approach. Everyone knows you can’t get rid of darkness by blocking it out. You have to promote, not negate.

You have to let light in.

We have, perhaps, grown too big in our own minds. In C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, he puts the following words in the mouth of an archangel speaking to the protagonist, Ransom:

“Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. [God] lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad. Have no fear, lest your shoulders be bearing this world. Look! it is beneath your head and carries you.”

It’s not our place to carry the world. Seeing what happens here might break our hearts, and maybe that is part of our job, to see and to acknowledge that this is terrible, to try to fix it and fail. And maybe part of the point of it being terrible and unfixable—if it can be said there is a point—is to get us to see that we are small and helpless, because where there is helplessness, there is no good that we can do, and where we can do no good, there is no responsibility to try ourselves to do it, and when we can no longer cling to a responsibility that isn’t ours, we can start to learn to open and only receive and be made into a conduit for the One who took all responsibility upon Himself, twice—once when He made the world and again when He died and came to life again in it. He is the healer; we are merely the healed.

Maybe before we can even understand what it means to campaign for peace or love or justice, we have to die in the mud and be healed back into His life ourselves.

We walk in a dark place. We’re children in pain among children in pain, to whom none of this makes sense. But as Jesus said, He has not left us as orphans, and God doesn’t always hide Himself. I’ve been surprised over and over to find that this is true: In the room without windows, sometimes when I close my eyes and stop staring into the darkness, I can feel my hand in His.

And for no good reason I can understand, a light occasionally startles through my veins and out into the world.

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Depressing as Kierkegaard: or, Rambling in an Empty House on a Winter Evening

 

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Monk by the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But if I rage sometimes
then I am the one whose rage is shedding my leaves,
and the simple thought comes sadly to me
that raging isn’t really what is needed.

–Yevgeny Yevtushenko, from “Autumn”

I am a nonconfrontational person. I fancy myself a peacemaker, although in reality I’m just conflict averse. I’m one of those souls who likes everybody around me to be happy and on friendly terms, all the time, and I’ve spent a good amount of my life vainly—in every sense of the word—trying to make that happen.

But I like my issues and causes. I’m getting better, but it’s hard to leave it alone when I disagree on the internet with someone on some social or socio-theological issue. To keep myself out of fruitless arguments—which by far constitute the majority of these “conversations”—I try to repeat to myself, “This discussion isn’t important. Nothing is being decided here.” Because it’s true. Very little of import—or use—was ever decided via heated online discussion. When you get down to how they actually function, online debate doesn’t usually have much to do with the actual issues in question at all, anyway. They’re more about feelings and frustrations than content.

Impotent in the world of things. More powerful in the world of words.

And the question occurs to me: If I know that these are pointless disputes, then why do I want to participate in them? If I want to be on the side of peace, then why would I want to argue in such a futile medium? Why am I raging this way?

I wonder if part of the reason for not only myself but all of us otherwise reasonable people who engage in this exercise in futility has to do with the structure of the high-communication, high-interconnectivity electronic global community we find ourselves a part of. Our world may have gotten smaller, but our individual exposure to the world has opened up and gotten bigger, granting us the opportunity to see how big the problems really are, how infinitesimal our small differences look in comparison to the scope of the problem, how little we can change. We generally seem disinclined to face the fact, but there are very limited ways for us to war effectively against the injustice and suffering around us. We’re very good at picking out what’s wrong: structural inequities, environmental degradation, police brutality, war, tsunami, genocide, disease. What we lack are avenues to fight successfully against these ills as individuals. We can sign petitions. We can hand out food. We can throw money at it.

We can treat the symptoms. We can’t touch the causes.

What we do have are amazing methods for creating the illusion that we can (and are) fighting what ails the world. Arguing without expectation of positive outcome is only one such avenue. The craze for the ALS ice bucket challenge comes to mind. What did it accomplish? It made money and raised awareness, but money doesn’t necessarily translate into treatment options and while awareness isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t an effective end unto itself either. I now know there’s a thing called ALS that’s bad and hurts people. That doesn’t at all change the fact that it’s still out there hurting people.  Awareness might be more helpful against social abuses than it is against disease, but it’s still hard for me to believe that Facebook meming is really making a huge dent in the world’s injustice quotient.

Pointing fingers at Facebook activism isn’t an original gambit, of course. Railing against how dumb it is has become its own cliché, and one that often skims over the real heart of the practice in a particularly self-congratulatory way. Of course those memes don’t do much to help people. They aren’t really meant to. They perform a function for us—as individuals and a society—more than they do for the people for whom they would seem on face value to exist to help. On the not-so-great hand, they soften the guilt that we aren’t doing more. We can lend a voice or a like, even if we aren’t lending money, a hand, or an ear. On the other, more tragic hand, they soften the impact of the fact that, even if we did all we could do, it wouldn’t be enough. We can’t save everyone. We can’t fix it all, and no amount of yes-we-can-human-family-power-of-the-collective-will hype can change that. It’s not enough.

We’re not enough.

We occasionally accomplish startling successes. The victories of the Civil Rights movement happened. Smallpox was eradicated. And African Americans in the U.S. still struggle with systematic oppression in profound and undeniable ways that white people insist on denying anyway. (Seriously, it’s sci-fi dystopia crazy that we manage to do this.) And everyone knows someone touched by cancer. The idea that everything would be great if we could just solve problem X is nothing but an illusion. When one problem is overcome, another will be right there to take its place.

What does this mean for those of us with faith in a good God and in a story arc of history that ends with the return of the Prince of Peace, making it incumbent on us to act to bring the Kingdom of God into reality in the here and now to herald His goodwill?

I can think of some possible answers.

For instance, it occurs to me that we might not be enough but God is, that we do our best and have faith that He will take care of the rest. I’m not in a place right now where that’s any comfort. I think of children drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, alone and terrified in the dark water, and the thought that God is great and in control does nothing to ease my awareness of their agony, breathing terrible life into my imagination. It only raises questions as to why He doesn’t make it stop.

Or one could take the fallen world route: It’s a fallen world and bad things happen. Inadequate, in my opinion, in the extreme.

It’s at a Kierkegaard level of depressing, but I think that a more likely answer is that it’s a good idea to lean into the pain and confusion. The hopelessness. The “Why, GOD?!!” of it all. Maybe a good dose of faced-up pain is an ideal antidote to our lethargy-inducing awareness of the world’s ills. We know we can’t fix it, that it’s all too much, all too big, but maybe if it hurts too much to do nothing, we’ll keep trying anyway in ways that go beyond reposting.

And it sounds more like a jingle than a timeless truth, but God does specialize in hopeless. It isn’t consistent with the hyper-American, pseudo-Christian notion that folks should pulll themselves up by their own bootstraps and that followers of Jesus should always try to look like the happy, attractive, smart, put-together and economically successful side of the culture war (pardon my hypocritical bitterness), but according to Paul—no mean source—God’s power enters through our weakness. It’s not that God takes care of what’s lacking in our efforts; it’s that the inherent failure in our efforts is like His chosen point of entry, His raw materials.

What we do manage to accomplish ourselves is almost incidental.

So who knows. Maybe all our half-assed (‘half-baked’ really doesn’t capture it), doomed efforts will yield surprises. Maybe the God of light who—for reasons we can’t guess at—hides Himself in thick darkness in a world gone black, will bleed in around the edges and burst through with the Kingdom in His hand, doing what we didn’t dare dream was possible, accomplishing what all the human raging in the world could never manage.

Or maybe we’ll continue to wait, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, as we sit in the midnight room, hoping for what we do not see until our hearts are sore or kingdom come.