Tag Archives: darkness

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

 

caspar_david_friedrich_029
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.

 

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Sondheim and Psalms

I was having lunch with my friend Kiki and we started to talk about the nature of religious art.  I love getting Kiki’s views on such things, she’s a pastor’s kid who is now a Buddhist/Pagan practitioner so she can offer a perspective I rarely consider.  She asked me why I thought that modern religious art of all kinds allows in any positive image even if it is mediocre and shies away from perhaps “darker” themes.  I see it in Christianity, she sees it in Buddhism but especially in the pagan world.

I told her that from my religion I can for conversation’s sake narrow it down to three things. First, I think we take Phillipians 4:8, which says:

     Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

and we make it into “Think of only nice things”.  Which is not what it says.  As Sondheim has pointed out to us “Nice is different from good”.  I think that we also take the “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes” and make value judgments based on how something makes us feel instead of how it is.  Comfort and Art don’t always go together, and yet it is nearly a requirement in modern religious work.

I also think that perhaps as a people who follow the Father of heavenly lights who does not change like the shifting shadows feel that anything that is part of the human experience and less than divine is not good to contemplate.  I am not sure if this is something left over from the marks of transcendentalism on mainstream religion or is part of legalism that thinks that we are totting up good and bad marks to be reviewed by a judging god.  There’s some idea (that I want to explore in another post some other time) that anything earthly and of this existence is intrinsically poisoned, and I just don’t believe that about a creation that was called “good”.

Last, I think that we have (sweeping generalization ahead) lost a couple key skills that are important in interacting with art in the faith community.  There are few churches where one may amicably disagree or change one’s mind without feeling that you are breeding strife.  Small issues become giant issues.  People’s salvation is called into question.  It’s a volatile place to view art from.  I also think that as a culture we are disinclined to interact with anything that requires us to analyze or defend in a real way… and effective Art almost always requires both things.

I don’t think any of these issues are insurmountable.  It’s like the way generationally we’ve realized that maybe the line between “Christian artist” and “believer who makes art” shouldn’t be so defined.  It was encouraging to me to hear that these are not issues unique to Christianity, which leads me to believe that these are tendencies of humans and not just Believing humans. Sometimes I forget that there are humans in that odd ritualistic amalgamation of church that is also Church.

There are so many believers out there that make art, and yet our access to them is so poor.  Walking into a Christian bookstore, or the Christian section of a bookstore, cruising the Christian section of iTunes or looking through faith based magazines tells us that as a movement we haven’t cultivated and valued that. And yet we exist, we are out there… so let’s keep questioning this.  Let us keep this Great Conversation going because it is good.