Enough

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

Kurt Vonnegut tells a story in his poem, “Joe Heller” (you can find it in various corners of the internet, but it was originally published in the New Yorker, as far as I can tell). You probably know how it goes: Vonnegut and Heller are at a party thrown by some billionaire and Vonnegut asks Heller how he feels about the fact that this guy makes more money in a day than Heller will make in a lifetime. Heller says, well, I have something he’ll never have, and Vonnegut asks what’s that, and Heller responds that he has “knowledge that I’ve got enough” (Vonnegut’s closing line: “Not bad! Rest in peace!”).

It’s a good story, as far as it goes. It is better to have some sense of what might be enough than to have no idea at all. Judging your self-worth by the size of your bank balance is unwise etc. But, the story has always sort of annoyed me. Partly because when I encounter it in the wild the people delivering it do so with a self-satisfied smirk. Take that billionaire! Go home and cry into your sacks of cash in lonely isolation! But, it’s more than the implicit smugness. It just doesn’t quite seem true. At least not to me, with my own hunger for more. I think, for most of us, most of the time, “enough” is preceded by “never” (Never! Never!). Maybe it isn’t a hunger for money that we are trying to satisfy, but there’s always something we’re chasing that we can never quite catch. A human animal is one marked by a “never enoughness.”

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Fall(ing)

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

One of the best illustrated books I discovered when I had children was John Burningham’s Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. The story starts with a man who decides to take trip down a river in his boat. As he floats along he begins to collect passengers. Two children, a rabbit, a cat, a dog etc. Each passenger receives a warning as they board Mr. Gumpy’s (increasingly full) boat, a limit they are told they cannot transgress. The limit is specific to each passenger. So, the children are told they can come for a ride as long as they “don’t squabble”; the rabbit can come as long as it doesn’t “hop about”; the cat, provided it does not chase the rabbit, etc.

You know how this story is going to end, don’t you? Of course you do.

Mr. Gumpy’s boat travels lazily down the river under the summer sun with its crew of children and animals and,

For a little while they all went along happily but then …
The goat kicked
The calf trampled
The chickens flapped
The sheep bleated
The pig mucked about
The dog teased the cat
The cat chased the rabbit
The rabbit hopped
The children squabbled
The boat tipped
And into the water they fell.

When reading this to my children, I would always punctuate the picture of Mr. Gumpy’s fall into the river with a dramatic “SPLAAAAAAAASHHH!” (For the concerned reader: things turn out ok for Mr. Gumpy and crew in the end – they climb out, dry off in the sun on the walk home, and have tea at Mr. Gumpy’s house).

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Hope (I)

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

Hope is sometimes imagined as being fixed on something very far away: a shimmering city on the horizon, a destination at the end of a long road, an X on a treasure map. The object of hope is a terminus, a distant end. But, hope is needed at beginnings too. Hope can be found in a series of stepping stones, in a straight road beneath your feet. You need hope to get out of bed in the morning.

Lead me on a level path say the psalmists (Psalm 27, among others). Give me a road to walk down, show me where I should go, hold my hand along the way. It is a hopeful request. When you are stuck in a swamp, the promise of some unseen city is not much help, you need a handhold, a place to put your next step.

So, hope is about first steps as much as last steps. There is little point in looking to the horizon if you are stuck in the muck, sinking up to your neck. What’s needed is not some future expectation but a trust that the hand that is extended will be strong enough to pull you free; that if you put your foot here, in this spot, the ground will hold, and then there, and then over there, until you have climbed out. Hope is trust that I won’t be left to simply drown, that my life is not simply a great deal of thrashing around without any progress.

There will be a time to consider cities on the far horizon. For now, there is simply a next step, the hint of a path, and nothing more.


Further exploration:

  • Psalm 27
  • Psalm 40
  • Psalm 25
  • Psalm … well, you get the idea, don’t you? (the Psalms are good – I read one every morning).

Creation

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

Creation is the name Christians give to the idea that the universe we live in contains music and not just noise. Or, it is more than that: what we see around us doesn’t just contain music, but is fundamentally musical, deep in its bones. There is a harmony and a beauty to the cosmos, a creativity and an order. It is not simply random. We are ourselves creatures, part of the song. We participate in it, can even echo it at times in derivative ways, plunking out simple tunes on toy xylophones in imitation of the symphony that surrounds us. Tragically, we are partly tone deaf and we struggle to catch the tune. In fact, on our own, we have a tendency towards creating discordant noise rather than joining in with the music.

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3:17 AM

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

A thump in the night and I am awake, staring at the glowing digits of the bedside alarm clock: 3:17AM. I roll over in the quiet but my mind is already vibrating with the dissonance of the coming day. It is unlikely that I am going to be able to navigate back towards sleep. Nothing unusual here, just considering the state of things, the various paths I have walked down that have brought me to this moment, 3:17AM, in the dark.

At different times in my life there have been moments of crisis in these early morning hours: a particular source of suffering elbowing me sharply in the ribs. But, I have been fortunate, with crises few and far between. More common is a mix of the mundane and existential: a concern about whether or not I filtered the duplicate data in that spreadsheet yesterday bumping up against a question of life purpose. How did I end up here, clicking imaginary Excel cells in the middle of the night? At 3:17AM I don’t have the ability to parry the inquiries, my defenses are down, my mind too loud and the world too silent.

The language of digital alarm clocks and Excel spreadsheets may somehow imply that this is a uniquely modern sort of thing. We might like to think so, it would make us feel special: the brave modern, facing the dark, where the ancients huddled under the comforting cloak of ritual and tradition. But, some ancient near eastern poet, thousands of years ago reminds us that there is nothing new in the anxieties of 3:17AM: “in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted … You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled I cannot speak” (Psalm 77). There is some difference here, I admit, the psalmist is considerably more engaged with something, with Someone (that “You”), than I usually am in contemplating the emptiness of the night. But we recognize each other across the years.

There is something deeply human about the dark hour of 3:17AM, that moment of trying to make sense of things (and usually failing). Human beings are the “praying animal,” said the American theologian, Robert Jenson, and this is something of what he meant, I think. We are a creature that wants to understand things as a whole, that wants to make sense of things. To be a praying animal is to wake at 3am and be turned outwards to the night, to ask questions of it that it can never quite answer to our satisfaction.


Further exploration:

T. Singer, Child of God

… my writings concern the people in my time period and my cultural circle, and that counts not least for T Singer. What you call ‘internal neglect, or rather obscurity’, and which I most likely would have called something else (did you know that I considered naming the novel about T Singer Child of God?), is meant as an attempt to find an adequate expression for precisely this.

Interview with Dag Solstad

I remember reading a book when I was younger, a sort of self-help spiritual memoir kind of thing that sought to offer advice on how to live a good life. It made an analogy between making a movie and living your life and one of the punchlines was that nobody would watch a movie about a guy who wants to buy a Volvo. Don’t be the Volvo-buying-guy, it said, but live a better, more interesting, more exciting life: live the life that would make a good movie.

I thought about this earlier book, with its life-is-a-movie-so-make-it-a-good-one message, after I finished Dag Solstad’s puzzling, funny, infuriating, uncomfortable, T. Singer. It is a novel that could be described as “aggressively boring” (James Wood provides an excellent introduction to Solstad’s work here). It would not make a good movie.

When I was that younger man, reading self-help spiritual memoir kinds of things, I would not have thought to question the idea that my life was a movie in which I played the starring role (as well as providing the direction and script). The idea that life is essentially a series of plot choices which I control is a comforting one. It is also a delusion. It conveniently turns everyone you encounter into supporting actors and actresses for your starring role, for example. It fails to account for the non-sequitur of suffering and the way it can run your carefully revised script through the existential shredder, for another.

Partway through the novel, the narrator of T. Singer pauses and confesses: “… it has to be admitted that at this point in the story it may seem mysterious that Singer could be the main character in any novel at all, regardless of quality, but here it can be divulged that it’s precisely this mysteriousness that is the topic of the novel, and attempts will be made to turn this into reality.” Really, truly, you have to trust me when I say this book would not make a good movie. James Wood describes Solstad as writing about “people who are not quite the protagonists of their own lives.” I think this is true, and the question the reader confronts after finishing a Solstad novel is whether any of us are protagonists of our own lives.

In the life-as-a-movie book the author described a variety of different stories that strike me now as slightly more upmarket ways of buying a Volvo. I remember cool experiences, cool relationships – it was all very cool, cool, cool. Packing school lunches in the morning and paying the residential sewer bill by the fourth of the month did not come into it. I should confess that my memories of the book may be distorted by the proliferation of life affirming hashtags attached to exotic vacation photos that has occurred in the intervening years.

While T. Singer could be described as a book where nothing happens, that is not quite right. Instead it is better described as a book where nothing meaningful happens. There are significant events, but Singer does not experience them as significant. It is Camus without the figure of the existential hero to provide solace to the reader. There is no Dr. Rieux visiting the reader’s bedside to soothe our anxiety when confronted with the absurd. It is Dostoevsky without Father Zosima’s speeches to make the case for God and his good creation.

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Love, Defined

Love—as understood by the gospel in contrast to all philosophy—is not a method for dealing with people. Instead, it is the reality of being drawn and drawing others into an event, namely, into God’s community with the world, which has already been accomplished in Jesus Christ. “Love” does not exist as an abstract attribute of God but only in God’s actual loving of human beings and the world. Again, “love” does not exist as a human attribute but only as a real belonging-together and being-together of people with other human beings and with the world, based on God’s love that is extended to me and to them. Just as God’s love entered the world, thereby submitting to the misunderstanding and ambiguity that characterize everything worldly, so also Christian love does not exist anywhere but in the worldly, in the infinite variety of concrete worldly action, and subject to misunderstanding and condemnation. Every attempt to portray a Christianity of “pure” love purged of worldly “impurities” is a false purism and perfectionism that scorns God’s becoming human and falls prey to the fate of all ideologies. God was not too pure to enter the world. The purity of love, therefore, will not consist in keeping itself apart from the world, but will prove itself precisely in its worldly form.

A favorite quote from Bonhoeffer, Ethics

There is no worthless life before God

There is no worthless life before God, because God holds life itself to be valuable. Because God is the Creator, Preserver, and Redeemer of life, even the poorest life before God becomes a valuable life. … Where, other than in God, should the measure for the ultimate worth of a life lie? In the subjective affirmation of life? If so, then many a genius would be surpassed by an idiot. In the judgment of the community? If so, then it would soon be evident that judgment about socially valuable or worthless life would be abandoned to the need of the moment and therefore to arbitrary action, and that now this group and now that group of people would fall victim to extermination. The distinction between valuable and worthless life sooner or later destroys life itself.

Bonhoeffer in Ethics. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately. The idea of what grounds the value of a person, of a life, is in the air more and more as different technological and cultural developments push the question forward. Reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History, earlier this year, and learning about the frontiers of genetic science and the hopes attached to it by some in the field, was sobering (I’m thinking especially of the idea of editing genomes i.e. in a fetus, to eliminate or encourage particular traits). It feels like we haven’t learned the most fundamental lesson from the disasters of early and mid-twentieth century eugenics. Some of the possible paths for gene therapy/editing being explored make it seem as though early twentieth century eugenics was a flawed project because the criteria and methods were abhorrent. The slogan seems to be: 21st century gene therapy, just don’t be a Nazi about it! But, the criteria or the methods used to eliminate “worthless” aspects of humanity and pursue “progress” aren’t the fundamental problem. It’s the whole project. The early twentieth century proponents of eugenics thought they were acting for the improvement of humanity. The lesson that needs to be learned (but we seem unable to grasp with all our technological power) is that a human being cannot and should not be making a judgment of the worth of another person’s humanity (and I don’t see how the prospect of editing genomes avoids the need for such a judgment). It’s a question beyond our capacity to answer and failure to realize this limit will result, as Bonhoeffer says, in destruction.

Allowing Space for the Wildness of God

Oh, come on, thinks the believing reader. No need to reinvent the wheel. You would save yourself so much time if you knew how everything was supposed to join up. Quick, someone air-freight this woman a Jesuit! But this is to let ourselves off the hook too easily, two ways round. If someone as open as this, with such a strong working sense of the tragic possibilities of existence, recognises nothing in the descriptions of faith she has encountered, then we are not describing it rightly. If the ‘rage of joy’ she has felt seems to have nothing to do with goodness, then we have been misrepresenting virtue. If what we have managed to extend in her direction seems to be only an offer of authoritarian parenthood, or a resistible politics, then we have made a mistake of our own about the place we allow for the wildness of God.

Francis Spufford, reviewing Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God (I read this in his essay collection, True Stories). He’s probably a little too hard on his fellow Christians here, as I don’t think good descriptions are too difficult to find, if a person wants to find them – but the larger point that there are so many bad (tamed, made in our image) descriptions of God, trumpeted so loudly, is a good one.

Easter Spirit

The following is intended only as a sort of informal “theological sketch” – I’m not hammering out a formal argument here, just doing some exploring. 

I’m sympathetic to the (reasonably common) observation that there is an imbalance between the way many North American Christians celebrate Christmas and the way they celebrate Easter. Basically, the idea is that of the two central celebrations of the Christian year it is Easter, not Christmas, which should be the “big” one (i.e. we wouldn’t be aware of Jesus’ birth if not for his death and resurrection), but for many of us Christmas looms much larger in our imagination and lived experience. The “Easter Spirit” just never feels quite as contagious as the “Christmas Spirit.” The best place for me to observe this is, of course, in my own life as the years cycle through: often I eagerly anticipate Christmas but stumble distractedly into Easter.

There are some obvious reasons for the difference. A main one, much discussed and lamented, is that our culture has figured out ways to harness the iconography of Christmas as a marketing device to sell us a bunch of junk we don’t really need. And, um, we like stuff: we like it so much we usually don’t even realize how much we like it. Consumption is an (the?) idol at the center of our shared cultural life, and to the extent that our Christmas celebrations share in the worship of Our-Lady-of-Perpetual-Deals it is unsurprising that the Christmas holiday feels “bigger.” This again, is obvious, and maybe the answer to our question is that we just need to crucify our consumerism (even as our culture will keep doing its best to commercialize Easter) – but that’s easier said than done.

I think there are other reasons too, ones that are interesting to think about, and perhaps might provide some clues for celebrating better, if not “bigger.” Theologically it may be easier to sing “Joy to the World” at Christmas than “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” at Easter because the incarnation is God’s great affirmation and confirmation of creation. In the incarnation God enters into creation, into the particularity of it, and affirms it by being born as a baby. John 1’s echo of the creation story and Luke’s narrative describing the birth of Jesus both make the same theological point regarding the value and goodness of creation. So, there is a certain sort of theological harmony in the festival of Christmas being marked by an enjoyment of the creaturely goods of food, family bonds etc.

But, maybe I’ve just revealed myself to be some sort heretic who diminishes the significance of the resurrection? Isn’t the promise of new life, of new creation that much more powerful of a “yes” to God’s creatures than the quotidian mess of childbirth? If we celebrate a birth, how much more the defeat of death? There’s an existential element to this, I think. We all have some sense of familiarity with birth, and also, perhaps with death, but reports from the resurrected have been … rare. At Christmas we are remembering a birth, a joyful, life-affirming event; at Easter we are remembering a death … and a resurrection. In remembering the resurrection we’re remembering something we anticipate and hope for, something beyond our capacity to entirely understand, rather than something we know happens every hour at the hospital down the street (not that we understand birth and death particularly well, either). And at Easter there’s the horrific death there in the middle – the reality that there is no resurrection without the cross. Good Friday forces us to grapple with evil, death, judgment, suffering, sin, which tends to dampen the festival atmosphere one might find at Christmas. Yes, we find reason for hope in the resurrection, but the reality of Good Friday (and perhaps even more the flat “in-between” waiting of Holy Saturday) often feel easier to identify with than the wonder of the Resurrection Sunday and it would be perverse to try and ignore the importance of the cross in our attempts to celebrate Easter.

So, it’s not straightforward that the solution to a Christmas/Easter imbalance is to just make Easter “bigger.” The pleas from the pulpit on Easter Sunday to “Come on and be happy!” (usually delivered in more pious language) feel forced, at best. I think in part, we (I) struggle to recognize significance and meaning outside a limited emotional range in our shared life together. We can manage happy (Christmas Day – never mind that whole “Advent” thing), we can manage sad (Good Friday – thank goodness it’s only one day a year) and we have Easter (why aren’t you as happy as you were at Christmas?). I don’t think the goal should be to make Easter more like Christmas – trying to generate some sort of emotional response that isn’t really there – but rather to recover a richer, broader range of response as we try and faithfully remember and celebrate what God has done.