Till Love And Fame To Nothingness Do Sink
When I have fears that I may cease to beBefore my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,And think that I may never live to traceTheir shadows with the magic hand of chance;And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,That I shall never look upon thee more,Never have relish in the faery powerOf unreflecting love—then on the shoreOf the wide world I stand alone, and thinkTill love and fame to nothingness do sink. – John Keats, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be”—–
Lots of folks in my Facebook news feed are asking prayers for Mark Hall, the lead singer of the Contemporary Christian Musical group Casting Crowns. He is having surgery to remove a kidney that is possibly tumorous. Now, obviously, anyone in such a position is in need of prayers. I am certainly not asking we not pray for him. All such persons need to be surrounded by love. This isn’t about whether or not prayers are efficacious or not. Nor is it a particular criticism of the music his band produces. As a matter of fact, they are a pretty typical, bland pop-sounding musical group, with lyrics often rooted in particular Scriptures. Yet, I am also troubled by their lyrics. I know that’s not a cool thing to admit; they are a CCM band that has “crossed over” as they say, attracting all sorts of people to the music who might not otherwise be interested. Their songs are well crafted, with building tension and release, arranged with just the right amount of familiar instruments, at just the right levels. Indeed, I have often wondered how well they do in a concert setting because their studio productions are meticulous, and in some sense flawless.
What troubles me can best be summed up by a consideration of what might otherwise be called their “breakthrough” song – “Voice of Truth”. In the first place, it’s written in the First Person; “I will choose to listen to the Voice of Truth”. In the second place, the narrator of the song pictures himself as various Biblical persons – Peter, David – and wishes he could be as brave or have the faith they exhibited when they, in turn, walked on water and faced Goliath, the Philistine champion. At the end of the day, as moving as the music may be, as much as the well-written lyrics pull the listener in, reminding us that whatever we are called to do comes from “the Voice of Truth”, this is a song about how being a Christian makes an individual strong and brave. It is about Jesus calling us to be heroes, to be that individual who makes a difference. It is, sad to say, as soaked in the individualistic ideas of North American Christianity as so much of our discussions about “religion” are: in many ways, they all come down to whether or not they add meaning to “my” life.
I remember when I realized I faced a drastic existential choice. It was after Lisa had taken her first appointment. I was preparing to go to graduate school at Catholic University of America and study the Philosophy of Science. I had been doing all sorts of reading – Kuhn and Popper, of course; Feyerabend and Lakatos; I even ventured in to reading Rudolf Carnap, a real snoozer, but still necessary – and it occurred to me, at some point, that I was being confronted by a stark choice: I could continue down the path of faith, wherever that might lead; or I could accept that the Universe, far larger, far more complex, far more violent, and most of all far more apathetic to any human concern, existed without meaning or purpose. I could accept that life was a chemical reaction, that consciousness was an emergent characteristic of particular bio-electrical processes in the human brain. Finally, I could accept that when I died, everything just winked out. One second, it’s all there then – POOF! – it’s all gone. There’s not even the consolation of some memory that I might once have been. The only goal in such a Universe is to be, well, me. Any meaning I might assign to my existence, any importance I might give to any action I’ve done was just that – something I’ve assigned, rather than intrinsic to the action itself.
After thinking about this for a bit, I realized that really isn’t that scary a notion. Indeed, I could see great benefit if more people gave up the idea they were part of some cosmic drama, that their lives mattered, that some act they had or were or might well at some future time commit could very well be the difference between a future worth living and some dystopia in which humans scramble about barely able to survive. Life, the world, history, the whole Universe – it just doesn’t work that way, no matter how many stories we tell, no matter how much we wish that our lives make any difference at all, that just the fact of our existence adds meaning to the Universe. Winking out of existence, in particular if one had spent weeks or even months lingering in pain, or perhaps had met some violent end leaving questions about whether or not one’s loved ones were safe, why that had a kind of cold comfort. No more existence, no more worries, love and care are biochemical reactions to particular stimuli we haven’t quite unraveled, and when the machine shuts down, that all shuts down, and we’re food for beetles and bacteria.
The reality, however, was my faith was then and even more so now is rooted not just in a bunch of words I speak on Sundays; it isn’t based upon arguments that someone insists are irrefutable; it isn’t based upon any single thing, but the totality of a series of events, from childhood through early adulthood right up to the present moment. To surrender that faith would be to lie: lie about myself, lie about who I am, lie about things I’ve experienced, things I’ve done, moments during which I’ve experienced what can only be called transcendent.
The other point-of-view, however, had a kind of irresistible pull. I remembered something the late philosopher Richard Rorty wrote (and no, I can’t find it at the moment, even though his works are in my library). Like so much of his writing, it was crisp, clear, and direct: The sentence is so clear: “The world isn’t about anything.” Looking around, it is nearly impossible for me to disagree with that. Oh, we human beings are creatures who, almost desperately, seek to imbue everything from sex to taking a bowel movement with meaning; people see signs and omens everywhere; whole belief systems are predicated upon contradicting the natural reality that there isn’t any there there. Creatures are born, they live, they die. There is tremendous violence in the Universe, with whole galaxies colliding, planets shattering from the gravitational tidal forces, stars going nova and even supernova from it all. Who knows, on some of those planets there might well be creatures, even intelligent creatures, who are aware of what’s happening, and powerless to stop it, just die, even their memory destroyed in a conflagration we can’t even imagine.
Then there are the horrid creatures right here at home: worms that burrow in to our skin, reproduce in our skin, our organs, feeding on us. There are wasps that lay their eggs inside insects; when the eggs hatch, the larvae literally eat their way from the inside out. There are diseases like Ebola, Typhus, Anthrax, Cholera, Dengue Fever, Malaria – killing millions around the world each year while we sit around in our comfortable, First World homes, and worry about non-existent threats from vaccinations against some of these diseases. It all seems . . . well, it certainly doesn’t make much sense, and there are days that the insistence that a single human life is of infinite value just seems a comforting lie we tell ourselves to keep the terror at bay that, in fact, we aren’t even worth the dirt dumped on our corpses.
It took a long while for a particular facet of the Christian faith to penetrate my skull: salvation isn’t about guaranteeing a ride to heaven when we die; going to church isn’t about making sure we earn enough chits to put in the toll booth at the pearly gates. No, the whole thing, from Creation to New Creation – it’s all about God’s Glory. We declare it in our prayers, we insist it lies at the heart of our mission work, we even recall it in the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died: “Not my will, but yours be done.” For all that, however, we continue to pray and give praise as if this was all about us. Not so much whether or not we’re going to heaven or not, so much as that these are things we do that provide meaning in and for our lives.
And sociologists of religion are pretty clear on this: Religion, ritual, the system of spirits and sacrifices are all about constructing meaning and purpose to human social existence, therefore ratifying the life of the individual. By participating in these activities, our lives are now worth something; we have meaning because these actions have meaning; we have purpose because these actions have particular ends that we declare are beneficial to us, individually and socially.
Except, of course, for Christianity. Because, see, to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when God calls us, we are called to die. I used to think he was being poetic or metaphoric, just as I used to think Jesus was speaking in metaphor when he said the same thing. It took me many years of living, seeing the world around me, praying, and watching the lives of others to realize this was no mere poetic license. It is what it is: Once we say yes to the God whom Jesus Christ called “Father”, once we set our feet on this road even now I traipse down, the weight of my life bearing down upon me, the end is always the same: our death. Oh, we are so quick to make clear that this isn’t “death” in the way it was before the crucifixion and resurrection. This is a death that ends in joy and triumph.
Except, I fail to see where any of that’s guaranteed. God doesn’t call us to be about the work of setting right what we’ve screwed up so badly so that we can get a pat on the head at the end of the day. God calls us to be about the work of setting right what we’ve screwed up because that’s what we were supposed to do in the first place. And none of it, from our first breath to our last, has anything to do with how healthy, wealthy, happy, fulfilled, self-actualized, or otherwise blessed we might be. On the contrary, as I’ve said many times and shall repeat until my last breath: God loves us, but doesn’t care all that much about us. God loves us enough to save us. God doesn’t save us so that we can hold it over other people’s heads, though. God doesn’t save us to relieve us of the burden of meaninglessness that surrounds us in a Universe so enormous we can’t even imagine. God doesn’t save us because we are good and nice and give money to some poor people and we really aren’t racist, I swear. God saves us so that God’s Glory can be achieved, through the tasks assigned to us. We are the tenders of God’s garden, which is this world we’ve been given. That’s our job. Gardening is hard, dirty, sweaty work. Gardening on this sick, polluted rock, with swaths of the ocean no longer inhabitable because chemicals we’ve dumped have robbed them of oxygen; with the climate changing in ways even the initial climate change modelers couldn’t have predicted, and at rates far faster than even the most outlandish models from five years ago suggested; in the midst of wars and hatred and racism and deaths mass and hidden; all this and so much more make doing our jobs that much harder. You ask God, and I’m gonna guess the response will be silence. Not because God doesn’t love us; but because God doesn’t care that much about how put out, or scared, or inconvenienced we might be. This isn’t about hearing the Voice of Truth and facing those Giants. That kind of faith is for wealthy folks whose only worry is others will think well of them.
If you’re a Christian because you’re afraid if you weren’t the whole Universe would cease to have any meaning, and without meaning we’re little different than dogs humping in the park, I suggest you head over to the park. If you’re a Christian because it adds structure and meaning to your life, but beyond that doesn’t impact you all that much, I think you need to head back to the Bible and check out the violence, the sex, the death – the whole thing. Not so much structure and meaning there, unless you think it meaningful that God uses murderers, rapists, and bigots as instruments of the Divine Will. If you are a Christian because it brings with it compassion and love for those in our world who are trodden upon by the powerful, whose lives are less than the cost of simple drugs that can heal, I suggest you join Medicin Sans Frontiers. Being a Christian, taking this Journey to Jerusalem, means stripping oneself of any and all pretense that any of it has anything to do with us. It doesn’t. We have work to do, sure. Tending the Created Garden includes tending all those creatures within it, including other humans. Not out of compassion or sorrow or pity; we are to do it because that is what God calls us to do, we who bear the mark of the crucified upon our hearts and in our lives. That is the only reason that matters. Everything else, the compassion, etc., that’s a by-product of becoming the human being God created you to be. It is no more the source of the work than is boredom or fun or a sense of satisfaction.
All around me, I see things that have, in the past, given meaning and structure to my life. When I try to gather them up, they are as ethereal as dreams, as real as unicorns. I now know that, along with this stone and all the rest of this burden I carry, I have to set before the Cross any notion that what I have done, who I have been, has any meaning or purpose, or any eternal significance. That compassion, that desire to help those in need, the rage for justice in a world filled with violence and death; all these, too, I must set on the ground and accept as not my own, and certainly not anything around which a person should build a life. All there should be is that figure on the cross, broken, bleeding, not so much calling to me over the waves or the screams of the soldiers, a Voice of Truth to embolden me in my journey. No, rather I have to accept that these are what make up the nails that are pounded in to his feet; they helped forged the spear plunged in to his side. The only meaning and structure there is, in the end, is just this – a man hanging on a cross so that I don’t have to care about myself anymore, but can be about God’s work and not worry what any of it has to do with me or my life at all.