Tuesday, May 24, 2005

"The end of all our exploring...."

But the world is not fair, or happy, it's good. God made it and saw that it was good.

I often read that and wondered, good for me? For you, for the homeless man by the highway? Good for God?

An anthill functioning properly looks to us like a sensible, well-ordered world. I wonder sometimes if God is like that, looking down, seeing things humming along quite smoothly, on the whole.

Meanwhile we rampage and destroy, but it's only visible if you get close enough.


Why do we rampage and destroy? Greed, which would be "sin." Or as an inept way to avert chaos? One answer is Hebraic, the other Hellenistic. They are the basic incompatabilities of Western culture.

The Greek "creation myth" is that the Logos (the word, a metaphor/symbol for reason) imposed order on Chaos. This is a powerful image, and one adopted by Christianity. Milton includes it in his retelling of the Hebrew creation story in Paradise Lost. Chaos exists on the outer boundaries of Hell, and Sin and Death have to build a bridge across it to give Satan access to Earth. The idea is also a driving force in Western culture: without ceaseless effort, the forces of chaos, of darkness, of evil, will arise and overthrow the forces of reason, of light, of good. The Greeks were not quite so simplistic as to include those latter categories, but that hasn't prevented later cultures from simplifying the issue down to a mere "either/or." The notion that chaos will always erupt and overcome our best efforts is even the thinking behind "Freedom is not free." Freedom, of course, is a gift of reason. Chaos struggles unceasingly to take our freedom from us.

The end of the Greek myth, by the way, is the fall of the Logos and the triumph of Chaos. Chaos is, you see, the natural state of the cosmos. Reason, logos, can only hold out for so long; it's failure is inevitable. This is a kind of fatalism not unlike that of the Norse myths and the Ragnorok, or even the elegiac tone and themes of Old English literature.

Opposed to that fatalism, that sense that chaos and disorder, if not evil, will eventually triumph, is the Creation story in Chapter 1 of Genesis. Creation is not order established on unstable Chaos. The foundations of the cosmos are not built on ground that will eventually disappear from beneath it. Creation is the act (the speech act, to be particular) of the Creator, and all of Creation is good.

What, then, makes it "bad"? Human activity, it would seem. Even the concept of a "harsh life" is a culturally variable one. Before antibiotics, doctors treated precious little, and offered no real hope for cures from diseases that regularly swept people away. Having gained some measure of control over the material world, we all too naturally assume we should have complete control, and eliminate all things we do not like. But we did that in 19th century America, and belatedly realized, in late 20th century America, that there is more of a web, more of a balance, to creation, than we had realized. Removing one scourge, such as infectious disease that usually killed quickly, we have replaced it with new ones: cancers, AIDS, even Alzheimer's. Does this mean we never should have learned about penicillin? Not at all. But we have made the leap from our ability to cure disease, to our decision that all life should be "good," and "good" has a very elastic, not to say unrealistic, meaning.

Slavery was the norm in human socieities until the 19th century. Does that mean life was not "good" until then? Or won't be "good" until all the things we decide are evil are removed from creation? Some, like slavery, our our own creation. Some, like disease, are; and are not.

Where you decide Creation rests, or begins, determines how you answer questions like: "What is good?" It even determines how you live. It really is all a matter of where you start. As Gustavo Gutierrez says: "I will say that we must begin by contemplating God and doing God's will and that only in a second step are we to think about God. By this I mean that worship of God and the doing of God's will are the necessary conditions for thinking about God. Only if we start in the realm of practice will be be able to develop a discourse about God that is authentic and respectful." And where does that realm of practice begin? "In our dealings with the poor," where "we encounter the Lord,...but this encounter in turn makes our solidarity with the poor more radical and more authentic." (Gustavo Gutierrez, The Truth Shall Make You Free, tr. Matthew J. O'Connell (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), p. 3. When we start with worship and doing God's will, when we start by establishing our solidarity with the poor, when our encounter with God makes that solidarity more radical and more authentic, then we can consider the question: "What is good?" Because then we will be on the way to finding an answer, and our question will be justified.

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