Monday, December 12, 2005

God's in His Heaven

Listening to an NPR report on the pending execution of Stanley Tookie Williams, thinking about the incarnation (literally, "enfleshment") of God, it occurred to me that, as usual, we like to have it round and square; and that it has less to do with Plato and Socrates, and much more to do with Beowulf and "The Wanderer."

Culture runs incredibly deep in human affairs; much deeper than most of us, as Americans, like to admit. We like to think that, as Americans, we have "started over." The great national narrative is of re-birth, of re-creation, of becoming a new person simply by an act of will and the grasping of one's own bootstraps. Culture is what we think we've left behind, too; except as a kitschy kind of memorial to the "Old Country," a nostalgic link with our ancestry, one we can place on a shelf and dust and admire from time to time; but not something truly active in our lives.

If we don't dismiss culture as "history," we "rise above it" through reason, through the persistent application of ratiocination which raises us above both the animals and the peasants, both the rabble and the mindless followers of foolish trends. It is a notion that is as American as apple pie; and just as cultural.

Culture runs deep, very very deep. The more you study literature (and who in America has time for anything so foolish and unncessary as the study of literature? If it doesn't entertain or fill a movie theater, who has any need for it?), the more you realize that the French were right: "Plus çe la change, plus çe la meme chôse."

It's common to take the notion of "soul" and "flesh" back to the Greeks and the Hebrews; but we don't have to be so dissociative in our culture. The predominant American culture is rooted in the British Isles, and the culture reflected in Beowulf, and indeed throughout British literature, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Swift to Auden to Fowles to Pinter, is a culture that regards incarnation not as a fallen or even an unfortunate state, but as a given.

You have to think about that for a moment to understand it. Incarnation as a "fallen" or lesser state, is not a peculiarly Christian notion. It is, in fact, Platonic. Plato's metaphysics taught us that idea. Socrates' reconciliation with death in the Phaedo left us that legacy, along with the idea that "ghosts" are "troubled spirits" who either have unfinished business here, or don't realize they are dead, or have imperfectly severed their connections with "this world." We still think that way, of course, but only in connection with religion. Indeed, when many critics of religion seek to reject the metaphysics of the matter, what they are rejecting is this Hellenistic legacy.

"Parting easily two," as Auden wrote, "who were never really joined." Which is what brings us around to Tookie Williams. The NPR report was about clemency, the now-"old" idea that rehabilitation was possible, that people could change, and that such change could be acknowledged by society. The old (1930's) movies still speak of "paying one's debt to society," a more thoroughly Christian notion that has its roots in the atonement theory of salvation. But, as the NPR report points out, the idea of redemption, and so of clemency, has not proven popular or acceptable since the death penalty was reinstated. Why not?, I wondered. And it seemed to me the answer was quite simple. We are no longer interested in redemption and rehabilitation, or even in penance and repentence (in which theories of criminal rehabilitation were grounded); we are only interested in punishment.

And why? Because, as a society, we don't really believe in, and perhaps have never really believed in, the presence of the soul, especially in those we call "criminals." We believe in what we can see, what we can feel and hear and taste. We believe in the flesh, and when it hurts us (society), we want to hurt it back. Pure and simple.

"Soul" is a concept we reserve for church. The enfleshment of God is a notion we leave for priests and pastors and theologians, and we pay lip service to it, if at all, every 24th of December (we are too busy celebrating flesh on the 25th day of the 12th month to care much about "soul" at all). We take our cue from Beowulf, the greatest Anglo-Saxon warrior who, when he was dead, was gone; and who he was was what you saw and knew through your five senses (it is no accident that the three greatest Empiricists were British). We take our cue from the Wanderer who, having lost his companions and being made homeless and tribeless, can look forward only to wandering the cold world until death finally claims him, too. Those harsh conditions we take alone as reality. Not even "ultimate reality:" that is too Hellenistic a notion, infers too much a distinction between what our senses "know," and what can be known. We look no further than the end of our own nose, and accept what it tells us, and think no more on the subject.

Why do we want to punish Tookie Williams? Because we can see it; we can feel it; we can poke the dead body after the execution, and know there is nothing more we can do to that person, and nothing more he can do to us. We don't want to consider his actions, his attempts to quell the violence he started, to steer children away from what he did, to atone for his mistakes. All that is too abstract and metaphysical and intangible. We want the response of Beowulf: we want to be the one to slay the monster, to rip its arm off as a trophy of our battle, and then to die ourselves in glory, if possible. But we certainly want to punish the beast.

Because all this talk of God is fine and interesting. But the material world is as real as it gets. Thus it has been for us; thus it is now.

Thus, perhaps, it will always be. Because we like it when God's in his heaven, or safely in his church. There are matters for life; and there are matters for religion.

Only then do we seem to think that all's right with the world.

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