Sunday, February 04, 2007

Of Super Humans and the Church

Sadly, Atrios can't get a conversation started no matter what he does. The usual suspects over there are a herd of cats, and you'd have an easier time loading frogs in a wheelbarrow than keeping them on a topic. This one, though, struck me as interesting, especially as it relates to the church, and especially to TEC today (for the original, click and hold while moving the cursor down to "reveal" the text. A post on revelation as a source of knowledge will follow shortly):

I tend to react negatively to anything which floats above, or suggests that floating above, the muck is the only productive or honorable course. This is the view of David "pox on both their houses [especially the Democrats] " Broder, the "everybody but us are losers" attitude of the South Park guys, Nader's Gush and Bore, etc... And, ultimately, this is part of the message of Children of Men. The government is right wing and bad. The dissenters are left wing and bad, and so bad they team up with Islamic terrorists and see revolution as an end in itself. Salvation is to be found not within but outside the system. Only those who set up camp outside the existing order offer possible salvation.

I've got nothing against those who see the corruption of the system as an insurmountable problem, it's those who apparently see human nature as an insurmountable problem but then imagine there are Super Humans who can somehow transcend this.

Within that framework the movie had a lot of interesting and perceptive bits, but too often the motives of the political actors were left unexplained. Why was the government obsessed with deporting foreigners? No clear rationale (reasonable or not) was offered. Why were the revolutionaries obsessed with revolution as an end in itself? Why were they united with the Islamic terrorist/revolutionaries?

The political message of "everyone sucks" but "somewhere saviors exist" is a very common one, and it tends to come from people who lack their own coherent ideological foundation.

-Atrios 1:04 AM
The last sentence there is not just a "political message." It's a message rampant in any human organization (or dis-organization). Certainly its been the message in the church since, oh, about the beginning.

I blame Deuteronomy.

I don't, really, but the Deuterenomists are the model for this kind of thing. Struggling to re-create a national (not in the nation state sense, but in modern terms we'd say the "racial" sense, but we can't say that because of the negative overtones, so let's stick with "national" even though it's wrong) identity, the scholars and lawyers of Israel decided to go "back to basics. Taking their cue from the prophets, they put the burden of responsibility for the Exile on the apostasy of the people, and set out to make sure that would never happen again. In effect, they restated the law (a concept lawyers still use today; or legal scholars, anyway). But the restatement carried with it the implicit concept that deviation from the law would bring disaster (which, to be fair, wasn't part of the Biblical narrative before that point). It was, in fact, not minor deviations from the law that the Prophets decried, but wholesale abandonment of the laws of Moses. Several hundred years later, however, it was easier to see the problem as one of minor aberrations, the better to be sure such a thing never happened again.

Such is the deep wound of trauma. Wendell Berry calls racism in America our "hidden wound." It's the same concept, so that now even intelligent people like Sen. Joe Biden can't help but express themselves in less than felicitious terms.

Enter Jesus, and the synoptic Gospel writers' depictions of the Pharisees. But what does this have to do with a modern movie and the church?

There are always groups who want perfection, and who want to "float above the fray" in order to get it. Atrios mentions David Broder, but Ted Koppel gave a fine example in a piece of performance art NPR labeled "Commentary" yesterday. By even-handedly blaming both the GOP and the Democrats for the debacle in Iraq, and by also refusing to posit any solution other than the unacceptable status quo, Koppel managed to antagonize both sides (there can be only two!) and therefore claim the status of "objective journalist" and "wise man" (because the wise are never involved, and always point out that both sides [there can only be two!] are wrong, which is the height of wisdom. Or it's taken for that, anyway.) Those who are disgusted with this kind of bickering simply want to take their ball and go home, even if it isn't their ball. Now the concept is the church should provide that place where I, and those who agree with me, can "float above the fray," that place where everyone, especially me, can be the same yesterday, today, and forever, and when anyone does change, it won't be notice, because we'll all change together. So that any change, however minor, is apostasy, unless I, and those who think like me, approved of it first. The message is "Everyone sucks, but somwhere a savior exists. Who won't ask anything of me, except that I be faithful to what I already want to conform myself to."

Corruption in the system is, you see, an insurmountable problem. Those who can't live with that want to be neither hot nor cold. They don't want ambiguity, and they don't want certainty; they want comfort. They want simplicity. They want the "big idea" to save them, so they don't have to do anything. Above all, they want to be sure they don't have to do anything. They don't want the burden of being Super Humans; but they want to Super Humans to come and save them from the rest of us, the ambiguous and the zealous alike. For them, that's what the savior is for: to save them from all these other people.

And that's the central problem of the church: that it's full of all these "other" people. In a sense, this is the great weakness of Protestantism: if you don't like it here, go start your own church! But that's too easy; it's too much of a cop-out, an escape valve. And iwhile it's the weakness, t's not the issue here. The issue is not, ultimately, the people you have to put up with in church. It's the idea of a church that you have to identify with. The problem is not a topical question, but an existential one. Who am I, if I identify with a group that espouses a position I consider immoral, unethical, or just unacceptable? Isn't that the idea of the Super Humans? That they will be just like us, or at least we will be able to identify with them, and in doing so, they will do all the heavy lifting, and we can just enjoy the fruits of their onerous labours?

But it never works out that way. Sartre said "Hell is other people," but Sartre also said that when we choose for ourselves, we choose for all humankind, a terrible burden that no Super Human can take away from us. He might as well have gotten the idea from Johannes de Silentio, who took it from Abraham. Everything begins with Abraham. When Abraham made the choice on Moriah, God or Isaac, he made the choice for Isaac and Sarah and the rest of us, too. God had told Abraham he would be a blessing on the nations. Who else did he choose for when he raised the knife, if not everyone else, including himself?

No wonder we prefer to believe in a Super Human who will take the choice away from us. No wonder, as I hope to show later, we are so interested in what we call "gnosticism." It always comes back to the Church of Meaning and Belonging v. the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging. As Johannes de Silentio's example of the Knight of Faith showed, there is a reward for the sacrifice. But as Abraham showed, that reward is unseeable until the sacrifice is fully offered. And until we are sure the sacrifice must be made, and no one will stop us from making the sacrifice, we can't earn the reward of the sacrifice. And so we continue to identify with the group that identifies with us; and we continue to fail to see that our true identity is in all humankind, at least until we are prepared, fully and finally, to sacrifice even that.

Mysterium tremendum, indeed (let the reader understand). As Leonard Cohen wrote of the martyrdom of Joan of Arc: "Myself, I long for love and light; but must it come so cruel, must it be so bright?" No wonder we prefer to believe in Super Humans who will save us from this terrible choice.

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