Wednesday, August 15, 2007

All is vanity

The last time I addressed this question of Christianity and power,, I noted Walter Breuggeman's distinction between the politics of scarcity and the theology of abundance. I bring that up because my ears are burning, again, and in fact my last post on the subject was prompted by much the same discussion. The more things change, and all that, and in fact we're still stuck on the question of definition, which is the question of identity. What is "identity" if not the boundaries (the definition, the visual artist would say) of who you are? But we're back to this question, too: "Is God simply an idea?"

Definition is one of those baseline topics that you can't get away from, and you can't work without. It all becomes rather slippery in very short order. If your definition of who you are resembles "Just some yahoo pastor with a bad habit of writing letters to the editor that no one ever bothers to read," then you are free to ignore this and move along. We'll also set aside the argument over whether or not "blogs and other new technologies...allow people who previously have gone unheard to have a real voice in the democratic process for the first time in decades." Seems to me they do if your blog is Firedoglake, or Daily Kos, or maybe even Eschaton. But all this blog does is allow me to spout off to whoever passes by. I'd probably have a larger audience standing on the Drag in Austin. I'd certainly be no more influential on the democratic process. Nor do I presume to represent anybody other than myself. Which is yet another matter.

No, what I'm interested in is the question of the Christian life, and how to live it. And whenever I have to be concerned that some other Christian is not saying the things I want to say, well, then, I'm suddenly thinking like Pharoah, it seems to me. I'm thinking about power, of which there is never enough around, and about the scarcity of my power, and about how much more power I need, especially the power of that other guy who's talking, and how I need to take some of his power away, because there isn't enough for both of us, and besides, he's not using it right! And right then I should start to wonder: if I am a yahoo pastor, how much of me is interested in being a yahoo, and how much is interested in being a pastor?

"Yahoo" is an interesting word. I don't know if it originated with Jonathan Swift, but it was the word applied by the Houyhnhnms to the uncouth and irrational humans who lived among them. Gulliver, of course, thought himself better than the Yahoos because he had language and civilization behind him. The Houyhnhnms, after hearing his stories of European history, warfare, and weapons, decided he was even worse than the Yahoos, and banished him from their country.

At this point I begin to sound quite unfriendly, because this reads like a thinly veiled personal attack. It is nothing of the sort. I'm pondering the question: "Is God simply an idea?" If so, then indeed we have to fight over the scarce resources, be they money, oil, land, power, even pride and shame. Of shame there certainly seems to be an abundance in the world, of pride far too little to go around, and if I have to take away from yours to insure my store then, so be it.

Is all this anti-democratic, in some sense? Well, I suppose it is. "Consider," as I said before, "the actual historical experience of the Pharoahs, who could not take it with them. Sooner or later, someone else took it." Power is the same way. Those who can, will take it: be they Karl Rove or Barack Obama. David Frum, as Josh Marshall observed, has realized that Karl Rove not only failed in his bid for absolute power, he did harm to the Republican Party (if not actually the country. Frum gets partial credit for insight, at least). Rove reached for power, took it, and used it; and then it used him. He saw power as a commodity, as part of the scarcity of the world, and drew as much to him as he could. As Josh Marshall says, this has damaged not only a political party, but a country. But then accruing power in a world of scarcity is the game of nations. It has been since Cain decided Abel was horning in on his action.

It really isn't a question of moral high ground, or even of morality. It is a question of faith. Am I obligated, for example, to proselytize, to take the words of the "Great Commission" as an overriding command for my discipleship, and proceed to teach as many as I can the doctrine of atonement and the soteriology that springs therefrom? Or am I obligated to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, because in doing so I serve my Lord directly? That's not a simple distinction, and it's not a distinction with bragging rights. It's actually a distinction of humility: just how humble am I willing to be? And if you think that's pointing a finger at someone, then the old cliche is still true, and four more are pointing back at me. My initial question remains: Is God simply an idea? Or is God a present reality? How real, after all, can an idea be? How much comfort can an idea finally give? When was the last time an idea handed food to a hungry person, a shirt to a naked person, paid a visit on an invalid? The idea might provide the motivation, or the excuse. But a person has to do those things, and do them to, and for, another person, a present and distinct reality.

It's the problem of the idea, v. the reality. How do I love an idea? I don't, of course. I love, or hate, a person. An idea may goad me, may motivate me, may inspire me; but it cannot love me, or hate me, and I cannot love or hate it.

This is a fairly consistent message in the scriptures (there are many consistent messages in the scriptures; the problem is figuring out which ones they are). Only a few weeks ago it was the words of the Preacher, the speaker to the ecclesia:

1:2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

1:12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem,

1:13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.

1:14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

2:18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me

2:19 --and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.

2:20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun,

2:21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

2:22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?

2:23 For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
Not words any pastor or priest wants to speak to his or her flock these days; not honeyed words calculated to charm and soothe. But these are words so prickly with truth we hardly know where to grasp them. One key is the vanity of looking for anything substantial, worthwhile, or valuable in the world, aside from God. Ecclesiastes doesn't reach the conclusion directly, but it is there nonetheless:

Remember your Creator before the silver bowl is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, befoe the pitcher is shattered at the spring and the wheel broken at the well, before the dust returns to the earth as it began and the spirit to God who gave it. Utter futility, says the Speaker, everything is futile.
This is the end of the matter: you have heard it all. Fear God and obey his commandments; this sums up the duty of mankind. For God will bring everything we do to judgment, every secret, whether good or bad.
And as for our knowledge? Well, it is no knowledge at all:

49:1 Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world,

49:2 both low and high, rich and poor together.

49:3 My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.

49:4 I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.

49:5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,

49:6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?

49:7 Truly, no ransom avails for one's life, there is no price one can give to God for it.

49:8 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice

49:9 that one should live on forever and never see the grave.

49:10 When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.

49:11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own.

49:12 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
And what is pomp except the trappings of power; any power? And what does that purchase you? As Psalm 49 ends: "For human beings like oxen are short-lived; they are like beasts whose lives are cut short."

Ecclesiastes presents us with the truth about the world, and it is so unflinching it seems too harsh to have a place in our scriptures. But Ecclesiastes is not a small part of the truth; it is a small book because truth can be stated so simply. It is a dark parable that addresses some of the base mysteries of existence. As the Speaker says:

So the Speaker, in his wisdom, continued to instruct the people. He turned over many maxims in his mind and sought how best to set them out. He chose his words to give pleasure, but what he wrote was straight truth. The sayings of the wise are as sharp as goads, like nails driven home; they guide the assembled people, for they come from one shepherd.
Ecclesiastes does not set out to give answers, but to undermine human vanity. It's an odd connection, but I caught something of the same note when J.K. Rowling introduced the centaur, Firenze, as the Divination teacher in HP5 (a character sadly missing from the movie):

It was the most unusual lesson Harry had ever attended. They did indeed burn sage and mallowsweet there on the classroom floor, and Firenze told them to look for certain shapes and symbols in the pungent fumes, but he seemed perfectly unconcerned that not one of them could see any of the signs he described, telling them that humans were hardly every good at this, that it took centaurs years and years to become competent, and finished by telling them that it was foolish to put too much faith in such things anyway, because even centaurs sometimes read them wrongly. He was nothing like any human teacher Harry had ever had. His priorty did not seem to be to teach them what he knew, but rather to impress upon them that nothing, not even centaurs' knowledge, was foolproof.
(Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, pp. 603-04)

Perhaps more to the point, that "vanity of vanities" language is echoed, slightly, in Firenze's dismissal of the astrology Professor Trelawney has taught the students:

"That," said Firenze calmly, "is human nonsense."

Parvati's hand fell limply to her side.

"Trivial hurts, tiny human accidents," said Firenze, as his hooves thudded over the mossy floor. "These are of no more significance than the scurryings of ants to the wide universe, and are unaffected by planetary movements."
Centaurs, Firenze explains, "watch the skies for the great tides of evil or change that are sometimes marked there. It may take ten years to be sure of what we are seeing." It's a sentiment I can almost compare favorably to the Hebrew prophets, who saw the great tides of events in the life of Israel, not the fate of any individual in the next 24 hours. Even today the prophets of Israel are used to "predict" the "trivial hurts" and "tiny human accidents" that afflict us; even today we don't understand that it may be years before we are sure of what we are seeing. We are addicted to the short view, not the long one; and we think our knowledge, whatever knowledge it is, must surely be foolproof; especially when we are impatient for confirmation of our power.

Ecclesiastes fits into the scriptures not because he ends by telling his audience to fear God, or even because he serves up a warning to theologians and contrarians like me: "One further warning, my son: there is no end to the writing of books, and much study is wearisome." No, Ecclesiastes belongs in the canon because, more than any other book outside the work of the prophets or the parables of Jesus, it reminds us of the folly of human wisdom. Now, the problem there is, without human wisdom, what have you got? A lot of bizarre stories about widows finding coins and waking the neighbors, or people selling all they have to own a single pearl? And where is the wisdom in those? It is, indeed, a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But without our humanity, what are we? Small wonder "Israel" usually translates as 'struggles with God.' Perhaps we should take this entire notion of Christianity as much more like i'jaam than like our birthright, and we should add to our vocabulary the Islamic concept of jihad, which means not "religious war" but "struggle." And while we're at it, we could pick up intifada, which doesn't promote violence either, but simply means "throwing off."

We could do worse, after all, than to struggle with ourselves and these things and the reality of God, and to throw off what our culture insists on, rather than to struggle with each other.

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