Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Purity of Heart is to Will What I Want

Anthony McCarthy stirred my thinking with this comment at another blog:

It's so funny how being realistic about things such as the Ivys and scientists gives people here the heebie jeebies. For Pete's sake, they put their pants on the same way all of us do. They're [no] less prone to evil than the Vatican or Wall Street.
Evil has become, for the most part, corporate. Well, that's not quite right; it is our conception of evil that has changed. We attach it almost wholly to institutions (the church; multi-national corporations; the government) or to individuals with great power (Senators; Presidents; Vice-Presidents; CEO's). Seldom do we attach it to individuals as individuals. Would anybody really consider Dick Cheney evil if he hadn't been Vice-President of the United States for 8 years? He'd have been no different as a private citizen running Halliburton (poorly, by all accounts; its stock tripled in value after Cheney returned to public office and Halliburton became the contractor of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan), but would we have considered him evil then, or even noticed him? Individuals we barely consider evil at all, and therein lies an interesting distinction.

Consider what Sherri said earlier, a familiar lament:

What will the church do? What has the 'church' done? The loudest part will continue to do what it's been doing: fight abortion, but ignore the living, and measure their success by numbers and money and power gained.

Can you tell I'm feeling discouraged these days?
And when you consider that the Church does, or doesn't do, it's terribly easy to feel discouraged. But part of the problem is that our default position is the hearts of the people may be pure (well, some of them; I'm pretty sure about me and thee, although maybe not always about thee), but the heart of the institution is selfish and corrupt and bent toward evil ends.

Who, then, is the institution? Is it me and thee? Or is it "them"?

I mean, how many of us don't live our lives by ignoring the living (especially those in our neighborhood, or standing destitute on street corners, or huddled under overpasses) and measure our success by numbers and money and power gained? I make no money from this blog, but I obsessively check the Site Meter statistics, and rejoice when anything I post merits a comment. It's not exactly evil to desire such things, but what about that makes me still innocent and pure, and the Church corrupt and debased? My purity of heart is to will one thing; but what purity of heart can the church ever have, apart from the hearts of its members?

That definition of purity of heart, of course, depends upon what is willed. The corporation may will one thing, to increase a return to the shareholders. But not only does the corporation not have a heart, there is nothing pure in that singular motivation. The church may will to be the body of Christ, but hang it all, Robert Browning, there can be but one Sordello? But Sordello, and my Sordello?

Problems abound.

And left there, we are left nowhere at all. Yes the individual heart seeks reconciliation, but does it do it free from the taint of evil? No, of course not. Scientists may pursue noble goals, but they still create nuclear weapons and radioactive waste (even X-ray machines and cat scans have unfortunate by-products we will visit upon generations unborn almost to the end of the earth itself). Nobody meant evil when they found a use for the oil spewing from Spindletop, but look at the results today. And how many of us are evil because we still drive cars or turn on lights powered by fossil fuels, power delivered on poles dipped in petroleum products to prevent rot, or buy foods delivered by diesel trucks, food raised by petroleum derived fertilizers, via roads topped with more petroleum products. There is truly nothing in our modern world that isn't a product of oil and gas development, yet we consider BP and Exxon evil. They are, but not us.

How pure we sometimes are. We didn't cause the oil spill in the Gulf; we just wanted the oil under the Gulf. Our intentions are pure, so we are blameless. BP's intentions were to make money, so it is evil. How convenient it all is.*

And there's the problem: we have conveniently dissociated ourselves from all we depend on (corporations especially; they make daily life in America possible) and keep ourselves apart and clean, unsullied by all those...well, other people. A corporation is not a person (except as a convenient legal fiction, for reasons which actually make sense, Citizens United notwithstanding), but it is run by and for persons. At one extreme, we all know of "apologists" who were only doing their job, despite the results. At the other extreme, we know there are few "mad scientists" bent on absolute knowledge and indifferent to consequences. Yet any mention that scientists can wield inordinate power yields cries of ignorance as to what scientists "really do", or perhaps simply ignore Edward Teller as an outlier.

We are all of us pure; it is "them" you have to look out for. So the trick is to never be "them;" to be in the world, but not of the world.

But how do we do that? We can never forget that the predicaments of modern life are almost all the result of science and the "scientific process." Does this make science evil? No, but simply because individuals insist their hearts are pure and their intentions beneficent, doesn't mean evil isn't still done. The Church faces the same predicament: good as it may intend to be, evil results can still occur. Miserable creatures that we are, who is there to deliver us from this paradox?

Maybe we can deliver ourselves.

Oh, not entirely; but it is our idea of the community and the individual that is at the root of the problem. I punted the issue a bit earlier when I pointed out my purity of heart may will one thing, but the purity of heart of the church can never be established by willing one thing because, no matter how monolithic the Church may seem, its members never will one thing together at one time. That is the problem with institutions: they cannot be single-minded. At least, they cannot be single-minded and pure of heart; when they are single-minded, we seem to assume they are evil and driven only by their relentless malevolence (the other assumption is that they are flailing aimlessly, because they are not single-minded). The institution is one thing, the individual another, and as Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, they have unalterably different ends.

But Niebuhr's brother Richard thought Reinhold had come to the wrong conclusion; and perhaps Richard was right. We cannot assume the perfectability of the institution arising from the perfectability of human nature, and not merely because we cannot presume the perfectability of human nature. We cannot link the hearts of the individuals with the telos of the institution, even if we recognize that the institution is nothing more than the people who establish it. That doesn't mean we can't expect the institution to do good even if it isn't the good we would do. The real problem is: what good would we do?

It's a tougher question than it appears to be. As Brian Morton points out, "Be the change you want to see in the world" sounds good, but it's actually rather weak tea:
Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like ... a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”

Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.
Ah, but there's the problem! Discipline and persistence are hard, especially when I have to apply those efforts to working with others! My discipline and persistence break down in the face of their intransigence, of their impurity of heart, of their failure to will the one true thing which I want to will. Can you see why people feel discouraged?

Which isn't to say people aren't jerks, pinheads, and weasels. Some of them are even evil. "Them," of course; never me. My heart is pure. Your heart, on the other hand....well, as Jeremiah said: "The heart is devious, who can fathom it?" Oh, wait, that wasn't Jeremiah speaking; that was God. Even God doesn't know our heart is pure. But God is pretty sure the corporate heart is impure; because, well, just look at what corporations and institutions do! Except that's what God goes on to tell Jeremiah to tell Israel: God tests the heart to find out what is in it. God knows what is in the heart by what is done; and God alone is fit to sit in the seat of judgment. The rest of us? We don't even know what is in our hearts when we act. We consider our actions pure, our hearts to be willing the one thing worth willing. We judge ourselves from the point of view of ourselves, and this makes us sure our intentions are good, and the intentions of others are suspect. Those others are especially suspect if they aren't people but corporations, institutions, large groups. We trust individuals, but only if we know them. Groups earn our suspicion, our distrust, our fear and loathing. We don't trust them because we know we are moral, but societies can be, even have to be, immoral. And so we remain pure; in the world, but not of the world.

Which is another bumper sticker idea, one peculiar to Christianity. We were never told to be superior to the world. We were, are, told to be as innocent as doves, but also as wise as serpents. To be innocent in the world is to be vulnerable; to be wise in the world, is to be worldly. There is no reconciling this into a bumper sticker mentality that lets us be just what we want to be. And the ones sent out into this world are always "you," but the "you" is collective, not individual. Perhaps Southern English would serve us better, and the translation should read "Y'all," the one form of "you" in English I know of that is never singular. We go together, or we don't go at all. And none of us among us has a pure heart; our hearts together do not add up to a pure thing. We are not purer because we separate from the world; we are purer only when we embrace the world. Our purity comes from our selflessness, not our selfishness. After all, we are sent out as sheep among wolves; how much of our own wolvishness do we think we ever set aside?

Evil is not out there, accumulated against us, arising from a separate source or created by a group grown too large to do anything but act in its own self-interest. Evil is inherent in what we do, and how we do it. We may be as innocent as doves, but we are not innocent. We may be as wise as serpents, but we are not wise (and what is the wisdom of the serpent, after all?). We may be sheep among wolves, but are we so sure we are sheep, and they are wolves?

The picture of the maze at Chartres Cathedral is no accident here. The maze is for contemplation and meditation. It must be walked individually. However, it is exists in a wholly corporate setting, and apart from that setting it is nothing. Were the hearts of the builders of Chartres Cathedral pure? Probably not, but we can still appreciate the setting, we can still walk the maze in contemplation of the holy. But can we do that and avoid the community that built and sustained it, the clouds of witness who have conveniently removed themselves and all their prickly humanity from us, and left this legacy behind? The builders of this cathedral did at least this much good. They actually did even more good: they passed on to us the traditions we live with today, both religious and secular, for better and for worse. It is clear none of us can do very much good alone. So the question stands: what good can we do?

*yes, BP was responsible for its irresponsibility; but we are complicit. BP is not a group of aliens taking our natural resources for their own non-human purposes. The oil they pump from beneath the Gulf is impossible to distinguish at the gasoline pump where you fill your car. They were simply extracting what we need, what we have come to rely on. As the environmentalists used to say, there is no free lunch.


  1. I'm reminded of Oscar Romero's prayer:

    We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

    We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

    We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.