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Monday, 24 February 2014

Praising Bad Saints? (Commenting on Myers)

I only follow a few blogs. Today I performed my routine check and was delighted to find a new post on one of the most learned and entertaining of these, Faith and Theology. I read on right then and there, expecting to be intrigued and surprised, but always in agreement. To my surprise I found I was not surprised but unaccountably jaded.

Soon I became quite concerned at my own strange weariness. Was this not Ben Myers at his finest, coming at life with his charmingly provocative Trinitarian lens? Recently he has posted some thoughts on the communion of saints and his own participation in that communion (e.g. through how he structures his daily calendar around death dates [birthdays] of personally special saints). In these thoughts he seems to have rarified a ‘participatory’ Christianity, a vision of life interpreted through a heavily involved pneumatology/Christology/what-have-you, and as such it embodies a kind of articulate forwardness by which we can see his spirituality – and all like it – “for what it is.”

I do not want to be needlessly presumptuous in treating Myer’s blog post. This is not an attack. I thank him for his reflections and enjoy them immensely. But I am hesitant about where they are going and what they imply. I suppose this is another reason to give him thanks, for it is through him I am encountering a form of spirituality that may help me come to grips with my own – with who I am and the nature or style of the spiritual “way” I have found myself in and choose through (sometimes neglected) active practice. Before reading further, here is the article: In Praise of Bad Art

Now, for starters, I can only access the whole paradigm that makes such a reflection available and intelligible in the first place through a hyperbolized version constructed out of materials I am familiar with. That is an important preface, because Myer’s worldview is inherently more complicated than I can fathom, and besides, I have only been exposed to 0.00014% of it.

But of that 0.00014%, 0.000032% seems to me worrisome in its implications, for a few reasons. Myers writes and thinks with a grand view of history – of its successes and failures and their interdependence – at the background and the foreground. When he is done lauding great writers (Shakespeare, Johnson, etc.) or actors (Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchett, etc.), he moves on and lauds the conditions of their being. He has what I might call, with my limited grasp of Hegel, a Hegelian appreciation for the play of history. All things have a place in his praise, because all things have a place in a grander scheme which yields things worthy of praise.

The person who does not share this appreciation, who indeed despises the, on average, mediocrity of history and prefers to spend his time on the pinnacles of that incomprehensible flux (which, if charted, might look like a zestful depiction of quantum foam), therefore “hates the seedbed from which the things he loves will grow,” writes Myers. Now, are we to infer that we ought then to praise the seedbed? Clearly. But here’s the thing: if we do, where will the praising end – at the harsh conditions and natural forces that, through erosion and distribution, made the minerals in the soil available? – at the composted beings that once lived and by unknown means met their end and now provide nutrients to the soil? This might not sound like a bad idea, but you might see where it is going. We will become exhausted, and at that point the hypertrophy of praise will betray itself as limited, having only so much substance, only so much energy. Where does this substance come from? That which sparked the praise in the first place, of course! The flower is why we praise the seedbed, not the seedbed itself. No flower, no praise. Anything associated with the flower, therefore, deserves some derivative appreciation, again not because of what it inherently is but because we happen, first, to think the flower praiseworthy. The further something’s association from the original source of grandeur, the less meritorious it is of our thanks. In such a way of seeing things, we will quite likely to be unable to think of any other reason to appreciate the seedbed other than that given to us by the flower…

Here is how Myers carries this over into the realm of human beings and the Church:

We religious believers are, as a rule, pretty unexceptional. Only with the greatest difficulty and inconsistency do we ever manage to align some bits of our lives with what we profess to believe. What can we say? We are sorry! We have been to all the rehearsals! We wish we could do it better! But the great mass of unexceptional believers should be judged ultimately not by its weakest cases but by its strongest: St Francis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa.

In this passage Myers is clearly working from the thoroughly-Christian, complex presupposition that our life as Christians is directly bound up in the life of these exceptional believers, the saints we venerate, because we are all part of the body of Christ. But what is the nature of this shared life? Do the deeds of great saints “suffice” for the rest of us, that is, are their deeds our deeds? That cannot be it, since Christ’s faithfulness alone “suffices,” and it is only him that works in us, making what good deeds we do his good deeds, what goodness we have in us his goodness. We continue to be distinguishable individuals, accountable to a, yes, forgiving and eternally loving God – but as individuals nonetheless.

So how does this interdependence among Christians, this mutual identification, work? Certainly it must be as a living organism works and not as some “holy celebrity culture” in which the only personalities that count are the saints. Taking the analogy of the body introduced by Paul: do the defects of a naughty hand get covered up by the perfection of the eye? That cannot be, because the defect in one is a defect that by its nature is unique to that one, which in turn is a defect of the entire organism that cannot be repeated or covered up by any other part. Is it really possible that I am so misunderstanding Myers that I believe him to be saying we as Christians are judged as a homogenous mass whose countenance is only the lump sum of the prettiest (saintliest) faces, some massive equation rounded to the highest common denominator?

Whether or not that is what Myers is getting at, it is a possibility that I cannot stomach for reasons too complex and shadowed for even myself to understand. Honestly, the meaning of my own attitude is ambiguous to me. When Myers writes, “What can we say? We are sorry!” part of me wants to say, of myself and of others: “Sorry is not good enough! Let us acknowledge our inadequacy without being so hasty to move on from it – perhaps then something might happen!” I do know that this is not realistic and that the speculated consequence would likely not result. Moreover, it is not me who gets to the do the talking but the God who reveals himself to us and the forgiving, loving nature therein. Yet something feels funny to me. Am I running up here against the offensive nature of the gospel, or are my instincts in fact appropriately piqued by some dangerous or problematic theology?

Taking a look at another passage, I find that though I cannot reach a resolution to the above question, I can at least reach a different sort of resolution: a tentative opposition to Myer’s worldview (as presented in his blog post), for reasons that will become apparent. He writes:  “God and all the holy angels shower us with applause – not because of ourselves, but because of what we represent and what we help to make possible. We do it poorly so that somewhere, some day, some virtuoso will step on to the stage and do it well.” If you went and did all it took to understand this statement – which perhaps does not at first strike one as counterintuitive but nonetheless contains a great mystery – where would you be? Where you started, I dare say, with perhaps a better appreciation of the familiar spot.

Now, it is true that to change one’s perception – the way one sees oneself, others and events, and how one is caught up in it all – is in fact to change oneself and even the actions and relationships that are available to one. To phrase it philosophically, ontology is bound up with and mutually related to phenomenology. Blake, for one, makes a big deal of this (“Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern’d their Passion or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated their Understandings” - by which he means a certain way of perceiving reality). Blake phrases this truth provocatively, but it is a truth all the same: working to change one’s perception is morally and existentially significant. However, there is no going “prior to” or “behind” the ethical – it still operates on the level of perception-founding paradigms. Therefore, even though spiritual frameworks such as Myers' contain the elements to make ethical evaluations (as in the statement that we are valuable “not because of ourselves, but because of what we represent”), they too can be ethically evaluated in toto. In other words, the practical implications and consequences outside of the theoretical vision are in truth bound up in that vision and may either weigh it down our buoy it up. Entire spiritual systems can and should be viewed with whatever level of detachment we can gain to assess them in their fullest manifestation – for their roots are pervasive and suck water from places we may not even suspect.

So, struggling as I am to operate on this level of distance, I want to ask a practical question of Myers: Why not redirect the energy that it takes to understand and live into this way of looking at things and its whole scheme of valuation – which at most seems to provide a peace of mind from which one might, without anxiety, attempt again and again a higher goodness, and at worse provides one with the perceptual means to a complacency no less an opiate than a less sophisticated faith – towards changing the life that was discontented enough to be intrigued by that vision in the first place?

I don’t have the answer, and because I am questioning some of the deepest mysteries of the Church, I want to cease my impudent tone the only way I know how – by ceasing to write.

Those in possession of answers, please forward them to me via the comment section below. 

1 comment:

  1. Patrick, thank you! What a marvellous response! Two small thoughts by way of reply:

    (1) From the end of your post: "Why not redirect this energy ... towards changing the life that was discontented enough to be intrigued by that vision in the first place?" I suspect I won't be shocking anybody when I admit that I'm not very optimistic about schemes for changing our lives – in part because it's so hard to acquire enough knowledge about what a life is or what changing it would really entail. I don't mean it's impossible. But the prevailing change-your-life mood of our cultural moment makes me wary about the ease with which theologians go around harnessing their beliefs to one scheme or another. If human nature is always wheat and tares together, then (this is how I see it) the world is crying out not so much for change as for the grace of a discriminating judgment.

    (2) Nevertheless. If theoretically we're approaching things differently, in practice we're probably quite close. When I use a real-life anecdote for a blog post, there is usually some degree of poetic license in the way the facts are reported. In this instance, it might be revealing (I hope not completely damning) to tell you where the story was embellished: I did not in fact stay till the end of the play; I did not applaud; I could not bear it; I left in the intermission. But before I left I had already finished jotting down my reflections in my notebook, including the bit about staying till the end and applauding. Which goes to show: You can write like a Hegelian, but you can't live like one.