Friday, December 28, 2012

Tense and Christmas

"I will say to God, 'Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me.'" -- Job 10:2
"Those at ease have contempt for misfortune, but it is ready for those whose feet are unstable." -- Job 12:5
On Christmas day, or boxing day, if you read this then, we are in peculiar straits, at least insofar as the usual Christian message goes. The Dean of the National Cathedral sent out his Christmas remarks this morning, and he said that Christmas reminds us that "peace will overcome strife."

Despite Afghan police shooting their allies, felons shooting EMS workers, young men shooting children, movie goers, politicians, and each other, what he said is true -- as is the papal call for peace and the angelic host's call for joy -- but is is a multivocal truth that it inhabits. There is an obvious truth, such as was seen in World War I's Christmas Truce, but there is another truth that is hermeneutic and only read through tears.

Let us recall what many would have us forget: the passion and incarnation are linked, just as the teaching is, and the freedom Christians lay a claim upon is at a savage cost. The ministry of Jesus isolated from the incarnation and passion is ethics, as the passion without the ministry is narcissism or masochism. The incarnation without the baffling message and bitter humiliation is tinsel.

Last Sunday night, Turner Classic Movies aired "The Passion of Joan of Arc." Like Mel Gibson's agit-prop movie, this film delivers exactly what the title promises: Joan in extremis. We watch the mocking and martyrdom of a girl, and Melle Falconetti's performance is so graphically real that it is hard both not to deplore the director for sacrificing so much for art and oneself for the implication of enjoying, on some level, the performance. However, the movie put forward again the Christian mystery of suffering, which makes it an odd choice for December 23.

If you will abide me, I will try to discuss suffering to the degree that any of us might, and explain how it can be that we can believe that peace, like the wings of a brooding God, can prevail.

2012 has not ended the political states of the world, although it has seen more theocratic states rise than there were, and it has not seen the sky rent in twain, although we have all felt some death this year. The greatest watchword for the year may be "divided," and that does not pertain merely to political parties. Poverty is interspersed with wealth, and slow disease hides amid happy populations. As the year ends in a wail of sirens that drowns out the carolers, there are not generalities but confusion.

Newtown is probably the most emotionally revolting moment since 9/11/01. It has driven observers to the customary human reactions: a desire to know why, a desire to isolate it, a desire to ensure that the "world" present in one's horizon has certainty. With 9/11, we got "al Qaeda and Iraq did this" leading to "the muslims hate us because freedom" and then "revenge, wanted dead or alive." Those three steps gave a contour to experience that kept it from the realm of suffering -- at least the way that I'm using the term.

Narratives make sense of untamed experience. When we can fit explosions into "attack; agents of evil; reason for evil is evil without rehabilitation," then we have them in magnified version of a playground shoving match. We understand it. We can have pain from it, and we are prepared to accept more pain in the process of finishing the narrative ("hit them back"). Suffering is Job's country.

In the eighteenth century, two approaches to theodicy relied on Job. Leibniz's Theodicy of 1710 "turns directly to Job as a type of the man who makes a partial complaint about unjustified evil," and Leibniz "distinguishes between local malice -- the brigands who make off with his goods -- and the divine purposes served by the loss" (Jonathan Lamb Rhetoric of Suffering 64). On the other hand, Immanuel Kant wrote "On the Failure of all the Philosophical Essays in the Theodicee" in 1796 and argued, very much like a Romantic, that Leibniz's justification of evil in the plenitude of creation is not a consolation for suffering at all, but only a sentence. For Kant, what made Job acceptable to God is that Job never wavered in proclaiming himself innocent. Job's singleness of character and intensity of feeling of pain kept him from ever giving in to the temptations of the Accuser and ultimately granted him the direct encounter with God in the theophany (Lamb 66-7).

If I lost you in the Latinate terms, let me try it again. Leibniz said that God's plans are too big for us to judge, and what we have done to us may be "bad" and yet "good" within a larger scope of time or place or person. In the simplest scenario, imagine a batter in a baseball game. When he strikes out, he may wonder why his prayer's weren't answered, but the pitcher who gets a strikeout may praise God for hearing him. Good, Leibniz argued, is ultimately up to God. Kant said that that is no comfort for man and no guide, either. On the other hand, he felt that Job's purity of soul and determination were such that he was rewarded with God's declaration of mystery, but the answer to why evil exists is not given. Soren Kierkegaard, who saw Kant as usually sterile, said, "Job’s significance consists not in his having said it ('The Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord') but in his having acted upon it."

It may not surprise you to know that I agree with Kierkegaard "Only the person who has been tried and who tested the saying in being tested himself, only he rightly interprets the saying; Job desires only that kind of pupil." From the earliest moments of the Jewish tradition and the Christian faith, suffering has been present. It is not mandatory, but it is there, always.

(The great) Charlie Pierce had the most graceful little essay I have seen in a long time last Friday. His "out on the weekend" for last weekend contrasted the original and altered lyrics of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The altered lyric puts "We'll hang a shining star upon the highest bough" in place of "Until then, we'll have to muddle on somehow." The original lyric, he argued, is the true spirit of optimism, that we are all muddlers -- believing that we will go on, that we will make headway. (Additionally, the song has an aura of loss and poverty about it, as the singer is having a little Christmas rather than an "li'l ole" Christmas.) As he put it, the people who demand smiles are the betrayers, for
"They want us to stop and stare at the artificial gleam of their private stars high up on the boughs they have designed forever to be out of our reach."

Whether it is a divorce or the cold hand gripping your heart when you get news of a disease, whether it is an eternal fight to gain a basic right or a particularly arbitrary visitation of violence, suffering exposes us to its tempering heat.

Suffering does not, so far as I can tell, "build character." It may impart wisdom, but, by itself, it does not do anything. It does not arise out of a message nor resolve into a lesson. It is not for something. It cannot be weighed or measured, denied or affirmed.

Job is not informed that his suffering has been for someone or something. Only by living and maintaining his integrity (Job 27:5), by becoming a new man, does the suffering lead to an epiphany. Job can bless the name of the Lord when he has a different understanding. Similarly, Joan of Arc testified that God might well allow her to be imprisoned and killed, because His ways are not our ways. She had to admit that God's horizon is not ours. Both of them have gotten "wisdom," in that suffering is leading them to stand in a new place and have thus a new parallax on life.

I suspect that a person who suffers passively emerges with scar tissue and little more. A person who denies suffering to turn it toward injury will well up with rage and spread the contagion of suffering -- sending missiles into the ground a continent away to do to hundreds of places what was done here and to inflict on scores of places the same horror of empty places and unknown losses as we went through at 9/11. A person who commands suffering to mean, too, announces ahead of time that it cannot teach, for he has already laid out the options for the suffering to fit into.

We come to tense, to verbs, and this is where we are bound by dark magic.  The preterite has us at "am" and "is." Ours is experiencing, not life. We have memory and history, and remembering makes up most of the mountain and tide of intellect, but we only see a segment of a line.

You are the car in "Tron," or a water bug skittering across the surface of the water, or a snail going over the smooth cement. No matter what metaphor you use, you are a line segment.
The burning tip of the segment is the present, and it is larger than the rest.

The other end of the line segment is "living memory," and it is both small and diffuse.

From your vantage point in the onion bulb of the present, you and I form lessons and hypotheses. This is what we are afforded and commanded by the to-be verb. However, a clear beginning-to-end set of experiences is always beyond our reckoning. I cannot say, "Ask her out, because all she can do is say 'no,' and 'no' is no worse than what you get for not asking," but I have only my context, my rays of experience.

Suffering is otherwise, else ways. Suffering, distinguished from injury, appears with paradox or enigma around it, and it comes always with powerlessness. It suspends time's regulation and the preterite's control, because it defies cause and effect. Hurricanes have causes in warm oceans, but the hurricane that sends a storm surge up your river and over your house, while your neighbor is dry might as well be random. The building that falls, or the overpass that fails, or the violence of the mad, all render cause and test time because, more importantly than how fearfully "random" they are is the fact that they never end.

I have already written about how 9/11 wasn't a day for those of us who were in Manhattan. It was more than a month of fire and smoke, and longer than that of the dead. The BP beaches are not done, and they will never be done, burning through the soil, water, and people of the Gulf. The childless parents will suffer on a scale that has no contact with pace or time.

When we know, truly, that God considers death no punishment, that it is a thing neither good nor bad, but merely the way of all things, then suffering is a way of moving us to see beyond time, beyond the segment we occupy. There is no acceptance. There is, instead, an ability to weep, drink gall, and yet praise the name of the Lord. In a joyous birth may be a martyrdom, and in the darkest death may be redemption. The values of things do not come from our perspectives as a group, even less alone, but only from that which is past time and emanating all life.


Anonymous said...

Strong piece! Thank you!

The Geogre said...

Thank you.

I've been trying, as this blog will show, to address the issue for the better part of two years. I'm still not done, I think. It's like backing up and running at a hurdle. I still haven't cleared it.