Sunday, December 7, 2008

Seeking Justice in the City; Seeking Justice in the Soul

The twentieth century scholar of political philosophy Leo Strauss famously noted that ``no bloody or unbloody change of society can eradicate the evil in man: as long as there will be men, there will be malice, envy and hatred. [Strauss, Leo. The City and Man. University Of Chicago Press, 1978] A more apt description of the world the Christian of the modern era finds himself in is hard to come by. The modern era has seen virtually every form of government imaginable, monarchies of varying degrees, dictatorships of every flavor imaginable, oligarchies, republics, kleptocracies, and democracies. Representing every possible political and social ideology, none of these regimes have managed to fundamentally change the human person. After all is said and done, evil still lurks in the heart of every man.

Recognizing that this evil exists offends us as Christians. Seeing evil done violates our sense of justice. ``Its just not right,'' we say to ourselves. We become saddened and disappointed. Sometimes we despair. But sometimes we try to fix things and make them right. This last response is the driver for finding new modes of government by the Christian. But the cardinal problem is not the mode of government, but what lies in the hearts of both the governed and governors. Malice, evil and hatred are not problems that political science can conquer. Political science may be able to manage the consequences of evil, injustice, to a greater or lesser extent but political science can never root out malice, evil and hatred from the human condition.

So this desire by the Christian to bring injustice to an end can never be fulfilled. At best it can only be given a taste of justice if a mode of government can be found that manages evil to a great extent. Far more likely, however, is that it will be frustrated. And at worst, if a particularly poor mode of government is attempted, it will result in far more injustice. When the last of these obtains, the mode of government which is an attempt to make society into a flourishing and complete whole, only succeeds in making a society less of what it ought to be.

This same struggle goes on in our very souls. As Christians we sense that we are somehow not complete. We long to be made whole. We desire to have an abundant life, to act in a fashion worthy of creatures made in the image and likeness of God. And, through the grace of God, we can begin to approach such a mode of being. The difficult part, however, is that this process will not be made complete until judgment day. Until then we will be frustrated by our own thoughts, words, actions and choices. We will also be frustrated by events outside of our control. We must struggle through a world that is fundamentally broken by the bad choices of thousands of generations.

This desire to be made whole sometimes lead to frustration, especially in light of Orthodox teachings about God. The prayers sung by the priest during the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom present a challenge to the Christian whose longing remains unfulfilled. The Prayer of the First Antiphon reveals God in the plenitude of His power.

O Lord our God, whose might is incomparable, whose glory is incomprehensible, whose mercy is infinite, and whose love of man is ineffable, do thou thyself, O Master, in thy tenderheartedness look down upon us and upon this holy house, and grant us and those who pray with us thy rich mercies and compassion.
Then in the Prayer of the Second Antiphon, the relationship of the Christian to God is revealed. 
O thou who hast bestowed on us these common and accordant prayers, and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in thy name, thou wilt grant their requests, fulfil even now the requests of thy servants as is expedient for them, granting us in this present age the knowledge of thy truth, and in that to come, life eternal. 
In the divine liturgy, God is first revealed as being a good God of infinite mercy and then Man is revealed as the object of Gods mercy and that God grants the requests of Christians, as may be expedient for them.

That teaching, at least for me, is a hard teaching. To know that God will grant all of our prayers, all of of our hopes and dreams, but only inasmuch as they are expedient for us as individuals, inasmuch as they are appropriate for us fulfilling our purpose in the divine economy, is to know that there there is a certain sense in which we live in the best of all possible worlds. In this world, whatever struggles and challenges we are presently going through as Christians, those challenges and struggles are the exact challenges and struggles that God in his infinite wisdom and immeasurable mercy sees most likely to bring us to perfection as human beings created in His image and likeness. The frustrated longing we feel to create justice is sometimes unfulfilled because either the way we would bring this justice about is not proper or the `just' end that we seek is not so just after all. Our longing to be fulfilled in these situations is simply not part of Gods plan and is not to be.

There is clearly a danger that this view can lead to despair, especially when our present struggles and challenges seem almost too much to bear. But it need not. As human beings, we have to face that we are not always cognizant of Gods plan. Outside of an angelic visitation or direct experience of God, we cannot know with certainty whether our attempts to bring about justice will conclude in the end that we seek. We do not know if God is testing our resolve. We do not know if God is throwing up obstacles to get us to switch our course. We can only pray and hope and seek to become more fully the image and likeness of God, to become closer to the perfect man. And there come times when we must accept that those things which we long for will not be given to us. For me, those are the hardest times of all, when I must recognize that this longing inside of me is going to remain unfulfilled in this life and I must be content to wait until the next to be made whole.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thoughts on Vampires and Salvation

I have a confession to make. I am a sucker for vampire movies, especially ones that take a more traditional view of the undead. (I am also a sucker for zombie movies, but that is neither here nor there to the subject at hand.) I have always found it fascinating that in most variations on the vampire legend the question of eternal damnation becomes separated from the question of the will. Outside of a few rather interesting treatments, one does not choose to become a vampire but is made into a vampire unwillingly. While the plot arc of many vampire movies revolves around the salvation of a soul through choice, that choice is almost always made by a third party hero who chooses to save the victim and quite frequently who does so through some sort of self sacrifice. Salvation, in most forms of the vampire mythos, becomes a passive act outside of the will of the person whose soul is imperiled. Rather the soul becomes a mere trophy in a cosmic battle of good and evil.

I am not a vampire purist. I do not hold that there is any one true vampire fable by which all others should be judged in terms of how vampires are created, are capable of being killed, and so on and so forth. Two popular treatments do bother me: Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Series. But it is not the lore contained within those so much as the way that vampires are made into heroes rather than villains. I do prefer the old fashioned treatments but some takes on the myth such as Richard Matheson's I am Legend were certainly done well and offered quite a bit of food for thought as explorations of what it means to be human. But as of the immediate present, I am not interested in exploring what it means to be human so much as what it means for a human to find salvation.

The interesting thing to me about the traditional myth of the vampire is how it seems to have morphed in the popular imagination from being a punishment, originally some evil doers were damned to roam the earth after death as penalty for heinous sins committed while alive, to being a state conferred by seeming chance as a particular vampire becomes enamored of a particular victim and chooses to make that victim into a vampire. In the oldest folk tales, becoming a vampire may not have been a choice, but it was at least the result of choices that were made by the person who would later become a vampire. By the time Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, even that element of choice had disappeared. By the time movie studies started adapting vampire myths, becoming a vampire became something almost mechanical, a victim was bitten once or thrice --depending on which novel, story or film-- and that was that, the victim became a vampire. The only real choices involved were the choices of the hero fighting against the creatures of the night to save their victims not only from death but from eternal damnation.

I would argue that this mechanical view of the workings of some sort of anti-grace is at least somewhat the result of a quasi-Calvinistic view of the world. In this system of strict double predestination, souls are chosen to be one of the elect or one of the damned from the dawn of time and the choices one makes have no role in bringing about one's salvation or damnation but only reflect the choice that has already been made by God. Similarly in vampiric lore, the choice is made not by the victim but by either the progeny of the devil himself (the vampire) or by the agent of God (the hero). The vampire and the hero lock in combat over the soul of the victim. The victim has no say, no choice. Whichever side is stronger in a test of wills wins the soul. The modern myth of the vampire is a akin in many ways to a deistic, dualistic Calvinism. On the one hand, the vampires have free reign of the world (at least at night) and have superhuman power and untold wealth. On the other hand, the heroes are very human, have limited resources and only have access to grace through relics (crosses, holy water, and things of this nature) which act in a very mechanistic fashion. The vampire myth is usually devoid of miracles, angels and saints. Humans are almost entirely alone in a world controlled by evil.

In some ways, I think this view is a product of industrialized society where most people feel trapped by circumstances. One cannot control where one is born or what resources one has while either growing up or making one's way in the world. Iit is true that there are some Ross Perots and Bill Clintons that are born into relative poverty and become massively wealthy or politically powerful (or both). But for the most part people born into families without the means to send them to college will not go to college and remain in the same social and economic status into which they were born. Without having connections in business and industry, it is difficult to find a good paying job. Without the means to spend four year or more earning a degree, it is difficult to get any job. Where people end up in life often seems predetermined. For many, it is hard to see how choices matter at all. Because of this, it is easy for most people to identify with the victim of the vampire. While we long to be able to make the choices of the hero, we feel trapped by a world controlled by powerful creatures of evil and that our only hope is to be rescued by a hero who has the agency and will that we lack.

Many people tend to approach religion the same way. Taking the view that our very salvation is entirely out of our control, many go through the motions of life waiting for a hero to pull them out of their existential misery. What they do does not seem to have any real meaning as the choices they make seem ultimately outside of their control. The world seems to them to more the playground of evil. God, if a God exists, does not get involved but lets the devil rule the world with only the odd hero or heroine with the strength of will to resist. And those that do resist usually end up being sacrificed in some way. The final destination of their souls seem to them to be outside of their own control and, most likely, will be beaten down by the forces of evil. Heroes, after all, are in short supply in world run by the evil and the powerful.

Such a view, of course, is far afield of the doctrine of the soul taught by the oldest and most ancient forms of Christianity. (Although, one could make the argument that it is very close to some of the views of a few different early groups of heretics.) Not only does orthodox Christianity hold that the God along with the angels and saints take an active interest in the world, but it also teaches the moral agency of every person who is created in the image and likeness of God. The apostle Paul used the word synergoi (1 Corinthians 3:9, usually translated as `fellow workers') to describe Christians in relationship to God. In the orthodox Christian world view, all people are (or at least have the potentiality to be) the hero of the vampire movie rather than the victim. 

If we find ourselves as the victim of the vampire waiting to be saved through the agency of someone else, it is only because we refuse to make our own choices not because we are unable to make our own choices. This is not to say that Christianity does not teach that we do not need divine grace in order to work out our salvation. Working out our salvation according to the Gospel rests upon the facts of the incarnation, crucifixion, death, resurrection and ascension of the God-made-man Jesus Christ. But grace does not appear in our lives as an action hero physically battling the forces of darkness to save our souls. Rather, it is this grace that allows us to make the choices that lead us to being that very hero as a fellow worker of the Divine. Unlike the victim in a vampire movie that lies waiting to be bitten or for the hero to drive a stake through the vampire's heart, we have the choice to either accept or reject the advances of the vampire. We cannot choose whether or not evil is present in our lives be we can choose whether or not we will actively take part in that evil or whether or not we will try to stand our ground in the cosmic battle for justice in our souls.