Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Sage

Today’s first Mass reading runs:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only-begotten Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.
– 1 John 4:7-10

Sometimes “is” functions as an “=” sign, as in the old joke:

God is love. Love is blind. Ray Charles is God.

“If God is love, and everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God, then surely,” someone might console himself, “my love with X is holy, even though we’re not married in the eyes of the Church. If only these cruel coots hadn’t corrupted Christianity’s simple beauty!”

The self-consoler would be correct that all loves–indeed all good things–partake of the divine nature insofar as they are lovely, insofar as they are good. But not all loves are all good. The old joke exhibits a logical fallacy because love is not blind the same way Ray Charles was. As with blindnesses, so too there are different kinds and qualities of love.

How are we to know which loves are good? What if this love, with this beloved lover, feels good right now? Is it good if it feels good? If it feels good, is it a love worthy of building a world on? If it feels good, is it God?

Plato, perhaps unfairly, attributed to Protagoras a form of the observation “Man is the measure of all things” and opposed with revulsion the idea that each of us might subjectively determine the justice of an act like a feverish man and a healthy man arguing over whether it’s hot in here. The modern response to the latter is of course to fetch a thermometer, but Plato’s Socrates still finds scientific moderns as perplexed as ever if sent to fetch a yardstick for ethics, and so perhaps we should consider his old solution to the problem of measurement: in such a heated moral argument, listen to the healthy human.

But who among us is healthy? Buddhism presents us with its Enlightened Ones, and says that a buddha is the healthy human to whom we should listen. Many Buddhist teachers are wise indeed, but enough of them are as corrupt as the worst Catholic bishops that merely being a certified recipient of a lineage's Dharma transmission seems little more reliable a guide to personal sanctity than Apostolic Succession. If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Ah yes, says the self-consoler: trust yourself.

Try it. I don’t find myself that trustworthy.

Perhaps none of us is healthy enough to be a yardstick. Aristotle makes a persuasive argument that there are men so vicious that they ought to be ruled, but he fails to persuade me that I have ever met a man who ought to be a master. The Stoics wrote often of the sage, but doubted whether a true sage had ever lived: even self-mastery was far to seek. Pascal thought:

Man is corrupt: proven from Nature.
There is a Redeemer: proven from Scripture.

Like the young Chesterton, I have ever found the proof of our corruption self-evident. I recall a scene in Hesse’s Siddhartha in which the protagonist meets the guru and laments that while the guru’s demonstration that we are bound to a wheel of suffering is incontrovertible, his Gnostic promise of a method of self-salvation from the wheel seems untenable. But the infinite arms of the Cross, says Chesterton, break out of the wheel.

But do they? Pascal’s “proof” from Scripture seems like naive prophecy-mongering that falls at a touch from modern historical criticism. Is there a Redeemer? Camus once wrote that the only viable modern project was to attempt to reconstruct Stoicism. Can we offer his Sisyphus a Sage to carry the stone away? Freely from the Hebrew of Proverbs 16:3, “Roll your works onto the back of the Lord, and your project will succeed.”

Without a Redeemer, corruption’s wheel entraps us still. Ever condemned we are, stained by original sin, to follow the tearful Darwinian trail wherever the leash of our lusts leads us. How shall we know what love is? How can we trust the cascades of opioids that reward us for no more than success in sex or social status? Where shall we find a healthy human to break our fevered foolishness and tell us the truth about how very hot it is in here–and how hot the hereafter might be? Is there a Sage? Whence a yardstick?

Each of us primate peers huddle by our reason’s flickering fire trading subjectively shaded insights about love and justice, about how hot it is in Plato’s cave. Objectivity would be available to the subjectivity of the Sage, but such a human would have to be omniscient to attain an objective subjectivity about the good. An Omniscience would be God, not a human sage. God is so radically Other, with a Father’s distance at least as much as a mother hen’s immanence, that even to try to imagine God is to idolatrously carve a graven image. We need an image of the healthy human to inscribe upon our hearts. But if a healthy human rightly sees the good, and if to see objectively is to be omniscient, then where shall we find a healthy human? As the flickering shadows of maya play upon the walls of Plato’s cave, could there ever be a human Godlike enough to answer our questions, and yet still human enough that we might rightly paint His image on the walls of the cave of the heart, beside, perhaps, our own humble handprints? What God would ever be born in such a cave--in such a manger?

In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only-begotten Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.
Do not measure God by your loves. Measure your loves by the yardstick of the Cross of the self-emptying God.

Try it. Taste and see.

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