FROM THE BOUNDARY
Sun, 06/05/2016 - 12:00am
‘Why do you call me good?’
Do you remember Lawyer Backbone from last week? We discussed whether he was a ‘know-it-all’. If he was, then most of us would have two things against him – the fact of his being a lawyer who traded in other peoples’ troubles, and that he was ever ready to show off, to exhibit his arrogance and willingness to make us feel small, his know-all-ness. The upshot is that we’d say we didn’t like him and our assessment would probably be no different if we discovered he was a model husband and devout Anglican. Obviously, our perception of him, rooted in experience, may or may not be a reflection of what the world would say.
Think, for a moment, of Judas and Hitler. The fact of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, despite all the attempts of scholars to rationalise it, is enough to raise betrayal as the vilest intervention in human affairs even though Judas might otherwise have been a saint. Again, Hitler’s wickedness isn’t softened by the fact that he thought the world of Eva Braun and treated her kindly. Maybe a kind of madness had settled on the German people – like the madness that surrounds and nurtures Donald Trump.
Consider the more complex case of Paul Tillich, the theologian. He’s the man who gave us the concepts of ‘ultimate concern’ and ‘ground of being’ and has every right to be considered one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. His Systematic Theology is a masterpiece, and his sermons, collected, for example, in The Eternal Now and The New Being, are profound models for creative thought. In his book “The Courage to Be” he gives us an ontology of anxiety and speaks of the courage to stand alone.
There is so much to him and yet he was, apparently, a sexual pervert. It’s all revealed in his wife Hannah’s autobiography, From Time to Time. From this we learn that Tillich was a devotee of porn and red light districts, a seducer and adulterer. Is this enough to finish him as a spiritual guide and teacher, for us to say that God and sexual perversion, God and Tillich, don’t mix? Or do we say: ‘No. This man wrote from life, from what he’d found to be true in his own experience, and his genius flowers from his folly and weakness. In that, his genius, he speaks directly to us and so enables us to find truth and growth, hope and integrity within ourselves, despite the small dark fraction of ourselves we take to be ourselves, despite our own sense of guilt, and no matter how the world, with all its stale conventions, would judge us’
In any event, if you’re a good Pharisee, who believes that sexual sins are the worst of all, I’m sure you’ll have some harsh words to say of poor ‘Paulus the Theologian’ – just as you have harsh words to say about a lot of things. Yet, as we stand on the moral mountain top looking down our collective noses maybe, just maybe, we’ll listen long enough to consider the following.
Aren’t we too apt to dismiss a man with a phrase; or deny his positive qualities by reference to his weaknesses of character; or to suppose that the small, dark part of himself is somehow the whole; or to impose on others our own narrow understandings; or to fear and reject a man who is different; or fail to see the many parts in his life; or to interpret one part by reference to another? Think of Chris Gayle. Didn’t ‘someone’ have the temerity to describe him as ‘Dudus’ when he was down on his luck but then rehabilitate him when he found his form? Yet throughout, wasn’t he the same Chris Gayle – like the rest of us, a man of many parts? How fickle the world can be.
And then again – don’t we all have ‘shadow’ sides, contradictions in our characters, which cause us to manifest responses unrestrained by moral judgment? There’s something of the divine and the devil in all of us, the fragrance of flowers and the dirty pools of ugliness, and we all have a tendency to swing between them. The disciples of Jesus were a motley bunch weren’t they – on times carping, small-minded, perfidious glory grabbers, sleep-walking their way through Galilee? Yet they were born to be saints, or so we say.
When we label people ‘good’, or ‘bad’, or ‘corrupt’, or ‘saintly’ do these descriptions make any sense in the context of a man’s entire life? It might be better simply to describe a man as ‘average’. Do we judge Martin Luther King by reference to his alleged philandering? Does this negative all the wonderful qualities he brought to our world? Manifestly, sexual excess can ruin a man’s public life, but it surely doesn’t make him a degenerate. If we were to sketch a man’s character to the world, would a one-sided account taken from just a few episodes, and even if accurate, destroy him for all right thinking people?
But yet again, our own experiences, which subjectively prove a man to be a rotter, may just be the tip of the iceberg. The world may simply not have caught up and most especially when the man is highly placed. Still, the standards by which we judge a man may be the standards of the world anyway – say, the standard for Pharisees – and thus rooted in ignorance, hypocrisy and superstition; and, in any event, we might just be projecting our own weaknesses and follies upon others. Moreover, all of us, I suspect, have some characteristic which, like a demon, is so pervasive as to corrupt much of what is fine and noble in us. I have a rough idea of what mine is. What about you?
Of course, we’re different people at different times. It’s in the nature of ‘character’. Life is not like a ladder going up or down. Nor does it move in straight lines. It has a habit of playing tricks on us and leading us in circles. Who knows, it may even decorate us with battle honours in God’s eyes despite all we’ve done, or not done, in the eyes of the world.
However, let me end with a little story. It’s about the ‘Good Samaritan’. We all know he’s a model for loving your neighbour. But, did you know that on the morning he set out on the Jericho road he beat his wife? Did you know he never paid the inn keeper what he owed him? And did you know that the only reason he helped the man who’d fallen among thieves was because he wanted to do business with him? It was the ‘art of the deal’. And, finally, did you know that despite all this he was still the most generous philanthropist in Shekem? Oh dear: after all, he was just an average man – like you and me really.
Go safely, then – until the next time.
Companions at the boundary: aloneness and the song of a bird.