Friday, January 27, 2012

An Annoying Personal Interlude, With Help From Jerry Garcia, Walt Whitman, Kansas, and Katatonia

[Good and evil] exist together in their little game, each with its special place and special humors. I dig 'em both. What is life but being conscious? And good and evil are manifestations of consciousness. If you reject one, you're not getting the whole thing that's there to be had.
Jerry Garcia, 1969 interview with Michael Lydon, published in Rolling Stone magazine

So my spiritual life - which is a weird way of saying "my life" - suddenly seemed, at least to me, a bit of thrashing nonsense. A series of contradictions without any possibility of higher synthesis. Occasionally enraged by the shallowness, the callousness, and lack of fellow-feeling I see and hear around me, I vent my frustrations by indulging in bouts where I listen to very loud, very dark music. More than simple emotional catharsis, these moments give vent to a deep appreciation for and enjoyment of the madness that lurks in all of us. For a very long time, I resisted this, thinking it somehow wrong to let the beast within take over. Yet, as Swedish Death Metal Band Katatonia sing, the darkness will indeed rise:

Sometimes, these moments verge over a line into a celebration not only of that darkness that lies within all of us, but a letting go even of the ties that bind us to God, a rage so deep and thorough it gives vent to a curse to all:

These forays to the true dark side have had me worrying about a great many things, not least of them the state of my life before God. There is, after all, St. Paul's admonition to hate evil and hold fast to what is good. This is more than just good advice; it is a good way to take spiritual inventory.

Yet, what is the evil we are to hate? Is it simple moral failing? Is it social evil? Is it both? While St. Paul does offer in multiple places examples of what he means by the word - fornicators, idolaters, drunkards, gluttons, etc. - we have the example of Jesus who, in his life and ministry risked the calumny of the religious authorities by associating precisely with some such as these. Along with being named blasphemer, he was called a drunkard and whoremonger. How do we balance what seems to be this contradiction? After all, St. Paul warns us not even to associate with ones such as these; Christ modeled a ministry precisely to those such as these.

It helps, I think, in the first instance to recognize ourselves in that list. Who among us, given enough rope, can't hang ourselves on these and so many other sins? Who among us is not, in some manner, a sexual pervert, an idolater, a drunkard? Unless we are willing and able to honestly admit our participation in some, many, even all these sins, I don't think we are really confessing our faith to the last dregs at the bottom of our lives.

At the same time, there are resources, some orthodox, some not, that are balancing this flirtation with the depths of darkness within. In the first place, I've been treading slowly but surely*, Church Dogmatics, Vol. 2, Part 1. I can't imagine a more orthodox theologian to be digesting. Having read several of the volumes before, I am enjoying this particular read as he is, in the section in which I am currently sunk, both attacking what he called "natural theology" and dismissing apologetics. The clarity of his vision of the task of theology, and from it the deep faith that cuts through meat and sinew to the bone of human overconfidence in our own ability to grasp what can only be given, gives me a peace of mind, as well as opening up new ways of thinking through various Scriptural passages and injunctions, that is profoundly settling.

A couple nights ago, on a bit of a whim, I searched and found, in its entirety, Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself". It has been decades since I read it in its entirety. I sat at my computer, transfixed by the swirl of images, the shifting perspectives, the warmth and humanity and deep, abiding love Whitman expresses. I also chastised myself for getting caught up in the pantheistic, Romantic bungle of warmed-over saccharine sentimentality that is also a good way to describe the poem. I think both views have merit, yet neither capture Whitman's attempt. In my estimation, nothing more or less than expressing a kind of American creed was his aim. In the process, he offered a template for later writers as diverse as Thomas Pynchon and Phillip K. Dick to emulate in very different ways.

Reading through the poem this morning as I prepared myself for writing this post, I came across the following, stanza 41:
I am he bringing help for the sick as they pant on their backs,
And for strong upright men I bring yet more needed help.

I heard what was said of the universe,
Heard it and heard it of several thousand years;
It is middling well as far as it goes--but is that all?

Magnifying and applying come I,
Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,
Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah,
Lithographing Kronos, Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson,
Buying drafts of Osiris, Isis, Belus, Brahma, Buddha,
In my portfolio placing Manito loose, Allah on a leaf, the crucifix
With Odin and the hideous-faced Mexitli and every idol and image,
Taking them all for what they are worth and not a cent more,
Admitting they were alive and did the work of their days,
(They bore mites as for unfledg'd birds who have now to rise and fly
and sing for themselves,)
Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself,
bestowing them freely on each man and woman I see,
Discovering as much or more in a framer framing a house,
Putting higher claims for him there with his roll'd-up sleeves
driving the mallet and chisel,
Not objecting to special revelations, considering a curl of smoke or
a hair on the back of my hand just as curious as any revelation,
Lads ahold of fire-engines and hook-and-ladder ropes no less to me
than the gods of the antique wars,
Minding their voices peal through the crash of destruction,
Their brawny limbs passing safe over charr'd laths, their white
foreheads whole and unhurt out of the flames;
By the mechanic's wife with her babe at her nipple interceding for
every person born,
Three scythes at harvest whizzing in a row from three lusty angels
with shirts bagg'd out at their waists,
The snag-tooth'd hostler with red hair redeeming sins past and to come,
Selling all he possesses, traveling on foot to fee lawyers for his
brother and sit by him while he is tried for forgery;
What was strewn in the amplest strewing the square rod about me, and
not filling the square rod then,
The bull and the bug never worshipp'd half enough,
Dung and dirt more admirable than was dream'd,
The supernatural of no account, myself waiting my time to be one of
the supremes,
The day getting ready for me when I shall do as much good as the
best, and be as prodigious;
By my life-lumps! becoming already a creator,
Putting myself here and now to the ambush'd womb of the shadows.(emphasis added)

The highlighted section immediately put me in mind of a long-time favorite song of mine, with its outro verse including the words, "I sang this song a hundred, maybe a thousand years ago. No one ever listens. I just play and then I go."

In many ways as archetypically American as Whitman, Kansas epitomizes the attempt to take in everything, stir it up, and make something that both leaves the different parts clear and unchanged, yet somehow makes the end result even greater than that combination as it becomes a whole, new thing.

The same can be said of The Grateful Dead, even more so. The quote from Garcia that serves as the epigram to this post used to bother me. Whether or not I "get" it in a visceral, clear way, I have no way of judging and certainly wouldn't claim as my own. On the other hand, I feel no hesitation in endorsing it as a program we, Christian or Jew or Muslim or Hindu, agnostic/atheist, fundamentalist or liberal, evangelical or Orthodox, can get behind.

At the end of the day, in prayerful consideration of our own sinful nature, always in need of the grace and mercy that flows from the cross and empty tomb to all creation, the differences we so grandly pronounce between good and evil are far less then we might think. Which is why, I think, one can weep with those who suffer, become enraged at the mass death around us, yet also celebrate the simple miracle of a child's laugh, become entranced by the veins on a leaf, allow oneself to fall in to the arms and body of the one you love with abandon. All of it is part of God's creation, all of it is in dire need of redemption. We cannot, I believe, fully grasp this, unless we are willing to let the wolf out of its cage to roam free, and see in its blood-flecked muzzle our faces.

*One reason for "slowly" is the tendency of Barth to write paragraphs, in extremely small type, that wander over two and more pages. That and the thoroughness, exactitude, and specificity of his writing make it important to read carefully in order to take in as much as possible.

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