Sunday, January 29, 2012

We Don't Need Another Hero (Part I of III)

I wrote the other day about recent forays in spiritual contemplation, using a variety of sacred and profane guides. Reading through the post I attempted, I think I wasn't as clear as I should have been on a number of points, not the least of them being my own sense not so much of the irrelevance of good and evil as much as these are less important than struggling, through prayer and participation in the sacraments and liturgy of the church, through Bible study and reflection, to see before me the path God wishes me to travel. Pretty heady stuff when I put it like that, I suppose, but it is what it is.

At the root of this struggle, at this moment in my life, is the matter of freedom, the real freedom we have through the Spirit, in the Son, with the Father. The great theologians of Christian freedom - St. Paul, St. Augustine, William of Ockham, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Gustavo Gutierrez - are united in their differences on this point if no other: Christian freedom involves the believer in a life of servanthood toward others, rooted in the love of the Father for the Son in the Spirit, that is manifest in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a challenge. It entails risk. Not just the kind of risk that threatens social rejection, or even bodily harm to the point of physical death. That, it would seem to any first-time reader of the Bible, should be clear enough from the get-go.

The risk of embracing the freedom we have from Christ, in the Spirit, for the Father, is the risk of embracing chaos. We can, as those freed from our bondage to sin, throw ourselves not only in to a life of service to the world, demonstrating in our lives and words the profound love God has demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can also, because we have not reached the end of the story, and understanding there are powers and principalities, thrones and dominions out there more than willing to snatch us from the narrow, winding way of life, stare in to the abyss a bit too long. On that, I think, Nietzsche was quite correct.

I suppose I'm beating around the bush a tad here, but I hope I have clarified the point. In the freedom we have in faith by grace, we still inhabit our bodies of death; we are still immersed in a world racked by sin and death; it may well be mesmerizing, as we look around us at the swirl of events and people that we become transfixed by the odd beauty that can flow from evil. One can call it what it is, I suppose, without succumbing. At the same time, we haven't yet reached our final goal. At least I haven't. Therefore, even as I accept the warm embrace of the crucified and risen Savior, and take his hand as he leads me on this journey, there are - still - no guarantees that, in wandering even a little off the path, I might not find myself utterly lost. Relying on some prior notion of God's love and grace and presence shouldn't blind me to the very real dangers not so much of losing my life, as losing my soul (for lack of a better term at this moment in time).

In the midst of trying to figure all this out, trying to make clear what, precisely, it is about dark beauty I find so appealing, the other day, occasional contributor Kim Fabricius wrote the following epigram in his "Doodles" at Faith & Theology.
It has often been observed that Milton’s God in Paradise Lost is insipid, his Satan grand and dynamic. And that, of course, is because it’s much harder to draw enthralling virtuous characters than wicked ones. Compare the main problem that pacifists face: namely, convincing people that nonviolence is more noble and compelling than the inferno of war.
I decided, not having done so, to go and actually tackle Milton's epic last night. As it is in the public domain, the poem is out there in its entirety, here to be precise. For someone who sees in the rebel the true hero, in the anti-hero something noble, the words Milton places in the mouth of the fallen Prince of Light have rung down the centuries as a kind of archetypal screech of defiance against any perceived threat to personal integrity.
Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav'n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th' associates and copartners of our loss
Lye thus astonisht on th' oblivious Pool
It was Nietzsche, more than anyone, who exposed the dark underbelly of the modernist project as relying precisely on this knife-edge - stripping human life of the need for the heroic life. Bereft of real struggle, bourgeois existence had become dessicated, from a certain moral point of view. Absent any more worlds to conquer, we were bound to decline unless we were willing to overthrow the slave morality of Christianity (as practiced, at least, in bourgeois Europe) and embrace the real of freedom that expresses itself in defiance against the many forces - intellectual, religious, social, moral - that insist we have reached the end of history with it the mediocrity in which we find ourselves.

While never embracing anything as puerile as Satanism, he did call one of his works The Anti-Christ (.pdf file).
This book belongs to the very few. Perhaps none of them is even living yet. Possibly they are the readers who understand my Zarathustra: how could I confound myself with those for whom there are ears listening today? -- Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some are born posthumously.

The conditions under which one understands me and then necessarily understands -- I know them all too well. One must be honest in intellectual matters to the point of harshness to so much as endure my seriousness, my passion. One must be accustomed to living on mountains -- to seeing one wretched ephemeral chatter of politics and national egoism beneath one. One must have become indifferent, one must never ask whether truth is useful or a fatality.... Strength which prefers questions for which no one today is sufficiently daring; courage of the forbidden; predestination for the labyrinth. An experience out of seven solitudes. New ears for new music. New eyes for the most distant things. A new conscience for truths which have hitherto remained dumb. And the will to economy in the grand style: to keeping one's energy, one's enthusiasm in bounds.... Reverence for oneself; love for oneself; unconditional freedom with respect to oneself ...

Very well! These alone are my readers, my rightful readers, my predestined readers: what do the rest matter? -- The rest are merely mankind. -- One must be superior to mankind in force, in loftiness of soul -- in contempt...
Echoing Milton's Lucifer, Nietzsche raises the call to any of those who look around them in disgust, seeing in their neighbor not a beloved child of God in need, but a soft, pitiful shard, worthy only of contempt. Isn't it rewarding to lay claim to love of the self, to make of the Hell that surrounds us a Heaven in which we rule the herd, blind and deaf, plodding through its round of days unaware?

Right here lies the seductive power of dark beauty. Not the childish, hollow atheism of a Richard Dawkins, whose "religion" is a cartoon character; not the adolescent anti-Christianity of American Black Metal band Deicide, with its repeated celebration of the death of Jesus as the end of the promise from God; not the proto-fascism of Ayn Rand's pitiable heroes. When the Church takes on these and the many like them, it debases itself, striking an enemy at their weakest points.

Real evil is neither idiotic nor ugly, worthy only of contempt or derisive laughter. Real evil clothes itself in beauty. Real evil whispers, playing not upon our fears, but our hopes. Real evil presents the laudable desire to stand against the status quo in all its insipid irrelevance, offering us the position of hero. While hardly Scriptural, Milton's Lucifer, at the very least, offers a window in to the dark heart of the human predicament. Even more, speaking as he does in a far more recognizable idiom, Nietzsche's clarion call to heroic negation is appealing. It's appealing to me! Who doesn't want to be accepted as among the few adepts of the coming future, due not to any force outside ourselves, but our inherent intellectual prowess, the amoral courage to defy convention?

Is it any wonder, then, that the struggle for who rules the human heart, a human life, never ends? Rather than a vomiting child masturbating with a crucifix, the real presence of the Satanic in our world is the cajoling promise that we, in our moral purity, our intellectual acumen, our social wherewithal, are being held down by those less than we. One does not win this struggle by frightening away potential converts. The victory goes to those who present the appealing prospect of real victory in a real struggle, with oneself as the hero standing atop the mass of one's dead's opponents.

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