Solitude

I often consider living on top of a mountain somewhere, or joining a monastery, or finding an island someplace where no one will bother me. In his play No Exit (Huis Clos), Jean Paul Sartre presents several excellent points. Sartre was by no means a Christian, but in No Exit he shows a particular insight into the human condition that I rather enjoy. Two particular quotes stand out, one of which Sartre is quite famous for. No Exit is about three people, Garcin, Ines, and Estelle, who are trapped together in a room in hell. As the play develops the three reveal their true natures to one another, hoping that these revelations will help them come to terms with their situation. However, in actuality, the revelations instead cause the three to hate on another all the more. The resolution of the play, Sartre’s thesis statement as it were, comes in Garcin’s realization that “Hell is other people”, which is the quote Sartre is famous for. However, another excellent point in the play is Ines’ declaration that “we are our lives and nothing else”. Plenty of atheist principles could be read into this latter statement, but for the moment I’m going to choose to take the line at face value.

I’ve spoken before about the cyclical nature of life that is portrayed in the competing standards of Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism essentially argues that if I am right internally (right being), then I will do the right things (right action). Confucianism, on the other hand, argues that if I do the right things, I will become right internally. These are both true and both false. Because of the imperfection of man (i.e. natural sin) no matter how deeply I cultivate my being, I will still be prone to wrong actions, and no matter how many right things I do, I may still do them from wrong motives. However, the opposite is true. If I truly cultivate a right spirit, then I will be more prone to right actions, and in pursuing right actions, I will encourage the rightness of my spirit. Thus, both right actions and right being are necessary for a right life. However, Ines’ claim is, on the surface, true. I am my life. Whether I am judged by men for my actions or judged by God for my heart, both are formed through the life that I choose to live. I cannot be ‘essentially a good person’ if I cultivate neither right being nor right actions. If God is not in my heart, and if my actions are not focused on his glory and the well-being of my fellow man, then my life is without value. I have nothing to offer to either God or man beyond my life.

However, my life is far from perfect. As is yours (don’t get cocky). We are all fallen people, prone to inflict immense amounts of pain upon one another. We are all selfish, even at the best of times, careless, and cruel. Even when we have the best of intentions we still manage to hurt one another, and so when our intentions (as is so often the case) are less than the best, we become for others the very hell that we fear. Please, don’t take me wrongly, I am not denying the existence of a literal hell (though I find more references in scripture to ‘outer darkness’ than to ‘fire and brimstone’. Nor am I denying that the torments of hell will far surpass the pains of this world. What I am saying is that the closest we will ever come to knowing hell during our lives is in the community of others. Similarly, the closest we will ever come to knowing heaven during our lives is in the community of others.

Tonight, a couple of friends and I were bitching about women. Specifically about the repetitive cowardice, dishonesty, and truly perverse expectations/desires that we see in most of the women who populate our city. Specifically the Christian women who populate our city. There are times when some (not all) of these women have shown a true depth of compassion, grace, and love. However, there are also times when each of them have shown a callousness and cruelty that, to this day, I find astounding. Women who have lost much of our respect through their actions towards ourselves and others (we kept the conversation very general so as to avoid gossiping about anyone in particular). Women whose lives, and thus whose selves, have inevitably been tainted by the stain of sin.

I live in a culture that often presents women as ‘innocent’, ‘pure’, ‘chaste’, or ‘virtuous’. I live in a culture that essentially says to women ‘you’re already morally perfect, so you don’t need to try, focus on your looks instead’. I cannot express how utterly devastating this culture is to American women. Forget the focus on looks. Forget the extreme dieting. Forget the size zero obsession. None of these even begin to compare to the incredible lack in moral quality that this attitude has encouraged in women. Instead of developing their hearts and minds too many American women have focused on career, appearance, relationships, etc to find their identity and virtue. The problem is that none of these things actually develops either identity or virtue. Instead, Christian women should be focusing on developing a strong relationship with God and learning the moral qualities that exemplify that relationship. This is where true identity and virtue lies, regardless of gender.

Wistful Pangs

I was going to write about sin today. About the difference between sins that are proscribed in scripture (adultery, murder, etc) and sins that are the result of individual convictions (drinking, watching R rated movies, etc), and those sins that seem to fall somewhere in between, and thus are immensely and distractingly confusing. Then I sat down in the only seat available in my favorite coffee shop to see a woman who I rather liked sitting with her new boyfriend.

This isn’t a woman that I dated, not even close actually, but it is a woman that I wanted to date. Honestly, from everything I’ve seen, she’s generally the kind of woman I’d like to marry… except that she wouldn’t give me the time of day. Actually… that was quite literal one time. The one major flaw that I’ve seen in her is that she couldn’t tell me ‘no, thanks’. She simply brushed me off with promises every time I tried to ask her out, and then never followed through on them. This is something that has become one of the things that I generally judge (i.e. discern) a woman’s quality by.

As I’ve said before, honesty is a big thing with me… quite possibly the most important character quality for me to see in someone. So when a woman is incapable of telling me that she’s not interested, when she makes promises with no intention of keeping them, then it really factors into my opinion of her character. This particular woman, we’ll call her Anna, has a very strong character, except for this one important area, which I have to admit rather thoroughly turned me off to her.

That being said, when I first saw them my gut reaction was confused at best. I wasn’t quite angry about her invasion of what I all too often consider ‘my’ place (it is a business after all), and I wasn’t quite hurt that she had chosen someone else when she wouldn’t even give me a chance, and I wasn’t quite happy that she had found someone to share her life, or at least a part of it, with. There was a little of all of these in my first reaction on seeing her, and I think it’s finally settling down into a happiness to see that she’s found someone… I think. Honestly, I think it’s probably something that I need to look more closely at.

The Taoist in me says that my gut reactions show my true self, and that if those gut reactions aren’t pure, then I am not pure and this is something that I need to work on. The Confucianist in me tells me that it is my actions that matter, and so if I treat her with filial love and kindness, then I will become filial in spirit. The Christian in me says that my gut reactions do show my true self (or at least my fleshly self) and that they aren’t pure (duh…). It also tells me that my actions do matter, but that my actions alone cannot change my true self. The Christian in me tells me that I need Christ to change who I am, to make me whole, and to make me better, and that is something that is far too easy to forget.

Getting What You Ask For

Taoism provides an interesting philosophical trap. I think that it is a good trap to fall into, but it is a trap nonetheless. Taoist teachings promise great authority and ability at persuasion, the ability to bend the world to your will and to make people do what you desire. However, to achieve these abilities one must truly, thoroughly, and permanently give up any desire to have authority, any ambition of the will, and any pursuit of power. In leaving off these things the ability to bend the world to one’s desires becomes obvious, but one’s desire to bend the world is gone. I think I’ve rather over-simplified this argument, and I have no doubt that both Laozi and Holmes Welch (the author of the book on Taoism I’m reading) would shake their heads in consternation at my inability to effectively express these ideas.

Nonetheless, reading today had me thinking about the many biblical promises that God will grant our every desire, and how they form the same wonderful trap. There are many places in scripture in which we are told that if we abide in Christ then we may ask whatever we desire and it will be granted. Note the italicized phrase there… it’s really important and I’m going to come back to it.

I used to work for a ‘Christian’ ministry company that prayed with people over the phone. People would call in and ask for prayer about something, and we would pray with them. Needless to say we had a lot of strange calls… I actually still have a list somewhere of 1400+ of the strangest prayer requests you’ve ever heard. Someday I plan to publish it… I should do that actually…. Anyway, the point, that I seem to have ambled away from rather thoroughly, is that the vast majority of the callers wanted magic. They believed that if you said the right words, in the right way, and with the right person that God has to give you what you ask for. We all tend to do this to some degree.

Richard Cavendish, a historian and occult author, defines magic as the manipulation of supernatural forces to achieve the magician’s temporal ends. This is a good definition, although my personal definition of magic is the illusion that man can control supernatural forces. In either definition the power is a reality. I am always amazed at people who believe in miracles but not in magic, or people who believe in God but not in demons.  However, the mistake that many Christians make is the attempt to control God. Whether we do so through bargaining, words of power (often scripture taken out of context), or ritual, the goal is the same: we want to make God give us what we want.

However, this is not what the New Testament promises. The New Testament promises that if we abide in Christ then God will give us what we want. However, when I am truly abiding in Christ, then my desires are few. Primarily, my desire is to know and pursue him more fully. Other desires fade away, or at least become unimportant by comparison, and when my desire is to know and pursue Christ more fully, then of course God is going to grant my desire. It is a beautiful trap, and it is a trap that seeks to and succeeds in making us both better and happier. Laozi said ‘Let me have few desires and be happy’ (I’m paraphrasing here). I think I agree with him.

Love, Hate, and Taoism

I’ve been reading a book about Taoism that has helped more clearly understand Taoist concepts and their relation to Christian concepts. I’ve written about the concept of Wu Wei before, and I think I’m still somewhat enamored of the idea, but perhaps not as much. Laozi puts forth the idea that being is better than doing. This idea, as Holmes Welch describes it in the book I’m reading (Taoism: The Parting of the Way), is the concept that attitude is better than action. Laozi’s argument, in its essence, is that when we act we provoke reaction, and the reaction will often be in opposition to the action that we take. Laozi’s answer to the evils of his day was to take no action to stop them, oppose them, or even address them, but to simply ‘be’ good. His argument was that in being good one’s nature would naturally stand in opposition to evil without actively opposing that evil, which would create a strong reaction from said evil. Laozi argued that no one can fight with the sage simply because the sage refuses to fight. Mahatma Ghandi’s life was an excellent example of this principle in action, as was Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement.

This same concept can be seen in portions of the scripture (i.e. if a man strikes one cheek, give him the other), but Laozi takes the concept further than scripture allows us to do. Laozi argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Doing and Not Being (i.e. true attitude is better than hypocritical action), but he also argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Being and Doing (because action causes reaction). However, scripture commands both Being and Doing. 1st John is an excellent example of this. John commands us throughout this book to an attitude of love (agape). He juxtaposes love with two possible opposites though: first he tells us that a man who hates his brother does not love God. Here Love (i.e. a deep emotive concern for the well-being of another, even at the expense of one’s own) is juxtaposed with Hate (i.e. a deep emotive concern for the harm of another, even at the expense of one’s own well-being).

It is important not to confuse this Love/Hate juxtaposition with the Love/Hate juxtaposition used in Paul’s legal terminology. Paul tells us that God ‘loved Jacob, but hated Esau’. Does this mean that God had a ‘deep emotive concern for the harm of Esau’? Of course not. This is a legal use of the terms ‘love’ and ‘hate’ that reflects a covenantal choice that holds no emotive value. God did not wish Esau harm, but he did choose Jacob through whom to continue the spiritual line of Abraham, a place for which Esau was rejected. This is important, but entirely different from the emotive love/hate juxtaposition that John creates in his letter.

However, John does not simply juxtapose love to hate. He also tells us that ‘he who does not love his brother does not know God’. Thus, love is also juxtaposed with apathy. Hence it is not enough to show love by not hating another, but we must also show love by showing a deep emotive concern for another’s well-being. This concept is necessarily active in nature. While the love/hate juxtaposition could potentially reflect a non-active attitudinal love, the love/apathy juxtaposition cannot. This is also reflected in James’ exhortation that ‘faith without works is dead’. Thus a very, very important difference between Laozi’s philosophy and Christian philosophy is the necessity of action. Scripture certainly argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Doing and Not Being. However, scripture absolutely argues against the concept that Being and Not Doing is better than Being and Doing.

The other area of major difference is that of ultimate goal or purpose. Laozi’s writing was ultimately concerned with the temporal (though not necessarily material) world. He sought an answer to the warfare that was rife in China during his lifetime (which was probably somewhere between 60 and 200 years, if he existed at all… I must confess that I cannot bring myself to argue that Adam lived 900 some years, Abraham 180 years, Moses 120, and yet completely reject the notion that Laozi may have lived for 200 years). Ultimately, Laozi’s argument is that through Being and Not Doing we can more effectively implement our will in the world than through Doing and Not Being, or through Being and Doing.

However, the ultimate goal or purpose of the Christian is not to implement our will in the world, but to glorify the Godhead (I’ve said this many times) in part by implementing his will in the world (though this is not our only means of glorifying him). Thus, Laozi’s philosophy and Christian philosophy again find themselves at odds simply because of the source of the will that they seek to enact. There are many good things in Laozi’s philosophy, and his concept of Being as primary is one that I think many American Christians need to embrace. However, ultimately, the differences, as well as the similarities, must be addressed, and it is never enough to only examine one or the other.