Monday, September 3, 2012

A Divine Thrusting On

I’m short profound, inspiration observation from my daily life this week, but since I've promised to try to post every Sunday night, you’ll have to make due with an observation from my exam reading (one that I've pondered before in a few better entries, in fact).  Non-academic readers, receive my sincerest apologies.

One of the exciting things about reading for comprehensive exams is that the inundation with sixteenth-century literature is sharpening my perception to repeated themes.  The past two weeks have been particularly inundated with Shakespeare.  See if you notice these repeated themes, all from different plays:

[My deformed birth] plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick;

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion...and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting on.

Men at sometime are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

The first is from Henry VI, part 3 right after Richard (later Richard III) has murdered the title role and explains that his malice results from the defects of his birth.  The second is from The Tempest where Prospero describes the islander Caliban, explaining that his savage nature prevents the possibility of reformation.  The third is from King Lear, in which the crafty Edmund explains to the audience that his villainy does not result from his bastard birth but rather from his own will.  The final is from Julius Caesar in which the ambitious Cassius attempts to convince Brutus to murder Caesar, a betrayal that will bring down the republic and secure Brutus’ position in infamy as a traitor.

All characters seem to be asking, in the face of tragic villainy, whether our wickedness comes from within or without, and (more importantly) whether it is destined or avoidable.  

I find that in the face of my own monstrosities, I want to stand beside Cassius and Edmund who insist that we can take hold of our own destiny, that the accidents of our circumstances do not control our future.  And then I find myself, like the crafty bastard Edmund, taking hold of my destiny to bring it deliberately to the places I insisted I wasn’t destined to go. 

As a Christian, of course, I have the easy God-answer that seems like it would save me from the despair of Caliban and the ambition of Cassius: God can snatch me out of my own monstrosities and save me from my natural corruption.  But when he doesn’t, when year after year my weaknesses or deformities or struggles or corruptions remain, I’m not sure I like the answer that would imply to the question.

Maybe it is the wrong question to begin with—how I got this way or whether I can change.   Maybe that is why it is the Shakespearean villains who are asking it, and why they can never come up with a consensus about the answer.  Maybe that is why my attempts to find the Christian answer to the question are equally unsatisfactory.

I’m not sure what a better question might be, and I’m open to suggestions.  In the mean time, I’ll accept the grace to admit that I can’t always take hold of my destiny, and hope that such an admission does not abandon me to despair.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of betrayal the example of Caesar and Brutus are still actual. Looking from Shakespeare's play where the anger of Cassius causes irreparable consequences.
Read my essay about this moment:

Anonymous said...

I think you're onto something with the idea that something is wrong with these villains questions, though I wonder if it is not so much the question that is the problem as their willingness to settle for simplistic answers. I think that everyone - in Shakespeare's day and now - wants a simple explanation of human change; they either want to believe that they are determined by their environment and that just fixing that environment would fix things (what commercial advertising is predicated on), or that they can be completely will-driven and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

I think this is why I like the Christian tradition with all its circuitous and unending debate about predestiny and free will, and its refusal to simplify the reality of these concepts for the sake of brevity. To paraphrase Chesterton, it is, perhaps, just complicated enough to be true.

Of course, this doesn't help on the pragmatic end - a circuitous complexity is not what one wants to hear about in the midst of a wearying day when one is just sick and tired of being sinful, again, and again, and again. It is here that I wonder if redefining the "God-answer" might not help. The way I have often encountered Protestants using this "God answer" is as a way to stop debate - we could debate about fate and free and sin, but God will take care of it so we can go and do whatever we like while God remains a technical answer to a technical problem. I think the reason it is unfulfilling is that it fails to conceive of the "God-answer" in a sacramental way; it may propose God as a theoretical answer to a theoretical question, but does not tell us what this answer means in medias res.

For me, I have found that it is helpful to remember in the times I feel most predetermined to evil that God will always provide a choice no matter how helpless I feel. I think here of the guard about to kill himself when he thinks the prisoners have escaped - he seems to have no other choice until Paul and Silas call to him. Similarly, the sacrifice of Isaac would seem to be the only option available to Abraham until God provides an alternate. Of course, I have never experienced anything as dramatic as this, and the decisions I can make are often more difficult to discern, but I have to trust that God will provide them before I can predict what they will be - that's the hard part.

Alternately, I think I need most to remember predestiny and my own frailty when I am feeling particularly confident and ready to take over the world. I suppose one can do this by cutting oneself down but I don't know that this gets anyone anywhere really - in my ideal moments I remember to be thankful, which is a more positive way of remembering one's dependence.

I suppose that what I am trying to get at overall is that the "God answer" in its true form may in fact consist in the practice of hope (in the first case) and humility through thanksgiving (in the second). Of course, I'm not awfully good at either - though I am particularly bad at hope - and so I am putting down these ideas here as things that I see and aspire to from afar. I am also putting them down because I wanted to let you know that I enjoy your blog, but a mere "I enjoy your blog" post sounded too superficial.

Em the luddite said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Mr. Churl! I suppose with the Christian tradition being as circuitous and unending as it is, we at least know that bloggers like us (and writers more broadly) will always have plenty to talk about. I'm curious about what you mean by understanding the "God-answer" in a sacramental way. I still consider myself a newby to sacramental theology, so I didn't quite follow what was sacramental about your description of humility and thanksgiving. But in any case, I enjoyed hearing your thoughts, perhaps a little more fleshed out than my exam-ridden ramblings, and I'm delighted to encounter a new reader lurking in the shadows of my (sadly neglected) blog!

Anonymous said...

I'm new at it myself, too, but I'll see if I can explain how I am using the word "sacramental." I am not meaning sacraments proper, of which there are seven or two depending on whether one is Protestant or Catholic (e. g. Eucharist, baptism, marriage etc.). Rather, I am using a distinction that I have recently been introduced to by Hans Boersma's book called Heavenly Participation, which is kind of like Nouvelle Theologie for Dummies. In it, Boersma argues that much of what the Nouvelle Theologie movement (De Lubac, Balthasar, Danielou etc.) was about involved trying to recover an early medieval Christian-Platonist synthesis in which the world in general was seen as sacramental, a kind of tapestry leading upward toward God. In this sense, sacramental means roughly what the Psalms mean when they say the heavens declare the glory of God.

I suppose I am maybe mixing things up a little bit because things like hope and thanksgiving and humility are usually seen as abstractions rather than physical realities, though I would suggest they are practices, or habits, in the Aristotelian sense, so that they are in fact partly cognitive and partly embodied action.

In any case, I guess I see them as sacramental insofar as they are mediators that lead us to Christ. What I meant about the problem with Protestantism is that Protestantism is always afraid that such things will become idolatrous, so it can say little more than "God" or "Christ" as an answer. Anything beyond this - attempting, say, to figure out what turning to God might look like in very particular situations - is a potential temptation that might lead us away from Him. I suppose one could put it another way and say that, for someone like Luther, virtue itself is the greatest of idolatrous temptations. Whereas a sacramental understanding of the practice of virtue would probably suggest that this Lutheran view is like saying one should stay out of the sunlight lest one become confused about the difference between the light and the sun itself. And it is not as if we are earning our way to God or something like that; rather, things like thanksgiving and hope and humility exist in God and we can step into them, I think. And I think this is necessary because trying to grasp God's marvelous simplicity (in the theological sense) in its fullness is too great a task - we are liable to give up before we start. Actually, I have seen lots of people do this. They want all of God at once, or none of him, and when they can't have the former and find that they must approach him through various sacraments and sacramental means, they opt for the latter and give up entirely. I don't know if this makes sense; it is at least a partially clear transcript of what I was thinking when I wrote that.

harada57 said...
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