Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Distinction & the League of Quite Ordinary Ungentlemen

Joe LaRoy and I, in Bangkok
(All quotes herein, unless otherwise cited, are from Francis Spufford's beautiful Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. I got is as a Christmas gift, and I'm so glad I did!)

Why did the ancient Jews make once-a-year blood sacrifices in the Most Holy Place? Why do Hindus bathe in the Most Polluted Place, the Ganges? Why do Muslims willpower their lives according to their Most Holy RuleBook? Why do some atheists utopian-fantasize, John Lennon-like, that Holy Irreligion will result in human goodness and flourishing?

Except in the instance of the naive atheist-utopians, the answer is: we are all fundamentally screwed up. (Atheists have their own version of the Return to the Garden, some pristine irreligious human "rational" condition prior to the Great Fall into Religion, or perhaps some evolutionary return to our amoral common ancestors). 

We all belong to the League of the Guilty; we're all infected with HPtStU (the Human Propensity to Screw Things Up [with great apologies to Spufford]). As William James wrote: “The normal process of life contains moments as bad as any of those which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn.” (Cited in Ib., 50)

Such is our condition. We look to the horizon of life. Is any help in sight?

Enter The Rulebook. 

Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism give us laws and rules. Atheists either: 1) evangelize against The Rulebook, or 2) encourage us to cheer up because Moral Rules are nonexistent (Nietzsche, utilitarianism consequentialism, "the great journey into the secular light on which A.C. Grayling is leading us, tossing his miraculously bouffant locks" [43], and so on). 

It is at this point that Christianity leaves all of these religions. Spufford writes:

"Wiggle-room is kindly built in to the rules, so that you can cope if your water main bursts on Shabbat, or if you’re traveling and there really is no way of telling the direction to pray in. Nothing crazy or superhuman is required of you. The idea is to have a set of laws like a wearable coat, a coat that everyone can put on if they are willing to make the effort. In Judaism and Islam, you don’t have to be a saint to know that you are managing to be an adequately good woman, an adequately good man." (pp. 44-45)

These are all "religions of orthopraxy, right doing, not orthodoxy, right thinking or teaching. Do the right actions, and you can be hissing and spitting inside, or bored senseless, or going through the motions to please your family, and it still counts." (45)

Christianity does something different. It makes impossible demands and gives lunatic principles. "It thinks you should give your possessions away, refuse to defend yourself, love strangers as much as your family, behave as if there’s no tomorrow. These principles do not amount to a sustainable program." (45)

Christianity, writes Spufford, is insanely perfectionist in its standards, and is also insanely perfectionist about our motives. Jesus doesn't accept "generosity" done in the name of self-interest. Unless altruism is altruism all the way down into the heart, it's not altruism at all. Christianity gives us an ideal (Jesus - "be perfect as I am perfect") of behavior that is supersized, therefore not fit for humanity. "Everyone fails. Really everyone." We all are charter members of The League of Quite Ordinary Ungentlemen. We all exhibit varieties of HPtStU (mea culpa, Mr. Spufford). 

Christianity does not behaviorally measure people by "clean" and "unclean" because "it doesn’t believe in the possibility of clean, just as it doesn’t believe that laws can ever be fully adequate, or that goodness can reliably be achieved by following an instruction book." (46)

Indeed. It hasn't worked, and it won't. And the mere absence of religious rules won't work either. (See here, e.g.)

Let's be clear about the Christian distinctive. "Of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people." (47)  That's why Real Jesus-following isn't supposed to be some holy huddle club of the self-righteous. "What it's supposed to be is a league of the guilty." (47)

The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein talked of "language games" as having "family resemblances." Such is the case with HPtStU, with which we're all in league. Spufford writes, and recognize the resemblances:

"HPtFtU is what flying a plane into a skyscraper has in common with persecuting the fat kid with zits. It’s what doing crystal meth has in common with having an affair with someone you don’t even like. It’s what a murder (not a pop-culture play murder but a real murder, committed by delivering one too many kicks to the head in a pissed fight at closing time) has in common with telling a story at a dinner party at the expense of an absent mutual friend, a story which you know will cause pain when it gets back to them but which you tell anyway, because it’s just very, very funny." (pp. 48-49)

I remember the day I saw this in myself. I was playing in a band somewhere west of Chicago. While on stage the thought came to me: "I am screwed up." Never a truer thing was ever thought by me. Spufford describes it this way.

"You stop making sense to yourself. You find that you aren’t what you thought you were, but something much more multiple and mysterious and self-subverting, and this discovery doesn’t propel you to a new understanding of things, it propels you into a state where you don’t understand anything at all. Unable to believe the comfortable things you used to believe about yourself, you entertain a sequence of changing caricatures as your self-image." (p. 50)

When this happens, what do we do with this? What happens when I realize that my inner self is not as awesome as it appears to be on Facebook?

When we realize we've screwed up, when we no longer make sense to ourselves, we turn "towards the space where the possibility exists that there might be someone to hear us who is not one of the parties to our endless, million-sided, multigenerational suit against each other. To turn towards a space in which there is quite possibly no one— in which, we think as we find ourselves doing it, that there probably is no one. 

And we say: Hello? Hello? I don’t think I can stand this any more. I don’t think I can bear it. Not another night like last night. Not another morning like this morning. Hello? A little help in here, please?" (53)