Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Christian Myth of Hell

Ok, so I did what I said I wasn’t going to do. I complained about the current state of our national health. It’s hard not to. Jungian psychiatrist James Hillman was heard to say at a recent Bioneeers’ Conference that “the Economy is the Moloch to which we sacrifice our children.” When we begin to devour our own people for the sake of financial gain, we are truly lost. Dante tells us that when we’re that lost, the only way back out is through Hell.

Hell is not a place I particularly care to visit. Too many people I love have already been there: John West, Nadia and Vselvolod, Anna and Marina, Stella’s grandmother who spent her childhood in the woods while the Nazis hunted her like an animal.

The Christian legend of Hell tells us that Hell is forever. Hell is the sacrament of perfect stasis. In Hell, nothing ever changes. Sinners suffer in the flames of their torment for all eternity, separated forever from God. Never mind for the moment that flames are the most transformative of all elements: stasis as fire is the paradox of the Christian legend of the damned. Like all paradoxes, this legend says something about this culture's obsession with security, our rise to power and our market forces marking "the end of history." It's only another way of saying, we're above change. But to believe oneself above change is only to sink into the lowest depths of ignorance. That's Hell.

When Dante lost himself in the Dark Wood, he was so reduced that he had become his own universe, the only spot of awareness in a blind, unconscious place. A successful poet, he was trapped inside his own self-esteem. He was alone. Even as he was reduced, so was otherness reduced to a trinity of predatory beasts, panther, lion, wolf. They chased him through the inner darkness all the way to the jaws of Hell.

He did get out. But only after a harrowing journey. And not without reliving and healing all that on the Mountain of Purgatory. In another Christian legend, Jesus, too, released those imprisoned in the underworld. Both these tales contradict the official teaching. Hell isn’t really forever; it is but part of its evil to make us think it is. Another paradox is this. The beasts Dante saw as predators loped off to other forests. Only Dante was left to burn.

Dante reminds us that change is a word we humans greet with ambivalence. By midlife, which is when Dante’s adventure begins, most of us are tired of change, of growing edges, of the solicitous advice of others. We wish simply to have arrived, to be done with all that, to enjoy the summer days of household and child rearing. Change in midlife portends aging. Change threatens us with the loss of our hard won gains. It is no accident that Dante was thirty five when he lost his way.

On the other hand, in the world of politics, change is a positive word. “America needs a change!” shout the candidates. “A vote for me is a vote for change.” Knowing that change provokes both hope and fear, Barak Obama linked change with hope in his recent presidential campaign. Hope and fear are but another way of saying yin and yang, front and back. They are cut from the same cloth.

But if our political discourse, at least at its highest levels, claims to be progressive, the human person, as Dante suggests, is far more conservative. As if change in public is one thing and change in private quite another. It makes me wonder if, for all our faith in progress, we understand change at all. As a young girl during the ‘sixties, excited about riding the waves of change and believing that it was possible to build a just world, I thought change was wonderful. Growing up was exciting, full of hope and fear, at least until I crashed. More than forty years later, I see change as simply inevitable. I can no more manage change than I can manage the weather, but if I am wise, I’ll have a rain coat.

“Those who would save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the Good News will find them. What does it profit us to gain the whole world and to lose our very souls?”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

From Your Grieving Friend

Hello, dear friends. Months have passed since my last post. I have been silent for a reason, resisting sharing my opinions of the health care debate – that we even need to debate this is a little odoriferous to me – we should have long ago joined the family of compassionate, civilized nations that offer either single payer or a hybrid public/nonprofit option. Illness should never be a weapon, although it has been used as such by Western Man for a very long time. A society that derives huge profits off the suffering of others does not sit well with my soul. It reminds me of the blankets infected with small pox that were given to our Native brothers and sisters. A preexisting condition. Which is to say, I’ve been grieving. If you’ve ever seen a dog grieve, you will know that she slinks into her corner, rests her head on her paws and falls into an observant silence.

It’s a humbling thing, this social racket. Long ago, back in the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, the right accused my generation of being self-interested, that we were refusing to fight in Vietnam because we were cowards and wanted fun, not danger. Like all accusations in a politically polarized climate, this one had its elements of truth. In a New York Times interview with Donald Trump back in the ‘nineties, the rich man stated that he could not be bothered with Vietnam because it might interfere with his financial ambitions. “Let other people do the fighting,” he said. The conservatives in the days of the Draft saw serving ones country as an unbreakable part of the social contract. The liberals saw the war in Vietnam as unjust. These ideas are not equivalent, although they were taken to be at the time. Now history has revealed a third thread: that when a social contract is all about death, greed, murder, defoliation and drugs, when it uses people to fuel an idea – in this case protection of a capitalist way of life – the social contract itself ceases to look very good. For those who believe that we can get where we need to go if we only banish religion, let Vietnam serve as a reminder. Vietnam was a crusade and there was nothing religious about it.

Meanwhile we who are a social species withdraw into our shells and wonder why we are so unhappy.

As many of you know, I have been deeply formed by the work of C.S. Lewis. Lewis insisted that Imagination, not pragmatism, held the key to life’s most persistent and difficult questions. The children who enter Narnia leave a world of school, security and safety to encounter life’s real dangers and in facing them, become real themselves. Implicit here is the idea that our so-called “real world” may in fact be the fantasy, (and the world in which I grew up felt rather grotesquely made up). Another idea, less explicit but no less real, is that too much insulation from risk only turns people into bullies. Such was certainly Lewis’ boyhood experience. For all his being one of the most educated men of his generation, Lewis hated school. British schools were notorious for their bullies. Britain before World War I was also a superpower. Perhaps there is a correlation between bullies and superpowers, because the people I know worry about bullying quite as much as C.S. Lewis did. America is nothing if not a superpower and we spend billions each year to protect ourselves from risk. One of the unintended consequences of refusing to fight in Vietnam is that an entire generation believed it was entirely possible to insulate itself from risk, or in the case of extreme athletes and mountain climbers, to carefully control and orchestrate where risk is going to happen. In Narnia, C.S. Lewis charted a middle way. It is a very different thing, he says, to fight for what you love than to be canon fodder in some else’s army.

In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, upon whom World War I left an indelible mark, I’ve been in a conversation with myth as a way of imagining myself out of the grief I feel over what is happening to our nation. Myth has the uncanny ability to suggest that there is much more to life than the pundits are telling us. From the standpoint of myth, the fact that our real world is continuing to fracture into warring factions and reductionist views screaming slogans at one another is a very bad sign.

You know what I mean. Everyone has his own cause that must prevail over all the others. The environment will have to wait until we’ve fixed the economy. The economy cannot bear the costs of reforming and improving our health care system. We can’t worry about civil rights or torture when there’s a war on. Or – let’s score one for the mothers of my native Berkeley – fat people are really the problem and we can save humanity through diet and exercise.

During my months of silence, I have steeped myself in the stories of another age of social breakdown: the end of Roman Britain and the descent into the so-called Dark Ages. I say Dark Ages reservedly, because recent evidence, and my own readings of the time during seminary suggest that this age was anything but dark. Or if they were dark, it was the darkness of germination. “A sower went out and scattered seed,” says one of the stories they loved back then.

These early legends speak deeply to our present dilemma: what happens when very different cultures and outlooks meet? What happens when everything you’ve taken for granted falls apart? How does a brilliant tradition survive when another brilliant tradition seeks to erase it from the memory of all time?

How are we going to live?