"I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything". --from the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 17
"I have constantly the most immediate and very strong feeling that I am no longer alive. Therefore I don't take life seriously. To find someone, to become joyful, to recognize God, all these things are things of life. But life itself is not dependable ground. It isn't only that I might die any day, but rather that everyone dies, really dies, you too,--and then the suffering of mankind... not that I have childish fantasies of the death of the world, but rather that I am experiencing the actual death of this our time--Paul Tillich, Chaplain, German Army, November 1916
"If you start with the question whether God does or does not exist, you can never reach Him; and if you assert that He does exist, you can reach Him even less than if you assert that he does not exist. A God whose existence or nonexistence you can argue is a thing beside others within the universe of existing things.... It is regrettable that scientists believe that they have refuted religion when they rightly have shown that there is no evidence whatsoever for the assumption that such a being exists. Actually, they have not only not refuted religion, but they have done it a considerable service. They have forced it to reconsider and to restate the meaning of the tremendous word God"--Paul Tillich, theologian, 1951
"Hell took a body, and discovered God; it took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see." --St. John Chrystotum
Today I read the brief biography of Samuel Beckett by Gerry Dukes which I purchased some weeks ago at the "under 5 dollars" book store. I liked it very much, with its presentation of a textual overview of his life combined with pictures that do indeed tell tens of thousands of words of information. I found a number of surprises about his life. Contrary to my normal notion of him as the ultimate outsider, he in fact captained his cricket team at school, and obtained scholarships and fellowships which gave him a start in the world.
Whereas his work so often features a bleakness which is both its strength and its asperic bane, so many things in his life as it was lived showed a consciousness of the need to connect. Although he was a citizen of a netrual country during World War Two living in France, he chose the risk-laden path of working for the French resistance, having ultimately to flee to escape the Gestapo. The French gave him a medal for it, which he characteristically downplayed throughout his life. After the war, he took a job helping to organize hospital care in the newly-liberated territories. His life was punctuated not only by the bohemian un-conventionality
which was more remarkable in his age than in ours, but also by little pauses and punctuations in his life, as he stood bedside for ill relatives. One truism suggested by some is that people who reject the conventional
truths of their time lose their will to live. I find, though, that the search for salvation depends less on one's catchechism than on one's faith in the need to do good.
Rich tracks of interwoven facts are strained through a granular synthesizer, so that our images of people from the past morph into simple phrases--"gifted experimental playwright", "sexual libertine", "neither quite French nor Irish", "a man without faith", "a giant", "a symbol of all that went wrong with twentieth century literature".
So often, though, the "blurb" of peoples' lives omits the most important parts--the rich texture of tale inherent in the richest lives. Samuel Beckett can be seen as the most influential playwright of his century--but he can perhaps better be seen with the alternative lens of a man who endured the poverty of being an experimental writer right up until the time that "Waiting for Godot" entered publication nearly twenty years after Mr. Beckett became "a writer". His eventual fame through the receipt of awards and recognition proved unwelcome, as this fundamentally shy man became a "sought after personage". So many times people, including, sadly, creative people, enshrine the making of money from the arts as if it were a pre-eminent method of assessing success. Yet the writers one respects most often made the least money from their writing--and for most writers and musicians, day jobs are not sad signs of failure, but commonplace, workable and good ways to facilitate and even energize the creative life.
Although some suggest that Beckett's plays and novels convey only a despair about the human condition, in fact his own life included a fair bit of risk and inconvenience in pursuit of bettering that condition. Beckett's story does not lend itself to storyboard felt sainthood nor to efficient bohemian stereotype. He lived a life of remarkable constancy and curious ambiguity and inconsistency, as so many of people in this world do.
His personal life could be by turns intriguing or completely absurd. Professionally, one could argue that he got a negative benefit from finally getting the recognition he so long deserved.
I'm always intrigued, too, by the way that some people who enjoy the work of the last century's "modernist" writers adopt an attitude which reminds me of those fellows called the Pharisees in scripture. Surely if Becket teaches us anything, it is that the conventions of literature as they were once defined no longer can be seen as essential boundaries for the creative Moment which constitutes literature. Yet in some hands, and sadly, a good few of those hands wield a truly intellectual weapon of mass destruction, the Ph.D. in a liberal art, Beckett becomes not a liberation of arts in pursuit of the Experience of the dramatic moment, but instead a new straitjacket for the arts into a "post-everything" abandonment of the cultural traditions of literature.
I rather like that Biblical story about this fellow the good Samaritan. It's a story told as the answer to a question and answer session. Perhaps one reason I should like it is that the fellow who asks the questions, rather than being a hand-picked member of a political party, was instead a good old-fashioned legal expert.
He asks how one finds eternal life, and answers in his turn that the law says "love God and love your neighbor". The answer to his question, though, takes the form of a story about a religious heretic and a robbery victim left bleeding and in tatters by a roadside.
Samaritans had their own theological thing going, including a set of beliefs that were considered extremely heterodox/heretical among their near neighbors the Israelites. It is often that way with first cousins and people who attend rival football colleges. A Samaritan could be many things, but most folks thought the main thing was that a Samaritan could be was "avoided". Yet, in the gospel story, the duly and properly "religious" people can't stop to help an injured man, while the shunned Samaritan picks him up off the road and gets him taken care of in proper and unstinting fashion.
At the conclusion of the story, Christ rhetorically asks "which one was his neighbor?".
Today the Spring flowers cast off the veils of drought, and sparkled along the roadways. They are different flowers, to an extent, than usual, because only the Spring-germinating seeds blossomed. But they are alive with renewal, in a month on which the news seems full of a continued drought of beauty and understanding.
I love the season of renewal, which I call Easter, but which others call by other names. It is a time for me of silent reconnection with the parts of me which want to live life just a bit better than I do. I am no paragon of religious observance, attending only x number of religious services a year, and being spotty in my observances of a less formal kind as well. Yet I seek my Easter in fields of flowers, books about playwrights, and the renewing patterns of chess pieces flying across a virtual chessboard in 180 degree increments.
So many theological debates interest me, and yet seem so completely beside the point. In the era of Rwanda and Darfur, I cannot muster much concern about whether people make their marriages "de jure" (i.e., street legal) or "de facto". I no longer worry about the issues of how one finds meaning without a belief in five assertions about God, or in that wonderful protestant mainstay--faith versus works. I am reasonably certain that the Kingdom of Heaven lies within, and not in the verses of "contemporary Christian" songs designed to woo American Idol searchers to ever-larger edifices. I've also lost my religious faith in the purity of skepticism, finding, so often, that humans as story-telling creatures learn much from our faiths, whatever they may be and however inconsistently held, even if we cannot prove them in test tubes. I'm much more apt to worry about integrity than innocent indiscretion, and to worry about seeking out caring people more than people who can recite catechism.
I read today a column by a local pentecostal minister, who used the chance to write a column about the blessings of Easter to blast some undefined "majority" which runs roughshod over our culture while "Christians remain silent". My initial reaction was the same irritated feeling I get when listening to conservative (and, it must be said, sometimes also to liberal) AM talk radio. I do not believe that evangelical Christians are under siege by a broader culture intent on persecuting them. I am relatively certain that both houses of Congress and the White House, as well as a majority of our Supreme Court, are controlled by people extremely sympathic to their views. I do not believe that church-going, Easter, and flag-waving patriotism are in any danger in this country.
As I read the Beckett biography, though, and also finished a fine meal of BBQ turkey at the local Dickeys' BBQ restaurant (no sauce, of course--like a Sunday dinner), I came to renew, like Spring susan flowers, my belief that there is indeed a grand design which requires advancement while too many remain silent.
When the stone is rolled away for me, I do not find the carcass of hand-wringing about stray points of moral discourtesy in the tomb. I think the tomb is long-ago emptied of the deceased body of that form of religion,
and that we can no longer find what we seek in the place from which such faiths have departed. The funeral for that form of faith has been a long-one, with many mourners, but the body is gone.
Instead, I see before us all a call to a new Spring, a Spring in which those who believe and those who disbelieve set aside the trivialities of belief, and instead make choices to seed new flowers. Perhaps we all stand helpless at the temple of unknown gods, but I like to think we can all help.
We choose to hope, to have faith that people can work for good, and to show and experience love and compassion.
We do not all believe in a literal redemption (many believe no such thing took place) while some of us believe the articles of faith handed down, rather impressively, across twenty, or, in the case of some faiths, twenty five, centuries. We live in the first era in which it is technologically possible to end hunger, to cure disease,and to ensure a decent standard of living for all. We live in a time in which people remain hungry, a grievious disease obliterates a continent, and inequity reigns supreme.
The work stands before us, and good people stand silent.
Amid the carnage of the battlefields of World War One, a huge group of army chaplains, most of them German and Austrian, realized that the God in Heaven of 19th Century romanticism fails to address the horrors of a technological ability to kill masses of people. They were not alone in receiving this revelation, as
similar views arose about the competing enlightenment gods of Art, Literature and Culture. Grand theorems of social re-ordering arose, and were disproven, after millions suffered and untold holocaust accompanied their refutation. The time of easy formulae is over.
The work remains entirely at hand.
The clock has just now crossed into Easter Sunday.
I want to use this day to think about renewal, and the resurrection of my own commitment to making a differnece for good.