Monthly Archives: June 2011

The truth and grace, 2: Beneficence

Macha Chmakoff, "Paul"

This is the second of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through different aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Road to Damascus

A few years after the death of Jesus, a Jew named Saul of Tarsus, who was also a citizen of Rome, became a Christian and changed his named to Paul.  Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted the Christians.  As Paul, however, he became the greatest apostle of the early church, moreso than St. Peter or the others who were with Jesus in his lifetime.  Working tirelessly until his own execution at the hand of Rome, Paul established numerous churches throughout the Greco-Roman Mediterranean.  Paul’s letters to these congregations provided definition for the faith and are a critical part of the Christian Bible.

Paul could not explain the change in his heart that occurred on the road to Damascus one day, when he was struck blind and heard the Lord speak to him.  He had to accept this as an act of radical, unsolicited, and unreasonable beneficence.  This he called the grace of God.

“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (1 Cor 15:10)

The grace of St. Paul is a divine beneficence that is unknowable and without a cause such as we can recognize.  To understand grace is to find a place in between the rigid certainty of dogma and the despair of Roquentin.  With grace, we accept that good things happen for no reason that we can understand.  In deeming God the author of grace in the universe, goodness is given a source and it is made relatable.  Without needing to explain beneficence, one must simply accept this:  You are loved, for no reason that you may know or understand.  But you are loved.

Flannery O’Conner wrote stories that often dealt with the consequences of grace for proud people.  They were crushed by grace.  They could not bear beneficence.  To a friend she wrote,

“All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”

Let it Be

Grace presents a challenge:  to live up to its goodness.  This is a challenge to act freely, for one must choose to live up to the goodness one has been given, even when that goodness was given freely and with no good reason for it.

For Ruby Turpin, the protagonist of O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” recognizing grace caused her to crash on the shoals of her own hypocrisy and bad faith.  Mrs. Turpin was a well-(enough)-to-do woman in the Deep South whose Christian piety propped up her sense of racial superiority.  She was self-righteous in the most ungenerous sort of way.

“If it’s one thing I am, it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!… Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you!”

The story is set in the reception room of a local doctor’s office, where Mrs. Turpin is telling all this to another woman in the room, a woman of similar class and beliefs it would seem, whose college-aged daughter, Mary Grace—a name well chosen—begins to seethe with each word out of Mrs. Turpin’s mouth.  The climactic moment comes when Mary Grace finally boils over in rage and throws a book at Ruby Turpin, telling her quietly, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!”  After the incident, back on her farm, Mrs. Turpin sinks into filth and despair, overcome with a sickening sense, much like Roquentin when he discovered that his world wasn’t ordered the way he’d imagined it to be.  As she slops her hogs, she has a revelation of the righteous ascending to heaven with her and her husband bringing up the rear at the very end of the pack.

For Saul of Tarsus, the recognition of grace provided a reason to change for the better, to set aside violence, hatred and pride.  Writing to a different friend, O’Connor commented,

“There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment.”

The nausea demanded of Roquentin that he become the sole author of his own life, but it also demanded a kind of surrender.  To be author of own’s life was not a Promethean charge to become a god. Quite the contrary, this freedom was “rather like death” at first, until Roquentin realized that in this freedom he gave away precious things (his sense o right and order) in order to take up a different, ultimately more rewarding, task. This is a theme Sartre visited in later works, most notably his play, The Flies, in which freedom leads to persecution and hard choices about breaking laws or traditions in order to do the right thing.

Grace demands the humility to accept that we may neither deserve nor benefit from the goodness we receive.  “There but for the grace of God go I,” as the saying runs, paraphrasing the English Protestant martyr John Bradford as he sat in jail and watched other prisoners being taken for execution.

Grace demands the humility to surrender, to “let it be.”

Notes and credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful. This work is called Paul, and it is one of her many Biblical paintings that are beautiful and stunning.  I have never seen these works on the canvas, up close; I have only seen them on the Web.  Her use of color and muted, vague definition seaks to me and touches me.  Ms. Chmakoff and I have struck up a friendship over her paintings and my writing, and that, too, is an element of grace that I am thankful for.

For the early Christians, the time of Christ through the few decades after his death was a time without reason.  They believed, Paul along with them, that the world would end soon, in their very lifetime.  They believed that Jesus would return to judge the living and the dead, and that all those chosen by God would be taken to heaven with him.  In the face human law, persecution, the might of Rome, and the weight of the old Jewish law, Jesus’ teachings tore down all conventions and laws that had come before.  Jesus remade the world for these believers, and like Perpetua and Felicity in Carthage in 203 AD, they went to heroic lengths to demonstrate their faith.

In 67 AD, Paul was beheaded by the Roman Empire, an execution given him due to his Roman citizenship, less painful and drawn out than the crucifixions of Jesus and St. Peter, or the wild animals and soldiers who killed Perpetua and Felicity in the arena. The Frontline documentary, “From Jesus to Christ,” provides a robust discussion of the historical Jesus, the early Christian Church, and St. Paul’s role in defining the church and spreading the faith across the Mediterranean world.

The first Flannery O’Connor quotation, “All my stories …” I discovered on the blog Cage Wisdom, a site dedicated to the flms of Nicholas Cage.  The second Flannery O’Connor quote, “There is a moment …” is from an essay by Patrick Galloway called “The Dark Side of the Cross,” which can be found here.

St Paul’s writings are foundational to the Christian Church.  Differing interpretations of Paul were used by clerics and theologians on all sides of the Reformation, though by and large it’s possible to say that Reformed Protestantism is more singularly grounded on St. Paul than on the other letter writers of the New Testament.  That is to say, branches of Reformed Protestantism represent a Pauline purism, while Catholicism balances St. Paul with the other traditions evident in the early church.  As I am finishing the second part of this essay on grace, I am thinking of a fourth essay on St. Paul’s grace in modern Christianity.  Perhaps it will come, but for now, I leave it out of this essay on grace, because my understanding of grace is more personal (and larger than) Christian theological traditions.  My references are Christian because that is what I know, but I hope the notion of an unaccounted for, unexpected, superfluous experience of beneficence is something in the human experience that can stand apart from specific religious of philosophical tradition.  Indeed, gratuitous beneficence is something any culture needs to understand.

In The Flies, Sartre uses the Greek Electra myth dramatize the proposition that people freely determine their own lives through their actions.  Fleeing from responsibility for one’s actions, or from the consequences of those actions, is to flee from the truth.  In the story, Electra’s brother Orestes must assume must assume responsibility for killing his mother and stepfather in Electra’s defense.  She is too weak to do so, but in the act of assuming responsibility Orestes becomes fully human, finally showing throwing off the chains of self-denial and self-abnegation that Zeus and the gods used to keep people compliant and quiescent.  Now free, Orestes walks into the future pursued by the Furies (giant fly-like beings) who peck at him and torment him.  Such is the price of freedom.

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Filed under existentialism, freedom, hubris, ideas, individuality, Jean-Paul Sartre, life, literature, truth

The truth and grace, 1: Reason

Macha Chmakoff, "Le Chemin de Damas"

This is the first of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through three aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across existentialism, Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

A Reason For Everything

There are people who say that everything happens for a reason.  This is true, for every event will always have an explanation. Natural events—say an apple falling from a tree—have mechanical explanations that can be objectively verified.  When people are involved, it’s less clear why things happen the way they do.  The reasons begin to get fuzzy, or they become contested.  These are the debates charted in the far too numerous tomes cluttering our bookshelves and Kindles.  Yet no matter how ham-fistedly human pretense tortures the truth with conspiracy, polemic, or just plain history, the fact is that in human events, too, everything happens for a reason.

But this is not what people mean when say that everything happens for a reason.  These reasons are invoked when unexpected events change life in some irrevocable way, whether for good or ill.  These reasons give purpose to the challenges we face.  Yet this saying says less about the nature of the universe than about the instinctively human drive to narrate order into it.  This takes place at the expense of reason, for it overlooks the simplest explanation that fits the facts:

We don’t know why some things happen, including the big, unexpected things that change lives and the course of history—and we may never know. 

There may be no “reason” to the universe.  It is shot through with events we can only call random, which appear to rob the world of purpose and meaning.  In response people seek different ways to build up the certainties they need.  Some avoid asking questions or wondering why.  Theirs is an existence amid the fog of quick pleasures and slovenly gratification.  Others turn to dogma or hard-and-fast explanations of the grand mysteries of life, preferring to believe that everything happens for reason, even if they have to make up those reasons again and again in order to adjust the truth to the events of the day.

Others still, a much smaller number to be sure, find themselves stuck in the middle, vexed and even anguished at the lack of universal order and meaning, repeatedly disappointed by every attempt to find larger truths they can hold on to forever.

Roquentin

Such was the case with Antoine Roquentin, the main character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea.  Roquentin was sickened by the sense that his own life and actions were “superfluous” and even repugnant, since he could no longer find any deeper meaning to the world outside his own mind.  Instead of feeling intentional and historical, he was an alien in a world that treated him with indifference.  After fighting these feelings almost to the point of madness, he finally accepted that this was the real nature of life—empty, indifferent, unnecessary—and in this he found his reason to act.

“I am free:  there is absolutely no reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can’t imagine more of them … My past is dead …”

Roquentin now had the power to define his own life and what it meant, yet still he despairs.

“I am alone in this white, garden-rimmed street.  Alone and free.  But this freedom is rather like death.”

In the face of this bleak, graceless epiphany, Roquentin decides to abandon the historical biography that he was working on when the nausea struck him.  Instead, he will write a novel.  The novel will define him, as “a little of its clarity might fall over my past” and then one day “I shall feel my heart beat faster and say to myself:  ‘That was the day, that was the hour, when it all started’.”

Thus fiction replaces history to give meaning—and reason—to real life.

Notes and Credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful.  She wrote me, “I am delighted with [John’s] respect for the work of artists, for he does not reproduce the images from my website without my permission.  As an artist this touches me deeply.  On the other hand I do this also as a sign of friendship between our two countries, France and the USA, in spite of our political and economic differences.”  Thank you, Ms. Chmakoff.

The painting that leads this essay is “Le Chemin de Damas,” The Road to Damascus.  It was on the road to Damascus that Saul of Tarsus had the conversion experience that led him to become Paul the Evangelist, the apostle who more than any other spread  Christianity across the Mediterranean world in the decades following the crucifixion.  Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted Christians.  On the road to Damascus, something changed in an irrevocable way that turned Saul into his opposite.  He had no reason by which to understand this.

Paul Bloom’s essay in The Atlantic (December 2005), “Is God an Accident,” reviews recent science on the human instinct to read and narrate order into the universe:  “Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness.”  The notion that there is no purpose to life (that we can recognize) is hard for human beings to swallow, because a sense of plot and story-line is hard-wired into our cognitive structure.

Quotations from Nausea:  Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New Directions: 1964), pp. 156-57.  I devoured Sartre in college and eventually wrote my senior thesis on the evolution of “freedom” in his work, from Nausea through the Critique of Dialectical Reason, his last great work.  Along the way I read most of his plays, all the novels, his memoir (The Words), Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir his last years, Adieu, and another biography I have since misplaced.  At the end of the day, I can fully appreciate the humor of Marty Smith’s Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook.

This essay uses a fictional character, Roquentin, as an exemplar of behavior, attitudes, and ideas that should be meaningful to real people.  I treat Roquentin as if he were real, for he is.  I never quite agreed with the way Dan Qualye was ridiculed for using Murphy Brown as an example for a discussion of values in America.  (There were plenty of other, legitimate reasons to ridicule Mr. Quayle and hope he would never have a chance to sit in the Oval Office.)  In all, the 3 pieces of this essay mix real and fictional characters, because their actions (fictional, real, or historical-but-embellished) are meaningful.

St. Paul, the overarching subject of the 3 essays, is a real figure who comes to us through writing:  his own letters to his congregations across the Greco-Roman world and the writings about him that survive, notably in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.  We know that not all the letters attributed to Paul were written by him.  Those that are still contain later insertions and redactions added by scribes over the centuries.  In the end, the way Sartre finishes Nausea is the key:  Roquentin will gain his freedom by leaving history and biography and writing a novel.  This is just what Sartre did; Roquentin’s redemption was the day, the hour, when it all began for his author as well.  Through the very act of creating, even fiction, we give purpose to our lives and order to the universe.

 

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Filed under existentialism, freedom, hubris, ideas, individuality, Jean-Paul Sartre, literature, order, philosophy, truth, vanity

The truth and moonshadows, 4: Coda, from friends

After I published the essays, “The truth and moonshadows, 1-3,” a couple of my friends shared their own stories with me.  The essays prompted them to think of their own fathers.  They are two very dear friends, whose associations go back many years.  This gave me an idea, and on this, my 47th birthday, I ask …

The Ask

What I seek from this posting is any email or correspondence concerning other fathers and sons. I’d like to collect some of our stories and figure out what they mean.  Send me stories and photos and I will work with you to craft something that we can share.  After you read this, post this to other websites, or email it to friends who are themselves fathers, whether of sons or daughters.

Peter

I met Peter in 1996 when I walked on to the campus of Augustana College as a newly minted Ph.D. with an office in a former closet next to his own office, which was small but had spectacular windows.  Peter was my epitome of an academic, walls of books surrounding a neat desk from which he produced a steady stream of books and articles, all the while teaching a full spate of classes for dozens of undergrads who came through Augustana every year.

John,

I just finished reading the third installment of your look at fathers and sons, and maybe because I did so in the ancestral land of my own father—Finland (a place he never saw)—I thought back on our relationship.  The summer after my first year at Michigan was the last time I lived at home.  I got a job working for the mining company, the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co. (“do or die for the CCI” was the old refrain in Ishpeming).  My Dad had just retired from teaching and I think [he] was at something of a loss, trying to figure out what’s next and seeing his son giving indications that whatever his future was, it wasn’t going to be in the UP.  Most days after work, we went fishing, something we really hadn’t done while I was growing up.  He sought out all of the old small streams where you used to be able to catch brown trout.  It would appear that by the summer of 1967 those streams were all fished out because I don’t recall catching anything, while being eaten alive by mosquitoes.  The experience was, however, a moment of silent bonding that I never forgot.

When my son, while studying for his PhD at Tennessee, and I decided on a road trip that would take us from Nashville through to his place in Knoxville for a few days (including his treat: a John Hiatt concert as a replay of the first concert I took him to when he took up the guitar—John Hiatt and the Tennessee Queens at the Col Ballroom in Davenport), and then on to Ashville.  We called it the “-ville tour” and decided then and there that we would do a comparable road trip each year.  In fact, we had plotted out a trip that started in Memphis and headed south from there.  Before that happened, Aaron proposed to Katie, they got married in Virginia last summer and thus Memphis wasn’t going to happen.  I did help him with the move into New Jersey last summer and will do the same in July when they move to Providence, RI. I am really happy that Aaron got married, but I realized what my father was thinking about back in ’67.

By the way, you really do look like your father.

Best,

Peter

Jeff

Jeff and I met in 1986.  In that year, I began the Master’s program in Latin American Studies at Tulane.  Jeff had started in ’85, and so he was a veteran.  He lived with a bunch of hippies and Dead-heads up off Broadway in the coolest house I’d ever seen.  A year later I met my first wife in that house.  I was a neophyte from New Orleans, going to school in New Orleans, who had never left New Orleans (save for a 1984 summer in Mexico City to study).  I was a social justice oriented quasi-Marxist, inspired in equal doses by Liberation theologians and Sandinistas (who were sometimes the same people).  What I said in seminars made sense in some ways; in others, however, it was inchoate and in need of focus.  Jeff gave me a nickname I didn’t become aware of for many months:  “Raw Material.”  It was an affectionate nickname, meaning I would be capable of some very good things when I got more shape and maturity to my view.  Of course, he was right.  The summer before I left New Orleans for good, I lived in that house, subletting Jeff’s room while he was off somewhere in Colombia or Baltimore.

Nice read, John. It was challenging for me to focus on because M is on the phone in the kitchen, and for some reason is being really loud with her parents this morning. I started with part 1 and read all 3. The 3 generations of your family seem to share high emotional intelligence, which is usually repressed in our gender and looked down upon. My friends (especially those from work) look at me askance whenever I emote, unless it’s sarcasm, anger, or drunken boisterousness. I’ve always said that my dad has almost no affect—though he has a good sense of humor—and his only 2 emotions are love and anger. He’s never held back on the affection, but he doesn’t seem to be as insightful as you and your dad both seem to be. Noel is lucky that way. I’m also impressed that you can trace your family back to the 17th century!

Jeff

Notes and Credits

The photos are by the author.  The first is of me and Noel and Duke, taken in the summer of 2006 in front of our home at 50 Sterling Place.  Duke departed us in April 2009.

The “UP” to which Peter refers is Michigan’s “upper peninsula,” the triangular nose of land north of Wisconsin that sits between Lake Superior’s southern shore and Lake Michigan’s western shore.  People from the UP are called “Yoopers,” and it was an area historically known for its iron mines, independent spirit, and Finnish settlers.  In Marquette, there is Northern Michigan University, where another old friend from Augustana now teaches.  Ishpeming, where Peter was from, is a few miles west of Marquette on Hwy 28.

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Filed under ageing, fathers, individuality, life, sons, truth, youth