Friday, July 03, 2009

From the Archives: A Short Parable

When I feel too brain-dead to do anything much other than vegetate, I've been slowly making digital versions of various fragments I've produced over my adult life. Let's call it the prehistory of the blog. Here's one such fragment, which I include here because I don't think I'm ever planning on doing anything else with it and I like the ending. I can't remember when it comes from, and it was on some loose sheets of paper. But it seems to have been from the height of my infatuation with Kierkegaard, so that would make it the mid-90s.

Ah the joyous narcissism of archiving oneself!

A Parable

Martha had discovered that over the years that she had lost her faith in God and organized religion. But, despite a strictly religious upbringing which had equated being good with obedience to the commandments of God, she had nonetheless maintained a deep commitment to the ethical life. Her whole adult life she had contributed to humanitarian efforts through both active political involvement and her work as a public interest lawyer. And she was equally well respected in her personal life for her genuine compassion, warmth and care. She was a giving person, people would say. She has faith in humanity. Nonetheless, her friends who were remained religious would always ask her how she sustains that kind of charity in her life without religious belief to ground it in. And Martha would hem and haw, and try to divert the issue until, when pressed, she would appeal to faith in humanity. For this beautiful ideal, her rhetoric knew no limits: in its defense, she had at her fingertips the ideals of countless Enlightenment and humanistic thinkers. If asked what motivated her, Martha was particularly fond of Kant’s idea of “religion within the limits of reason alone.” But even when pushed she refused to recognize any sort of personal motivation that drove her pathological devotion to righteousness. That was the thing that so frustrated her religious friends. Martha obstinately insisted first that it wasn’t “her” who did these things, that she tried to do what she thought everyone should do and second that whatever secret satisfaction Martha might have derived from her life of giving was hidden so deep that you couldn’t see it --- in which case, for all intents and purposes, it didn’t exist. Amazed, they would privately conclude that Martha was somehow naturally more Christlike than they could ever hope to be.

So it should come as no surprise that she was shocked by the dream that she had one night after a particularly heated discussion of her motivation. Now she was suddenly forced to speculate about whether Freud was right and dreams were indeed the royal road to the unconscious or whether older traditions that suggest that God himself speaks to dreamers through their dreams is true. Certainly, she couldn’t just chalk it up to random neuron firings, it was just too significant.

In her dream, she was talking with Jesus. He too had the audacity to ask her: “What’s the point? I’m not saying I’m not pleased with your work, but your father and I can’t possibly imagine why you go through the effort.” “It’s what’s universally right,” she protested. “Yes, Yes, You do lots of that. You’re so admirably devoted to the abstract idea of the universal it makes me wonder why I went through the effort of dying.” “I don’t mean to sound unappreciateive.” Martha said, “I think we’re sort of in the same bout when it comes to wanting to help.” “Oh, yes, of course,” Jesus said. “And I’m not trying to guilt trip you or anything, but how do you keep from losing faith?” “I have a faith in humanity that sustains me.” “Martha,” Jesus says, “I can sympathize. I had that too, but it let me down. I think that you’ll find that after defeat upon defeat the only thing that won’t let you down is --- well, me.”

She and Jesus removed themselves to a hill and watched Martha’s dream unfold. She dreamt that she was a young girl and that she was praying. She had been a champion prayer, beginning with herself and her family, she moved out concentrically, praying for the missionaries, the sick, the poor, the afflicted, the victims of war and hatred (In her dream, she even saw them starving and dying, forgotten in permanent internment camps, homeless and countryless, these same victims whom she and others had ceaselessly lobbied the United Nations and NATO to protect.) The voice of Jesus said in her mind: “I don’t sit passively in committee, do I?” “No, she said, “But I don’t remember you being more effective. Watch what comes next.” She prayed for reconciliations --- that the bad people will become good and that when they somehow mystically become good, that they too would be blessed. She prayed for peace, and ended pleading with God: “And do it! Because you never do my prayers!” She really had ended her prayer that way once, forgoing the customary amen in favor of an expression more heart-felt. She dream that she was once again spanked for her fervent, heartfelt wish that God would own up to his promises, but in her dream her father was asking her: “Have you done any better than I have?” In pain, she was speechless.

The next morning she struggled to understand her dream. If she had been a psychoanalyst, it might have been easy. But she was stumped and concluded it must be a message from God. That Sunday she went to Church for the first time in years and remained an active Mormon the rest of her life. But she had finally lost her faith in humanity, something no rediscovered religion could restore.