Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Thoughts from "Acts of Faith"

I recently finished reading Philip Caputo's titanic novel Acts of Faith (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), and it sparked some reflections that are worth setting out here on the blog. The book itself is long--nearly 700 dense pages of intricate, beautiful prose--but it's definitely worth the read. I've been working through it for a couple months. I first picked it up because it deals with one of my areas of deep interest--Sudan, and the ongoing human rights crisis there. Caputo's novel, well-researched and obviously reflecting some personal connections with that corner of the world, is as good an introduction to the local cultures and the overall tone and flavor of northeast Africa as I've ever seen (and to be able to do that in a good novel, rather than, say, an anthropology textbook, is remarkable).

Although I delved into the world of the book mostly because it brought my memories and affections back to Africa, I ended up playing witness to an epic tale. It takes awhile for the plot to really get moving--not until halfway through the book--but the ending of the story is a rich tragedy filled with characters of Shakespearean proportions. It aligns most closely with Joseph Conrad and his Heart of Darkness--the escalating and horrific madness of someone who ought to be a true hero, and the unspeakable magnitude of pain wrought by human evil and stupidity.

But what I really want to do for this blog post is deal with a couple quotes that come near the end of the book, in a series of reflections on the tragic flaws of two leading characters. While I don't know if Caputo is a Christian (I suspect he isn't), I tend to agree with his overall assessment. Take this quote from p.648: "He had broken faith with the best that was in him and with the humanity he professed to serve. A malevolent voice had whispered a summons; he'd answered. Anyone who does not acknowledge the darkness in his nature will succumb to it."

We as Christians, and particularly as American Christians, I think, tend to turn a blind eye sometimes to the truths of our theology--and, in this case, to what is known as "the depravity of man." We still have a difficult time showing anything other than a facade of happiness and peace when we come to church. (And, of course, some of us may be genuinely happy and peaceful most weeks, but the point is that in many churches, we have difficulty showing our pain when our own sin is gutting the joy from our lives.) We are surprised, even shocked, when religious leaders are discovered in the midst of terrible sins. But the truth of the matter is that if we're honest with ourselves, we know that the roots of evil plunge deep into our own hearts. We aren't all tempted toward the same sins, but we all have areas of rebellion and selfish sin in our hearts. The two main tragic characters in Acts of Faith are brought down by errors in judgment that begin as very small things--in one's case, it began with lying and a passion for personal success in his business; in another's, it began with a lack of contentment for the normal course of her life and a deeply selfish need for recognition by others. In both cases, these small failings led to bigger things--murder, embezzlement, conspiracy, illegal gun-running, and willful participation in the slave trade. We would be wise not to assume that we are out of reach of certain temptations. I know that I am capable of deep, shocking evil in certain areas of my life, and so I keep up a constant guard against them. And while I am disappointed at times in the failings of those around me, I am seldom shocked. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil. And Christianity is the only religion that really adequately explains this paradox of human nature--how deeply we yearn for justice and righteous living, and how we never seem to live up to that ideal.

A second quote comes from p.663: "The bulb glows undimmed by the cloak of insects--the katydids have fled the dawn. Like belief, Fitzhugh thinks. Conviction will blind you if it is not shaded by doubt." This one is a bit trickier for Christians, but I think there's wisdom here. I'm not going to start advocating that we begin on a mental foundation of skepticism that calls us to continually question everything we believe in. However, we would do well to abolish the stigma that doubt holds in many Christian circles. Different people are wired in different ways, and for some people, doubt can be a tremendously valuable tool in testing, reworking, and exploring the depths of their faith. Further, I don't think that the popularly-held dichotomoy between faith and doubt is accurate. True faith will wrestle with doubt now and again; mine certainly has; and that doesn't make our faith any less faithful. (The other unfortunate aspect of that popularly-held dichotomy between faith and doubt is that it leads people to assume that faith must be some sort of "blind leap," unsupported by evidence or thoughtful analysis.) In the famous story of "doubting Thomas," where the disciple decides to doubt the truth of the Resurrection until he can see Jesus for himself, we often end up looking down at Thomas for his lack of faith. He has become for us the weakest character in the Resurrection narrative, displaying his failings for all to see. However, it strikes me that in that story, although Jesus does seem to reprimand Thomas a little bit for his doubt, he also meets Thomas in the midst of his doubt and offers the proof he seeks. Thomas isn't cast away; rather, his faith is affirmed by bringing his doubts to the Lord. And sometimes that's what we need--to be honest with ourselves, and to let God meet us where we are.

In Acts of Faith, however, it's not the conviction that the characters have towards their religion that brings them to their downfall. It's their fervent conviction in their own actions, their own ideas. They, like so many of us, assume that their assessment of the situation is the true one, that the course of action they've decided on is necessary and right. One of the first steps on the road to wisdom is precisely this--not to let your convictions about your own opinions blind you to the possibility that the truth actually lies elsewhere. In a word, remember that you are finite. There are too many people nowadays who are willing to argue aggressively for their own opinions, as if their opinions actually accomplished something or mattered to anyone besides themselves. (That sounds a little harsh, I know, but we've all met people like that--in fact, most of us have been people like that at points in our lives.) This is why I don't often find myself arguing politics with people. Politics, like anything else involving humans, is incredibly complex and unpredictable, and "the right answers" are always elusive. But those who like to argue politics often seem to believe like they've figured it all out. By contrast, I know I haven't figured it all out. I keep my convictions shaded in doubt. I have my opinions and leanings when it comes to political issues, to be sure--I even have things that I passionately believe in. But I also know that on some points I might be wrong, and that even if my leanings are right, I probably don't know the right way to go about pursuing them. So I don't usually make a good sparring partner for political debate. But the point is that we would be wise in many areas of our lives to keep ourselves shaded with doubt. Obviously, though, it's not a good idea to let doubt immobilize you. But when you take those steps that will shape your life, at least entertain the possibility that you may actually be ignorant of the best course of action; that in itself will inject a little bit of grace into everything you do, and hopefully make you a little more diligent in seeking wisdom and understanding from sources outside yourself.

As the old saying goes, "Suffer fools gladly--they may be right." In short, learn humility. I don't know everything. I will never know everything. So I've learned to lean on others. My first instinct is always to look elsewhere for wisdom--to Scripture, to the church fathers, to the proven classics of human art and thought. I know that opinions shaped in ignorance aren't worth much, so I draw from the deep wells of old wisdom before I try to help others on their journey towards living rightly.

This novel reinforced a wonderful (albeit humbling) message, one that we would all do well to think about: Don't underestimate your capacity for evil or for ignorance.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The Beauty of Nature

Over the past couple weeks, during which time we took a little vacation down to Lake Mokoma, PA, I've been enjoying the restive beauty of the natural world. The beginning of summer is such a delightful time of year, especially in the eastern woodlands. Everything is green and rich with life, and merely being in the middle of it lends a feeling of vibrancy to the soul. One of the things I love about living in Maine is the woods. I've always loved them--the deep, silent beauty of trees and trails that stand apart from the works of man, giving us vast retreats into God's creation. Here in Calais, we're blessed to have not only the forests near at hand, but also the coast--the cold northern Atlantic, and the rugged majesty of Maine's headlands. The quote for this week is from a work by an Eastern Orthodox monk/hermit, "On the Mountains of the Caucasus" (I don't think it has been translated into English in its entirety--the excerpt below was quoted in Bishop Alfeyev's The Mystery of Faith). This passage follows after a story about the author looking out over a mountain vista, and it describes the feeling of encountering the ineffable when we look at nature's beauty, and being shaped by that experience for the life to come:

"So it was that we sat in silence, looking in amazement and in holy rapture sustaining our hearts, experiencing those exalted moments of the inner life when one feels the closeness of the invisible world, enters into sweet communion with it and listens to the terrible presence of the Godhead. It is at such moments, replete with sacred feelings, that one forgets all earthly things. The heart is warmed like wax before the fire and becomes receptive to impressions of the celestial world. It burns with the purest of love for God, and one tastes the bliss of inner enrichment; one hears an inner voice whispering that it is not for earthly vanities but for participation in eternity that the short days of our earthly existence are given."

There's a fair philosophical argument to be made that our capacity to see and appreciate beauty is a pointer to our special creation as humans; and that our delight in the beauty of nature leads us into a deeper delight in the beauty of God. And we believe that all this beauty around us, created by the hand of God, will not ultimatly be lost to us, but will be restored and transformed into what it was always meant to be--ever more beautiful, suffused by the radiance of God himself when he dwells in the new heavens and the new earth. In the words of the great Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nazianzus:

"Why am I faint-hearted in my hopes? Why do I behave like a mere creature of the day? I await the voice of the archangel, the last trumpet, the transformation of the heavens, the transfiguration of the earth, the liberation of the elements, the renovation of the universe."