Thursday, September 21, 2006

Quaker Renewal V: Bedeviled By Goodness

It's an odd coincidence, that Lucifer--meaning "light-bearer," and also the morning star--should be another name applied to the Devil. [I've found some Bible literalists on the web seriously bothered by this, since Rev. 22:16 calls Jesus "the bright and morning star," and only the Devil, they say, would want us to confuse Jesus with himself. The King James version evades the problem by translating Isaiah 14:12 as: "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" The original Hebrew probably referred to a resplendent king of Babylon, but does mean, literally, Venus as a morning star.]

More troublesome is the fact that the Inner Light, as Early Friends described it, was supposed to first appear as an influence that searched out and showed them their sins. "...I turned them to the divine light of Christ and his spirit that let them see all their thoughts, words, and actions, that were evil, that they had thought , and acted; with which light they might see their sins and with the same light they might see their savior, Christ Jesus, to save them from their sins, and that there was their first step to peace--to stand still in the light that showed their sin and transgressions and showed them how they were strangers to the covenant of promise, without God in the world, and in the Fall of old Adam, and in the darkness and death; and with the same light they may see Christ that died for them, who is their way to God and their redeemer and savior." [Journal of George Fox, A Revised Edition by John L. Nickalls, London Yearly Meeting 1975 pg 117.]

This seems to make Satan's vision of our deformities a prerequisite for their cure. In John 8:44, however, Jesus calls Satan "a liar." Certainly, we should expect that habit, in the chief ruler of this lie-infested world. But more specifically, our Accuser intrinsically slanders humanity, omitting the most important truth: that "in God's sight we are precious, beautiful, beloved, of infinite worth, and gifted with untapped potentialities of almost infinite reach." [Unmasked pg 27.]

If Satan has a redemptive function, why is he also portrayed as a malicious enemy, intent solely on corrupting us? Satan--like any principality--changes his apparent shape in response to different people's expectations and behavior. "How Satan appears to us will... be at least in part a function of how we have responded to the choices set before us. If we drift with the collective roles and expectations, or yield to regressively instinctual behavior, or are caught in egocentric strategies for self-aggrandizement without reference to the whole, or actually opt for what we know to be wrong, we augment Satan's power as a force for evil... if we are willing to risk the uncertain path of seeking God's will, and to allow our egos to undergo the mortification necessary to allow the greater self to emerge, then Satan appears as God's Servant, and even our mistakes can become the catalysts of our transformation. (Romans 8:28["All things work for good for those who love God."]) [Unmasking pg 30]

Does this imply--contrary to Stringfellow's thinking--that we really can control the principalities? No, we can render them more monstrous by our mistakes, but that's hardly what we want. To actually restore dominion over the principalities, we must risk that "uncertain path of seeking God's will."

God's will may well render some power more accountable to humanity. Helplessness is an aspect of death, not life. But the truth in the Quietist position remains: The only safe way to exercise dominion is in the context of God's ultimate authority.

Isn't all this "just a metaphor, and a fantastic one at that"? Anyone who thinks thus should reconsider the value of "metaphor"--not just as a useless ornament in a pointless sport called "literature--but as our heuristic method for extending human language towards any phenomena it doesn't readily grasp directly.

God might, or might not, have provided a sort of astral space in which beings with names like 'The Angel of General Motors' or 'The Spirit of Timely Toenail Clipping' can form alliances, mate, and wrestle for human souls. An ocean doesn't need a physical brain to model an incredibly complex differential equation before our eyes, neither does a computer need consciousness to work through computations that would take inordinate time and effort for a human being. What matters is that a process goes on, in which various abstractions compete for our idolatrous regard, and those which succeed, bedevil us.

It is something in our nature (which people have called our 'Knowledge of Good and Evil') that makes that regard idolatrous. And that, above all, is a need for coherence--without which, we might not have even a stable identity.

Some people strategize their way explicitly and obsessively through their lives; others simply freeze helplessly until a bystander takes pity--or until some catastrophe relieves them of the decision. But everyone has characteristic methods for life's various exigencies, whether they're things we've tried in desperation, or things we've seen done by people we admire. These are what become our primary idols, our ruling principles--and even if we make "spontaneity" our master, we need to learn some way of "doing" it! When an ancient philosopher spoke of the eye as "the chief obstacle to seeing", he was pointing to this kind of difficulty.

A "virtue", in its original meaning, was a "strength." There was even an order of Medieval angels called "Virtues." When we indulge our Quakerly love of ethical virtues, we should remember that these are qualities of God, not substitutes. We can say that "God is love," but God is more than anything else we call "love". Love is mere illusion, without truth--while "truth", without love, may only be the Accuser dressed up for the courtroom.

Is "Christ," then, a power?--and "God", too , a power? The words are. Mighty things have been done in those names, for good and for ill.

It can be hard, for unbelievers, to separate the Reality behind such words from various descriptions people have put forward. Many descriptions have been given us as aids to recognizing that Reality--but we can unwittingly make them an obstacle for others. It isn't even that such descriptions, by and large, are inaccurate--but rather irrelevant.

The essence of "idolatry" is putting your trust in something less than the Living God: weapons, money, doctors or doctrines, any of a number of things. It is not, so much, a crime--more like putting your love letters in the wrong box. So there's no need to debate whether one person or another is "guilty," but rather, have we been courting the true Reality--or something "made with human hands"?

No comments: