Middlemarch, the End

You will notice that “Religion in the Balance” is being rendered in a new format. It was time for a change; I hope this format will be easier to read, and cleaner on small devices.

The last paragraph of Middlemarch struck me at the time of reading it, now several months ago, and has lingered in the interval until now. Part of the power of it, is its simplicity; part of its power, too, is how it connects the universe of the epic novel with the moral universe we might inhabit, if we have enough imagination.

Ready for it?

Eliot is describing her heroine, Dorothea, in an epilogue. The action of the novel is over; what is left is to summarize how Dorothea lived her days, from the end of the novel’s action to the end of the character’s life:

“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill for you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” [emphasis added]

We are always receiving– consciously or not– gifts of grace from those who have lived lives aimed at beauty and goodness, and whose names we don’t know.

Middlemarch 2.0

Dorothea, of Middlemarch, imitates Christ in offering a wide and generous grace to the despairing doctor, Lydgate. The grace that she offers is as profound– and as profoundly affecting– as it is simple: she believes in him. More precisely, she believes in him when everyone else, including his wife, suspects him of a gravely dishonorable and shameful act. Dorothea offers him a lifeline when he, Lydgate, is drowning in despair.

What she offers is so simple, and so beautiful. It’s the essence of love that she offers him, purified of the self-interest that attends to romantic attachment. Or– to change the metaphor– she sees him, and does not judge. It is under this accepting gaze that we are confirmed as precious in the world.

Here is the passage:

“You [Dorothea] want to decide whether you should give a generous support to the hospital,” said Lydgate. “I cannot conscientiously advise you to do it in dependence on any activity of mine. I may be obliged to leave the town [on account of being socially outcast].”

He spoke curtly, feeling the ache of despair….

“Not because there is no one to believe in you?” said Dorothea, pouring out her words in clearness from a full heart. “I know the unhappy mistakes about you. I knew them from the first moment to be mistakes. You have never done anything vile. You would not do anything dishonourable.”

It was the first assurance of belief in him that had fallen on Lydgate’s ears. He drew a deep breath and said, “Thank you.” He could say no more; it was something very new and strange in his life that these few words of trust from a woman would mean so much to him. [Emphasis added]

via What George Eliot Teaches Us : The New Yorker.

Middlemarch

Religion in the Balance has been in winter hibernation while Ribeye Films has been hard at work on our film “Atwood.” Apparently I can’t sustain both at the same time.

At 800-and-something pages, George Eliot’s Middlemarch has required an investment of time– usually late at night– as well. I always wondered what the fuss was about this novel. Now I know. Frank Kermode calls it a “masterpiece,” and he’s right. Eliot is as penetrating into the complex motivations of human beings, as any writer I know. She masterfully creates a world in which her characters are forced into crises; these crises, in turn, refine and wisen, deepen, and sometimes defeat her protagonists and foils. It’s real life refined to its essence: in other words, it’s art.

Here’s one of many passages I marked for its insight into human psychology. It’s about the way we are susceptible to flattering self-deception when it comes to religious belief. Bulstrode is the character she’s describing:

“There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. [Emphasis added] If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind.”

via BBC – History – George Eliot.

Maimonides


Maimonides came to my attention through a review, written by Jay Harris, that appeared in Foreign Affairs.  A 2009 biography of Maimonides, by Moshe Halbertal, has recently been translated into English, and released by Princeton University Press.

Some people see religion as a positive harm. It’s a block to progress, or a source of violence. In this view, humanity would be better off to discard God and religion, and to rely on reason.

Harris astutely points out that contemporary non-religious (i.e., secular) “political and moral discourse” has not “particularly distinguished itself when it comes to dealing with the world….” Instead of bypassing religion, Harris (following Maimonides) suggests that we need better theology. That is, human well-being will not be increased by trying to avoid, deny, or banish religion; human well-being will be increased by doing religion better.

And doing religion better means doing theology better– “theology” in this sense understood broadly as any reasoned speaking or reasoned conversation about God.

Here is Harris on Maimonides:

Maimonides insists that a proper understanding of God (knowing what God is not), together with the commandment to imitate God as he is manifest in the world, will lead people to a life devoted to righteousness and loving-kindness– the essence of God’s impact on the world. A mistaken understanding of God, on the other hand, can lead people to place a divine imprimatur on all manner of evil acts.

 

 

The Idea of a Good Life

Leading Small

Ideas matter. The way we live is patterned by what we think. Ideas that are commonly accepted as “the way things are” merit our special attention, because seldom are they truly of the essence of things.

While I’ve previously written about the love of money in our culture, and the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest, the following excerpt from a December article by David Cloutier, in “Commonweal,” offers a somewhat new slant: our relentless pursuit of goods is social glue. In a fragmented society in which hierarchies have crumbled and authorities have been discredited, we are held together in consumption. What Cloutier doesn’t mention, is that this way of groping for cohesion leads, ironically, to more isolation.

The idea that unlimited acquisitiveness is a good thing, is an idea that leads to no good end. Among other ill effects, it produces a state of mind in the general population that enough is never enough– a state of mind that grinds people (depending on their temperament and social status) into either a neurotic busyness, or into a hopeless, listless despondency. Equating a good life with unlimited acquisitiveness is a bankrupt and bankrupting idea.

Modesty is one old-fashioned idea that needs lifted up anew.

In the excerpt below, you can substitute the word “Christian” wherever Cloutier writes “Catholic”:

But if many Catholics are more willing to admire someone like Dorothy Day than to follow her example, that is also partly because many of us have adapted to our country’s consumer culture—a culture in which affluence is morally innocent or even commendable. “More” is taken to be a universal aspiration, perhaps one of the few we are all supposed to share in our multicultural society. Everyone wants “a better life” or “the American dream” for their children. In The Unintended Reformation, Brad Gregory suggests that “the goods life” is the social glue uniting an otherwise “hyperpluralistic” society. Whatever else we may disagree about, we agree that if you can have nicer things, you should have nicer things. In such a culture, it is easy for Catholic Americans to forget their church’s teaching that our excess wealth must be directed to the common good rather than to private indulgence. We cling tenaciously to the ideology of happiness as the pursuit of limitless wealth, buying into what Fr. John A. Ryan called the “higher-standard-of-living fallacy.” Ryan insists that social reform requires us to “put away that false conception of life and values which permeates all classes of contemporary society, and which holds that right life consists in the indefinite expansion of material wants.”

via Sending the Wrong Signal | Commonweal Magazine.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

Rev. Dr. King

King’s letter from the Birmingham jail was written in response to an open letter, published in the Birmingham News, calling on those engaged in non-violent resistance to give up that method, and pursue their cause in the courts. The letter was signed by seven Alabama Protestant ministers and a rabbi.

King’s response, his now-famous letter from jail, is in the top five pieces of public/political speech in our nation’s history. Like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the Letter combines passion, logic, and wisdom in a way that is deeply satisfactory to a just and compassionate sensibility about how our common life should be. For King, the time was ripe to prod the nation’s conscience through peaceful protest. Moderation had become just another way to continue denying a whole race of people their equal rights.

Not often remarked, though very plain in the letter, is King’s critique of the moderate church– and, by extension, his critique of the moderate churchmen to whom he is responding. “Moderate” here is not a compliment. In a similar vein, it reminds me of how Bernard of Clairvaux warned against “lukewarmness” in the spiritual life:

Sometimes halfway is really nowhere.

Here is an excerpt from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The year is 1963:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust….

via About Dr. King | The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

Some Notes on Why I Became a Christian

The language of art and music is most appropriate to describe why I became a Christian, because my religious belief is more analogous to my appreciation of, say, a Brahms symphony, than it is to having been convinced of the veracity of a set of truth claims. I find religion more like a song to sing, than a string of propositions leading to a conclusion. So:

I became a Christian because it rings true to my ear. He are some of the resonate notes:

Grace. We live only by receiving love that we don’t deserve: it is gift, unearned and therefore free. I am not talking about god. I am talking about babies. All they do/we did is eat, cry, soil diapers, and sleep. We arrived on the planet entirely helpless and dependent, devoid of skill, co-ordination, and language, and through our parents’ acts of sacrificial love, we lived. Now, as adults, the giving and receiving of this grace to one another makes life meaningful: the gifts of generous hearts.

A religion that understands the divine essence to include something as basic as the grace of sacrificial love, seems true.

Vulnerability. Intimate human relationships are impossible without vulnerability, and yet we are (for good reason) terrified of vulnerability. We can get hurt. We open ourselves to rejection. But we know that deep living requires our willingness to put ourselves out there, to take the risk of openness, to touch people that others shun. Vulnerability is the only way to abundant living, because it’s the only way to form meaningful connections with others.

A religion that understands the divine essence to include vulnerability, seems true.

Bodies. Bodies are important. While distinguishing between bodies and spirits helps us conceptualize two aspects of our being that feel distinct from one another, Christian anthropology, in keeping with the Hebraic understanding, sees bodies as spiritual; or, conversely, sees spirit as enfleshed. This is unlike the Greek understanding, where the immortal soul finds temporary housing in the body, only to be freed at the body’s death. Resurrection, while beyond what reason can think, is consistent with a refusal to regard our bodies as mere receptacles of the soul. I like a religion that sees bodies as inseparable from spirit.

via Christian Images.