One Flew Over the Cosmic Nest
I say I "might be" in disagreement, because I'm no longer sure if the world is evolutionary and progressive, or whether mankind's apparent progress is not only superficial, but a kind of deodorant that covers up the smell of the rot. I am an optimist by nature, an attitude which is further exacerbated by a disposition that is essentially cheerful, sunny, and sort of jovial. But what if the universe is not cheerful, sunny and jovial? Then I'm distorting things every bit as much as the depressed and morbid person who sees life as one hopeless struggle, aren't I?
Obviously, when I wrote my book, I was unabashedly in the evolutionary camp. This was undoubtedly due to the influence first of Ken Wilber and then Sri Aurobindo, both of whom see the cosmos as a field of progressive spiritual evolution. A while back, I wrote that.... Never mind what I wrote. I was about to select a quote, but I couldn't pick just one, so here's the link to the whole thing. It is a reflection of the optimistic side of me, which again comes very naturally. But that doesn't mean it's correct, now does it?
Then again, the traditionalists such as Schuon all appear to me to be on the serious side, to say the least. I've almost read Schuon's entire body of work, and I don't think there's a single gag in the whole existentialada, except maybe the hollow and bitter kind, as Bertie Wooster might put it. In my more grandiose moments, I sometimes think that maybe I was put here to introduce a little levity into the gravity of religion. I mean.... somebody's gotta do it, right? Alan Watts was a pretty funny guy, but he was also alcoholic and had a spanking fetish.... not that there's anything wrong with that, but my point is that whatever seriousness he was able to convey through humor did not extend to himself, since he was a pretty frivolous character, and underneath the frivolity were some pretty dark currents. Thus, he was only superficially frivolous, whereas my goal is to be deeply frivolous.
Come to think of it, I have to say that all of the spiritual models I was initially drawn to were of that nature. Given my basic temperament, I just couldn't take traditional religions seriously. They were just too easy to make fun of. So I was drawn toward people like Watts, Ram Dass, Terence McKenna, and even a sociopath like Timothy Leary, since at least they all had a sense of humor.
Is my sense of humor just a giant defense mechanism? Here's where I think psychology can go too far. Yes, there are certainly people who use humor as a defense to cover up their problems. Just think of all the deeply troubled great comedians. Research has shown that there is a very high incidence of mental illness, including bipolar disorder, among great poets, but the comedians might even be worse. There are the completely self-destructive ones, like Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and John Belushi, and a great many who clearly just use comedy to cover up an essentially bitter and angry personality, such as Bill Maher, David Letterman, or Rosie O'Donnell. Ironically, it is apparently rare to find a comedian who is actually fun to be around and happy in his private life.
At any rate, something in me caused me to reject all of the above "stand-up theologians" for a variety of reasons, even though I suppose I wanted to retain their playful attitude. As I mentioned the other day, if there is one adage I live by, it is to simply follow the depth, wherever it leads. This includes scientific truth, psychological truth, theological truth, and comedic truth. Is there any fundamental reason why ultimate truth can't be deeply funny, a guffah-ha experience, the joke than which there is no jokier?
Yes, I suppose so. First of all, if you aren't funny, you shouldn't try to be. Please, leave it to the professionals. And the professionals know that it is much more difficult to write good comedy than good drama. Even more difficult is to write good comedy that is simultaneously deep. Now that I think of it, my favorite films tend to be those that walk that fine line between comedy and drama, for example, Sunset Boulevard or One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.
And now that I think of it some more -- and I'm thinking about this for the first time -- I can't even tell you how much I was influenced by the latter film. I was 18 or 19 when it came out, and it was sort of a.... religious experience. In short, I totally identified with the R.P. McMurphy character, who was quite transparently a symbol of the messiah. And when I say "messiah," I don't necessarily mean it in the Christian sense, but in Bion's sense as the person who comes along and injects a little life into the dead and sclerotic establishment. I even had the movie poster on the wall of my shabby little apartment back in the day.
Obviously, this is why I was a default liberal in my younger days, since I identified "the establishment" with conservatives. But as I was mentioning to my uncomprehending brother the other evening, one of the biggest disappointments in my life is how my own generation has become the stultifying establishment -- conformist, narrow-minded, humorless, politically correct, authoritarian, fearful of change. I mean, Hillary Clinton is the very image of Nurse Ratched, is she not? From Wikipedia:
"Nurse Mildred Ratched is the head administrative nurse at the state mental hospital, where she exercises near-absolute power over the patients' access to medications, privileges, and basic necessities such as food and toiletries. She capriciously revokes these privileges whenever a patient displeases her. Her superiors turn blind eyes because she maintains order, keeping the patients from acting out... A cold sadistic, tyrant obsessed with her own power.... She has also become a popular metaphor for the corrupting influence of power and authority in bureaucracies.... When McMurphy arrives at the hospital, however, her dictatorial rule is nearly toppled; he not only flouts her precious rules with impunity, but encourages the other patients to follow his example. Her attempts to cow him into submission -- at first with threats and mild punishments, then with shock therapy -- are unsuccessful. If anything, they only make him more defiant...."
So back to my theological dilemma. In many ways, the question of whether the cosmos is evolutionary or degenerative comes down to whether God is a funny guy or more like the morbid fellow portrayed in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Yes, it's an extended quote, so skip it if you want, but it's pretty entertaining. Otherwise, this is the end of today's post.
The preacher's voice sank. He paused, joined his palms for an instant, parted them. Then he resumed:
-- Now let us try for a moment to realize, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners. Hell is a strait and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke. The straitness of this prison house is expressly designed by God to punish those who refused to be bound by His laws. In earthly prisons the poor captive has at least some liberty of movement, were it only within the four walls of his cell or in the gloomy yard of his prison. Not so in hell. There, by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick: and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that, as a blessed saint, saint Anselm, writes in his book on similitudes, they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.
-- They lie in exterior darkness. For, remember, the fire of hell gives forth no light. As, at the command of God, the fire of the Babylonian furnace lost its heat but not its light, so, at the command of God, the fire of hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness. It is a never ending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke of burning brimstone, amid which the bodies are heaped one upon another without even a glimpse of air. Of all the plagues with which the land of the Pharaohs were smitten one plague alone, that of darkness, was called horrible. What name, then, shall we give to the darkness of hell which is to last not for three days alone but for all eternity?
-- The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world. The brimstone, too, which burns there in such prodigious quantity fills all hell with its intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odour that, as saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world. The very air of this world, that pure element, becomes foul and unbreathable when it has been long enclosed. Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.
-- But this stench is not, horrible though it is, the greatest physical torment to which the damned are subjected. The torment of fire is the greatest torment to which the tyrant has ever subjected his fellow creatures. Place your finger for a moment in the flame of a candle and you will feel the pain of fire. But our earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of man, to maintain in him the spark of life and to help him in the useful arts, whereas the fire of hell is of another quality and was created by God to torture and punish the unrepentant sinner. Our earthly fire also consumes more or less rapidly according as the object which it attacks is more or less combustible, so that human ingenuity has even succeeded in inventing chemical preparations to check or frustrate its action. But the sulphurous brimstone which burns in hell is a substance which is specially designed to burn for ever and for ever with unspeakable fury. Moreover, our earthly fire destroys at the same time as it burns, so that the more intense it is the shorter is its duration; but the fire of hell has this property, that it preserves that which it burns, and, though it rages with incredible intensity, it rages for ever.
--Our earthly fire again, no matter how fierce or widespread it may be, is always of a limited extent; but the lake of fire in hell is boundless, shoreless and bottomless. It is on record that the devil himself, when asked the question by a certain soldier, was obliged to confess that if a whole mountain were thrown into the burning ocean of hell it would be burned up In an instant like a piece of wax. And this terrible fire will not afflict the bodies of the damned only from without, but each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in its very vitals. O, how terrible is the lot of those wretched beings! The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.
--And yet what I have said as to the strength and quality and boundlessness of this fire is as nothing when compared to its intensity, an intensity which it has as being the instrument chosen by divine design for the punishment of soul and body alike. It is a fire which proceeds directly from the ire of God, working not of its own activity but as an instrument of Divine vengeance. As the waters of baptism cleanse the soul with the body, so do the fires of punishment torture the spirit with the flesh. Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame. And through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever-increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the God-head.
--Consider finally that the torment of this infernal prison is increased by the company of the damned themselves. Evil company on earth is so noxious that the plants, as if by instinct, withdraw from the company of whatsoever is deadly or hurtful to them. In hell all laws are overturned - there is no thought of family or country, of ties, of relationships. The damned howl and scream at one another, their torture and rage intensified by the presence of beings tortured and raging like themselves. All sense of humanity is forgotten. The yells of the suffering sinners fill the remotest corners of the vast abyss. The mouths of the damned are full of blasphemies against God and of hatred for their fellow sufferers and of curses against those souls which were their accomplices in sin. In olden times it was the custom to punish the parricide, the man who had raised his murderous hand against his father, by casting him into the depths of the sea in a sack in which were placed a cock, a monkey, and a serpent. The intention of those law-givers who framed such a law, which seems cruel in our times, was to punish the criminal by the company of hurtful and hateful beasts. But what is the fury of those dumb beasts compared with the fury of execration which bursts from the parched lips and aching throats of the damned in hell when they behold in their companions in misery those who aided and abetted them in sin, those whose words sowed the first seeds of evil thinking and evil living in their minds, those whose immodest suggestions led them on to sin, those whose eyes tempted and allured them from the path of virtue. They turn upon those accomplices and upbraid them and curse them. But they are helpless and hopeless: it is too late now for repentance.
--Last of all consider the frightful torment to those damned souls, tempters and tempted alike, of the company of the devils. These devils will afflict the damned in two ways, by their presence and by their reproaches. We can have no idea of how horrible these devils are. Saint Catherine of Siena once saw a devil and she has written that, rather than look again for one single instant on such a frightful monster, she would prefer to walk until the end of her life along a track of red coals. These devils, who were once beautiful angels, have become as hideous and ugly as they once were beautiful. They mock and jeer at the lost souls whom they dragged down to ruin. It is they, the foul demons, who are made in hell the voices of conscience. Why did you sin? Why did you lend an ear to the temptings of friends? Why did you turn aside from your pious practices and good works? Why did you not shun the occasions of sin? Why did you not leave that evil companion? Why did you not give up that lewd habit, that impure habit? Why did you not listen to the counsels of your confessor? Why did you not, even after you had fallen the first or the second or the third or the fourth or the hundredth time, repent of your evil ways and turn to God who only waited for your repentance to absolve you of your sins? Now the time for repentance has gone by. Time is, time was, but time shall be no more! Time was to sin in secrecy, to indulge in that sloth and pride, to covet the unlawful, to yield to the promptings of your lower nature, to live like the beasts of the field, nay worse than the beasts of the field, for they, at least, are but brutes and have no reason to guide them: time was, but time shall be no more. God spoke to you by so many voices, but you would not hear. You would not crush out that pride and anger in your heart, you would not restore those ill-gotten goods, you would not obey the precepts of your holy church nor attend to your religious duties, you would not abandon those wicked companions, you would not avoid those dangerous temptations. Such is the language of those fiendish tormentors, words of taunting and of reproach, of hatred and of disgust. Of disgust, yes! For even they, the very devils, when they sinned, sinned by such a sin as alone was compatible with such angelical natures, a rebellion of the intellect: and they, even they, the foul devils must turn away, revolted and disgusted, from the contemplation of those unspeakable sins by which degraded man outrages and defiles the temple of the Holy Ghost, defiles and pollutes himself.
--O, my dear little brothers in Christ, may it never be our lot to hear that language! May it never be our lot, I say! In the last day of terrible reckoning I pray fervently to God that not a single soul of those who are in this chapel today may be found among those miserable beings whom the Great Judge shall command to depart for ever from His sight, that not one of us may ever hear ringing in his ears the awful sentence of rejection: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels!