Am I Here to Amuse You?
I must make my choice. Wise man, or wise guy. I can't be both.
Okay, I'll try to play this one straight. Old school. Fire and brimstone. No easy yokes, no guffah-ha! experiences, no laughty revelations.
Now, let us try for a moment to realise, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended Gaia has called into existence for the eternal punishment of Climate Change Deniers. Hell is a strait and dark and foulsmelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke and the stench of Rush Limbaugh's old cigars. The straitness of this prison house is expressly designed by Mother Earth to punish those who refused to listen to Al Gore. 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 conservatives stacked atop each other like cordwood, 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.
Actually, as you probably know, that was a playgiarised excerpt of the famous sermon from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. On Earth Day, I was going to do a schtick on the whole sermon, and about how fire-and-brimstone religion has now lodged itself in the left (and in hysterical Darwinians such as Queeg), but I'm just not that fired up about Earth Day or about Queeg.
The point is, some people prefer fear as a goad to religion. Others -- or I, anyway -- use humor. Who's right? If the following passage moves you, then my style probably won't:
"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 forever."
This is not to suggest that the stakes aren't high, or that you aren't playing a dangerous game in shunning your human vocation. But my writing is aimed at people who already know that. They don't need to be reminded. Or remanded.
Back to signifier and signified. One of HvB's key points as it pertains to epistemology is that, at first sight, it may appear that images themselves are self-sufficient, or that they reveal their own significance. However, a moment's reflection will inform you that "what expresses itself in the image must be nonidentical with the image itself." In other words, there is this mysterious breach -- that transitional space again -- where it all goes down.
Again, we can never grasp the essence behind the image. Rather, we can only know the essence by or through the image. Conversely -- and this is something Schuon often discusses -- a focus on the image to the exclusion of the essence tends toward a shallow "art for art's sake," or mere aestheticism instead of aesthetics. Naturally, this divorces beauty from the true and good, and here we are in the aesthetic wasteland of postmodernity.
HvB points out that the image is the way it is because it is a creation, not a thing in itself. If it were the latter, it would contain its own being, so to speak. But the image "cannot itself be the depth.... In other words, it expresses something that it is not, because it itself is only the expression of something else." Indeed, it is this very image-making power of being "that enables the image to be an image in the first place."
So, being is a ceaseless con-versation, which literally means "flowing together." It flows into us, we flow into it. But this flow takes place both horizontally and vertically -- or should, anyway. In the absence of a vertical descent of the upper waters, you do indeed end up in that dry and humorless desert of postmodernity.
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 redhot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls. (Joyce again. That was for H.)
What is the significance of significance, anyway? HvB writes that "it requires an appearing surface upon which a non-appearing depth expresses and indicates its presence." Obviously this is an irreducible mystery, the perpetual mystery of self-disclosing being. For how is it that the surface of being doesn't "come apart at the seams," so to speak? How does it fit all that infinite meaning into such a small suitcase?
We obviously confront the same mystery in contemplating the infinitude of the human subject. How does all that infinitude fit into our finite brains? I suppose that's why time is necessary, so everything doesn't happen at once. It seems that time really is the moving image of eternity.
If we are im-pressed by being, it is because being "ex-presses" itself to us. But this may erroneously convey a sort of mechanical imprint, when there is again a creative response in between. I suppose this is where I depart -- with fear and trembling -- from most other theologians. And it actually bears on H's complaint about the humor.
That is, in order to make religion "come alive" for me, I need to engage it in exactly the manner we are discussing here -- not as a kind of dogmatic imprint on my purely receptive psyche, but as a creative response to it, in the same we we respond to any other reality. We are not mere copy machines.
Importantly, this does not eliminate dogma, any more than a jazz musician does away with chords and rhythm. Rather, the jazz musician will take the fixed structure of a song, and improvise over it. Importantly, the improvisation is not possible in the absence of the fixed structure. Indeed, without structure, it is just "noise," not music.
But clearly, not everyone is a jazz musician. In fact, there are very few real masters of the art. Nor are many people attracted to the jazz aesthetic. Rather, they prefer their songs played straight, the same way every time. This is not only true of popular music, but of the classical canon as well. I may be wrong, but it seems that few people want to hear the pianist do his own improvisations over a Mozart sonata, even though this is probably what Mozart himself did.
So, is there a place in the world for jazz theology? I'm thinking of someone such as John Coltrane, who could take an old chestnut such as My Favorite Things, and turn it into something else entirely. He discovered some hidden potential in the chordal and rhythmic structure of the song that no one else had noticed, and transformed it into a hypnotically suspended polyrhythmic vamp that leads into a kind of soaring spiritual release. Note also the eery snake-charmer timbre of the then novel soprano sax, and how he is able to make waltz time swing. I wonder how Rogers & Hammerstein felt about his meddling with their work?
Dear Mr. Coltrane:
Improvisation is a wonderful thing, and we all have God to thank for the many genres of musical expression enabled by the human personality. However, subsequent to sufficient experience of personal gifts for particular genres of music, and our experience of various highs and "tickles" that come with our exercise of said gifts, it is possible to develop an attachment to the genre that stunts our musical growth.
And here's a Coltrane-inspired waltz-time vamp featuring one of my favorite guitarists, the incredibly gifted Derek Trucks. Note the drama in the solo, as it slowly builds toward its fiery climax: