A LOVE SUPREME
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Friday, June 25, 2010
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
"Let your gentleness be evident to all." (Philippians 4:5)
There are several issues that press the collective spirit of the United States: A decade of war, an economic collapse and recession, an environmental catastrophe, and an inability to address immigration issues. Taken together, we have become more divisive and distrustful, more protective and territorial. As a collective, we want to insist on our rights, we feel the need to fight for what is "ours." It is a spirit of grasping and clinging, we are suspicious of others whom we believe are trying to steal from us: terrorists abroad, immigrants within our boarders, the government, or corporate powers.
"Tolerance" is a word that has been debated in our society for a while. Some mock the idea of tolerance: this isn't a tolerant world for the weak, you have to fight for what is rightfully yours. At this point, the sense of tolerance, civility, and gentleness seem only to be words devoid of substance, political rhetoric to give us a moral sense of superiority.
Paul's exhortation to the Philippians is to "let your gentleness be evident to all." The Greek word here, epieikes, is a difficult one to translate. The idea has to do with gentleness, but it has to do with the type of gentleness that yields and surrenders its right of law over others. The lexical definition is as follows (BDAG): “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom, yielding, gentle, kind courteous, tolerant.”
The scholar R.P. Martin translates this word as magnanimity: "Aristotle contrasted it with akribodikaios 'strict justice.' For him it meant a generous treatment of others that, while demanding equity, does not insist on the letter of the law. Willing to admit limitations, it is prepared to make allowances so that justice does not injure. It is a quality, therefore, that keeps one from insisting on one’s full rights, 'where rigidity would be harsh' (Plummer, 93; cf. Aristotle, Eth. nic. 5.10 §1137b.3), or from making a rigorous and obstinate stand for what is justly due to one."
Whereas a political or cultural climate such as ours would encourage a person to insist on getting their due and asserting their rights, a spirit of magnanimity or gentleness spoken of by the Apostle Paul would be yielding, kind, tolerant, and pull back from insisting on getting one's full due. What is more, Paul's exhortation to the Philippians is that this spirit of gentleness be "evident to all." In other words, it is not merely a private disposition without public ramifications. The idea is that one's magnanimity overflow into public life such that a person is distinctly marked as a tolerant and kind individual.
I do not think this means that one defers from standing up for justice or righteousness, nor do I think that a person need not express strong opinions related to current day political issues. Nor do I even think it is out of place to discuss one's rights or what is due us. However, such ideological discussions should never turn us against another in such a way that we harshly insist on getting our due without any sense of compassion for others. In other words, "let your generosity be evident to all" ultimately means that a person does not hesitate to pull up short of demanding their rights in deference to others. It is a stance of gentleness as opposed to a harsh and inflexible insistence that right is right.
This spiritual teaching from the Apostle Paul is the mark of one who lives markedly different from the prevailing culture of violence that marks our day and age. "Let your gentleness be evident to all."
Monday, June 21, 2010
"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked -- not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.
The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.
We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now." - President Obama, June 15, 2010
On this blog we have discussed the fact that in order to move our nation in a different direction, we ultimately need a change to the system--a change in the way we think and live and move about in our lives. Yet we have also noted that such a systematic change will not happen until individuals and communities are willing to sacrifice in the short term to make this happen.
It appears as though the political will may be here for the immediate future to commit to taking steps toward systematic change. Will the people be willing to make sacrifices? To change our way of being? And what specifically will be asked of them?
For me, the discussion is not just about being more energy efficient but also about the deeper spirit to consume, the consumeristic impulses that seem to motivate our behavior. It is, I think, a spiritual struggle, a battle for the way we will orient our souls and our collective national self.
President Obama began his speech by discussing a "multitude of challenges" that have faced the nation: "At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American. Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al Qaeda wherever it exists. And tonight, I’ve returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens."
He notes the three areas of disaster: economic recession, war, and environmental catastrophe. I see the consumeristic impulse causing or motivating all of these. I wonder if these three events and concerns will shape our political landscape for the next few decades. I wonder if people of faith will respond with enthusiasm.
Posted by Jonathan Erdman at Monday, June 21, 2010
Friday, June 18, 2010
Generally speaking, the dominant political power on the right (Republicans) tend to be suspicious of the growth and scope of governmental powers, but they turn a blind eye to any of the damages of corporate powers--environmental abuses, corporate fraud, low compensation toward workers, manipulation via advertising, and pushing out smaller businesses and sole proprietors (i.e., Walmart's destruction of our nation's downtown small businesses).
Generally speaking, the dominant political power on the left (Democrats) tend to be suspicious of the growth and scope of corporate powers, but they turn a blind eye to any of the damages of governmental powers--excessive and ineffective bureaucracy, fraud, corruption and misuse of public funds, the power of political machines, imposition on personal liberties, etc.
I'd be interested in a political movement that was suspicious of all dominant powers, be they corporate or governmental. I would be disposed to supporting a movement that empowered local governments, local communities, and individuals. Not a movement that promotes bare individualism at the expense of community, mind you.
Because bigger is not always better....and it's often worse.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Tamie and I have been watching the most recent Ken Burns documentary series on the National Parks of the United States. It's been quite amazing to realize just how beautiful the United States is. It is also humbling to realize that many of our most scenic locations were almost raped and ruined. If brave and steadfast souls had not stood up to some of the corporate powers-that-be, then the Grand Canyon might be invested with mines and hotels, under the control of entities trying to extract a profit from her; the grand sequoias, thousands of years old, might have been leveled; the buffalo might be completely extinct....etc.
There is a fantastic quote that I came across. It connects patriotism with the soil.
"What is it that inspires love of the flag, that tunes the ear of America to sing 'My Country 'Tis of Thee'? Is it industrial efficiency, irrigation statistics or trade output? Is it the hideous ore dumps of the sordid mining camp? Is it the blackened waste that follows the devastation of much of our forest wealth? Is it the smoking factory of the grimy mill town? Is it even the lofty metropolitan skyscraper that shuts out the sun and throws its shadow over all below? No, our devotion to the flag is inspired by love of country. Patriotism is the religion of the soil, and the national parks are our richest patrimony."
Patriotism if often cited these days. Patriotism is often placed alongside abstract ideas, like "democracy" or "equality." It is used to advance ideologies. Or it is justification for war. In extreme cases, patriotism is a reason to revoke civil liberties. But what about a patriotism of the soil? What about being patriotic to the land? "Sweet land of liberty"?
I sent the DVD back to Netflix, so I am uncertain who to attribute this quotation to. I had thought it was Stephen Mathers, but surfing the net I also see that someone credits John Wesley Hill. No matter. What I appreciate about this idea is that it questions whether patriotism can be sustained if there isn't an organic source of inspiration. Perhaps so many of the other reasons for our patriotism wind up dividing us because they are ideologically driven, they don't grow out of the earth.
Along with this is a quote (that I did not write down) regarding legislation something to the tune of: every legislator and government official in the U.S. should ask themselves if their bill or plan is worthy of the Grand Canyon. In other words, is the direction of our nation worthy of our greatest and most inspirational natural wonders? There's a certain perspective that one gets, I think, from the natural world; it's something that kind of reorients us back to what is truly important.
Monday, June 14, 2010
It's all well and good to guilt people into a more sustainable lifestyle; and perhaps it is even inspiring to discuss a way of life that is fulfilling and integrated. However, the realityis that it is extraordinarily frustrating and taxing to attempt to swim against the current of U.S. consumerism; it feels impossible for one individual to do it--like swimming against the rapids. And, after all, what difference can one individual really make, in the long run? The reality is that we need community. We need local support and networks of people committed to living the blessed life.
How about the church?
It's an intriguing time in the life of the church. Most churches are having a hard time maintaining enthusiasm among the young, particularly singles. The numbers I have seen show that young folks are leaving the churches in a mass exodus, of sorts, although most still describe themselves as spiritual or religious in some way.
Hhhhmmm....what about the church....
Here's the positive thing. Churches are already set up as support groups for local individuals. This is particularly true of "neighborhood churches" that are located in densely populated areas (where people actually live!), allowing people to be within walking distance of the building.
Furthermore, if churches want to imitate their founding member (and subsequent disciples and apostles), which seems to be a common theme among churches, then they will already have an interest in creating a supportive community for living an alternative lifestyle--this could be lifestyle in alternative to the consumeristic matrix within which the greater Western world now participates.
Just imagine it, my friend. (Personally, I have a difficult time not feeling some surge of optimism in writing about the possibility.) Just think of the revolutionary possibilities if churches dedicated themselves to the path of anti-consumerism, to integrity, and to the blessed life. These churches could create new, local markets for goods, for everything from locally produced food to locally made clothes, furniture, cookware, and art. What kind of new employment opportunities might this open up? Might more people be able to quit their jobs on the assembly lines and behind desks and follow their talents and creativity? Working the soil or creating beautiful and useful products?
Such a shift would also create strong relational bonds within a faith community--striving and struggling together for a crucial mission at a critical time. It would be a shift from surviving the world to working together for a new vision. Consumeristic thinking necessarily leads to objectification. Those of us who "work jobs we hate to buy shit we don't need" end up feeling a little bit like we've sold our souls to the devil. And maybe we have, but it isn't too late to change. Such a transformation would be about the blessed life--approaching the world in a life-giving manner. This is a shift about the way we interpret ourselves, no longer as "consumers" or "human resources" but as relational and responsible human beings--with an emphasis on "being," on being dynamic and alive. This kind of life and this new relational energy could then be used to reach out a hand to those on the margins of the consumeristic society: the disabled, the poor, the addicts, prisoners, prostitutes, undocumented immigrants, and others who are considered a burden by the wider society--but those to whom that Jesus dude tended to gravitate.
Structurally the church is set up to be the catalyst for the blessed life, to turn our attention from thoughtless Walmart, fast food, and strip-mall consumers to becoming informed people of integrity. The system can be changed, we could become spiritually, relationally, and environmentally sustainable people via the church.
So, what's stopping us?
Structurally, the church is set up to be
Friday, June 11, 2010
"When men are merely submerged in a mass of impersonal human beings pushed around by automatic forces, they lose their humanity, their integrity, their ability to love, their capacity for self-determination." - Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
This quote by Merton relates to my recent musings on the blessed life. A life of integrity means that our values and humanity are integrated into every element of our lives. When our work, recreation, religion, buying habits, addictions, or other activities of our lives cut us off from what is most human about us, then our lives become fragmented and frustrated.
Perhaps the awkward thing about our age is that we are being "pushed around by automatic forces," like advertising or other media, but many of us are okay with it. We know that advertisers are deliberately manipulating our psyche to get us to buy products, but we like it well enough that we don't protest. We understand that our favorite cable news channel program presents a very slanted spin on events, but it's what we want to hear (and after a while we forget that it's a slanted spin, and then we assume it's all more or less fact).
Merton points out the loss of humanity, integrity, ability to love, and the capacity for self-determination. I would say that these four losses are definite manifestations of a life of frustration that comes out of being objectified as a consumer within the spirit of a consumeristic society. Consumerism is the kind of "automatic force" that can drain us of very vital spiritual and human qualities.
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
It is often the case that our own ill-conceived strategies for life often make us the most unhappy. The world is a chaotic place, and we develop strategies to cope. These strategies evolve into habits, many of which we are not even aware of. There are times, though, when we run into problems in our lives that confuse us, that cause us to step back and reevaluate ourselves. The idea of reaping what we sow seems to have to do with this very thing—ill-conceived strategies for life, lifestyles and habits that come back to cause us grief and pain.
Here in the U.S., we are nearing nearly a decade of war, our economy is in the midst of “the Great Recession,” and we are in the process of dealing with an ecological catastrophe. It may be a critical time in the history of our nation, a time to ask the most basic of questions regarding our way of life: is it working for us?
Clearly our choices of lifestyle have had a devastating impact on the environment. From an economic perspective, it is a matter of debate whether we can continue to push for more growth. But more to the point: our economic push for expansion and growth is coming into conflict iwht our environment’s ability to sustain it. This is due in part to the fact that our deconomy depends so heavily on iol. Eventually the supply will run out. Additionally there is the concern about global warming. Can our environment sustain the impact of all of the world’s carbon emissions? In the meantime, we deal with the oil spills and the environmental destruction from drilling on land.
But let’s bracket these concerns for a moment. Let’s assume that these natural resources are unlimited and that extracting them is not a problem. (After all, most people continue to live as though there were no problems—even those who believe that our way of life is devastating to the planet.)Let’s assume global warming is not happening and that the resources are unlimited. Let’s ask a fundamental question: are we really happy? Do we live a blessed life?
The biblical texts speak a good deal about the blessed life.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
As I understand them, the basic premise is that if a person or society walks with integrity, then they will be blessed; conversely, those whose ways lack integrity can expect negative consequences to come their way. This is certainly not an absolute formula for success, and those who use it as such will find themselves disappointed. For example, there are those who walk with integrity but are exploited, abused, die of disease, are pushed off their land, etc. This is historical fact. Still, there is something important about living a blessed life, about being blessed, and it isn’t about living out a formula for a successful life.
What is the standard for a blessed life? Material possessions might be our first response. Or we might perhaps associate blessings with entertainment or other sensual stimulations. Further, we might define success (and blessedness) in terms of achievement—building a career, establishing a ministry, attaining personal goals, or having an accomplished family. Perhaps also we might define a blessed life as some mix of the above.
My understanding of the biblical texts, taken as a whole—the Hebrew scriptures along with the Christian New Testament—is that the blessed life is one that is lived with integrity. The word “integrity” having to do with an “integration”: that all of the activities and relationships of one’s life work together in a harmonious, beautiful, and virtuous way.
For example, we admire a business man or woman as a “person of integrity” if this person is consistently honest in all of his or her dealings, whether professional or personal. If a person is religious at church, but they are dishonest in their work life, we say that such a person lacks integrity, that they have not integrated their values into a harmony. Similarly, if a member of the clergy has a public persona of virtue but a private life of vice, we would say that this inconsistency is evidence of a lack of integrity.
If the blessed life is seen in this way, then we realize that success, achievement, or even survival is of secondary importance. Integrity has a profit all its own.
If the blessed life is a life of integrity, then how does the U.S. fair? The outlooks is certainly bleak. I would say that the reason for this does not necessarily have to do with evil intentions by the majority of average citizens, but more to do with a way of living and a system that promotes fragmentation. Fragmentation is the opposite of integration, or the reverse of integrity. For example, if we want to own a pair of running shoes, we go to Foot Locker or some other chain store and buy a pair. We do not usually think farther than this. But what if our shoes were made in an Asian sweatshop? What if our shoes were produces with exploited labor? Even children? “Well,” we might respond, “how should I know? I’m not deliberately trying to screw Asian workers, I just want a pair of shoes.” But you see, this response presumes that our behavior (buying a pair of shoes) can be an isolated event. We isolate this event and fragment it from any other considerations and from any of our life’s values. We live in a sort of willful ignorance of where our products come from. This is a breakdown of integrity because it is a failure to integrate our values (things like fairness, goodness, kindness, etc.) with our purchase of a pair of shoes.
This kind of thing, though, is a part of life in the U.S. We purchase most of our products without knowing their source, even our food. We work for companies and corporations that isolate us into departments, cubicles, and offices, to do isolated tasks without knowledge of whether our work is contributing to a virtuous cause or causing suffering in the world.
We live in a system that encourages fragmentation, that refuses to allow us to live integrated lives, lifestyles of integrity. And more and more we are seeing the impact of our lifestyle on other people, animals, and the environment. This means that the general public is being confronted with the fact that we have not been living the blessed life.
And are we even happy? Do we live fulfilled and satisfied lives? The advertising industry, which is the force behind so much of our drive for economic expansion, by definition creates dissatisfaction in consumers. If everyone were satisfied with their life, then there would be no reason to buy the latest ipod, purchase a larger television, invest in a larger house, get that second car, or keep one’s self dressed in the latest fashions. Who in the U.S. is truly content? Who is truly satisfied with what they have? It is almost true, by definition, that we are unhappy.
It is also my belief that living a fragmented life without integrity is itself dissatisfying on a deep spiritual level. We see this in the sarcastic and bitter cynicism that many people have toward working in isolated offices and cubicles. The Dilbert cartoon satirizes this approach to life. How can one feel satisfied working in a glorified assembly line that we call an office space? We are often bored and fragmented, and our entertainment industry is so wealthy because it serves to distract us from this deep spiritual discontent.
To live with integrity. To live a contented life. This is the blessed life. This is the life that can extend itself outside of self and engage the world in a meaningful way. A person who is content and lives with integrity does not need to be another consumer in the market to find happiness or some measure of peace, for peace is found within and as a result of one’s virtues put into action. There is an abiding strength of soul and spirit, a renewed “inner person,” and this transformed individual is free to integrate their values with their lifestyle. And it works in reverse: the person who has transformed their behavior in the world can experience an inward satisfaction and freedom from being bound within the consumeristic cycle of discontentment.
There is freedom in this life. This is a pilgrimage that is not of this world, and yet so deeply engaged in the world so as to challenge its deepest darkness. This is the blessed life.
Monday, June 07, 2010
BP has taken taken a lot of heat for the oil spill, and understandably so. Sarah Palin's approach seems to be a bit different: it's the fault of environmentalists. In a post to "Extreme Enviros" on Facebook, Palin said the following: "Extreme deep water drilling is not the preferred choice to meet our country's energy needs, but your protests and lawsuits and lies about onshore and shallow water drilling have locked up safer areas. It's catching up with you. The tragic, unprecedented deep water Gulf oil spill proved." (cited from PD)
The logic seems to go as follows: (1) We can't drill for oil on U.S. soil or in shallow water areas. (2) We have to have oil....so....(3) We must drill offshore. Given (1) and (2), then (3) seems to follow.
Of course it's completely illegitimate to suggest that conservationists and environmentalists are responsible for the oil spill. We all know this. It's political posturing. We live in an era where polarization is the normative response to any crisis. Only in the spin zone contexts of cable tv, talk radio, and internet social forums could a case be made that those who exist to conserve our earth are the people who are responsible for the oil spill.
No, BP is to blame; they are directly responsible, that is. What I want to say, however, is that BP is at fault only in a very narrow sense. Back to the above logic: given (1) and (2), then (3) follows. I think the logic is sound, and I think (2) is my point of interest: we need oil. We as U.S. consumers demand oil. It's a point that should not be missed, because it deals with the economic cause and effect matrix: consumers demand oil, companies like BP provide it.
Would we really have chosen, individually and collectively, to drastically cut our oil usage if we knew that the oil spill was going to occur?
In a very real sense, there is only one answer to the question Who is to blame for the oil spill?
If you live in the U.S. and you use oil, then you are to blame. You create the demand. I created the demand. I have taken travel for granted--driving and flying. I buy products that are flown in from around the world.
Personally, I have worked to make changes in my life over the last few years, and changes I have made. Let's face it though: it's damn hard to live in the U.S. without using oil--either directly through transporation or indirectly by purchasing goods that were transported from around the nation or around the globe.
People talk about our society, our lifestyle in the U.S., as an "addiction" to oil. I think that's the wrong term. The problem is that we have made oil a fundamental necessity to our economic and spiritual well-being. Our whole way of life--our entire way of being--revolves around oil. It's not an addiction because we don't notice it. The substance itself is something we take for granted. Most of the time we don't even see the stuff. But let it be known that our lives as we know it depend on oil--even our very souls. It's like the air we breathe, or the water we drink, which makes for a certain perverse irony when we view pictures from the Gulf.
What would we do if we couldn't commute to work? Fly on a business trip? Run the kids to dance class? Take that vacation to where ever or visit Grandma at Christmas? Hop in the car to go grab a beer or eat out? Or drive to church or other religious activities?
What would happen if the grocery stores all closed because they could no longer ship food in from all over the U.S. or the world? Most of the food we buy is not grown or processed locally. We rely on mass transportation for our food supply. In short, we need oil in order to eat, to survive.
Here is the point I am getting at: our most meaningful activities in U.S. society necessitate that we consume oil. That's what I mean when I say that our economic and spiritual well-being depends on oil.
So, who's to blame for the oil spill in the Gulf?
But I'm also tired of this mess, and it really hurts my soul to see the entire Gulf of Mexico devastated by this oil spill. Our lifestyle must change, and a real change will only occur when we decide individually and as a collective to be different. It's difficult to change, but it has to happen. I am at fault. I must take responsibility.
Tuesday, June 01, 2010
There's something stirring in the soul of Ishmael, the narrator of this "great and enduring volume." When civilization becomes an anchor on the soul, it's time to cut the line, to cast off to sea. It's time to reawaken "that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it." He says "call me Ishmael" in the opening line of the text. He is the bastard of civilization, out of place in his own father's house, but perhaps all the better for it. He is not "the son of the inheritance," and he shrugs off all societal responsibility and obligation, in search of adventure.
As I read Moby Dick I found that I had a certain fellowship and kinship with Ishmael, a fellow pilgrim in search of a life of deeper mystery and awe, a life somehow connected with exploring the wild of the natural world, a life a bit less comfortable but a bit more terrifying. Civilization can make one "grim about the mouth." Civilization values its domestication and the easing of any human exertion. It is, in a word, boring.
I've been chatting with some folks, and I've found that many of us in the States read Moby Dick as required reading in high school. It's unfortunate, I think. (Perhaps it is unfortunate that any text is required reading for students.) It can be a difficult read. Melville's great work was a forerunner to the modern novel. It cuts from plot to poetic and philosophical musings, or it breaks off of the narrative to attempt an encyclopedic-type entry on whale classifications, these sometimes spawning several chapters at a time. This disregard for strict narrative in a novel, however, was ahead of its time. In fact, it took a generation of two to really recognize that Moby Dick is one of the great American novels; indeed, one of the greatest novels of all time.
I think Moby Dick is a novel for a mature soul to savor, and to do so with a certain joy. I found it to be insightful, informative, breath-taking in its scope, and above all quirky and irreverent. Melville's Shakespearean prose does not take itself too seriously, but in the process, I find it to be a sweeping commentary on the entirety of western civilization. My review, then, will follow the epic nature of this great text and tease out how Melville, in his subtle and sly way, re-imagines civilization: with its imperialism, religious dogmatism, philosophical foundationalism, its life of comfort, its mastery of nature, and our conception of free will, necessity, and chance, with chance being the dominant force.
A Grand Epic
The Greek tragedy warns o the passions of a human being. The grasp exceeds the reach. Be wary of overstepping the boundary of morality. Live within your nature and all will be well.
The primary story line of Moby Dick reads like a Greek tragedy, and it is epic in its scope. We see two essential characters throughout the novel: Ishmael, the insightful, if somewhat idiosynchratic, narrator of the tale, and Ahab, the monomaniacal Captain of the Pequod. Ishmael has been taken aboard the Pequod for his first whaling expedition. Not long after setting sail, Captain Ahab reveals his true intentions for the Pequod: "Death to Moby Dick," the famed white whale who kills men and once took Ahab's leg. The two perspectives of Ahab and Ishmael are woven together throughout the tale. Ishmael, the investigative, thoughtful, and poetic novice, alongside Ahab, the seasoned old captain, a "grand, ungodly, godlike man."
"The chick that's in him pecks the shell. 'Twill soon be out." Ahab is intent on his vengeance of Moby Dick. "He piled up on the white whale's hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race, from Adam down." Ahab's was a "supernatural revenge," an anger that pursued the whale with a divine fury!
One of the crew speaks prophetically, even desperately to Ahab as the chase for the whale threatens the whole ship: "Let Ahab beware of Ahab. Beware of thyself, old man." Beware of thyself could not be more Greek, that sense that one's passions mixed with hubris--an arrogance that exceeds its proper limits--might produce a monstrosity of desire. "God help thee, old man. Thy thoughts have created a creature in thee!"
Melville's intent is to create a story that is on a grand scale. As such, even his long detours on the whale, the nature of the whaling equipment, and any other fact that strikes his fancy--all of these are meant to draw the reader into the epic tale. The true-to-life detail creates a greater-than-life narrative, something worthy of the full awfulness of the sea; something to inspire awe and dread.
"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme: No great enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it."
A Critique of Western Civilization
Where does one begin, to distill the spiritual, religious, and metaphysical musings of Moby Dick? Is it an act of hubris and madness, like the quest of the cracked old Ahab? Perhaps. And yet it may also be the case that Melville gives us the modus operandi for interpreting his text. In the interrogative words of Ishmael, "Why then do you try to enlarge your mind? Subtleize it." Melville works in a poetic, subtle, and even silly manner as he pokes at the fabric of the civilized world and the imperialistic worldview of the West.
What better place to start than with religion? Melville's imagination recasts and reinventS our conception of faith and the spiritual. He works with the same clay as the rest of us, for Melville is constantly alluding to Christian scriptures, motifs, and characters. His interest is primarily with the Hebrew scriptures, almost exclusively. Even when mentioning Jesus, Melville refers to him as "the man of sorrows," the prophetic title given in the book of Isaiah. In this way, Melville is writing his own Christian scriptures. Like a modern Apostle Paul, he recontextualizes the Hebrew faith into something new.
The best example of this work is found when Ishmael is caught in a bit of a bind. His new friend Queequeg is a "savage" and a pagan; yet Queequeg beckons Ishmael to join with him in worshiping his little idol, Yojo. Ishmael wants to be polite, friendly, and accommodating, but he is also a Presbyterian and knows that this act would make him an idolater. It is well worth citing the text at length, to see Melville's recontextualization in action.
"I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with the wild idolater in worshiping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth--pagans and all included--can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?--to do the will of God?--that is worship. And what is the will of God?--to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me--that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolater."
Not quite the same conclusion that the Apostle Paul would reach; however, in this wonderful paragraph, Melville recasts all of Christianity in light of goodwill toward one's fellow traveler. It's a sort of practical, organic Christianity that meets its neighbor where its neighbor is, even if smack in the middle of idolatry. And what is more, this interpretation seems to foreshadow the theological issues facing Christianity in the coming era of globalization. Melville's novel, as you know, was first published in 1851.
I also see Melville as developing a new (or perhaps very old) interpretation of God. I think Melville conceives of God as he conceives of the whale--as a being that is most fundamentally beyond our grasp. I suppose I ought to cite the novel again at length, to get the full sense of this idea.
"You must needs conclude that the Great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any considerable degree of exactness so there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like, and the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour is by going a whaling yourself. But by so doing you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him."
This conception of God strikes me as a very Hebrew idea. Again, I see this as Melville's reach back to the Jewish roots of Christianity. The allegorical link between God and the whal is almost made explicit when Melville says of the whale, "He has no face," and we must only see his tail. It is a clear allusion, as I see it, to the passage in Exodus chapter 33 where Moses asks to see God's glory, and God says, "you will see my back; but my face must not be seen," because, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."
As has been alluded to, my read of Moby Dick is that it is not only a reinterpretation of the Christian faith but also the whole of of Western Civilization. Melville seems to take the lessons of the Greeks, with their warnings against hubris and untamed passions, and merge them with the Hebrew wisdom tradition and their conception of God as a God of awe and mystery.
There are two very notable passages where this merger seems most explicit to me. The first is in Father Maple's sermon on Job. God is not to be trifled with. Beware the disobedience of Job, Shipmates! Melville gives us an entire sermon on Job, a sermon that Ishmael listens to before embarking on his voyage. The whale narrative of Job is inverted, when rather than a whale swallowing a sinner-prophet on the run, Ahab is "chasing a Job's whale around the world." This is the switch from Hebrew narrative to Greek tragedy, but they both seem to bring the reader to the point of a healthy fear and trembling. This sense of awe is clearly lost on Western Civilization, in its imperialistic, monomaniacal quests to conquer and master the natural world.
Western Civilization in the modern era borrows its philosophical concepts from Greece and creates a new Christian God who charges her with conquering the nations in the name of Jesus. So, the pursuit of land, wealth, and glory merges with an evangelistic zeal. Melville inverts these. He takes the very human wisdom of Greece and carries over the God who cannot be contained in temples made by men.
This Greek and Hebrew merger also comes together in Ishmael's musings on the book of Ecclesiastes. Ishmael calls this "unChristian Solomon's wisdom," insights that the Christianity of Western Civilization knows nothing of.
"Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with they hand on the helm! Turn not they back to the compass." In other words, the darkness can overwhelm. But on the other hand, "that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true--not true, or underdeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. 'All is vanity!' All. This willful world hath not yet got hold of unChristian Solomon's wisdom yet."
This "willful world" is the imperialistic force of modern civilizations, which like Ahab would cry out, "I'd strike the sun if it slighted me!" But again, we must keep in mind, that Melville's text is not a sermon. It's philosophical themes and words of instruction are tucked away in a subtle manner, with a sense of humor and a wink of the eye. Melville isn't looking for converts. He isn't even seeking to undo Western Civilization: he's only deconstructing it through is novel, using its words and story to exaggerate it. He only wants to play with it and work it out with a crazy old captain, a massive and mythological whale, and a witty observer to record it all. Ishmael records it all as such:
"Here goes for a cool, collective dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost."
Conclusion: A Desperado Philosophy
If Melville stirs up a sense of awe and fear toward the world, he does so with the advice that we ought to still dive into it. There's something of the best of all practical wisdom in that. The world, with all its grandeur and greatness can swallow you, like the deep sea. God is great and beyond us; but don't let all that stop you. If you have a sturdy back and a noble soul, then take that cool, collective dive. "I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are. A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul."
So, Melville's "desperado philosophy" emerges from all of this. "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange, mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own....That sort of wayward mood....comes in the midst of his earnestness....There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial desperado philosophy."
I do think that it is fairly clear that on some points, Melville may be guilty of a bit of over-romanticizing. He seems to believe, for example, that whales will never be driven to extinction. The whale is "immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality." The estimation that I am familiar with is that in the last 200 years, the whale population has been reduced by 90%. Ecosystems, we are now learning, are fragile things. Wiping out a species can have a devastating effect on the world, to say nothing of being deprived of the beauty of a species. Technology is powerful enough to wipe out even the mighty Leviathan.
We live in fascinating times. Our world now has the technological capability to either create "a new heavens and a new earth" or completely destroy it. This extreme is perhaps unknown in all of human history. The tower started at Babel is finally complete. Still, for all of our mastery, it is our humanness that holds us back. "Sayest all of us are Ahabs."
"Heaven have mercy on us all--Presbyterians and pagans alike--for we are all cracked about the head and sadly need mending."