Saturday, March 31, 2012

Worth Dying For

I have mused before that one of the most difficult thing about being a Christian today (an uncompromised one; at least relatively uncompromised, as who isn't to some degree?) is that we are living in a world where society no longer buffers one's beliefs with a mass social structure of credulity, but also without the persecution offered to sustain the early Christians.

Today, simple ridicule, contempt, or dismissiveness has replaced active persecution, and it often comes from the people closest to Christians, even from other "Christians" who have sold out to the secular narrative. At least martyrdom in some sense confirms that beliefs are worth dying for. The patronizing attitude taken by the secularists today, however, is much more undermining of Christian belief, as it basically invalidates this idea of the worth-dying-for by "proving" how little Christians even threaten their views. Christianity must "evolve," and Christians must "grow up" to be given a seat in public discourse. "Everybody knows" Christian morality is wrong. And Christians who do hold to the absolute truth are "clearly" repressed traumatized fundamentalists dealing with their own sense of inadequacy or something like that.

But, of course, none of this is bigotry. None of these attitudes are harmful. No one can blame them for the "test" they put Christians through by this mass social pressure to conform to their regime of hedonism. Of course, some of the Christians don't care and do become true fundamentalists; in its most extreme form, of the "God Hates the World" variety. For these people, enacting an elaborate script and energized by the thrill of transgression, what others think really doesn't matter (and, of course, they only confirm the infantalizing narrative of the secularists).

For others who are more self-aware, however (although I think most use some sense of righteous anger as a shield to some degree) and who do understand the importance (or, at least, the expectations of the standards of "normalcy" and "maturity" of seeing oneself in society's collective eye), holding to our beliefs through the sheer "absurd" leap of faith (that, say, Christian Existentialism would recommend) can nevertheless become a constant drain on self-esteem and lead to periodic crises of authenticity. Without a community, or friends, or a friend, to join one in this task, it can be as isolating as the radical individualism it seeks to resist.

I read some quotes recently by Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish economist and diplomat who served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1953 until his death in a plane crash in the Congo in 1961. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and after his death, his private journal was translated into English and published as Markings,
with a preface by W. H. Auden. Hammarskjöld was also a Christian who remained single all his life. He seemed to know himself the burden of being caught between the demeaning voices of a world out to convince orthodox Christians that they are an anachronism and neurotic and unfulfilled (almost always, it is implied, sexually), on the one hand, and the inability of the Christian to conform to the secular vision of the "good" life on the other, for knowing there is no fulfillment there either. Some quotes of his:

My friend, the Popular Psychologist, is certain of his diagnosis. And has understood nothing, nothing. (73)

How easy psychology has made it for us to dismiss the perplexing mystery with a label which assigns it a place in the list of common aberrations. (78)

You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy doesn’t reserve a plot for weeds. (15)

Perhaps a great love is never returned. Had it been given warmth and shelter by its counterpart in the Other, perhaps it would have been hindered from ever growing to maturity. It ‘gives’ us nothing. But in its world of loneliness it leads us up to summits with wide vistas—of insight. (42)

To be ‘sociable’—to talk merely because convention forbids silence, to rub against one another in order to create the illusion of intimacy and contact: what an example of la condition humaine. Exhausting, naturally, like any improper use of our spiritual resources. In miniature, one of the many ways in which mankind successfully acts as its own scourge—in the hell of spiritual death. (63)

The opening bars in the great hymn of extinction. Not a hymn to extinction or because of it. Not a hymn in spite of extinction. But a dying which is the hymn. (80)

The hardest thing of all—to die rightly.—An exam nobody is spared—and how many pass it? And you? You pray for strength to meet the test—but also for leniency on the part of the Examiner. (82)

What he says about how one cannot play with the animal in oneself without becoming wholly animal is true. Of course, this is just what the secularists ask us to do. "We are not asking you to become a monster, to go off murdering or becoming cruel or a crazed addict." Instead, what they demand for themselves (and, by extension, for everyone who would live under their model, their meta-values) is just a little bit of "breathing room," just a little space for "exploration" (sexual or intellectual; the same thing really). Just a little freedom or autonomy for true "adult" selfhood. They don't even want to get rid of the masturbatory comforts of "God" or "spirituality" or religious symbolism or narratives, necessarily, as long as one, with Mephistopheles, withholds a little bit from Him so as to prevent even Goodness from becoming totalizing. But, of course, as Hammarskjöld points out, one cannot play with the animal without becoming fully animal. One cannot cede an inch to the devil without him taking a mile. One does not "negotiate" with God, one surrenders unconditionally.

Indeed, at this point, Christians are rather trapped by our own teaching against suicide. After all, the society that is telling one constantly to "be oneself" is also telling the Christian that his self is pathological, infantile, and the product of repression or sense of powerlessness. And yet even if this is the case, I could no more escape it than any of the deterministic "selves" whose "actualization" and "expression" (usually, sexually; the message one gets is "loosen up") the "modern subject" (as if there is any such thing) is "supposed to" idealize and valorize and seek to liberate from within. One is damned if one does, and damned if one doesn't, as neither option shows itself terribly bearable; one is forced with a choice of physical death (that is condemned as mortal sin) or spiritual death (which likewise ends ultimately in the physical grave).
Nicolás Gómez Dávila once said, "The most ominous of modern perversions is the shame of appearing naïve if we do not flirt with evil" but this shame indeed exists, and this shaming can be crushing.

And so one may well question whether a prohibition on ending ones own life really makes sense today, or whether it was the product of a historical contingency, an economic product of a world that needed more laborers (or soldiers) to die the long slow death of a peasant life (after all, similar "sociological" explanations are used to "explain away" teachings on chastity, for example). Indeed, in a world where even the ability for our most deeply cherished beliefs to be "worth dying for" is denied by forces which get an extremely smug sense of self-satisfaction watching even committed Christians buy consumerist junk food and watch reality TV like everyone else, one is forced to wonder whether something along the lines of the self-immolation of, say, certain Buddhist monks in political protest (if not the violence of Muslim suicide bombers who kill, wickedly, along with their perhaps more sympathetic dying) is not the best approach for Christians to expose the true spiritual trauma that secularism inflicts (if millions upon millions of slaughtered infants are not proof enough for people...)

Christians, then, either in our suicide or self-destruction (or, unfortunately, often in our selling out, our giving in, our compromising of our values), become the sacrifice which the secularists offer in their worship of themselves, to prove their own self-righteousness. To these people, reinforcing this godless self-image they have, denying the existence of love, and proving that Christianity is just as nihilist as they their ultimate value, and they will stop at no betrayal of friend or stranger to accomplish it. They want our blood, but they want us to give it to them. Like Big Brother in 1984, they want our deaths, yes, but only after they have received our submission. And at a certain point, who are we to deny it to them?

Perhaps a "negotiation" of our morality on this point (and who could deny our "rights of conscience" here, after abusing "conscience" so indulgently for themselves?) is required to accommodate the historical reality of our society in which a true Christian can only be "martyred" by allowing his enemies (by which I mean, his friends, his family) to drive him into destroying himself by their contempt. And if he does it at his own hand, is this really any different than those virgin Saints which threw themselves from the rooftop to escape their lustful pursuers, or those who willingly jumped into the fire being prepared for them by their captors? If we live in a world where "God is dead," then perhaps the last homage a Christian can give Him is, like the martyrs imitating their crucified Christ, to follow Him into the void of self-extinction.

Perhaps, today, the leap of faith takes the form of a leap off a balcony.


Michael said...

Meh... spernere mundum, spernere nullum, spernere se ipsum, spernere se sperni.

Michael said...!