Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Very obviously, I do not possess the copyright to this image. 

On Friday I walked to the mailbox, and discovered that it was a stunning, cloudless day. I decided I'd take a walk after lunch, just a short one for some fresh air. There's a passage in Bridget Jones's Diary that I've never forgotten, where Bridget muses that perhaps there are only so many beautiful clear spring days ever apportioned to one lifetime, and sitting inside on one (or many) of them is wasting a valuable gift. This is probably far more dire a problem in England, and living in California would bring me more than my share of such days, but the spirit and the point of the passage remain, and bothered me during every single beautiful day I ever spent behind a desk in an office.

So I took my walk, looking up at the sky, walking over to the trees and smelling their blossoms, feeling and hearing the breeze. I was filled with wonder at how perfect the temperature was, how fresh the air. I walked up the hill to the strange little wisteria-enveloped not-exactly-a-gazebo thing a couple of blocks away, and then walked back. On the way home I noticed a field that I had somehow never noticed particularly, a rough circle of land that had recently been mown and was set away from the road behind some low bushes. I walked into it, found a flat spot with good grass cover, and sat down. Then I lay down. Then I closed my eyes.

I felt the sun on my skin. I felt the breeze play over my shirt. I heard the trees rustle, heard some kids practicing layups on the community basketball court a few hundred feet away. Occasionally a car passed.

I could have stayed there all day.

There was work waiting for me at home, and I burn in the sun very easily. It wasn't practical to really stay there all day. But I felt precisely like Hobbes in the last panel of the cartoon above: that happy, that much in my element. My mind as still as a pond, aside from "Ah, this is nice" every now and then. Peaceful.

I also thought to myself how grateful I was for the opportunity to spend half an hour in a big sunny field, when last spring I only could have done so on someone else's schedule rather than my own. I have been swimming in an ocean of gratitude since things began to change in October and November of last year, trying very hard not to take it for granted, to enjoy every opportunity that's afforded me. Even (perhaps especially) the opportunity to spend half an hour in this field.

A thought crept in that had the substance of "Finally." The idea was that after long years of unhappiness, I was at last free to set my own schedule, to make my own path. Immediately I found this thought distasteful. I'm thirty, not sixty; I haven't had a very hard time of it at all; a lot of people who don't deserve shabby treatment have to work a lot harder than me in environments far more unhappy and never get to break free.

I got stuck on the verb "deserve". That was the essence of what I was thinking with the word "finally": that I deserved days like this one in a sunny field, deserved the opportunities and the freedom, deserved the success that came from being in a job where I belong. That after hard work and good ethics, I was being rewarded in a fitting way.

How wholly wrong, I thought, for my brain to construct such a dynamic. I no more deserve a good day like this than I deserved to cut my finger open on a tomato can in 2004, leaving a scar I will ever have. No more do I deserve joy than my friend deserves sorrow from her father's early death.

The more I followed this line of thought, the more I came to the conclusion that the concept of anyone deserving anything is mu. I worked for a couple of years in tort law, where "deserve" is codified, often measured by mathematics, and the work still granted me many opportunities to philosophize on the problem of repayment for wrongs. Ultimately I decided that no mortal payment is likely to bring peace for certain wrongs. Very simple equations, such as hard work deserving reward (such as a salary) and extraordinary endeavor deserving recognition (such as an award for a work of art), make good enough sense. But when we try to discover appropriate metaphysical desserts for behavior that strays into the realm of karma, things get far murkier.

Who are we to determine what is deserved? Do mass murderers really deserve death or ignominy? Do brilliant artists always deserve fame? I tend to believe they all have a part to play, and the only script I can even begin to write is my own, no one else's. I have an acquaintance who retired at age 35, because he had earned enough money through sudden success to live and support his family in a fairly luxurious lifestyle for the rest of his life. He did not see the need to do anything but play, more or less, for the rest of his time on Earth. Does he deserve that? Did he have a very difficult childhood, was he a martyr in a previous life? These determinations seem easy at first, when we want to pass judgment, but in fact are not. At all. To the point where I think that to believe anyone deserves anything, based on past or potential behavior, is too colored by our impossibly narrow vision to approach truth.

I talked it over with Matt the following day, and told him that I thought the concept of "deserve" was perhaps a primitive one. To present suffering people with an opiate by telling them that if they work hard and keep free from sin, they will deserve everlasting bliss upon death--I don't think that's such a terrible harm if life is nasty, brutish, and short. But I believe human intelligence is (gradually) evolving beyond the need for a paternal church to check our behavior against a list of sins, and that eventually we will find a universal code of right and wrong through feeling responsibility to our fellow humans, rather than via the promise of deserving a reward for a lack of transgression. I could be wrong about all of that, but I do think that free from bad ==> deserve good is too simplistic for the crooked, weird path of any human existence. And I think "deserve" itself is by far the weakest part of that equation.

So, to whatever force (even if it was my own judgment, my own script-writing) bestowed that beautiful, perfect half-hour to me on Friday, I owe my sincerest thanks. I will try not to squander gifts like that, wherever they come from.

On my way home, I passed a gangly African American teen immersed in his cell phone. I smiled at him, and he flashed me a peace sign.

And I went home and got to work.


Bret Hays said...

Ask, and you shall receive. And then, perhaps, you shall regret.

You raise a number of intriguing and important questions. I agree with your premise that "deserving" can't mean much in the metaphysical/cosmic realm. The deeper question of why there's no correlation between a person's beneficence or character and their lot in life is much more interesting and, as you know, has received many answers. But I'll run through a few of them anyway, mostly for my own entertainment.

Let's get the lazy ones out of the way first. A strict atheist might say that the universe is essentially random, so a lack of correlation between "goodness" and happiness is exactly what you should expect. A generic theist could say "that's just a way God/the gods want it, not for us to know," or with a veneer of sophistication, "God's idea of what's good in people, and what it's good for them to have, is obviously very different from our own."

(John) Calvin's thinking was based on the "total depravity" of humanity, with everyone deserving total punishment, but God, being merciful as well as just, gives out moments of grace. Since everyone is equally wicked in God's view, the distribution of graces can only be random. But then as people started thinking through his ideas they realized they made absolutely no sense when taken together and to their logical conclusions, and so today there is the irony (unsurprising to an Anglo-Catholic) that virtually no Calvinists today actually believe in the God Calvin described.

Bret Hays said...

The Bible — especially the Hebrew Bible — betrays struggles between those who were fixated on the idea that God does, or should, reward the good and punish the wicked and those who pointed out that this didn't appear to be happening. One resolution was a manner of interpretation of events as either provoking or enacting a divine response, e.g. explaining the fall of the ancient Israelite monarchy to a foreign, and pagan, power as God's response to the sinfulness of the nation and its kings. Another was that became very popular in the centuries before the birth of Christ was the apocalyptic view, that God would let anything happen and then intervene decisively in history, reordering all human affairs with justice for the persecuted good and punishment for the powerful wicked. You can imagine how inspiring this was, and, for some, still is.

The view I hold is that since God is love, for God, the desire for justice and the desire for grace are not balanced in opposition, but that God's grace is stronger. So God creates grace in the world, especially where people are inclined to it anyway, and forgives sins. But God is not a helicopter parent — just look at what happened to Jesus — and places great worth on our autonomy, preferring not to intervene and allowing consequences to ripple outward from choices with a cumulative effect that appears random. Yet God also allows each of us the opportunity to follow Christ into a relationship of unity with God. The result of following Christ is that we gain the goodness and order that God has always wanted for us. And as in ordinary life, it's possible to follow someone without knowing their face, or their name.

A more mystical point of view is that the spiritual force that made the experience possible was always present and your heightened openness to it was the key. But I'm poorly versed in mysticism.

You raised another point about "the need for a paternal church to check our behavior against a list of sins." I've been thinking a bit about this recently because a friend of mine just joined the Mormons, which I consider a corporation. She's a very good person, good-hearted and good-natured, but extremely impulsive and not in the habit of rigorous critical thinking. In other words, she needs rules, and on some level she knows this. I would have hoped she'd have joined the Romans instead, but they aren't as good at recruitment as the Mormons and their institutional flaws are more familiar. (It's amazing how far the Mormon institution has come in portraying itself as "normal," familiar and benign. Incredible marketing!) But anyhow, I have come to realize that not everyone is like us; there are some people who want, and perhaps need (though I hope not), to be in the Matrix. Not everyone can handle physical freedom, and not everyone can handle intellectual freedom. But we should still treat such people the greatest possible grace.

There's plenty more to say, especially if any of this actually engaged with the ideas you were interested in exploring. But I'm tired now and have a long drive ahead of me tomorrow, so I'll leave off here. I'd be very glad to talk about any of this at greater length and I'm curious to see your response.

Bret Hays said...

P.S. Congratulations on getting to the point where you are supporting yourself and have such freedom. I too feel happy, satisfied, and grateful for the life I have now. We may not deserve to live as we do, but our situations didn't happen by accident, either.

Katharine Coldiron said...

It sounds to me as if your belief at bottom is a more nuanced version of "we're not supposed to know" - that there is a pattern related to "deserve", but we are not capable of a long enough view to appreciate it, and that it's often superseded by grace. (Which we deserve in general, being a deserving species. Yes?) And that free will can intervene and change the outcome of God's intentions as to what we deserve. I agree with some of this.

I'm in a time of transition right now in terms of what I believe about God's involvement in our lives, so I'm not sure if I'm too muddled to make sense of this, but I used to believe a somewhat more fixed version of what you propose. My belief was that we had free will to choose from innumerable possible ends, but that God was the one who set those ends in place for us to choose from. God was guiding the outcome only in that it was all God's doing that a choice of outcomes existed, but we had the capacity to choose what outcome would occur. And of course we were allowed to ask for more guidance from God, and sometimes God would grant it. (And sometimes not.)

One of the accompanying ideas of this belief is that God only sets up outcomes for us that a) we are capable of handling and b) we deserve based on whether we are good humans or bad humans. I'm not sure that I believe any of this, anymore, but you'll have to take my word for it that that crisis is largely separate from the subject of the post above.

To the point, I feel as if "deserve" is slipping away in my philosophy, and what's in its place is a very beautiful, very grace-filled world, but one in which our rewards--more accurately, our awards--don't have much to do with our karmic behavior. I.e. I'm a good person and am nice to people, so generally people are nice to me back, but I don't somehow get tapped with cosmic niceness just because that's how I choose to live. The not-niceness of a person who gets cancer is irrelevant to the cause of his cancer. I don't discard cause-effect relationships completely, even big-picture ones, but I don't think I believe any longer that it's all interconnected in any fashion we can fathom. I don't much doubt that it is interconnected somehow (maybe 35% doubt at this time), but I'm not so sure that I comprehend how my actions will be viewed and reacted to by God.

I mean, that's what religion is for, right? To interpret what we perceive as God's reactions to us, and to teach us how to live to achieve the best possible reaction. (I acknowledge that your job is rather more involved than that.) But I just don't think anymore that any un-simplistic equation related to "deserve" is interpretable by humans.

"Shoot 'em all and let God sort 'em out", i.e. apocalyptic God, is a nihilistic version of what I'm chewing over here, I think--that human concepts of justice are irrelevant. The key difference between discarding "deserve" as I'm talking about and the apocalyptic God is mistakenly assuming that our beliefs about who is good and who is wicked are the same as God's. (This mistake keeps, uh, cropping up in human history.) What I'm advocating is entirely the opposite: not only should God sort 'em out, we can't possibly know in what way that sorting is going to come, or is coming already.

Does it follow that we can't recognize grace?

Have I totally balled this up into a big mess?

And I'm not even going to approach Mormonism in this particular comment. Too big.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Thanks. And I think we agree on that. :)

Bret Hays said...

This is a big mess, since as messy and sophisticated as all the theological topics we've covered are on their own, they are far more so when you consider how they interact, and sooner or later you do have to consider them together. And I neglected to write at all about the doctrine of revelation, that is, that God has chosen to reveal certain truths that we couldn't know any other way — beginning with God's own existence. And God allows us to figure out other theological truths independently, or perhaps by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

So on the question of recognizing grace, I think we can. (Remember that grace, by definition, is something better than what is deserved. But since the practice of grace is like asking "how much more can I give," the concepts of grace and justice may not even be comparable.) God gives us abundant examples of grace in this life. God also gave us (or from another point of view, we took) the ability to distinguish between good and evil, grace and retribution, elevation and corruption. If God had withheld from us the ability to recognize grace, God could hardly expect us to practice it.

But to respond to where you are now, it sounds like a much more mature viewpoint, and I'm glad you're still exploring these ideas. You'd do very well in a theology class. Getting over the fundamental unfairness of grace is always a big step, manifested in different ways (though of course for some it's a step they can't or won't take, and they often end up doing great harm in the name of God). But it's worth it to come out the other side into the beauty you're starting to perceive, having recognized that justice and fairness are not the best or the most beautiful principles.

The ideas of grace and apocalypse can have some very interesting interactions. Apocalypse, like ordinary life and religion in general, isn't necessarily about justice. Religion can be more about living in the better, more beautiful world of grace and expanding it into the flawed world. This view can then entail a breaking down of the hard line between pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds that is often assumed to be the distinguishing feature of eschatology. For the grace that will pervade the world of the eschaton is the same grace of God that God has always been bringing into the world, and that God invites us to join in creating.

Anonymous said...

Butting in here maternally to say hi and to thank you both for such a thoughtful, serious discussion of a major philosophical-theological knot. "Deserve" is a funny word indeed, Kate.
My perspective on all this is so different I think I'll just listen; after May 4th I'll be able to write in here if you still wish (we are in the end of semester crisis, er crunch time, and unless I want to deserve to be fired I have many many papers to grade and dissertations to judge.
But this luminous discussion will stay in my head as I go, and I thank you both---

Katharine Coldiron said...

I'm glad to hear you're enjoying the discussion; would love to hear thoughts from your perspective whenever you're through not being fired. :)