“The desire to surpass our limits is as essential to the structure of the human as the recognition that we cannot.” — Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought
To live with integrity these days is to live inside the conflict between outrage and longing. But, if we become practiced in the art of paradoxical living we will see that dancing on the high wire between these two towers may be our best chance for grace-filled living.
“If we were God,” says philosopher Susan Neiman, “we could change moral principles into sovereign law. Were God Himself to enact such a law, moral principles would lose all connection with freedom.”
And there’s the rub. Being made ‘a little lower than the angels,’ in
the quaint phrasing of the King James Bible, means we are beings who desire wholeness; the state of ‘being made’ means that we will never experience that. We live within the limitations—and the grandeur—of moral freedom in which the desire for the reign of goodness sometimes overrides the understanding that goodness flourishes only where it is wanted, gifted, and received. As Neiman points out, magically changing moral principles into law, even if done by God, would jinx the whole thing because freedom means there is a genuine choice to be made. Making those choices every day is the burden of freedom and the brightness of being human in the image of God. Moral freedom is a form of creativity, available to all of us.
Rollo May, one of the pioneers of existential psychotherapy, quotes Rainier Rilke on withdrawing from psychotherapy: “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”
Rilke knew that creativity for the artist surges up from the depths, a necessary fire in the mind and heart. Rollo May put creativity and evil in the same room. Creativity, he mused, comes from the rage within us against death and destruction.
If we are made in the image of God and that image in us is the power to create, then how could evil threaten creativity? God, as creator, never creates for destruction because all God’s work is created for life. When we create—and we do—our sense of direction is not inerrant. We create in all directions, some of them winding off to evil and all of them subject to losing their way.
But creative power, moral or artistic, is no guarantee against a certain perversity. Put up a sign for “Wet Paint” and see how long it takes for fingerprints to appear. What would happen, we think, if we did this, this thing we’ve been warned never to do? Let’s try it—just to see what would happen. If it’s awful we’ll know and we’ll never do it again. And off we go. And we find that this evil, now loosed in the world, arrives without a warning label, with no expiration date, and without operating instructions. The terrible truth about creative work is that it can be turned to destruction and that there are always some who will do that just for the hell of it.
One of the ways our outrage can lead our moral creativity astray is to imagine that God resents our natural powers and is suspicious of our freedom. Thomas Merton calls this Promethean theology and comments in The New Man that “This means that man must either save his soul by a Promethean tour de force, without God’s help, or else that man must turn his freedom inside out, stew up all his natural gifts into a beautiful guilt-complex, and crawl towards God on his stomach to offer Him the results in propitiation.” But this is to deeply misjudge God’s love and the grace that is ours.
We are not worms. Our moral and spiritual freedom before God raises us to our feet, lifts our sights, and erases the false image of God we conjure up. “Grace,” says Merton, “is given us for the precise purpose of enabling us to discover and actualize our deepest and truest self.”
“The fantasy of replacing God is the test by which morality itself is decided,” says Neiman. To imagine, with longing, a better world is the flip side of outrage at the present one. It’s the outrage that compels us to imagine a newer world; it’s the longing that endures when we admit that our best efforts will probably not outlast us. But the visioning of such a world, even with all our limitations out at the edges of our sightlines, gives us the energy of hope.
Neiman opens the windows and runs up the shades: “Integrity requires affirming the dissonance and conflict at the heart of experience,” she writes. “It means recognizing that we are never, metaphysically, at home in the world. This affirmation requires us to live with the mixture of longing and outrage that few will want to bear.”
Reaching beyond our expectations is part of our human destiny; falling short is our fate. We are threading our way between hubris and humiliation. There is another way, but it’s much more difficult. This is where faith rides the rails to keep us safe. We need the reach to go beyond, but patience, humility, and good humor helps in knowing that we can do so without trying to usurp God or having to crawl before Him.
Another take on this is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Beyond Tragedy when he writes, “The church is that place in human society where men are disturbed by the word of the eternal God, which stands as a judgment upon human aspirations. But it is also the place where the word of mercy, reconciliation and consolation is heard: ‘Thou dost well that it was in thine heart.’ Here human incompleteness is transcended though not abolished. Here human sin is overcome by the divine mercy, though man remains a sinner.”
Outrage and longing is not about winners and losers, it’s about “Those who endure to the end . . .” We’re not required to win; we’re invited to travel with “that great cloud” of large-souled ones who have borne their witness before us in all times and all places. If hope means anything and if love lives up to its reputation a time will come when justice and mercy will be the way in the great day of the Lord.
It makes no sense to set a date and expect the arc of justice to touch down in that precise moment. We don’t set the clocks or even wind them up. They were running before we got here and will continue after we’re dead. But it does matter to regard our time and how we spend the little of it that we have.
Our outrage alone will not save this sorry, stubborn, strange, and beautiful world; according to our primal myth that has been done in hope already. So there’s no need for us to presume that we are the hinge of history the universe didn’t know it was looking for. Nor will longing alone be enough. We need them both: the push of outrage to change our world, the pull of longing to heal our restless souls.
Yet, we each have a part to play—perhaps several parts. That much is clear. How we play it is the question, and for that we need patience for ourselves and each other.
If we have a conscience and compassion our outrage can propel us beyond our reticence. If we also live with longing our limits will be no barrier to God’s healing and sustaining grace.