Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Human Stain

This isn't about the novel by Philip Roth.  I'm continuing the series that began with this post, thinking aloud about how the "shape" of our spirituality interacts with the way we think about environmental issues.

Today I'm thinking about an aspect of my evangelical "shape" that is given classic expression in this hymn of Theodore Monod (1836-1921):
  1. Oh, the bitter pain and sorrow
    That a time could ever be,
    When I proudly said to Jesus,
    “All of self, and none of Thee.”
  2. Yet He found me; I beheld Him
    Bleeding on th’ accursed tree,
    And my wistful heart said faintly,
    “Some of self, and some of Thee.”
  3. Day by day His tender mercy,
    Healing, helping, full and free,
    Brought me lower while I whispered,
    “Less of self, and more of Thee.”
  4. Higher than the highest heaven,
    Deeper than the deepest sea,
    Lord, Thy love at last has conquered:
    None of self, and all of Thee.”
In this hymn, the New Testament call to self-denial has been transformed into a kind of metaphysical principle.  Jesus' spirit and the human spirit, like oil and water, can fill the vessel of my life in varying proportions, but can never mix.  The end-goal of the life of faith, it seems, is the obliteration of the "self", which is a kind of contaminant, so that only "Thee" - Jesus - remains.

This picture has motivated many good and noble people,and it's not my purpose to knock it. (For a take-no-prisoners critique, you could try Philip Cary's Good News for Anxious Christians, though I think that Cary finds it so hard to understand why anyone would see things this way that he may not always connect with his intended audience.) But I do want to mention a couple of aspects that seem to me to have "environmental" connections:

(a)  If I understand the redemptive goal of my individual life in terms of self-obliteration and replacement by Jesus, I may well understand the destiny of the planet in terms of obliteration and replacement also. If I do, that might well reduce my motivation to take action to preserve it now!

(b) There is a curious resonance between this theology and the "deep green" perspective that sees humanity itself as a contaminant, "the ultimate invasive species" that threatens the integrity of the earth (in some versions of this idea, the planet - Gaia - will push back until there are none of us left, just as in verse 4 of the hymn).

(c) Did you notice the word more in the hymn? In some email correspondence a couple of years ago, Byron Borger helped me see the connection between the genre of spirituality which uses this kind of language about God (we want more of Him, we want to go deeper, we are hungry for more, etc...) and the cultural/economic trend for more, bigger, smarter, better in our material consumption... the very trend which seems to be driving us to live outside our ecological means.  Interesting...

PS: I was not able to find out anything much about the hymn writer, Theodore Monod.   He is not the same person as Theodore Monod the naturalist and "Christian anarchist", who died in 2000; but I guess that they are related.

1 comment:

byron smith said...

Interesting insights at the end there. I've also grown somewhat suspicious of the desire for more in all its forms.

I suspect that your concerns about the misused of self-denial are also related to mine about the language of surrender.