Scope and Limits

When we started this blog, my attitude towards religion was very much that expressed by Philip Larkin in his poem “Church-Going.” Visiting a church on an empty weekday, the poet wonders “who/ will be the last, the very last, to seek/ This place for what it was”; will it be someone looking for scholarly information, or for a nostalgic thrill, or for something to steal; or:

will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

In those days, as indeed in all my days up to that point, I was like my parents, a mellow sort of agnostic who had a sense that the grown-up thing to do was to treat all the world’s major religions with as much respect, and as little outright incredulity, as possible.  I was indeed Larkin’s representative, visiting churches and other houses of worship on occasion, not to humble myself before the God in whom I could not quite imagine believing, but as a step towards assuming an adult mien.

Nowadays I’ve become a mellow sort of Christian. But the last day or two, I’ve found myself reminiscing about my Larkin-like past self. What brought me back to this was the front page of yesterday’s New York Daily News:


I saw a blog post about this by Rod Dreher that got me thinking. I read Mr Dreher’s blog every day, largely because his views are very different from mine. He is a self-identified member of the Christian Right, while I would be considered an ultra-progressive Christian if I had joined almost any group other than the Episcopal Church. So, Mr Dreher regularly hyperventilates with rage and terror over developments that I find either unimportant or entirely desirable, and occasionally ignores or even praises developments that would move me to purple-faced fury. It does me a lot of good to look at him when he’s worked up and to realize that I would look as ridiculous to him or people like him if I were to choose to get on my high horse and get all worked up about my opinions as his profession of opinion writing requires him to do about his opinions.

Mr Dreher’s post yesterday wasn’t entirely free of hyperventilation, but it did include some very good bits. There were long quotes from an Atlantic Monthly piece in which Emma Green patiently dissects the understanding of prayer that seems to inform this “prayer-shaming,” contrasting it most pungently with a request for prayer that one of the victims texted while hiding from the gunmen. Mr Dreher also quotes to good effect an essay by mellow secularist Roland Dodds on why the Left needs a vibrant Christianity.

And Mr Dreher contributes several highly trenchant remarks of his own. For example:

This is not a post about gun control, about which I believe honorable people can disagree (though let it be said that not everyone who disagrees, on both sides of the issue, does so honorably). This is a post about liberals — ordinary liberals, not fringe folk like boob-choppers — who hate conservative Christians so much that they react to a mass shooting by denouncing those Christians for praying for the dead, calling their prayers “meaningless platitudes” (unlike #SendOurGirlsHome, I guess).

This is where I remembered my Larkin-like former self. Hashtag activism, like the #SendOurGirlsHome campaign, differs from prayer, as prayer is practiced in the world’s major religions, in that it is simply an attempt to make oneself feel powerful in the face of a situation where one is in fact powerless. Prayer can be used to do that, of course, as can any practice around which superstitions accrete.

But look at the most prominent prayers of the world’s major religions. When Muslims make their confession of faith, they say that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. To say that there is no God but God is to acknowledge that there are limits to the power of human beings. The state can’t raise the dead and deliver final justice, which is what “Fixing This” would mean in the aftermath of a mass shooting.  The market can’t, and the individual can’t. Those are all phantasms created by human beings in the course of their interactions with one another, by themselves as inert and as much a dead-end as were any of the idols of wood and stone that Muhammad busied himself destroying.  To say “Muhammad is his prophet” is to say that, limited as we are, we do have access to knowledge of our duties and we have been granted the power to at least try to fulfill those duties. So a prayer like that acknowledges both the scope and the limits of human power and of human moral responsibility.

In my youth, I spent a great deal of time studying the works of the theorist Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.) As I was when I was reading his works, Babbitt was an agnostic who believed that there were great truths to be found in the world’s religions. He embarked on a Perennialist project, finding that all of the great wise men of history, including the founders of every major religion, agreed with him on all the most important issues of morality, politics, art, etc. It’s easy to look at that sort of conclusion and chuckle, but it is worth pointing out that Babbitt’s students from China, such as the famous Lin Yutang, remarked that his understanding of Confucius was deep and that his learning in Confucian and Buddhist thought was comparable to that of experts in their homeland.

One of Babbitt’s great contributions to the study of Buddhism was his translation of the Dhammapada. In that translation and in the accompanying essay, “The Buddha and the Occident,” Babbitt stresses the contrast the Buddha draws between pamada, which Babbitt translates as “laziness,” and its negation, appamada, which he translates in a variety of ways. Since pamada is often characterized by frantic activity, it may seem odd to call it laziness- perhaps “procrastination” would create a clearer mental image. What one does in a state of pamada, one does as an evasion of the true work of adjusting one’s will to the higher law, the moral constants of the cosmos.

In this distinction, I think I see the same sense of the scope and limits of human responsibility that informs the Muslim confession of faith.  Our attempts to control the material world, to control other people, to remake the past, are futile, are pamada, because these things are not in fact within our power. We show true appamada only when we surrender our useless attempts to control the outside world and concentrate our energies on controlling ourselves so that we may conform to the supernatural order.  As we approach this conformity, we may become more active or less active in the world, but that activity is incidental to the great struggle within.

As for Christians, when we say the Lord’s Prayer we too acknowledge the scope and limits of our powers. “Our Father,” we call God- we are his children, not his servants, for the servant does not know the master’s business; but we know God’s business. If we are children, we are heirs, and heirs have the power and the duty to do the father’s business. But our knowledge is limited, and our power is limited. The prayer brings us up against those limits sharply. We are so weak and needy as to be dependent on God even for our daily bread; so broken that we are dependent on him even for the forgiveness we continually need to receive and to give, and for freedom from an infinite array of temptations, none of which we could resist on our own. It is his will that is to be done, not ours.

“Thy will be done.” I often think of a colleague of mine who, many years after earning his doctorate, after decades of toiling in low-paying jobs in and out of his his field, was finally about to receive tenure at a university. Then his wife, a nurse who worked with the severely disabled, was hit by a reckless driver and herself rendered massively disabled, physically and cognitively. He took early retirement to care for her full-time. He remarked “Sometimes it dawns on you just what those words we say every day really mean.” Thy will be done.

Whatever else it may or may not do, prayer does cure the state of mind which reflexively demands “Fix this!” in the face of death. It may be, as Alexander Schmemann so memorably argued, that the Christian does look at death with defiance, confident that God will fix this. But God will fix it in God’s own time, in God’s own way, which is beyond our power and beyond our imagining.

As for gun control, if it is a good idea, then surely prayers like those which Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and others say will incline them to support it, inasmuch as these prayers involve accepting that there is a sphere within which do have the power and therefore the duty to do good things. Most of the world’s population does, after all, follow one or another of the great religions, and in very few countries are legislators and rulers unable to find ways to pass the time.

What does induce culpable inactivity, I would say, is exhausted panic. Earlier today I saw a brief article in which Hamilton Nolan points out that, in all likelihood, “You Will Not Die in a Mass Shooting.” Of course the first comment identified “this pronouncement” as “basically the working talking point of every conservative politician ever” and extrapolated from it the idea that “People don’t ever really die in ‘mass shootings.'” As if people who do not actively believe that they personally are about to die in a mass shooting will not accept the reality of mass shootings or support policies that they were convinced would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings, as if there was no space between panicked lunacy and sullen lunacy. Realism, as in the acceptance of the fact that human power is considerable but not infinite that prayer induces, creates such a space, while sentimentalism collapses it. So, I call for your prayers today.


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