Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Some thoughts on action/consequence.
"The Gospel is death to action/consequence thinking."
I don't want to debate whether or not the above quote is truly reflective of an idea found in the Bible, though I'm sure it is. But if it is, then what? Does the death of action/consequence have relevant implications, and, if so, do these implications necessarily trump the other thoughts with which they grapple? Me thinks yes.
Remember Rod Rosenbladt (the teen-ager)? He gets drunk. He totals his father's car. His dad picks him up at the scene of the accident, drives him home. When they get home, they go into the living room where the father asks: "How do you feel?" Rod breaks down in tears, knowing full well that he is now officially "grounded" for the rest of his life. His father looks at him and says: "Do you know what I think? I think you need a new car. I'll meet you at the automobile dealership during my lunch hour tomorrow." Rod gets a new car, better than the one he totaled. !!!
The Gospel is offensive. It kills action/consequence. Does God really reward ungodliness? (Romans 5:6)...or likewise, "Are you saying I'm incapable of doing anything good on my end?" Yes, exactly. These questions are implications of the notion, certainly. Similarly, this (so-called) Good News views the guilty as being presumed innocent, with the penalty being paid by one who deserves it not at all. Are you kidding? No, this is the radical nature of the Gospel, which states that "Christ died to save sinners".
Did you read the article on MSN.com with the headline: "Is Martha Stewart getting the cush treatment in jail?" We don't want her getting off lightly for what she did, now do we? That would be an improper expression of justice, where she would not be fully paying the amount of debt she deserves,...or so the thinking runs. I remember seeing two young children on a playground. One of them was crying. The other, a slightly older girl (most likely the older sister) was saying: "You go ahead and cry. You're just mad that you're gettin' what you deserve for doin' what you did!" Again, an expression of action/consequence, and, in this instance, found already as a naturally occurring thought in the mind of a young child. One might say we are wired to interpret life in the light of a law of action/consequence.
Strangely, or at least consistently, when the paradigm of action/consequence is strayed from, people always get pissed off. Things are not supposed to happen unfairly. But they do. Mom used to tell me that, "life isn't fair", and she was right. Welcome to a fallen world, one where effort is often rewarded with poor results, one where class stratifications rise unjustly to the fore, based upon unmerited achievement (i.e., blood and crest). How frustrating that so few good jobs are won by hard work, but, rather, are had through a complex network of "connections". Not fair!
But what else does this idea imply? Well, for one thing: if I do something, a certain outcome (or consequence) will follow. This is how the train of thought goes. Thus, we spend a lot of time viewing our lives through the lens of "decision-making". Show me a contemporary Hollywood movie that does not appeal to ideas of "choice" and "decisions" whenever it tries to get wise. The idea is that, in front of all people lay a certain number of anticipated options, A, B, C, D, and the like. Usually most people think there are either two, or three options, and that they have to figure out which one is the best, or the right choice, etc. Subtext: "If I choose A, things will work out best for me...I just have to figure out which choice is A."
But here is where the waters get murky. Say you choose A correctly, having actively asserted yourself in the opposite direction of choices B and C. Isn't that supposed to work? It never does, but, by that point, we once again appeal to the same mode of thought in order to deal with the unfair outcome. Either I go for it again, trying this time to leave no stone unturned (which was the mistake I made last time), or I find some new choice that needs to be made in order for me to be able to fully appreciate the positive outcome of the initial choice I made accurately. But there is never an oozing into the comfort that comes from having finally made the right choice successfully. This stupid creature of thought always gives birth to a new, seemingly more advantageous "opportunity" upon which I must seize. It's like the father in Woody Allen's 'Radio Days' who always comes up with a new, "better" get-rich scheme for his family, one that will insure comfort and success, finally.
(For me, it runs like this: "I got a 5% cashmere-blend sweater...but what I didn't realize at the time was that I really just needed to get a 100% pure cashmere sweater from the get-go,...but then I get the pure cashmere sweater, and I love it, don't get me wrong, it's just not the right color; it doesn't look or fit the way I thought it would..." Suddenly I've got a parenthetical "63" next to my ebay username! You think I could make this story up? This is the stuff that all tragedy is made of. Missed opportunity, and/or next opportunity, etc. Choices, decisions, choices..."I can't win!" Why do I need a gosh-darn vacation in order to recover from the highly-anticipated vacation I finally got to take? Same thing. And the thing is not a fun thing, no, the thing is an ugly thing, my life, I hate the thing. Why don't I learn from my mistakes? Stupid Romans 7 again!)
The (AA) Big Book asks a wonderful question along these lines: "Was I not a victim of the delusion that I could wrest (i.e., wrestle) happiness and satisfaction out of this world if I only managed well?" What a quote! If I manage well, happiness and satisfaction will follow. The sentiment is a perfect description of what most people believe. "The reason life hasn't worked out better is because I have made poor choices, ..." by reasserting one's self more carefully and/or deliberately, will not better results follow? Well, if experience is anything to go on, the answer is a disappointing "No." The idea is a "delusion".
It is when attempts fail repeatedly that this more realistic/pessimistic vantage point starts to gain sway. But where does this leave us? How does this cause us to view our lives? Are they just supposed to unravel? Well, in an important sense, the Christian response answers this (desperate) question affirmatively. The idea is that an individual has very little power, or, rather, lacks the only kind of power that they actually need, that kind which makes and discerns the right choices. This is the ground upon which ethics (of any traditional variety) are slain. This is the most vulnerable of all places on earth, man at the end of his rope. But it is a good place. "Godly sorrow produces repentance, leading to salvation, leaving no regret" (2 Corinthians 7:10). It is the only zone that rightly addresses the problems of life, all-the-while acknowledging the only possible solutions to them (i.e., those that intervene upon us). Would that we could all become so appropriately unbound. When choice dies its painful death, right ethics begin to flow. I promise. As Fitz Allison says, "you know you're getting close to the Gospel when people start worrying about things atinomian."
Consider the words of the Psalmist: "This poor man cried out, and the Lord saved him from all his troubles." (34:6)
Posted by John Zahl at 10:33 AM