zaterdag 26 januari 2008

King of Swords

A long time ago I read a book about the Tarot deck of cards. What struck me at the time, and remained with me ever since, was a description ascribed, I think, to Aleister Crowley about the King of Swords. If I recall, the King of Swords represents a character who "makes precise plans", but "advances only by accident". It hit very close to home, and still does. I am so taken up into wrestling with creations of my own mind, and so oblivious to the reactions to those around me, that I get ahead only by stumbling and falling, face turned backwards.

This is one of those days when I am none too pleased with that. I do not strike dead. I do not steal. And I tell the truth. But none of these are exactly virtuous. I don't have the temperament for hatred or anger - but not much for tenderness or love, either. The stealing part is valid only when applied to material objects or indeed intellectual property, but perhaps not in a more abstract sense. And I am incapable of lying when it comes down to it even when I ought to. My attempts at dissimulation are reminiscent of a snake's attempts to swallow down an egg much too big for its head.

So for all the weighing of possibilities in my head, the rehearsing of conversations, dialogues, potential situations which goes on to the point of nausea, all this jiving around within the confines of my own world, my own mind, only very occasionally punctuated by genuine concern for others - when I it comes down to it, I move predictably, instinctively, and helplessly. With a high likelihood of causing others to suffer. Much like the scorpion of the story.

Some atheists see religion as wishful thinking, a way to seek some illusionary comfort in a universe that is utterly indifferent to us. Ha. I was a lot more comfortable when I was an atheist. I was more pleased with myself. I feared death, surely - but at the same time I knew that death all by itself doesn't hurt. I now have an unease which goes much more deeply.

I have been reading the Finnish sermons of the 19th-century Lutheran revivalist preacher of Lapland, Lars Levi Laestadius. Basically as an object of linguistic analysis, but I cannot ignore the theological import. I don't like it. Laestadius proclaims an austere, joyless faith for an austere, radical land. For all Laestadius' brilliance - and he is a brilliant preacher - the religious spirit of Laestadianism is not what I am looking for. This said, Laestadius wasn't wrong about everything.

Laestadius reserves a lot of rhetorical venom for two alternative positions of justification and redemption, which he names as those of the "thieves of mercy" and those of the "decent folk", respectively. The "thieves of mercy" are somewhat like modern-day theological liberals and universalists. Everyone will be saved. No sins are so great that they cannot be forgiven. The "decent folk" are the moralists. I will be saved because I haven't killed, haven't whored around (at least not some much as the others), I haven't lied (no real big lies, anyway), etc.

I know damn well that I can never live up to the standards of the "decent folk". I know what I am, and decent it ain't.

And as much as I would want it to be true, I cannot intellectually accept universalism. I believe in, or I hope for, or perhaps I both believe in and hope for a forgiving, merciful Deity. But mercy and forgiveness are meaningless if they are given by default, if they are not ultimately an act of will on the part of God. They are also meaningless if God cannot be hurt and grieved by our actions, and if he cannot at least potentially be wrathful and angry. Hell exists, at least as a potentiality. My hope that no one will end up there is a hope for a contingent, not a necessary, state of affairs.

Also, God's forgiveness is conditioned upon the capability of the individual to accept that forgiveness. Which requires a thorough, complete understanding of one's own failings. I am not sure whether I find this an appealing prospect.

It used to be easier when all I believed an afterlife to be was a notion of "social immortality": whatever remained of you was whatever the world would remember of you, with pain or with hatred or with love and with tenderness, and however, in a myriad of small ways, you would affect the world. I was convinced that, on balance, I would end up OK. I also convinced myself that this was a particular noble and selfless way of conceiving of an afterlife, being able of giving up when the call comes, not egotistically clinging on to personal survival, and all that.

So my fear of death, or at least of the physical pain that may accompany death, and the horror of being at one point cut off from any possibilities of self-realization, any possibility of finishing the many things that I left undone, all that fear has been replaced by fear of God, and perhaps also fear of myself. My previous fears were innocent and simple compared to my new ones. The new ones are very complex and twisted and would be food for a shrink if I did not believe them to be perfectly justified, too. I do not of course seriously regret the change. But it was a step in a process of growing up, in a spiritual and religious fashion, involving also, as growing up does, a loss of childhood innocence.

(Stop right there, Merlijn. Unbearable smugness speaking again. This was not something you actually chose, did you? For all your rationalizing, do not pretend that this was the result of some careful, dispassionate weighing of alternatives. You knew whom you were looking for, and whom you would find, when you first picked up that book. You had this sense of being stared at, remember? Someone looking at you, in stony silence, as if to say: 'Here I am. What are you going to do? You know what you should. But will you? You've been dithering there for a long time, pretending there's this and that you still have to look into. Makes me wonder whether you have the guts after all'. Then suddenly you caught a glimpse of what you look like through those eyes. And you started to shiver and went looking for a place to hide and you didn't feel good at all.)

I am not at all pleased with myself at the moment. I am still that scorpion looking for a ride across the river, while knowing full well how it is all going to end up. And the excuse that it's "in my nature" sounds increasingly hollow.

So, when it comes down to it - whenever, and however, could be my penchant for greasy food causing a heart attack at fifty, or lung cancer a bit later (perversely, some of the things I can control) or a traffic accident tomorrow - when it comes down to it, am I ready to strip of all that I armour myself with in daily life, all that wilful looking-away with which I shield my all-too introverted self, that blissful incapability to feel the pain of others - am I ready to lose all that and look myself in the eye?

No way.