Bruce Cockburn’s “Burden of the Angel/Beast” & Blaise Pascal’s “Monster”

Burden of

In this post I present some thoughts on a great song from Bruce Cockburn, a favorite musical artist of mine since the late 1970’s. The song is called “Burden of the Angel/Beast.”

Lyrics, and a few words of interpretation (I recommend simply viewing the video first.)

Burden of the Angel/Beast

From the lying mirror to the movement of stars (people looking merely at their outward appearance / people looking “deeper” through horoscopes)
Everybody’s looking for who they are 
Those who know don’t have the words to tell (to be discussed below)
And the ones with the words don’t know too well

Could be the famine (famine could incite some to be as angels, some to be as beasts)
Could be the feast (feast could incite some to be as angels, some to be as beasts)
Could be the pusher (the Angel/Beast “could be the pusher”)
Could be the priest (the Angel/Beast “could be the priest” – this couplet signifies that however much a person appears as one aspect, he is still essentially both)
Always ourselves we love the least (a guess: we fail to love ourselves to become the beast – conversely we sacrifice self-love for ourselves to become the angel – note: a biblical self-love is not self destructive toward either extreme)
That’s the burden of the angel/beast (being a dualistic Jekyll & Hyde is a burdensome way to exist)

Birds of paradise — birds of prey (peacemakers or predators)
Here tomorrow, gone today (a very witty turn of a phrase! – possibly some eras manifest more of one aspect, or possibly each aspect is always either sure to come or sure to be absent)
Cross my forehead, cross my palm (may signify the Catholic crossing of oneself and in palmistry the cross sign – the point is that neither “religious” or “occult” practices will prevent what follows…)
Don’t cross me or I’ll do you harm (the “cross” we may encounter and should bear as Christ bore his cross incites in us a violent reaction)

We go crying, we come laughing (a “truism”: the end of life usually brings sadness – the beginning of life usually brings happiness – the point may be that we begin like angels and we die like beasts)
Never understand the time we’re passing (probably referring to the cognitive lack of understanding in “beasts”)
Kill for money, die for love (the extremes of what we kill for, or die for, demonstrate the Angel/Beast)
Whatever was God thinking of? (I hope he means that it is difficult to understand God’s plan that has “permitted the fall” resulting in the corruption of man to become the Angel/Beast; if he meant that God created man as the Angel/Beast that would be a departure from the Christian view of creation and man as “good,” and without sin in the beginning.)

Note: throughout this meditation I will generally continue to use Bruce Cockburn’s title, Angel/Beast, but I am not saying, that I or historic Christianity has ever viewed humans as in any sense angelic in nature. The usage is merely metaphorical and certainly not literal. I will touch on this again later.

Editorial & comment by Bruce Cockburn – 22 November 1994:

At the philosophic core of “Dart to the Heart” is a song about how humans tend to operate like animals in their worst moments, then show godly potential in their best. Cockburn calls it “Burden of the Angel/Beast,” and says he isn’t sure himself whether the angelic or the beastly occupies the greater part of human nature.

“Today, I tend to think it’s the latter, but it varies from day to day. It depends on the mood and what you’ve just encountered. I think we’re just stuck with who we are, and (human nature) is always going to have both sides. I don’t think we’re redeemable in that sense.

“I think we are redeemed spiritually,” he added. (Cockburn often has tapped his Christian belief in writing songs. Last year, his holiday album, “Christmas,” tried to invest such well-roasted chestnuts as “Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” with spiritual seriousness and a sense of fresh musical discovery.)

“But in terms of our earthly existence, (that beastly potential) is always there, no matter how much you try to let yourself do good. We are the weird animals we are, and we seem to be straddling this gap with one foot in the animal world entirely and the other foot in something we’ve never been able to entirely define for ourselves.”

November 22, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER (Los Angeles Times)

In the song Bruce Cockburn said “whatever was God thinking of?” In the above comment he says “I think we’re just stuck with who we are, and (human nature) is always going to have both sides. I don’t think we’re redeemable in that sense.” But he adds “I think we are redeemed spiritually.”

Altogether his song and comments raise several important questions:

  • Did God create man as an Angel/Beast?
  • Or did God create man as a wholly “good,” a state from which man fell by sin, thus becoming the Angel/Beast?
  • Is redemption only “spiritual” in that only the spirit of man is redeemed?
  • Or is redemption total so that it will include bodily resurrection/transformation of the body?

Unfortunately Bruce Cockburn’s song seems to be along the lines of Sgt. Joe Friday, concerned with “just the facts.” His comments, due to their brevity, seem to leave us in tension: we are “stuck with who we are” but can have “spiritual redemption.”

Are there “words to tell?”

The closest Bruce Cockburn comes to providing more than just the facts regarding questions of the origin, hope, and future of the Angel/Beast is in the lyric when he mentions the following:

Everybody’s looking for who they are
Those who know don’t have the words to tell
And the ones with the words don’t know too well

I find this the most difficult part of the song to interpret. It could mean that the people looking for who they are end up in two camps:

  • those that “know” (who they are) but can’t articulate it with words
  • those that “can articulate” (who they are) but don’t thoroughly know

Now he could be signifying the common self-knowledge of people “knowing” themselves, i.e., their self perceptions. But he could mean something more specific, namely that the first group know themselves to be the Angel/Beast but have no “explanation” what that means. The second group would then mean that there are some that have “explanations” regarding “the Angel/Beast” but that either their “explanations” aren’t correct, or their self-knowedge is not correct (or possibly both).

Whenever I have listened to the song, I have always thought that this was a jab at the “Religious Right” – “the words” may then signify Biblical “dogma” regarding human nature. Bruce Cockburn fairly frequently lambastes the Religious Right in his songs, but I suppose he could mean anyone that lays claim to explanatory dogma.

Whatever he means here, it seems that for all practical purposes, the Angel/Beast has little in the way of authoritative “words to tell” regarding his origin, hope and future. Obviously I do not expect Bruce Cockburn to answer every question in every song, but the fact remains that the Angel/Beast of the song may desire to know more about his strange nature and prospects.

For this reason we will consider two main “explanations.” Both are ancient in origin, and both are pervasive today in the post-christian cultures of the West today.

One is the view of Christianity, and the other is the view of Gnosticism. The latter has always been deemed as “heretical” by the Church. The gnostic views of the Angel/Beast would include the following:

  • Physical creation was not good. Only “spirit” is good, while “matter” is evil.
  • Humans were a “combination” of spirit and matter at creation, thus a mixture good and bad.
  • Redemption is the release of the spirit from the matter, thus redemption is only “spiritual.”
  • The “fall” of man occurred when their essence as spirit was combined with matter at creation.

The Christian views of these things would be:

  • Physical creation was good. Neither spirit not matter were intrinsically evil.
  • Humans were a “union” of spirit and matter at creation, and the human was good.
  • Final redemption is the re-creation of man in the “re-union” of spirit and matter at the resurrection.
  • The “fall” of man occurred subsequent to creation, when man sinned against God.

It is important to note that in the Christian view the human is not fallen in only one part, i.e… in matter but not in spirit. He is still a union of spirit/matter and sin affects him as a unity. Thus the “Angel/Beast” term could literally apply to the Gnostic view, but can only be metaphorically applied to the Christian view.

While the reader was considering the differences outlined above, they may have felt more “attracted” to one view than another. One view may “resonate” more than the other. But we must be careful  because our “attraction” may be more because of our immersion in the current cultural zeitgeist, than because we are naturally attracted to reality based truth.

Ultimately, which of these can truly explain the Angel/Beast, is to discern which originated from and is in continuity with the historical Jesus of Nazareth. In order to answer this question I have posted a short and stimulating video by one of the foremost biblical scholars today, N.T. Wright.

(Important note: there is an advertisement for this video series toward the end, so you can stop it around the 7 minute mark.)

I believe that this video adequately demonstrates why Gnosticism does not provide “the words to tell” if one desires the answer from the historical Jesus. At this point then, I turn to another source for “words to tell”, namely to one who thought deeply about the “anthropology” of man. I believe he provides an adequate “explanation” especially of the origin of the Angel/Beast, and once that is established we will know where to find the hope and future for this strange creature that is us. (In other words, if we find adequate warrant that man was created by God as wholly good, we can have adequate warrant that God will also redeem man wholly.)

Blaise Pascal’s Burden of the “Angel/Beast”

Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662, believed that the “manifest propensities” of man were empirically evident, and that man was obviously an Angel/Beast. In his song, Bruce Cockburn is echoing Pascal. I would not be surprised if Bruce Cockburn was aware of Pascal’s view in this regard and perhaps he drew from him in the song. Here is an excerpt from “Pensees” where Pascal observes man:

140. How does it happen that this man, so distressed at the death of his wife and his only son, or who has some great lawsuit which annoys him, is not at this moment sad, and that he seems so free from all painful and disquieting thoughts? We need not wonder; for a ball has been served him, and he must return it to his companion. He is occupied in catching it in its fall from the roof, to win a game. How can he think of his own affairs, pray, when he has this other matter in hand? Here is a care worthy of occupying this great soul and taking away from him every other thought of the mind. This man, born to know the universe, to judge all causes, to govern a whole state, is altogether occupied and taken up with the business of catching a hare. And if he does not lower himself to this and wants always to be on the strain, he will be more foolish still, because he would raise himself above humanity; and after all, he is only a man, that is to say capable of little and of much, of all and of nothing; he is neither angel nor brute, but man.

Pascal was a genius in mathematics and in science. Man was something he studied. Here is his bold conclusion:

434. What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!

Pascal also believed there were limitations in the “sciences” and that ultimately only God could reveal the truth about man:

Who will unravel this tangle? Nature confutes the sceptics, and reason confutes the dogmatists. What, then, will you become, O men! who try to find out by your natural reason what is your true condition? You cannot avoid one of these sects, nor adhere to one of them.

Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God.

For in fact, if man had never been corrupt, he would enjoy in his innocence both truth and happiness with assurance; and if man had always been corrupt, he would have no idea of truth or bliss. But, wretched as we are, and more so than if there were no greatness in our condition, we have an idea of happiness and can not reach it. We perceive an image of truth and possess only a lie. Incapable of absolute ignorance and of certain knowledge, we have thus been manifestly in a degree of perfection from which we have unhappily fallen.

It is, however, an astonishing thing that the mystery furthest removed from our knowledge, namely, that of the transmission of sin, should be a fact without which we can have no knowledge of ourselves. For it is beyond doubt that there is nothing which more shocks our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has rendered guilty those who, being so removed from this source, seem incapable of participation in it. This transmission does not only seem to us impossible, it seems also very unjust. For what is more contrary to the rules of our miserable justice than to damn eternally an infant incapable of will, for a sin wherein he seems to have so little a share that it was committed six thousand years before he was in existence? Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our condition takes its twists and turns in this abyss, so that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man.

Whence it seems that God, willing to render the difficulty of our existence unintelligible to ourselves, has concealed the knot so high, or, better speaking, so low, that we are quite incapable of reaching it; so that it is not by the proud exertions of our reason, but by the simple submissions of reason, that we can truly know ourselves.

These foundations, solidly established on the inviolable authority of religion, make us know that there are two truths of faith equally certain: the one, that man, in the state of creation, or in that of grace, is raised above all nature, made like unto God and sharing in His divinity; the other, that in the state of corruption and sin, he is fallen from this state and made like unto the beasts.

These two propositions are equally sound and certain. Scripture manifestly declares this to us, when it says in some places: Deliciae meae esse cum filiis hominumEffundam spiritum meum super omnem carnemDii estis, etc.; and in other places, Omnis caro faenumHomo assimilatus est jumentis insipientibus, et similis factus est illisDixi in corde meo de filiis hominum.

Whence it clearly seems that man by grace is made like unto God, and a partaker in His divinity, and that without grace he is like unto the brute beasts.

I now close this long post, hopefully having provided the reader with some direction regarding “words to tell” of the “Burden of the Angel/Beast.” If you are new to “Manifest Propensity” I would like to point out that I have other things posted about Blaise Pascal’s thought, including a post that presents what is called his “anthropological argument.” These posts are found mainly here.

I also plan to write a few more posts exploring Bruce Cockburn’s views concerning “dogma” and “kicking at the darkness.”

Comments, questions, critiques, of a civil nature, are always welcome. Thank you!

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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