Jack Bruce’s “We’re Going Wrong”: Open-mindedness and the way forward

open_mind

Please open your eyes
Try to realize
I found out today we’re going wrong
We’re going wrong

Please open your mind
See what you can find
I found out today we’re going wrong
We’re going wrong

We’re going wrong
We’re going wrong
We’re going wrong

by Jack Bruce, 1967

“I found out today” that Jack Bruce had passed away. My thoughts naturally turned to my favorite song written by him, a  song that to me displays a surprisingly disproportionate combination of lyrical brevity and emotive power. So this post is in part a tribute to Jack Bruce and his song that i’ve enjoyed on several levels, but mainly an exploration of the possible meaning of the song.

Without knowing any personal context of Jack Bruce that may be behind the song, I’m left to begin with the historical context in which the song appeared: 1967. The sixties was, if anything, a calling being issued from many voices to “open our eyes” individually and collectively. It had become manifestly apparent to many that something had gone wrong in western civilization. Many thought we were on the verge of some type of  imminent conflagration based on factors including but not limited to war (hot or cold), prejudice, poverty, pollution, population, politics, and technology.

The call to open our eyes was a hope that we could be spared the destruction, to void the looming threat that “the gods first blind those whom they wish to destroy.” Perhaps a critical mass of opened eyes could counter the coming apocalypse. (Can it do so today?)

But for the time being, this truth and perhaps this alone, seemed apparent to the counterculture: “We’re Going Wrong.”

Of course, “open eyes” really only means “open minds” which Jack Bruce made explicit. But what does it mean to have an open mind? At that time it seemed to mean to many or most in the counterculture that we must abandon the very concept of universal/dogmatic truth which had merely enslaved humankind through false authority. Thus open-mindedness seemed to morph into broad-mindedness in which there is no ultimate truth, only individualistic “working truths” (whatever works for me/you).

The prince of wit G.K. Chesterton warned that,

The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be any such thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas…

…When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded. (from Heretics, chapter 20)

It seems probable that this “modern notion” of mental growth resulted in the sixties revolution being more destructive than constructive, in regard to any real progress toward “going right.”

If the counterculture was a failure in this regard, then it is natural to wonder why, unless destruction actually was the goal, and it is true that destruction (or discrediting) of what is false is necessary. But it seems more likely that the problem of failure is to be found deep in humankind itself, namely that we are a species prone to error.

To support this suggestion I’d like to look at a few ancient proverbs from the “New Living Translation” of the Bible. Here is the first:

Proverbs 14:1 A wise woman builds her home,
but a foolish woman tears it down with her own hands.

I do not think that this is meant to say that the difference between the wise and foolish woman is one of intention. I do not think the “foolish woman” intends to tear down her house. She intends to build it, but being “foolish” does not know how to succeed. And she is like all of us, inasmuch as we all intend to succeed. Blaise Pascal said this about the intention of all people:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. (Pensees, #425)

The second proverb says,

Proverbs 14:12 There is a path before each person that seems right,
but it ends in death.

This explains a simple fact, that we are all prone to err, with dire consequences. It is not our intention to die, but it is the consequence of self-direction. The prophet Jeremiah wrote:

Jeremiah 10:23 I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own.
We are not able to plan our own course.

So to return to the first proverb, the wise woman is one that directs her steps according to the direction of God. This all means that the only positive answer to “We’re Going Wrong” is what is called “repentance.” In other words, the way ahead is to turn around. This is not an easy task. We all hate to be lost, to have to backtrack, to cut our losses of lost time and effort often spent with blood, sweat and tears. I think that the wise and foolish women both knew “blood, sweat, and tears” in their quest to build their house, but tragically only one was building while the other was tearing down.

C.S. Lewis knew how difficult it is for us to repent, due to our mistaken view of progress created by our aversion to being wrong.

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place you where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man…There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on. (from “Mere Christianity,” chapter 5, 2nd paragraph)

Now a perceptive reader will note that believing that “We’re Going Wrong” may be difficult, but it is the easy part. The truly difficult part is where to go to “go right.” If it is true that the way that “seems right to us ends in death” and that we “are not able to plan our course,” then where shall we go? And it is precisely here that Jack Bruce left us, halfway turned around on our path to who knows where.

But it is here that God, with something called “good news” (gospel) creates a real turnaround by providing the ultimate destination. But I’m not merely talking about the notion that most of us have of “heaven.” I’ll let a few theological excerpts present gospel to us, and perhaps we will find two things. First, that we have not known the way “forward.” Second, that the good news of God’s destination will impel us forward.

The first theologian speaks of the “destination” in broad terms, given in terms applicable to all times and places.

Regeneration  is a state of things universally. It is the new state of things, the new eon, which the Christ brought; the individual “enters it,” and in so doing he himself participates in it and is reborn through participation in it. The message of conversion is, first, the message of a new reality to which one is asked to turn; in the light of it, one is to move away from the old reality, the state of existential estrangement in which one has lived. (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Volume 2 “Existence and the Christ” p. 177)

The second theologian speaks of the “destination” in narrow terms, and is provided because God’s announcement of “good news” meets us all in the midst of or own specific life setting. This provides some concrete illustrations of what conversion may entail.

To begin anew meant, to Bonhoeffer to pass through a process of becoming aware of and avowing guilt, of repenting, of doing real penance, and of seeking for new foundations of living together beyond nihilism. But to begin anew also meant to grapple with and clarify the concrete experiences with people under the Hitler regime. And these were, in the majority, experiences of failure, of lack of civil courage, of thoughtless complicity, of lies violating one’s own conscience, of shutting ones eyes to obvious injustice, and of lack of concern about the suffering of others, whether because of fear or because of a narrowed range of perception. He deemed all of this possible only in a situation where people no longer felt urged, by a vital knowledge about the mission and meaning of their lives, to accept responsibility, but would accept, in thoughtless subordination the dictate of their superiors that the meaning of life lies in blind obedience. (Heinz Eduard Todt, “Authentic Faith – Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context,” p. 21)

Now that is an example of an opening of the eyes and mind that surely even surpasses that hoped for by the most well meaning “counterculturist.” For the truth is that the good news of the arrival of God’s kingdom to “put the world to rights” also needed to include the provision of forgiveness for we humans that would rather mankind’s Savior be crucified in order to preserve our chosen self-direction, even our “countercultural” self-direction.

Could a “just” God merely “wink” at such murderous treason from his creation as though it was nothing? Bonhoeffer shows that the answer for all, especially for any that would like to follow him anew, is shown in that very place where Christ died:

Jesus died on the cross alone. abandoned by his disciples. It was not two of his faithful followers who hung beside him but two murderers. But they all stood beneath the cross: enemies and the faithful, doubters and the fearful, the scornful and the converted, and all of them and their sin were included in this hour in Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness. God’s merciful love lives in the midst of its foes. It is the same Jesus Christ who by grace calls us to follow him and whose grace saves the thief on the cross in his last hour. (from “Discipleship,” Works Vol. 4, p. 40)

Thoughts, questions, kindly criticisms are welcomed. Thanks for your interest!

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2014. Excerpts, links, and reblogging 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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“No Cars Go” by Arcade Fire and the human desire for some other “place”

In “No Cars Go” Win Butler & Arcade Fire express a desire for a place where “no cars go.” The song doesn’t say why such a place is desired. Maybe it is a self-evident truth for our time. What does seem evident is that the desire touches upon “spiritual” or “summum bonum” issues. In a few previous posts I have presented other thoughts related to the automobile and such issues based on some things the fiction writer Flannery O’Connor has written. Ralph Wood relates how O’Connor explored the issue through her character Hazel Motes:

(Hazel Motes’s) broken-down car serves as the single sacrament of his nihilistic religion, the true viaticum for escaping everything that would lay claim on him. O’Connor was an early discerner, together with Walker Percy, that the automobile, even more than the movies and television, is the great American Dream Machine. It fulfills our fantasies of individualist autonomy, enabling us to strike out for the proverbial territories whenever the limits of social existence press in upon us. As Motes’s only sacred space, the car serves as both pulpit and residence, enabling him to incarnate his message in a life of perpetual isolation and vagabondage. (Comment on the novel “Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor in Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South by Ralph C. Wood, p. 169 )

essex

Hazel Motes preaching from his pulpit

Flannery O’Connor wrote of the car as the vehicle that seemingly enables self-justification for nihilistic consumerist escape from our modern materialistic world, but which falls short of the desired escape.

Fittingly, Arcade Fire sing of the car, along with other vehicles of transportation, as only capable of movement within this world of seeming nihilism. The world does not seem to contain any place beyond our limited modes of transportation and their nihilistic presence. Their reference to “spaceships” seems to expand the realm of possible nihilism, just as the Soviet cosmonauts in the sixties reported that they did not “find God” in outer space.

So it seems that Arcade Fire sings of a “place” beyond the normal realm. Are they speaking of “heaven?” They sing of knowing about this place.

“…where we know”.

Is this “spiritual” knowledge?

A place we know of in which no cars go! They seem to be bearers of good news! But, they don’t say how they know, or where exactly this place is?

“…don’t know where we’re going”

Interestingly, they don’t know where it is, but they seem to know when it is, or perhaps when it occurs. It occurs in the time

“….between the click of the light and the start of the dream”?

What does their “answer” mean? Is it merely the time of deep sleep, before dreaming, when there seems to be nothing? In the final analysis, are they still subject to nihilism?

Or is this space in time of waking, yet in the dark, when making love can seem to exclude all other reality? Bruce Cockburn sang of this space in time in his song “The Coldest Night of the Year.”

When two lovers really love there’s nothing there
But this suddenly compact universe
Skin and breath and hair

I don’t believe that “making love” or human relationships are a small thing, but are they the answer to nihilism? Many seem to live as such, as expressed in “A Farewell to Arms” by Hemingway:

You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got.”

So does Arcade Fire believe there is a real place that “No Cars Go?” It is hard to say anything definitive, based on this song alone. But can their longing for such a place mean anything in itself? Theologians like C.S. Lewis thought so, and developed an apologetical “argument from desire” for theism as opposed to nihilism.

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity; book 3, chapter 10.)

Hemingway also wrote in “A Farewell to Arms” that “all thinking men are atheists.” But Pascal the religious thinker thought otherwise.

I conclude this song merely by noting that this early Arcade Fire song is a good one, and perhaps it is even somewhat Pascalian. Could the “click of the light” indicate the limitation of human reason, while the “start of the dream” indicates openness to the “reasons of the heart” that Pascal discovered? The more I think about the lyrics, with the call in the song to “little babies, women and children, old folks,” I am led to think that the interpretations explored above fall short of the sheer drive of the song toward an exodus type movement to another type of place. The use of “dream” may throw us off as indicating unreality, but even the Biblical prophets spoke of the coming of God’s new kingdom in relation to visions of young men and dreams of old men.

Joel 2:28-29
New International Version (NIV)
The Day of the Lord

28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

(See Acts 2:16-18)

Perhaps “between the click of the light and the start of the dream” does not refer to the time in which this other place occurs, but to the revelational method by which one knows about the place, i.e. the Pascalian method of knowledge.

Below is a video someone put together for Bruce Cockburn’s song referenced above. By the way, Bruce Cockburn believes in the reasons of the heart and the movement of the Holy Spirit, and does not make relationships his religion.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2014. Excerpts, links, and reblogging 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.

 

Blaise Pascal and the “Summum Bonum” (the highest good)

sketch of pascal © 2007 Thomas Christensen

sketch of pascal © 2007 Thomas Christensen

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different
means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going
to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended
with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this
object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those
who hang themselves.”

Aristotle held a very similar view over 1000 years prior to Pascal, along with Eudoxus, who was probably the originator of the formula expressed by Aristotle:

Every art or applied science and every systematic investigation, and similarly every action and choice, seem to aim at some good; the good, therefore, has been well defined as that at which all things aim… (Nicomachean Ethics, I.1 – see 10.2 for his discussion of Eudoxus).

For the sake of brevity, I have posted a video by Christian author Randy Alcorn which present’s Pascal’s answer to the question of what is our highest good. I will post in a comment some lengthier excerpts from Pascal for those interested.

If it seems good to you, please feel free to comment!

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2014

W. H. Auden on Pascal’s “wager” and Kierkegaard’s “leap”

living thoughts

“It is,” Newman observed, “as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.” However convincing the argument, however holy the arguer, the act of faith remains an act of choice which no one can do for another. Pascal’s “wager” and Kierkegaard’s “leap” are neither of them quite adequate descriptions, for the one suggests prudent calculation and the other perverse arbitrariness. Both, however, have some value: the first calls men’s attention to the fact that in all other spheres of life they are constantly acting on faith and quite willingly, so that they have no right to expect religion to be an exception; the second reminds them that they cannot live without faith in something, and that when the faith which they have breaks down, when the ground crumbles under their feet, they have to leap even into uncertainty if they are to avoid certain destruction.  (The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, W. H. Auden, Introduction p. 17)

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2013

“Holocene” by Bon Iver – on humility, awe, and magnificence

Bon Iver (Justin Vernon) is a favorite musical artist of mine although I admit to having no idea what most of his songs are about. I find him more difficult in this regard than Andrew Bird who is also difficult but with work (and imagination?) I was able (I thought) to make some progress.

But the following repeated part of Holocene seemed to me to be a plain statement that possibly summarizes the point he was making in this song. The official video also seemed to confirm what I thought may have been his point. Continue reading

“Manifest Propensity” Explained

300px-American_progress

“Manifest Destiny”

This painting (circa 1872) by John Gast called American Progress, is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. Here Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads civilization westward with American settlers, stringing telegraph wire as she sweeps west; she holds a school book. The different stages of economic activity of the pioneers are highlighted and, especially, the changing forms of transportation.

The purpose of this post is to explain why this blog is called “Manifest Propensity.” I have said a few things in this regard, but have never offered a full explanation. The name comes from two sources. The first source you may have guessed due to the verbal similarity. Continue reading