The Parable of the Townspeople

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Parable of the Sower, 1557.

There was a town in a distant land, far removed from civilization, isolated by deserts, forests, rivers and mountains. The townspeople had legends of others, but being busy and content they didn’t search for them. Their own primal history was lost, but legend also said that the entire world was created by a great and mysterious but generally good Townskeeper.

For their town, near a deep glacial lake surrounded by fertile forests, provided all they needed. They simply received…

“from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness.”

This does not mean their lives were easy. Although nature provided them with all they needed, sometimes it burst forth with more, bringing floods, or blizzards. Disease and infirmity also visited, but all in all the fruitful seasons yielded life against the wildness of nature.

Problems came from their own nature also, by laziness and selfishness. Lying, stealing, the taking of life all became too well known. Even those that kept themselves from such acts were tempted toward evils. Thus they found that all seemed to be cut from the same cloth, and therefore the townspeople tried to balance necessary justice with the need for forgiveness.

So they found that they were thankful to be alive, and enjoyed the fruits of their labors. Most felt so thankful that they wondered if there was some unseen benefactor they should give thanks to. Their early wise ones had said that perhaps someone was good and great enough to have created all things, and so they made an altar devoted to their unknown “Townskeeper” lest they be ungrateful.

One day a mysterious stranger suddenly appeared in their town square. He had been first found by a group of young children. It seemed they thought of him as some favorite uncle, rather than being the first stranger they had ever met. What the adults first saw was the stranger seated and surrounded by the children, several upon his knee, eagerly listening as his kind voice told them stories.

The adults, being more cautionary, began to ask him who he was, where he came from and why he was there. He said that he was sent to them to bring good news and that he was the only son of the Townskeeper who,

“…himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and he made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek him, if haply they might feel after him and find him.”

The Townskeeper had always sown their lives with many blessings, and now desired for them to know and trust him fully for all their needs, so that they could enjoy life even more abundantly. So the stranger stayed with them for several months and spoke of many mysterious things. He also did many miraculous signs.

He healed those that were sick or had been born with infirmities. He even welcomed those that had been caught lying or stealing, and visited with one that had taken a life. He seemed to have some special bond with the most needy, and with the children. Thus with many such wonderful words and deeds he blessed all the people, and many found it easy to believe he was the son of their absentee Townskeeper.

Eventually he departed saying he was sent to all the towns in the world. They wondered how, being a man, he could travel the whole and seemingly now larger world.

Once he said he must do something that would overcome all evils and death itself, and that his deed was from the very beginning the necessary foundation of creation. They were all puzzled by this!

Not long after he left someone else arrived. The whole town had been hearing noises such as they never heard before. In a few days what appeared was a parade, led by huge metallic machines that leveled a path through the wilderness like a herd of gigantic wild boars. Following were men marching in formation as trumpets sounded. In the center was a man seated on a throne held aloft by other men. The procession came to rest in the center of the square.

The man solemnly rose as children rushed forward to see the destruction machines. The marching men barricaded them back. He bellowed loudly with a superior tone while announcing himself and speaking.

He said that he embodied the culmination of the scientific aspirations of humankind, which had primarily discovered that there was no evidence for any Townskeeper. They were following the trail of the stranger to undo his delusional lies. He reported that that they had finally rid the world of him, but that some followers believed he rose from the dead and were spreading his lies everywhere they went.

Scientists had concluded that dead strangers do not rise from the dead and the world existed by chance. Feeling thankful is due to biochemical brain reactions because of a full stomach, harem, barn or temple.

Some wondered why many felt thankful even in great hardships, but how could simple folk disagree with the wisdom of “humanity?” He said he must depart to fulfill his chosen mission, but would benevolently appoint marching men as “advisors” to guide their democracy. Besides, they would have many weapons suitable for dealing with superstitions.

The parody pompously departed and the townspeople mainly settled into a “new normal.” Some still felt thankful and remembered the stranger. The more they remembered him the more thankful they felt. Why shouldn’t feeling thankful mean there must be someone to thank? Feeling thirsty means that that water exists. And justice, forgiveness, and love are real yet can’t be proven under the microscope.

Many believed the news of the scientist, who had become their high priest. Life was mostly the same, since nature was still wild and “not yet” overcome by technology. Floods and sicknesses were less often, but when they came they were even worse. Sometimes they still felt thankful, but tried to avoid thinking about it. Eventually many lost their sense of being thankful, because “everyone” knew that there is no reason to thank an accident that eventually produced biochemical reactions in gray matter.

“For there is nothing hid, save that it should be manifested; neither was anything made secret, but that it should come to light. If any man hath ears to hear, let him hear.

And he said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete it shall be measured unto you; and more shall be given unto you. For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

Written by Bryan M. Christman, Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

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

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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.

 

“Way To Blue” by Nick Drake – on the longing for a way

In a previous post on Nick Drake’s song “Tow the Line” I touched on the question of what may have been some of the deeper longings expressed in that song. “Way to Blue” is perhaps even more explicit regarding his longings for a “way.” Continue reading

“Godric” by Frederick Buechner – The blessing Godric received from Tom Ball

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Godric tells of the blessing he received from Tom Ball when he was about to leave home. Would that we all had received such a blessing as we ventured forth into the wide world.

“Tom Ball came by to bless me. Ball was a heavy, slow-paced man who had one eye that veered off on a starboard tack so you never knew for sure which way he looked. He entered our house splashed high with mud, for our yard was always a bog through spring. He sweated like a horse.

He laid his hands on me and blessed my eyes to see God’s image deep in every man. He blessed my ears to hear the cry especially of the poor. He blessed my lips to speak no word but Gospel truth. He warned against the Devil and his snares with always that one eye of his skewed off as if to watch for snares himself.”

“Godric”, pp. 23-4.

Some may think of this as merely superstition from “the dark ages” – but what is wrong with seeing the dignity of every person, hearing the cry of all and especially the poor, and speaking only truth and no falsehood? I think the Devil very much enjoys our “enlightened” age.

Likes, questions, comments, critiques are always welcome – thank you.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. 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.

“Pascal’s Wager” was not to promote a “game of chance” – It was to promote “playing by the rules”

sketch of pascal © 2007 Thomas Christensen

sketch of pascal © 2007 Thomas Christensen

Last February I read a blog post on “Pascal’s Wager” that I thought missed the main point and purpose of his wager. I then decided to do a google search and found that mis-understanding, and then mis-representing Pascal’s Wager seemed to be a favorite pastime of skeptics and atheists. Continue reading

“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson – NASA’s Golden Record’s witness to Jesus in Gethsemane

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It is fitting that NASA’s  interstellar mission of Voyager includes the song “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” on the Voyager Gold Record, being Blind Willie Johnson’s musical depiction of Jesus in Gethsemane; The passion of Christ which concerned humankind, the angels and God, the earth and the heavens. Continue reading