A young man died a few days ago. He took his own life. I was his pastor for a brief time a few years ago, and then he returned to the denomination of his childhood. There were many causes for what happened. No one of them was beyond solution, but collectively they might have seemed impenetrable to him. No one who has not been behind that dark curtain can understand what impenetrable really means. However, at his funeral one thing was said that stood out as flash of insight.
It was said of him that he knew right from wrong, good from bad, that he was not confused by the grayness of moral uncertainty, that for him the world was black or white. His friend who offered the eulogy tucked that observation in among the many characteristics of his personality that made him such a wonderful person.
What struck me is this, a world view in black and white is brittle. It might be able to withstand enormous tension as others try to pull it this way or that, but it can be too easily snapped. There is little flexibility in such a world view. Self examination in the light of such a world view is even less flexible. How can one reconcile the certainty of a black and white world view with the moral ambiguity of one’s own life? There are some ways: gentle illusions and delusions can work; self generated amnesia can work; blaming the devil or some other enemy can work. Drugs and alcohol can dull the senses, help us forget and take us into other worlds, but they also add to the guilt when their effects wear off.
I ran into another example of this not too many months ago in a meeting with another young man well known for his social and political views that have no room for moral ambiguity. What is right is right. Everything else is not just wrong, it bespeaks of evil with the devil’s hand in it. Our conversation had to do with his discovery of moral ambiguity in the heroes of his life and his questions about whether anything can be believed or trusted.
Odd, isn’t it, that we who proclaim the love of God in the light of Jesus Christ, the one who would not quench a smoldering wick or break a bruised reed, the one who partied with sinners and Pharisees alike, the one who forgave even on the cross, have not been able to make that power and that presence a reality in the lives of so many professing Christians.
Remember how in Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis described the devil’s way of undermining the Church? Merton says something similar in a brief essay on “The Moral Theology of the Devil.” It begins with a theology that proclaims a God that demands punishment, even the punishment of “his son.” Not love but punishment is the fulfillment of the Law. Says Merton, “The theology of the devil is for those who, for one reason or another, whether because they are perfect, or because the have come to an agreement with the Law, no longer need any mercy.” “…[T]hey feel a certain sense of relief at the thought that all this punishment is prepared for practically everyone but themselves.” Merton has more to say on the subject, but you get the idea.
The problems come when one wakes up from delusions and illusions such as those to discover the reality of the human condition that lives in one’s own heart, mind and soul. To awaken and see nothing but darkness, or to awaken and see the light of God’s redeeming love; to what will one awaken? We have a lot of work to do.