Something irrational is about to be born
I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity. – Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station
As I prepare these advent reflections I’m in the middle of a final two weeks of deadline for the next issue of Geez magazine. This is a time when I survey what the Christian subculture has to to offer on the topic of the issue, which, in this case, happens to be “Happiness.”
I’m impatient with almost all Christian exhortation on the topic of happiness. Whenever I hear someone gush about inner peace, joy, serenity, contentment, centred-ness, personal salvation, glory, feeling blessed, my calloused heart winces as if it’s just heard the saviour has come in a new flavour of toothpaste.
Of course I allow for personal moments of bliss, or my favourite, equanimity. As a young and zealous evangelical Christian, this was my training. But I’ve lowered my regard for a faith that is oblivious to co-ordinated control and background oppression.
The faith that inspires me comes not from a babe on a bale of hay, it comes from a political dissident who defied the ruler’s exploitation of the masses. This is a faith that is suspicious of rewards offered by power structures.
I often see the offer of inner peace as an implied imperative to acquiesce to the powers that want to pacify us and oppress those beneath us. This offer could come from a free-market enthusiast who promises jobs or low prices. Or it may come from a city minister oblivious to urban misdemeanours.
For example, in our city, our drinking water comes from a lake 100 miles to the east. The construction of an aqueduct displaced a First Nations community, left them stranded on an island with a boil-water advisory for the past 15 years. We have low-income folks evicted from rental suites to make way for condo renovations. We hear snippets of violence against women and Aboriginal people. We support the food bank but don’t ask why people stand in line for bread and potatoes.
I situate myself as a benefactor of privilege among the middle classes. Those in power, for example those who benefit most from the concentration of wealth, need to give us outlets for our sense of fairness. Of course it’s not fair that some make millions while others make thousands or stand in lines for day jobs. We are consoled with invitations to be charitable to the poor and devotional to a God who loves us all.
Charitable activities are legally defined as politically neutral. Help the needy with money, food and education, but not by changing the structures that keep them needy. If that’s not charity, what is it, insurrection, sedition? If all I do is light a candle and wait for the Christ child to come – and be blessed with a sense of wonder and expectation – won’t the oil companies continue to their extraction and spillage until the earth is dry and the shores are black? (This is why, by the way, we as editors of a progressive Christian activist magazine, include reports of civil disobedience in every issue. )
In my view, Jesus was born to refugee parents amidst an occupying army. Why can’t that be both a metaphor for our day and an actual example of the type of love and lifestyle necessary for a human community that longs for a Messiah. For me, Advent is an invitation to leave our stations of privilege and embark upon a difficult path of costly solidarity.
If I reflect on the good things in life, then I will see there is hope. And I will not see the government’s lack of significant response to the growing number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. I will not care if our country helps to kill civilians (and soldiers) in other lands, if we are polluting the rivers, dumping industrial waste in the oceans, over-fishing the seas and bashing too many seals. There is so trouble in the world. The Herods of corporations have their minions to defend injustice and influence policies in the name of safety. The wise ones have told us through advertising and media corporations that what have is the best we can do. That small gains that placate the Herods are all we can expect and hope for.
The more I care about this world the bleaker it becomes. The more I learn of those who suffer and their struggle for justice and freedom the more I need something “out of this world.”
This is why I am still a person of faith, even an adherent of a major religion. I do not abandon an ancient yearning. I cling to the notion that something irrational can help us out of this hyper-rational time of destruction.
We need to subvert the reasons for destroying the earth. We need something irrational to subvert our prevailing reason. I believe there is a way that does not make sense to the overlords, to the Herods of greed, control and domination. This Something Irrational appeals to kindness and love, to compassion and grace, to generosity and a sense of letting go.
Welcome the Irrational
This is irrational and I have to work to welcome it. Because I have a mind that has been co-opted by the corporations, a mind that worries about my retirement and needs to plan to pay the bills. In my rational mind, I do not listen to Something Irrational. But in my spirit, in the part of me that knows each of us is connected to all that is, if I listen to my lungs, where there is no doubt that I share the breath of all life, I know that the way of sharing is the way to go.
The poet Ben Lerner recently wrote a novel called Leaving the Atocha Station. When I heard him interviewed on the radio, I was impressed by his articulate defiance of the North American empire. I sought out his book, I sought a word from the poet.
In an opening scene the main character is in a museum looking at his favourite piece of art. There’s a man standing in front of the painting, so he has to wait for the man to move. Overcome with with emotion the man in front of the painting begins to cry, and then create a disturbance as he sobs.
The main character is both jealous and incredulous:
“I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life,’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. . . . Insofar I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.” – Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station
He wants to do more than float in life. He can recognize beauty but not let it enter and affect him. I share a similar desire.
Herbert Marcuse, the philosopher of 1960s radicals, and the author of One Dimensional Man, wrote about how our consumer society placates our senses.
He said, we no longer need the transcendent or “second” dimension because a first dimension, or the world right in front of us, can satisfy all our wants. The titans of industry provide us with entertainment to help us relax; provide us the promise of romance through fashion and beauty products; and provide employment to earn enough to buy the things we see in advertisements.
But there is an ineffable second dimension that people desire and of which corporations can only provide simulations. This is an awesome but not cruel dimension. It holds the promise of contentment. Moreover it inspires people to abandon the machinations of the one dimension and pursue a more-encompasing, other-oriented love. This is a love that blossoms into peace, that unfolds into justice and offers an unassuming joy. (It’s quite possible I’m extrapolating on Marcuse’s message.)
We know of this second dimension. We have tasted it, seen glimpses of it. But in these dark times, the curtain of corporate capitalism has almost closed off our access to the light of liberation.
Need not be
We stagnate in comfortable alienation. We tolerate glib invitations to light another candle for peace and then resign to show our love by giving consumer goods to consumers. This is a bleak time. But I know it doesn’t have to be this way.
Even this knowing that our time is bleak is a hint that the curtains flutter; a little light leaks in. And I see that it is no longer night. Day may break soon. It is dim, but the irrational side of me knows there is hope, even for us. Next week I’ll write about encountering the light.
Aiden Enns is the editor of Geez magazine, a quarterly print magazine about contemplative cultural resistance (see geezmagazine.org). He holds graduate degrees in religion and journalism and is a former regional editor of Canadian Mennonite and managing editor of Adbusters He is also an organizer with Buy Nothing Christmas.
1. Bleak – I see ruin and deception; God is not near. Read it here
2. Dim – In darkness, we strive to see; this brings hope. Read it here.
3. Light – There are rumours that socio-political liberation can break open. Read it here.
4. Bright – We squint as we approach the epicentre of newness.
5. Christmas – We receive both less and more than expected.