Friday, September 21, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 17, “The ‘Kindness of God’”

Dear friend,*

When I was a teenager, I had a particularly strong sense that there was something grossly unfair, something self-contradictory even, about the way the universe is set up. 

In the classroom, especially in the physical sciences, I learned how vast the world is and how insignificant humanity. Romano Guardini expresses this well in the chapter “The ‘Kindness of God’”:

“Somewhere in infinite space a tiny speck may be seen whirling about: earth. On its surface appears a thin coating of mould otherwise called landscape, life, civilization, habitat of barely visible motes known as people. The whole thing lasts only a moment, then it is over.”

Each of us is a speck on a speck, less significant relative to the whole than a grain of sand in the Sahara. And yet.

And yet here I was, and am, inside of this self and of all that too, a world unto myself, conscious of everything both in and around me. What made no sense at all was why the universe should be constructed this way: a great system of interconnected worlds going on and on—solar systems, galaxies, spiraling through endless time, seemingly forever—and yet those of us (humans) with the consciousness able to see this immensity were blinking on and off again almost instantly, like fireflies in an infinite night sky. What was my lifespan against the immensity of deep time and space? Was this consciousness of mine a cruel trick? Were we humans just unlucky enough to be the only animals to have evolved far enough to see the absurdity of our own condition?

Or was there something else going on?

I’m afraid I am not expressing all this very well. I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian. And yet I think that what I am saying is not unrelated to what Guardini is saying when he writes of the “kindness of God.”

Guardini begins the 17th chapter in his book (part 2, chapter 5) by recapping the times in the Gospels when Jesus brings someone back to life—Jairus’s daughter, the son of the widow of Naim, and Lazarus. He says there are two big questions our hearts ask about these events. (And isn’t it wonderful the way RG refuses to bury such questions, but instead looks them squarely in the face?)

The questions are: “Can such things be? And if so, to what end?”

He dispenses with the first question by terming a miracle nothing more or less than a moment when natural law obeys a higher law. And anyway, he goes on, the second question is more important and interesting:

“What is the sense behind such happenings?”

The sense, as I understand it, is that we matter to God, that “the few years of human existence, the ten years of solitude that a widow perhaps has before her, weigh more in God’s eyes than all the aeons that solar systems require to evolve and decline. . . .

“The miracle reveals the world as it appears to God: the world viewed from within, from the perspective of the human heart and human fate. [Ah! God shares my inner perspective! He stands with me, “inside.”] It also teaches us who God is: him to whom man’s fate means so much. He is no mere astronomical God of systems (that God, too, certainly, but the cosmos is only the throne of his glory). He is also no mere God of history. Shaper of human fates to patterns of divine profundity, though he is also that. He is the God of hearts.”

When I read that beautiful phrase “the God of hearts,” suggesting that God is not some cold and distant eternal power but a presence here, now, with me, I think suddenly of “The King of Hearts,” the 1966 film starring Alan Bates. That war comedy about asylum inmate let loose during wartime suggested that the sanest people may be the ones we think maddest. It made a lot of sense in the 1960s, as the Vietnam War was meat-grinding to a climax, and it became a signature film of our generation in its heyday.

But then “2001: A Space Odyssey” was another signature. When I saw once again the iconic image that illustrates this post, of Keir Dullea as a cosmonaut seeing the cosmos rushing by from inside his own helmet, I thought, yes, that’s exactly what I felt when I was eighteen! That’s what I want to write about in my post! And now I have done so. Let me add just one personal note:

Do you remember seeing “2001” with me in the front row of the Greenwich Cinema, my friend? It must have been on a weekend home from school in the fall of 1968, our senior year. The film had been released in April, and in those days movies stayed in circulation much longer than they do now. No cable, no DVD, video-streaming.

My eleven-year-old sister kept looking at us, wondering why the film was eliciting such amazement from us. For the first half-hour of the film the only words out of our mouths were Oh and Wow, repeated. But then, well, you know why.

We’ll let that be our secret.

Peace, my dear friend,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 18.

* This post continues a series of reflections on Romano Guardini’s book The Lord, framed as open letters to a (real, live) friend from my days at boarding school.

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