25 November 2022

Innocence (partly a repost)

to USA readers:

Thanksgiving blessings!

Sources: left, right.  

Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land and Emma Donoghue's The Wonder are two of the most recent books I've read. You've probably already heard about both of them, but I'll give a brief summary before I tell you what longstanding fascination of mine they both touched on.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is, among other things, a tribute to the power and fragility of books. In this story, the original Cloud Cuckoo Land is a fictional fantasy novel very loosely based on a real (but mostly lost) novel written by a second-century Greek writer, Diogenes. Pieces of the fantasy appear in Doerr's book, but between those pieces we meet some of its readers at various times and places, ranging from inside and outside the walls of besieged Constantinople, to present-day Idaho, and to a future starship on its way to colonize a planet.

In comparison with Doerr's novel, The Wonder is very "local," taking place over a period of less than two weeks in one small village in Ireland in the 1850's. A Florence Nightingale-trained nurse, just back in England from serving in the Crimean War, is sent to this small village with a specific mission: to find out how an eleven-year-old girl continues to live months after she has stopped eating. Is she a miracle, as her family and community assert, or is there something else going on? It's a psychological thriller with deep questions on family dynamics and boundaries, but also a meditation on religious enthusiasm.

Here is what these very different novels have in common: threads of innocence are woven throughout both. Some of the central characters in both novels are trying to make sense of the world for various reasons—for the sake of honest curiosity, and for their own survival, but not for gain or gratification. Not everyone around them is as pure in heart, but as important as the various mixed motives are in setting up the central tensions in both novels, the numbers of villains are few, if any.

Children play central roles in both of these novels. Children were also central in the dream that I had fifteen years ago—the dream with which I began my first post on innocence:

In one of my dreams, I'm standing on a riverbank watching a small tourist riverboat float by. In front are the adults sitting in chairs, in back are children playing on the deck. The boat begins to sink; the adults' chairs begin sinking into the water. Apparently the deck is just a wire mesh, like a link fence. As the boat passes by, I see to my horror that the children are starting to slip under the water's surface. I shout as loudly as I can to alert the adults to the children in danger behind them, but my voice seems lost in the wind. Nobody responds.

Someone pointed out that a lot of my dreams are about innocence, its preservation and its loss. What's that all about?

Interestingly, that dream river is behind a motel—one that is used by lovers for their rendezvous. I'm in the lobby, but I'm not a guest there. When a motel staffer approaches me, I busy myself looking at the tourist brochures in order to look like I have a reason to be there. It's one of those brochures that tells me about the river behind the motel. Why was I at the motel in the first place?

Hidden agendas seem to me to be the opposite of innocence.

Robert Barclay's systematic Quaker theology, known as the Apology, tackled the subject of the human being's fallen nature. Barclay was explicitly concerned to take a middle path between what he saw as the error of believing we can overcome sin through our "natural" light, and the opposite error, that we are already damnable sinners at birth:

We come now to examine the state and condition of man as he stands in the fall: what his capacity and power is and how far he is able, as of himself, to advance in relation to the things of God. Of this we touched a little in the beginning of the second Proposition; but the full, right, and thorough understanding of it is of great use and service; because from the ignorance and altercations that have been about it, there have arisen great and dangerous errors, both on the one hand and the other. While some do so far exalt the light of nature, or the faculty of the natural man, as capable of himself, by virtue of the inward will, faculty, light, or power that pertains to his nature, to follow that which is good and make real progress towards heaven. And of these are the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians of old, and of late the Socinians and divers others among the Papists. Others again will needs run into another extreme, to whom Augustine, among the ancients, first made way in his declining age, through the heat of his zeal against Pelagius, not only confessing men incapable of themselves to do good, and prone to evil; but that in his very mother's womb, and before he commits any actual transgression, he is contaminate with a real guilt whereby he deserves eternal death; in which respect they are not afraid to affirm that many poor infants are eternally damned and forever endure the torments of hell. Therefore the God of Truth, having now again revealed his Truth that good and even way, by his own Spirit, hath taught us to avoid both these extremes.

[The fourth proposition, at Quaker Heritage Press.]

After years of hearing modern and postmodern people argue against the doctrine that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," I am utterly persuaded that the doctrine is pretty much correct. Inside myself and inside others, even in the absence of dramatic and scandalous sins, I've seen over and over again our capacity to spin, to rationalize hidden agendas, to one-up our theological or ideological opponents, to objectify our enemies, to romanticize our addictions, to shift blame, to minimize ourselves or others.

At the most basic level, even "good" people are prone to the sin that Anthony Bloom calls "loss of contact with our deepest self—the place where we meet God."

Early Friends were not "liberal" in comparison with other theologies of the 17th century. They were in full agreement that we, by ourselves, cannot overcome our fatal propensity to sin. No false optimism there. But as pessimistic about humans as they were, they did not leave humans without hope. Though vulnerable without God, we are in fact born innocent. We lose that innocence when we make self-centered choices, but God invites us to put our trust in Divine power to make different choices. Living in that trust, putting our personal "territory" back in the Paradise of God, we are forgiven of all of those self-centered choices we made. Our task then: living in innocence when our eyes have been opened, and when we have tasted of the fruits of self-centered choices. The original innocence is no longer possible; we can't pretend not to know what we know. Now we see why Paul encouraged us to "pray without ceasing."

Accepting the doctrine that "all have sinned" does not permit us to use that doctrine in a shaming or controlling spirit. It is a refreshing realism that applies equally to the one doing the shaming, and the one being shamed. This biblical realism does not license any form of pseudo-Christian leadership cult that gets to sort out the blessed from the damned. Nor does it justify self-minimizing and self-flagellation. Again, Anthony Bloom, within a few pages of describing the sin of loss of contact with our deepest selves, also reminds us that God loved us into being in the first place. We can stand before God with the full status of being God's beloved. The "all have sinned" doctrine is diagnosis, not condemnation.

Mature innocence is not simple. We're aware of things pushing and pulling against us. Our earthly and earthy selves were made for legitimate pleasure, including the complicated pleasure of beauty. Our dynamic task is to keep our face towards God and to keep the channels of prayer open. We don't keep two sets of moral books or live in a naive denial of the forces that constantly try to distract us (some more than others, I'm sure) from our Godward orientation.

I don't equate innocence with sentimentality, but I do relate it to happiness. An innocent person is happy. A person who has been disobedent and sinful and is coming back into innocence with God's help, will experience a different kind of happiness. It is a happiness tinged with knowing—both the awareness of personal vulnerability and awareness of tragedy and evil, danger and death. But happiness is nevertheless part of God's plan. The contemporary tendency to outdo each other in overcommitment, drivenness, and anxiety, does not to me seem consistent with mature innocence. Maybe I'm wrong.

I do not want happiness at the expense of awareness of what the Principalities and Powers are doing to my brothers and sisters. On the other hand, nobody benefits from a self-important severity in my attitude toward world problems. And it's probably a pretty universal principle that these issues of balance (self-care and self-giving) are best worked out in dialogue, in community.

Speaking of happiness, I love these words from philosopher Paul Ricoeur during a visit to Taizé:

It seems that there are two levels: the best of Greek philosophy is a reflection on happiness, the Greek word eudaimon, for example in Plato and Aristotle, and on the other hand I am very much at home with the Bible. I think of the beginning of Psalm 4: “Ah, who will teach us happiness?” It’s a rhetorical question, but it finds its answer in the beatitudes. And the beatitudes are the horizon of happiness of an existence placed under the sign of kind-heartedness, because happiness is not simply what I do not have and what I hope to have, but also what I have tasted. [Full text here.]

Tears are part of my understanding of innocence. For me to allow tears to flow is to admit that I am not in control, that I'm not behind a facade, that I'm not insulating myself or others from reality. Tears of joy and tears of grief both wash away pretense.

(Originally posted as "Thoughts on innocence" on 22 March 2007. Here's a link directly to the comments.)

Right Sharing of World Resources has shared its fourth quarter newsletter, which includes its annual report.

Martin Kelley's Quaker Ranter blog has published an announcement and link for the new podcast, Quakers Today.

With help from Marilynne Robinson, Vance Morgan thinks about what has happened to the Christian "brand" in the marketplace of ideas and influences.

In my high school years, when radio was how I connected with the world, one of my heroes was WFMT radio personality and oral historian Studs Terkel. Here's an audio-only treat for your Thanksgiving weekend: Studs with Mahalia Jackson, another of my heroes of that time.

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