Saturday, March 30, 2013

On Good Friday

Giotto: Crucifixion, ca. 1300 (Wikimedia)
Oxford closes down for Good Friday, which catches an American abroad off-guard. It is a reminder that in Britain, the church technically is the state, and both are, in theory, the monarch. In practice, of course, the U.K. is not so different from the U.S. in its dedication to popular democracy and a secular state. In fact, the U.K. is a good deal more secular than the U.S.: only about 10% of the British population attends church more than a couple times a year. In the U.K., you don't have people trying to get intelligent design taught in state schools. To the contrary—when I went to a service on Candlemas in Magdalen College, the priest announced that the following Sunday—the closest to Darwin's birthday on February 12—was informally observed by the Oxford chapels as "Evolution Sunday," a chance to meditate on the "not-always-happy relationship" between science and the Church; the sermon would be delivered by a vicar from Cambridge who was also a junior faculty member in Chemistry. The Church of England allowed gay priests to become bishops this past January, and has allowed women to be priests for decades; the House of Commons approved gay marriage in February. For all the lack of formal barriers between the two, the intersections of church and state, law and faith seem much happier and less contentious, more civil and courteous here. Though it is, as everyone in the U.K. is fond of telling Americans, "a little island."

Which is why it is all the more surprising that the University closes for Good Friday. I went to services at Christ Church Cathedral this morning. It is fun to go to church there: it's a big, magnificent Perpendicular Gothic palace with an apse and a nave and a choir that sings like the celestial host. The services are very formal, and similar to the traditional, high-liturgical Lutheranism of my childhood. I still love the rhythms of the sombre English text, the vestiges of the Latin, the singing of the hymns. "Make haste to help me, o Lord... we will now sing the Gloria Patri—glory be to the Father, and to the Son... O who am I, that for my sake / The Lord should take frail flesh and die?" I love the pipe organs and the severe medieval robes of the choristers and the cycle of sitting and standing. I have even come to love wearing a necktie. It makes you sympathetic to T. S. Eliot's decision to become a high-Church Anglican.

It also makes me momentarily willing to forget the many objections I have by now developed to orthodox Christianity—theological, doctrinal, physical, metaphysical, political, biological, hermeneutic, historical, and ethical objections, among others. These flourished during the entire time I was in high school, until at some point it became clear to me that I was whatever the Christian equivalent of a secular Jew is. If it were a matter of belief and good conscience alone, I would drop the label and the practice altogether.

It is the culture that keeps me coming back, though, especially on days like Good Friday. A good deal of my deepest musical memories happened on Good Fridays past. I remember hearing Albinoni's adagio (that strangely marvelous hoax) for the first time as a Good Friday processional, in the arrangement for organ solo, at the age of twelve, and becoming obsessed. When I was thirteen, a local ensemble was playing Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" in the Kalamazoo First Baptist Church on Good Friday; my dad and I went, and I never listened to music the same way again. One of the first organ pieces I ever played for a service was a choral prelude on the hymn "Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?" In my freshman year at Harvard, I went to hear Bach's St. Matthew Passion live in one of the big downtown churches for the first time in Holy Week, and it remains one of my best memories.

It's Good Friday that has this effect on me; Good Friday, and Lent in general. Easter is lovely, but less striking, less formative. I feel the same way about the relationship between Advent and Christmas. Good Friday is built around what is best to me in Christianity, and in religions generally, I think: the insistence on looking inwards, on acknowledging one's own wrongdoing, on coming to terms with the lies we tell ourselves about our self-sufficiency and independence. (It's the finger-pointing at others that I find repulsive.) What I still believe in is the importance of guilt in living a good life. We pathologize guilt, but the absence of the feeling of guilt is not innocence; it's anomie, a blithe disrespect for ethics and norms. In German thought especially, there's a tradition from Luther to Kant to Freud to the postwar historians who had to come to terms with the crime of the Holocaust that tries to understand the meaning of guilt and its role in attempting to live the good life, while acknowledging its reality.

The words of the liturgy that remain seared on my memory are those of the confession: "I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto thee all the sins and iniquities with which I have grievously offended thee, and justly deserved thy temporal and eternal punishment." Communion I find a bizarre bit of metaphysical gesturing redolent of Hellenistic mystery cults, but confession I still not only understand, but crave. As the winter advances and starts to retreat, I can feel Good Friday approach; it starts to feel necessary. "The chill ascends from feet to knees, / The fever sings in mental wires," Eliot wrote in Burnt Norton—that's what it feels like. I miss the hymnody; I miss the liturgy; I miss candles and wafers and kneeling. Even if it is only the ritual form of absolution, it was so deeply inground in me throughout childhood that I still seek it out at least once a year. In fact, I am more likely to attend Good Friday services than Easter Sunday. (I know people who feel similarly about Yom Kippur.)

I have been wondering recently if there might be an ethical value to prayer that transcends religion—if prayer might be a valuable act for even the most committed atheist. The decision to set time aside in order to concentrate on something uses a valuable resource; it is a statement about What Matters. While it might be argued that one's time could be better spent doing something to actually change what you're thinking about—making a donation to resolve poverty rather than praying about it, or calling sick friends instead of just thinking about them—I think it is more likely that dedicating some time to reflection and consideration about certain things primes one for more meaningful, considerate action, and is therefore worthwhile and "good": it has beneficial consequences, and in proper measure, it is praiseworthy for people to do. It does not have to be directed at anyone or anything; in fact, it is probably more meaningful to "pray" when one does not believe that there is a God. One letter without an addressee is more honest than any number of others with a reader.

I hope that I will not offend anyone who is a stricter or more orthodox Christian than I am (if I can still call myself that at all, which sometimes I doubt) if I say that I still feel a sense of terror and awe when I consider that Christianity is by far one of the most complex, sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrible creations of humanity. In two millennia—more if you include the history of Judaism before the Second Temple, from whence it sprang—it structures the civilization of a continent for more than a thousand years; creates a body of texts that inscribes the cultural practices of a tiny population of near Eastern monotheists on half of the world; generates, informs and inspires the works of Michelangelo, Bach, Kant, Dostoevsky, and Dickinson; subtends and supports the Crusades, the Renaissance, the Reformation, pogroms, evangelical imperialism, the Civil Rights Movement; and structures the lives and societies of billions of humans into orders that can be as valuable as they are tyrannical. This pervasive influence—probably matched only by other religions—makes arguing about the truth of religion, or discounting it because of discrediting it, look phenomenally short-minded.

The practices that Christianity encodes contain much that is maladaptive or increasingly—to my mind—seems unethical in light of contemporary arguments. What appears most important for anyone who wants to preserve the value of the religion, whether as faith or as cultural practice, is to insist on its message of self-scrutiny, its demand that no person is ever wholly right. At its core, Christianity is about being able to look yourself in the mirror and see a murderer—someone who brought about the death of another by virtue of their own wrongdoing. (It is also, as has been pointed out to me, about learning to find absolution from that realization through love.) It is often unfairly wielded against "moral relativism," when in fact it is ultimately about a certain kind of moral relativism—the realization that "right" is a moving target, and the first step to approaching it is to admit that no one could be further from it. It warns against self-righteousness, and against pride; most importantly, in today's world, where so often everyone claims to be in the right, it forces you to ground yourself in the admission that you are really bound to be wrong most of the time. "Chief of sinners though I be," begins an old hymn. It is still a lesson for our times. 

1 comment:

  1. This is fantastic, Spencer. Thank you for the sobering and honest reflections.