Now That’s Ironic!

Back in the day when I was teaching a course in the Humanities I was discussing The Book of Job with my class. I suggested that the God of the Old Testament was quite different from the God of the New Testament. After all, He made a wager with the devil that Job would not lose his faith no matter what might happen to him. During the test that the devil contrived Job’s “comforters” insisted that the must have done something wrong because God would not allow him to suffer for no reason. But the lesson, apparently, was that humans suffer for no good reason all the time and they ought to maintain their faith in God despite all.

Further, the God of the Old Testament asked Abraham to take his infant son to a mountain top and slit his throat, testing Abraham’s faith. The Old Testament is full of examples of a God who tests His believers, who seems to all outward appearances to be vindictive and all-powerful, not given to forgive and forget, much less to love. In fact some of the true believers are able to find in the Old Testament the seeds of their own racial prejudice.  I suggested that the New Testament God was a God of love and He was clearly quite different.

One of the students in my class, whom I knew to proudly consider herself among the spiritually certain, insisted that “it is the same God.” And, indeed, to those who claim to know their Bible this may be the case. But I suggested that from a theological, a philosophical, or even a literary point of view the two Gods were quite different.

After all, the New Testament is supposed to be the NEW Testament, to supplant the Old Testament; the God depicted in the New Testament (whether one believes in Him or not) is a God of love, not a God who plays favorites, inspires fear, and is given to testing his followers. In fact, in the New Testament God sacrificed his son in order to save humankind — whether or not one believes that humankind is worth saving (and at times I do wonder). He admonishes His followers to eschew wealth, reminding them that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into Heaven. He demands that they turn the other cheek, forgive one another, never judge another lest they also be judged by the same high standards. In a word, the two Gods are different in practically every respect.

The irony, however, is that so many of those who pride themselves to be among the spiritually certain seem to have failed to read the New Testament carefully and seem to be filled with hatred toward their fellow humans, not love. So many of them feel themselves to be superior to those who do not believe and are therefore not among the elect. They are quick to judge others, despite the admonition not to do so. And the love they are supposed to feel for one another is often very selective and the majority of their neighbors, whom they are asked to love like themselves,  are targets of their ire — especially if they look different, happen to have a different life-style, or practice a different religion. Many of the true believers pursue mammon with astonishing determination, seeing no problem with their love of wealth and personal possessions (even including private planes among some of their leaders), despite the admonitions in the New Testament not to do so.

In fact, it is difficult to say if the great majority of those who claim to Have The Truth and to be among the spiritually certain have any idea what is contained in the New Testament. The gospel of love, for so many of them, is simply a license to feel superior to others and to pursue their personal pleasures rather than to seek ways to become better human beings. Now that’s ironic, is it not?

A Wealthy Republic?

I begin with a disclaimer: I have nothing against money. I like money and I am happy that after years of struggle I finally have enough to be relatively worry-free and even able to help others when given a chance. At the same time I am aware that money is a two-edged sword. In the form of the capitalistic economic system it has brought about a higher standard of living for more people than could have been imagined by folks like Adam Smith when he was promoting free enterprise in the eighteenth century. But I do wonder if it has brought greater happiness to a great many people — as Smith thought it would. And as one who read his New Testament carefully for many years in his mis-spent youth, I am aware of the inherent contradiction between the basic principles of capitalism and the values promoted in the New Testament where, we are told, the poor are blessed and it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

This latter concern was given impetus when, as an undergraduate, I read R.H. Tawney’s compelling book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. It opened my eyes to the contradiction I had dully sensed. The history of the organized Christian church, and the machinations of “Christians” everywhere attempting to explain away the words of the New Testament have been fascinating — and upsetting. But it wasn’t until the Protestant revolution that the lid came off, as it were, and folks were given a free ticket to claim their Christian affiliation while at the same time pursuing unlimited wealth. We now have self-proclaimed ministers of God like Jesse Duplantis flying about the country in their private  $45 million jets and living the good life in their palatial homes after they have preached an inspiring sermon to the many who arrived at the service in the huge amphitheater in their gas-guzzling SUVs.

But I never fully appreciated the tensions that were everywhere apparent during the colonial period between the pursuit of wealth and the preservation of the new Republic. It didn’t worry Alexander Hamilton and his followers who would prefer to have the President and the Senate serve for life — in imitation of the English King and House of Lords. But it worried a great many more colonists who followed Thomas Jefferson in his suspicion that those focused on wealth and prosperity would make poor citizens of a republic built on the notion of the Common Good.

In his excellent book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, to which I have referred a number of times, John Murrin points out the struggles of the early colonies with the problems of great wealth. Many at that time worried, along with Jefferson, that excessive wealth in the hands of a few would plant the seeds of a new aristocracy. After perusing numerous newspapers from the period, Murrin tells us that the colonial attitude, generally, was one of concern, worry that:

“The pursuit of wealth without regard to the public good not only corrupted individuals. It threatened to destroy independence and the American republic.”

Or again,

“In a capitalist society that generates huge amounts of wealth and want, democracy is ever at risk.”

And this has, indeed, become a larger and a larger problem as today we seem to find ourselves in a “democratic” country ruled by the very rich who pick and choose their politicians as one might pick cherries from a bush, and then tell them precisely how to vote on key issues — lest they lose their high-paying jobs in Congress and state legislatures. It is a deep and perplexing question just how far the pursuit of profits and wealth blinds us to the larger questions that surround the notion of the public good: the cares and genuine concerns of those around us. It is a political conundrum and a serious moral problem that we might all do well to ponder.

I do not have the answer, but the Scandinavian countries seem to have a suggestion for us in the form of Democratic Socialism which they have embraced and they are reputed to be the happiest people on earth at the moment.  Raw capitalism is driven by avarice and encourages self-interest in the name of healthy competition — not qualities designed to help a democratic society grow strong, to promote the common good. Curbs on raw capitalism, which we have seen from time to time in this country (and which the current Administration would eliminate), put a bit in the mouth of the beast which it finds annoying but which still make the common good a possibility — remote perhaps, but still a possibility. A good start to much-needed reform would be a fair tax system that closes the loop-holes for the wealthy and for corporations and taxes them at the same rate as everyone else.

 

Selective Reading

While I try very hard not to read or discuss (and certainly not to write about) the current political situation and about the many problems we face that I simply cannot remedy, the following headline and brief story jumped out at me because it has so many ramifications:

What would Jesus do about climate change? According to one self-described Christian, not much.

Conservative pundit Erick Erickson fired off a tweet Wednesday saying his savior called on him to be a good steward for the planet… but that concept doesn’t extend to global warming.

Erickson then sat back in his comfortable easy chair and read the comments that followed his tweet. He was mostly amused by those he felt misunderstood what “stewardship” means. In fact, of course, he is the one who misunderstands what the word means. Given that we are dependent on the earth, on the air and water and on protecting our home as much as we can, the word reflects the obligation this places upon us to care for the earth and seek to preserve it for future generations. This is what “stewardship” means. And if global warming threatens the earth, as it surely does, then it follows that stewardship involves an attempt to curb global warming if at all possible.

I cannot speak about the obligation that Christians, in particular, may or may not have to respect their planet as I can recall no passage in the New Testament that seems to address this topic. But the love we are directed to have for our fellow humans would seem to imply a concern for the planet on which we all live and upon which our lives depend. I suspect the version Mr. Erickson reads is not the one I used to read so carefully.

Once again, we have a “self-described Christian” making it clear that he has his own interpretation of what the Lord has told him to believe and how to act. This is the attitude that has turned so many against the Church even though, by the way, many of Erickson’s fellow-Christians objected strongly to what the man tweeted.  The notion that each of us is privy to the Word of God and can interpret the Bible for ourselves is at the root of many misunderstandings of just what that book says and, even more to the point, what it intends. But when Jesus says that there really are only two laws, that we love our neighbors and that we love God, two things become crystal clear: Love is the main directive of the New Testament and love implies a determination to sacrifice our own pleasures and desires in order to helping others.

There are many ways to interpret the Gospels — and even the four books do not agree with one another in every respect. But the main message is clear and it would appear that it imposes obligations upon us to love one another and this would seem to imply caring for the planet upon which we all depend. But this is not the end to the story because Christianity — in its many guises — is only one religion among many and the messages that are set forth in the many Holy Books of those religions frequently are at odds with one another. But the central message of all of them, it would appear, is that we are not alone on this earth and we must take others into account and do whatever we can to help them when we can and love them if we are able. The notions of hatred and prejudice that many find in such books as the Old Testament, for example, are not to be taken for the heart and soul of the doctrine that all Holy Books, including the Old Testament, preach: care about one another and do not put yourselves first.

Mr. Erickson is deluded and finds in the New Testament a doctrine that supports his desire to ignore global warming. He finds solace in the words he is convinced he reads there. But others are unable to find those words which seem to be in direct conflict with the words that most people do find there. We can only feel sorry for the man while at the same time we can understand how it is that an ordinary man can find support for his biases wherever he is determined to seek it. It is called “selective reading,” closely related to selective hearing. It’s sadly not uncommon.

Empty Churches

Abandoned Church Photo by Matthias Haker

Abandoned Church
Photo by Matthias Haker

The photograph on this page is one of a series of abandoned churches around the world taken by German photographer Matthias Haker. Interestingly, he does not name the churches or the places where they can be located. But all are, like this one, abandoned and falling apart. The pictures tell a story much more powerful than words: like the churches, religion is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

This is not a popular theme and I have written about it in the past with little or no response. People don’t like to think about it. But the fact remains that traditional churches, generally, are being abandoned and turned into apartments, homes, or even public houses and taverns. The latter are simply more useful in a culture absorbed by itself and its pleasures. The church which has traditionally made demands of people — following the admonitions in the New Testament — preaches to closed ears and closed minds.

To be sure, the mega-churches have grown in size while their preachers buy jet planes and try to explain their huge salaries in light of the fact that the Gospel they preach urges all to give up their wealth and follow the Lord. But these mega-churches, as I have noted in the past, are really gathering places for folks who want to give the appearance of being religious while, during the rest of the week — if not the rest of the day — they go back to business as usual. It should not be thought for a moment that those churches have anything whatever to do with religion. They simply collect people once a week in huge buildings complete with coffee bars, lounge chairs, TVs, and bookstores selling the latest publication written by the man standing before them in flowing robes pretending to be a model of religious purity.

Indeed, the commonality among all religions is the notion of sacrifice. Those who seek to follow the path laid out for them by divine direction always, without exception, must sacrifice short-term pleasure and control their desires in order to do “the right thing,” the holy thing. The notion that one can simply “go to church” once a week and ipso facto be a religious person borders on the absurd. There is nothing whatever about attending church in, for example, the New Testament, though there is a great deal about the sacrifices required in order to do what is required to purify one’s soul.

But, like the churches themselves, the notion of the soul, along with the concern for what might happen to it after one’s body finally gives up, are passé. That’s yesterday’s news. Today, it’s all about growing the numbers of communicants and making sure they are told what they want to hear and not required to do what they might find demanding. Talk about sacrifice would result in wholesale exiting of the congregation in order to find a more appealing church to attend of a Sunday. I know of a specific case in which a large portion of a congregation left a particular church because the leaders had decided that it was acceptable to hire homosexual preachers. Now, the fact that the number of homosexual preachers can probably be counted on one hand, it was regarded, nevertheless, as a matter of “principle.” That is, it was grounds for rejection of a doctrine that is consistent with the love preached in the Gospels, because those retreating members regarded that doctrine as unacceptable. Today it’s not about what others demand of us, it’s about what we demand of ourselves. And that seldom, if ever, requires any sacrifice whatever.

Thus the crumbling and abandoned churches. Nietzsche was right: God is dead. We don’t need Him any more. We’ve got Google.

Hope

An inscription over the gates of Dante’s Hell, we are told, reads: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” As Dante is guided through Hell by the poet Virgil, he finds dozens and dozens of people who live forever without hope. Several times he feels sorry for the sinners but he is admonished by Virgil. After all, who is he to second guess God who, in His infinite wisdom, placed those sinners where they are? The New Testament tells us that there are three great virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love. The greatest of these is love and Dante finds very little of it in hell. Indeed, at the frozen core of hell he finds those who are incapable of love, whose hearts were frozen long before they died. The medieval thinkers married those three Christian virtues to the four pagan virtues wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These seven comprise the cardinal virtues of the medieval church, virtues that are all but forgotten today in our work-a-day world. But permeating through Dante’s Hell is the sense of lost hope. It is dreadful, indeed.

We here in Minnesota know about hope. Those of us who follow our sports teams live on hope, hope that next year they will achieve the Great Prize that almost always eludes them, and hoping we can forget last year’s disappointments. “Hope springs eternal.” For my part I hope that the world will be a brighter place for my grandchildren than in my darkest moments I fully expect it to be. I know in my heart that my generation is not leaving the world a better place than we found it — as we most assuredly should. I continue to hope that somehow the world will find itself at peace and that those who profess love for one another — as the New Testament admonishes us all to do — will in fact embrace this code fully and not merely pay lip service to those wise words. And, on a very mundane level, I hope that this twisted and convoluted political battle we see going on around us will somehow resolve itself without further violence and that a man or a woman with a grain of wisdom will finally be placed at the head of a fragile government that needs wisdom now more than ever.

I do hope for these things because without hope there is only cynicism and, while I tend in that direction, I refuse to allow myself to go there, because I know that to abandon all hope is to be living in Hell. The greatest virtue is of course love, but right behind it, surely, we find hope abiding.

 

 

Bernie’s Battles

Bernie Sanders says all the right things — well, almost all the right things. He has been soft on gun control which is troubling. But, then, he is a politician and must say things to get himself elected to the Senate in Vermont that he may not really believe. That’s the name of the game. In any event, he truly wants to do the right thing by his country and he is certainly operating outside the mainstream of politics for the most part. As I noted in a previous post, he knows that the real battle in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s between the very wealthy together with their corporations and the rest of us.

Sanders' Official Senate Portrait

Sanders’ Official Senate Portrait

The problem, of course, is that so many of Bernie’s dreams are just that: dreams. They are pie-in-the-sky. Radical change that flies in the face of present politics-as-usual. He is labelled a “socialist,” which is inaccurate. A socialist wants the state to own the means of production. Karl Marx thought Socialism was a step toward Communism where there would be no private ownership, all would share things in common — not unlike the hopes expressed in the New Testament. So far as I know Bernie Sanders does not want that to happen. He just wants those who own the means of production and who just happen to make 300 times as much money as their average employee to share some of their wealth. He would raise taxes on the rich which, as history has shown, might just help this economy get back on track. We were never as fiscally healthy as we were when the wealthy helped bear their share of the burden of government. You know, before Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” nonsense. As things now stand there are so many tax loops for the wealthy they hardly help at all. Bernie wants to right the ship.

But, as I say, his are dreams that seem will-o’-the-wisp, hardly the sorts of things the Congress will help him achieve. And, as I have also said in a previous post, without the help of the Congress the president cannot do much of anything. I dare say Bernie knows this and it would appear that he has in his sights a much larger prize: complete political reform. He wants to sweep into office with a majority of the Congress behind him. That would certainly make it more likely that he could actually initiate much-needed reform. And if he can light a fire in the electorate and get enough of the idealistic young on his side he may just do that. It’s a long shot, but it does inspire hope at a time when hope is a slender thread connecting dreams and reality.

The only thing that bothers me about this scenario is whether a Congress, be it Democratic or Republican, would actually put their collective careers on the line for radical change. It is likely that the majority of the Congress any new president would have to work with would still be beholden to the corporations. The wealthy support politicians on both sides of the aisle, just in case. Bernie may succeed in his attempt to free himself of all corporate ties, and might even gain a majority in the Congress, but it is unlikely that those in Congress could get elected — or if elected remain in office — without corporate support. That’s Bernie’s largest battle. It’s not about getting elected. It’s about beating the corporations in order to be an effective president.

Nevertheless, it is a hopeful sign that there is someone in the political arena who has the courage to say the right things, even though they are not the things the wealthy want to hear (because they are not those things?). As I read recently, Hillary Clinton is the person running for president who could work most effectively in the present political arena. Bernie is the one who wants to change the game entirely and play it more or less the way the founders wanted it played at the outset, reversing the current trend toward oligarchy. You have to admire his vision and his courage. Whether he will win the battles ahead remains to be seen.

Two Gods

Some years ago, when I was teaching a required course in great books that we called “Humanities,” I was discussing with the class the assigned reading, the Book of Job. The discussion was going  well, I thought, but my repeated reference to the “God of the Old Testament” apparently riled one of the students who spoke out: “it’s the same God as in the New Testament, you know.” Well, I didn’t know. The student was a Born Again Christian and I had only been born once. From my apparently stunted perspective the two Gods seemed miles apart, the Old Testament God a vengeful and even vindictive God who would throw Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden for disobedience and punish Job for bragging rights. He’s the God who said to Eve: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception, in sorrow shall thou bring forth children; and thy desire shall be thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The God of the New Testament struck me as a forgiving God, a god of love and compassion. He is the God who said “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you.” The two seemed, as I say, miles apart. But clearly I did not know what I was talking about.

In any event, in reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, a novel recommended by a good friend, I came across the same concern I had expressed, to wit, the reflection by one of the main characters in the novel that the two Gods were very different. The novel raises a number of interesting questions and, while disturbing in many ways, is a good read, focusing on a very twisted Baptist preacher who decides to do a year of missionary work and hauls his wife and four girls to the Congo to drag the natives out of the utter darkness (where they appear to be quite happy, thank you very much) and into the light that apparently only he can see. Needless to say, he botches the job, alienating the natives entirely while abusing and doing untold damage to his children and making life a living hell for his poor wife. But such is the enthusiasm of the “true believer” who is convinced that he (or she) has the truth and everyone else should shut up and pay attention. Our hero is a hellfire and brimstone preacher who hopes to save souls by scaring the shit out of them. His mania can be found just this side of insanity. He bases his world view on a reading of the Old Testament having, apparently, never gotten as far as the New Testament — except for the Book of Revelation. Yet he insists that he is a devout Christian.

All of which raises the deeper question of the untold damage “Christians” have done over the centuries in direct defiance of the teachings of their Founder. How on earth the message of peace and love got translated into a message of intolerance and hate defies reason, though it would appear folks are simply more comfortable with the Old Testament God. But, then, many things we humans do defy reason. The sad thing in this case is that so much good has turned rotten and so many lives have been ruined by well-meaning zealots who think they know all that needs to be known. Just like my student who knew that the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the God of the New Testament, a conviction I knew better than to tamper with by trying to get her to think.

Remembering Quixote

In a day in which reading books is rapidly becoming a lost art, it is refreshing to read one great author praising another. I have referred from time to time to Don Quixote, but Joseph Conrad’s tribute is by far the most eloquent I have ever read. It appeared in Conrad’s “Personal Record” of his life.

“. . .Indulgence — as someone said — is the most intelligent of all virtues. I venture to think that it is one of the least common, if not the most uncommon of all. I would not imply by this that men are foolish — or even most men. Far from it. The barber and the priest, backed by the whole opinion of the village, condemned justly the conduct of the ingenuous hidalgo who, sallying forth from his native place, broke the head of the muleteer, put to death a flock of inoffensive sheep, and went through very doleful experiences at a certain stable. God forbid that an unworthy charl should escape merited censure by hanging on to the stirrup-leather of the sublime caballero. His was a very noble, a very unselfish fantasy, fit for nothing except to raise the envy of the baser mortals. But there is more than one aspect to the charm of that exalted and dangerous figure. He, too, had his frailties. After reading so many romances he desired naively to escape with his very body from the intolerable reality of things. He wished to meet eye to eye the valorous giant Brandabarbaran, Lord of Arabia, whose armor is made of the skin of a dragon, and whose shield, strapped to his arm, is the fate of a fortified city. Oh, amiable and natural weakness! Oh, blessed simplicity of a gentle heart without guile! Who would not succumb to such consoling temptation? Nevertheless, it was a form of self-indulgence, and the ingenious hidalgo of La Mancha was not a good citizen. The priest and the barber were not unreasonable in their strictures. Without going so far as the old King Louis Phillipe, who used to say in his exile, ‘The people are never at fault’ — one may admit that there must be some righteousness in the assent of the whole village. Mad! Mad! He who kept in pious meditation the ritual vigil-of-arms by the well of an inn and knelt reverently to be knighted at daybreak by the fat, sly rogue of a landlord, has come very near perfection. He rides forth, his head encircled by a halo — the patron saint of all lives spoiled or saved by the irresistible grace of imagination. But he was not a good citizen.”

Socrates once said a person cannot be a good citizen and a good person. Jesus said we cannot worship two masters, God and Mammon. I wonder. So, apparently, does Conrad. In J.D. Salinger’s tales of Franny and Zooey, Franny quits college because she hasn’t heard anyone talk about wisdom. She would have done well to have read Cervantes. Or George Eliot. Or the early Platonic dialogues. Or the New Testament. Franny must have been receiving very poor advice: she missed all the really important stuff!  It saddens me to think that fewer and fewer people will read the adventures of the mad, holy knight of La Mancha — as it does to think that fewer and fewer will read anything at all. Conrad’s tribute, written by a man using his second (or third) language, gives us a sense of what they are missing.

What About Me?

I mentioned in one of my very early blogs that at one point while I was teaching we had a required Freshman course in which the students were required to read Huxley’s Brave New World. I also mentioned one of the comments made by one of those students in the evaluations we asked them to write at the end of the semester. He said, in a comment echoed by a number of other students, “What does this have to do with me?” In a nutshell he told us a great deal abut what is wrong with his generation. For anyone who has half a brain and has read the book (which may exclude that student on both counts), the answer is obvious. Huxley’s world is one in which pleasure is the only recognizable value, much as it is in our world.

Toward the end of the novel John the savage has a remarkable dialogue with the Director about the strengths and weaknesses of Brave New World. The director, who goes by the name of Mustapha Mond, defends his world against the criticisms of the savage. After all, in Mond’s world everyone does what he wants to do and no one suffers needlessly. What’s not to like? As Mond says in a rather lengthy speech:

“. . .The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what [we think] you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears — that’s what soma is.”

In response to this and other similar comments, the savage retorts: “Nothing costs enough here.” And that says it all.

Bearing in mind that soma is the Brave New World’s all-purpose tranquilizer and that while the parallel is not exact it is striking, since we have pills now for every malady — even some we merely imagine; the goal of constant pleasure is found both in Huxley’s and in our world, along with a type of Christianity that is designed (counter to its Founder’s intentions as I read the New Testament) to make things as delightful as possible and guarantee that everyone feels good about himself or herself no matter how low on the human scale they stand or crawl.

In a word, the book was written in the 1930s and still has the ring of truth which while loud and clear apparently falls on many a deaf ear. What does the book have to do with us? In both worlds, nothing costs enough. We seem to have traded a human world of struggle and suffering compensated by unexpected love, pleasure and delight for a world of satisfied ants in an ant-hill where there is no suffering or struggle — and no real love or delight in the world around us. “What does this have to do with me?” Everything.

Faust And Us

Western humans have been fascinated since at least the latter portion of the thirteenth century by the notion of a man who makes a pact with the devil. The two most famous stories of this pact deal with the marginally fictional character of Faust. I say “marginally fictional” because there were stories going about during the medieval period concerning an actual magician by the name of Dr. Johann Georg Faustus who sold his soul to the devil for personal advantage.

In Christopher Marlowe’s version of Faust, the main character agrees to sell his soul to the devil for pleasure, money and power. In its way, it is a story of a man who succumbs to the temptations offered to Christ in the New Testament. Marlowe’s Faust is very human and, unlike Christ, is unable to resist the temptations, though his struggle generates a tragic story that is extremely well told. Some would say this portends the story of modern man who has succumbed to the same temptations and is therefore doomed to spend eternity in Hell. But most of us are far too sophisticated to listen to such gloomy predictions. Besides, it’s just fiction.

But more interesting, and in its way much more profound, is the story of Goethe’s Faust, a story that Goethe spent 50 years writing and which tells of a pact between the brilliant scholar Faust and Mephistopheles (the devil). Not only is Mephistopheles an intriguing character as Goethe presents him to us, with his humorless, cold, uncaring demeanor, but the character of Faust is fascinating as well. Like Marlowe’s Faust, Goethe’s character is driven and every bit an egoist. Unlike Marlowe’s Faust, however, Goethe’s main character is saved in the end. He is saved because while he initially succumbs to the temptations the devil offers him, seducing a young woman and abandoning her after she has killed their illegitimate child, in the end, after spending years wasting his time in pointless pleasures, he turns his attention outward and finds meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence: he is saved through his works. More to the point, he is saved because he finds satisfaction in doing something he loves that benefits others. He finds himself by losing himself in good works. It’s a thoroughly Christian message, as found in the epistles of St. Paul, but it is one we could all learn from, since we seem to resemble Marlowe’s Faust so much more than we do Goethe’s.

Marlowe’s Faust wants pleasure, money, and power. Goethe’s Faust is simply bored. He wants to discover an activity that is totally absorbing, so much so that his boredom disappears and his delight in the moment is such that he wants it to last forever. He finds that moment in helping the Dutch (presumably) recover their land from the encroaching Oceans — another prescient message for us moderns, should we choose to listen! Goethe’s is the more profound story because, while initially succumbing to the temptations of Mephistopheles, he is able in the end to turn his back on them and find salvation by devoting his life to good works. Marlowe’s Faust simply makes a deal and then wallows in pleasure and debauchery. He struggles in the end, because he realizes what his pact entails; but he is lost.

It is fascinating to think that stories written so long ago can have application today. But human beings don’t really change, and great minds sense the problems that we all face now and in the future. Their stories are timeless. Both Marlowe and Goethe sensed that the modern era would bring with it temptations on an order never before witnessed. Marlowe was convinced humans would succumb; Goethe held out the hope that by imitating Christ humans could save themselves in the end, by working to help other humans who are worse off than they. Christ rejected the temptations of the devil. Goethe’s Faust initially succumbed to them, but realized that these were fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying — that way did NOT lie happiness — and then turned his mind toward the needs of others. The devil was confounded: he thought they had a deal! But Faust escaped from his clutches, not because he was a good Christian (in so many ways he was not), but because in the end he was a good man.