Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Look Into My Heart, and You Will Sort of Understand

Shakespeare had good political reasons to set Macbeth in Scotland; he began writing the play in 1603, just as James VI of Scotland became James I of England. James was a Stuart, of course, and as Stephen Greenblatt helpfully explains in the footnotes to the Norton edition of Macbeth, Banquo, to whose descendants the weird sisters promise the throne, was mythologically the beginning of the Stuart line. So Macbeth, in a political reading, sounds a bit like the Aeneid, in that it exists to grant divine sanction to an earthly king.

But in the 17th century, Scotland was also the main hub of Presbyterianism in what would eventually be called Great Britain, and with that in mind, it’s hard not to pick up traces and hints of Calvinism in Macbeth, particularly in its intersection of divine providence, prayer, and human action and autonomy.

The events of the play are well-known—the weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be king of Scotland, and rather than wait for fate to make itself happen, Macbeth and his wife take matters into their own hands, slaughtering King Duncan and installing themselves in the castle. This works out well for awhile, until they are inevitably discovered and violently deposed.

It’s fundamentally a play about the depravity of man, a topic handled ad nauseam by Calvin in the Institutes:
Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works with Scripture calls “the works of the flesh” . . . Those who have said that original sin is “concupiscence” have used an appropriate word, if only it be added—something that most will by no means concede—that whatever is in man, from the understanding to will, from the soul even to the flesh, has been defiled and crammed with this concupiscence. (II.i.8)
Humanity must follow God’s law, and yet we are utterly powerless to do so thanks to total depravity. Thus, to do the right thing and thus to please God, we must petition God for his instruction and aid. Calvin’s great 20th-century heir, Karl Barth, goes into further detail on the topic in his little book appropriately titled Prayer:
What is to be said, what is to be done, when we are confronted with the fact that no one obeys the law perfectly, whereas the law exacts perfect obedience, and when we do not perfectly fulfill it, we do not fulfill it at all? However, we are believers, that is, people who have the beginnings of faith . . . God says to me, “Put your trust in me, believe in me.” And I go forward, I believe; but while going forward, I say, “Come to the help of my unbelief.”
All of this is, predictably enough, bound up in the doctrine of providence. Calvin suggests that while God is in control of every action, we are nevertheless responsible for the wickedness we enact. (Here is where Calvin’s theology becomes very difficult to follow, and here is where Calvin says that we have to accept this intersection as a mystery, something beyond our understanding.) Thus, while the future is always already decided, God will also change it if we petition him to guide us. (As I said, this is a really tough doctrine to get your head around.)

It’s this paradox that’s at the heart of Macbeth. The weird sisters—the play’s thematic replacement for God—predict and perhaps control the future, and when Macbeth and Banquo are hailed as the king and the father of future kings, respectively, they’re almost immediately thrown into a battle with the big black heart at the center of their souls. We see this as early as the top of Act I, Scene 7, where we find Macbeth arguing with himself over the correct action:
If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and end-all, here,
But here upon the bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. (I.vii.1-7)
His better angels may not want him to do the right thing for its own sake, but they at least recognize the threat of divine punishment inherent in wicked actions. (Calvin calls this a totally legitimate reason for seeking God in Institutes II.viii.4.) But his sin is a sin of omission long before it’s a sin of commission—never in the play does he seek God’s help or guidance, and further, instead of submitting to divine providence, he attempts to take control of it.

We see this clearly much later in the play, when he hires three murderers, a clear human perversion of the three witches who reveal his fate—and then again when he picks which parts of the sisters’ final prophecies to him to believe, choosing to believe that no man of woman born will be able to kill him but ignoring for all intents and purposes, their advice to fear Macduff.

Lady Macbeth, as the traditional readings say, is even worse, not because she urges Macbeth to kill Duncan (milk of human kindness aside, he was going to do that eventually anyway, since he’s incapable of doing the right thing without divine intervention and since he doesn’t bother to seek it), but because she has no inkling that there’s a right thing to do. She’s depraved to an extent that Macbeth is not because she no longer recognizes the law of God that’s written into the world. (She’s not alone, by the way—Calvin says that none of us is capable of correctly applying general revelation.) When the hound of heaven finally catches up with her in Act V, her depravity is more than she can bear, and instead of petitioning for forgiveness, she takes matters into her own hand in the most extreme way possible.

Banquo is our model of man’s proper attitude toward his depravity. He’s given a similar prophecy to Macbeth, one that suggests that he may be able to kill the new king and occupy the throne himself. And he, too, wrestles with the dark side of his own nature. The difference, however, is that he pleads for divine aid: “Merciful powers, / Restrain in me the curséd thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose” (II.i.7-9). Thus, while he’s murdered, he’s murdered as a righteous man, one who has relied on God to overcome his depravity and one who will ostensibly be rewarded in the afterlife, not for his action, but for his lack of action.

It’s for this reason that I find Macbeth to be fundamentally different in theme and tone from Shakespeare’s other tragedies, such as Hamlet and King Lear. This play, best I can tell, is one of his few plays where the bad guys genuinely get it in the end with a relative minimum of innocent death. Where God was capricious in Lear and, perhaps, nonexistent in Hamlet, here he seems to have a real sense of justice, answering prayers and punishing those who are too proud to offer them.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Grand Inquisitor

The greatest thing ever written, best I can tell, is a chapter of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which the disappointed idealist Ivan Karamazov tells his saintly brother why he is not a Christian. He presents Alyosha and the reader with a litany of human crimes, many against children, that could have been easily prevented by an all-powerful God. Then he lays his cards on the table:
If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It's beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? . . . I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: “Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.” When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, “Thou art just, O Lord!” then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can't accept that harmony . . . Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.
Neither Ivan nor Dostoevsky invented the problem, of course; it’s one religious people and skeptics alike have been grappling with since the revelation or invention of monotheism, and it’s one that I suspect has no answer that is ultimately satisfactory for anyone. It’s the classic triangle: God is benevolent; God is omnipotent; and yet terrible things happen to people who don’t deserve it in any way we can understand.

It is this problem that Bart Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, approaches in his latest book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer (HarperOne, $25.95). Ehrman’s views on the matter should be clear from the title of the book, and indeed, he is associated with the recent “neo-atheism” movement, thanks to his 2005 best-seller, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (the man has a way with explanatory subtitles, you have to admit).

In some ways, God’s Problem is a narrative about Ehrman himself, as many or most theologies are at their base. He makes this narrative explicit in his introduction and then returns to it frequently in the rest of the chapters. It is the problem of suffering, he avows, that caused him to lose his decades-long faith, that “I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things.” Fair enough—it’s a conclusion millions have come to over the centuries, and in his introduction, Ehrman tells his story compellingly.

It is a story of questions, of course, beginning with Ehrman’s anger and doubt during a Christmas Eve service:
it brought tears to my eyes as I sat with bowed head, listening and thinking. But these were not tears of joy. They were tears of frustration. If God had come into the darkness with the advent of the Christ child, bringing salvation into the world, why is the world in such a state? Why doesn’t he enter into the darkness again? Where is the presence of God in this world of pain and misery? Why is the darkness so overwhelming?
Passages like these are the best part of God’s Problem; their author feels like a human being. The reader, even the devout reader, understands his doubt and his frustration with God and may even share his conclusions. Unfortunately, Ehrman’s tendency to bring himself into the equation subverts his ultimate point. His disbelief in God (or at least in “the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world”) clearly takes place on an emotional level, but he attempts to posit his arguments about the Bible’s failure to address them as intellectual.

Please note that I am not trying to suggest a hierarchy of argument, with the intellectual elevated over the emotional—indeed, I suspect most belief and disbelief in God springs from an emotional need to believe or disbelieve. But logos is not the same thing as pathos, and for much of the book Ehrman seems blissfully unaware of the pathetic pull behind his logic.

He therefore ends up talking out of both sides of his mouth; he can on the one hand claim that “Other books are morally dubious, in my opinion—especially those written by intellectual theologians or philosophers who wrestle with the question of evil in the abstract, trying to provide an intellectually satisfying answer to the question of theodicy” and on the other reject Christianity for its failure to be “an intellectualizing system for explaining everything.” He wants to be simultaneously a pietist and an Enlightenment thinker—thus, he can reject emotional arguments as a sort of neo-Voltaire, and he can reject intellectual arguments as a man who takes the world’s pain upon him.

He comes off as patently insincere, incidentally, when he talks about the world’s pain; sometimes he sounds like high-school freshman posting to MySpace (“Every five seconds a child dies of starvation in the world. Every five seconds. A child.”); sometimes he merely comes off as self-satisfied, as when he notes that
When I turn on the NCAA basketball tournament tonight and pour out a Pale Ale or two, I probably am not going to be reflecting on the fact that during the time it takes me to watch the game, three thousand people around the world will die because they have only unsanitary water to drink. But maybe I should think about it.

Surely it says something about Ehrman that he loses his effectiveness as an author when he attempts to talk about the real world outside of his own experience, and indeed, through most of the second half of the book, the author sounds like a crushing egotist, a man obsessed with the comforts of his own upper-middle-class life. The professor doth protest too much, methinks.

That being said, Ehrman’s rundown of biblical views on suffering are comprehensive and interesting, and for the most part he gives biblical theodicians a fair shake, even if he’s quick to appeal to higher criticism when there’s really no need for him to do so. (For example, he spends several pages—twice—arguing that Second Isaiah can’t possibly refer to a coming messiah.) He’s particularly kind to the author of Ecclesiastes, whose view of suffering as incomprehensible appeals to him, especially since it takes God out of the equation altogether.

The overall point, I suppose, is that the Bible does not have a coherent view on the problems of evil and suffering. Ehrman doesn’t take this in itself as a proof for the Bible’s falsity or insufficiency, and instead he dismantles each argument the Bible makes—suffering as a manifestation of God’s wrath, as the result of our own sin, and so on. The degree to which his dismantling is effective, I suspect, will depend chiefly upon the reader’s level of agreement with the author.

And that, I suspect, is the real problem with both theodicy and anti-theodicy. A person’s views about evil are nearly completely dependent on his level of faith, an equation that Ehrman does not appear to recognize. So, for example, when he writes about the message of Job, he says that “God, who appears at the end of the poetic exchanges, refuses to give a reason. It appears that for the author, the answer to innocent suffering is that there is no answer”—and he misses the point.

The answer is not that there is no answer, not according to the author of Job; it’s that it’s not our business to know the answer. To the Enlightenment mind—and Ehrman, for all his emotional hand-wringing over the state of the world, sets himself up as heir to the Enlightenment—this is the same thing. For the person of faith, I suspect that it is not.

After Ivan finishes raving against God in The Brothers Karamazov, his brother Aloysha, as close to the perfect Christian as has ever existed in literature, silent stands up, “went to him and softly kissed him on the lips.” This, perhaps, is the only answer to the Grand Inquisitor’s questions—and it’s not intellectually satisfying most of the time.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In Which the Curtain Is Sewn Back Together

I read Titus Andronicus for the first time as a pretentious high schooler looking for universal verities, and I was horrified by what I found. The play is essentially a slasher film, a terrible bloodbath in which no one is redeemed and even the “good guys” are bad. (Or at least that’s what I thought.) Not that I was alone in this conviction. Titus is the red-headed stepchild of Shakespeare’s corpus, read far less than Hamlet or King Lear or even Measure for Measure and disdained by scholars from all traditions.

Now that I am a pretentious graduate student forced to read the play for a class, I’ve found a lot more to admire. There’s a certain kind of beauty in the action of the play, a certain fidelity in the midst of the horror. And—since it’s still what I mostly look for—there are universal verities, in this case a view of human nature that would make Calvin blush and a vision of the government that would make Ron Paul cheer.

At the outset of the play, we find a Rome in which Church and State have completely collapsed into one another. Everyone seems to believe himself a god. The Roman emperor was divinized, of course, and Saturninus promises Lavinia that he will “in the sacred Pantheon her espouse” (I.i.242). Meanwhile, Titus seems to expect the type of autonomy and respect generally accorded to the gods: “Nor thou nor he are any sons of mine. / My sons would never so dishonour me” (I.i.290-291). He gets to decide not only who lives and who dies but how people are related to one another, and this right seems to proceed from his position as a great general.

Furthermore, every State believes itself to be divine, as we can see right off that bat with Tamora’s speech just over 100 lines into the play:
But must my sons be slaughtered in the streets
For valiant doings in their country’s cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these. (I.i.112-115)
So all countries are the same—or else we can’t really tell which ones are better, so we have to have mercy on all patriots, on all martyrs. All states become divine, and so the conflict between the Romans and the Goths—or, presumably, between the Romans and the Gauls and whoever else they conquer—are a divine contest, similar to the ones waged on Mt. Olympus.

As such, everyone in the play believes himself to be godlike, and a central question in Titus is, What is piety? In the beginning, we seem to have a conflict between mercy and justice. Tamora urges Titus to practice mercy: “Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? / Draw near them in being merciful” (I.i.117-118). But the Greco-Roman gods are traditionally not particularly merciful. Titus may be closer to what they’re actually like:
These are their brethren whom your Goths beheld
Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain
Religiously they ask a sacrifice.
To this your son is marked, and die he must
T’appease their groaning shadows that are gone. (I.i.122-126)
The gods require Agamemnon to sacrifice Iphigenia, then allow Clytemnestra to slaughter him when he gets home from the Trojan War. They want what they want and show no mercy on anyone, best I can tell. So Rome acts like the gods, indeed, sets itself up as a god. (Tamora and the Goths, of course, are exactly the same way—she begs for mercy for her sons but extends no mercy to anyone at any time. She’s among the most wicked of Shakespeare’s women, right up there with Lady Macbeth.)

In the next act, Tamora moves from being divinized by her forced marriage to Saturninus to divinizing herself, at least according to Aaron the Moor:
Now climbeth Tamora Olympus’ top,
Safe out of fortune’s shot, and sits aloft,
Secure of thunder’s crack or lightning flash,
Advanced above pale envy’s threat’ning reach. (II.i.1-4)
Even more interesting is that the genders have flipped, and now the man (Aaron) relies upon the woman (Tamora) to divinize him: “Then, Aaron, arm thy heart and fit thy thoughts / To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress” (II.i.12-13). She thus welcomes her lover into the State, makes him into a god even crueler than herself, even crueler than Titus, even crueler than Odysseus’ Poseidon. His name is significant here, as it brings to mind Moses’ brother Aaron, the first priest of the Israelites.

The end effect of all this divinization of and in the State is the brutal slaughter and humiliation of nearly everyone in the Andronicus family. Whatever one may say about Titus, however, he is not stupid, and he recognizes the true cause of all his misery. In the third act, he loses faith in the State, and Shakespeare uses language that resembles the loss of faith in the gods we find in, say, Euripides’ Heracles. He says that the Tribunes can’t hear him but wouldn’t listen if they could, and he memorably renounces Rome altogether:
Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive
That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?
Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey
But me and mine. How happy art thou then
From these devourers to be banished! (III.i.52-56)
Here is a complete loss of faith in the State—Titus is not so much an atheist as a maltheist. And the comparison is apt because in this play, as in ancient Rome itself, we have a nearly complete conflation of the State and the Divine. But the State is made of human beings—Shakespeare even belabors the point that the people elect the Emperor—and so how can it be perfect?

Later, the genuine (at least in the world of the play) gods answer Marcus’ prayer at IV.i.65-66: “Apollo, Pallas, Jove, or Mercury / Inspire me, that I may this treason find.” He’s separated the Divine from the State, although he hedges his bets with the gods instead of praying to one. That’s just the nature of polytheism, however—the Andronici have learned genuine piety, which is always directed at the genuinely divine rather than the cardboard god of the State.

And so in the end, every figure that has previously been divinized the State—Titus, Tamora, Saturninus, and even Aaron—is dead, and Titus’ son Lucius is left to run Rome. But he seems to run the State in a totally different way; at no point does he declare himself divine, and so there seems to be a sea change in the makeup of the State; in short, he has separated Church from State. (This is not historically accurate, but that doesn’t much matter.)

Such issues must have weighed heavily on Shakespeare, who lived in an England that had changed from Catholic to Protestant, back to Catholic, and then back to Protestant again, slaughtering those on the other side. “Enough,” he seems to say here, and recommends that the State not concern itself with religious matters, in order to save both faith and government.