Yesterday morning, Keith and I attended a service at Bethany Lutheran Church in Waynesboro. Pastor Tim Bohlmann was out of town at a conference, so his father Gordon, a retired Lutheran minister, gave the sermon, a message about perfection, or rather, the impossibility of human perfection on this earth, and the themes of sin, redemption and judgment.
I was reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s essay titled Novelist and Believer: “The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage he sees it not as sickness or an accident of environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God which involves his eternal future. Either one is serious about salvation or one is not.” (Mystery and Manners)
Human perfection versus human sin, that topic provoked some thoughts. You see, when I was growing up, I thought I was good, and if I said something mean or broke something or didn’t do what I was supposed to do, I figured I’d just made a mistake and would try harder and do better next time. Being good meant positive self-esteem, I supposed, but perfection was a constant struggle for me because I never could seem to get life ‘right.’
Since the Enlightenment, the fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature (Rousseau) produced the idea of human perfectibility. That is, as long as one lived in the light of human reason, there would be no sin and no need for God. Reason became the basis for a different kind of piety, one which relied on compassion, “…a word solely misused for years as a kind of secular stand-in for the notion of grace in the God sense,” according Bret Lott in his recently published Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian.
“Compassion is the new and ultimate religion of the writer of literary fiction,” Lott writes. “Compassion is wisdom, is love, is genuine heart – all virtues none of us will disdain for fear of being accused, as Kant did of those who depended on the guidance of another, of being cowards in the face of human reason.”
And what did O’Connor say about compassion? “It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is always safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult to be anti-anything.” (Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction, Mystery and Manners)
Listening to Pastor Gordon Bohlmann, I remembered notes that I had taken from C.S. Lewis’ writings. Rousseau was wrong, Lewis stated; we are not good. We have free will, but there is no hope of getting where you want to go except by going God’s way.
But oh, the angst, I thought, before the epiphany of finding one’s way. Again, Bret Lott: “One need only look at the way in which these two words, epiphany and angst, have been diminished in their meaning because they have been arrogated by a world bent on proving God doesn’t exist. Once stolen, these words moved from the shining forth of Christ to the shining forth of man, and from the sense of fear and trembling at the approach to the throne of grace, to the sense of fear and trembling over a purposeless and pointless life.”
I used to deal with my fear of being nothing by staying very busy. Others might wait or do nothing or chose wrongly or run away. But, as Joan Didion wrote in her essay On Self-Respect, without knowing one’s intrinsic worth (O’Connor did – she said that she wrote because she was good at it), without love or the ability to discriminate, I would argue, without God, “one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem)