Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Self Sacrifice

In my heart, I shall build a temple
To the splendor of His honor.
And in the temple, I shall build an altar
To the radiance of His glory.
And for an eternal flame,
I will take the fire of the Akeidah.
And for a sacrifice,
I shall bring up my only soul.
(בלבבי משכן אבנה by Rav Hutner (?) )

I just finished reading Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. As I often find to be the case with Lewis, it was literarily a bit dull and theologically complex and fascinating. The story is a retelling of the myth of Psyche and Cupid, so its heavy-handed allegory is to be expected. One of the main themes of the book, as I understood it, was the question of love and selfishness. Love, according to Lewis, is often only a mask for selfishness- a lust to devour the other person, to co-opt their personality. True love means to give, to meld, to relinquish your selfish interests in owning the other person.

So far, so good. But the extension and corrollary of this is that to love God, we must utterly submit to His will. As Lewis expressed it in Screwtape Letters, we must yield even our individuality to Him and then He may choose to regift it to us, according to His will. In the book, the primary metaphor for this was Psyche's required unquestioning obedience to her god/husband and the horror caused by Orual's attempts to fight the gods or question their will.

Reading the book, I found that this bothered me. At first, I tried to attribute it to the medium. Since I am morally opposed to feeling any need to worship my theoretical husband, the metaphor of spousal obedience as our duty to God rubbed me a bit the wrong way. (Although I don't think that the decision was purely incidental on Lewis's part. But that gets in to larger and even more confusing questions of how I feel about his take on gender in this book and in general, so I'm going to leave that to the side for the moment.)

But that's not really it. Because even if you grant that no reverence is due a regular husband, surely nobody can doubt that Psyche must and ought worship her husband who happens to be a god. The problem is that I think that I do doubt that. And I'm not sure how I feel about that fact.
To elaborate: upon realizing that the gender issue was not the main thing at stake here, I found myself attributing such views of total self abnegation to Lewis's Christianity. And it is true that there is something very Christian about the concept of man's nothingness in comparison to the infinitude of G-d. (Or perhaps more exactly, there is something very that idea about Christianity.) To the best of my very limited knowledge, that's why they invented Grace and did away with good acts, for the most part.

Be that as it may, reverence and submission towards God are hardly foreign to Jewish theology. The phrase "Negate your will before His will" is a pretty succinct description of the basic command and I think that it's a sentiment that one can found repeated pretty regularly throughout the sources.

But nevertheless, I find myself unable to accept the premise that God is somehow greater than my soul. And so I have a convenient set of beliefs which include a God who enjoys humans giving Him a run for his money; a soul that is fundamentally composed of the same material as God Himself, just in difference concentrations; a morality that is created through the struggles and the choices of the human soul; an emphasis on the human-crafted halacha; and a few very creative interpretations of the akeida story. I am perfectly willing, on an intellectual level (which is the easy level to be perfectly willing on), to die for God. I am equally okay with the idea of killing myself or others for Him, provided that it seemed a moral thing to do. But I will not destroy my self for Him.

And I am very fond of this theology. It is, after all, mine. However, I wonder- I can't help but wonder- if I created it as a very long and roundabout way of getting around the basic statement that there's really no getting around: God is greater than me.

I know, I know. It's pretty fundamental. And intellectually, I almost, almost believe it. Except that when you translate 'me' to 'my soul', I just can't find myself buying it. And I can't decide whether that is a theological victory- the inherent divinity of the soul standing up for itself- or a triumph of my baser pride refusing to bow even to God. Since I currently believe in my belief system, it's hard for me to see that it might be having negative implications on my entire religious practice, but I nevertheless have some sense that accepting the premise that I should and must sacrifice even my self to God is a pretty major theological point, that ought to be impacting almost all of my daily life, once I've figured out how I feel on the subject.

Here's why I'm worried: I can't seem to work up a proper awe of God. I can blame it, perhaps, on my non-royalistic background and the general culture of equality, which means that I don't have a default setting of humbled submission to apply to the situation. But sometimes I find myself yearning for some visceral, emotional, paganistic reverence laced with terror that I simply cannot find myself capable of feeling. Somewhere along the way, I have dialed up my conception of my self and dialed down my conception of God so that I can't really, really fear Him.

And even worse- as a cause or effect or side-effect or parallel phenomenom- I think I have managed to deanthromorphize Him to a degree that I'm having a hard time loving Him either. It's not good. And I try to explain it away by saying that emotions are not critical and that I'm not a particularly emotional person, but I felt more once and I'm pretty sure I should be feeling more now.

But to throw my current beliefs about God out the window for the sake of some visceral emotionalism that I'm not sure I'm ever going to be able to acheive hardly seems to be the answer. Especially since I'm still pretty convinced of their accuracy. And not at all sure that they contradict the emotions that I'm trying for. Which leaves me.... nowhere really. Confused, mostly.

I'm going to close with a poem that I wrote a bit ago, ostensibly on behalf of a character (right. Okay. So here's the deal. I know that people ought to write what they know, but what I know is largely typical hackneyed teenaged angst and I'm not interested in reading it, let alone writing it. So when I am bored and in the mood to versify, I often create a character who is writing a poem about a situation which he is in, which allows me to borrow not only his circumstances, but often his voice, which I find to be less self-conscious and more talented than my own. I know it doesn't make sense. Go along with it), but with a pretty clear realization of its allegorical accuracy:

Our lips spell out the love songs
that so many sang before us.
We add our thin falsettos
to their ever-soaring chorus.

And only fools, we whisper,
wear their hearts upon their sleeve.
And if we have lost nothing,
then there's nothing we can grieve.

So let us ask no questions
and we'll have to tell no lies.
For we can kiss like lovers
if we only close our eyes.


e-kvetcher said...

You know, it's interesting that in today's world what we Jews refer to as 'minus' or 'apikorsus' is usually a denial of God or religion. But the original heretics were the ones who had differing theological understandings of their religions. Furthermore, their alternative interpretations were not done out of spite or rebellion; they truly believed that they had the 'correct' interpretation of their religion.

Tobie said...

E-Kvetcher- conveniently or coincidentally enough, I also believe that my view of God is one supported by the sources and true to both the truth and the general halachic tradition. Of course, people generally do.

e-kvetcher said...

Yes - that IS the magic, ain't it...

Yoni said...

it says that one should love g-y with all your heart and all your might (and I think somewhere with all your soul).

You can't love g-d if you destroy your soul in his name, just like you can't love a person when you let yourself be harmed in the process.

This just doesn't work.

as for the rest of it, I have very, very nebulous thoughts on the matter on the subject that will take a good deal of contemplation at a time when I am concentrating better than I am now (and have had my medicine), so I'll get back to you on that, ok?

Izgad said...

Till We Have Faces is one of my favorite books. I love the character of Orual. Lewis' genius is that he gets us to sympathize with this character who is supposed to be the "evil" sister. I do not see this work as heavy handed at all. There are no easy answeres in this book.