The Pretense of Life
Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” - John 14:6
(Continuing the focus on Christianity, the church, and culture started last week, I want us to consider what life means in our world and what life means to Christians. In the next two meditations, I will address truth and way. The following contains explicit references to sexuality, the point of which I hope is made clear as you read.)
I was reading an article the other day – and I cannot even recall what or why – when a photographic artist was said to be closer to Robert Mapplethorpe than Ansel Adams. I know nothing about art – photographic or any other kind – so, my curiosity piqued, I looked them up. Oh. My. Word. Not what I expected… I’m neither a prude nor an innocent, but I think it’s safe to say I’m much closer to the Ansel Adams camp. Whatever I was reading hadn’t quite prepared me for the art of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Although far from being a national figure, which I suspect few artists can really claim, Mapplethorpe was certainly gifted artistically, with a fair range of photographic subjects. Eroticism was his foremost, though not sole, interest in photography, and a nationwide controversy ensued following the display of his work on homosexual sadomasochism. At stake were the issues of free expression (free speech) of an artist as that relates to obscenity (as well as the definition of obscenity), and the public funding of that free expression with tax dollars. The exhibit which sparked the controversy – in public media and in the U.S. Congress – pitted conservative Christian organizations, such as the American Family Association, against the high-dollar world of art patrons, galleries, and museums. Mapplethorpe was only one of the artists who pushed the limit of our culture’s moral and aesthetic boundaries. Andres Serrano, of bodily fluid photography fame, included the infamous Crucifix in urine photograph in an art exhibit in North Carolina that led Congress to limit funding of the National Endowment for the Arts.
The reason I am bringing this up in a meditation about the meaning of life is because those debates – intentionally or not – served as something of a turning point in American life. Neither Mapplethorpe’s nor Serrano’s art was the beginning or the end of the cultural shift, but the controversies served as a hinge in our society. During the 1980s and 1990s, the “culture war” debates raged between the humanistic push for complete freedom of expression without externally imposed definitions of morality or values and the traditional Judeo-Christian morality and values that had defined both colonial and national life in America for several centuries. In spite of the funding restrictions placed upon the NEA, I don’t think there is any question that the humanist vision of the meaning of life carried the day in our nation.
In reading about Mapplethorpe, what most caught my attention was not the controversy or the question of what constitutes obscenity or even how public funds can be spent against the religious convictions of taxpayers. That which caught my attention, and what I want to bring to yours, is that the talented Mapplethorpe received accolades and acclaim for his bravery in revealing the dark world of homosexual bondage eroticism and for pushing against limitations on sexual expression and experiences – posthumously. Although known in the world of erotic art and, I would guess, financially successful, Mapplethorpe wasn’t alive when his artwork created its largest controversy. He died of complications associated with AIDS before the exhibit ever opened.
Mapplethorpe was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, where at some point, he had to have heard something about Christianity, but whatever he learned, it was not as attractive or interesting as sex. He is said to have redefined S&M (sadomasochism) as Sex and Magic, or as one reference said, “sex is magic.” In unbridled pursuit of ever-darker “magical” sexual hedonism, Mapplethorpe found death. The most remarkable fact in the various articles I read, which amounted to three, was not praise for his brilliance and bravery (which was lavish), nor the accolades heaped upon him for pushing boundaries and bringing sadomasochism, especially homosexual sadomasochism, out of the shadows. No… What I found most remarkable was what was not said. No one lamented that his passions led him to death.
God created us with passions and desires. We are intended to want more and most. But the only more and most that truly satisfy the human soul are found in the Origin of light and life – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All our pursuits for meaning and happiness are born of the original longing to be in fellowship with God. Any other end we seek leads only to death. That is not at all unique to Mapplethorpe, for it is true of all of us.
In his book Of Water and the Spirit (1974), Fr. Alexander Schmemann eloquently conveys the tragedy of the human passions untethered from the God Who gave them in this way:
Man misuses his vocation, and in this horrible misuse he mutilates himself and the world; but his vocation itself is good. In his dealings with the world, nature and other men, man misuses his power; but his power itself is good. The misuse of his creativity in art, in science, in the whole of life lead him to dark and demonic dead ends; but his creativity, his need for beauty and knowledge, for meaning and fulfillment, is good. He satisfies his spiritual thirst and hunger with poison and lies, but the thirst and the hunger themselves are good. He worships idols, but his need to worship is good. He gives wrong names to things and misinterprets reality, but his gift for naming and understanding is good. His very passions, which ultimately destroy him and life itself, are but deviated, misused and misdirected gifts of power. And thus, mutilated and deformed, bleeding and enslaved, blind and deaf, man remains the abdicated king of creation, still the object of God’s infinite love and respect.
Jesus said it is the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy, and He came to give life – abundant life. The essence of Christianity is the deeply personal, intimate communion with the Holy Trinity, a relationship made possible in Jesus Christ, expressed and experienced as life. Life. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Apostle John wrote, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.” (1:4) Human beings, creatures of the fallen creation, cannot reach and attain the Life that is the source and end of our passions and desires. We must be born into the life of the God. (John 1:13, John 3:3, and more) When we are not born of God, the yearning of the human soul does not go away. Rather, our yearning metamorphosizes into unchecked passions and desires that are never truly satisfied and require more and more as we become less and less.
The last meditation explored the contrast and contradiction between secularism and Christianity. One must marginalize or eliminate the other. In this meditation, I want us to see the distinction between humanism and Christianity. Humanism is the elevation and affirmation of human beings, without reference to God, and is centered only in this world, in the physical alone, not in hope for that which is beyond. Thus, human beings must live in total freedom without limits and restrictions to make the most of life without the constraints of sacrifice, humility, or virtue. Hope in only the material world drives the demand for freedom to do whatever one wants and to create reality according to one’s desires, but reality is not something we create. We may be able to adjust the margins a bit, but reality simply is. When unleashed from the limits and restrictions of an unwanted reality, humanism does not facilitate freedom. To the contrary, human beings are subjected to the relentless and increasing demands of our passions and appetites. The humanist confidence in complete individual freedom turns out to be baseless, for freedom to indulge our passions actually enslaves us to those passions and can only lead to death.
We dress cruelty in tolerance and compassion, hoping our aggrandized wardrobe will hide the emaciated and starving soul within. Humanism leaves us unprotected from the relentless yearning in every human being. This yearning ultimately proves to be the unrecognized cry for our Creator, for salvation from the “dark and demonic dead-ends” that are the only possible conclusion of our unrestrained, misdirected passions. Our yearning, our passions, our appetites run so deep and are so powerful precisely because they exist to drive us toward our God, where we can be satisfied in and by the Infinite, the Alpha and the Omega, the Life before which all imposters and pretentions fade away.
Together, secularism and humanism now define American life, rejecting any religious claim for understanding the human being. Apart from God, we discover that the elevated humanity is lost to nihilism, to nothingness. There are no values, no morals, no meaning. There are only desires and passions. As we capitulate fully to the insatiable yearning that masquerades as our deepest longings in the name of human freedom, we are left with noble creatures who lack the means to be fully alive or to become fully human.
Christians cannot step up and suddenly change the illusions in our nation. However, what we can do is actually live Christian life. Like secularism, humanistic thought infects American Christianity. Humanism in the church is seen in our expectation that God wants us to be happy and is always there to bless us with His grace. When we are convinced that a good God would not allow suffering and loves us without calling us to be conformed to the Likeness of Christ, then humanism has reduced our faith to physical life only. What blessing is God going to give me today? We fail to realize that life in Jesus Christ is the blessing. Fellowship with God is the central blessing of any day. Yet, a great many of us are accustomed to just a little bit of Jesus. We already have so much in life to enjoy and to cause worry. That is humanism inside the church when we like the idea of Christianity and fellowship with God more than we live the reality.
Some years ago, an experienced and gifted pastor advised a young, enthusiastic pastor dealing with church members to remember that, “Christianity is your life. It’s just their religion.” I understand why he said it, but he could not have been more wrong. Christianity is life, and it is not meant to be lived half-heartedly. Indeed, it cannot be. Christianity is not some moral guideline and general set of beliefs that are better than some other set of beliefs. Christianity is the life of God being poured into us in the Holy Spirit, uniting us to Jesus Christ. The difference between religion and life is the difference between the law and genuine freedom, between subservient obedience and joyful siblings working in the family vineyard. The difference is everything.
As children of the God of life and light, we cannot compromise with darkness and death. Christianity can thrive in any political system, but given the choice, Christians should always reject humanism and humanism’s rejection of eternal life. We are privileged to be able to pursue freedom of worship and freedom of speech. We are privileged to be able to reject the hedonism that precedes cultural death. That opportunity is before us, but Christians need to reclaim Christianity for ourselves before we can offer it to our generation. God does not want less for us; He wants more. God does not desire to restrict us. Precisely the opposite is true. He sets us free to live authentically, fully, and joyfully as we touch eternity in His presence each day. Paraphrasing St. Irenaeus from 1800 years ago, “the glory of God is a fully alive human being.” We can only be fully alive in this world by participating in the world to come, in hope, in faith, in certainty that what we see is not all there is. Then we will be imbued with the life and light of Jesus Christ, serving our world as beacons in the midst of the chaos and storms.
If you want to make a difference in this time and this place, then you must choose to live toward the life that is yet to come. Any other choice makes us part of the problem. Hoping in the world to come does not mean hiding from today, but instead, bringing the breath of eternal life into a culture bent on its own destruction.
First, breathe deeply of eternal life yourself.
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau