Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The small vine: Life over death

Many-a year ago, I went on a sci-fi reading binge in my spare time. It was mostly a flop. Turns out I'm not really into reading sci-fi. One of the authors I tried unsuccessfully to enjoy was Fred Saberhagen. I read quite a number of short stories set in his Berserker universe. The Berserkers are demoniacally clever, life-destroying robots. They specialize in torture as a mode of forcing humans to do their will (they have no emotions) as they try to eradicate life from the galaxy. I'm a sensitive soul. This series wasn't for me. Plus, like so many sci-fi authors, Saberhagen just didn't seem to me to have the gift of making you see landscape or get really involved with characters. Everything was just plot sketches on board spaceships. 

There was one short story, the title of which I don't remember. I'll just let some enterprising reader do the googling to try to find its title and perhaps correct my memory of its plot. But the plot, and the ending (spoilers coming) have always stuck with me for conceptual reasons, even though I can scarcely remember if the protagonist was male or female, let alone his name. I'm pretty sure it was a man. The Berserkers had taken over the spaceship. The main character was being left alive for a while because they had some nefarious use for him. The Berserkers would sometimes force humans to act as spies or lures for other humans. I remember that from other stories. So maybe that was it. Anyway, they were going to make some bad use of the spaceship as well. Meanwhile, they had to let the few humans they were keeping continue to grow food, so there was a garden on the ship.

The climax (and ending) of the story came when the protagonist realized that one of the melons or gourds in the garden had sent its vines (roots?) down into the side of the ship and pried apart a seam of some kind. This meant that he was going to die pretty soon. It would also destroy the ship. Normally a disaster. But now that the ship was taken over by the Berserkers, he perceived it as a triumph. The story ends with him ready to die happy when the ship is depressurized, realizing that now it can't be used by the Berserkers to destroy more life.

The symbolism has always stuck with me. Saberhagen managed to make it vivid--the picture of the vine bursting through the metal. Life growing, springing forth, and sacrificing itself blindly, in the service of life, paradoxically overcoming death by destroying the ship and itself. Despite the fact that I have no desire ever again to enter the Berserker universe, I've never forgotten that image of the vine growing irrepressibly and thus quietly triumphing over the death monsters who seem so much more powerful.

Things are pretty bad in the West and in the whole world right now. In the West, it's the fact that things are getting worse that particularly draws the attention of anyone who loves the things being destroyed. Whether it's pastors being arrested in Canada for holding "illegal gatherings" (did you ever think you'd hear of that happening in the "free world"?), Christians suggesting we should use "pronoun hospitality" for mentally confused, reality-denying men who think they are women, people losing their livelihoods for stating that homosexual acts are wrong, two-year-olds being forced to wear masks to daycare, people dying alone in nursing homes, because their families aren't allowed to see them, Christians seriously arguing that "going to church" can be entirely a matter of "meeting" on-line, wicked destroyers rioting, and Christians defending rioting because of something-something to do with racism, or...Well, really, I'd run out of room if I tried to list everything. Sometimes in the last year I've just said, "The world is coming to an end." It really does seem like that.

Death seems to be winning. And I keep wanting to say something really encouraging to the many people who I know are going through it right now (for one reason or another) and facing darkness, many facing serious hardship and pain, and I keep feeling stymied. There are dangers in so many directions. To wit: If I just start talking about the beautiful flowers and the intensely green leaves I saw today on a walk in the woods, I could easily sound like those people on Facebook who say, "Here's a random puppy for your day to cheer you up." Shallow sentimentalism isn't terribly helpful. At best it's a drug that swiftly loses its effectiveness for countering existential angst. If I talk about the pastors standing up to tyranny in Canada (and that really is encouraging, I must say), I risk sounding like the people who say, "This persecution is really good for the church, because it will separate those who really believe in something from those who are merely nominal. It will strengthen us." Well, it ain't necessarily so. This persecution confuses and disheartens at least as many as it strengthens, it separates Christians physically from one another, and it creates ideological division. All opportunities for the Enemy. If I say, "Tighten your belts, folks, and grab your sword of the Spirit and your shield of faith, because it's gonna get worse before it gets better" I could just sound grim and not really encouraging. If I write an agonized elegy for all the things being destroyed, I'm likely to make depressed people, and maybe myself, more depressed. (Pro-tip: Catharsis doesn't always work, either for writers or for readers, unless you happen to be, or be reading, a genius writer on a roll.)

So let's try it this way. What does the Devil want? Yes, I mean the real Devil, Lucifer, the fallen angel. I really believe in him. And I think he's trying to have a field day, and to some extent having a field day, with the state of the world right now. What does he want to get out of this for my soul and yours?

Well, yes, ultimately, to take us to hell, which you might or might not think is possible if you believe in eternal security of the believer. But what about right now?

C.S. Lewis has a lot to say on this, and it's very insightful. The Devil wants us to believe that evil, meaninglessness, and death are the ultimate Reality in the universe. Here is something Screwtape has to say about the matter. (The whole passage is gold, but I'll only type out part of it. Go get your copy of The Screwtape Letters and read it all.) Speaking of the human "patient" who is an air raid warden during the Blitz, Uncle Screwtape advises,

Probably the scenes he is now witnessing will not provide material for an intellectual attack on his faith...But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is "what the world is really like" and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the world "real." They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, "All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building";...The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are "real," while the spiritual elements are "subjective". In all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality, and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are "real," the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death "really means."...Wars and poverty are "really" horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments....Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment. The Screwtape Letters, pp. 142-144 (from Letter XXX)

Precisely. Uncle Screwtape has nailed it. And so, if you see something beautiful and are in danger of being encouraged by it, your own personal Screwtape or Wormwood will be quick to remind you that all is just as wrong with the world as it was before and that you are merely experiencing a shot of dopamine occasioned by the nice weather. On the other hand, if you hear some tragic news of a friend of a friend who is dying alone, your personal Screwtape or Wormwood will tell you that that is what reality is really like and will ask you, pointedly, why God allows such things if He really exists. See how that works? It's a game the Devil delights to play.

Lewis made this devilish view of the world even more vivid in Perelandra. Ransom, the protagonist, has fought and (seemingly) defeated the demon-possessed Unman (formerly Dr. Weston) and has been cast up on the shores of an underground country where he wanders for some time. Unfortunately, the Unman is only partly dead. He follows Ransom through the underworld in a zombie-like state and has to be finally killed in one last fight and his body burned in a subterranean lake of fire before he stops pursuing Ransom. Just before the Unman emerges for the last time, he pours into Ransom's mind the demonic view of things:

Suddenly and irresistibly, like an attack by tanks, that whole view of the universe which Weston...had so lately preached to him took all but complete possession of his mind. He seemed to see that he had been living all his life in a world of illusions....The beauty of Perelandra, the innocence of the Lady, the sufferings of saints and the kindly affections of men, were all only an appearance and outward show. What he had called the worlds were but the skins of the worlds: a quarter of a mile beneath the surface, and from thence through thousands of miles of dark and silence and infernal fire, to the very heart of each, Reality lived--the meaningless, the un-made, the omnipotent idiocy to which all spirits were irrelevant and before which all efforts were vain. (Perelandra, p. 180)

That's what the Devil wants you to think. Frankly, shallow sentimentalism about a daily puppy picture would be truer. But better still the realization that the puppy, the friend, the green leaves, the sufferings of saints, and the kindly affections of men are the garment in which Reality clothes itself--that vast, meaningful, and ultimately powerful Reality that, at the last, will (for those who belong to the Lord, and hence are in touch with Reality) redeem all our losses. It will win because it must, because omnipotence and goodness are ultimately linked in some mysterious way that the Thomists claim to understand (and maybe they're right) and that I don't claim to understand. God's power and His goodness flow from his very being in two mighty streams. His creative acts flow from both, and one day He will make a new heaven and a new earth.

It may seem to us now that only goodness is eternally being lost and that only evil and meaninglessness will remain, but when we see from the side of eternity, we will see that that was only what the Enemy wanted us to think.

Christians believe that I'm right about this. Thinking Christians know that I'm right. The problem is one of holding on, isn't it? 

Another thing that can sap our will to hold on is our own sense of ridiculousness. Who am I, pontificating about Meaning and Suffering when others are really suffering? We can be tempted to be harsh with ourselves in a way that is not good, ridiculing our own attempts to cling to the unchanging hand of God on the grounds that, after all, we are so privileged, so pampered, that we shouldn't need such reflections in the first place. The Devil wants you to think that, too. Better to be humble, to take your share of the Cross, however ludicrously small it might seem in comparison with others', with due seriousness but not with self-aggrandizement, to accept with gratitude the present grace, and to go on.

If there is one thing that 2020 and now 2021 have shown me, it is that the Devil is astoundingly quick to take advantage of anything and everything that he can turn to his own uses. Since these days I have an increasingly large electronic correspondence, I get a small chance to see that there are an awful lot of people out there going along quietly bearing an increasing sense of darkness and doom but not wanting to say much about it. It may be something concrete like the loss of a job or physical pain or illness, or it may be a sense of psychological or spiritual oppression, or both, but it's there, and I think it's there more and more now.

The vine in the Saberhagen story was just a symbol. It would mean nothing to say that life triumphs over death if we didn't have reason to believe that, really, life does triumph over death. Who cares if forests grow back over the ruins of human civilizations? Who cares if a gourd destroys a spaceship and messes up some wicked plans? No doubt the Berserkers will find another way to move forward. The glory of Christianity is that it tells us that the good message is true. We feel, when we see spring come after winter, that life springs up ever and anew and that death is not the final answer. Is that just a feeling? That's what we want to know. After all, when the deadly snows fall again and, in these northern latitudes, the long dark days come back, we feel the opposite--that darkness is the ultimate fate of man. Is that true? Both can seem like insights. 

This is why we need the propositional content and the empirical evidence to give stability to our feelings and to help us to distinguish the true from the false. Thank God, he has not left us to puzzle out that riddle alone.