Thursday, April 28, 2011

Feeling That Easter Discomfort

Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby contains an insight into theological sophistry with which the Church has grappled virtually since the days of Jesus's earthly life. Near the end of the epic story of the novel's brash, heroic namesake, a dissolute character named Walter Bray is on the verge of selling his daughter, Madeline, into marriage. When the wedding day comes, Walter says to his co-conspirator, Nicholas' uncle, that it seems like a cruel thing to do. Dickens observes:
When men are about to commit, or to sanction the commission of some injustice, it is not uncommon for them to express pity for the object either of that or some parallel proceeding, and to feel themselves, at the time, quite virtuous and moral, and immensely superior to those who express no pity at all. This is a kind of upholding of faith above works, and is very comfortable.
Dickens conveyed his surgically precise grasp of human venality and vanity in characterizations that were often harsh but sometimes deeply affecting. I especially love Nicholas' narcissistic if harmless mother. In chapter 55, as she begins one of her exasperating, self-celebratory flights of free association, her son tries to keep reading his book. Finally, Dickens writes, "Nicholas snuffed the candles, put his hands in his pockets, and leaning back in his chair, assumed a look of patient suffering and melancholy resignation." Dickens was more astringent about misdeeds such as Madeline's greedy father's, especially if they were laced with pretensions of compassion.

Dickens' grace note about faith and works was an echo of Reformation struggles by Protestants against medieval Roman Catholic doctrines that seemed to teach that we could earn and buy our way into heaven. The author of of the New Testament letter of James proclaimed that faith in God without good deeds and works was dead [2:26].

As James and St. Paul (in Romans 6:1) both make clear, even in Jesus's time some had concluded they could do whatever they wanted as long as they had faith that they'd be forgiven, once they repented, at long last. For centuries, Reformation ideals propelled some Christians into lives of robust situational ethics. Even today, whenever we're tempted to compromise, neglect, mistreat, lash out, oppress, or isolate, we're been called to live Easter lives instead. But it's not always easy. Thinking we're justified in ungodly or unkind action or inaction is, as Dickens would say, very comfortable indeed.


J.C. Marrero said...

Elegant, thoughtful post.

The Dickens quotes bring to mind this from T.S. Eliot: "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm--but the harm does not interest them, or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorved in the endles struggle to think well of themselves."

Jesus taught his disciples to be like little children, perhaps to avoid the temptation of self-agrandizement.

Fr. John said...

That's a light on the "little children" teaching I hadn't thought about before. Thanks, Juan.