Geez louise, everything I’m learning lately seems so connected. I think of this post as a sort of continuation of the last one, though I’m not sure I will be able to express how they are related in my head very clearly.

I just finished One Hundred Years of Solitude (finally), and I am tempted to just go back to page one and read it all over. And then again. It is without a doubt the densest novel I have ever read—so dense, in fact, that I found the experience of reading it a lot more enjoyable than trying to talk about it.  Not because there isn’t anything to talk about, but because there is just too much. I walked away from almost every conversation we had in class feeling like we never got to the root of what Marquez is saying.

One concept we kept coming back to was the idea of cyclical time. By following the same family, the Buendia’s, through six generations, Marquez is able to present a pattern of familial habits impossible to ignore. The family not only recycles names (there are literally five characters named Aureliano, not counting the 17 sons of one Aureliano, all named Aureliano…), they also recycle obsessions and vices.

Ursula, the matriarch of the family, seems to be the only one that recognizes that time is repeating itself, that the same mistakes are being made by each generation. But since she has too vague a grasp on the past to retell it, the most she can give are subtle warnings. She warns her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren against incest, but they refuse to listen—aunts are impregnated by nephews, sisters by brothers. It’s all a physical manifestation of a deeper problem: the family’s inability to break out of itself.

In interviews about his book, Marquez says he is not trying to make general statements about humanity through the Buendia family, but rather illustrate problems brought about by the colonization of Latin America. Still, I think we have something to learn from the Buendias.

In Torrey, we just finished up the semester with the book of Ecclesiastes. This book used to really intimidate me, but the more I learn about it, the more I love it. I’m still pretty confused about a lot of it, but One Hundred Years of Solitude has actually helped me understand bits and pieces.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon (or the narrator, who most scholars believe to be Solomon) reflects on the vanity of “life under the sun” and the cyclical nature of human actions:

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun…No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11)

I am finally beginning to understand one reason my Torrey mentors think reading primary sources is so important. Instead of reading 21st century commentaries on Aristotle or Locke, we read Aristotle and Locke, because intellectual history is important. It helps me see what parts of my worldview are just products of the culture I live in, and what parts are essential.

And though I am thankful for my education, there are some days I find myself relating a little too much to Aureliano Buendia. In the last few pages of the book, Aureliano finds himself sitting in a chair that was occupied not only by his recently deceased lover, but also by his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. And, for the first time in his life, “he was unable to bear the crushing weight of so much past.” Just like I felt when I was little and began to learn just how big the world is, there have been many times over the past year or so when I have felt overwhelmed by how big the past is. It sounds silly, but there is even a loneliness that comes with an awareness (however small) of the past, because our world seems so present and future-minded.

But instead of being ignorant of the past or crushed by its weight, Aureliano chooses to look at the present worlds for clues telling him how to keep living: “he admired the persistence of the spider webs on the dead rosebushes, the perseverance of the rye grass, the patience of the air in the radiant February dawn.”

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Smells and bells

May 22, 2011

Upon the invitation of a few new friends, Christian and I just recently started attending an Anglican church called St. Matthew’s. Neither of us know much about the Anglican tradition, so we’ve been talking a little to those around us that do (Christian’s brother is actually in grad school right now training to be an Anglican priest, and one of my Torrey professors, also an Anglican priest, gave a really informative lecture on the history of Anglicanism last week).

Recently one of the priests from St. Matthew’s, Father Mark, spoke at a listening party for a radio show our friend Barak produced (Barak also happens to be the one who invited us to St. Matthew’s). The show’s theme was “I (don’t) Want to Change the World: Interviews with Top Media Leaders.” Barak asked a few Biola professors and Father Mark to comment after the show was over.

Father Mark talked about how often American churches aim to please by making their services—the worship, the sermon length and content, the overall atmosphere—fit the preferences of their congregants.  And, often Americans choose their church based on taste and personal preference. Of course, this isn’t a new problem, and I have heard a lot of speakers talk about why it’s not okay—because it’s selfish, it’s shallow, it’s arrogant. But Father Mark’s point was that it’s also really harmful, because sometimes we want the wrong thing. He talked about the dangers of letting our preferences (instead of ultimate reality) dictate how we view God—the eternal and unchanging God. What a nightmare for the whole world to simply be a mirror of our preferences, just the way we like it… that  only works in a universe where we like all the right things. In reality, our preferences are part of the problem.

Of course, the ever-increasing trend of customization (perhaps the best example of which is customized wedding vows, a relatively new phenomenon) makes sense in a postmodern context: if there is no ultimate reality, no absolute truth, then who better to define how things should be than us? But Christians do profess an ultimate reality, so it doesn’t make sense that we expect our churches to be just like nearly everything else in our culture: made to please. At St. Matthews, I do not like the smell of incense, my legs get tired from kneeling, and I have a really hard time singing some of the hymns. But I am so happy that this church will not break its centuries-old traditions to please me. I am so happy I am not getting everything I want, because then maybe I can begin to figure out if I am even wanting the right things.  (Of course, before I could get to that realization, I have to understand where these traditions came from and why they are important. And  a lot of that mostly has come  from my two semesters reading and discussing and writing about the early Church Fathers…but I still have so much to learn).

A lot of this reminds me of J.D. Salinger’s brilliant little book Franny and Zooey. The last half of the book is basically all a conversation between Zooey and his sister Franny, where he confronts her about her misusing the name of Jesus:

“Worse than that, though, I can’t see—I swear to God I can’t—how you can pray to a Jesus you don’t even understand…If you’re going to say the Jesus Prayer, at least say it to Jesus, and not to St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandfather all wrapped up in one. Keep him in mind if you say it, and him only, and him and he was and not as you’d like him to have been… The Jesus Prayer has one aim and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness. Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen and Professor Tuppers go away and never come back.”

Just like I’ve often decided how a church service could be better in my head, I have also made Jesus who I want him to be. I will never stop needing to be reminded that this is not okay. Not just because customizing Jesus is delusional and self-centered, but because if Jesus is only who I want him to be, if he fits into my reasoning about what love is, He is not enough to save me.

This week in Torrey, we have been reading Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and having some excellent discussions. Our tutor opened our first session by holding an open bottle of water above my friend Jonathan’s head, and asking whether we could know what would happen if she rotated her wrist down.

According to Hume, we couldn’t. Hume maintains that all of our natural laws, including gravity, are not necessary properties of the universe, but simply another way of saying “the way things have always been.” Furthermore, he says that only reason we think the events of the past should determine the events of the future is because of custom, or repeated universal experience.

Hume says that hamburgers could fall from the sky tomorrow, but the only reason we are inclined to think they won’t is that everything in the universal human experience has told us they won’t—we have only ever seen water falling from the sky.*

I’m inclined to agree. This view of the universe has been rattling around in my head for years, undoubtedly put there by numerous authors who got their ideas from Hume. The funny thing is, I always thought of this as a primarily “Christian” idea. My acceptance of the universe’s unpredictability was always based on my belief in God’s unpredictability, but Hume has me pretty convinced that even if I didn’t believe in God, I would still not believe that hamburgers cannot fall from the sky tomorrow.

And I kind of love that. Sure, it takes some getting used to, and it’s a little bit terrifying (granted, my example of hamburgers falling from the sky isn’t very scary, but how about the world spontaneously exploding?), but more terrifying for Hume then for me. Hume believes the cause(s) behind the universe is/are completely unknowable; I believe that, though His ways are often incomprehensible, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe is good. And if I let it, my fear of unpredictability can turn into humility and wonder.

I had always heard that Hume is a kind of “enemy of religion,” but I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because he denies the miraculous, but his argument on that point is only intimidating if you believe empiricism is the only way to discover truth.** His view of the universe does not necessitate a denial of miracles; in fact, his universe allows more room for miracles than almost any philosopher I have read. And  though I haven’t muscled through Hume’s complete writings, there is an obvious fork in his philosophy’s road when it comes to miracles, and many after him have chosen to take the other way.***

And even if we choose not to believe that hamburgers could fall from the sky tomorrow—if we choose instead to believe that the rules of nature will be unbending and unchanging forever—we still have to live with the realization that we are not forever, that we could die tomorrow. I know, I know, “chill out Anna,” but really, you just can’t get away from unpredictability in one form or another.

P.S. Forgive me for going star-crazy.

P.P.S. Do “P.S.”s go before asterisks, or after?

*To clarify, the scientific details of how water falls from the sky are irrelevant to Hume. He recognizes that we see events that correspond to one another [i.e. dark clouds and rain], but maintains that no matter how much we go into explaining the minute details of these processes, we are still only describing corresponding events—the sources of these events are incomprehensible to humans. Also, the hamburger example is mine. I thought of it in class off the top of my head (brilliant, right), but later realized it was most certainly inspired by one of my favorite childhood books, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

**His argument against miracles is based mostly on his distrust of human testimony passed down through the ages, and not on miracles’ incongruence with the universe. Interestingly enough, he does not address what one should think upon viewing a miracle first-hand. Should you assume you are mad, or should you believe? (This is happens to be one of the central questions to a strange little book I read over Christmas break, Philip Roth’s The Breast. And no, the title is not misleading: it is about a man who wakes to find himself transformed into a breast.)

***I hear that in his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton holds to nearly all Hume’s foundational principles of the universe, but offers alternative conclusions…Can’t wait to read it.