Thursday, October 11, 2018

To Look With Better Eyes: A Midweek Rumination

     Among my favorite movies of recent decades is James Cameron’s movie The Abyss. Among its virtues, it numbers a compelling premise, a fine script, several excellent performances, and convincing special effects. This morning one particular bit of dialogue from that film is stuck in my head. Lindsey Brigman, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, is trying to persuade her husband Bud, played by Ed Harris, to see a particular alien-contact occurrence her way, as a harbinger of a friendship-to-be, rather than in the “assume hostile” fashion of SEAL Lieutenant Hiram Coffey:

     “We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.”

     The line is both sappy and a little Pollyannaish. There are hostile forces in the world, and when events indicate that one is moving against us it would be foolish to strain to see it as “just friends we haven’t met yet.” Yet Lindsey’s statement has power. It counsels an optimism about others that’s warranted more often than not.

     I’ve written on other occasions about the decline in recent decades of the ethic of trust. The ongoing deliberate cultivation of identity politics, particularism, and the associated distrust is a terrible thing, which I continue to believe is at the root of our greatest social maladies. Yet the willingness of Americans to believe in the decency of the individual stranger unless and until he demonstrates hostility – giving him “the benefit of the doubt,” as it were – remains more or less as it was. We tend to approach one another from an optimistic premise. We’re wrong sometimes, but more often we’re right.

     I like that. There’s something inherently Christian about it –not “Judeo-Christian,” but Christian. It comports with what C. S. Lewis has called the Law of General Benevolence, which Christians find in the Redeemer’s most famous preachments:

     You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thy enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust. For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans this? And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more? do not also the heathens this? [Matthew 5:43-47]
     But the Pharisees hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees, came together: And one of them, a doctor of the law, asking him, tempting him: Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?
     Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets. [Matthew 22:34-40]

     There are at least two kinds of optimist. First we have the “cockeyed” sort, who cannot even conceive of a negative outcome from assuming the best and proceeding from it. He gets taken too often for my tastes. Then we have the “critical” sort, who accepts that we are both fallible and flawed and therefore remains observant, but is still willing to give “the benefit of the doubt.” Just don’t make him doubt you, and all will be well.

     In the maintenance of a critical, observant optimism about our fellow man I find the essence of what it means “to look with better eyes.”

     We have been told that each of us, be he as handsome as the young Brad Pitt or as deformed as Quasimodo, is made in the image of God. That doesn’t mean that God is a hominid biped, of course. It means that each of us has been equipped with an immortal soul – and the soul comes with an indispensable attachment: the conscience:

     “What am I, then?”
     Ray took his time over it. She watched him intently as he composed his answer.
     “A superwoman,” he said at last. “That is, a human woman with powers beyond what other humans possess. And according to the Nag, you have a mission to go along with them. Does something about that bother you?”
     She sat back and let her eyes slide closed.
     “I’m a made thing. Not like you or anyone else, mentor. Maybe I have a couple of extra abilities, and I’m not ready to argue about the mission.” Her eyes opened and stabbed into his. “But what about what I’m missing?”
     “What would that be, Chris?”
     She looked away as if in thought. Ray steeled himself to wait patiently. Presently she spoke the most plaintive words he could have imagined.
     “A soul.”
     Ray gasped. “Why would you think you don’t have one?”
     She frowned. “Frankenstein’s monster didn’t.”
     “That’s your standard for comparison? Christine, that was fiction. Anyway, Frankenstein was a man. He assembled his monster from bits of corpses. Your maker created this entire universe. He just got around to making you a little after the rest of it. Why should you think you have no soul?”
     “Because—” She halted, plainly baffled by the seeming contradiction. Ray reached across the table and took her hands again.
     “Christine, I’m a priest. I have to work from certain postulates. According to those postulates, the soul is the seat of conscience, of an individual’s real and unalterable identity. Creatures without souls are also without moral choice. They act strictly from innate drives, motivations built right into their flesh. You can’t have a moral nature, the ability to know right from wrong, unless you have a soul. You can’t love, or be grateful, or understand loyalty or duty or justice. So either those postulates are wrong, or your soul is as real and valuable as mine.”
     An intensity Ray hadn’t felt since his ordination flowed into him and through him. He pressed her hands together between his own and chafed them gently. “A very wise man once said, ‘You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.’ The soul is the individual, the only part of you that really matters. Let’s imagine for a moment that your maker—Evoy?—didn’t possess God’s power to make souls. Actually, that’s a good assumption: the soul eventually returns to God, so it would make sense that it must be from God, not from any lesser source. All the same, God gave Evoy the power to make you. Can you really believe that once Evoy was done designing your flesh, God wouldn’t step right in and take care of the rest? Would a God Who sent His only begotten Son to suffer and die for our sakes—Who allows us to exist at all—be so cruel?”

     [From Shadow Of A Sword]

     Let it not be thought that Man, whom God has also invested with free will, cannot deliberately ignore his conscience. Indeed, some men are able to silence theirs lifelong. But it’s part of the soul ab initio: OEM equipment, as it were. Most of us can hear it speak, albeit not always as a herald’s trumpet...and most of us conform to its prescriptions and proscriptions nearly all the time. Were it otherwise, how could a coherent society exist?

     To “look with better eyes” is to remain aware of the conscience: that each of us possesses one, and that nearly all of us obey its dictates nearly all the time. If we give “the benefit of the doubt” and are sometimes disappointed by what follows, well, some people just don’t live right. That’s free will for you. That will be the case until Judgment Day.

     May God bless and keep you all.

1 comment:

Pascal said...

"Were it otherwise, how could a coherent society exist?"

The forces who've inculcated the otherwise helps explain the so-far successful incoherent society they are promulgating.

Each man still retaining some conscience must ask: what issues may I have chosen to ignore that contribute to injustices and consequent chaos?