The sermon title is from Richard Holloway’s latest book, “Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the Human Condition.”
Holloway, you may recall, was an Anglican bishop, the primate bishop of Scotland, a position from which he resigned, in part because of his church’s stand against the ordination of gay/lesbian clergy, and in part because he could no longer in good conscience recite the church’s ancient creeds. Now he lives and writes from his native Scotland.
His latest book is a brief survey of humankind’s higher and lower natures – so this sermon, reflecting on both his book and the human condition, explores the nature of good and evil, and everything in between, which is where we spend most of our lives…in that state ‘between between the monster and the saint.’
I thought of Hamlet’s famous conversation with Rosencrantz he says:
“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals…”
Then he says, “—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. “
Rosencrantz responds, “My lord, there was no such stuff in my thoughts.”
Hamlet was being ironic: what a piece of work is man! he is like an angel or a god, but, he says, ‘he delights not me,’ presumably because he’s also capable of being the opposite of an angel—capable of murder.
This puts humankind, in Holloway’s words, ‘between the monster and the saint.’
Hannah Arendt coined the term, ‘banality of evil’ as a description of Otto Adolf Eichmann, an active participant in the holocaust, a man who committed monstrous acts while always being ‘a gentleman.’
Today the phrase banality of evil is being applied by some to describe Bernard Madoff, who, by all accounts, projected the essence of a refined gentleman, with all the virtues we use to describe the attributes of a good person: gentle and generous, a man of compassion and wisdom.
Now, even in his downfall he seems to be willing to assume full responsibility for the terrible damage he inflicted on so many, even though it stretches one’s credulity to believe that the people around him were not well-informed accomplices who comfortably occupied the space between the monster and the saint. Some will go down with him.
The drift of Hamlet’s speech is that man is the noblest of all God’s pieces of work, the ‘quintessence of dust.’ But despite the nobility, the reason, the grace, and the beauty of man, Hamlet cannot be delighted. So he tells Rosencrantz ‘man delights not me.’ He, of course, has a specific man in mind, his uncle Claudius who murdered Hamlet’s father, the king of Denmark.
Holloway’s book is, in a way, a more detailed version of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.
Holloway complains about those who read the religious myths as literal, historical truth, rather than as mythologies – stories that are about us, insightful stories intended to help us to understand ourselves and one another, stories which reveal us to ourselves.
‘A myth,’ Joseph Campbell said, ‘is a public dream, and a dream is a private myth.’
Understanding our human condition, and the deeper insights into or understanding ourselves, is the key to our liberation. It is, I think, what Jesus meant when he said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Someone else quipped, ‘But first it will make you uncomfortable.’
Ignorance may be bliss, in the beginning, but it so often ends in tragedy.
The tendency to take religious myths as literal truth was one of the things that caused Holloway to distance himself from his church and from organized religion in general.
He says, “We have lost the feeling for myth, the dark poetry of our unremembered past, and replaced it with the fraudulent veracity of religious claims ‘to historical reality.’”
Holloway’s own view is that religion, at its best, is an art form – it is a human construct, not some kind of divine revelation; but it is no less important and truth-revealing for that.
Holloway maintains that the source of religious truth lies in our human consciousness, into which we have to do some difficult digging, rather than messages from a distant divinity.
For me, the mystery of human creativity and the power of human imagination is one way of defining the notion of the divine: God is, in Henry Nelson Weiman’s words, ‘creative interchange.’
The ongoing process of what we call creation, including human creativity, is perhaps as much as we humans can know about what we clumsily call God, or the ‘divine.’
Holloway sees our best hope of redemption in the presence of human pity, our human capacity for compassion, our ability to care about something besides our individual self.
Every thoughtful person ponders the mystery of evil, asking why do people do bad things – some horrifyingly bad or ‘evil.’
We also ask why people do good things, even to the point of sacrificing themselves for the sake of others.
One of Holloway’s basic points is that religion at its best helps us to understand the world, but it also needs to inspire us to change the world, beginning with changes in ourselves, and always returning to that point, that thing in us which we call our own ‘essence.’
The saint in us is our compassion; the monster in us is the absence of compassion – the monster in us is our capacity for greed, selfishness, deceit and so forth.
Holloway refers to Schopenhauer who went so far as to say that ‘nature wages war on human beings because nature itself knows no morality except its own will to live and to replicate itself. It is at its most tyrannical in the reproductive drive, sex, where it can quench not only normal sympathy, but it can drown out our rationality as well.’
Evil, then, is the human capacity to turn against itself.
Holloway refers to Philip Zimbardo’s definition: “Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others…” or using the power we have over others to encourage or permit them to commit evil acts. Holloway adds, “…obedience to such authority can be a toxic trigger that unleashes wanton cruelty.’ Enter Misters Eichmann and Madoff, or Hamlet’s uncle Claudius.
Obedience to authority is considered a virtue in religion and in the military, where atrocities have often been committed by those who claimed they were only ‘following orders,’ as in the infamous case of Eichmann, which led to Hannah Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil.’
She reminds us that Eichmann himself ‘…never pulled a trigger or manned a mobile gassing van. He ended up as a logistical wizard who organized the transportation of Jews to the death camps.’
Hannah Arendt writes: “When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at (Eichmann’s) trial…Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.”
Does Bernard Madoff fit Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ definition? He is certainly not in the same league as Eichmann, but there was a touch of evil in what he did—complete disregard for the harm that resulted.
What about the recipients of AIG’s multi-million dollar bonuses? Are they being thoughtless not to realize the ways in which fall-out over the bonuses, paid with taxpayer money, threatens to undermine our collective confidence in our government’s ability to find appropriate, creative ways to recover from the disaster that some of these executives caused?
Those who wrote the checks to the employees who failed in their work claim that they were simply fulfilling contractual obligations – in other words, following orders, obeying the letter of those contracts.
In an op-ed piece this week Thomas Friedman wrote:
“When you have a sitting U.S. senator call for bankers to commit suicide, you know that the anger level in this country is reaching a ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ get-out-the-pitchforks danger level. It is dangerous for so many reasons, but most of all the real anger about AIG could overwhelm the still really difficult but critically important things we must do in the next few weeks to diffuse this financial crisis.”
But greed, like the other deadly sins (things in us that kill the spirit or soul) puts on blinders and refuses to see the collateral damage that greed is doing in times of scarcity.
In difficult times we need to pull together, acknowledging that we’re all in this thing together. The idea of fairness climbs the ladder of important values we share, while greed destroys the glue that holds us in our fragile togetherness. Greed pulls us apart, to say nothing of the soul-destroying effect on the greedy.
On the other end of the spectrum we’re reminded that we have the capacity for good deeds, there is something noble in us that we see in one of our fellow humans from time to time.
We saw it this week when Chad Lindsey rescued a man who fell onto the subway tracks — we silently applaud him, and even more importantly, we’re reminded of ‘that thing in us’ that makes us human, makes us care. It was a reminder of Wesley Autrey’s amazing act of heroism when he saved a man by lying on top of him and let the train ride over them.
The financial scandals that contributed to our economic tsunami point to the other side of us, the destructive, narcissistic side that is capable of genocide, rape and murder.
The Biblical story of ‘the Fall’ is a powerful piece of mythology that says that somewhere along the long march of evolution we developed what we call a ‘conscience,’ and we came to realize that we all have the capacity for good and evil. That’s what the story of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is about.
Few of us will be faced with the kind of decision Chad Lindsey made in the subway, but none of us will fail to respond to the story and the reminder it gives us that we humans are more than temporary, accidental collections of chemicals moving through a meaningless existence — there is meaning, there is purpose, there is something ‘more’ to us, even if we can’t fully describe or define it.
Holloway asserts that, “The habit of obedience, too deeply instilled, can destroy the moral and rational autonomy of the individual; this is a spiritual disease that is prevalent among adherents of certain religions.”
We are drawn toward obedience as a virtue because, as he puts it, “Something in us wants to be pulled away from the responsibilities of the autonomous self back to the state of nature.”
Something in us is drawn to comforting religious beliefs for the same reason – it often feels too difficult to think things through for ourselves. Most of our fellow humans, it seems, would rather be told what to believe, what to think…or not to think.
Philip Appleman says it in a poem:
O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimme a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will & wit,
purity, probity, pluck & grit.
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind,
gimme great abs & a steel-trap mind,
and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice —
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good —
and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.
I would have liked another line to Appleman’s poem: ‘teach the thinkers how to believe.’ But that’s a subject for another sermon.
Holloway points to the human capacity for empathy and he says, “Empathy is finally a gift, and cannot be learned.”
I take some issue with Holloway on this point. In my view, empathy is learned in the sense of its being developed over time, requiring experiences that inform us, or form in us. It begins with a feeling of sympathy, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But sympathy is not enough. Empathy is a major step forward…
Empathy goes beyond sympathizing with ‘the other;’ it involves a momentary loss of feeling separate from the other. Wesley Autrey experienced it a couple of years ago in that New York Subway, and Chad Lindsey experienced it this past week.
Empathy is, I think, what Jesus meant when he said ‘to find yourself you have to lose yourself.’ It’s a momentary loss of self-concern. It happens to a mother or father who loses the sense of separate self, connecting so closely and deeply to their child.
Compassion and empathy may be the most we can say about what God is – the ongoing creative energy or presence of a moral force in the universe as manifested in us.
One doesn’t have to deny the opposite—the destructive force that we carry, we humans who move on a spectrum ‘between the monster and the saint.’
There are moments when we see those who are suffering the way we see a reflection in a mirror—we see a part of ourselves that has also suffered, and for a moment, at least, we lose the sense of a separate self and feel the ultimate connection.
That’s what the parable of the Good Samaritan is about, the capacity to see your neighbor as an extension of yourself, so you naturally stop and help.
The monsters of the world threaten us, not only because of the evil they commit, causing us to think we could be next, but they scare away the angels of our better nature and deprive us of the essential ingredient in life—the thing that makes us human.
A variation on this idea is expressed beautifully by Miller Williams in A Poem for Emily:
Small fact and fingers and farthest one from me,
a hand’s width and two generations away,
in this still present I am fifty-three.
You are not yet a full day.
When I am sixty-three, when you are ten,
and you are neither closer nor as far,
your arms will fill with what you know by then,
the arithmetic and love we do and are.
When I by blood and luck am eighty-six
and you are someplace else and thirty-three
believing in sex and god and politics
with children who look not at all like me,
sometime I know you will have read them this
so they will know I love them and say so
and love their mother. Child, whatever is
is always or never was. Long ago,
a day I watched awhile beside your bed,
I wrote this down, a thing that might be kept
awhile, to tell you what I would have said
when you were who knows what and I was dead
which is I stood and loved you while you slept.
[from “Imperfect Love” by Miller Williams, 1986, LSU Press]