Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Did You Know That You Are Crazy?

Then I heard the ol' man say
God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy
From People are Crazy by Bobby Braddock and Troy Jones (sung by Billy Currington)

The human mind is a chamber of conflicting desires and hidden belief. Our minds play tricks on us. Sometimes they lead us to eat ice cream when we want to lose weight. Sometimes they let us confess secrets to an untrustworthy confidant. Sometimes they tell us that the rules needn’t apply to us, specifically, in our unique situation, and so it would be O.K. to pinch the office postage or cheat on our spouse even though we generally abhor stealing or cheating.   

We use the oddness of our mind to avoid obligations that loom too onerously. One age-old avoidance mechanism of mankind has been to romanticize the things that we do poorly. Consider our modern approach to marriage. We have raised the romance bar so high that a spouse must be our eternal soul-mate; our wedded life must be perpetual emotional bliss; and we mustn’t risk committing to anyone until we've dated and/or lived with them for years. In celebration of this marriage concept we spend an average of over $28,000 on each wedding: gowns, gazebos, D.J.s, and all that jazz. We glorify the beaming bride as if she were a combination of Nobel Prize winner, actress, and heir to the throne simply for accepting a diamond ring. We make far more of a fuss over the marriage ceremony than did previous generations, yet our rate of divorce is far higher than theirs. We are not the first culture to romanticize our weaknesses. Consider the ancient Romans: they did not write the Aeneid, that paean to olden virtue and strict duty, during their supposed glorious age of moral uprightness. Instead it was written in the "decadent" generation of Augustus. Did his patricians give up their self-indulgent lifestyle just because they enjoyed the epic tale of Aeneas? No (much to the great Caesar’s regret), but they were quite happy to glorify the virtues of the past.

We do all this because romanticizing is a way to avoid hard work. By elevating the concept of marriage to a dreamy ideal of perfection, we make our ideal impossible to achieve. Who feels any obligation to achieve the impossible? Failure, in that case, is only human (and only a human can think, “I got divorced because I have such high standards for marriage”). The Romans found it much easier to laud an impossibly high concept of stern duty than to trim the little excesses out of their own lives. They could feel that they had noble sentiments without doing any hard work. None of this sleight-of-hand would be successful if people were consistent. Yet we aren’t. We’re kind of crazy.

We have to be. Our craziness is a way to survive. If we were unable to accept the inconsistency and paradoxes of life, we really would go insane. Truth itself seems so inconsistent. Life is full of glorious beaches, newborn babies, and moments of romantic bliss. Yet tsunamis rage, babies die or get their chromosomes mixed-up, and lovers betray. We try to cope with the discord by creating systems of belief that seem consistent. Yet our carefully constructed systems aren't satisfying. We wrap expensive coffee pots in white paper and mutter about Bridezillas.

Life itself leaves us in a state of cognitive discord, because it is so marvelous and yet so dreadfully wrong. Something is messed up. Something needs to be smoothed over, or fixed, or found. The odd chambers of our minds produce no lasting answers. We can turn outside ourselves to the answers of philosophers and religious leaders, but they contradict each other. Who is to know which is true?

There is one religion that is different from the others. It provides a truth that is both a paradox and also a full, consistent explanation. The revealed Word, so jarring to our human minds, tells us that Creation was once good. The beaches were pristine and love was incapable of deception or betrayal (when we stare at our lover on a moonlit stroll and sense that beaches everywhere should be unblemished, we are right). Yet the creator God did not want a race of robots, and He gave to mankind a mind that was free to reject this goodness. We did. Everything has been messed up since. It is remotely possible that we might have been able to sense this part for ourselves, even in the tortured chambers of our minds, but the truth goes on in unexpected ways. God is unlike a human. He chose to save us self-destructive souls through the redemption of the cross. He works miraculously through our broken world and our weak minds to offer truth to humanity. He promises to restore the good that we lost. Perhaps most incredible of all, He gives us the ability to believe this mind blowing story.     

Even we redeemed humans are not fully consistent with our belief. We are still sinners with murky minds, who do what we do not wish, and fail to do what we wish to do. We may slip into Roman indulgences or mess up our marriages. Yet we are free from the need to romanticize either ourselves or the virtues that we strive to achieve. Instead, we acknowledge that we cannot achieve them, we receive forgiveness, and turn once more to try again. As we continue to inconsistently sin, there is no end to the forgiveness in Christ that we receive through his Word and Sacraments. There is no romanticization, no murkiness, and no contradiction there. Only paradoxes. 

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