Thursday, September 12, 2013

Timberlake and Sartre at the Hot Dog Stand

A short time ago Mrs. Besant, in an interesting essay, announced that there was only one religion in the world, that all faiths were only versions or perversions of it, and that she was quite prepared to say what it was. According to Mrs. Besant this universal Church is simply the universal self. It is the doctrine that we are really all one person; that there are no real walls of individuality between man and man. If I may put it so, she does not tell us to love our neighbors; she tells us to be our neighbors.

That is Mrs. Besant’s thoughtful and suggestive description of the religion in which all men must find themselves in agreement. And I never heard of any suggestion in my life with which I more violently disagree. I want to love my neighbor not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different.

If souls are separate love is possible. If souls are united, love is impossible… Love desires personality; therefore love desires division. It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say ‘little children, let us love one another’ rather than to tell one large person to love himself…

No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls. But according to orthodox Christianity this separation between God and man is sacred, because this is eternal. That a man love God it is necessary that there should not only be a God to be loved, but a man to love him.
GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Reflection -  Just for the record, I have no more idea who ‘Mrs. Besant’ is than you or anyone. GKC was a wonderful controversialist and was happy to enter into the debates and disputes of his time. Because he was a much better writer than his disputants, more often than not his rebuttals have survived but not their arguments, and we only know these people existed because GKC debated them.

However, what she seems to be proposing is that good old hardy perennial Gnosticism, with perhaps some kind of debased version of Buddhism dressing it up. The idea that the original sin was not rebellion against God’s will by creatures but creation itself, that this breaking up of being into little individual pieces was a calamity of sorts, something that should never have been, and that salvation consists in ceasing to exist as an individual but being reabsorbed into the One—this is indeed a hardy perennial of human thought.

A young woman once said to me quite earnestly, “I have issues with free will. I don’t think it was such a great idea.” The same notion, right? That this pesky business of all these little individuals endowed with being, intellect, will, who do things in all sorts of ways and who clash and conflict and contrast with one another—isn’t it all just kind of messy and patchwork and chaotic. Isn’t it quite reasonable to conclude “Make me one with everything,” as the Buddhist said to the hot dog vendor.

“And God looked on everything he had made and saw that it was very good.” It is Chesterton’s great genius, and perhaps his great holiness, to enter into the delight of God in creation, in so many things being so different from each other, in the universe being this patchwork quilt of crazy wild variety and chaotic jumble, and especially of human beings to be so endlessly varying and odd and NOT LIKE ME in their differences.

It is like that wonderful poem of Hopkins ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’, in which he delights in all things ‘spare, counter, original, strange.’ The delight comes in realizing that it is this and precisely this that makes love possible. Yes, we can look at the differences and diversity of human beings and retreat into a narcissistic fortress, but that is original sin at work. We are meant to look at all this wild variety of man and revel in it, to say ‘It is very good.’

There is a song popular now by Justin Timberlake in which he sings at length about how much he loves his girl because looking at her is like looking in a mirror. It is dead serious, and I suppose the girl is supposed to be flattered or something. ‘Baby, you’re so great – you’re almost exactly like me!’ There was an old comic song when I was a kid in which the singer sang ‘When I look deep into your eyes I see little reflections of myself dancing. I look fabulous.’ But Timberlake seems to think that is actually what love is.

It is unfair to compare Chesterton and Hopkins to Justin Timberlake, rather like comparing Bach or Mozart to the Oscar Meiner weiner song, I suppose. But the model of love is important. Christian love rejoices to love the other because he or she is not me, because love pulls us out of our solipsistic narcissistic world, out of ourselves and into, ultimately, God. Selfish love, mirror love leaves us locked within ourself – everything is me and I am everything and the whole universe is an extension of my own person.

But then (I know I’m going on here, but this is really important) we are led to Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people,’ because other people stubbornly refuse to be reflections or extensions of me. Other people really do exist, and they will not conform to my notion of the universal self. So damnation becomes the continued existence of people who are not like me… and so we have the world we have of violence, hatred, war, polarization, and contempt.

‘God looked on everything he made, and saw that it was very good.’ ‘Children, let us love one another.’ That is the glory of our faith, that creation is made for love, and that the whole fullness of the earth and of humanity is from God, for God, and meant to reflect the love of God.


  1. Thanks for posting this Fr. Denis. Recently I have been thinking that a person can't really love another person if we expect them to act and speak in a certain way and that we get annoyed with them if they don't.

    I remember hearing that Catherine said/wrote something along the lines of "If you think you are a good Christian, you should go live in community." It will stretch you.

    And as Christ said "…If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount.…" and although it doesn't exactly refer to what you are writing about it strikes a similar note.

    Basically you can't love someone who is exactly like you because its not real love. Furthermore, most people when they take a long hard look at themselves don't like some part of themselves.

    1. Well put. Love draws us out of ourselves to the other - but to the other as other, or it is veiled narcissism.

    2. Yes.
      This reminds me a little bit of John Paul's theology of the body...where he talks in a language of love and union about a new and even fuller form of intersubjective communion with others. If I understand him right he is saying in that book that it is only in relationship to others that we can truly understand and even be real human persons. Our personhood is shaped and formed by all the relationships behind and ahead...
      This whole idea of discovering love is what we are all searching for ultimately, yes? I mean we were created for love and to be love.
      I think it is a difficult thing to really love love someone. It requires such generousity and openness...and either courage or blindness ...
      It is such a big thing, a huge really love. Maybe that is what Jesus was saying in that passage that Patrick pointed out.
      And yes, I think you are right Father is greater, so much greater than the fear of Sartre-that we are all self contained and unable to escape the burden of our own freedom.
      All of this is important..not really because we overcome ourselves or our fears. It is important because the communion is holy and is in itself life giving...
      At least this is where your words have taken me tonight.
      Bless you


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