Monday, May 11, 2015

In Praise of Dualism

 Transgression speaks to the wicked, deep in his heart;
 there is no fear of God before his eyes.
 For he flatters himself in his own eyes
that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.

 The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit; 
he has ceased to act wisely and do good.
 He plots trouble while on his bed; 
he sets himself in a way that is not good;
 he does not reject evil.

 Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, 
your faithfulness to the clouds.
 Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; 
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O Lord. 
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
 They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.

 Oh, continue your steadfast love to those who know you,
and your righteousness to the upright of heart!
 Let not the foot of arrogance come upon me, 
nor the hand of the wicked drive me away.
 There the evildoers lie fallen; they are thrust down, unable to rise.
Psalm 36

Reflection – The Monday Psalter today brings us Psalm 36. This is a familiar one to those who pray the breviary, showing up on Wednesday Week One of Morning Prayer. It is a psalm reflecting proper biblical dualism—not the false dualism of Gnostic or Manichean mystery religions where good and evil are two equal and opposing powers in the world, but true dualism.

This true dualism is that there is black, and there is white. There is good, and there is evil. While any one human being may be quite a patchwork of tiny black and white bits, and the overall effect at a distance is one of grey indistinctness, the fact is that good is good, evil evil. And that the whole business of life is to become more and more radiant with the goodness reflecting the goodness of God, less and less stained by the sorrow and darkness of evil.

We know in the fullness of Christian revelation that this is the work of grace in us, and of the Holy Spirit bringing to us the grace of Christ, in which our own efforts are only a small (if necessary) part. But here and elsewhere in the biblical revelation the point is to highlight the radical and sharp delineation between what is good and what is evil.

It is worth noting in this psalm, however, that the two are sharply delineated, but are not really parallel. And the difference between them is instructive. The evil one, the ‘wicked’ in psalmodic parlance, is self-referential, circling back on himself. Transgression speaks to the wicked… he flatters himself… he sets himself on a way that is not good. Evil is a closed circle, in its most extreme form a solipsistic ego project in which no one counts or scarcely exists except the all-important self.

Good, on the other hand, is communitarian, relational, other-directed. The psalmist writing about goodness here first contemplates the goodness of God, not his own goodness. And he goes on to depict a genuine communion of persons in the next stanza – the children of mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God’s wings, feasting and drinking from the table of the Lord, from his fountain of life.

Sin always locks the person up in his own self; virtue, goodness, right conduct is marked by definition in its opening the person up to relationship, to communion, to a whole world that is bigger than himself and takes him out of himself. This is why the dualism of the mystery religions is wrong—good and evil are radically different and opposing things, but they are not co-equal.

Evil is petty, puny, and makes the evildoer smaller and smaller and smaller the more he gives into it. Good is expansive, and the more a person gives themselves over to the good, the more they are broken open to that bigger world—ultimately to a place of transcendence as we are ushered into the communion of the Trinity, the very interior life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which Christ makes possible for us to share in by His mission as man.

This psalm only gives the slightest allusions to this, only sets the stage for that final revelation, but to pray it in the fullness of Christian revelation is a wonderful thing: Lord in your light, we see light itself. And that light is the light shining from Calvary, from the empty tomb, from the Upper Room, and from the altar of God and tabernacle of God in every church. 

So let’s choose to do what is good today, as best we can (the whole point of the moral law being given to us in Scripture and Tradition is so we don't have to flounder around in this matter), and in that know we are being borne into a world and a life beyond what we can imagine.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.