Monday, June 07, 2004


Kierkegaard argues very persuasively, I think, that we must at some point have chosen sin; we must have freely given up our freedom. Faced with a clear choice between happiness and unhappiness, we chose unhappiness. And the choice having once been made, we now want -- sometimes -- to renege on it; but it turns out that unmaking the choice is by no means so easy as making it. Kierkegaard gives the poignant example:

If a child who has received the gift of a little money -- enough to be able to buy either a good book, for example, or one toy, for both cost the same -- buys the toy, can he use the same money to buy the book? By no means, for now the money has already been spent. But he may go to the bookseller and ask him if he will exchange the book for the toy. Suppose the bookseller answers: My dear child, your toy is worthless; it is certainly true that when you still had the money you could have bought the book just as wll as the toy, but the awkward thing about the toy is that once it is purchased it has lost all value.

I have no objection to Kierkegaard's argument, except that it is not true. I never did choose unhappiness. I never freely chose unfreedom. Believe me, Mr Kierkegaard -- I would remember it, if I had.

That I am in a most wretched and lamentable state of what Mr Kierkegaard would call sin, and my own tradition calls confusion, is obvious. That buying my way out of it will cost (at a bare minimum) all I have, is likewise obvious. But why make up this improbable history of how it came about?

Well, we are hungry for stories. It's clear from the sutras that the Buddha Shakyamuni's followers pestered him continually for a story. I am a Buddhist now, 2500 years later, precisely because he steadfastly refused to tell one.

The Buddha answered "Malunkyaputta, I never said 'Follow me and I will answer your questions' nor did you say 'I will follow the Blessed One because he will explain these matters'.

"Then what is your position? You are like a person shot with a poisoned arrow, who says 'I will not have this arrow removed until I know who shot it, his name, his family, whether he is tall or short, young or old.....' This person would die before all these questions could be answered."

The stories can be useful. Assuming the guilt for my own confusion may not make much sense, and it may not really square with anything I remember, but it does bring home to me that getting out of it is my own responsibility. If I made this snare of sin, then I am going to have to unmake it. Every single moment of confusion is my own creation; every moment of loneliness is caused, not by God slamming the door on me, but by me slamming the door on God.

But the stories can be deadly, too. It's all too easy to make our fellow-sufferers into the enemies of God -- as if their rejection of Him was any different from ours! To pour contempt and loathing upon them. "Christians aren't perfect," we say smugly, "just forgiven." As if we weren't continually trampling that forgiveness underfoot, or escaping it with the skill of Houdini! And as if that was any different from the rejections that take the form of, say, doctrinal athiesm, or unreflective pleasure-seeking. It's no different at all: it's only the story that makes it look different. And that would be true even if, by chance, the story we clung to were the correct one, accurate to the last detail.

No comments: