Searching for Our Human Face: We Are All in Exile

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live (Deut. 30:19).

Well, this is not as easy as it seems. I take it this is part of the human struggle, this choosing. I am unsure that the Deuteronomist understood the complexity. For the authors of Exodus and Judges, it is very simple. When Israel is righteous and sticks with God, blessings come. Backslide, start to take up with foreign women and foreign gods, and wrath will find you as sure as thunder flash follows lightning. It was only after exile and some of the more impetuous prophets that one hears a more perplexed voice. Job, of course, is set far in the past, prior to Abraham and Israel, but his dramatic questioning is purely a result of later wrestling. The careful, cosmopolitan sagacity of Proverbs is not the pious historiography of Samuel and Kings, but its serene wisdom is offset by Ecclesiastes, by, as Peter Leithart would have it, “the vapor of vapors,” the enigmatic wind of the spirit that will not be subjected to any control of techne, any human mastery of directed understanding. If in Sirach one hears an oration of priestly confidence that appropriates Hellenic searching of cosmic order, and in Maccabees one sees a heroic return to stark, historical pieties, there is still the discomfort that at the time of Christ, the priesthood had accommodated Caesar, along with the Hasmoneans. As N.T. Wright persuasively argues, an occupied Israel was yet Israel in exile.

And we are all in exile, still outside the land of promise, searching for our human face. There is a human tendency to try and escape difficulties, enigmas, having to remain in chiaroscuro. In my view, the later prophets put in question the moral certitudes of the Biblical historians. (This is a simplification, of course.) Regardless, whatever path one posits to the final form of the Old Testament cannon, the result was a polyphonic puzzle. Nothing quite held together. Nothing ever really did. There was always a surplus, loose ends, extra pieces or missing pieces. So, against any complacent easiness with Scripture, as if the coming of Christ didn’t add infinite dimensions of mystery, ponder again this choosing and this life.

Part of the discernment of spirits, the acquisition of wisdom, is listening. Discover the merit in a voice. Those who preemptively make lists of sanctioned and excommunicated voices are likely to be false. Insecure, well-meaning, perhaps, they miss the subtle, the mixed condition that is endemic to our journey in this middle, betwixt origin and destiny, beasts and angels, this earth of unutterable beauty and miserable grief. One might discover a glint of truth in a so-called enemy of truth, something honest; there might be an alloy of evasion in pious certitudes.

Here is a poem by Seamus Heaney:

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives —
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Now this is a poem written in memoriam for the poet’s mother. The others are away at Mass. The boy and his mother are occupied in a prosaic task. There is a companionable silence, a togetherness punctuated and made sensibly aware by the “little pleasant splashes” as the spuds found shared unity, gleaming in the bucket of clean water. This is a simple moment of memory, domestic, though secretly strange. The water that purifies, the water, brooded over by the Spirit, is hidden behind the veneer of ordinary life.

And this moment of pristine togetherness, of never closer, escapes the net of religious obligation. The others are away at Mass. Later, at the threshold of death, the priest serves with dedicated emotion: “went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying.” You are supposed to notice the recapitulation of the imagery of the smith. The intimate scene of the paring of vegetables was compared to “solder weeping off the soldering iron.”
Why do I bring this up? Because, while there is no heavy slight against the conventional pieties (there is something softly sardonic about the priest), there’s no question that the existential grasp of life, life not as a strained effort at transcendence, but as a quiet, intimate revelation of life’s sudden purity and strange power, is discovered by those playing hooky from the standard prescription for approaching God.

It also suggests that life is discovered by the attentive heart, sometimes perhaps (always?) with a retrospective distance, an interpretive space where perception blooms into understanding. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there is an immediacy to life, something tangible, though one will never discover the moment of the now. One is always moving, identity is always a crossing of thresholds, a stable instability. Life defeats stock answers. But there is something in the poet’s memory that is choosing life. There is something in that giving form to a transient sprig of time that is aware of life, that isn’t using it as an abstraction, which knows it in its mystery and intimacy.

It is difficult to think well. The truth is complex. It does not yield to facile attempts to close down its wildness, its darkness, even if one thinks the darkness is a superabundance of light. I certainly do not possess the truth. But the seeker after truth, paradoxically, may be possessed by the truth; the truth carrying its child, bringing it through the desert, even as the child protests abandonment. What I think is that life is mysterious; life is God, really. This is not to deny that creatures are real. I am not arguing for pantheism or a panentheism, but for the distinction between bios and zoe. Biological life is a skin of time on the surface of eternity. Life in its fullness, its joyous mystery, its loving victory is God. We think we know what life is, but we have only a slight purchase of understanding. A secular, supposedly scientific age is more accurately an ignominious lack of wisdom.

Life becomes essentially a this-worldly category, deriving its origin and significance, not from God, but from the world. Seen in this light, it has nothing to do with God becoming flesh and calling Himself the life to which He summons everyone. On the contrary, life is reduced to a matter of physical survival that is brought to an end by death. In this way life becomes an idol, a caricature, and a blasphemy. (Philip Sherrard, Christianity, 180 – 181)

Likewise, our sense of freedom is deeply impoverished. What is willing? Who is willing? What does it mean to be free? One will discover that knowing, willing, and being are inextricably bound. Certain forms of willing are congruent with certain understandings of what it means to be. Get one wrong, and the other is going to be wrong as well. The ordinary, common sense way of taking these matters is very wrong. Or, to be generous, it is incomplete, and like John the Baptist, must ultimately diminish so that the Lord may be known. Here is a bit of screwball comedy wisdom. It’s from Arrive at Easterwine, a novel by the idiosyncratic genius, R. A. Lafferty. The character telling the anecdote is a powerfully vivacious woman, and hence the joke:

“You think that is all there is to me? If you can belong to two species, then I can also. I’m a poor fellah myself, though I denied it today. There was this man on the street who dropped some packages, and I retrieved them for him; he didn’t seem to be able to find them. ‘Thanks, fellah,’ he said. ‘I’m a girl,’ I told him. ‘I gotta get these glasses changed,’ he said; ‘I might be missing a lot.’”

“I’m at a loss how to index that anecdote, Valery,” I issued. “Is it allegory or is it a joke?”

“It is both. We’ve all got to get our eyes renovated, Epikt. We are all missing a lot.”

Now Epikt is a kind of advanced living computer. Don’t worry yourself with that. The part about two species I will explain indirectly. You will probably get it, but perhaps not. I can’t do everything for you.

(Go to “The False Selves of Modernity”)

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7 Responses to Searching for Our Human Face: We Are All in Exile

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Eclectic Orthodoxy readers will recognize Brian as a long-time conversation partner here on the blog. I am delighted to host these series of meditations on God, life, freedom. And thank you, Brian, for sharing them with us.

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  2. AR says:

    I could never have said it myself, but hearing it I know it for the truth. So, Amen. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

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  3. tgbelt says:

    You have a wonderful voice, Brian. Thank you for this.

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  4. Karen says:

    Oh man! That sweet poem and its exposition brought the tears to my eyes for sure. This is a concluding statement I made in a comment I wrote in a different context at another blog only moments ago:

    “If the Scriptures tell us nothing else, they make it clear God is very skilled and creative about using highly imperfect and very humble and earthly things to further His work in the world and in our lives!

    Ditto what the others have said, Brian.

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  5. brian says:

    Thanks everyone for your kind words and thank you Father, for your friendship and for hosting these meditations.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mike H says:

    Wow. Look forward to reading more of these Brian.

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  7. Jonathan says:

    Brian, I’m catching up here and was delighted to see your posts. I especially appreciate the literary reference. For me, it more and more seems that the only way I can understand theological problems is through the arts.

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