Earlier, we looked at the narrative of David from 1 Samuel in relation to the theme of God’s preference for the least. In short, it is only by gratuitously choosing a young, poor, largely underqualified king that God reconstituted the people of Israel. This occurred because God’s choice of the least removes any meritocracy from the kingship, allowing the poorest shepherd to participate in God’s gracious choice of king just as much as the richest merchant or the most devout religious leader. The same dynamic plays out in all great literature: the unexpected, ordinary hero (e.g. Tolkien’s hobbit, Aeneas’s defeated Trojan, Dante’s exiled poet, or Luke’s out-of-wedlock child in a stable) allows us all to stand in his or her shoes. This week, we look at this motif of the least in the most avoided yet persistent aspect of life under the sun – suffering.
First, we must note that it’s impossible to ever experience the whole of life. Using an analogy from the world of phenomenology, it’s impossible to really see a table in its wholeness – we see the façade it presents from one angle of sight or another, and in doing so we (usually accurately) infer the unseen part. With such perceptual limitations, it’s easy to imagine how experience happens in the same way. We experience the whole of human family life through a particular, concrete spouse; we engage the universal experience of work through the lens of one particular job or another.
On a deeper level, we’re bound by something phenomenologists call an intentionality horizon, which is just technical language for the fact that our experience is conditioned by what we expect of it or ‘read-in’ to it. People bound by self-pity, for instance, see the world as one instance of victimhood after another, every experience confirming the presupposition that he is “more sinned against than sinning.” The overbearing parent, similarly, experiences his child through the distorting lens of achievement. I once heard a tragic wedding toast by a girl’s father discussing only her athletic, academic, and career achievements – never once mentioning her personality quirks or sense of humor. This father experienced his daughter like a two-dimensional map: his picture of her was really her, but such simplistic representation involved necessary distortion, a projection of his desires onto her that, in turn, clouded his view.
The old-fashioned Christian word for this sort of skewed intentionality horizon is idolatry, and yet people often miss the true meaning of the word. In its most vivid depiction in the golden calf story, idolatry is not completely the worship of an alternative god. Rather, the Israelites aimed to worship the God of Moses in a tangible, particular, limiting sense. Just as the calf couldn’t properly represent God’s wholeness, so too our schemes for achievement, careerism, morality or other self-justification distort the true experience of life.
This problem occurs because we seek what is great in the eyes of the world, projecting our self-willing assertiveness and desire for achievement upon the real world. In this distorted view of reality, it’s easy to make sense of accomplishment and pleasure but difficult to integrate oneself with suffering. These distorting narratives we build do not do the fullness of human experience justice because they only hold a place for our narrowly-conceived desires. They hold no place for surprise or frustration of our schemes, and in this way are truly a circle closed in upon itself. In the David narrative, God didn’t choose a rich, powerful, or prestigiously devout king because the shepherd would feel left out of a meritocratic, scorekeeping system. Human experience is the same way: the fact that our plans and schemes and desires for accomplishment are often thwarted breaks open the closed circle of meritocracy. Next week, we’ll begin to consider the manner in which this breaking-open happens, as well as the ‘angle’ on experience which tends to rehabilitate our limited perspectives. Teaser: it plays itself out especially well in the two stories of an elusive bear and a Suffering Servant.