Jephthah made a vow to the Lord. “If you deliver the Ammonites into my power,” he said, “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites shall belong to the Lord. I shall offer him up as a burnt offering.”Judges 11: 30-31
Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.Matthew 22: 5-6
As I read today the parable Jesus offers about the invitation to the wedding feast, I was brought back to a conversation yesterday with a good friend. We were speaking about the gospel story of the rich young man, and my friend posed the question: “Why do we refuse Jesus’ invitation?” It is this very question that the parable of the wedding feast raises for each of us. Why do we ignore the invitation and go away to our domesticated existences and to our own work projects? Why don’t we accept the deeper and truer life, the eternal life or life to the full that Jesus offers? What do we prefer about our own illusions?
As our conversation continued, he finally said that the answer to his own question that was occurring to him was the title of a favorite book of both of ours, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. We refuse the offer because we refuse to face the truth of our own mortality. Jesus makes clear in the gospel that to enter the life to which he is pointing we must be willing to die to the life onto which we grasp.
For some time as a younger man, I suffered from a high level of anxiety that would occasionally manifest as panic attacks. These began almost immediately after the death of my father. Becker says that to exist in “the lived truth of creation” means to live in a condition of “relative unrepression.” It means living as “creatures who assessed their true puniness in the face of the overwhelmingness and majesty of the universe, of the unspeakable miracle of even the single created object.”
The life that Jesus offers is the life of such a lived truth of creation. To know the miraculousness of even a single created object, we must also know our own “true puniness.” And this flies in the face of every psychic strategy that we employ to make it through our day to day experience. When my father died, I was face-to-face with the reality of mortality, including my own. My defender and protector against so much of life that felt like “too much” to me was now gone, leaving me to face the truth of creation on my own.
What Søren Kierkegaard so deeply comprehends is that in order to accept the invitation to the wedding banquet, to the joyous communal feast, we must first be willing to accept our solitariness and our puniness before the overwhelmingness of the universe. One of the most painful and difficult experiences we all have is the feeling of being overwhelmed. When someone tells me about this feeling, my first response is to attempt to help them see how they have generalized and totalized their feeling onto an experience that, in itself, can be managed. As I reflect today, however, I am pondering that at such moments we are actually in contact with a truth. The universe is, in fact, overwhelming for us who are such small creatures. For Kierkegaard the only way to live in the truth of things, to live in “relative unrepression” is by faith, a faith that is a leap of trust in the face of fear and trembling.
This leap of faith is in contrast to that which we see in the story of Jephthah today. The text says he makes a vow to the Lord, but that vow is more of a bargain. Of all the ways we human beings repress the truth of the universe, perhaps the greatest is that of our somewhat essential narcissism. Instead of recognizing our own “puniness” we live out a sense of ourselves as the center of creation. This is what has enabled us to exercise all the forms of “human sacrifice” throughout the ages. To avoid disaster for ourselves, we are willing to sacrifice anyone or anything, even our own children. While that once was done by throwing children into the volcano to appease the volcano gods, we continue to do so in our practice of war and our fearful mistreatment of immigrants, as well as our distorted system of what we call “justice.” As the horror of the epidemic of deaths from gun violence increases with the refusal to take any action, we hear the question posed: “If nothing changed after Newtown, perhaps it never will.” Who could have suspected that a polis that takes pride in its civilized and democratic nature could allow its children to be slaughtered and do nothing in response? The difficult truth for us to recognize is that from the point of view of our narcissistic stance, all others are expendable for our own sakes. So Jephthah’s only daughter is sacrificed to Jephthah’s success in battle.
This is the power of the repression against which we are working when we hear the invitation of Jesus. As my friend and I spoke yesterday, I found myself experiencing a deep sadness. I was sad because I realized that despite hearing the invitation and at times even being aware of all that Jesus was offering, most of the time I refused it. In the course of every day I experience the invitation to stop and pray, to be still and listen, to quiet my own fears and projects and to trust. Concretely I know the possibility of sitting and meditating or of reading from a nourishing text but opting instead to watch the next episode of a miniseries. Countless times in my encounters with others, I experience the possibility of a more truthful and deeper shared presence, but I refuse that invitation in order to preserve the distance I desire for the sake of my independence and autonomy. Every day I pass often the same people on the street begging for money and even more for human recognition. But I move on in order to keep my own schedule and complete my own plans. To respond in each of these cases, to accept the invitation offered would mean a death to my own narcissistic illusions. It would mean accepting the truth of that vulnerability I have in my own “puniness” in the face of an overwhelming creation.
True community, or any real form of intimacy, is so difficult because it requires shared vulnerability. It is the maintaining of our pretenses that keeps us isolated. It is our need to maintain the illusions of our narcissism that uphold the fantasy of our separateness. From that place those who do not gratify us or fortify our sense of self are expendable. This is why Jesus calls on us to invite into our circle the poor, the rejected, the sinful, the marginalized who cannot, on the world’s terms, repay us. It is those who do not support our repression who can lead us to the truth of creation and ourselves.
Late in her life, as my mother fell deeper and deeper into the effects of her dementia, she would, in moments of awareness rebuke herself. She could see that she, who had been so doggedly independent her whole life, was now afraid of things, for example impending darkness, that she “should not have feared.” So, she would reproach herself when she expressed such fears by saying, “I’m just a scaredy cat.” Her shame at being afraid is one we all share to varying degrees. But being afraid is the perfectly true and honest response to who we, in our smallness, are before the “overwhelmingness and majesty of the universe.” I think at times I would panic because my own repressed fears were coming to awareness. I was convinced that these fears would debilitate me, would leave me useless and impotent in the world. I had learned young the mistaken notion that mature and adult persons were not afraid, and so when I experienced my fears I thought I was at least immature and undeveloped and at worst somewhat mad. And so, panic!
As Christians, we believe the words of Jesus that “the truth will set us free.” What we don’t so easily truly comprehend is how difficult it is for us to accept the invitation to live in the truth. We are highly invested in living out a way of being in the world that we have managed to cut down to a size we can live with. Perhaps we say no to Jesus’ invitation out of something of the same experience that resulted in panic attacks for me. The truth feels like more than we can bear. The truth will set us free, but before it can we need to learn how to bear the terror it evokes in us. For Kierkegaard this moment is the possibility of true faith. In the face of this overwhelming universe, we can experience, as does Julian of Norwich, that “God made us, God loves us, and God cares for us.” As the Psalmist expresses it:
For you created my inmost being;Psalm 139: 13-14
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
What do we mean by the lived truth of creation? We have to mean the world as it appears to us in a condition of relative unrepression; that is, as it would appear to creatures who assessed their true puniness in the face of the overwhelmingness and majesty of the universe, of the unspeakable miracle of even the single created object; as it probably appeared to the earliest men on the planet and to those extrasensitive types who have filled the roles of shaman, prophet, saint, poet, and artist. What is unique about their perception of reality is that it is alive to the “panic” inherent in creation; Sylvia Plath somewhere named God “King Panic.” And Panic is fittingly King of the Grotesque. What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types—biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer-bees attacking with a fury and demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out—not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in “natural” accidents of all types; an earthquake buries alive 70 thousand bodies in Peru, automobiles make a pyramid heap of over 50 thousand a year in the U.S. alone, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organism’s comfort and expansiveness. “Questo sol m’arde, e questo m’innamore,” as Michelangelo put it.Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, pp. 282-3