HELL FOR THE COMPANY
“Since the Renaissance,” wrote W.B. Yeats, “the writing of European saints – however familiar their metaphor and the general structure of their thought – has ceased to hold our attention.” That is a statement, like his famous gestures, that sweeps from horizon to horizon.
At a much lower altitude I came in touch with the problem of different ways of looking at the world. It was at a wedding reception.... “Heaven for the climate,” said the merry guest, “and hell for the company!” All religious people are boring (he went on), they have no real vitality. They are repressed, he said; listen to the way they laugh, it’s always either too little or too much. Religion, like a tapeworm, eats you up from the inside; have nothing to do with it! “I'll drink to that!” said his friend. They clinked glasses and they did, they did. The sermon was for my benefit, probably his revenge for having had to sit through one of mine earlier in the day. His went on a long time, and the themes were those of any sermon: suffering, sin and failure, the faults of Pharisees, how to keep going somehow and how to keep believing that there is something magnificent in life, in spite of everything, if only we could lay hands on it.... The frame was different but the sky was the same. Priests have always found it normal to preach about ultimate bliss to cold sober congregations on Sunday mornings – even in winter – so why shouldn't this clever man, freed from ice in the soul, take his turn at telling us unseasonable truths?
But why hell for the company? That is the question I took from his sermon. It says that only evil is interesting, that goodness is boring. How does this awareness come about?
Could this be the mechanism of it? If something is forced on you, you spew it out. Even an alcoholic would struggle against you if you tried for force alcohol down his throat. It is like a law of physics: we resist whatever is forced on us. ‘Good’ people have associated themselves with goodness (or more likely, we have associated them with it) and they have been forcing it on us since our childhood. Therefore what we ourselves want becomes by definition evil. In this way we learn to see ourselves as outsiders to goodness. And then there arises a strong companionship of the excluded: hell for the company.
If it is true, even in the case of one person, it is a frightening scenario. It means that I am being held captive – whether or not I rebel – by every form of organised ‘goodness’, and held in the most embarrassing way: by my own belief that I am capable, by myself, of nothing but evil.
“God is not good!” said Meister Eckhart. “I am good.” That day he was stressing, like Aquinas, God’s transcendence. Everything we say about God, Aquinas had written, is more false than true: it is more false than true to say that God is good; God is not limited to what we mean by ‘good’. It is true that there comes the moment of ‘overbalance’, when Aquinas says that certain words we use of God are more true of God than of creatures, but this is after we have “negated the finite mode,” in other words, when we begin to use these words in a sense that we are unable to comprehend. Why should one ever do such a thing? The answer is: unless we do so, our language has no real reference to God, it is only about itself. It is true and false that God is good, even though more false than true. Eckhart was provocative enough sometimes to say one without the other. But it is a finely balanced position: we are able to speak about God, and at the same time God gallops free of all our theological harness. Eckhart likened God to a horse bounding and galloping through meadows, exulting in freedom (see this month’s Wisdom Line).
Many can only imagine this galloping horse broken-in and stabled, and addicted to sugar-lumps. Paradoxically if Christians had faced more convincingly the transcendence of God, who is infinitely greater than the sky, many more people might have recognised what they were talking about. And Yeats might not have written: “Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.”