Humanity and Its Insanity

Sometimes I wonder why humans are the way we are, and how such small, insignificant creatures can do the incredible (albeit often horrendous) things we’ve done. Many of us aren’t even the weight of an average black bear, but how much more have we done to the planet? Black bears don’t build palaces or nuclear weapons, and they don’t have religious services or bake cookies or keep pets or write blogs. I think of all the crazy, amazing things humans do, and it seems insane that we’re capable of doing them, let alone that we do them every single day and barely ever think twice.

This is one reason I believe in a God. I simply find it impossible to believe that humans are yet another animal on a self-created planet. And this is not arrogance about how great the human race is; humans are horrible. We traffic each other and shoot each other and chop down the trees that we depend on for oxygen and melt plastics that destroy the atmosphere and abuse the beautiful, intricate animals that surround us. But we are certainly different from those animals. And it seems to me we must have been created from some different, higher pattern than gorillas were. A pattern, such as the image of God.

Christianity is the only place where I find a compelling explanation for humanity, with both its beauty and complexity and its stupidity and evil. If you think about the way we’ve been able to use the resources in this universe for the things we’ve done–like, I’m pressing down pieces of plastic (my laptop keys) with my fingers, and at the same time I’m translating complete thoughts into a written language that will show up on the light display of another piece of plastic (your own laptop), and you will be able to read it and understand my thoughts in exactly the way I thought them, maybe from some entirely different part of the world–human intelligence is nothing to sneeze at. But at the same time, we have wreaked an insane amount of havoc on this world and each other. Every human relationship I find is broken in some way; our wasteful manufacturing processes and pesticide use are broken; our treatment of animals is broken; and in many ways it seems like the world would be better off without us.

So, that’s one reason I believe in a God who made us “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (Psalm 8:5) and in a man and a woman who, though they were made with everything they needed, rebelled and broke God’s order and beauty. Humans are kind of insane things. No use denying that.

To Be: As Poetry

Marianne Moore and Archibald MacLeish have both written poems on the nature of poetry: Moore’s conclusion, in her “Poetry,” is that

…nor till the poets among us can be
    ‘literalists of
    the imagination’–above
        insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
            shall we have
    it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
    the raw material of poetry in
        all its rawness and
        that which is on the other hand
            genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

In other words, the things of poetry are “important not because a//high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are/useful.” Poetry is not about large words and fancy interpretations, but about being useful to us. It is meant to show us “real toads”–true reflections of life–in all their rawness and genuineness, even if the poem itself is only an “imaginary garden.”

MacLeish concludes something similar in “Ars Poetica.” A series of rhyming couplets begins with “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit” and ends with

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea–

A poem should not mean
But be.

He, too, rejects the idea of poetry as something to be interpreted. It should sit silent, “Palpable and mute.” It’s something to touch. To taste. Not to explain.

I think these are ideas that should resonate in all art, not only poetry. I mentioned in my last post that art is something we make in order to cry out with others, a vehicle to share our humanness; and I think that’s what Moore and MacLeish are getting at, that if you’re so busy incorporating large words and sophisticated philosophies into a piece of art, nobody else can breathe it in, can taste the juice from the globed fruit. It’s a hard line to walk. For me, a girl who defines herself by intellectualism, it’s difficult to stop asking what things mean and start tasting them. But I think it’s important.

I also think that sometimes a poem actually means more simply by “being.” The more I read the Bible, the more I come to see how meaningful it is through its very nature as a work of art. We evangelicals tend to read poems like Psalm 133 and think, now this shows us we need to be nice to each other and “dwell in unity.” We rarely stop to soak in the image of precious oil and robes, of Aaron the priest in his anointing, of how satisfying and cleansing it is for members of the Church to live in love. We are always moralizing; but the Bible is really not meant to be a book of rules as much as it is a picture of them. There are rules, yes, but there is also a story of a Man who saw a woman drawing water whom He should culturally have ignored and loved her. There is a song by someone who is wounded, mocked, and parched with thirst, who knows in his head God will save him but still cries out for the pain. There is a vision of a dragon who is hurled forever into a lake of fire and sulfur for the deceptions and torment he has wreaked.

To me, these images convey a world more about God’s greatest command–love–than any fancily-worded moralistic rule book can. The Bible does, obviously, have meaning, and it can be interpreted and exegeted and hermeneutically examined, but it can also be mute as a globed fruit. Psalm 44 doesn’t have answers, it’s just some people who need help begging a God who made a promise to follow through. The meaning in that is not something we can explain adequately with scientific interpretations. It is, however, a feeling we’ve felt before, and it means a whole lot simply by being the way it is.

That’s the way true art should convey meaning. It’s the way humans experience our humanness, by biting straight into the globed fruit. Art should show you a real toad. It shouldn’t need to tell you what to do with it.