October 2, 2014

The Christian Monist on Celestial Dissatisfaction

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Note from CM: One of the blogs I turn to regularly is The Christian Monist.  J. Michael Jones always writes interesting and insightful posts, and I want to pass one of them on to you today. Some day I will do some writing about Woody Allen, who has been one of my favorite writers and filmmakers for many years, but today I will pass along what JMJ says about him.

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A Celestial Dis-satisfaction in a Satisfied Pretense . . . Where Mick meets Woody
by John Michael Jones

So here’s the problem. Everything is going great! Life is swell! Honestly. I have all I need. My kids have turned out well. My mother is living longer than the average person. I live in the place I’ve always wanted to live in. My health, while not perfect, is pretty good. I lack nothing. So what am I bitching about?

I’ve tried and I’ve tried but I can’t get no satisfaction. But Woody said it best. He delivered the words that I could not find. While I question his personal choices in life, I admire his candor.

In an interview with Woody Allen about two years ago he made an uncanny remark. He said that his life had been perfect. He got do fulfill all his dreams. Here he was a homely-looking, short man with all kinds of limitations but was blessed, often by being the right place at the right time, to make movies, to be a professional musician, to have more money than he can spend and to make love to all kinds of beautiful women . . . far beyond his physical class. Yet . . . he felt this deep disappointment in life. He added that he wasn’t mad at anybody nor did he feel any injustice . . . but just deeply dissatisfied.

I know what he means. Now this is where I will give Woody some words. Not that he could have conjugated better sentences than me but during that interview he expressed that he didn’t know why. I think he does because he is quite a philosophical guy but just didn’t want to say it.

I’ve thought about this a lot. No, I’m not depressed right now. I am disappointed. I’m not disappointed at God or man (as far as I know).

The thing that disappoints me is the loss that comes with life. I’ve lost my dad. I’m losing my mom, whose memory is fading right before my eyes. I’ve lost my kids . . . to good things, like careers and distance. I’ve lost my youth. I’ve lost countless friends . . . most by moving, many by my leaving evangelism and a scant few by death. Of course the great loss will be my own life, which is inevitable.

If I tried to even think these thoughts outside my own head in the middle of an evangelical Sunday school class, it would be immediately scolded. Christians, after all, are to be satisfied. Anything less means that they are not pleased with God . . . such thoughts deserves the fires of Hell . . . or do they?

But I know God differently now. This isn’t elementary school anymore of pretending on the playground. There are big thoughts out there and God is the hyper-adult. I think that the dissatisfaction is intended. The only thing that could possibly fix it lies within the great unknown on the other side of life.

The fixing isn’t having more positive thoughts. The fixing isn’t filling your cranial space with praises of God, like inflating a balloon inside a bottle, so that no negative thought would ever have the space to enter your mind. I think that God wants it to go unfixed. The dissatisfaction leaves this bad taste that is always in your mouth that nothing, including Evangelicalism’s positive thinking, can purge. It makes me long for some type of remedy . . . something so amazing and satisfying that I can’t even imagine it.

So we can still live happily (as happy as any human can be), I think, while embracing the celestial dissatisfaction.

Comments

  1. Adrienne says:

    “I think that God wants it to go unfixed.” +1

  2. Ah, I lost a tooth this morning.

    The Enlightened One was correct to locate suffering in Desire. The answer to the good Monist’s quandry is obvious: Human desire is infinite, and cannot be assuaged by finite objects. There are hints in the Scriptures [Exodus 9:9-18 and I Kings 19] as well as in the lives of the saints that manis supposed to draw his energies directly from God rather than at the end of a long chain of mediation involving the interior fusion processes in the heart of the sun, through photosynthesis, the bellies of insects and bacteria, the flesh of birds and beasts, the labor of other husnandmen, etc.

    God does indeed want it unfixed. If your God can ‘fix’ it, I suspect him of being a fraud.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      I would point to the whole book of Ecclesiastes to further make your point. And it’s a good one.

      “…here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

      But…but…that’s not what I desire!

    • Robert F says:

      The Enlightened One, Buddha, said the cause of suffering is attachment, because the self must inevitably be separated from every phenomena it attaches to (see post above for an example of what the Buddha meant by suffering caused by attachment), whether good or bad, including the very experience of self. He furthermore insisted that whether or not there is a God or gods makes no difference to the process of that one must undertake in order to be free of attachment, and so to end suffering. In fact, he said that disputation involving the nature of God or the gods creates enormous delusion and involves one in very deep forms of attachment which ultimately are only distractions from the inner work that must be done to achieve insight, nirvana. He would not have considered much of what happens on this blog to be edifying, and he would most likely have referred to us a “poor fools attached to the scriptures…” But he would very easily have been able to explain the dissatisfaction expressed by Allen and the Christian Monist in the post above, and propose a solution he called the Eightfold Noble Path.

    • This is why I don’t believe Buddhism is self-centered. My understanding of Buddhism is that it is not a pursuit of happiness or avoidance of pain but reaching a state of peace in spite-of or transcending feelings or circumstances. I think it has its drawbacks, especially if that enlightened state is not moved by the suffering of others – a sort of doppelganger of evangelical “wretched urgency”. That state of peace could actually be a more solid foundation for true acts of compassion than evangelical guilt and burden to be “on fire”. So much of evangelical activism ends up being more self-centered than altruistic (am I doing enough to make God happy? Do I look enough like a good, radical Christian? Do I really, really, REALLY believe?). As I have mentioned before, I admire Luther’s view of sin as the self wrapped around itself. Jesus saves us not just from sin but from ourselves, truly giving us the freedom to be.

      • Compassion for others is a central tenet of Buddhism, so I don’t think “detachment” means what many people think it means… (though I could be very wrong about that!)

        The more I read about Buddhist philosophy, the more appealing certain aspects of it become.

        • Robert F says:

          You are correct, numo: according to Mahayana Buddhism, which includes Tibetan Buddhism and Zen, one can only cultivate true detachment by practicing the two great virtues: prajna, which is wisdom, and karuna, which is compassion or empathy for all sentient beings. But neither wisdom or compassion is practiced by gritting one’s teeth and forcing oneself to obey some external rule or code; rather, both wisdom and compassion emerge naturally, as it were, when one practices mindfulness and develops insight into one’s own true nature, which is the same nature as all reality. Then the grasping knot of self untangles and opens out into the interbeing of all that exists, where selfishness drops away and awareness finds its center in what Buddhists call the Great Compassion.

          That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, what’s called socially engaged Buddhism has only developed in the time since Buddhism has been influenced by Occidental values, which are definitely shaped by traditional Christian ethics.

          It’s all quite complex.

          • Buddhism is extremely complex and definitely not something that can be reduced to a blog comment, any more than any of the other great religions of the world… imo, at least. :)

          • I’m intrigued by Thich Nhat Hanh and similar writers; Tibetan Buddhism, not so much. (But I am not educated in this at all, and maybe am missing some very important things.)

            As for social activism and Buddhism, I think the same argument can be made for xtianity and awareness of/doing something about serious social problems. People along the way try, but there’s always been a tendency to stick with the status quo of society, whether that society is European, Chinese, Southeast Asian or [pick a place!].

          • But numo, remember that it was Christians who developed the first orphanages and hospitals, who systematically reached out to those in need; even to this day, you will find a disproportionately high number of Christians among those caring for people in situations of extreme human need and distress. When disaster strikes, Christians are usually the first on the scene to offer tangible help. I think that as Christians, we may be rightly proud (sorry, St. Paul) of that heritage and do our best to continue in it.

          • Btw, Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist, so he belongs to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. Vietnamese Zen is quite different from Japanese Zen in a number of ways, being somewhat less austere and a touch more warmly human, in my humble opinion.

          • But yet… not until the 19th c. was there a truly organized xtian response to chattel slavery.

            many xtians who stood against Jim Crow and for civil rights in the US were harmed, even murdered.

            We have a long, long way to go…

  3. Yesterday I spoke with a friend of mine and I heard about what happened with people I rubbed shoulders with in Campus Crusade 13 to 9 years ago. Many have walked away from faith, with some disappointed that what they were sold isn’t working in life. One has came out as gay and are moving in the gay community. Another one gave up trying to fix his “lust” issues and just moved in with a female and relocated to another part of the country. I wonder if he’s trying to start life over and forget about his encounter with evangelicalism.

    Nothing can be more toxic than to spend your time trying to fix something. I went to a Men’s Group not long ago and I got chills down my spine as I heard one guy beat himself up over paying attention to a beautiful woman. So I think it’s important that many evangelicals give up the notion fo trying to fix “something”. It’s legalisitc and it adds a burden that is far too heavy for people.

    I’m trying another Men’s Group tomorrow night…we’ll see how it goes.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      “Nothing can be more toxic than to spend your time trying to fix something.” Amen!

      We just had a semi-revival sort of thing at our church this past weekend. Since the word “revival” probably conjures up all sorts of awful emotions and images with many of you, I will say that this event was handled in a pretty healthy way. That said, I could see how some people’s renewed committments” (read the Bible daily, start prayer times in the morning, establish accountability partnerships) could morph into a mentality of “Try Harder, Do Better!”

      So last night, as people were sharing their testimonials of what the weekend meant and what they were going to do to get closer to God and Jesus, I decided to stand up and caution everyone to NOT let their mentality to drift toward “Try Harder, Do Better.” I shared my experience of how easy it is for “I’ll read the Bible daily to get to know God better” to become “I’m not getting anything out of this….I must TRY HARDER.” And just so I didn’t get thrown off the stage, I concluded by saying that as people sense their commitment wobbling – and it will, we all know commitments wobble, especially “religious” commitments – to not drift into the mindset of “TRY HARDER, DO BETTER,” but to just turn that commitment over to Jesus and say, “Jesus, I need you to help me want to read the Bible, to find joy in it, to continue this commitment.”

      • Rick, good for you for throwing in those two cents! …and I hope your encouragement is a help to many. But I’ve got to say, I don’t personally believe there is a difference between renewing your personal commitment and “try harder, do better,” except that one comes from sincere good intentions and the other from self flagellation. We as Christians all know what we ought to be doing, but the minute we begin to make resolutions, we begin to trust in the power of our own will to make ourselves better. I think your idea is much better: “Jesus, I need you to help [better yet, make me] me want to…” Unless Christ renews our hearts, minds, and wills to actually desire right living, there’s only so much we can do to white-knuckle better spiritual performance. And in the end it only leads to failure and guilt anyways. I think a better cure is to build a spirituality around your sentiment: drawing closer to God by prayer that expresses trust in him to live in a way pleasing to him. “Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief!” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Luther’s morning and evening prayer. The Lord’s prayer. I find these sort of things infinitely more valuable in “connecting with God” than the spiritual to-do lists I used to build. They are a lot more guilt free!

        • David Cornwell says:

          “I find these sort of things infinitely more valuable in “connecting with God” than the spiritual to-do lists I used to build. They are a lot more guilt free!”

          I agree totally with what you are saying. Striving, trying, being better, never ever work.

        • “Weak is the effort of our heart,
          And cold our warmest thought;
          But when we see Thee as Thou art,
          We’ll praise Thee as we ought.”

          I was just listening to you yesterday Miguel

    • Nothing can be more toxic than to spend your time trying to fix something.

      I hear what you’re saying, but at the same time, I think that groups like Alcoholics Anonymous have done a lot of good. It’s not that self-help, self-improvement, lifestyle management, or breaking bad habits are bad or wrong: I wish to God I could overcome my bad habits to make my own life better. I think the line is crossed when this gets spiritualized, and Christianity becomes all about behavior modification. This stigmatizes our failures and heaps up guilt when we fail to get with the program.

      The thing is, when the Church becomes all about life change, the message of the Gospel gets replaced with the scourge of the Law, especially in it’s third use. So broken and hurting sinners are just given a textbook on medicine: follow the steps to make it all better. Well, as it turns out, that doesn’t work. In a secular context (AA, for example), it is much more effective. Christianity is not about helping us get our lives together. What we need from the Church is absolution: the promise and assurance of God’s forgiveness given to us, the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ for us: the medicine of immortality.

      I gave up on accountability groups because they just don’t do this. They function more like “sinner’s anonymous,” but without a 12 step formula. It doesn’t make anything better: only grace does, and when the Church fails to give grace, it will give the scourge of the Law instead. Confusing the law with the Gospel just leads to death, despair, and unbelief.

      Eagle, I hope you can find a place where the church gives grace.

      • to find a Church where there is grace,
        look for the humble people,
        not the self-righteous, nor the fearful, nor the judgmental

    • …or spending your time trying to be something.

  4. David Cornwell says:

    As one ages this sense of loss or dissatisfaction can take hold and make a life of its own. I understand this. As I’ve aged some things have become clear to me. Some of the ideas of achievement I focused on when younger were misdirected. In the long run they weren’t even very important. In my 40’s I felt as if I could do just about anything, and in the process tried to do to many things at once. When this happens God can take a back seat. However there won’t be a back seat driver when this happens. But the thing is, He does seem to hang around for the ride. And when things go wrong we not only hurt ourselves but God is bruised also. And so in looking back, an incredible sense of regret takes hold. If it is true and real it can lead to repentance. And the God we hurt becomes very real. In our bible study this past Wednesday the pastor was talking about the act of repentance after one becomes a follower of Chrst. I firmly believe that this isn’t just a once in a lifetime affair.

    Also, as John Michael Jones points out, other things lead to a sense of loss. My youngest brother, Tom,
    died about 12 years ago. He is the one I was closest to. Now there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about him, and the things we talked about. Hopes, dreams, history, religion, children, and politics– it was all there. But this is another story. There is an ache in my heart because I love him so much, and now he isn’t around.

    But if there wasn’t this sense of human dissatisfaction with life, if loss wasn’t so real, then Easter wouldn’t mean so much to us. There’s another world in waiting– and sometimes it touches us even now– and that hope brings with it another, more profound kind of satisfaction.

  5. Paul speaks of putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Col. 3:5). To win the race for the prize (1 Cor. 9:24). As long as we are in these bodies, how can there ever be satisfaction? Does God want it to go unfixed? Or is the dissatisfaction merely a bi-product of the reality of our sinful nature, even as believers?

  6. Knitting Jenny says:

    Our regrets and dissatisfactions are the thin places in our souls through which the light of the Life to come can glow comfortingly.

  7. I think it is just a natural outcome of the fall and our aging process to feel dissatisfied with life. I guess for me the thing that keeps me positive is the thought that the fall and the resulting issues have been reversed at the cross and one day will be completely healed, we will be restored to what we were meant to be.

  8. Be sure to watch the 2-part documentary on Woody Allen via Netflix streaming video.

    Also, Allen is a self-professed atheist or at least settled agnostic and has no belief in God of any kind. He has mentioned that this often makes him view life as having no meaning, and he likely keeps as busy as he does (~40 films in 40 years) to avoid thinking about it. As soon as he finishes one film he starts typing out the script for the next one.

    He’s happy when he’s making films (over which he has total control ever since his first movie didn’t give him that, and he vowed never to do that again) and playing in the jazz band, but he feels he has not yet made a great film and fears he is past the time and age when he can or will.

    At this point in his life, as well as for some time prior to this, life for him has been somewhat of an absurd joke (that’s not just a Woody Allen character doing the same shtick repeatedly), and with each passing year he only sees more loss.

  9. Great post. This is why the best-life-now, seven-day-sex-challenges, and perfect-family teachings are inherently anti-Christian. There is no escape from the echoes of the fall. As long as we live on this side of the return of Christ (“The resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”), we live in the vacuum of the estrangement, non-being, lonliness, and brokenness brought on by the fall. It does not mean we fatalistically long for heaven while here on earth (sanctified suicide?). But we live by faith and courage in spite of the echoes of the fall, living in love, forgiveness, and hope.

  10. Christiane says:

    Christian people are sojourners on the Earth.

    “C.S. Lewis – “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

    something about the song ‘Hallelujah’ expresses the deep and humble longing for God that our fragile humanity evokes from us here on this Earth

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNNVpTB7A7E

  11. I think all humans suffer from the, “Is this all there is?” syndrome. To the believer, we have an answer, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still feel the question.

  12. I saw this on a church sign tonight: “If you don’t live it, then you don’t believe it”. (Heavy, exasperated sigh).