Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/28 Post

The first thing that strikes me in this teaching is its parallel in Luke. Replying to the question, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" Jesus says "Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able." (Luke 13: 23-24). While you are right to preempt any notion that Jesus is saying only Christians can be saved (after all there was no Christianity when Jesus taught), he does seem to be saying that most of humanity will be damned.

Why is salvation so difficult? When I ponder this question I cannot come up with a satisfactory answer. At least not as long as I posit a God who consciously set up a system of salvation. Why would God make it so hard to find him? Why not make the gate to God as wide as possible? Doesn't God want us to come to him? This would be the message of the Prodigal Son, at least as I read the parable. Has Jesus changed his mind?

I can imagine a system of salvation in which people can opt out. If someone decides they prefer hell to heaven, fine. But why set it up so that most who desire heaven are denied entry?

In Pure Land Buddhism, Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, puts off his own salvation until he has facilitated the salvation of all sentient beings. All you have to do to get his help is call his name. Sure most people try to make it on their own, but when they finally realize they can't succeed they sincerely call for help, and Amida is there. This seems much more Christ-like than Jesus' notion that "the owner of the house [who I assume is God] has got up and shut the door" (Luke 13:25) leaving millions clamoring to get in. Where is the love and compassion in that?

It seems to me that a loving God would make finding Him easy, and that it is only us humans that imagine the way to be hard. Which leads me to Franz Kafka's parable of The Law. In this parable Kafka imagines a man who finds the gate to the Law (God) but fears to enter because the gate is guarded by a giant. The man spends his entire life trying to bribe the giant to let him in, but the giant never grants him entry. At the end of his life he asks the giant to explain why no one else has ever come to the gate. The giant explains that this gate was for him alone. No permission to enter was every needed. All he had to do was walk through it.

In other words, the narrow gate is the gate made just for you. It is narrow because only you can fit through it. It isn't narrow to keep people out, for each person has her own gate. The challenge is to find our gate and walk through it. What is our gate? It is this very moment; it is whatever life asks of us here and now. If we engage this moment loving God, neighbor, self, and stranger then we enter the gate. If we engage the moment with something other than love (and I would say compassion are justice are the two ways of love) then we do not enter the gate. The choice is ours.

In this way of understanding salvation, the way to God is universal. Each person has her or his own gate. There is no attempt to keep people out. True, you have to find your gate and walk through it, but it is right there in front of you. Walk on!

1 comment:

AaronHerschel said...

That's a strong and optimistic reading of Kafka's parable. I feel obligated to point out, however, that:

1. the gaurd is not a giant. He only only seems so when the man from the country has been shrunken by age--or perhaps the doorkeeper is magnified by the degree of attention the man pays him.

2. The doorkeeper does in fact refuse the man entrance to the Law. Not once, but repeatedly over the course of the man's wasted life. He says, over and over, "you cannot be admitted yet."

3. The doorkeeper accepts a number of bribes from the man, but refuses to let him in anyway, explaining that he (the doorkeeper) is only accepting the bribes so that the man will not feel he (the man) has "ommitted anything."

4. The doorkeeper threatens the man from the country early in the story. When the man tries to peer past the doorkeeper in to the hallway of the Law, the doorkeeper laughs, saying: "If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the door-keepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him."

5. Near the end of his life, the man from the country begs the fleas on the doorkeeper's coat to help him enter.

My point in making all these seemingly mundane corrections is this: for Kakfa, the Law is always inaccessible. There are no conditions under which one can enter.

That said, I agree that the man could have walked through the doorway at any time. This is a paradox: we approach the Law by a blatant violation of its dictates--or at least, a blatant violation of its seeming authority.

Intriguingly, of course, one realizes that there is no actual authority present in the story. The doorkeeper claims he cannot bear to look upon the third guard. If so, how can he have passed through to the Law? Who hired him as doorkeeper? From whence does his authorty derive? Only from the man from the country, who is so cowed by the majesty of the Law that he cannot break it even to reach it.

I'm reminded of the Hassidic tale in which a terrible fire consumes a Rabbi's library. The rabbi tells his son that only a quotation from a specific book can mitigate his loss. However, the book is banned. Indeed, it is cursed, and anyone who reads it forfeits his place in the world to come. Teh rabbi's son cannot quote the book, because he has followed the law and obeyed the ban, but the Rabbi upbraids him, saying something like: "You didn't think a little knowledge was worth your place in the world to come?"

All this to say that Law, of any kind, holds only the authority we give it. To rely on an outside authority is to deny the self, and to give up forever the priveledges of knowledge, choice, and action. To enter the Law we must embrace Will (and thus selfhood, identity, seperation), which is an act of defiance not unlike Eve's in the Garden of Eden.

So what does this say about human salvation? And how does it relate back to Jesus? Re Luke: Note that Jesus says "many will not be able" to enter the narrow door, not "many will not be permitted." Those who fail are those who cannot set aside their obesiance to God and demand, with Abraham, "shall not a god of justice do justly?" If the master of the house has shut the door, then the clamorous should knock it down, risking their own salvation for the sake of a Justice higher than Law.

And yet, why should we enter the Law at all? For whom is salvation necessary? What is there that seems so important? The man from the country is a tragic figure not only because he cannot enter, but because he cannot leave. He cannot say "the hell with it" and go home, and marry, and live.

Like K in the Trial, the man is "arrested"--trapped by the awareness that he is subject to a Law beyond comprehension. His mistake is to try to deal with the law on its own terms. It is this that makes him less than human.