Living Among the Wild Beasts

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Samuel Clemons (“Mark Twain”) wrote in his autobiography words akin to the Gospel of Mark’s briefest description of Jesus’s 40 days and nights in the wilderness:

“With the going down of the sun my faith failed and the clammy fears gathered about my heart. Those were awful nights, nights of despair, nights charged with the bitterness of death. In my age as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse.

None of us is ever quite sane in the night. Our faith fails. The clammy fears gather in our hearts. Despair descends. It is into this primitive night of the soul that Jesus enters when Mark describes Jesus’s wilderness temptation with one line:

“He was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.”

Christ in the Wilderness -Kramskoi

Christ in the Wilderness -Kramskoi

In Mark’s Gospel there is none of the later Gospel’s three temptations. Jesus simply enters that frightening solitude Gerard Manley Hopkins described as a miserable soul “gnawing and feeding on its own miserable self.”

The wild beasts of Mark and of the Hebrew Scripture are symbols representing the violence and arrogance of nations and empires: the lion that threatened David’s sheep; the lion with wings and a bear gnawing insanely on its own ribs in Daniel’s dream; a leopard and a dragon with great iron teeth destroying everything in its way. The beasts of Daniel and the Hebrew Scripture symbolize the deepest threats, threats to human wellbeing and existence itself. In Daniel’s dream, when the Ancient of Days takes his judgment seat and gathers the nations (wild beasts), they are as nothing before him, but “of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

Like Samuel Clemons, with the going down of the sun [our] faith fails and the clammy fears gather about my heart.

In his book Man Before Chaos Dutch philosopher-theologian Willem Zuurdeeg argues that all philosophy and religion is born in a cry. Whether the great philosophies of Plato or Aristotle or Hegel, whether Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity or what we arrogantly describe as ‘primitive’ religions; whether the political philosophy of Western democracy or Islamic theocracy or one or another economic theory – capitalist, socialist, communist, or communitarian – all philosophy and religion is born in a cry for help. It is the primal cry of human vulnerability, our  contingency, our finitude, our mortality. It is the cry for order, protection and meaning in the face of the chaos without and within.

Separated from all social structure and from all the answers that express or muffle the cry, removed from civilization and all distraction – no computers, no video games, no reading material, no play stations, no TV, no artificial noise, nothing unreal to distract him – in the wilderness of time, “he was with the wild beasts.”

“He was with the wild beasts” is a kind of cliff notes for Jesus’ entire life and ministry. He would dwell among the wild beasts – the unruly principalities and powers that defy the ways of justice, love and peace.  He lived and died among the wild beasts that mocked him at his trial – “Hail, King of the Jews!” – stripped him of his clothing, plaited a crown of thorns believing they had seen the end of him. But after the beasts of empire had torn him to shreds, he become for us the crucified-risen King whose love would tame us all.

There are times for each of us when the beasts are all too real, moments when faith falters, nights in the darkness when despair gnaws and paws at us, and hope has all but disappeared.

A young woman sits in the Atlanta airport. She is returning home from a year of study abroad. All flights have been delayed because of a storm. She is anxiously awaiting the final leg of her journey home. But home as she had known it no longer exits. Her mother and father have separated. Her father has entered treatment for alcoholism. She has entered a wilderness not of her own choosing. The beasts are tearing her apart. Her ordered universe has fallen apart.

She goes to the smoking lounge to catch a smoke. A stranger, her father’s age, sits down. He jolts her out of her fog. “Do you have the time?” he asks. As strangers are sometimes wont to do, they begin to talk. Unaware of her circumstances, he tells her that he is a recovering alcoholic, a former heavy drinker whose drinking was destroying his marriage until his wife became pregnant. The impending birth of his daughter snapped him into treatment and sobriety. “I thought I was going to die,” he says, “but it was the beginning of a resurrection, a whole new life.”

The young woman begins to feel a burden lifting. The stranger finishes his cigarette and disappears. She never gets his name.

The loudspeaker announces her flight’s departure. She boards her flight, and as the plane rises through the clouds, she finds herself momentarily sandwiched between two sets of clouds – one below, one above – and the space between is filled with rainbow light, a world whose grandeur and grace exceed all reasons for despair. She is strangely calm in the face of what lies ahead. A sense of peace descends. She is sure that the man has been given to her as a gift. She has been with the wild beasts. An angel has ministered to her.

During these 40 days and nights of Lent we live more consciously with the wild beasts, praying that the angels of our better nature will minister to us in the wilderness of time, dreaming with Daniel and Jesus of the Ancient of Days taking his judgment seat and gathering the nations. They are as nothing before him, but of his kingdom there shall be no end.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2016.

The Common Ground beneath the Gun Debate

Gordon C. Stewart, February 22, 2013 – Copyright.

“Ninety-nine percent of reality is perception.” Analytical philosopher Willem Zuurdeeg argued that perception itself is the expression of something far deeper, far more powerful.

Zuurdeeg, author of An Analytical Philosophy of Religion and Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry, spent his life listening to human speech, listening more deeply for what lay under the surface of the language.

Homo loquens (“man-who-speaks”) is homo convictus (“man-who-is-convicted/convinced”), the creature who establishes finite existence in time by powerful, unshakeable ‘convictors’ that anchor us against the chaos.

What we often describe as irrational speech, is, in fact, “convictional language”, the hidden power of which can only be understood by a kind of “situational analysis, i.e., the life “situation” (historical-convictional context) of the one who is speaking. Our varying perceptions are determined by the less conscious hidden convictions of implicit needs and unquestioned cultural traditions.

What is missing in the national debate is public expression of the non-rational perceptions of the word ‘gun’ and the unspoken convictions that shape our different perceptions.
We not only hear the word ‘gun’ differently. We hear different things differently.

Until we come together to discuss what we hear when we hear the word – our non-rational (not un-rational, as in opposed to reason, but non-rational, as in beneath the presumptions of reason) convictional worlds, the gun debate will be a shouting match that finds no common ground.

A simple exercise of word association demonstrates the difference.

Say the word ‘gun’ and listen for what it evokes in the hearer. In the ears of one, the word ‘gun’ means ‘safety’ and ‘protection’. In the ears of others, it means ‘without protection’ or ‘threat’.

But if we listen carefully to the apparently opposite responses, we discover a common ground they share: the threat of insecurity. The threat of chaos.

Whenever we hear a scream, something powerful is under assault. Chaos threatens. We cry out against the chaos. We cry out against death and extinction.

In Man Before Chaos, Zuurdeeg claims that, from its very beginning, western culture has been bound up with a powerful dread of chaos. Even Plato’s philosophy, argues Zuurdeeg, is born of a cry.

“Socrates has died. He himself does not fit very well into Athens’ political life. He is naked and defenseless and is not ashamed of it. He has the courage to cry against chaos and for Being and Goodness. All this has been smothered by the comfortable, although often quarrelsome, classical and medieval philosophy and theology. Who can live by a cry? Who can stand to hear such disturbing noise? Clear and calm reasoning under the guidance of venerable old philosophical schools (or just as respectable church fathers) enables us to live, make church and civilization possible. Who can endure permanently Plato’s uncertain, unsafe balance on the b rink of the abyss of chaos? By what does a man live? By a cry? Claims? The careful and broad elaboration of philosophy? All of them?” (Man Before Chaos, pp 43-44)

In the current debate about guns, the life situations, cultural traditions, and life experiences of the hearers are “worlds” apart. Perhaps…perhaps…if we could find the space to listen more deeply to our different cries in the face of chaos, we would find the common ground of homo convictus and move to something deeper than the shouting.