Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A theology of good deeds

Janet and I were talking last night about the various volunteer commitments we both have. We were not the most civic-minded people when we were in college, but our time with the SKS left us with a permanent need to serve which seems to defy all logical reasoning. That's not meant as a big pat on our backs; it really does defy practical reason, because when we try to figure out whether we are doing the right things with our time, we have a hard time justifying the commitments we've made, or choosing between them.

I've been feeling the need for a theology of good deeds; that is, a consistent philosophical explanation for why we are doing the work we are doing. Or, I should say, a new theology of good deeds, because there are plenty of models lying around, but none of them seem to work for me:
  • Spiritual materialism. This was Chogyam Trungpa's term for the notion of "laying up treasure in heaven" -- the notion that the good deeds one does are somehow accumulating credit for the individual in some kind of afterlife or higher spiritual reality. On the surface, it seems sensible enough, except that it is ultimately an egotistical, self-centered and self-interested view of good works. Good works do earn the doer a level of respect and admiration from peers and on-lookers, but we all know in our bones that that's a shallow motive and contrary to the true nature of what should be driving a life of service. And that's tough news for someone asking the question, "What is my life's purpose?" because it calls out the fact that all this talk of life's purpose is really all about Me-Me-Me. Since when was it your life, anyway?
  • Spiritual evolution. A number of current gurus (Eckhart Tolle, Ken Wilber, etc.) have framed up evolution as the central theme of spirituality. In this view, God is unfolding within the universe in a continual path towards greater complexity, sophistication, and self-awareness. Each individual is a part of that unfolding, and the degree to which we can manifest that direction in our individual lives is the measure of our contribution to the overall direction of the universe. There's a lot going for this perspective, not the least of which is that it seems to be factually true: evolution is happening, and evolution is a very elegant theory for explaining all sorts of things. It gives people a sense of teleology, a sense that all of this is going someplace, and that they are a part of a God's creative process. Nonetheless, I suspect there are some flaws in the model, or at least in the conclusions people draw from it. I'll explore these in a later post; suffice it to say that evolution looks quite grand in its full sweep, but is cold comfort to the individual.
  • God-immanent. Some would suggest that the work we do is a way of immediately realizing God within the scope of human experience. Jesus was not really kidding when he said, "Do this unto the least of these, and you do it unto me." We really are serving God when we serve man, and, more importantly, we become God when we serve. Under this model, the service is a goal unto itself; you don't have to question the direction, or motive, or effectiveness of the current means to be manifesting divine Love in the world. I like this model for its simplicity and directness; I think to some extent it is certainly true. However, I think it can lead to a soup-kitchen mentality of good works, where people happily content themselves with the good vibes of doing the most obvious kinds of charity, and neglect the really hard work of thinking through the best solution. Handing someone a blanket is almost always gratifying, for both parties; crafting social policy to avert homelessness, so they don't need the blanket to begin with, is a lot harder.
  • "Follow your bliss." "Geez, man, you're just thinking about this way too hard. Why don't you just do the thing that you find personally most rewarding and satisfying, and not worry so much about this 'highest and best use of your time' crap?" I get this a lot, especially from the people who see me struggling to do the work that doesn't come easily and that I would altogether rather not do, except for the fact that it needs doing. There is definitely some room for personal preferences and temperament when it comes to a life of service; you might think that living like Mother Theresa is the best way to be, but you just might not be cut out for it. Or, in my case, I think the highest path is to be an organizer who makes things happen, when in fact my talents are more geared to being an intellectual and teacher who (hopefully) instructs and inspires. But here, too, I think the approach is too often misused. Spiritual work is hard; charity is hard. If you don't think so, you're probably not trying hard enough. Using one's personal sense of blissiness as the measure of one's direction is not entirely trustworthy.

So what model does work? That's just it -- I don't know. I think the truth is woven into all the above, but I haven't heard it formulated in a way that speaks directly to me.


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