Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lessons from the Devil on God and the Soul

Walter Houston as the Devil, from the film version of The Devil and Daniel Webster

It's not so much that atheists deny God.  It's that they deny the soul, the one thing each of us knows intimately.

Let me explain.


I am tutoring a home-schooled student.  I call what I do the School of the Kevin.  This is an off-shoot of the Church of the Kevin, of which I am the founder and universal eparch.

And the good news is, in English class at the School of the Kevin, we get to read whatever I (the Kevin) want.

Yesterday we read a section of a rambling post-modernist novel called The House of Leaves.  In the chapter we read, a family returns from a vacation to find that someone has broken into their house and added an extra room, a walk-in closet - which is a strange thing for a burglar to do.  Even more strange is the fact that the head of the house, through careful measurements and a study of the blueprints, discovers that the house is 1/4 inch larger on the inside than on the outside.  He becomes a bit obsessed with this crack in the laws of physics, trying to forget his sense of dread with coffee and a newspaper and a big breakfast one morning - but even the coffee in the coffee cup behaves in such a way that inspires a kind of nauseating awe and a confrontation with something that's far bigger than the suburban kitchen in which he sits.

We also read a short story by Flannery O'Connor called "A View of the Woods".  It's about an old man named Fortune who dedicates himself to everything about the concept "fortune" - money, progress, the future - and in so doing ends up killing himself (twice, in a sense) in one of those violent and disturbing ways so typical of a Flannery O'Connor story.  But before he does, he has a vision of this "view of the woods" (a view he's trying to snuff out by the construction of more and more objects of "progress" on his land) - a vision that is like a disturbing prophetic insight.

The old man stared for some time, as if for a prolonged instant he were caught up out of the rattle of everything that led to the future and were held there in the midst of an uncomfortable mystery that he had not apprehended before.  He saw it, in his hallucination, as if someone were wounded behind the woods and the trees were bathed in blood.

What is this blood behind the woods, the "view" of which the old man is trying to cover up with the "rattle of everything that led to the future", what is this blood that is at the heart of an "uncomfortable mystery that he had not comprehended before"?

On the one hand, it's the foreshadowing of the violence that occurs at the end of the tale - in the middle of the woods.  But on the other, it's the blood of Jesus Christ.

I imagine the suburban father from The House of Leaves sitting not in his suburban kitchen, but in his suburban parish, as a gay Marty Haugen tune and an insipid homily prevents him (as the "rattle" of fortune prevented the old man) from seeing, as Chesterton said, that the Church is "larger on the inside than on the outside" (like the suburbanite's house) and that if we deliberately obscure our "view of the woods" we won't see the dreadful and awesome sacrifice that's before our eyes, right there upon the altar.

And recently my student and I finished Orwell's 1984.  I write in a recent post (Blank Checks and Reality Checks) about the dehumanization, the deliberate destruction of the soul, that fills that novel, when I point out the Ecce Homo moment, when Winston Smith is presented to us as the "last man" about to be sacrificed on the altar of progress and inhumanity.

And what is this "dehumanization" but loss of soul?  What keeps the suburban father from sleeping or enjoying his ordinary breakfast, but an encounter with a mystery he had tried to forget in a deceptively domestic setting?  What drives O'Connor's old man to murder and suicide but a glimpse of something that awakens a soul he is trying to suffocate?  What does the Unreality of the dystopian society of 1984 strive to do above all other things but destroy the part of God that is in man - his soul - and thereby destroy man himself?

All torture is an attempt to destroy the imago dei, the image of God in man, the soul.  All Unreality is an attempt to do the same, by obstructing our view of the woods beyond and the sunset that paints them as red as the blood of the Son of Man.  Every denial of the ineffable - of awe, mystery and dread - is an attempt to construct either a House of Leaves or a simple House of Cards.

But we read one more story yesterday, "The Devil and Daniel Webster", about a simple New England farmer, Jabez Stone, who sells his soul to the devil, and the patriot Daniel Webster who saves him.  For Webster (the great orator and politician), in speaking to a jury of the damned which is about to condemn his client (Jabez Stone), reminds them that the soul is an eternal thing, and that man (try as we might to destroy him) is made of more than flesh and blood.

Then he turned to Jabez Stone and showed him as he was−an ordinary man who'd had hard luck and wanted to change it. And, because he'd wanted to change it, now he was going to be punished for all eternity. And yet there was good in Jabez Stone, and he showed that good. He was hard and mean, in some ways, but he was a man.  There was sadness in being a man, but it was a proud thing too. And he showed what the pride of it was till you couldn't help feeling it. Yes, even in hell, if a man was a man, you'd know it. And he wasn't pleading for any one person any more, though his voice rang like an organ. He was telling the story and the failures and the endless journey of mankind. They got tricked and trapped and bamboozled, but it was a great journey. And no demon that was ever foaled could know the inwardness of it − it took a man to do that.

We all know what this inwardness is.  We know that it's in hell where a man ceases to be a man, and that's what makes it hell.  We know that dehumanization, Unreality, and even death can never extinguish the very flame that materialistic atheists continue to snuff like a bunch of nervous firefighters.

We know the soul of man, and we know we are often in danger of losing it.

And if we know the soul of man, we know God.  The evidence is before our eyes like a view of the woods.  The evidence is in our hearts.

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