Virtue in Vice, and Vice Versa

Can we ever be wholly good? Can we ever be wholly evil?

If we believe we are purely virtuous, we are in the greatest danger of causing harm. If we believe that we are purely evil, then we have no capacity to provide any benefit.

We are never entirely either only good or evil — indeed, those who have tried the hardest to be one or the other have failed.

Where the church has claimed the moral high ground, it has exhibited a general inability (or unwillingness) to access this complexity. And so, naturally, do its detractors. (Especially if they’re former church members, well-trained in its poorest forms of argumentation.) Not making this any easier is the fact that both sides have untrustworthy perspectives. And, additionally, we follow at least a societal/cultural paradigm if not an intrinsic, human-nature one, that cries out for clear dichotomisation between right and wrong.

People who believe that the church is purely virtuous are blind to its vices, so they assume that accusations of them must be baseless. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the reasons they’ve been “made up” must also be speculated upon, speculation which undoubtedly reflect poorly on the would-be prosecutor.

On the other hand, there are people who can’t help but see vice in the structure and the dealings of the church (or at least whatever side they disagree with), and they cannot accept that there is any virtue, or at not enough virtue to justify its continued existence. From within that mindset, there must be corresponding accusations levelled at the defendants, which also call their character into question.

This isn’t just a church phenomenon. It happens on all levels, from continental to individual.

If we cannot accept that there is both virtue and vice in all of us, and therefore all of our human institutions, it will lead unyieldingly, inevitably to abuse. In both directions: we are in stark danger of becoming abusive when we either presume its presence, or its absence.

So if we are impure, how do we arrive at justice?

Be warned, this is an unpopular message as our culture lifts its new-found voice in the cause of justice: we must start by recognising that we are incapable of it. Sin is more than just doing bad stuff. It exists in our murkily-mangled motivations for even the best things we do. And perhaps most troublingly, it exists in our internally flawed perspectives of what the best things even are, and why!

Each individual has a valuable and unique perspective, but each perspective is uniquely susceptible to flaws.

We can be a benefit. We can speak up for the oppressed, and we can restore dignity to the down-trodden. But even our most successful engagements cannot provide objective justice. No amount of human effort can possibly earn us the capacity to redeem, to reverse harm, or to re-establish innocence.

Until we recognise that we are all complicit in villainy, we will continue to a blind quest for retribution against villains, thus needlessly perpetuating cycles.

We need to dream about justice. We need to imagine it, and probe it, challenging both status quo and our imagined improvements. We need to enlarge our minds to their very limits. And we also need to know before we start that we aren’t going to arrive at it.

Though it may be better, nothing that we do in the name of justice can ever be perfect.

Life is a journey toward a destiny. We don’t get to pick the final conclusion, but we do get to choose the direction — intentionally or not, it’s a choice we are always making.

Thoughts on Legacy, Mediocrity and Balance

As I head towards 40, questions about the meaning of life don’t slow down. In a sense. But in another sense, perhaps I’m getting more comfortable with the questions, and not having a perfectly satisfactory answer.

Of course, there is pressure to make it make sense. To artificially solve tensions. Or to ignore them. To do whatever it takes to make a mark. To yield to the pressure to prioritise lofty aspirations regarding one’s legacy and posterity.

I’m beginning to understand that I’m rejecting those pressures. Or more accurately, I suppose, that my rejection is becoming more deliberate and concrete.

This isn’t to say that I’m immune to mid-life crisis. Not at all. In fact, I would describe it the other way: I think I’ve been in perpetual life crisis. I’ve said that as a joke. “Life Crisis” was even the witty name I came up with for a band I was a part of.

But as with many jokes, it worked as a mask to hide an unknown truth.

I’ve watched people approaching a different age — an age where mortality is even more real and inevitable — who treat legacy with a sense of desperation. It seems like as we cross from any stage to another, we’re in a constant last-ditch attempt at meaning.

Some of this crystallised within me when I was talking to a older gentleman with a gorgeous old car. The way his eyes sparkle whenever he speaks of it, there’s no secret that he loves that machine. He’s kept it, maintained it and meticulously restored it for nearly five decades. It’s a precious symbol of so much of his life, his most intimate and treasured relationships. But unfortunately, somewhere along the line, I believe the symbol unintentionally became the surrogate. This tragedy is repeated throughout history: the all-encompassing love of a thing overshadows all that the person thought it enabled or epitomised.

This is my fear: that I would ever invest my being into something that is ultimately trivial.

There is both internal and external pressure to abandon balance due to its apparent tendency to lead us — not to greatness, notoriety and a lasting legacy — but to mediocrity and corresponding historical obscurity.

Mediocrity? Obscurity?

What if living into all the tensions of all of our loves is the goal of being alive? What if it’s all about becoming aware of the double-binds, and the idols that we cling to, or over-abandon? As a Christian, and as you might be able to guess with the name of this website, I don’t believe that my life belongs to me. That includes my legacy.

One of the most difficult disciplines of my faith is to entrust meaning to an obstinately invisible deity.

Sure, I want it. I want validation from people that all my memories and desires are important, and count for something. But not nearly enough to pay what it costs for many of the people who’ve have earned it…or the innumerable forgotten faces along the way who lost their souls having never even gained their chosen world.

All things considered, it’s good to be reminded of that every once in a while.

Assuming Control

I am disturbed by the current trend to talk about power only in negative terms. In the apparent presuppositions, it is assumed to be intrinsically linked to manipulation and control. My attempt in this post is to de-couple my point from any particular system or specific leader, and I will certainly refrain from referring to anything, shall we say, mystical.

The fact is that we all have power — indeed the only way that people have power over us is if we give it to them. Accusing people of taking control reveals an unfortunately shallow perspective of how power works. This is why calling out leaders for having too much power is generally ineffectual. We’d be better served talking to the people giving them power. But then, instead of levelling a simplistic accusation at an arbitrary target, we’d have to delve into the complex inner workings of individual motivation — a phenomenon made all the murkier as numbers rise and momentum grows. That’s a very complicated puzzle. Let’s start with something simpler.

Power works in two different basic economies: fear and hope.

Where people unite behind either fear or hope, they yield their power to leaders who they believe will effect their desires. That power transfers in many ways, some of them subtle: thought, word and action. Often power is transferred through money which is really a surrogate power, empowering a leader with few reservations.

But yielding power isn’t just descriptive — it is also prescriptive.

We should yield to leaders who we believe will effect our goals and aspirations, who catalyse things we perceive to be beneficial. In fact, we should do that willingly, cheerfully and often (while also recognising that what we believe is beneficial is open to others’ interpretation).

Of course, bad things happen when yielding power is held to as an absolute. But equally bad things happen when not yielding power is viewed as an absolute.

The problem with the kind of cynicism that I see dominating many conversations about power is that it wilfully ignores the good that power has done, and can do. Not only that, if power is only negative, we cause a self-defeating short-circuit. It goes like this: if power is bad, then anyone who has power is bad, so power itself should be abdicated, thereby turning hapless victimhood into the unwitting ideal. But hapless victims are clearly not the desired goal of people who clamour against power — victimhood is usually what they’re clamouring against!

We could certainly stand to improve (and nuance) our understandings of power. If we don’t, in our cognitive dissonance, we run the risk of accidentally empowering the things we don’t want, and disempowering the things we do.

The way forward is to stop vilifying power itself. Additionally, we need to stop viewing power as something outside of ourselves. We need to regularly inventory what power we have, where it’s coming from, and the reasons we choose to yield it.

Power belongs to people, which means it will never be perfect.

But when we choose hope and love as our primary motivation, power can be good — very good.