Chapter 2: Does It Matter?

Liberal Christianity at the Crossroads
by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 2: Does It Matter?

Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is one of the great books of all time. In it Athens appears as a tragic hero. Her faults are not concealed from us, and we know from the first the inevitability of her defeat. We even see that there may be more justice in Sparta’s cause. But we side with Athens. The Athenian people embody so much of the spirit we admire — a spirit of creativity, love of beauty, self-reliance, and, to a degree. democracy. In their midst were some of the great artists and thinkers of all time.

One incident in the story struck me with peculiar painfulness when I first read the book many years ago and has remained in my memory. It is the story of Mytilene. Mytilene was a member of the confederacy of free cities that Athens gradually transformed into an empire. As in many such cities the common people were sympathetic to Athens, whereas the oligarchy resented Athens and preferred an alliance with Sparta. Under the rule of the oligarchy Mytilene revolted against Athens, counting on Spartan aid. The Spartan fleet, however, was slow in coming, whereas the Athenians came promptly. To defend themselves the Mytileneans armed the common people, who then insisted on making terms with the Athenians. The city surrendered on the single condition that before it was punished the case would be heard by the citizens of Athens. The Athenians were furious that in a time of war a member of the confederacy would turn against them. They voted to kill all the men of the city and to sell the women and children into slavery.

I am glad to say that this story has a relatively happy ending. The people of Athens repented of their decision. The next day they reassembled and reversed themselves. They dispatched fast ships which arrived just in time to stay the slaughter. Only the leaders were executed.

When I first read the story, what struck me with painful force was the fact that the great and free people of Periclean Athens could publicly and collectively decide on so cruel and unjust a punishment. On rereading the story recently, I was more struck by the fact that they changed their minds.

What has happened to me in the intervening years is that I have participated in the widespread American experience of the loss of innocence. Twenty-five years ago, although I might verbally have denied it, I inwardly felt that I was part of a nation incapable of cruelty of such dimensions. Of course I knew that the United States had done some morally questionable things, but I viewed all of them as secondary to a fundamentally virtuous history. I wanted the United States to become more fully involved in world affairs on the assumption that it would exercise its power basically for justice and peace and the economic development of other peoples. I could not understand how the Athenian people, so like us in many ways, could have been capable of such egregious cruelty.

But the past two decades have forced us to re-view our history. We must see it through the eyes of Indians and blacks and Orientals and Mexicans, and it is transformed into a story of greed and exploitation, racism and nationalism, all papered over with a transparently hypocritical rhetoric.

We could come to terms emotionally with this new picture of our distant past if we could see our recent experience in a different light. But alas. In recent times, we have given our support to dictatorships in Greece and Portugal and Brazil and have opposed creative reform in Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and in Chile. And above all, there has been our destructive involvement in Vietnam.

We might like to claim that the American people are not responsible for the crimes in Vietnam. By a substantial majority we wanted to get out and leave Vietnam to the Vietnamese. But alas this position was not taken on moral grounds. Once the pressure of the draft was removed, the resistance to the war on college campuses eroded. Once the American casualty list declined, the level of protest against the destruction of Vietnamese lives dropped drastically. Most Americans would have liked to win the war regardless of the moral considerations involved. It was only when we saw that we could not win that we favored extrication. By a considerable majority we supported Nixon’s thoroughly amoral policies.

Many of us, when we realize how deeply we are implicated in the raw use of power to achieve immoral ends, react with anger. We will not tolerate this. We have a democracy in which we can make our voices heard. We organize to change our national policy.

So we tried for many years to stop this vicious and seemingly endless war in Southeast Asia. But we failed. We made headway in one place, only to find that we had lost ground in another.

Furthermore, we found our efforts caught up in a web of ambiguities. To achieve political success we simplified the issues to the point of falsification. We pretended that there were easier solutions than in fact existed. We portrayed those who disagreed with us as fools or as wicked conspirators. We belittled the element of betrayal of allies that would be involved in extricating ourselves. We employed means that involved the violation of laws, and we resented those who pointed out the moral questionableness of such means and were shocked when our efforts backfired against our cause. Our motives were a tangle of concern for the Vietnamese and for our own self-image as righteous people. The net result of all our efforts was that in place of our infantry killing Vietnamese one by one, our nation automated battlefields and instituted mass bombing.

Involved in such abortive efforts, we become more frustrated. From time to time we find new channels by which to vent our anger in constructive, if still ambiguous, ways; but on the whole we find ourselves instead on the verge of despair. In the face of a reality that matters deeply to us, and with full recognition of its horrible moral evil, we find ourselves impotent, and we cannot even take satisfaction in the purity of our own motives and acts. To understand ourselves in relation to such a history is deeply disillusioning.

If we cannot find meaning in history, where shall we turn? One possibility is to take a larger, evolutionary view. Perhaps in the play of seemingly meaningless forces can be discerned a meaning on the larger scale that is invisible in current events.

The most powerful contemporary vision of such a meaning is that of Teilhard de Chardin. In the total history of life on our planet he saw our time as the beginning of a great convergence of all men into a new and ultimate redemptive unity of mutual enrichment. Even in the totalitarian collectivisms of the ‘30s and the great war of the ‘40s he was able to discern movement toward what he called the Omega. Certainly it is the case that over the eons we can discern a growth and progress that is not apparent when we judge instead in terms of recent historical epochs. If we can derive no meaning for our lives from our involvement in the immediate events of history, perhaps we can endow them with significance as a part of an overarching movement toward a distant consummation.

There are two problems with this, First, in spite of all Teilhard’s careful qualifications, the Christian must fear that when the eye is set on so distant a horizon, it will be too easy to neglect the urgent cry of the neighbor for food and justice. The evolutionary scale of millions of years threatens to diminish the importance of the cup of cold water to the thirsty man.

Second, many of us can no longer have confidence in an evolutionary future. Teilhard, in his last years, wrestled with the problem of mans new technical power of self-destruction. But he convinced himself that man would not use it. Now, however, we realize that to destroy ourselves we need only continue in the way we are already going.

I heard a simple story once about a tiny island covered with grass. Sailors stopped there for water and noticed that there were no animals. How perfect, they thought, for rabbits; so they released a few, planning to come back later for fresh meat. When they returned a few years later, however, they found the island littered with the corpses of rabbits. They had multiplied unchecked in that rabbit paradise until, abruptly, they exhausted the food. Then they starved. We now are too much like those rabbits cheerfully multiplying our numbers and our consumption with abundant resources. Only, unlike rabbits. we can foresee the danger. But if we do, then the distant horizon is no longer reassuring. It is imminent historical actions that will determine whether there can be any long-term future at all. Omega may beckon, but it will not save us. So we are thrown back into the cycle of activism and frustration and despair.

If, then, we are to find meaning, we seem to be driven back to the smaller sphere of our family, our friends, and our inner lives. In small groups, kindness and mutual concern sometimes prevail over raw power and here and now we can find satisfaction in exploring the mysteries of the psyche and in opening ourselves to each other. If history is driven by inexorable forces, and if we can have no confidence in an ultimate consummation of the evolutionary process, then must we not seek meaning here?

The problem is that we cannot shut ourselves off from the currents of history even in our sensitivity and meditation groups or in our families. Our efforts to escape history are an expression of our historical situation. And that changing situation breaks in upon our lives inevitably and continuously. If history is amoral arid meaningless, then, in the end, so is every aspect of our lives.

What. then, shall we do? When we seek the meaning of our lives in participation in history, we are driven to despair. But when we seek to overcome this despair by expanding the scale to that of evolution or contracting it to intimate relations we find ourselves thrown back upon history.

We have two choices. The first is to root out of our very beings all sense of meaning and morality. This sense is not easily exorcised, for it is the product of three thousand years of Judeo-Christian history. But we cannot live in despair, and for a hundred years many sensitive Westerners have been coming to terms with the possibility of a history and a personal life without morality and without meaning. To the question, "Does it matter?" they have learned to say. "No."

They have learned to see history as a field of power struggle in which moral ideals are in fact only weapons in the hands of the antagonists. Those with power always use their power to exploit the powerless, and they always will. They believe that to accept man and his world is to accept this man and this world. To moralize about it is only to create misery in yourself and others. There is much that is attractive in this view.

Richard Rubenstein, the rabbi who wrote the book After Auschwitz, has argued that after the horrors perpetrated against the European Jews under Hitler it is no longer possible to believe in the Judeo-Christian God, for to believe in God is to believe that Auschwitz too has meaning. In that book and in some of his other utterances there was an understandable bitterness against Christians and Christianity. But when Rubenstein rejected belief in God he moved toward an amoral view of history. Once the Jews were driven out of Israel by the Romans, he now believes, Auschwitz became inevitable. Events are governed by inexorable historical forces, not by morality. Hence it is pointless to accuse and to excuse. For the Christian, at least, this nonjudgmental Rubenstein is easier to take than the accusing prophet.

William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, tells the story in The Inheritors of the meeting of Cro-Magnon with Neanderthal man. The story is told from the point of view of the more primitive, less aggressive, Neanderthal man. It is a horrible but all too plausible account of his destruction. It is a parable of what has always happened in history when a more advanced people encounter a less advanced and, usually, less warlike one. Perhaps we can have more compassion for our ancestors for their treatment of Africans and Indians if we realize that this is part of a universal pattern rather than an expression of peculiar viciousness on their part.

Perhaps. in the reading of the past, an amoral view has much to commend it. But our reading of the past will carry over into our reading of the present and undercut our passion for justice and our hope that men can even now rise above raw power in their treatment of one another. Perhaps we can come to terms with the exploitations of the past, but should we complacently stand aside as the sacred mountain of the Navajos is strip-mined and the ecology of their region destroyed in order to produce more electricity to meet the insatiable demands of us Californians? Should we simply accept as inevitable the continued slaughter of the primitive Indians of the Amazon because they are felt to be a nuisance by the new developers and builders of roads?

There are tough-minded people who have learned to accept the exploitation and genocide that are occurring in our time without flinching and without moral judgment. These too they see as products of the inexorable forces of history.

Albert Camus thought in this way at one point in his life. He had a German friend with whom he talked about what this viewpoint implied. The friend went on to become a Nazi. Camus found deep within himself that he did not, could not, believe that this amoral view of life was the last word. Toward the end of World War II he wrote his friend as follows:

"For a long time we both thought that this world had no ultimate meaning . . . . still think so in a way. But I came to different conclusions from the ones you used to talk about, which, for so many years now, you have been trying to introduce into history. I tell myself now that if I had really followed your reasoning, I ought to approve what you are doing. . . .

"You never believed in the meaning of this world, and you therefore deduced the idea that everything was equivalent and that good and evil could be defined according to one’s wishes. . . . You concluded that . . . the only pursuit for the individual was the adventure of power and his only morality, the realism of conquests. And, to tell the truth, I, believing I thought as you did, saw no valid argument to answer you except a fierce love of justice which, after all, seemed to me as unreasonable as the most sudden passion. . . .

" . . . From the same principle we derived quite different codes. . . . You chose injustice and sided with the gods. . . .

"I, on the contrary, chose justice in order to remain faithful to the world. I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has a meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. . . With your scornful smile you will ask me: what do you mean by saving man? And with all my being I shout to you that I mean not mutilating him and yet giving a chance to the justice that man alone can conceive." (Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, tr. by Justin O’Brien [Alfred A. Knopf. Inc., 1961], pp. 27f.)

Camus could not root out of his being the sense of meaning and morality, however narrowly he was forced to circumscribe the former. Like him, in spite of ourselves, we find meaning in a moral response to history. Camus cried out that it does matter what happens. However frustrated we become, however strongly despair threatens, we are not finally allowed to believe that it does not matter. Instead, we must learn to see that everything matters.

Everything matters — there is no rest for us. There will always be new claims upon our attention, new demands for help, as long as we live. To cease to recognize those claims is to be inwardly dead.

Because everything matters, we are forever denied self-satisfaction. We must face the endless perversity of our motives and the inevitable ambiguity of all our actions.

But because everything matters, we can endure without rest and without self-satisfaction. We matter as individuals. Our every hope and fear, our angry and generous feelings, our little gestures for good and ill — all are important. We are people of worth. To realize that in the depths of our beings is to know the blessing and affirmation of God.