Thursday, January 16, 2014

Something of a Treatise – Joy Davidman (Part 2)

Continuing with Davidman’s letter to Aaron Kramer:

“…the snow-covered hill outside my window is not beautiful in itself, it is only beautiful to my mind and if I were not a human being with an aesthetic faculty implicit in my nature, if I were a slug for instance, it would not be beautiful to me at all…[emphasis added]

“But ethics and aesthetics do depend to a certain extent upon the intrinsic nature of consciousness. It is not possible to arrive at a utilitarian or economic-determinist explanation of the sense of beauty…[emphasis Davidman’s]…

Davidman – Gresham (she was Mrs. William Gresham at this time) came into a relationship with Jesus Christ in 1947 – 1948. This letter to Kramer was written January 26, 1948. She began reading C.S. Lewis in 1947. Those who know Lewis will recognize in Davidman a kindred spirit – a sense of the aesthetic, a sense of beauty, a recognition of the aesthetic in human nature. I haven’t read anything that suggests that Davidman read in Lewis anything she didn’t already know, but rather that in Lewis Davidman found an affirmation of what she was working through in her heart and mind; perhaps in one sense Lewis was the sun and rain that fed the seeds of awareness in Davidman, perhaps he was an element of the light leading her out of a dark place.

I think it’s fair to say that Joy Davidman did her best to be a good Marxist and that there were two primary reasons she left Marxism; the philosophical, moral and practical inconsistencies; and simultaneously her continued pursuit of beauty and joy (in the transcendent sense of those two words).

Consider the following excerpts from the letter to Kramer:

“…we have almost invariably, for lack of guidance from Marx, made the economic-determinist error, thus: from Ethics is what serves the working class to Ethics is what comes in handy at the moment. Also: from Aesthetics is the study of man’s innate sense of beauty to Aesthetics is the study of man’s recognition of his true self-interest.
“I am not exaggerating; this has happened to my knowledge to a very grievous extent. Not once, but dozens of times, Marxist would-be-writers have told me in one way or another that nothing is beautiful except as it is useful. Applied to writing, this comes out as: I need only to follow the party line and I will have created a masterpiece. It would be nice if it were true; unfortunately it ain’t.” 

The battle with the utilitarian is something that many have engaged in from ancient days; the tyranny of the practical, of the expedient – the assault of the utilitarian on propositional truth and transcendent joy and beauty (the image of God in man responding to its Creator…marred as the image is). Our minds are made to respond to the intellectual truth of God, our hearts are made to respond to the beauty of God – the “I” responds to the “Thou” and we become the Bride of Christ, we come home to our Bridegroom.

Davidman saw that theoretical Marxist Ethics was altogether different from practical Marxist Ethics, the latter was the trump card, it was what comes in handy at the moment. But this is always the struggle, including the struggle within the professing Church in 2014. The practical trumps obedience to Jesus and His Word, the utilitarian drives our decision-making, church consultants and technology have replaced God’s Word and the Holy Spirit; witnessing is treated as an option; self-denial considered an archaic idea and command. The numbers drive everything; they drive how we spend money, they drive who we tailor our outreach to, they determine which churches ministers will serve – numbers are our default decision-making benchmark – and there is little or no angst if our decisions do not coincide with the Word of God, the teaching of Jesus, the leading of the Holy Spirit, or credible counter-cultural witness to the world.

So our decision-making in the professing Church is often no different than atheistic Marxist decision-making – if it works it’s good and if it doesn’t work it’s bad. How many books and videos are you going to sell if you don’t follow that philosophy?

Davidman wrote, “Applied to writing, this comes out as: I need only to follow the party line and I will have created a masterpiece. It would be nice if it were true; unfortunately it ain’t.”  Davidman could not sell her soul, try as she might, hope in Marxism as she might, she couldn’t do it. Jesus says that whoever seeks to save his soul will lose it; Davidman could have saved her Marxist soul by denying the contradictions with which she was faced, but she didn’t deny them and as a result found her soul. Pascal, Chesterton, Lewis…what they had been told by the world, by the established order, contained inherent contradictions; what they had been told violated the image of God within them (marred as it might be), it violated the logic of their observations, it just didn’t make consistent sense. Davidman tried to write the party line, she tried to be a good soldier, she gave it a good try – but in the end she left the realm of the walking dead and followed the Light of Christ and came to find, in the words of the Hebrew psalmist, that “In Thy light we see light”.

We may not be Marxists, but we are not immune from the virus of utilitarianism. That is the magnetic north of our society and it has become the magnetic north of much of the Western church. We can learn from Davidman.

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