Jan 31 — Grace and Play of Life

Texts:  3 John 1:1-6

Within these sacred grounds,
revenge and anger end:
A way to peace is found,
and injury can mend.
With friendship’s kindness as our guide,
the soul’s made glad and satisfied.
With friendship’s kindness as our guide,
the soul’s made glad and satisfied.

Amidst this band of brothers,
a loving wisdom lives:
All honor one another,
and freely we forgive.
For one deserving human birth,
there is no greater joy on earth.
For one deserving human birth,
there is no greater joy on earth. —
Mozart, The Magic Flute, In diesen Heil’gen Hallen

A somewhat peculiar difficulty seems to attend the discussion of ethical theory, on account of its characteristic relation to action. This relation gives rise, on one side, to the belief that ethics is primarily an ‘art.’ Ethics is so much the theory of practice that it seems as if its main business were to aid in the direction of conduct. This being premised, the next step is to make out of ethics a collection of rules and precepts. A body of rigid rules is erected with the object of having always some precept which will tell just what to do. But, on the other side, it is seen to be impossible that any body of rules should be sufficiently extensive to cover the whole range of action; it is seen that to make such a body results inevitably . . . to destroy the grace and play of life by making conduct mechanical.
– J. Dewey, “Green’s Theory of Moral Motive”

Music critics have written about The Magic Flute over the decades in various shades acceptance, from high praise to complete disdain. Once upon a time it was described as a pointless plot driven by weak, ineffectual music. It is now generally regarded as masterpiece; the score alone a work of genius.   On top of that the musical genius of The Magic Flute is of a piece with the libretto, the text of the operatic action.  Unlike other contemporary composers, Mozart did not give his librettist a blank check and ask him to come up with the words to his opera. Mozart worked closely with Emmanuel Schikaneder the music and the text would be of the same enlightened nature.

The Magic Flute is a deep well of themes of most important human issues: love, forgiveness, courage, integrity, good versus evil, peace and human striving in the world.

The aria we just heard, In diesen Heil’gen Hallen, is sung by a character who, at the opening of the opera we take for an evil tyrant.  He has kidnapped the queen’s beautiful daughter.  Our heros, Tamino and Papegeno, set off to Sarastro’s castle thinking that their chances are slim, but for love, perhaps it’ll be a David and Goliath thing and they’ll take their chances.  But, as you know the Queen is literally the queen of darkness and Sarastro has taken her daughter from her so that no further harm may come to her.  Sarastro is not the evil one, so the story, instead of a story of conquest, becomes the story of the ground of friendship, the story of a journey into integrity and the freedom of the soul from the dark of night.

The Queen of the Night

The Queen of the Night appears to Pamina in a moment of distress and gives her daughter a dagger with which to kill Sarastro.  She then sings her signature piece — “Hell’s Vengeance Boileth in my Heart.”  The interesting thing about this moment, is that evil comes clothed in beauty as she sings this incredibly high, incredibly light, most beautiful coloratura aria.   It reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s comment on seeing Adolph Eichmann stand trial in Nuremberg — that there was  a certain banality to the evil she thought he was.  Perhaps Alfred North Whitehead is more constructive when he analyzes evil.  He suggests that evil, in itself is small, but triumphant, and as such is a positive, albeit destructive force in the world.   In the music of the Queen of the Night, Arendt’s banality of evil becomes Whitehead’s triumph of evil, which despite its triumph is unstable.  I used to think that the high, bouncing notes of the queen expressed her boiling rage.  I wonder now if these notes don’t mean to give the impression of unstable beauty — that height and that speed cannot be sustained.  As Yeats put it in his poem on evil —

Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

Fortunately for us, it is mere anarchy, there is nothing profound about it all.  It is precisely this unstability, this relative insignificance of evil, of which Sarastro reminds us when he sings in response to the Queen of the Night’s unstable triumphalism.  Within these sacred halls, revenge and anger end.  But it is not simply that we call them sacred.  They are made sacred by respecting the meaning of life — that for one deserving human birth, there is no greater joy than the bonds of friendship.  These bonds are positive and constructive and they lead, in contrast to the turbulence of evil, to the ‘peace which passeth all understanding.’  There is a stability inherent in that which is good in itself.  Its destruction may come from without (there is no guarantee, no vaccination against the destructive force of evil).  But the destruction of good itself, may never come from within.

To recap — the music has set the stage for us to think about one of the great troubles of human life — What do we do about evil?  The musical contrast between the two arias suggests the location of the tension, and a way to think about its resolution.  It is to that resolution that I now turn.


In order to  remain practical, we must ask a different question now — not, “What is evil?”  But first how do we experience it, and “What do we do in response to it?”

There can be no question, for the serious minded that one of the most persistent temptations of our human lives, is to paint our pasts in rosier colors than our past might deserve.  We will avoid, as a species, dealing with the unpleasant realities of our past.  We will squirm, dodge, evade, disguise, cover up, find excuses all in order to render our past, our history, and our presentation to the future, more congenial.  In other words, we idealize our experience.  What is disappointing and full of angst, becomes in our idealized view of ourselves, achievement and victory in the face of real trouble.  What is damaged or hurt, in real life, is framed as the frustration of desires and of dashed achievement.

This is more than pop psychology.  This kind of idealizing of our past, disappointing or otherwise,  is the natural course of modern reflection, given a long history in the church of idealizing the realities of the world, of avoiding the reality that evil degrades our social and natural environments.  Almost from the beginning of human reflection on the nature of things, discomfort with the way things are and abhorrence at the presence of evil, has driven us to think that the perfect life, the perfect world, would not be troubled by change, which seems to be the root of all this angst.

For the church, the story of human achievement has always been connected with the God who is above the fray of change whatsoever.  Because God is perfect, and because what is mutable is subject to the forces of evil, God must be immutable, and all good things must flow from immutability – so goes the story of our idealization.  From this curios fact of the history of human knowledge, follows the superiority granted to pure reason.  Pure reason is complete.  Pure knowing is pure beholding, it lacks nothing.  Is not this what God must be, and must require?

Renee Descartes distilled this tradition most succinctly when he said that that which is real requires nothing but itself in order to exist.  He had managed finally to idealize human existence out of existence.

Despite the appeal of pure simplicity, despite our longing for a pure philosophy to guide us down pure paths of truth,  we know that life cannot flow from solitary existence.  And we know that the progress that humans have made in rising from a state of mere brutish existence to  a place of qualitative interest and creative enterprise, is the result of the scientific belief that our best efforts are directed toward understanding that which changes. Despite the appeal to pure simplicity, it is must be that the collection of imagined possibilities that stimulates the human race to new efforts and vivid dreams — to say nothing of higher realms of love and more powerful visions of justice — stem from the slow realization that pure simplicity, pure reason, pure contemplation, is an ineffectual substitute for practical reason, for a moral vision that arises not from a collection of rules and precepts, but from the direction of the grace and play of daily life.


To the question of how we respond to evil, or, in other words to the question of ethics — the author of the third letter of John — reminds us of the powerful role of practical reason in the course of human affairs. We know what is good, when our affairs with each other are marked by the spirit of friendship, when truth is not relegated to an ivory tower, but is worked out in hospitality, in the relation to stranger as to friend.  Evil, by implication, is that which works against the grace and play of life, and which plunges the soul into despair.

The British preacher, F. W. Robertson, of the 19th century recalled from his own experience that dark night of the soul in which everything begins to crumble, until nothing seems left to believe in.  The power of evil, for Robertson at that time seemed to rob him of companions on the journey.  Robertson proposed to himself at the time a moral imperative.  He writes:

In the darkest hour through which a human soul can pass, whatever else is doubtful, this at least is certain.  If there be no God, and no future state, yet, even then, it is better to be generous than selfish, better to be chaste than licentious, better to be true than false, better to be brave than a coward.

For Roberston, this final source of order amid the unstability of evil was the way back to God and the Christ he seemed to have lost.

On of the most remarkable facts of the New Testament is that Jesus called his disciples friends.  “You are my friends, if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).   Robertson’s grasp of the moral imperative as practical reason is proof of this friendship.  We know the grace of God, by the grace and play of life, and when the grace and play of life seems dulled, the love of God, unencumbered by any rule or dogma, but free and overflowing, bids us share in the joy that is from the beginning.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s