Walter Miller on Society and the Church

I have just finished re-reading one of my favorite novels of all time, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller. Among the many themes of Walter Miller’s work are the cyclical nature of human society and the relationship that the Church has toward such societies. A Canticle for Leibowitz speaks powerfully about the historical fact of monasteries preserving knowledge during periods of extreme social unrest and of the two, differing, visions of the purpose of knowledge (the vision of human nature, and the vision of the Church).

“When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.”

Given the previous context of the novel, this quote is not meant to glorify ignorance or poverty. Rather, it shows that as humanity becomes intellectually and materially rich, we have a sad tendency to forget our past, our interconnectedness, and our compassion. We begin to look more toward the future and a million different fallible human visions of utopia while we ignore the poor outside our own doors. The “needle” is an all-too-apt metaphor.

“To minimize suffering and maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law–a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.”

There’s an old saying: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” This is one of the reasons why I absolutely love Saint Augustine’s description of what sin is. Sin is when we turn away from God (as the source of all goodness) and, instead, embrace a lesser good to the exclusion of God. The sin is in the turning. It doesn’t make the good thing any less good. But if we only focus on this one good, then it’s entirely too easy to begin sacrificing other goods to achieve/maintain this one good. Once that starts, we’ve started down a path from which it is hard to turn around (One of the meanings of “repentance” in Hebrew is to turn: שוב shuv – to return.) The poet George Herbert said “Devils are our sins in perspective.” However with Saint Augustine’s paradigm, we can also add: “Good things become devils depending on our perspective.”

“Bombs and tantrums, when the world grew bitter because the world fell somehow short of half-remembered Eden.”

Hard as any society tries, we can never fully minimize pain or maximize security. The harder we try, the quicker we find that our utopia has become a dystopia. Then, it is only human nature to lash out. And, sadly, that is mostly what we seem to do. We build a cheap imitation of Eden, yet just as quickly smash it apart as if it were made of building blocks because it can never match our dreams.

To these quotes, Walter Miller contrasts the life and purpose of the monks of the “Albertian Order of Leibowitz.” It is their job to preserve knowledge in order to help all people. The knowledge within the order’s “memorabilia” is meant to foster understanding and humility. It is the Church that provides an alternative to the power structures of exploitation, violence, and oppression in our world. Or will the history of the world continue to be enacted cyclically?

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~ by crossingthebosporus on July 2, 2012.

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