Monday, November 02, 2009

Cakes for Kierkegaard and Sermon on the Mount as Existentialist Answer Perhaps (Matthew 6:1-18)

Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake and an Espresso
That which apparently tastes like the chocolate flavoured Sara Lee pound cake (though without the contents of a salt shaker having been emptied into it) and an espresso

One blustery rainy evening, possibly not unlike the one that came upon Nigel Slater (but without the napping cats and speckled brown eggs), there was indeed the warm wholesome smell of a dense chocolate loaf cake in the oven.*

Homey-ness and comfort? As much as might emanate from the Übermensch donning red gingham, the shade of standard issue Stepford wife aprons, for Halloween.

Belatedly clearing some boxes (physical and metaphorical), a mound of unopened birthday presents (physical) was uncovered. With all the archaeological skill of a woolly mammoth, a fossil strata (physical again) was unearthed and found to contain a glass jar of powderily mouldy poppyseeds and a box of more fascinatingly mouldy chocolate (grey mould tendrils reached out in all directions from what were once possiby yummy chocolate spheres). A spate of cake baking followed in an attempt to provide other organic matter an opportunity for the due fulfilment of the purpose of their existence, before being ravaged by the various forms of artistic death that would surely come upon them.

Kierkegaard might have baked them himself, for a pandemic of pantry despair and Sickness Unto Death** was imminent. Despair as a human condition, according to Mr. Poofy Coiffure, is a symptom of the failure to be human in the fullest sense. This despair could be (i) "the despair that is ignorant of being despair or the despairing ignorance of having a self and an eternal self"; (ii) "the despair that is conscious of being despair and therefore is conscious of having a self in which there is something eternal and then either in despair does not will to be itself or in despair wills to be itself" - the awareness of something more than this finite reality but refusing to define one's self by anything more than the immediate and the finite; or (iii) "the despair to will to be oneself" apart from God - accepting the eternal but refusing to accept the purpose for which one has been made, and therefore attempting to create itself according to its own desires (or so I read, probably badly, Anti-climacus anyway). The cure for despair is to become "eternally and decisively conscious of himself as spirit, as self, or (what is the same thing), "became aware and in the deepest sense received an impression of the fact that there is a God, and that he, he himself, his self, exists before this God".

(Kierkegaard's slap-up solution of taking the leap of faith seems as frivolous as frilly lace cuffs and assuring the terminally ill that a gâteau au yaourt with much lemon and many blueberries will surely make everything a-okay because they taste of citrus, which of course connotes summer sunshine. But that's for another time. Because of the lemurs.)

Lemon Blueberry Yoghurt Loaf Cake Lemon Blueberry Yoghurt Loaf Cake, A Spot of Mariage Frères Earl Grey and Some Good News for Breakfast
Gâteau au yaourt with enough lemon to pucker your dying lips and many blueberries because a little anti-oxidant never did no one no harm

There is another sort of despair that comes from reading the Sermon on the Mount as a Christian, with a conscious decisive desire to please God.

First there is the despair of ever hoping to keep the Law without fault and to attain the perfection of our heavenly Father (Matthew 5:17-48). Fortunately, this very accurate assessment of our situation helps to bring on the meekness and the dependence on God for salvation that brings us into the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:3). While the Kierkgaardian despairing man avoids self-examination and the most hurtful knowledge a human can ever acquire, the Christian thanks God for it because it is only the man who has truly seen himself for what he is who is likely to fly to God.

Unfortunately, it isn't happily ever after (at least for the meanwhile) for the Christian. It becomes rather obvious that life post-conversion isn't a panacean existence from the troubles of this life. It is full of difficulties, pitfalls and snares. There are struggles between whom we know we should be and who we are. There are contradictions between whom we know God to be and how we relate to him etc.

While ostensibly on our knees declaring our cannot-make-it-ness and clinging to God, it appears that our hearts and minds will give us the slip and go back to our bad old ways, but now under cover of Christianity (Matthew 6:1- 18). Works of righteousness ought to come out of having being brought into a right relationship with God. But we perversely turn them in vulgar showcases of our godliness so that people will praise us (Matthew 6:1-2, 5-6, 16). It is easy to diss the trumpets of the Pharisees but many of us will admire and praise the obviously saintly and aspire to be seen by others in the same way. Christian activity can look sincere and devout but we can engage in them without having a real relationship with God, being concerned rather on having the spotlight on ourselves. Public prayer is encouraged in the Bible and about encouraging others in their relation with the living God, but are we more concerned with our sonorous tone, the number of incidents of women falling to their knees and weeping as we pray, the right verses quoted to demonstrate the soundness of our theology? Singing songs and playing instruments encourage people to express their relationship with God but are we more concerned with showing the beauty of our voice or our competent musicianship or being the song leader that everyone remembers for his charisma and choice of songs with the most engaging yet biblical lyrics? Do we spread ourselves so thinly in our preaching engagements because we want the word of God to be preached to all men or is our full diary (so that we have little time and energy to prepare for each talk) a result of wanting to pad our preaching CV ("Pastor XXX, a regular speaker at the Very Exclusive Evangelical Conference")? What about how we lead bible studies or counsel people - is it really about pointing people to God or to be known as the go-to leader whose touch of Minas anointed wisdom and godliness always multiplies ministries a hundred-fold? Sin is turning the attention from God and onto ourselves and to continue to do so is encouraging others too to sin. So Jesus warns us: "Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 6:1).

But perhaps even if we are not as uncivilised, even if we do our good works in secret, we do the less obvious: patting ourselves on the back when we have done good and kept to our spiritual disciplines, and recording our deeds in our little book of accounts with bonus points for doing all this in the secret, in the quiet, place. We might even thank God that we are not like those poor ungodly souls in church, because we are neither pastor, nor preacher, nor song leader, nor bible study leader, nor do we bother to serve in any ministry. We can put on a very good show for ourselves in the privacy of our own closet. The utter perversity of it all. So Jesus also warns "do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matthew 6:3, cf Matthew 6:16). But not only is our relationship with other people (Matthew 6:1-3) and ourselves (Matthew 6:16) sickening and inauthentic, even the noblest, most important activity available to mankind, prayer, is tainted with petty self-interest and glorification (Matthew 6:5-6). Cue: the despair of ever doing anything with the right motives.

And as if that were not foul enough, we also have to deal with matters that seem inherently contradictory. So we are told to let our light shine before others so that they may see our good works and praise God (Matthew 5:16) yet also to give our alms in secret (Matthew 6:4), pray in secret (Matthew 6:6) and fast in secret (Matthew 6:18). We are meant to do both in the same act - the extremes of great ostentation and cloistered living (so fearful of self and self-glorification that one segregates the self from the world) are to be avoided.

What's to be done? Let every man examine himself.

Which is where the lemurs come in. Ok, sometimes it's lemmings, but they don't last long what with all that running off cliffs and stuff, so mostly, it's lemurs. They sit in the den that is my mind, ensconced in comfy cushy armchairs, smoking fat lazy cigars brought in by Cuban boat people, playing cards and arguing. They might also do so in Italian accents, while eating cannoli, but that's besides the point. The point is that it seems that the Christian life is such a delicate balance that it requires a committee to decide what one should say and do.
"I, Lemur One, would like to table the motion of participating in this new ministry opportunity."
"Lemur One, what is our motive for participating. Is it so that we can get our name in the church bulletin and get the praise of men?"
"Lemur Two, you have too sensitive a conscience! If everyone thought like you, nothing would ever get done for God's kingdom!"
"Lemur One, surely this is a pertinent question. Are you trying to dismiss the warnings of our Lord Jesus Christ?"
"Lemur Three, perhaps if this is such an issue for you guys, I'm gonna make you an offer you can't refuse: why don't we tell the church staff to leave our name out?"
"Ooh Lemur One, cunning you are. By so doing, would we not be trumpeting our "godliness" on the pretext of being godly?"
At which point, a visiting three-toed sloth might have piped up with a wise word but the lemurs would have been too furiously machine-gunning the stuffing out off each others' armchairs to pay much attention.

Perhaps the problem with the lemurs is firstly, legalism. If we are to take Jesus' teachings and warnings as rules, never the twain shall meet because they seem inherently contradictory. The second problem is that they are sitting in a smoky den arguing. This insular self-focus can do no good and is also very bad for the upholstery.

The focus should instead be on God, afterall, all this is about the relationship we have with him. If we have any relationship with God, if we are aware that God is our Father and also the Creator, Sustainer and Judge of the world (Matthew 6:9); if we are aware that God's desire for his kingdom to come in fullness to this world has the certainty of, well, the will of an omnipotent God (Matthew 6:10), then we would be seeking to please him and not ourselves. (The choice is always pleasing the self and God. When we want to please the others around us, when we desire their praise, it is really about us being concerned about having a good opinion of ourselves, and therefore wanting to please ourselves.)

It wouldn't say much about the relationship if we thought we could appear to be working for God but be moonlighting for ourselves on the sly. This would, in fact, be fairly insulting to God since we would be thinking little of his omnipresence and omniscience if we thought we could get away with this. In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus reminds us that we are always in the presence of God. He sees our every action no matter how small, no matter how secret; he hears our every thought. So therefore, while we must keep examining ourselves, the solution to the possible impurity of our motives is not mulling ceaselessly over the purity of our hearts and spending our lives paralysed by the continuous dithering over whether or not to do this or that good work, but, by filling ourselves with more and more of his word, experiencing the very reality of having a relationship with an omniscient God. In the blinding light of his presence, all hypocrisy, pretence, sham, self-adulation and superiority would surely be moot.

Somewhat like the Kierkegaardian solution to Kierkegaardian despair, the answer to the despair of impure motives is by focusing on God and depending on him who gives us all things, from our daily sustenance to our salvation, and who controls all things (Matthew 6:11-13).

Addio lemurs?

A Trundle Through Sermon on the Mount
Earth Moves Under Feet, Kingdom Comes (Matthew 5-7)
This is the Sound of Inevitability (Matthew 5:1-6)
Breeding - We Hazs It (Matthew 5:7-12)
Coffee, Salt and Light, and the Essence and Use of the Christian (Matthew 5:13-16)
And the Missing Link is Jesus (Matthew 5:17-20)
Perfect Laws for Perfect Relationships (Matthew 5:21-48)
Cakes for Kierkegaard and Sermon on the Mount as Existentialist Answer Perhaps (Matthew 6:1-18)

Lam at Barclays Open Singapore 2009
*Thankfully, I ingested two thick slices of this chocolate loaf amounting to possibly 3 million calories on the final morning of the Barclays Open at the Serapong. Because by the time we found parking near someone's fetching house with a boat in the backyard, we were 3 planets away in Sentosa Cove, and had to board the complimentary inter-galactic shuttle to Sentosa Golf Club, where we discovered that we had only S$12 between us. This was spent on a S$4 bottle of 100 plus and a comparatively cheap S$8 wagyu burger.

** Sickness Unto Death:

So then in the Christian understanding of it not even death is the sickness unto death, still less everything which is called earthly and temporal suffering: want, sickness, wretchedness, affliction, adversities, torments, mental sufferings, sorrow, grief. And even if such things are so painful and hard to bear that we men say, or at all events the sufferer says, "This is worse than death" -- everything of the sort, which, if it is not a sickness, is comparable to a sickness, is nevertheless, in the Christian understanding of it, not the sickness unto death.

So it is that Christianity has taught the Christian to think dauntlessly of everything earthly and worldly, including death. It is almost as though the Christian must be puffed up because of this proud elevation above everything men commonly call misfortune, above that which men commonly call the greatest evil. But then in turn Christianity has discovered an evil which man as such does not know of; this misery is the sickness unto death. What the natural man considers horrible -- when he has in this wise enumerated everything and knows nothing more he can mention, this for the Christian is like a jest. Such is the relation between the natural man and the Christian; it is like the relation between a child and a man: what the child shudders at, the man regards as nothing. The child does not know what the dreadful is; this the man knows, and he shudders at it. The child’s imperfection consists, first of all, in not knowing what the dreadful is; and then again, as an implication of this, in shuddering at that which is not dreadful. And so it is also with the natural man, he is ignorant of what the dreadful truly is, yet he is not thereby exempted from shuddering; no, he shudders at that which is not the dreadful: he does not know the true God, but this is not the whole of it, he worships an idol as God.

Only the Christian knows what is meant by the sickness unto death. He acquires as a Christian a courage which the natural man does not know -- this courage he acquires by learning fear for the still more dreadful. Such is the way a man always acquires courage; when one fears a greater danger, it is as though the other did not exist. But the dreadful thing the Christian learned to know is "the sickness unto death."

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At November 16, 2009 5:00 pm , Blogger christie said...

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At June 30, 2010 8:22 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities.


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