Friday, September 28, 2012

Goldfish and Gratuitousness

The great challenge before us, accentuated by the problems of development in this global era and made even more urgent by the economic and financial crisis, is to demonstrate, in thinking and behaviour, not only that traditional principles of social ethics like transparency, honesty and responsibility cannot be ignored or attenuated, but also that in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity. This is a human demand at the present time, but it is also demanded by economic logic. It is a demand both of charity and of truth.

Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI

In the encylical quoted above-- yet another of those pesky "social encylicals" in which Pope after Pope refuses to add full-throttle free market economics to the deposit of faith-- Pope Benedict mentions the concept of "gift" again and again. It is a concept that has been on my mind more and more in recent years and months, and that has always lurked in the background of my mind, even when my mind was mostly full of Transformers and Dan Dare.

God is our Father. The idea seems like a platitude to us, but it is not a platitude, it is a pretty shocking claim. I saw the Catholic apologist Scott Hahn, in an interview on television, recalling a debate he had with a Muslim, in which the Muslim was so offended by the claim that God was our father that he stormed off. Some philosophers have held to the view that God is not even aware of us, that we-- along with the rest of the universe-- simply radiated from the Divine Perfection like heat and light from the sun.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has a very definite doctrine of God's creative freedom:

"We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God's free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom and goodness: "For you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created."

God created us purposely, like a father, and not out of necessity like a field throwing up grass.

Another principle that will be familiar to Christians-- so familiar, perhaps, that we don't even think about it very much-- is the gratuitousness of Christ's sacrifice, God's grace, and our redemption. Everything we have is a gift; our existence, our redemption from sin, and our hopes of Heaven. As C.S. Lewis put it, in Heaven nothing can be bought, and everything can be had for the asking. (This is not the place to get into the theology of faith and works, but I believe the Catholic view of justification is perfectly compatible with this principle.)

What strikes me more and more, though, is how joyful and liberating this doctrine really is-- and how important it is to so many of the things I find most precious in life.

Don't get me wrong. I am as prideful and vain and narcissistic as the next fellow-- in fact, I would guess that I am considerably more so. I am a glutton for praise. I hate asking anybody for anything. I want to be vindicated, and to score points, and to save face. I want all of that stuff.

But underneath that-- underneath the rubbish of self-assertion and self-congratulation and self-importance-- I still feel, by the infinite grace of God, a limitless delight in everything that is free, gratuitous, undeserved, unlooked-for, superfluous and gloriously unnecessary.

I remember, when I was a boy, I liked going to a particular barber's because they had goldfish I could look at while I was having my hair cut. And even back then, although I could never have articulated it in these terms, I think the fact that the goldfish were utterly unnecessary was part of my pleasure in them. Now, in my mind, the golden glow of their scales seem to represent all the unnecessary things I love about life; all the barber's goldfish of human existence, so to speak...

I love chivalry because it is unnecessary. Feminists who oppose chivalry (and let me say here that I do not presume that all or even most feminists do) are wont to complain: "I don't need a man to open doors for me! I don't need to be treated like fine china! My ears are not going to be bruised by swear-words!" All that is true; but that's what makes chivalry so delightful. It's not necessary; it is a grace; it is a celebration and an idealisation of the brute fact of sexual difference.

The same applies to national identity. It may well be the case that "people are the same wherever you go", to quote an eminent Beatle. It may be the case, as Marxist historians insist, that many national traditions are more or less made-up, or at least not half so venerable as their champions like to pretend. But so what? Why shouldn't we celebrate national difference in the same way we celebrate sexual difference-- by making more of it than we need to? Why shouldn't we revel in the gift of nationality? I can imagine a world where everybody has the same language, the same customs, the same culture and traditions. But how utterly dreary!

Nearly everything I love about this world, I love because it is unnecessary, extra, gratuitous; and not simply in the sense that our very existence, and the world itself, is unnecessary. I mean things that are unnecessary in the sense that they fulfil no obvious utilitarian function. Or, beyond even that, things that could easily not exist without anybody even noticing.

I love custom and ceremony and tradition because they are unnecessary. (It is sometimes argued that tradition is indeed necessary, that all our engineering skills and language and units of measurement are in fact "tradition". Of course, that is true, but it doesn't seem like a very interesting truth to me. The traditions I delight in are traditions in the more usual sense; festivals, toasts, games, foods, and so forth.)

I love poetry because it is unnecessary. All art is more or less unnecessary, but some arts are more unnecessary than others, and poetry is the cherry on the pie of pointlessness (so to speak). Poetry doesn't even kill time like a novel or cover a wall like a painting. Many people-- even educated people who consider themselves fairly cultured-- can and do go through life without ever reading or reciting poetry. Some even congratulate themselves on this. Personally, I think poetry is a good barometer of civilisation-- a society or a life that is empty of poetry is (I dare to say) not entirely civilised.

Two examples come into my mind when I think of the divinely unnecessary nature of poetry. One is an anthology of poetry I read, when I was in school, which contained poems chosen by teenagers. In her introduction to the poem she had chosen-- I think it was Eldorado by Edgar Allen Poe-- the girl said she had liked the poem so much, when she first encountered it, that she wrote it out carefully on fancy paper, put a decorative border around it, and hung it on her bedroom wall. It delights me that a teenager (or anybody, but especially a teenager) should do that. The other example, one I've already mentioned on this blog, is the scene in Star Trek: the Next Generation in which Geordi and Data discuss, in some depth, a poem Data has written. I find that hard to imagine on almost any other TV show, unless it was done in a school context.

I could prolong my list of unnecessary things that I love almost indefinitely. I love shops full of trinkets (like lava lamps and snowglobes) because they are unnecessary. I like monarchy because it is unnecessary. I like amateur dramatic societies and local history societies and office newsletters and pub quizzes because they are unnecessary. I like the posters on a teenager's wall because they are unnecessary.

I like graduation ceremonies and graduation robes and college scarves and college songs and school uniforms because they are unnecessary. (I had a colleague, a feminist communist atheist-- she really was!-- whose son, she told us, wanted to graduate without having to wear any of those fussy, stupid robes. What other reaction would you expect from someone who'd been exposed to such mind-rotting rubbish all his life?)

I like folklore because it is unnecessary. Yes, there will always be folklore, but a town can get by without a nickname, a family can get by without family jokes and anecdotes, and a workplace can get by without horror stories of difficult customers or eccentric bosses. That is, a place or a group or an institution doesn't have to have any soul or character-- and very often they don't. It seems to me that, wherever you have nicknames and running jokes and anecdotes and sayings, life is vibrant.

I especially like applause in the cinema because it is especially unnecessary.

I like parades because they are unnecessary. I like nostalgia because it is unnecessary. I like extended families because they are unnecessary. I like diaries because they are unnecessary. I like anniversaries because they are unnecessary. I like mottoes and photo albums and postcard collections and official unveilings and fancy dress because they are all so sublimely unnecessary.

I have always harboured this passion and yearning and gratitude for all things unnecessary and superfluous and done entirely for their own sake. It may not be pious in itself, but I like to think that there is something of piety in it-- perhaps a premonition of that magnificent, humbling, bracing, exhilarating doctrine that all good things are as gloriously gifted to us, as utterly unearned, as the parcels under the Christmas tree.

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