Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Invisible Cities -- coda

At the end of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Kublai Khan expresses his fear that the future of his empire is tending toward ruin and corruption. He speaks of an emblematic destination that he calls the "infernal city".

Marco Polo answers:

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

These two ways of escape -- either accommodation or else resistance by promoting pockets of good within the inferno -- strike me as Stoic responses. Each is a means of enduring in spite of the power of the inferno. While most people view resistance as more noble than accommodation -- and I offer all honor to those trying to improve social conditions -- even resisting the inferno tends toward pessimism. The world as inferno ultimately exhausts and overpowers individuals, even the Great Khan of the Mongol Hordes. Pockets of good are often squeezed to extinction.

Christianity provides a different view of the world as inferno and offers its own guidance on how to respond. Accommodation is ruled out. This is seen in Paul's description of the cowardly Demas in 2 Timothy 4:10: "For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica." Also, according to my understanding, resisting the inferno by making the best of a bad situation and encouraging pockets of good within the inferno is also ruled out. Instead, the Christian is to be separate from the world in order to transform the world. The defining statement is from Christ's prayer in the Gospel of John (John 17:14-16):

"I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world."

There is more here than I can fathom, but at least this much is clear: the christian, while too weak to contend with the world inferno by his own strength, is protected from the inferno's destruction, fortified with the truth, and then sent into the world as an emissary.

No comments:

Post a Comment