In the most recent Claremont Review of Books I stumbled upon reference to the following adage from Schopenhauer’s Law of Entropy.
If you put a spoonful of wine in a barrel full of sewage, you get sewage. If you put a spoonful of sewage in a barrel full of wine, you get sewage.
The article was about the consequences of of losing shared social mores in a society and how this is being reflected in our current election cycle. The writer, Martha Bayles, makes Ted Cruz’s case when he called the Trump campaign a “Kim Kardashian reality show.” But, Bayles looks a bit deeper than the soundbite and makes some interesting observations along the way that got me thinking about perfection and virtue, not touched upon in the article.
The Judeo-Christian tradition starts from the premise that man is a fallen creature. Yet, we are charged with striving toward the unattainable – a perfect life. It is by recognizing our limitations and the need for a transcendent God, who loves humanity in spite of its flaws, that we can move beyond our shortcomings and persevere in spite of them. Otherwise, what would be the point? Something has to matter.
There is another analogy which can be applied without diminishing the truth of Schopenhauer’s, and that is of a cancerous tumor in an otherwise healthy body. Left untreated, the malignancy is apt to corrupt and destroy the whole body. However, unlike the wine, the body, is not as quickly ruined. At least initially, it still has a chance at a healthy life, provided there is an external agent (doctor’s treatment) to remove the tumor. So it is with our souls in the Christian tradition. God knows us for what we are, and still sees value in us, looking beyond our flaws at what we could and should be. He has provided the cure, if we want it.
This is where many get confused. Striving toward a moral life is not the same as achieving spotless perfection. The phrase “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” comes to mind. Too often the religious right forgets this fact and expects perfection from its candidates. Because the conservatives take a stand for an unachievable moral standard, they lay themselves open to being judged by it when they inevitably fail along the way. The left takes particular delight in this, for it serves them well. While it is proper to hold people accountable for their actions, we can’t discard every candidate that doesn’t meat each of our own (unattainable) standards of purity. Another old saw about life comes to mind: “No one gets out of it alive.” We can either give up, or treat the malignancy, even though we know that the end result is human mortality. There will be pain and failure along the way, but that does not mean we shouldn’t try.
But there are limits. There is a point at which a body cannot be cured, when the cancer has metastasized and becomes untreatable. While nothing is beyond God, much is beyond my capacity to cure. In the words of a old Lyle Lovett song,
…who keeps on loving you
When you’ve been lying
Saying things ain’t what they seem
But I don’t
But I won’t
And that’s the difference
Between God and me
Mr. Obama has spent most of the last 7 years “lying” and “saying things ain’t what they seem”. With the recent revelations by FBI director Comey, it should be obvious that this is also true of his heir apparent. It is interesting to see the double standards applied to these liberal icons, as opposed to say, Major Jason Brezler – see this article in daily beast.
Is Trump any better? I don’t know. In the article that inspired this one, Bayles points out the near term consequences of his ‘faux” populist candidacy and the increasing inability of the populace to discern between freedom of speech and unrestrained offensive bloviation justified as a hallmark of the first amendment – truth or decency be damned. The more outrageous, the more delighted the press and Trump’s devotees seem to become. Reasoned (and civil) discourse of the sort Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and others tried to make, was obliterated by the Trump reality show. A low point in the campaign was when (little) Marco Rubio tried to beat Trump down in the gutter where Trump is most comfortable – illustrating Bayle’s point about the sewage.
The choices in front of us for the next presidential election would seem to be between a barrel of sewage with a spoonful of wine in it or a barrel of wine with a spoonful of sewage. Thirsty?