(Note to readers: This is long and probably dull for a great many. It concerns religion [but not politics!]. I use the review of the book to give an exegesis of my views on theology and philosophy, and the psychic challenges of living in a world where the existential struggle to survive is so easy that everyone is getting fat.)
I noticed this book lying on the coffee table when I awoke this morning. I think it was left there by my high school senior son, whose Sunday school class was using it as a worship/study guide. It was a Saturday, the first of the off-season, when there’s no afternoon gridiron clash on television to make the morning’s chores and the week’s indignities worth enduring (the three games left in the NFL season on championship weekend are just bittersweet sorrow for a season mostly gone). The day started dark and grey and late, one of those days where thick overcast made it seem the sun had slept in. The gloom matched my mood. I really depend too much on watching football for tightening the play in the joints of my time.
I would ordinarily never read a book like this. To otherwise kill the three hours it took to read it, I would rather walk pointlessly around the neighborhood, doing like my dog-trotting neighbors, shuffling along behind the dog with a poop bag in hand. Or maybe watch a Say Yes to the Dress marathon on cable with my teenage daughter. Anything but subject myself to the torture of reading the ruminations of some California mega-church preacher about how Jesus can make me happy. But shortly after I woke, the deluge presaged by the sleeping-in sun arrived, the latest of several already this January. The torrent precluded a pointless walk, and as the cable is now a satellite dish, so too was the option of watching bad television (monsoon rains always knock out the dish). The wife was reading on her Kindle and not in a playful mood. Twenty plus years of monogamous matrimony always trends to celibacy. The teenagers were in their beds asleep, where they would be for balance of the morning. There were a couple of history books I had been reading in my spare time, but it was a Saturday morning, so most of my intellect had been washed away in a river of beer the night before. I figured, what the hell. It was either read the book or hang myself (an allusion to comedian Jim Gaffigan’s skit where he explains that bowling is what you do on a rainy day in lieu of killing yourself). As reading the book seemed the option requiring less effort, I reached over and picked it up.
The book was thin—only 175 pages—and paperback, which is to me still the easiest, most comfortable, most enjoyable way to engage a lengthy writing. I doubt I’ll ever get past the notion of a great book as an intellectual delight made flesh, and I don’t care that it have a hard spine. In fact, I rather prefer a paperback, because it is amenable to one-hand manipulation and control, which is important when relaxing on a couch or in bed. I know Kindles can do that, too, but the words of a book aren’t particular to the sensory experience of a Kindle. A Kindle seems so remote and unfeeling. You can’t put a dog-eared Kindle book on the bookshelf after the reading is done, savoring its memory and insights a bit each time you walk past.
On the cover of the book, above its title, were two arrows pointing in opposite directions, one up and one down. I think it was intended to mean that “crazy love” flowed down from God to mankind and back up to God from mankind. I think. I’m not quite sure because it was never explicitly discussed in the text of the book. If the arrows mean something else, please forgive me, Mr. Chan, for not getting the point.
I figured out even before the book began that I probably wasn’t its target audience. There was a prayer page before the contents or dedication page that hinted right away that this wasn’t meant for me:
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Grace.
Your forgiveness is so good that I struggle with believing it at
Times. Thank You for rescuing me from myself and giving me
Your Holy Spirit. Your love is better than life.
Exactly what, I thought, might Mr. Chan have done that requires forgiveness? Write this book? Why did he need to be rescued from himself? If Chan was alluding to the Christian doctrine of original sin, whereby men are considered sinners just by dint of their existence, then there was no doubt I was not his target audience. It seems the most ridiculous and theologically illogical doctrine the Christian church has devised. How can a God that is, as Judeo-Christian theology claims, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, infinite and perfect in every realm, not be the immanent cause of everything? And if God is the cause of everything, then why would he create something, i.e., humanity, inherently wicked, needing his forgiveness by dint of having been created, by him? The doctrine of original sin, of wickedness arising solely out of the fact of existence, stands in direct contradiction to the idea of a God that is the cause of everything, and that everything thus caused is good, unless it can be imagined that God contradicts his own nature in order to—do what?—keep himself entertained? Such an idea implicitly operates to limit God’s infinite power, presence, knowledge and eternal perfection, and while mathematics may occasionally pretend that infinities can be limited to a particular domain, there is no place for a limited infinity in the logic of creation. Either God is infinite in every realm and thereby responsible for all of creation, including human beings, or he isn’t.
But then, Christian theology is rife with logical conundrums. The existence of evil, particularly evil that accompanies the mere fact of human existence, nests at the core of its logical inconsistencies. If any part of creation is evil, then God is not infinite, perfect and eternal. If God is perfect and eternal and infinite in power, presence and knowledge, then evil, i.e., the contravention of his will, is not possible. After reading the opening prayer, it occurred to me that if the following 175 pages are premised on Mr. Chan’s need for forgiveness for the fact of his existence, well, maybe I should have gone with the other option.
I read the book anyway. Remarkably, it wasn’t half-bad. Chan mainly doesn’t bother with exploring Christianity’s logical conundrums, but instead focuses his efforts on identifying and explaining the ennui that besets individuals in a rich culture such as ours, speaking specifically as to how materialistic church-going Christians often lead a vain and shallow existence, only really ever “lukewarm” in their devotion to living as Christ taught. He offers a closer walk, a “crazy love”, for Christ as the way to fill the void of meaning and purpose in a life where one’s innate material needs are more or less easily met. The reward for doing so is a fulfilling life here on earth (with which I agree), and heaven afterwards (which seems superfluous). Though employing the infrastructure of a Christian theology with which I mostly disagree (Trinitarian doctrine, for example, which to my mind is a needless bifurcation of the infinity of God), he still manages to capture the essence of the troubles afflicting modern man (Christian and otherwise) in the face of remarkable affluence and abundance.
Man, like all of God’s creatures, is necessarily designed for survival, the main impediments and limitations to which have historically been acquiring the resources (food, water, shelter) required to sustain existence. Man was not designed to live in a world where the necessaries of life are so abundant that he must restrain, for example, his impulse to eat, but in affluent societies, such is precisely the challenge of existence he faces. When food isn’t plentiful, it is clear that securing enough food to stay alive carries the immediate meaning and purpose for one’s life. When food is so abundant that survival instead depends on refusing to eat more than is required, it is easy to see the psychological confusion and despair that might result.
Chan advocates giving one’s life over to Christ as the answer. But what, exactly, does it mean to give one’s life completely to Christ? For Chan, like so many other theologians, serving Christ equates to serving others. But how, exactly, is that accomplished? Is it not enough to do as Christ taught, and “love thy neighbor as thy self”? How far must one go to live in the service of Christ? Should one be willing to abandon everything, including the means through which the necessaries of life are acquired, in order to follow Christ by serving man? Wouldn’t that just impose upon others the obligation to provide for you what you are able, but refuse, to provide for yourself? Is that how one loves thy neighbor as thyself?
Chan relates that after a trip to Africa where he witnessed first-hand the immense and humbling poverty afflicting so many in that benighted continent, he came home and sold his house, moving into a smaller one, so that he could donate the savings to mission work. He said that pretty much everybody he knew thought he was crazy. He didn’t say whether he told them that he was indeed crazy, crazy in love with Christ, as his book admonishes. Most people couldn’t believe that he would so recklessly impair his own family’s welfare (he has a wife and four children). But his family was in no danger of starving just because the size of their living quarters had been reduced. Their survival was as assured as anyone’s, and in fact, it can be argued that the extravagances routinely bestowed on American children impair, rather than improve, their survivability prospects. The marriage pact legally and morally requires the spouses to support each other and any children they may have, meaning that each spouse is responsible for meeting their own survival needs, and the survival needs of the family. The obligation does not extend to providing McMansions and fancy cars. Chan was perfectly justified in doing what he did. Crazy love should not be a suicide pact, but neither should confusing wants with needs impair the ability to do as Christ’s ethic moves one to act.
I was disappointed Chan did not more closely explore the meaning of Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 22:39 that you should, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Though I am not Christian, in that I don’t believe in miracles or magic or specifically, the Resurrection, this little sentence forms the ethical foundation of my life. But it is a bit more complicated than it at first glance seems.
Most folks basically quit listening after they hear the part about “love your neighbor”, thinking that serving in the soup kitchen or donating old clothes and toys to the relief agency means they have shown their love for their neighbor. It may be that doing such things reveals consideration for the welfare of others. But the admonition is to love your neighbor as yourself. It implies or assumes self-consideration, i.e., self-love, sufficient to guide one’s actions directed toward others. But how can anyone love themselves, if the very basis of their existence is wickedness and evil? Original sin and the Golden Rule don’t really jibe very well.
The answer is to reject the doctrine of original sin. The doctrine is a creation of latter-day theologians and arises out of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, when they refused to heed God’s warning to not eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, all of their progeny, i.e., all of humanity, was condemned, according to the doctrine, as innately evil. Adam and Eve were living in eternal bliss prior to disobeying God, after which God afflicted them with mortality and expelled them from the Garden of Eden. While nothing about the biblical story condemns all of mankind as evil, it has been twisted and contorted by both Christian and Jewish theologians, many of whom were undoubtedly more interested in glorifying and magnifying their own power and prestige than in interpreting the allegorical truths of the story, to prove the innate wickedness of man that can only be absolved through God’s redemptive grace. It benefits the priesthood greatly (see Medieval Catholicism) to instill in the laity fear, anxiety and loathing at having disobeying God , whose will they are charged with interpreting and revealing, and whose redemption they dispense, often for a fee.
In my view, the story of Adam and Eve is simply an allegorical tale of the dawn of man’s sentience; of his ability to grasp that his existence is finite in time and space. Man’s mind had gradually evolved to become ever more powerful until finally he was able to grasp that he existed, and therefore one day would not, yoking his heart and mind to the terrible burden of understanding his own mortality. Besides, the story can’t be about disobeying God without doing great violence to the idea of God’s infinity. So long as God remains all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present, nothing happens, including his betrayal, without him.
When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Biblical tale provides that God lamented that man was now “like one of us” (Genesis 3:22—as an aside, “us” seems a curious way for God to have described himself—a matter for another day). Knowledge allowed man to understand, like God, which actions were good, i.e., which actions enhanced his own survivability, and also which were evil, i.e., which actions impaired survivability. Before the awakening of his mind, man was like the rest of the animals, instinctively responding to external stimuli, unaware of why or how a particular response might be good or bad. Animals are incapable of intentionally doing bad. Evolution theory tells us that living creatures can’t intentionally impair their prospects for survival, else their species would not long exist. Dogs do not commit suicide. Yet man alone can act in ways, which from his perspective (not God’s), are evil. There are, in fact, suicidal men. Man’s powerful intellect that provides him sentience and the knowledge of good and evil also allows him to overcome his instinctive impulses in the service of destroying himself. Only man can commit suicide, and the ability to do so is directly derived from his intellect having grown so powerful that it can override his instinct.
After the mental awakening, man was able to determine which stimuli response tended to be good, i.e., tended to enhance survivability prospects, and which were bad, i.e., impairing survival, and he was able to look past the immediate decision moment to see what the long-term impacts on survivability might be. Knowledge provided him the power to choose the best response to environmental stimuli. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is not a tale about what happens when God is disobeyed. It is an allegorical tale about the evolutionary awakening of man’s mind.
With mankind’s original sin thus cleansed in a bath of objective interpretation of the allegorical tale from which it arose, it is easy to see how man might love himself so that he can love his neighbor. Man’s love for himself arises out of Jesus’ first and greatest commandment –to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind. From the 284 muscles in a caterpillar’s head (an example that Chan uses), to the billions upon billions of stars in the galaxies, to every last Homo sapiens ever born, God created them all, sustained them all, and was constituted in every last speck of every last one of them. Mankind is just a ripple in the fabric of God, and individual men, just threads in the ripple. Or, as Baruch Spinoza, my favorite seventeenth century heretic Jew philosopher, might say, men are space- and time-limited modes of God. It would be impossible to love God and not also love one’s self. To me, “crazy love” means knowing and understanding and loving God, as manifest in the towering majesty of his creation, including the little slice of it that comprises me. It is simultaneously exalting and humbling to imagine that God did not believe his universe complete without fashioning out of the fabric of his being the unique creature that is me. Everyone should feel similarly awed and humbled about their creation and existence, a feeling that depends not in the least upon their standing among the hierarchy of humanity.
In this view, meaning and purpose is derived from existence. One needs not look outside themselves to find the purpose for which they have been created. Solely by dint of their existence, each is necessarily a part of God’s infinite and perfect plan; a plan which finite beings can only ever view dimly, as through a looking glass. It doesn’t take imagining the reward of heaven that awaits after devoting one’s life to serving Christ to give life meaning and purpose. Existence, i.e., survival and propagation through space and time for so long as is possible, is enough. Existence is the only meaning and purpose for which God’s will in our lives is conclusively revealed. If the God of infinite power did not mean for us to exist, then how could we? It is impudent to question, like the Talmudic scholars (See Everyman’s Talmud, Abraham Cohen, 1949, p. 95), whether or not God should even have created man. Man exists because God, in all his majesty, deigned to create him. That should be enough.
But all this leaves us right back where Chan started, physically comfortable, but psychically yearning for something meaningful to fill the empty hours between the minimal exertions required to ensure, so far as is possible, the continuation of our existence. We were created to engage life as an existential struggle. Trying to figure out what to do once the battle is won can be utterly maddening.
Chan says that we can resolve the dilemma through dedication (or for his Christian audience, rededication) of our lives to Christ. But living a Christian ethic is also relatively easy—just treat your fellows as you would wish to be treated and you’ve pretty much got it licked. It has little to do with whether one cusses, or drinks beer, or goes to church, or serves on a charity board, as Chan correctly observes.
Chan provides some examples of people he thinks have “crazy love” for Christ, i.e., a dedication do more than just live the Christian ethic, offering this a way out of the ennui that always results when life is otherwise comfortable and secure. There was the ex-prostitute that kept her home in the hard end of town open to anyone from the streets that needed help. There was the doctor in Africa that had all his teeth pulled just so he wouldn’t suffer any dental problems impeding his work against a deadly disease. There were the Christian music songwriters that never took a penny of royalties for their tunes. These are fine examples of meaningful ways to live when survival is more or less assured. They offer a better way, when, as inevitably happens, one fails at finding meaning and purpose in the cultural impulse for relentless accumulation of money and power and prestige far beyond one’s needs. There is nothing more banal than the cult of American materialism. Trying to make the acquisition of the next cool technological gadget, or car, or house, or clothes the meaning and purpose of one’s life is attempting to fashion meaning and purpose from a false god, and false gods always ultimately consume the ones that worship them.
But Christ needn’t necessarily be implicated in the dedication of one’s life to serving others. Once survival is more or less assured, meaning and purpose can be found by Christian and non-Christian alike in assisting others with their survival struggle. The impulse to do so can arise from the love of God and self-love, as I’ve described as the idea animating the Golden Rule. It can be motivated, like Chan recommends, by the thought of taking up one’s cross in crazy love for Christ. It can be motivated by the promise of heavenly rewards. Or it can just be the humanitarian instinct that understands, though our intellect often refuses to acknowledge, that our welfare is intricately and eternally bound to the welfare of all others. It doesn’t matter how it is that one rejects the false gods of wealth, power and honor for something more significant and real like helping others in their existential struggle. Banishing the ennui of living in a land of plenty—a “rich country”, as Chan puts it—requires rejecting its false gods by whatever means one can.
Chan wisely refrains from explicitly exhorting people to abandon everything when they fall crazy in love with Christ. He acknowledges that even among those filled with this crazy love, determining the appropriate action in the premises is a profoundly subjective affair.
Thus it took one dreary Saturday morning to compel me to read Chan’s book. I’m glad I did. It took even more–a Sunday morning church service (during which time I pondered Chan, not the preacher), two NFL conference championship games, and yet another round of central Alabama tornadoes before I was able to sort through the problems posed by Chan, and reduce my observations to writing. While I can never believe in the divinity of Christ (except in as much as all men are divine little ripples in the fabric of God), I still believe that Christ’s teachings offer a profoundly satisfying and useful ethic for life. Chan gets a lot right—the awesomeness of God, as an absolute matter, and relative to man’s puniness; the impossibility of man ever fully understanding God; the fragility and finitude of life; the hollowness of materialism; the emptiness of wearing one’s religion as an accouterment in social battle; the importance of living moment to moment in an unpredictable world; the existence of purpose and meaning, no matter how difficult it might be to see or understand.
Chan pinpoints the source of ennui and despair that comes with living in a rich country as the failure of so many lukewarm Christians to really devote their lives to Christ.
I would agree in principle, but would explain it differently. The source of our ennui and despair is that life is too easy; we are survival machines that lack meaning and purpose when we have successfully ensured, so far as is possible, the continuation of our existence. Once survival is assured, spending our superfluous time and resources on winning the acquisition, power and honor game always proves meaningless. (Watching too much football such as I do can be a similarly meaningless chasing after a false god, but mainly only if the game is treated as something more substantial than just a game). The trick is to realize that it is not just our survival with which we are instinctively concerned, but also the survival, in varying degrees and magnitude, of every single member of our species. When a baby in Somalia starves, we all feel a bit of its pain—not as much, from the comfort of our well-fed lives a half world away, as its mother, but a measure of pain nonetheless. If survival is so easy in the place we are that ennui and existential angst sets in, so long as survival is difficult and doubtful elsewhere, the psyche can be salved by aiding others in their struggles. After all, not only am I a little slice of God, so too is everyone else.
I owe most of my theology/philosophy of existence to Judeo-Christian doctrines, mainly as expostulated by Baruch Spinoza, previously mentioned as my favorite seventeenth century heretic Jew philosopher. Spinoza was variously described as an atheist, or “that God-intoxicated philosopher”. My understanding of God and what His omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence logically and objectively means is directly derived from and grounded in Part One, “Concerning God”, of his masterpiece, Ethics. His view of God is very similar, and has been compared, to Buddhism, and so too is my philosophy of existence, so far as I understand the religion.
Roughly two of my last two and a half years have been spent more or less solely focused on caring for my son as he struggled to survive his second bout with leukemia. There is no existential angst when engaged in a struggle like that. There are no lukewarm Christians in foxholes. I knew that the meaning and purpose of my life at that time was to aid and comfort my son in his existential struggle, whatever its outcome might be. But now, things have settled down, he’s doing well, and I’m faced with focusing my efforts elsewhere. I’m not rich, but I have enough money that I don’t need much anymore. Setting my sights on making more money when more money isn’t really needed seems a perfect prescription for ennui and despair of the type I felt about four or five years ago in the midst of the real estate boom. It seems I am presently faced with something of the same problem explored by Chan, which is perhaps a part of why the book resonated with me.
It is not an option not considered by Chan that business people, i.e., capitalists, can serve God by serving others simply through the conduct of their business. It may be time for me to start a new business as the way to meaningful life. Capitalists serve others and themselves (as Adam Smith ably pointed out so many years ago) by providing a service or good which others desire. But there’s no requirement that capitalists plow all of their profits into the making of more profit. They could, for example, dole them out to the employees upon whom their success depends. Imagine how many millionaires Sam Walton might have made of rank and file Walmart employees had he vested them with an ownership interest in the profits the firm generated. Walmart served its customers by exploiting its efficiencies to sell its wares at the lowest possible cost. It could have done more, and enhanced its employee’s lives and fortunes, most of whom were paid the lowest market-clearing wage possible, by sharing the bounty of their efforts with them. But then, Walmart employees would have eventually discovered themselves suffering the angst that accompanies riches. The cycle never ends, as the Buddhists teach.
Crazy Love is reasonably well-written, and a good starting point if existence is beginning to lose its edge in meaning and purpose for you. You may agree with Chan that the problem is best resolved through devoting one’s life to Christ. If like me, you can’t quite even grasp what devoting one’s life to Christ means, the book should still help you begin to realize something of the source of your despair so that you can dig a little deeper for answers. If falling in the latter category, I highly recommend eventually reading Spinoza. He certainly illuminated my path.