My grandfather, who we call Pops, is a big fan of the poet Czeslaw Milosz. It makes total sense. Milosz was born in Lithuania and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 for his calming yet challenging poetry on life and spirituality. Pops, a first-generation American, is proud of his Lithuanian roots and loves all things Lithuanian, and in his twilight years (as he calls them) has become somewhat of a poet himself.
After a recent visit out here to the West Coast, Pops promised to send me his favorite collection of Milosz, a book he sends almost all of his friends. Three packages from amazon.com later, I have a pretty impressive amount of poetry from Milosz, and have decided to start with “Second Space.” It’s the book he wrote in his last years of life. My wife and I opened it up last night in bed, imagining that a few poems would help to put us into a serene sleep.
We came across a poem called “Werki,” named after a small town in Lithuania. The poem ends with a stanza that I loved and wanted to write about briefly…
The priests taught us about salvation and damnation.
Now I have not the slightest notion of these things.
I have felt on my shoulder the hand of my Guide,
Yet He didn’t mention punishment, didn’t promise a reward.
I would consider myself a pretty faithful individual with an established belief in the existence of God, and I really liked the end of this poem. One of the biggest questions I have struggled with throughout my life is the nature of God. If, according to the Old Testament, we are created in the likeness of God, then the whims and rationale of the human being must in some way be a watered-down version of how God thinks, acts, and behaves. We, in some ways, are the shadows on Plato’s wall in the cave, with God being the actual being outside the cave.
I believed this for a very long time, but doing so is tricky. It allows for an Old Testament God, or the God of the ancient Greeks–a God who is kind of like a really strong and smart human, but still a human who gets jealous, holds grudges, and tests people. That is so fundamentally human, and the more I thought about it and experienced the world, the more I didn’t like that. I don’t think the God who can create the beauties of complexities of nature is a bigger, smarter, older version of me. There’s no way I could do all that stuff. Creation would be flawed if made by a superhero (for aren’t superheroes exactly that? bigger, smarter, older versions of us?), and I don’t think creation is flawed.
So how does this relate to the stanza from above? I think Milosz and I are on the same wave-length in rejecting the rational human desire to understand God in a rational way. To us humans, it’s logical that if you do good, good will come to you. And if you do bad, you will be on the receiving end of bad things. “Punishment” and “reward,” as Milosz puts them. But when I think about it, I conclude that Logic is a fundamentally human thing, and therefore, should not be attributed to God. It is our way of knowing, but who says it’s God’s way of knowing? Presuming that God knows all–past, present, and future–well then Logic seems totally irrelevant in that sort of context. Logic is a necessary accommodation for us humans, who are so trapped and limited in what we can understand. I’ve been trying to think of an analogy that compares the Human way of knowing with, let’s say, the single-celled amoeba’s way of knowing, as a parallel of the Human way of knowing vs. God’s way of knowing…but even searching for an analogy is pandering to my desire to logically relate God’s knowing to my knowing!
This obviously does not mean that I give up on logic. That would be totally absurd. But, when looking out at the world, and struggling with the weight of seeing what to me are perceived as logical injustices (innocent children starving in Africa, for example), it is of great comfort to me to think that God sees it all in a completely different way, a far superior and more complex way, and sees the world as making sense. There’s no need to keep score of good deeds to get rewarded, nor to dwell on bad deeds and anticipate punishment. While the human mind is so inferior to God’s, our ability to love may in fact be the closest we have to being made in God’s likeness, for love has its bizarre properties of multiplying when being given….a totally illogical premise.
Milosz isn’t arguing for nihilism, and neither am I. It may be presumptuous to claim to understand Milosz’s stanza here, but I’m doing it anyway, and claim that we should do good simply to do good. Don’t pettily put yourself and the expected return on the investment of your good deeds at the center of all you do. Put your God-like love for the world at the center of your life, and things will be, in a way that we can’t even come close to understanding, “good.”