“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
I was thinking today about proportionality and the idea that everything in the world is good – in it’s proper context. One phrase kept popping up for me: Pie in the Sky.
Atheists often accuse religious people of promising pie in the sky, a benefit in the future which offsets a loss today. There have been times and places when this was an incredibly important concept. Slaves in the United States, serfs in Russia, and really the very poorest of the poor for 2000 years have been told to behave and accept their lot in life for righteousness sake, so that they might go to heaven. I want to be perfectly clear that I recognize the role religion has played, specifically Christianity in maintaining the status quo. Turns out “Pie in the Sky” was coined by Joe Hill, an itinerant laborer and “Wobblie” from US history, the first decade of the 1900s. Joe was satirizing the Salvation Army hymn In the Sweet Bye and Bye for he thought the Army had a place in sedating workers – think “opiate of the masses.” I think Joe had a point.
For my own part, I’ve always preferred the British phrase from Lewis Carroll, “Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never jam today.” It also captures the idea of false goods you’ve been promised. In most of South America and Asia, I see this sort of cultural manipulation as a force to be fought with realism, pragmatism, and that most practical of philosophies, liberation theology. This is not an attack on that type of thought – in that context.
It must be said, though, that most of my readers do not live in that context. I write today for the United States of America, for Britain, and for the other economically successful countries that style themselves first world. In those countries, I fear there is a far greater threat from the opposite direction, a threat very much alive and well in Ancient Judea and, frankly, present everywhere. It is that direction I now turn.
The powers of the world – and I don’t use that term metaphorically, I mean precisely the people in power – wish to disavow any type of pie in the sky because they want control. It’s almost a trope at this point that world leaders will use the threat of death to compel people. They want you to know that nothing worse could happen to you than the punishment they can mete out, the ending of your life. Smart leaders are far more savvy; they know that they have better enticements. They can offer pleasure and pain, the illusion of security and the fear of torture. They make exactly the same claim, however. I have control of all the desirable things in this situation. If you want them, you must go through me. In other words, they want you to believe they have a monopoly on pie.
The powers of this world, both the communists and the capitalists have a vested interest in your believing that all the goods are theirs, whether those goods be defined monetarily (capital, stock, productivity, options, …) or communally (labor, status, commonweal, …).
In Antiquity, the most feared thing was a painful and humiliating death. The Romans threatened crucifixion for the worst offenders, trusting that nothing could be worse than facing that kind of pain, social as well as physical. Of course they were wrong. Many, including Jesus and Peter, were willing to face the cross for their convictions. Christianity has a long tradition of martyrdom, but not because we don’t value life. We refer to Jesus as the Lord of Life and, when we’re doing our job, we oppose violence and killing of any sort (in my opinion). The thing is, Christianity calls us to value our own lives less than other people do.
We know that there are eternal rewards. I could go into details of eternal (as atemporal) versus everlasting (going on for ever) life, but this is not the time and place. Suffice to say that Christianity does offer non-Earthly pie. It speaks of love and faith, which cannot be quantified or commodified. It offers these things as competing goods with life. Yes, I want to live, but it is not the thing I want most – nor is it (in corporeal terms) the good on which all other goods rely. [Some will argue that it ain’t good if you’re not alive to enjoy it.] Nor do we simply do things so that the people who live after us will eat the pie.
I could go into details about eternal pie – about the transformative power of healthy relationships, about the realization of one perfect moment over and over again until all life is one perfect moment – but I need not, because for today the monopoly argument suffices. There is no power on Earth – or elsewhere – that can completely control your ability to be happy. There is no way to sum up all possible goods. And so there is no-one who can compel you completely. You always have the ability to choose something else, to go down another path. Even God, whom I believe to be in complete control, seems to have chosen to make goods that are, strictly speaking, not fully tied to God. We have been given choice to choose what we want.
And so, I think there are an infinite number of goods – an infinite number of good choices – precisely because of all the different types of pie on the menu. Don’t let them tell you you can’t choose the cherry pie today, but don’t believe them when they tell you it’s the only pie you can have. Both are strategies that use the pie as a way to control you. Both are wrong.