Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Thursday, August 16, 2012

El Camino de Santiago de Campostela: To Finisterre and the End of the Earth

In our last days at Santiago, we became tourists and one day took a bus trip to Muxia and Finisterre, “the end of the earth.” Finisterre juts into the Atlantic farther than any point on the continent of Europe, and you do get the sense, as you look out and about, that there is nothing but water—and after that, possibly nothing at all. It was a fit conclusion to a pilgrimage, a literal coming to the end, and this apocalyptic note resonated with what I’d been thinking about for much of the trip.

As I met and got to know so many different people with so many different beliefs, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s great chapter about “charity”—or “love” if you prefer—became an object of daily contemplation for me. In Greek, the word we replace with “charity” or “love” is agape, which has no exact English equivalent. C. S. Lewis explains the meaning of agape in The Four Loves as a love that is passionately committed to the well-being of the other for the sake of the other. It doesn’t look for reward. The problem with the English word “love” is that we now so often associate it with eros. The problem with “charity,” which I think is a closer translation, is that it doesn’t have the connotation of passionate commitment.

Paul’s main point in 1 Corinthians 13 is that having agape is the single most important thing in anyone’s life. Faith and hope are essential Christian virtues, but agape is the one that lasts, and without it, the others mean nothing:

Though I speak with the
tongues of men and of angels,
and have not agape, I am become a
sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of
prophecy, and understand all mysteries,
and all knowledge; and though I
have all faith, so that I could remove
mountains, and have not agape. I am

And though I bestow all my
goods to feed the poor, and though I
give my body to be burned, and have
not agape, it profiteth me nothing. . . .

Paul goes on to explain that when Christ returns for the second time and the world is transformed, prophecies will fail, speaking in tongues will pass away, and our partial knowledge will be complete. Faith will then be replaced by certainty, and hope will be unnecessary, because all hopes will be fulfilled. But agape will abide:

And now abideth faith, hope, and agape, these three, but he greatest of these is agape.

Agape is the greatest because it will last. God is love. We will be in the right relationship with God, and that means being within agape.

It wasn’t until walking the Camino that I thought much about what this meant. A hierarchy of Christian virtue is being established by Paul, and it applies now as well as in the eschatological future. Agape has trumped everything. I had met people of different faiths, different backgrounds, people who might claim they had no faith at all. But they all had a measure of agape, and some of them more than I. Faith and creedal adherence did not, it was obvious, line up with one’s capacity for unselfish love. And who is closer to God and therefore closer to Christ? The Catholic or Lutheran who goes to church every Sunday, proclaims the Nicene Creed, and leads a selfish or self-centered life, or a Moslem, Jew, or an atheist who puts the good of his fellow human beings first?

The way God works in people is a mystery having little to do with creeds and perhaps even less to do with our conscious awareness. Jesus said “Judge not least ye be judged.” I don’t think he was saying, never judge certain behavior as evil—he clearly wanted people to distinguish the good from the bad: “I set before you life and death—choose life,” Moses says, and Jesus wouldn’t disagree. What he meant, I think, was never presume to know how anyone stands in relationship to God. It is not only presumptuous to do so, but blasphemous, the worst form of playing God. It isn’t for us to say who is finally included in the kingdom of heaven and who isn’t.

What a relief.

Young Soo at the End of the Earth

Me and Bruce at the End of the Earth
The End of the Earth

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