There’s a line in Moby Dick—the second mate sends the cook out to lecture the sharks because they’re too noisy while he’s eating, and the cook tells them:
‘Your voraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame you so much for; that is nature, and can’t be helped; but to govern that wicked nature, that is the point. You is sharks, certain; but if you govern the shark in you, why then you be an angel; for all angel is nothing more than the shark well governed.’
(Melville wrote it in heavy dialect, which I find moderately annoying to read, and more irritating to try and type out faithfully, so I didn’t.)
The idea that an angel is only a shark with self-control is in some way beautiful, and yet in another it makes me recoil: ‘wicked nature’, the moral judgment that a shark’s sharkness is inherently wicked and that a shark should, instead, bind his own nature, and seek to be an angel. That to be an angel is a better thing than to be a shark. And if being an angel meant that you must fetter your most essential self, then is being an angel a beautiful thing or a horrible one?
Someone told me how Fort Lauderdale made it illegal to feed homeless people in public. He talked about how his church meets in a park, and how they help the homeless there, and how they were forced to change parks, and this wasn’t in Florida, but in Missouri.
That church, the one that helps homeless people in the park, it sounds like a good church, you know? Good people. And I was thinking how some churches are like that, good. And others are base and petty and ugly. I can think of a couple of those, too. And how when they’re all Christian, it’s got nothing to do with God or Jesus, and they can’t say ‘it’s because my God is a loving God and yours is false and malicious’ because they all have the same god, the same book.
It’s the people, and how they come together, maybe like calls to like, and you have these loving churches because they’re made of loving people, and they focus on helping, on caring for others. They lift people up. Then you have these nasty little churches that focus on sin and laws and how wicked you are, because they’re made of small, nasty people, and they’re constantly policing each other’s Christian-ness and judging each other, and it becomes a kind of debasement. If religion encourages us to be worse than we are, or allows us to be our worst selves, what’s the point?
There’s this argument I hear sometimes, how if you don’t believe in (and fear) God, nothing will stop you from being selfish and evil and wicked. Why be good if you won’t be punished for being otherwise?
I think about this a lot lately, how gods, the Christian God anyway, I don’t know enough about the others, Vishnu & Waheguru & the rest, to have an opinion on them, but the doctrine is used to debase and devalue humanity. It doesn’t tell you you’re beautiful, that you’re good; it says you’re fallen and unworthy. Your nature is wicked. It says God made you in his image and you fucked it up. You fucked it up so, so bad.
And maybe in some ways it’s right, because how terribly, terribly sad that when a man comes along, a humanitarian and a social reformer, and he tells people ‘be kind to each other’, that to be that revolutionary, to be allowed to be that sort of a person, to possess that nature, to be believed in, he had to be made into a god.
And what does that say about how we feel about ourselves, our own nature? That if we are beautiful and if we love, really love, other people, this comes not from our own humanity–that whatever is good in us, it is not our essential self.