The Problem of Pain

“'If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both'. This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form." – C. S. Lewis

Jill Heatherly writes: The Problem of Pain answers the universal question, "Why would an all-loving, all-knowing God allow people to experience pain and suffering?" Master Christian apologist C.S. Lewis asserts that pain is a problem because our finite, human minds selfishly believe that pain-free lives would prove that God loves us. In truth, by asking for this, we want God to love us less, not more than he does. "Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; that the mere 'kindness' which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect at the opposite pole from Love." In addressing "Divine Omnipotence," "Human Wickedness," "Human Pain," and "Heaven," Lewis succeeds in lifting the reader from his frame of reference by artfully capitulating these topics into a conversational tone, which makes his assertions easy to swallow and even easier to digest. Lewis is straightforward in aim as well as honest about his impediments, saying, "I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine that being made perfect through suffering is not incredible. To prove it palatable is beyond my design." The mind is expanded, God is magnified, and the reader is reminded that he is not the center of the universe as Lewis carefully rolls through the dissertation that suffering is God's will in preparing the believer for heaven and for the full weight of glory that awaits him there. While many of us naively wish that God had designed a "less glorious and less arduous destiny" for his children, the fortune lies in Lewis's inclination to set us straight with his charming wit and pious mind.

Robert Aarhus commented: From a non-Christian POV, I would be surprised if this book made much sense -- so many of the pillars are set on Christian theology, philosophy, and tradition. If you cannot (or will not) accept the possibility of the existence of Heaven, Hell, or God, this book will be just so much incomprehensible babble. But, it is not written for that segment of the market. This book is best read by the thinking Christian who has reservations about aspects of Christianity that seem to gloss over, avoid, or ignore the issue of human suffering.

Lewis analyzes the fundamental question, or problem, of pain: how can God be omnipotent and yet allow pain (war, injury, cruelty, etc.)? Lewis's answer has many levels. Foremost, is that nature had to be created with certain unchangeable properties. For example, the same hardness which allows wood to serve as a beam in my house allows it to serve as an instrument of potential injury, as when that beam collapses and hits my head.

The world also had to be created neutral so that humans could interact equally with one another, i.e., those same, unchanging properties of wood allow it to be manipulated similarly by anyone. But, obviously a neutral world contains the potential for good or evil. Wood can be used to build a home, which is good, or to create a weapon, which is evil. But, this is what makes us human. We have free will.

If I choose evil, God could not intervene. For to intervene some times but not others would be unjust and illogical (this is why miracles, if you believe in them, are extraordinarily rare). And to intervene once is to intervene always. Imagine if God intervened each time one person was going to cause another, or himself, pain. If he did, we all would be puppets, not humans.

Another interesting idea in this book is that of Original Sin. According to Lewis, we have not inherited Adam's sin but instead everyday face Adam's identical choice, perhaps thousands of times a day. For Adam's sin was not disobedience in eating the apple, but in choosing himself over God. Adam had the opportunity to see himself either as a creation or an individual self existing apart from God. Thus, according to Lewis, a final reason for pain, is that it is God's wake-up call that we have, in constantly choosing ourselves, chosen the wrong thing.

Why would a good God create a world in which there is suffering?

Posted April 10, 2010

Reflections On The Psalms

“Psalm 19: I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world" – C. S. Lewis

Reflections on the Psalms was published in 1958. Lewis writes about the difficulties he has met or the joys he has gained in reading the Psalms. He points out that the Psalms are poems, intended to be sung, not doctrinal treatises or sermons. Proceeding with his characteristic grace, he guides readers through both the form and the meaning of these beloved passages in the Bible.

An excellent blog on the books of C.S. Lewis recently had a posting by Christopher Assenza in which he wrote in part:

Many Christians can undoubtedly remember their discomfort upon first encountering invective language in the Psalms, their incredulity at the occasional self-righteousness of the Psalmists, or a general sense of confused wonderment at the Old Testament and how it is interpreted by the Church.

Despite the wide range of reasonable explanations available to them, some Christians nevertheless often wonder how the apparent short-comings they perceive in the Old Testament can be reconciled with their deeply held belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. C.S. Lewis experienced the same difficulties. Although not everyone will agree with his approach, Lewis's response to these difficulties is characteristically honest, intelligent, accessible, and, in many ways, comforting. Lewis almost certainly recognized the risk of writing an analytical study of the Bible. This risk, however, is not a deterrent for Lewis, who does not shy away from offering pointed criticism of the Psalms.

In the chapter on cursings, for example, he uses words like “diabolical,” “terrible,” and “contemptible” to describe passages from Psalms 109 and 143 that valorize vengeance, infanticide, and other cruelties (20-1). Most readers who object to this description, however, would be hard-pressed to refute it. Those who do not object and are troubled by its accuracy are likely tempted, as Lewis initially is, to “leave them [the cursing Psalms] alone” (22). Yet, Lewis deftly argues that we cannot deny the malice of these curses, nor can we justify or agree with them because they are in the Bible; instead, we can learn from them about our own inclinations towards hatred, the moral effect our actions can have on others, the distinguishing moral character of the Jewish people that allowed them to experience the temptation to hate (i.e. “they took right and wrong more seriously”), and God's righteous intolerance for sin (20-33).

Why, however, might some object to this reading and others not? The answer is bound up in how Christians understand and relate to the Bible. The “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” a doctrinal statement by an assembly of Protestants written in 1978, describes the Bible as “infallible” and “inerrant,” the latter of which means “the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake and so safeguards the truth that Holy Scripture is entirely true and trustworthy in all its assertions.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says much the same thing: “the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” Both of these documents speak at length about the central, undeniable authority and importance of Scripture in the Christian life, revealing precisely why criticism of the Bible may be threatening to some.

Lewis's assertion that the Old Testament sometimes displays “[n]aïvety, error, contradiction, even... wickedness” quickly dispels any notion that he might have believed the entire Bible to be inerrant in a doctrinal sense, but throughout all of his writing Lewis does affirm the Bible's divine inspiration, its importance, and its authority (111). Lewis's view of Scripture, specifically the Old Testament, rests on many of the core ideas that span his writing, most important of which is his understanding of myth and its role in Christian revelation. Too large a topic to address in detail here, it is enough to say that Lewis saw in the old pagan myths a divinely inspired foreshadowing or anticipation of Truth that is actualized by and through Christ's historical experience on Earth.

Thus something originally merely natural—the kind of myth that is found among most nations—will have been raised by God above itself, qualified by Him and compelled by Him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served. Generalising this, I take it that the whole Old Testament consists of the same sort of material as any other literature—chronicle (some of it obviously pretty accurate), poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what not; but all taken into the service of God's word. ... The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message. (111)

Lewis shows that this practice of divine “up-grading” is a recurring theme in God's interaction with mankind, manifest most significantly in the Incarnation, when “human life becomes the vehicle of Divine Life” (116). In the same way the “Old Testament is a literature thus 'taken up,' made the vehicle of what is more than human” (117). Understood in this context, the “shadows” of the cursings, when “taken up,” reveal “something more about the light” than any systematic explanation of morality could, confirming, rather than refuting, the divine purpose at work behind the Scriptures (114). Although Lewis was not a strict inerrantist, his views on Scripture have far more in common with traditional, orthodox beliefs than with any modern, liberal notions that deny the Bible's sacredness, divine inspiration, or authority. If nothing else, he uniformly affirms that the spiritual Truth conveyed by the Bible is without error.

In Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis proves this conviction by presenting a way of reading Scripture that accepts the human aspects of its authorship without diluting its inherently divine nature and purpose.

The Psalms - Mere poetry or human authors divinly inspired ?

Posted March 22, 2010

Minds In Bondage?

Orthodox males recite a blessing each morning thanking God “for not making me a woman.”

In eSkeptic, Tim Callahan reviewed R. D. Gold’s book entitled Bondage of the Mind: How Old Testament Fundamentalism Shackles the Mind and Enslaves the Spirit and writes:

Most of us involved with issues of critical thinking are accustomed to dealing with what we think of as fundamentalism, which implies specifically Christian fundamentalism. 'Bondage of the Mind' deals, specifically, with Jewish fundamentalism. Just as evangelicalism, and particularly evangelical fundamentalism, is a potent force in Christianity, so too is modern Orthodox Judaism a potent force among Jews today.

Orthodox Judaism, like fundamentalist Christianity, claims to be the only valid form of Judaism. In the process of evangelizing Jews, particularly Jewish youth, it refers to Jews who switch their allegiance from Reform Judaism to Orthodox Judaism as returnees.

The spread of democratic ideologies in the 19th century led to a repudiation of anti-Semitism among at least some of the intellectuals of that day, as well as a reduction in legal isolation of the Jews. There was a resulting reaction to these reforms among Jewish intellectuals: the Jewish Enlightenment. Jews began to question the excessive importance laid upon such practices as the dietary laws and the peculiarities of dress affected by the encapsulated Jews. The end result was the repudiation of these peculiarities among those who became reformed Jews. Reformed Jews also engaged and integrated into the greater society around them. Some Jews among those in the reform movement felt that the degree of assimilation had gone too far and made a point of returning to such practices as maintaining the dietary laws and the study of Hebrew, though they did not return to the traditional peculiarities of dress. They became the Conservative Jews. Those Jews who did not engage the greater society, who in fact resisted all such efforts, hardened their resolve to retain all the outward signs of separation, became the Orthodox Jews. We might compare this movement to the Catholic counter-reformation, which was a reaction to Protestantism. Another apt comparison from the Christian experience would be the reaction of those who became fundamentalists to the wholehearted liberal acceptance of modern scientific views, particularly to the theory of evolution, among American Protestants.

'Bondage of the Mind' deals with the active proselytizing of Orthodox rabbis, who specifically target the youth of Reformed Jewry. In his examination of the thoughts, goals and tactics of resurgent Jewish fundamentalism, Gold focuses on three tracts commonly used by Orthodox proselytizers: 'On Judaism' by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, 'Choose Life' by Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, and 'Living Up … to the Truth' by Rabbi David Gottlieb. In the latter two titles one can see the implicit assumption of moral superiority by the Orthodox rabbis: If you accept my hyper-religious view and abandon your secularism, you will be choosing life and truth. If you disagree, you’re obviously deliberately choosing lies and death.

As in Christian fundamentalism, the Orthodox proselytizers target the youth among secular and Reformed Jews. In his book Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman, speaking of his own involvement in evangelical Christianity in his teenage years, pointed out that those proselytizing youth for Protestant fundamentalism homed in on the insecurities and uncertainties of the young. The Orthodox proselytizers do the same thing. The person fishing for converts seems very positive and very certain of his views. He affects a paternal benevolence toward the potential convert and, lo and behold, he seems to know something about the youth’s state of mind, saying, “You’re confused, aren’t you?” The youth thinks, “How did he know that?” Ehrman pointed out that, of course, he was confused. He was a teenager, after all.

Gold begins his book with a series of chapters detailing the Old Testament’s failure to live up to the Orthodox claim that it is the word of God rather than the writings of men. This begins with the failure of biblical claims to match archaeology. There is, despite exhaustive attempts on the part of biblical archaeologists — many of whom were and are either committed Christians or devout Jews — no evidence of the presence of large numbers of Hebrews in late Bronze Age Egypt (i.e. the Egyptian captivity), nor is there any evidence of either the Exodus or the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites as detailed in the Book of Joshua. Nor is there any evidence of the united monarchy under David and Solomon. Further, while the Bible claims that the army of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, which was besieging Jerusalem, was miraculously annihilated by the angel of the Lord in a single night and that King Hezekiah triumphed over the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35–37), history and archaeology instead support the Assyrian version of events, that Sennacherib sacked and devastated every city of Judah but Jerusalem, and that Hezekiah paid a huge tribute to the Assyrians just to hang on to Jerusalem and its environs.

Gold also details the failure of the biblical claim of divine retribution and the failure of biblical prophecies. A spectacular example of the good being punished, while the bad obviously get off free is to be found at the end of 2 Kings. Manasseh, the evil king of Judah who worshipped other gods, and consulted soothsayers and wizards, enjoyed a long and peaceful reign (692–639 BCE, 53 years), while King Josiah, the greatest among Judah’s reformers was killed in battle when he was only 37. Josiah was only eight when he took the throne. He reigned from 638–609 BCE, a total of 29 years, much of it when he was in his minority. So why did the evil King Manasseh prosper, while the good King Josiah was cut off in his youth? The Bible explains it this way (2 Kings 23:25–26):

And like unto him there was no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and all his soul, and all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him. Notwithstanding, the LORD turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal.

So, there you have it. According to the Bible, God kills the good for the sins of the evil and punishes the people for wrongdoing on the part of their king. It reminds one of the old vaudeville routine: “The act before me was so bad, the audience was still booing when I got off the stage.” Apologists, both Christian and Jewish, have wrestled with the passage above, often indulging in bizarre convolutions of logic to explain why it really makes sense and shows that God is good and just in killing Josiah, while not punishing Manasseh.

Gold next takes on the Orthodox dogma of the unique survival of the Jewish people, one of their main arguments for the Jews being God’s specifically chosen people. The argument goes like this: No people in history has suffered the way the Jews have. By all rights, the Jewish people should be extinct by now. Yet, not only have they miraculously survived the Holocaust, but, against all probability, they have returned to Israel and revived their ancient nation. Gold points out that the Jews aren’t the only people with an ancient pedigree to survive into the modern age.

Nor is the survival of the Jewish people for thousands of years the unique phenomenon the Orthodox like to claim that it is. The Basques, for example, have been around a lot longer than the Jews have. In fact, the Basque presence in the Pyrenees predates recorded history. The most recent genetic evidence suggests that they have survived in place for some forty thousand years, more than ten times the duration of an identifiable Jewish culture. And in (for them) modern times they handily survived violent passages of Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, Franks and Nazis.

Gold goes from this example and others into a detailed argument pointing out that, while the survival of the Jews in the face of diasporas and pogroms is remarkable it can be explained without divine intervention.

After pointing out that Western society, despite its problems is still the one in which men and women enjoy the greatest personal freedom, Gold turns his attention to the problem of what values Orthodox Judaism would replace the secular freedoms we currently enjoy. First, he points out the intolerance of the Orthodox for other forms of Judaism. In 2001 Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Israeli citizens converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis were to be registered as Jews. This hardly seems a radical move; but the response from the Orthodox was that the decision was scandalous and disastrous.

Gold then examines the position of women in Orthodox Judaism. Not only are women excluded from participation in religious services, they aren’t likely to be treated as fully human outside that context either. Gold relates the nature of an interview given to Deborah Sontag by Rabbi Menacham Mendel Taub in 2000. Questions and answers were related through a secretary, since the rabbi didn’t take questions from women, and assistants placed a barrier between Sontag and the Rabbi, so he wouldn’t have to even see her. Orthodox males recite a blessing each morning thanking God “for not making me a woman.” One of the great reforms of the Jewish Enlightenment was to give women the right to an education.

Gold goes on to point out examples of virulent Orthodox rage against any opposition, making an excellent case for the comparison of these rabbis and their followers to Muslim theocrats. Common to both groups is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, hostility towards democracy. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that, should their views overwhelm opposing viewpoints in Israel’s pluralist society, that nation would, in short order, be converted into a theocratic state, not unlike Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Christopher Hitchens said that “R. D. Gold is a fresh new voice, a witty and mordant guide through the moral and intellectual chaos of the tribalism and special pleading that is Orthodox Judaism - and, by extension, all religious fundamentalism. I enjoyed this book immensely. You will, too.”

Dinesh D'souza agrees saying “Bondage of the Mind is a strong, original, and very readable book that addresses an important topic in a clear and convincing manner - and it could not be more timely. It is not only for a Jewish audience or a liberal audience. I am a conservative columnist and former editor of a Catholic magazine, and I found the book captivating. Bondage of the Mind provocatively confronts issues of interest to everyone.”

Are orthodox Jews in Bondage?

Posted April 10, 2008

God Has A Problem?

“The problem of suffering has haunted me for a long time. It was what made me begin to think about religion when I was young, and it was what led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith" – Bart D. Ehrman

The vindications of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of suffering, known as theodicies, are perhaps the most difficult topics of theological discussion. Some argue that suffering leads one to be a better person. Bart Ehrman is dissatisfied with most of the theodices that are current and writes that "my ultimate goal is to examine the biblical responses to suffering. What comes as a surprise is that some of the answers stand at odds with one another".

The cover of Ehrman's book says: In times of questioning and despair, people often quote the Bible to provide answers. Surprisingly, though, the Bible does not have one answer but many "answers" that often contradict one another. Consider these competing explanations for suffering put forth by various biblical writers:

The prophets: suffering is a punishment for sin.

The book of Job, which offers two different answers: suffering is a test, and you will be rewarded later for passing it; and suffering is beyond comprehension, since we are just human beings and God, after all, is God.

Ecclesiastes: suffering is the nature of things, so just accept it.

All apocalyptic texts in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: God will eventually make right all that is wrong with the world.

For Ehrman, the question of why there is so much suffering in the world is more than a haunting thought. Ehrman's inability to reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of real life led the former pastor of the Princeton Baptist Church to reject Christianity. In God's Problem, Ehrman discusses his personal anguish upon discovering the Bible's contradictory explanations for suffering and invites all people of faith--or no faith--to confront their deepest questions about how God engages the world and each of us.

Publishers Weekly commented: In this memoir of his own attempts to answer the great theological question about the persistence of evil in the world, Ehrman refuses to accept the standard theological answers. Through close readings of every section of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, he discovers that the Bible offers numerous answers that are often contradictory. The prophets think God sends pain and suffering as a punishment for sin and also that human beings who oppress others create such misery; the writers who tell the Jesus story and the Joseph stories think God works through suffering to achieve redemptive purposes; the writers of Job view pain as God's test; and the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes conclude that we simply cannot know why we suffer. In the end, frustrated that the Bible offers such a range of opposing answers, Ehrman gives up on his Christian faith and fashions a peculiarly utilitarian solution to suffering and evil in the world: first, make this life as pleasing to ourselves as we can and then make it pleasing to others.

Suffering, God's greatest problem?

Bart D. Ehrman is the author of more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestselling Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is a leading authority on the early Church and the life of Jesus. He has been featured in Time and has appeared on NBC's Dateline, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, CNN, The History Channel, major NPR shows, and other top media outlets.

Posted March 16, 2008

The Four Loves

“Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities" – C. S. Lewis

Recently I decided to reread C. S. Lewis's book "The Four Loves" which was published in 1960. While some of the examples have become outdated and are ethno-centric the book still retains a beautiful simplicity which permits one to look at how and why one loves from four distinct perspectives.

The English word 'love' encompasses four distinct ideas which the Greeks described as "storge" (affection), "philia" (friendship), "eros" (sexual or romantic love) and "agape" (selfless love). Lewis's book summarizes these four kinds of human love--drawing on examples from Jane Austen and St. Augustine. He suggests that all earthly love will be eventually lost and indeed one outcome of accepting love in any form is that it will eventually lead to suffering.

Wikipedia summarizes Lewis's thoughts as follows :

Affection (storge, στοργη) is fondness through familiarity, especially between family members or people who have otherwise found themselves together by chance. It is described as the most natural, emotive, and widely diffused of loves: natural in that it is present without coercion; emotive because it is the result of fondness due to familiarity; and most widely diffused because it pays the least attention to those characteristics deemed "valuable" or worthy of love and, as a result, is able to transcend most discriminating factors. Ironically, its strength, however, is what makes it vulnerable. Affection has the appearance of being "built-in" or "ready made", says Lewis, and as a result people come to expect, even to demand, its presence--irrespective of their behavior and its natural consequences.

Friendship (philia, φιλια) is a strong bond existing between people who share a common interest or activity. Lewis explicitly says that his definition of friendship is narrower than mere companionship: friendship in his sense only exists if there is something for the friendship to be "about". It is the least natural of loves, states Lewis; i.e., it is not biologically necessary to progeny like either affection (e.g., rearing a child), eros (e.g., creating a child), or charity (e.g., providing for a child). It has the least association with impulse or emotion. In spite of these characteristics, it was the belief of the ancients that it was the most admirable of loves because it looked not at the beloved (like eros), but it looked towards that "about"--that thing because of which the relationship was formed. This freed the participants in this friendship from self-consciousness. Because they were looking towards something beyond or above themselves, the more who were looking towards that thing with them were welcomed with the same sincerity, which freed the relationship from jealousy. The relationship is by its nature selective, and therefore, exclusive.

Eros (έρως) is love in the sense of 'being in love'. This is distinct from sexuality, which Lewis calls Venus, although he does spend time discussing sexual activity and its spiritual significance in both a pagan and a Christian sense. He identifies eros as indifferent. This is good because it promotes appreciation of the beloved regardless of any pleasure that can be obtained from them. It can be bad, however, because this blind devotion has been at the root of many of history's most abominable tragedies. In keeping with his warning that "love begins to be a demon the moment [it] begins to be a god", he warns against the danger of elevating eros to the status of a god.

Caritas (agapē, αγαπη) is an unconditional love directed towards one's neighbor which is not dependent on any lovable qualities that the object of love possesses. Agape is the love that brings forth caring regardless of circumstance. Lewis metaphorically compares love with a garden, charity with the gardening utensils, the lover as the gardener, and God as the elements of nature. God's love and guidance act on our natural love (that cannot remain what it is by itself) as the sun and rain act on a garden: without either, the object (metaphorically the garden; realistically love itself) would cease to be beautiful or worthy. Lewis warns that those who exhibit charity must constantly check themselves that they do not flaunt--and thereby warp--this love which is its potential threat.

Charity, the greatest of the loves?

Posted March 5, 2008

Melancholia Is A Miracle?

“Chase away the demons and they will take the angels with them." – Joni Mitchell, Canadian musician, songwriter, and painter.

Eric G. Wilson in a Los Angeles Times opinion article entitled 'The Miracle of Melancholia’ suggests that we are a nation obsessed with being happy, but sometimes feeling bad can do you some good. Wilson writes: In April of 1819, right around the time that he began to suffer the first symptoms of tuberculosis the poet John Keats sat down and wrote, in a letter to his brother, George, the following question: "Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?"

Implied in this inquiry is an idea that is not very popular these days which is characterized by an almost collective yearning for complete happiness. That idea is this: A person can only become a fully formed human being, as opposed to a mere mind, through suffering and sorrow. This notion would seem quite strange, possibly even deranged, in a country in which almost 85% of the population claims to be "very happy" or at least "happy." Indeed, in light of our recent craze for positive psychology as well as in light of our increasing reliance on pills that reduce sadness, anxiety and fear, we are likely to challenge Keats' meditation outright, to condemn it as a dangerous and dated affront to the modern American dream.

But does the American addiction to happiness make any sense, especially in light of the poverty, ecological disaster and war that now haunt the globe, daily annihilating hundreds if not thousands? Isn't it, in fact, a recipe for delusion? And aren't we merely trying to slice away what is most probably an essential part of our hearts, that part that can reconcile us to facts, no matter how harsh, and that also can inspire us to imagine new and more creative ways to engage with the world? Bereft of this integral element of our selves, we settle for a status quo. We yearn for comfort at any cost. We covet a good night's sleep. We trade fortitude for blandness.

When Keats invoked the fertility of pain, he knew what he was talking about. Though he was young when he composed his question -- only 24 -- he had already experienced a lifetime of pain. His father had died after falling from a horse when the future poet was only 9. A few years later, Keats nursed his mother assiduously through tuberculosis, but she died in 1810, when he was 15. Soon after, he was taken from a boarding school he loved and required to apprentice as an apothecary; he then underwent a gruesome course in surgery in one of London's hospitals (in the days before anesthesia).

Orphaned and mournful, Keats spent his days brooding. But after much contemplation, he decided that sorrow was not a state to be avoided, not a weakness of the will or a disease requiring cure. On the contrary, Keats discovered that his ongoing gloom was in fact the inspiration for his greatest ideas and his most enduring creations. What makes us melancholy, Keats concluded, is our awareness of things inevitably passing -- of brothers dying before they reach 20; of nightingales that cease their songs; of peonies drooping at noon. But it is precisely when we sense impending death that we grasp the world's beauty.

Keats was of course not the only great artist to translate melancholia into exuberance. This metamorphosis of sadness to joy has been a perennial if frequently unacknowledged current in Western art. Consider George Frideric Handel, the 18th century composer. By 1741, when he was in his mid-50s, Handel found himself a fallen man. Once a ruler of the musical world, he had suffered several failed operas as well as poor health. He was left in a state of poverty, sickness and heartsickness. Living in a run-down house in a poor part of London, he expected any day to be thrown into debtor's prison or to die. But then, out of nowhere, as if by some divine agency, Handel received a libretto based on the life of Jesus and an invitation to compose a work for a charity benefit performance. On Aug. 22, 1741, in his squalid rooms on Brook Street, Handel saw potentialities no one had before seen. Immediately, he felt a creative vitality course through his veins. During a 24-day period, he barely slept or ate. He only composed, and then composed more. At the close of this brief period, he had completed "Messiah" his greatest work, a gift from the depths of melancholia.

We could also recall Georgia O'Keeffe, the 20th century painter. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, O'Keeffe left the East Coast for Taos, N.M. She fell profoundly in love with the lonely vistas of this world denuded of human corruption. However, even though she was enlivened by this part of the world, in 1932, her lifelong battle with melancholia caught up with her. She was hospitalized for psychoneurosis. Rather than quelling her creative spirit, this breakdown did the opposite. Upon being discharged, she returned to the Southwest. There, in 1935, she painted some of her bleakest and most beautiful landscapes: "Purple Hills near Abiquiu" and "Ram's Head, White Hollyhock Hills." Both feature dark things amid the desert's glare -- gloomy shadows and stormy clouds. Into these haunting shades -- hovering amid hard-scrabble rock and a sinister skull -- one stares. One senses something there as silent and sacred as bones.

Joni Mitchell confessed in an interview that she has frequently endured long periods of gloom. But she has not shied away from the darkness. Instead, she sees her sorrow as the "sand that makes the pearl" -- as the terrible friction that produces the lustrous sphere. Given her fruitful struggles with sadness, Mitchell has understandably feared its absence. "Chase away the demons," she has said, "and they will take the angels with them."

Melancholia, far from error or defect, is an almost miraculous invitation to rise above the contented status quo and imagine untapped possibilities. We need sorrow, constant and robust, to make us human, alive, sensitive to the sweet rhythms of growth and decay, death and life. This of course does not mean that we should simply wallow in gloom, that we should wantonly cultivate depression. I'm not out to romanticize mental illnesses that can end in madness or suicide. On the contrary, following Keats and those like him, I'm valorizing a fundamental emotion too frequently avoided in the American scene. I'm offering hope to those millions who feel guilty for being downhearted. I'm saying that it's more than all right to descend into introspective gloom. In fact, it is crucial, a call to what might be the best portion of ourselves, those depths where the most lasting truths lie.

Eric G. Wilson is a professor of English at Wake Forest University and author of "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy."

Melancholia - a miraculous invention?

Posted February 26, 2008