Sunday, September 29, 2013

What I Learned from Tarzan (and The Who) about the Holy Trinity

When one thinks of Tarzan, perhaps the last thing that comes to mind is the Blessed Trinity. Nevertheless, there is something quite profound when you get right down to it about the manner in which Tarzan speaks. Tarzan is what one might call a feral child, and what we mean by that is that he was "raised" in the wild, not by a pack of wolves, by rather by monkeys. And considering the type of environment in which he was reared, it should come as little surprise that his grammar was more than a little bit lacking (viz. "I Tarzan. You Jane!"). But why is that a significant detail? And in what sense does it have anything to do with the Holy Trinity? 

In recent decades psychologists and doctors have gained a greater and greater understanding of childhood development. For example, there have been any number of studies that dwell on the importance of human touch- along with the manner and age at which a child develops the capacity to speak. The latter may seem less significant than the former, but apparently they are both intimately connected. In point of fact, not only do such insights tell us a great deal about the nature and importance of "childhood development", but they also (I would suggest) lend insight into our identity as children who are made in the image and likeness of the one Triune God.

Some years back there was a TLC documentary on a little girl name Genie Wiley who had been kept isolated in one room for the first thirteen years of her life. Her father ordered the mother and the rest of the children not to touch her or talk to her. When the authorities finally discovered the child, she was, not surprisingly, malnourished and psychologically traumatized. So terrible was her treatment that she behaved more like an animal than a human being. According to the doctors report, in spite of the fact that she was chronologically aged thirteen, she appeared to be physically more like the age of six. Initially the doctors were optimistic about her progress, but as time went on they quickly came to realization that some of the damage was irreparable. Indeed much like the mythical figure Tarzan, no matter how hard her teachers tried, they could not seem to get her to speak in grammar. Mind you, she could use certain words as indicators, she just couldn't in any way seem to connect different ideas to one another.

If like me you too hated diagramming sentences as a child, it might be difficult to appreciate the significance of this deficiency. Yet one need not appreciate the academic exercise in order to comprehend the significance. At our core, human beings are physically, psychologically, and emotionally oriented towards others. Observe how the arms naturally reach out to embrace others, or how each man is marked by that indelible belly button which reminds us of our immortal connectedness. Consider how our sexual organs are specially designed to work in concert with members of the opposite sex. The point is when we deny this communitarian aspect of ourselves, we find that we are somehow less than ourselves. "It is not good for man to be alone." If there were ever an understatement in Scriptures, this would be it! This does not mean that our time by ourselves is bad (for life is filled with such healthy retreats); what it means is that even our time alone should ultimately be at the service our time together.

If Tarzan and the story of Genie do not convince you of this trinitarian truth, simply consider what too much time alone can do with our own equilibrium. Being in your own head (or on this computer) too much can make anyone feel a little bit unbalanced. Just look at the behavior of some of those responsible for the mass shootings in recent years. How many of those situations were exacerbated by the fact that those men spent an inordinate amount of time locked up in their rooms? I think most of us would agree that a little more time in the company of others wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world for any of them.

And then of course there are a few notable examples from the popular culture; like I Am Legend and Cast Away. In the first movie, the main character is completely alone because practically everyone on the planet has died due to a plague. As a consequence, all he has left is his dog Sam. Prompted by these circumstances, he naturally feels compelled to anthropomorphize his dog and engage in conversations with adult mannequins. Then there's Cast Away, a story in which a man, played by Tom Hanks, is shipwrecked on a deserted island. As an expedient for finding someone to talk to, he paints a face on a Volleyball; names it Wilson (after the brand name), and starts yelling at it. Thus, even when a man lacks someone with whom to communicate, he still feels compelled to invent some form of replacement. There is an old expression; "If God didn't exist, we would have to invent him." Well in this instance I think we might just as well say; "If the Trinity didn't exist, this too we would have to invent."                        

At this point you may still be saying; "How does the fact that abject loneliness drives us nuts point to the fact that God is a Trinity?" Good question. It is a deduction arrived at from the simple Biblical notion that "God is love." For if God is love itself, and we are "made in his image and likeness" (those for whom it is "not good to be alone"), then why would it make sense that there is a different standard for God? If it is insanity for man to be in utter isolation, then imagine what sort of madness would take shape if you had to live that way for all of eternity (actually don't- that might mess with your mind). In order for God to be love itself, he must possess within his own Being all that love entails, otherwise he could potentially love something beyond himself, but would be incapable of being Love.

If we accept the notion that God is love, then there are only two options that seem logical to entertain about his nature. The first possibility is to envision a concept of God which resembles something like the Christian notion of a divine "Tri-Unity". The second idea would be to conceive of a God who is completely and utterly full of Himself. Indeed, if there is no Other in this equation, then it would logically follow that Selfish Love would be the defining characteristic of this Being. This would then affirm (God help us all) the modern instinct that we should make it our vocation to pamper ourselves with spas, incense, flowers, poems and self proposals. Instead of self sacrifice we would all be worshipping at the altar of the Holy Selfie, praying incessantly in the name of Me, Myself, and I. But if God is in fact Trinitarian in nature, then it seems only appropriate that the highest form of love would be to lay down one's life for one's friend, and/or to vow one's self to another so completely that a third person miraculously springs from the wellspring of that love.

Perhaps this explains why some of the most satisfying love songs ever written are not anything like those bad Catholic hymns wherein we must sing about how wonderful we are, or those terrible hip-hop songs where the artist speaks of himself in third person and feels the need to repeat over and over again why he deserves respect. To the contrary, love always diminishes the self in favor of the beloved. Yet there is one love song that does this better than just about any other. Known primarily for their anarchic spirit, the band The Who is not generally associated with something so "banal" as a love song. However, the song "Bargain" may in truth be the most rebellious song they ever wrote (if only for the fact that it preaches supernatural love in an age which would have been the least tolerant of it). The idea is an ancient one, the notion that the lover should go to every length possible, including a humiliating death, in the name of the beloved; "To win you I'd stand naked, stoned, and stabbed..." Making this sentiment even more beautiful and original, Townshend gives his sacrifice a chivalric twist; "I'd call that a bargain, the best I have ever had." The lover is not only brave, but humble, for he sees his effort as a "bargain" in comparison to good of love.

The first thing we should know about the nature of perfect love is that it finds perfection in the complete and utter gift of self to another- not so much because it is demanded by the beloved- but rather because it is demanded by the lover of himself. The love between lover and the beloved is never stagnate or presumptuous, but rather is constantly seeking to embody and express that spirit. Perhaps the most paradoxical part of the song comes towards the end; "I look at my face in the mirror. I know I'm worth nothing without you. In life one and one don't make two; one and one make one. And I'm looking for my free ride to me... I'm looking for you." Love in this sense is unintelligible without the beloved. In order for one to truly know one's self, one must give one's self entirely to another, holding nothing back. To whatever extent we are capable of such an expression, we are divine, and to whatever extent it is withheld, we are practically indistinguishable from the animals.

A recent study of the brain by neuroscientists upholds this trinitarian instinct. One of the most interesting details to come out of the survey was the fact that more endorphins are released in an act of charity than in almost any other activity. In fact, the only thing comparable to this charitable "high" was the brain's reaction to ingesting narcotics or winning the lottery (both of which seem to me a rather temporary expedient). In any case, who would have ever thought that science would ultimately help vindicate such a sublime doctrine, who would have imagined that it would come to the aid of such a paradoxical idea, the pious notion that; " is better to give than to receive"?

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