The Hiddenness of Goodness or the Goodness of Hiddenness
I’ve been watching a pile of wood debris break free from the ice all morning. The water has begun its rush down from the melting mountains and is flowing visibly again, bringing with it all the downed branches from the winter.
Last summer we arrived home from a sudden and sad trip to Florida, and found our neighbor lost three trees in a wind storm that took some real beauts down around our neighborhood. The wind roared down the river and his home took its landfall brunt. I have sometimes lamented that our home was built tucked in the corner of our property, when the better river view is less than thirty feet away, but its builders were wiser than I, going more for stability in a storm than a pretty view.
Across the river from our home, if you know to look for it, you can see how the wind storm took a whole swath of trees down in its way, most of them broken in a singular point along the horizon, thirty feet in the air. I know a healthy forest will do its own maintenance by adapting, creating mulch, and feeding its offspring with their ancestor’s decomposing matter. There is indeed a secret life to these trees and what looks like destruction to my human eyes is still very much a part of a healthy and whole life.
I read this from C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce last week:
“We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the center: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision. Even on the biological level life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good”
This seems to me to be a perfect paragraph and one I won’t forget. I have wrestled mightily in the past few years with goodness and unity and uniformity and evil. This morning the New York Times opined that we are in the beginning years of World War III and though their writers can sometimes be given to hyperbole, I wonder if there’s truth to that particular opinion. War isn’t just happening in the Ukraine, it is happening on Facebook with our neighbors. I know this because for a brief moment I had to log onto Facebook yesterday and download a few photos. I scrolled my timeline for less than ten seconds and the war du jour was over a recent Pixar Film. No fewer than six of my Facebook friends were postulating one way or the other. You may think I need new friends but I think it’s more likely that I just need to get off Facebook in a more permanent way. Maybe we all do.
If good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil, but also from other good, I have to ask myself often if there is a better way to go about making good in the world than signaling to others of my particular lines in the sand. Is there a hiddenness to our good? Perhaps a secret-ness? Is it hiddenness that contributes to our making good? (Yes, reader, I understand the irony of writing these thoughts publicly. This is not a new conundrum to me.)
Dallas Willard writes that “the discipline of secrecy will help us break the grip of human opinion over our souls and our actions…we are liberated from slavery to eyes, and then it does not matter whether people know or not…Whatever our position in life, if our lives and works are to be of the kingdom of God, we must not have human approval as a primary or even major aim. We must loving allow people to think whatever they will. We may, if it seems right, occasionally try to help them understand us and appreciate what we are doing. That could be an act of life. But in any case we can only serve them by serving the Lord only.”
Nate and I have been working slowly through the Netflix series Chef’s Table, and last night he starts an episode called Jeong Kwag. If you’re unfamiliar with Chef’s Table, its normal fare is to craft a story from the life and work of famous chefs. Most of them are chefs at multiple Michelin star kitchens, world-renown artists whose restaurants fill the best lists of the world. This episode, though, is on the life of a Buddhist nun called Jeong Kwan, who has lived and worked at a monastery in South Korea for fifty years. The recipients of her artistry are her fellow nuns and novices, and occasional visitors to the cloister. She works in relative secret. She does not use onions or garlic or leeks. Her main ingredient, one critic says, is time.
She uses soy sauce that has been passed down for generations and ferments vegetables long past a normal fermentation process. She methodically plates the meals she serves her fellow sister monks with as much care as the plates she serves to Michelin star chefs who come to visit. One chef says, “Jeong Kwan has no ego,” and Jeong Kwan herself says, “Creativity and ego cannot go together. If you free yourself from the competing and jealous mind, your creativity opens up endlessly. Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment. You must not be your own obstacle. You must not be owned by the environment you’re in.” Working with food, it is obvious, is an act of worship for her.
I am not a Buddhist and believe there is more to being truly free than an open mind, but it seems to me that a prerequisite for believing the gospel of Jesus Christ is an open mind. And the way of the gospel is an open heart. Not so open that it catches every little wind of doctrine that blows past, but open enough to fully receive and live in the freedom for which we have been set free. As a Christian I cannot stake my life on the freedom we have in Christ and then live in such a way that my rigidity and surety in every single thing communicates to others that this freedom ain’t actually free. This is a space of tension, I know (I hear you naysayers but-but-but-ing already…), but I think Lewis is onto something when he says for goodness to be truly good it must be discernible from other goodness. In other words, Ben and Jerry’s Mint Cookie Crumble might be delicious and fresh squeezed orange juice might be sublime, but nobody in their right mind would mix them together and call it good. In other words, freedom in Christ means we will live equally good though drastically different lives.
The wood debris has broken free of its ice obstacle and begun its float downstream, by early afternoon it will crest the falls in town and probably break free from one another then. Who knows where it will go then. Perhaps to the seaway and then even to the gulf of St. Lawrence and perhaps even the Atlantic Ocean. I doubt it will all make it that far, but even if it just catches on a shoreline somewhere, it becomes an essential part of this living environment. Even in its death, it gives life to other living things.
I wonder sometimes if true freedom in Christ is incompatible with the current environment in which we live, where our every thought and experience has the opportunity for display and therefore, whether we intend for it or not, creates a pressure for others to meet our idea of what is uniformly good instead of a diversity of good. Perhaps it is possible to cultivate a kingdom kind of goodness by in fact going the way that seems best to us in the moment, having cultivated an interior life that is strong and vibrant and full of the Holy Spirit, so much so that two of us can choose different or opposite things for our lives without either of us making a moral judgement on the other.
Perhaps we do this for a long period of time, perhaps looking seemingly dead and untended to the naked eye, and yet cultivating a whole forest beneath our roots. Perhaps. I don’t know. I suspect though.