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23 Feb

A glimpse of the darkness – Yesterday, on my way to church, I encountered a less-than-polite driver. The specific circumstances are not important—what is important is that I responded in kind, rather than with kindness. Later, the more I thought about it, the more I regretted how I reacted. I suppose the fact that the scripture passage for the sermon yesterday was an arrow carefully aimed at my heart. It was the entire first chapter of 1 John. Verse 6, in particular, really made me think: “If we claim to have fellowship with him (God) yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.”

“I have been trying to attain virtue my whole life, and the closer I get the further away I realize I am.”

It may seem that I am overreacting—after all, is getting angry at another driver really “walking in the darkness?” In a way, it does seem a bit severe, and if I could, I would love to just let myself off the hook and tell myself that it’s not that bad. I’ve never been able to let myself off the hook, though, as regular readers of Liminality will know.

I once read something in the annotated version of the Analects of Confucius (Noneojipju in Korean) that really struck me. I had read this particular passage before, and it had never really moved me—in fact, I found it to be slightly odd, and difficult to understand. I had even read the commentary before, but the passage remained obscure to me. It was only when a classmate of mine who majors in classical written Chinese explained the commentary to me that everything fell into place.

The passage itself reads: “Confucius said, ‘One who is not virtuous cannot long abide suffering, nor long be joyful, yet the virtuous man regards virtue as comfortable, and the wise man regards virtue as beneficial.’” I’ve never actually read the Analects in English, so this is only a rough translation. What I have translated here as “virtue” might also be translated as “righteousness.” I also deliberately translated the character for “peace” as “comfort” because, despite its awkwardness, I think it makes the passage a bit clearer.

The Analects often mention virtue or righteousness, and there are other passages that moved me more than this one. It was only when my classmate pointed out a very short piece of the commentary that I finally understood what it meant. It’s a very short sentence, so I will include the original Chinese here:

from the Analects of Confucius

The third and seventh character is a bit difficult to translate directly into English, but for our purposes we can understand it to mean “to be.” The first two characters are “peace” (or “comfort”) and “virtue,” while the fourth character is “one.” The fifth and sixth characters are “benefit” and (again) “virtue,” while the last character is (as you may have already guessed) “two.” So, a literal translation would be: “Peaceful virtue is one, beneficial virtue is two.” Of course, a literal translation is useless here, and we need to look at this in light of the original passage, specifically the last part: “...the virtuous man regards virtue as comfortable, and the wise man regards virtue as beneficial.”

The sentence is certainly open to interpretation, but I like the way my classmate explained it: the “one” and “two” refer to the heart and actions of the person in question—in other words, the heart and actions of one who regards virtue as comfortable are one, while the heart and actions of one who regards virtue as beneficial are two. The virtuous man pursues virtue because that is what is in his heart, and for him that is the most comfortable way to act. The wise man, on the other hand, while he may not be virtuous, understands that acting virtuously is beneficial to him. He may harbor dark thoughts in his heart, but he will act virtuously because he knows it is the best policy.

Under normal circumstances, the virtuous man and the wise man will be indistinguishable to observers. But what happens when the wise man’s actions are no longer governed by reason? What happens when his emotions get the better of him? That is when what is truly in his heart will be revealed, and his lack of true virtue will be exposed.

To a Christian, this will sound familiar. Jesus once said, “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34b). The idea is basically the same—when we are in control of ourselves, we will often act contrary to what we are really feeling because we realize that it would be harmful to act on our feelings. When emotions take over and reason takes the back seat, though, we act on what is in our heart. And that is the point—when I reacted the way I did yesterday, I was acting out of what was in my heart, and after I regained control I was ashamed of what I had seen of myself.

I would like to think of myself as a wise man. I am generally able to exercise self-control, and I try to act virtuously toward others. There is no way, though, that I would ever dream of calling myself a virtuous man. My heart and actions are not one, they are two. I am capable of great evil, and if reason did not stand in my way, I would be a far different person than I am. This is why something as seemingly trivial as minor road rage upsets me so. I see it for what it is—a glimpse of the darkness in my heart, and the darkness in which I walk.

Some may find it odd that I mix Christian and Confucian philosophy, but they are both ultimately guides for living on this earth. Sometimes, though, having more than one guide will only serve to get you lost. I can recognize wisdom in Confucian and other philosophies, but my ultimate guide is my Christian faith. The above discussion may have pointed out the similarities between Christian and Confucian philosophy on this particular point, but there is one major difference between the two: Confucian philosophy believes that virtue or righteousness is attainable through human effort, while Christian philosophy believes that this is impossible.

Even had I not been raised in a Christian family, my experiences would push me toward the latter conclusion. Personally, I have been trying to attain virtue my whole life (granted, I’ve only been at it for a few decades), and the closer I get the further away I realize I am. Only a fool thinks he knows everything—the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. It is the same with virtue—the closer you come to your goal, the more you realize that the goal is unattainable.

I have friends who would see this as merely an excuse for weakness, and who would see my faith as a crutch. Perhaps it is a crutch—in many ways, I am lame, and I cannot walk on my own. Physically I may be strong, but my heart and will are weak. I need help, and I find this help in God.

I am not a believer in the ultimate goodness of humanity—while it is nice to sometimes think that, deep down inside, everyone is really good, I do not believe this to be true. Human beings are selfish and evil, and if we are wise, we act virtuously only because we know that this is the best way to achieve our ends. All the evidence of this we will ever need may be found in the pages of human history.

I realize that the overall tone of this entry is somewhat negative, but there is a positive side to this: with God’s help, I can overcome the darkness inside of me. I will not lie, though, and say that everything is fine now and I feel much better. My faith is intact, but I doubt myself. This is actually contradictory, because if I truly believed what the Bible says I would know that I can ask God for forgiveness and He will forgive me (this is also in 1 John 1). Yet I am plagued by guilt—not because of my actions yesterday, of course, but because of the darkness I see in myself. Can I truly say my faith is intact, then?

I can go one of two ways from here: I can allow my guilt to swallow me up, or I can acknowledge my weakness and seek strength from God. I can despair over my lack of faith, or I can understand that my faith is incomplete, and that life is a journey toward its completion.

Last week I delved into one of my dreams. Yet despite all my attempts at introspection and interpretation, I failed to see the most obvious: that the dream was an expression of liminality (thanks to David, and to his better half Julie, for pointing this out). On the about page of this site, I expressed my faith in terms of liminality: “I struggle to be in the world but not of it—a citizen of a land I will never see in this lifetime, a wanderer for whom home is wherever I happen to be at the moment.” Putting these two ideas together leads me to yet another interpretation of the dream and a way to look at my present state of mind in a positive way.

The fish is an ancient symbol of Christianity, yet it was not mentioned in any of the dream dictionaries I checked, and the symbolism never occurred to me. That symbol, though, is perfectly valid for me. Looking at it this way, another interpretation of that dream might have something to do with my spiritual life—I saw myself as being in the world, and part of it, accepting everything that was presented to me, and the fish may have been trying to show me that there was another world I was a part of, a world that maybe I have forgotten about lately.

And that leads me to my present state of mind. I will not deny that I am feeling down about myself at the moment, but I am encouraged by the idea that faith is a journey. There is, of course, an ultimate destination, a goal for which I strive, but it is still far off, and until that day comes my faith is a journey—a work in progress, if you will. I pray only that I will never stop moving forward, never stop pressing on toward the goal.

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