“The devil laughs because God’s world seems senseless to him; the angels laugh with joy because everything in God’s world has its meaning.”
When I first read those words, I was struck by their hard-won wisdom. Milan Kundera, one of the great novelists of the 20th-century, wrote about the challenge of being human in the modern world, embodied in Prague under the weight of totalitarianism, the “totalistic” worlds and worldviews of Naziism and Marxism. Perhaps best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his subject was always the world that Nietzsche had warned about a century-and-a-half earlier— that when we lose God, we lose access to meaning and morality.
I have been deeply influenced by his writing, seeing his critique as profoundly and perceptively true of our time in history, the 20th becoming the 21st century— so it was a surprise to read this past week a short story by Charles Dickens, “The Battle of Life,” written in the mid-19th-century, and be reminded of Kundera. Many of us are profoundly formed by “A Christmas Carol,” but Scrooge and Tiny Tim only come once in this life. Dickens, master storyteller that he was, wrote time and again about the meaning of the season, each Christmas story full of people we know, perennial people, wrestling with the world, the flesh and the devil like we are.
When I began reading I was struck by the beauty of his prose; in fact it is as beautiful as I have ever read. In a strange juxtaposition the first paragraphs are about a place of great horror and sorrow, a battlefield of the world, one where countless men and horses lost their lives. With remarkable genius, Dickens requires that we remember the grief, even as we see the same ground with new eyes, when after generations the people no longer know the meaning of their place. Where men and horses are long-buried, their flesh and bones one with the earth, stone cottages and rose-covered trellises now stand— and those who live in them have no living memory of what once was. The change does not happen overnight, but slowly by slowly, we no longer remember to remember.
Even a short story is hard to summarize in a few words, but at its heart “The Battle of Life” is about grace— which is why it qualifies to be included in “the Christmas stories.” But Christmas… and grace? How are they connected?
Because I care deeply about the relationship of ideas to life, of what we believe and how we live, the word “grace” is one that matters, as its meaning is written into the very meaning of life. Like everything else in the world, we can misread it, which is why “cheap grace” should be protested, much as every one of us longs for it sometimes and somedays. But there are other ways to distort its meaning, viz. by confusing it with other ways of life, other ways of seeing the world where grace does not and cannot exist.
Theists of every stripe miss here, imagining instead that it is goodness that makes a good life. The materialist West misses here just as badly as the pantheist East; in their own distinct ways they argue instead for “karma,” that things are already “written,” that the world is “hard-wired,” that we are “stuck in moments we cannot get out of,” and there are thousands upon thousands of variations on that theme. Determinism is as absolutely against grace as is pantheism— which is of course why the poet of Dublin sings, “grace is beyond karma, beyond karma.” Ideas have legs, always and everywhere, and so karma has meaning, just as grace has meaning, but what they mean are universes apart.
Christmas, if it is about anything, is about grace. Scrooge was not stuck forever. In the great mystery of that long night, heaven came to earth, offering him another way of seeing himself and his world. Dickens did not offer a fully-developed theology of salvation, reflecting for his readers on the meaning of the birth and life, the death and resurrection of Jesus; in fact from what I have read, he was not fully persuaded of all that we call “mere Christianity.” But he did see some things very clearly, offering rare insight into the reality of life in the world.
“The Battle of Life” is one more window into that gift. The story is of a widowed father with two daughters living in a stone cottage with a rose-covered trellis, built on the very earth of an awful, grievous moment of history. A physician by training, he is certain that life has no meaning, and laughs with the devil “because God’s world seems senseless to him.” He responds to all things great and small with “Haha… because it’s all silly,” refusing to see anything or anyone as morally meaningful— and of course there are reasons, because there are always reasons. But as the story unfolds through the years of his life, his skepticism is challenged by a surprising grace, incarnate in the simple insight of a mostly illiterate maid who works in his home, a woman who can only read the words, “Forgive and forget.” Yes, a surprising grace, a strange grace. When the eyes of his heart are finally open, he says, “It is a world we need to be careful how we libel, Heaven forgive us, for it is a world of sacred mysteries, and its Creator only knows what lies beneath the surface of His lightest image.”
There is a remarkable resonance between those last words of Dickens, and “the unbearable lightness of being” of Kundera. But that should not surprise us, if we understand what these days of December mean, what Christmas is honestly about, setting before human hearts the world over a line-in-the sand, a battle over the meaning of life. What kind of world is it, anyway? And how will we live in it?
Karma is always an argument against moral meaning because we are not responsible, able to respond; grace argues differently. Against all odds, against every imagination and pretension, when we believe in Christmas we are believing that God is not silent, that in time and space grace has become flesh, living for while among us, inviting us to “forgive and forget” the heartaches of our own lives because we now see that a morally meaningful life is possible because “everything in God’s world has its meaning,” very hard-won wisdom that it is.
When we choose against grace, we choose for an eye-for-an-eye, committing ourselves to the survival of the fittest. The jungle works that way, but that is a world and worldview away from how most of us want to live, most of us need to live. Scarred by the battles of life, wounded by the world, we are like the characters of Kundera and Dickens, laughing, yes laughing with the devil or with God —either believing that nothing matters in the end, or that everything matters in this world of “sacred mysteries.” Like all things that matter most, it is a question of having eyes that see.