We spoil everything by trying to get something out of it, by being so incurably, intractably utilitarian. I agree with Walter Kerr, that New York drama critic who, oh, 12 or 13 years ago wrote one of the best books I ever read, called The Decline of Pleasure, put his finger on the central American malaise when he said, “Our biggest problem is that we are neurotic workers. We feel compelled to work.”
The neurotic compulsion to work is, I think, one of our biggest problems. And it’s a philosophy of life. We inherited it from Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher, who claimed that only those things were good that worked, that produced, that could be consumed. And we fell for it. And that utilitarian spirit is even spoiling the religious renewal. We end up using one another, and we call it love. We end up using God when we call it religious renewal. You know, we keep – we tidy up the church. We rearrange the furniture. We modernize, suburbanize, protestantize, update, streamline. And then we say, now, there’s a place for God in all this, too, because we like to be respectably religious.
The fact is that there is no place for God in our world or in our church or in our plans. God is the place. And we’ve got to fit the church and the world and our plans into Him. We have got to response to His sovereign claim and to his devastating demands of love. There is no other way. It is God who acts. It is God who loves, hounds, pursues, woos, consumes. And all we tiny, frightened, faltering, feeble little creatures can do is respond. But once we begin to respond, we become towering human beings. We become divinized. We become deified, to use the word that the fathers of the church did not hesitate to use. Or as St. Thomas Aquinas said, we become gods. Not like God, autonomously, that’s the affect of original sin. But we become God by participation in his godhood, a process that never ends. It’s an ongoing, unending, dynamic process.
That’s the marvelous thing about becoming human. It never ends. It goes on and on and on, into eternity. It doesn’t even become static, finished, completed, at the moment of death or at the entrance into heaven. It goes on and on and on. That’s the difference between a human being and an animal, I suppose. Say, for instance, a rhinoceros. A rhinoceros has already achieved the quintessence of rhinocerosity. But humanity is open-ended. Humanness goes on and on and on.
One day I was lecturing in San Antonio, and they put me up in a swanky hotel. And I went to bed and fell asleep. But at about 3:00 o’clock in the morning there was a knock at my door. And I jumped out of bed half-dressed, opened the door, and in came two black girls. And I stood there by the door. One of them was pulling me over toward the bed, and the other one was the spokesman. And she said, “We’ve come to make you happy.” And I said, “But I was happy. Especially when I was asleep.” And she said no, no, no. And she went on to propose all sorts of amazing, incredible sexual tidbits the likes of which I have never heard. And I’ve gone to my sexpert friends and asked them what they meant, and even they didn’t know. But anyway, I said, “No, no, no, I can’t do that. You see, I don’t know you, and therefore I don’t love you. And therefore, if I did that, I’d just be using you.” And one of them said, “No, no, no, you wouldn’t be using us. You’d be paying us.” And then I laughed so loud that they got scared and ran out.
And I went to bed, and I couldn’t go back to sleep. I was trying to figure out two things. One is what the two of them were going to do, and secondly how much it was going to cost. But you see, they were so incurably utilitarian that they didn’t know what I was talking about. And that kind of utilitarianism runs right through our society. We are terribly utilitarian. The worst kind is when we end up using God. God is too good to be used. He is meant to be known, loved, adored, celebrated, but never, never used.
The purest, finest, highest human acts are useless. For instance, playing and praying. They are the two highest acts that human beings are capable of, and they are both useless. At least in their purest form. There are certain therapeutic forms of play. They are not the purest. But to play just to play, for no other reason. You see, those human acts are highest, purest, best that need no reason outside of themselves by which to be justified. Such as play. And this is certainly true of prayer. We should pray for no reason. We should pray for no purpose. We should pray for no gainful end. We should pray because God is God. And prayer is a cry of the heart. So that if we are at all alive, then we’ve got to pray.
And at its highest level, it is useless. It is the most useless act of all. Some of the most beautiful things in life are useless. I think, for instance, of my favorite kind of dog, a Saluki. You can’t use a Saluki. You know, a Saluki is the oldest breed of dog in the world, and certainly one of the most beautiful creatures God ever made. And you can’t use it. You can hardly train it. You can’t master it. They’re too smart. They’re too independent. They’re too intrinsically authentic. They will not be used. Another favorite example of mine of something non-utilitarian is that architectural splendor that hovers over St. Louis, that magnificent useless arch. Utterly useless. But magnificently beautiful and inspiring.
So we should not be afraid of doing nothing. We should not be afraid of useless acts and useless things. Be still and see that I am God. The most important thing to do is nothing. The most important thing to do is to be. And you see, we escape that primary privilege of being by doing too many good things. There’s the rub. I don’t worry about the bad things we do. I worry about the good things we do.
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