On Farewells and Fresh Starts

Dear Father,

It has been ages since we last spoke. Depressed by the continued absence of Fatherly epiphanies, and hitting wall after wall in my search for meaning in your grand design, I resorted to silence.

It wasn’t initially a conscious choice. The time between my letters had already been growing due to my increasing responsibilities, and it seemed at the start that the pause was simply more of the same, albeit longer. The more the time grew, however, the easier it became to just remain quiet, as mere thoughts of addressing you served only to remind me of past failures and of the apparent impossibility of any real future within your House. There was no point I thought, for as long as the reasons behind my departure remained unchanged, reconciliation would forever be impossible.

I understand Father that this fear is very similar to what wayward children, guilty of much greater crimes than a crisis of faith, feel after having left the fold for too long. Many an elder in your House, through sermon and scripture, has spoken at length of how misplaced these fears are. Our Father, they say, is most gracious; there is no sin is too great for his boundless forgiveness. It was after all to buy this very forgiveness that the Brother-Saviour gave his life.

But how does one forgive a lack of faith? How does one forgive a sin whose very core is the question of whether forgiveness is possible, whether it is even necessary? As the space between my letters grew wider, and as the hopelessness of satisfactorily concluding my quest grew greater, this question became of increasing importance to me. Would you, dearest Father, accept a wayward son back into your home? One who, while filled with a burning desire to return, was yet to reconcile the many questions that had drove him away to begin with? Would such a return to the House even mean anything? Could I truly call myself a child of the Cross if at every service, in every prayer, my once little friend was still able to ask his pernicious questions? If whenever called to exalt your name, or give solace to my brethren, or stand resolute in the face of temptation, I found myself thinking instead of whether or not the very foundations of our household were real? What good would such a return do?

Unfortunately, roaming aimlessly with these thoughts in my head had a very unintended consequence Father. It brought me to the realisation that fulfilment in spite of all this, despite the lack of your approval and forgiveness, is a real and attainable goal.

In this letterless stretch I met a lot of people, many of whom were like me: prodigal children long separated from their Houses. There were differences of course; some had left not because they feared they had no parents, but because they felt they had wrong homes. Some had left because they had discovered in their Houses corners so dark and vile they shattered the illusions of perfection they had come to believe were real. Some simply believed there was no true House, no one Father, that these structures were but the flawed efforts of children desperate to satisfy an inexplicable yearning they all found within themselves.

Regardless of their stripe Father, their presence and the manner in which they carried themselves revealed that a life without a House is not the thing I once feared it was. From within your gates we hear all kinds of things about the wayward children beyond the wall. They live lives of sin, empty and unfulfilled. They are cruel and selfish, blind and hateful, and the few with good hearts are ultimately misguided, doomed and damned by virtue of their pride and ignorance. Only you, through the Brother-Saviour, can save all men. Only you can bring us joy.

Seeing these wayward souls, living among them, banished all of those thoughts dearest Father. Here were people that were just as content as those I had seen back home, and in many ways even more so. Here were people that had found, in your earth, its people, its institutions, and even in their own existence, a fulfilment and calm that had eluded me for years.

To be fair these people weren’t new. I have been bumping into different kinds of your children from the day I set foot outside the House. There was however something about interacting with them, free from the impetus to judge their acts against your standard, that impressed on me the ease of their existence. Even Doubt, ever ready to throw a wrench in the works and derail my progress, seemed quieter when I was with them, less rash and more indulgent. Once I stopped trying to judge ideas against some sort of fixed, Crossian dogma, his questions lost their bite. In their presence he transformed from bane to boon, his probes helping all of us reach new levels of discovery instead of holding me back with the weight of his uncertainty.

And perhaps nothing could have sealed my fate more than that final realisation, dearest Father. My once little friend has been with me from the start of my quest, and rare were the occasions on which I managed to quiet him. To see his vindictive ruthlessness cooled by the acceptance of the children Outside, to glimpse a future in which I didn’t have to worry that every thought, every action had to be weighed against his incessant questions, a future where the truth was something to be sought and not something to be fought… I believe even you Father can understand why a weak child like myself would be seduced by that.

Of course none of this would have mattered had I made steady progress in my quest to find you. But being the all-knowing Father that you are, I suppose you always knew how this journey was going to end. The letter that launched my silence was not one of hope, and in the absence of any new discoveries to counter the despondent conclusions I reached prior to sending it, was there ever really much chance that my questions would find resolution?

And so here I am Father, ending my journey much like I started it: outside your gates and longing for your voice, my immense sadness at the futility of my quest tempered only by the renewed promise of finding peace amongst my prodigal brethren. Alas I will not be privy to that greatest of feasts thrown when one of your children return to the fold. I cannot in good faith take that final step through the gilded gates, for I still cannot accept that your House is my home. My doubts are too deep, your silence too deafening.

I can only hope that if you really are there, if you did receive any of the letters I sent on this saddest of quests, that somewhere in your heart lies the capacity to forgive even those of us that turn our backs to you.  We want to love you Father, to know you, but in a world such as this an invisible, intangible, and inconstant parent makes that leap just a little too large.

So fare thee well dearest Father. May your grief at the loss of yet another child not dull the joy from those that choose to remain, resolute and steadfast, in your presence.

Forever with love,

Your Prodigal Son.

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On Prophets, Priests, and Prodigies

Dearest Father,

I was occupied with a particularly difficult problem a few weeks back. This was not one of the many philosophical and abstract issues that have plagued me for years now, but a mundane, earthly problem, one that concerned my chosen profession. I sat for hours puzzling over the issue, and after consulting with fellows in my trade I came to a hackish but working solution. Of course this was not the first difficult problem I have faced, and the only way it would be the last would be if my death were but a few days away. However, my struggle over this one issue drew my attention to something I appear to have overlooked in letters past.

I mentioned while writing you about free will that one of the many handicaps your children enjoy is our lack of perfect knowledge. At the time I used the point to illustrate how we are slaves to our ignorant, porous minds, minds that render whatever little freedom we possess rather pointless. After all why bother granting us free will when the very tool you’ve given us for making decisions is so easily distracted and cannot retain the things of utmost importance to our survival and salvation?

My recent brush with intellectual difficulty highlighted this in a manner most stark, as the “hackish” solution I came up with was simply a variation of one that a friend had described, hurriedly put together in order to preserve academic integrity. My problem wasn’t the first of its kind I’d seen, but that did not stop it from holding me hostage for hours. And yet this friend of mine, with little thought and even fewer words, managed to describe a solution that seemed so obvious in hindsight I felt a little foolish.

There are many of your children like this, people who can easily see things that millions of us go years if not lifetimes without even suspecting. In the more earthly circles these people are called prodigies, gifted fellows with minds that can see through the logical and mathematical and physical quandaries of our time and give us insights into the tangible nature of our universe. In Fatherly circles, however, we have priests and prophets, people you have chosen to reveal your truth to the huddled, ignorant masses. Of course while prodigies are universally acclaimed in their fields and arts, your prophets and priests are often only loved in select circles, circles that usually grow into compounds and compounds that often transform into Houses.

If one were to assume our earth was a cold uncaring rock that breathed life into our ancestors eons ago, it would not be too difficult to come to terms with the concept of prodigies. A universe that doesn’t care about us would hardly care that only a few of us could parse her secrets. One could even assume that the prophets and priests that act as voices for non-existent Fathers and Mothers were simply prodigies driven mad by whatever realisation had dawned on them, or devious manipulative people preying on the weakness and gullibility of their brethren.

But as all things are when faced with the fact that we have a loving omnipotent Father, the system of prodigies, priests, and prophets seems completely counterproductive. These brilliant people are essentially gatekeepers of knowledge and wisdom, guardians and visionaries without whom our people would still be hiding in caves, scared of their own shadows and worshipping the sun that cast them.  If our Father loved all of us and wanted us to come to him, why would he place this completely unnecessary bottleneck between himself and his children? Why would he limit revelations of his true nature to a very, very tiny segment of our population, tasking all to go through them if they are to truly know his will?

Ironically there are many in the House of the Cross that actually agree with this; they just happen to believe you have already solved the problem. They cite the verses in your Book that mention that your laws are written in our hearts as proof that we all know your will. They point to the very existence of the Book itself as proof that no man need act as gatekeeper to your kingdom; all can read it and see for themselves what you truly want from your people.

The problem with both these statements is readily apparent. If your will was truly written in all our hearts why do we need the Book at all? Why have a Book state what we all know when we could all just feel in our hearts that these things are true? And even more damning, the existence of the Book and the grand theory of liberation championed by its adherents have not led to fewer gatekeepers; they have led to more. These days any one of your children can pick up your Book, read a line of text that has been read by millions before him and claim to have seen something new within it. Such a person would shout from the rooftops that you have spoken to him and made him your prophet, and thousands would flock to him seeking to hear the new truths that they should already know. Of course with such a scenario it is little wonder your House has grown increasingly divided as the centuries have gone by; without authority vested in a chosen few your children have seen fit to disagree on the finer points of every single line in your Book, erecting fresh wings in the House the moment one man’s “truth” counters their own.

Quite evidently your truths are not inscribed in our hearts, or there would be no need for Houses or the prophets that build them. And quite clearly the system of prophets and priests and prodigies is by design, not by mistake. So ingrained is the nature of this system in the world around us that Platocrates and More did not bother to refute it when describing their utopias. Instead they built their cities around it, creating special classes for these priests and granting them stewardship over the perfect worlds they had constructed.

Left with all this one once again has to wonder how it all meshes with your love, Father. What grand plan could you possibly have that can only be served if but a select few know what you want? What great purpose could you have for the child from whom you have withheld both yourself and the capacity to find you? It is becoming increasingly more difficult to even pay lip-service to the concept of your love, dearest Father. When the majority of your children face such terrible odds for salvation, is it little wonder that so many have grown disillusioned with you?

 

With a deficient mind,

Your Prodigal Son

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On the Worst of All Possible Worlds

Dear Father,

A common point often brought up when faced with the contradiction of your benevolence and our evil is that this world, this cruel and harsh earth we inhabit, is the best of all possible worlds. The reasoning often goes that you, in your boundless and infinite wisdom, considered all the worlds, all the possible outcomes of all the possible actions, and chose to create this world because it was the one in which the most good was found. We are told that this has to be the case because you are good. Any evil we see in a world such as ours exists in spite of your benevolence and not because of any hidden malice, for had you been less than perfectly good our lives would be much, much worse than they are now.

As with nearly all explanations that come from your House and your children this one is quite circular. It doesn’t actually prove your goodness; one must assume your benevolence as incontrovertible truth in order to reach a conclusion such as this. There are, however, more interesting implications to this line of thought than its basic circular nature.

Consider first dear Father the process of imagining all the other worlds. When a being of your stature brings to bear his imagination, one can expect it would not be quite as vague and imprecise as those of your children. When we imagine things our minds gloss over tiny details. We look at the big picture so to speak, only getting into the specifics when we have determined a certain course to be desirable and wish to flesh it out. For you Father one would expect the opposite to be true. When you imagine, everything, from the smallest detail to its largest effect, would at once be laid bare before you. You would know intimately the details of your imagination, because an intellect as all-encompassing as yours would simply be unable to gloss over anything.

I’m sure you would agree that such intricate imagination is fundamentally indistinguishable from actual creation. There would be no new discoveries to make when making your imaginations real. There would be no quirks, no bugs, no tiny little idiosyncrasies born from the “specifics” of your implementation. In fact because even the very concept of “real” is something that would be created by you, simply imagining a world would be tantamount to making it. Many House elders and lovers of Sophia have posited that the universe exists entirely in your mind and it is easy to see why. Even if it didn’t, even if there was a tangible qualitative difference between your mind and reality, the things themselves in both these cases would be indistinguishable. An observer moving from mind to reality would be unable to tell that he has changed environments as all observable entities would be exactly the same.

What this means Father is that your defenders have not escaped the problem of evil by stating that our world is the best. They have in fact made it worse. By considering all possible worlds you have essentially created all possible worlds, including those where life is as bad as it can possibly be. And because we do not know how bad life can be, it is entirely possible that this world is the worst of all possible worlds.

Of course one would be hard pressed to argue that our world is the worst that could ever be. There is, admittedly, quite a bit of happiness attached to our existence and we can certainly imagine things being worse than even the horrors we witness and hear about today. But we can also imagine things being so much better than they are now, making the argument that our world is best specious by the very same standards.

Even if our world isn’t the worst possible world it means that the worst possible world has existed at some point, perhaps exists right now (some in your House believe you to be timeless, meaning that all things happen at once from your perspective). It means that somewhere, in your mind or otherwise, there exist children of yours that are undergoing as much suffering as is conceivably possible simply because you thought it. What justifications for their torture exist in their world I wonder? How do those faithful to you even there come to terms with their suffering? How do they manage to praise your supposed benevolence?

Of course it can easily be countered that you needn’t have imagined all worlds with a level of intricacy that makes them indistinguishable from reality. Ignoring the fact that such a statement places a needless limit on the breadth of your intellect, it still does not absolve you of the suffering in our world; it indicts you even more. How can you be sure there aren’t better worlds if you didn’t uncover every stone, consider every possibility? If your imagination is as limited and as vague as ours, how do you guarantee to yourself that the earth you picked is in fact the best? How do you square it against your standard of being good if you cannot stand before your children and tell them there are truly no better worlds because you checked?

And in the event that this is in fact, by some as yet unknown justification, the best of all possible worlds, does that not fill you with sadness Father? That you, with all your might and power and wisdom, could create no better a world than one where your children still starve to death every day, are tortured mercilessly, and inhabit an existence so bleak some of them choose to end their own lives? I know those within your House felt they had come up with an excellent point when they posited that this world was the best you could do, but as with most explanations from that hallowed institution it just leaves me even sadder. For if this is the best you can do, dearest Father, how can you ask us to believe in your perfection?

With a heavy heart,

Your Prodigal Son

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On Good Places and No Places

Dear Father,

It was not too long ago that I concluded Platocrates’ Republic, that wonderful treatise on the perfect city, the home of truth and justice. With the melancholy of Augustine’s final words hanging over my head, I have spent the past few weeks in search of something uplifting, something that could take my mind away from the apparent futility of my quest. Imagine my joy when I stumbled across yet another book on perfect cities, this one by famed Elder of the House Thomas More. Recalling the glee with which I had received Platocrates’ dialogues I sat to read More’s Utopia, hoping that perhaps I would find not only a reprieve from the sadness that plagued me, but a more achievable vision of perfection than the unattainable ideals contained in Plato’s Republic.

The differences in their approach showed right from the start. Unlike Platocrates, who made it clear that he was fabricating a city in order to find the true meaning of justice, More makes play that Utopia is a real place. He is brought news of this fantastical island by one Raphael Hythloday, a man that claims to have been to the isle and to have seen first-hand how much better their system of governance is than those of the leading nations in More’s Europe. More was struck by the simplicity of Raphael, by his unwillingness to apply his wisdom in pursuit of personal gain, and by his superlative knowledge of states and governance, knowledge he claimed to have obtained by living among the Utopians. It was this impression that led More to listen to Hythloday’s account of the island, and – if we are to go along with the fiction – to put it before us in the form of a book.

In keeping with the realism of his republic, More (or rather Hythloday) paints Utopia as a land that could actually exist. Their government is a democracy, with its basic unit in the family. The families choose philarchs (or magistrates), the philarchs choose their archphilarchs, and the archphilarchs choose the island’s prince. There are checks to ensure that the prince does not abuse his power, and checks to ensure that no one can sway the vote for prince in his/her favour. The archphilarchs debate on the pressing issues of the land, and the greatest care is taken to ensure that the people have a direct hand in the decisions taken by their princes and magistrates.

Unlike Plato’s Republic, where each man has a duty he performs to the best of his capacity, the central duty of all people in Utopia is agriculture. The people all share an intimate knowledge of the land and how to till it, but are also allowed to practice whatever art they feel an affinity to.

There is no property in Utopia, and no money to speak of. Houses are shared, with smaller families given smaller homes and larger families given larger ones. The produce of each city is brought to a central market where all are allowed to take as they please. No one hoards, as there is no need to; all are certain that they would be provided for.

All men live in full view of the others, and this is done in order to ensure that they perform their tasks and employ themselves properly in their spare time. The people are encouraged to be ever busy, with the day split into segments that allow for leisure, education, hobbies and work. The fathers teach their sons their trades, and if they have sons that do not take a liking to their arts the sons are moved to a family where their talents are appreciated.

In keeping with their lack of property the people of Utopia do not value gold and silver, preferring instead to adorn their children with these metals and to use them in the basest of manners, such as in making toys and chamber pots. They sell whatever surplus food they have to neighbouring nations, trading their food for whatever raw materials they need. In the event that they want for nothing they trade for gold, which they keep not for themselves but for necessity, such as the need to pay nations that wish to collect money and not bartered goods.

Utopians do not engage in war, preferring instead to employ mercenaries with their devalued gold, and even then they fight only in self-defence, or when they wish to help their neighbours depose a tyrannous leader, or when war is completely unavoidable.

Of course, unlike Plato’s Republic More’s Utopia is not composed entirely of perfect men. While their laws are few and far between there are those that break them, and these people are entered into slavery as punishment for their crimes. The slaves perform all the tasks that the law-abiding citizens consider beneath them, such as the killing of beasts and washing away of filth. A lot of Utopia’s labour comes from slaves, be they lawbreakers, prisoners of war, or people sentenced to death in other lands whom the Utopians have bought, that their lives be spared. In so doing they put even the undesirables to good use, preferring to use all hands to the good of their society instead of killing wantonly simply to “set an example”.

I must admit Father that Utopia, as described, is certainly a much better state than many you would find on your earth today. Where Plato’s city sprung up only as a side-effect of his quest for justice, Utopia appears to have been conceived for equality. There is no nobility, save for those naturally arising in the men that achieve great things. There is no property, no money. Nobody, from the prince himself to the most depraved slave wants for food or home; no sick man goes unattended; no child goes uneducated. All in More’s Utopia are treated equally, and all are happy and at peace. In his Utopia it seems More has constructed what he believes a real, ideal society should be, accounting for even the miscreants, people that could not exist in the perfection of Platocrates’ Republic.

I cannot help but feel, however, that even with his exactitudes More’s Utopia is just as unattainable as Platocrates’. For all his exposition on the minutiae of Utopian life, with the great pains he takes to ensure that his people are not selfish or greedy, that all have freedom of religion, that equality is guaranteed through a lack of property, and that war is avoided due to the island’s isolation, More makes an underlying assumption, one that the histories of many a nation on this earth have shown to be completely and entirely unfounded. More, much like Plato, assumed that the very people in his Utopia were “good”.

Their princes and philarchs, regardless of the power they wield, are rarely (if ever) cruel. Their slaves, even the ones brought from strange lands with different customs, never attempt a successful revolution. Their knowledge of agriculture is so perfect their markets are always full, unhindered by the fluctuations of the seasons. Their children are very amenable, always given to one useful art or another, never rebellious or lazy. Their people possess great intellects, able to know all the laws of the land to such an extent that they can argue cases for themselves. Somehow even the basest of human emotions, things that we know exist in us not because of our societies or the circumstances of our births but simply because we are human, these emotions are non-existent among the Utopians. More (through Hythloday) seemed to believe that the ills found in his country and others across Europe were as a result of bad starts, that if one could begin society anew, with no property and no money and a willingness to ensure equality for all, a place like Utopia would emerge. And looking upon your children Father, with our laundry list of faults endemic to our existence, looking upon even the First Brother and his fall from what was a land more perfect than Plato’s Republic or More’s Utopia, it is quite evident that that belief holds no water.

It is certainly possible that More suspected this. The name of this perfect isle, Utopia, comes from Greek and means “No place” or “Not a place”. Perhaps More, like Plato, was describing a state of mind, and not a particular location, though the level of detail with which he describes the lives of the Utopians and his lack of an explicit ulterior motive make this unlikely. Perhaps he simply knew that while he could dream of what the perfect land could be, as long as your children remain the way they are made, crude and blind and ignorant, such a place would never be possible. Perhaps the entire book was simply a long-winded way of saying that there are in fact no good places. An interesting thought, dearest Father, when one considers that as a son of the Cross More must have believed in the perfection of the Great Upstairs. If we are doomed to forever be flawed beings, if all good places are no places, how then do you plan to fill the halls Upstairs? How can you ensure that none of the children that make it there would ever fall, ever again? Those in the House today still fall prey to the whisperings of You-Know-Who. What makes their presence in the Great Upstairs any different?

With a questioning heart,

Your Prodigal Son

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On the Confessions of St. Augustine

Dearest Father,

The last time I wrote you about the Numidian it was on his recent conversion, an act sparked by the death of a very dear friend. While I was dubious at the time that a similar situation would be the catalyst that brought me back to you, I was undeterred in my desire to finish the Numidian’s long letter, hopeful that at its end I would have come to a deeper understanding of what it means to have strayed and returned to the fold. I have at long last concluded his Confessions, but I must confess Father that no such understanding has come over me.

We left Augustine with his decision to become a catechumen and it appears that after this decision he was blessed with meeting the most favourable people, from his friend in conversion Alypius to the wonderful and eloquent Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. Such men helped our Numidian in his early days post-conversion, assisting him in weathering the storms of doubt, fear, pain and sorrow, and enabling him to rise above these calamities and finally see you with a clarity he had never before experienced. He studied very closely your scriptures, questioned the very nature of good and evil, and finally came to what can only be described as a breathless joy at being in your embrace. His words reveal an immense appreciation for his trials, and he even began to look fondly upon his past, saying that the joy of his conversion was made sweeter by the tribulations that preceded it.

Having fully returned to the House in heart as well as in body, and filled with what I suppose must have been a burning desire to know you intimately, he turned his mind to you and your creation, contemplating your grace and beauty, the power contained in your works, and the difficulty (if not impossibility) of describing such wonderful things in terms that simple mortal minds could comprehend.

And in this, his sudden acquiescence to all the doctrines and dogmas of the House, lies my problem Father. Like Augustine I have asked very many questions on very many topics. I have pondered the effects of your creation, the paradoxes inherent in your sacrifice. I have struggled with the whispers of Doubt. But unlike the great Numidian, I have no easy recourse to emotion. I have no friends whose deaths would cause me to seek you out, whose departures would make me crave the steady comfort of the House’s teachings. Unlike him I understand fundamentally that life is fleeting and that pain is real; ironically it is for this reason that I left the House and began my journey in the first place. Where he sought answers to calm the turbulent emotions in his heart, I seek answers to quiet the numerous questions in my head. Too quickly did he brush aside the very contradictions he raised, willing to overlook all inconsistencies before your might, whilst tearing down even the smallest errors in the teachings of the heretics.

Perhaps it was my mistake, reading his Confessions and hoping to be swayed in your favour. The heresy of my day lies not in some twisted interpretation of the works of your son, but in the very nature and existence of you, dearest Father, something our Numidian had already taken for granted.

But what is most troubling about his Confessions is not that they failed to move me, Father; it is the manner in which he concluded them. After waxing poetic on the wonders contained in your being, Augustine ended his missive with this:

“And what man can teach man to understand this? or what Angel, an Angel? or what Angel, a man? Let it be asked of Thee, sought in Thee, knocked for at Thee; so, so shall it be received, so shall it be found, so shall it be opened. Amen.”

Once again I am told that the answers I seek will not come to me from any man, or angel, or book, but from you Father, and once again I am compelled to ask when you will answer me. When will you put my mind to rest?

With disappointment and longing,

Your Prodigal Son

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