Pain Before Pleasure

There are two formative events having to do with color vision that I can remember from my childhood. The first is the fact that my family did not own a color TV until 1966, and so we would make an annual trek over to the house of my aunt and uncle who did own one so that I could watch The Wizard of Oz in color (at least those parts of it that are actually in color). Not that there's anything wrong with that! The other event was my reading, in the fall of 1968, a wonderful science fiction book for children called The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey. In this book the eponymous hero chronicles his journey of self-discovery as he runs away in search of the boy who had previously owned him. What struck me the most about the story when I was a kid, and the only part of it that I can still remember today, is the fact that this robot began the book with black-and-white vision, but at about the mid-point of the story he gets a color-vision camera installed in his head so that he can see in color. I'm not sure a book like this could be published today, for reasons that I will describe below.

Philosophically these two things have little in common. Indeed, they don't have much to do with philosophy either, really, but they put me in mind of the problem of qualia, particularly with respect to colors. When watching The Wizard of Oz I was always blown away when Dorothy got to Oz and everything was suddenly in beautiful, sickeningly over-saturated Technicolor. It was like walking out of the Shadowlands into Reality. And then, just two years after getting color TV myself, I read the story about the robot who finally got to see colors and I constantly tried to imagine what it must have been like to make that transition. (Shades of Frank Jackson [see Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986) 291-295].) Aristotle, famously, at the very beginning of his treatise on metaphysics, noted that vision is the most precious of our sensory modalities, and I have sometimes thought that color vision is a particularly delightful manifestation of that specific modality. I have no idea what it would be like to see, for example, the wavelengths of light that a bee can detect, but after my rather chromatically eventful childhood I think I can say with some confidence that I would rather see in color than in black and white. Perhaps it is really true, as some have averred, that one learns to appreciate something all the more when one comes to be familiar with the privation of the thing (more dreck from my childhood: "they've paved paradise, put up a parking don't know what you've got till it's gone", etc.). I have no particular reason to envy the bee her capacity to find flowers by detecting the ultraviolet light reflected from them; having never experienced such a thing I am unable to feel the privation. But if I were to wake up tomorrow morning seeing what Dorothy saw in Kansas in The Wizard of Oz, I would be heartbroken.

I have been put in mind of all this by two separate episodes. First, there is this marvelous post from Fr. Al Kimel at his quasi-moribund site, Pontifications. There he writes of the contrast that he feels between good and evil, and the intensity of that contrast leads him to reject the Augustinian predestination that has come to dominate Reformed theology in particular but certain elements of orthodox theology (though perhaps not Orthodox theology) as well. And he speaks directly to my heart of hearts when he writes:
There are many days, too many days, when I do not know if I believe in God, when I do not know if God exists. But I do know whom I struggle to believe. He is the God made known in Jesus Christ. He is the God who is a holy communion of absolute love and gladness. He is the God who searches for the one lost sheep and upon finding it hoists it upon his shoulder and restores it to the flock. He is the God who turns his house upside down until he finds the one silver coin he has lost. He is the God who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our inquities; by his stripes we are healed. This is the only God worthy of our belief. This is the only God deserving of our faith and adoration.
When I read that, I nearly wept. I am so there with him. Some may worry that this will lead to the universalism von Balthasar is sometimes accused of endorsing. If God is so all-forgiving, why do Christians tremble? Fr. Kimel answers with gimlet clarity:
I do not fear the God who is Holy Trinity. I fear my own freedom to turn from this God, to hide myself in an impenetrable egotism and despair which will forever close me to the roar of his love. I fear that my self-will will ultimately triumph over my desire for the supreme and ultimate Good. I fear that I am becoming, have become, a person who declares to infinite Love, “My will, not thine, be done.” I fear also the purifying suffering that I must endure, both in this life and beyond, to free me from my bondage to self and the goods of this world. But I do not fear the God of Jesus Christ. I know that if God does truly exist, then at the moment of my death he will meet me as the Crucified, still bearing the marks of his sacrifice on his hands. Judge and Judged, Priest and Victim, absolver of sins and victor over death—to this Jesus I entrust my future; to his Father I commend my spirit.
To see how all of this is connected to how I began--to color vision, privation, and, of course, my title--I turn now to the second recent episode that got me to thinking along these lines.

I happened to remark recently to an old friend that I always put off getting a Christmas tree until 17 December. Sometimes this is just a matter of chance--sometimes I just don't get around to getting one until then. But even when I think of it earlier, I still put it off, and my friend asked why. I answered that I like to keep Advent and Christmas distinct. Her response: "Why do you like to keep Advent and Christmas distinct? Pain before pleasure?" I was struck by her question. I don't really think of Advent as a season of pain, though it is indeed a season of penitence. So my initial reaction was to reject the question as not well-formed. I thought of saying something along the lines of "come now, Advent is a season of preparation, not of pain, we make use of it to give ourselves time to ponder the great mystery of the Incarnation, and the reasons why the Incarnation was necessary." But as soon as I thought it, I realized I could not say it, because the word "necessary" reminded me that things could have been different had humankind made a different choice. Although Advent is not a time of "pain before pleasure", there is certainly a kind of mental anguish that is rightly associated with the regret we all ought to feel over the tendency, so eloquently described by Fr. Al, that humankind exhibits, to choose wrongly. This mental anguish is only just balanced by what we have gained in return: our "happy fault", the "necessary sin of Adam" has gained for us a Redeemer beyond our wildest expectations. But, as Galadriel warned the Fellowship, our "Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true."

We are in a rather wonderful position: we are fully aware of just what it means to be standing upon the edge of a knife. If we were not acquainted with sin at all--if humankind never chose wrongly--we would have no more sense of the value of staying true than we have of what it would be like to perceive ultraviolet light. Don't get me wrong--we might have some sense of it. Even though I do not possess any gold coins, I can certainly imagine the value of having some. I do not want to make a rather elementary mistake here, a mistake that my students often make. Some of my students insist that Good could not exist without Evil; when I ask them why, they always answer an ontological question with an epistemological answer--they always say that we would never be able to recognize the Good if there were no Evil with which to contrast it. I know that my own readers are far too sophisticated to make this mistake--it should be obvious that the Good can exist in the absence of any and all evil, since God existed before anything else did and he is perfect Goodness. Whether or not it is possible to comprehend what the Good is without first (or also) comprehending what Evil is is irrelevant to the ontological question, but it is an interesting question in its own right: if we had never experienced Evil, we may very well know what the Good is (since we would be experiencing it directly), but is it possible that we would fall short, somehow, of fully and completely understanding just how good the Good is? Is it at all possible that we have a more thorough appreciation for God's perfect Goodness just insofar as we ourselves fall short of it? Is our experience of God more like Dorothy's experience of Oz or more like Dorothy's experience of Kansas, and how would we ever be able to know the difference if we had not experienced both? If it is really true that I appreciate color vision more because I can imagine what it would be like to see only in black and white, then perhaps it is possible to appreciate God's loving kindness more if one has some idea of what it would be like to turn away from that loving kindness. My daughter, who was born in 2001, had never seen any black and white images until I showed her a DVD of The Wizard of Oz. She was startled and a little disturbed by the Kansas scenes at the beginning of the film and, interestingly, she didn't even know what to call them, how to describe them. She asked me "Why is's all...why is it like that?" I'm not sure what she would make of The Runaway Robot, in which a reader must try to imagine the difference between black and white and color, but the author clearly expects his reader to be able to imagine just such a thing on the basis of some sort of experience of the two.

I have begun to suspect that we have an instance here of God's divine providence. I quoted from The Lord of the Rings above, but really the more appropriate text from that author here would be the AinulindalĂ«, in which Eru effects a transformation of the musical theme that results in Melkor's malicious interference having, in the end, an effect Melkor did not intend, an effect that was ultimately good. God knew, before we fell, that we would fall; but although the fall itself is not a good thing, a good thing came of it: we got to see God literally face to face in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and we got to experience God's love in more ways than we would have been able to experience it had we not fallen. If we had not fallen, we would never have experienced God's mercy, his compassion, his forgiveness, nor would we have witnessed his example of abandonment of self in the service of others. Though we are worse off, in one sense, for having fallen, we are better off, in another sense, for if we "remain true" we are blessed (makarioi hoi katharoi tĂȘi kardiai), and will see God.

So I do not say that Advent is "Pain before pleasure"; rather, I say that Advent is the pain that makes the pleasure more clear, more present. We sing, at the Easter Vigil, of the "necessary sin of Adam"; Adam's sin was not "necessary" in any deterministic, Predestinarian sense. It was necessary in a wonderful and good sense: necessary in the sense that, without it, we would not have needed the Incarnation. Just as Plato, in the Gorgias described pleasure as the process of satisfying a privation, I suggest that God's love is the more clearly seen and appreciated by the person who has turned away from it and experienced the sorrow and desolation of sin and then turned back to God in repentance. This is not to say that one ought to turn away from God in order to experience his love more intensely! Far from it! St. Paul was already warning against this idea in his letter to the Romans: it would be wrong to sin all the more that grace might abound. Rather, the intensity of spiritual feeling experienced by the penitent is the good that God can bring out of the evil that we do when we turn away from him, it is his transformation of our disharmonious themes into ever more beautiful music.


John Farrell said…
This is not to say that one ought to turn away from God in order to experience his love more intensely!

I must admit that has occurred to me to do precisely that once or twice during my own lifetime.
Anonymous said…
i liked your post..God bless..
liturgy said…
“In Mary God has grown small to make us great.”
St. Ephrem (d. 373)

Christmas blessings from one blog to another
Bosco Peters

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