29 October 2009

A (pointless?) parable

If I may intrude upon my gentle readers’ time and patience (and perhaps sanity) for a few minutes, I would like to tell a brief story. Some of it may even be true. It concerns a young man whose every action was motivated by fear: a deep and enduring dread that he would be rejected by God. We might make him a member of a church, if we so wish – I imagine such fears may be common among those who find themselves adrift in the wide yet shallow ocean of present-day Christendom, even in churches which find themselves not so much professing as digging up a bland sort of fossilised liberalism encapsulated and buried by Schleiermacher and Hegel, and postmarked from the 19th century. We may imagine further that this troubled youth is a deeply ethical person, that considerations of right and wrong tend to drive his reasoning, his motivations and his actions. But this youth is a doubter: he questions his own ethical bearings frequently, even routinely; he has trained himself, perhaps not even consciously, to question what his church says about God’s forgiveness, because he conceives of this speech as cowardice meant to preserve the vanities of the church’s less ethically-minded and more hard-hearted donors. Hence, this fear that he isn’t doing enough, or that he is doing the wrong things, and that as a result God will cast him out, perhaps becomes more understandable.

I suppose we must give this sad youngster a name (the present-age being what it is, it will not long tolerate characters who are not adequately labelled, typed, squared away in neat little marked boxes and presented with all the depth, substance and individuality of a mass-produced party balloon), but in this case I don’t think it too offensive to give him one – it will not detract from what I am about to describe of him. Since he is such a doubter and exists in such fear, perhaps it would be fitting to name him Thomas. Now, poor Thomas, who is caught trying to prove to himself that he is an ethical creature, joins a service organisation in another city (maybe even another country) to do so. Now, the name of this service organisation is not important; suffice it to say that this Organisation does not share Thomas’ deep qualms, even though it undoubtedly appeals to Thomas’ need to express them (else he would not have joined). Hence, we cannot call it a for-profit outfit. But reputation – that is, the appearance of having qualms – might very well be the driving force which keeps this Organisation going; and that would prove no obstacle to Thomas. What would he care for reputation, or the Organisation’s obsession with it, if it allowed him to prove himself ethical before God – say, by teaching?

And yet, there is still this persisting dread in Thomas, which does not abate as he begins to serve and to teach. He acquires impressive credentials in the pursuit of membership and service in the Organisation: certificates, teaching-hours, time in service to other organisations; why not? All this effort to prove himself before an Organisation which highly esteems ethical behaviour (or at least the appearance of it), only compounds his fear of being found unworthy. By the time he actually joins this Organisation, he has allowed this fear to dictate every action he undertakes; it is multiplied further when the Organisation begins laying upon him the standards he must hold to: ‘thou shalt not do or say anything to embarrass, discredit or otherwise tarnish the reputation of the Organisation’, and your superiors in the Organisation will be watching you. And he takes the commandment as gospel; what else can he do?

But – alas for poor Thomas! – his fellows in the Organisation do not fear rejection or judgment before God the way he does. Moreover, the Organisation compounds the torment of the fear, as if to insult him, by simultaneously telling him not to worry, that everything will be fine. And yet, he is worried, and he thinks there is nothing they can do about it – so Thomas lies, saying that everything is fine, that nothing is wrong, that he is not worried. His fellows begin to fear him, to view him as unstable and anti-social, because he cannot talk to them even though living with this contradiction is becoming a daily torment for him. It is a torment that follows him to his work and compounds itself there as he finds his students unwilling to accept what he is offering; this sends Thomas into a deep despair, and the quality of his work declines accordingly as he senses it being appreciated less and ever less, as though God is mocking his efforts to be useful and throwing them back in his face. He brings this despair back home; he tries to lock himself in his room, or he tries and fails to control his temper over some small incident (it doesn’t matter what) – though his rage is all directed at himself, his friends and neighbours in his adoptive city begin to worry, and fear him even more.

And the Organisation is not pleased. For Thomas has, in attempting to uphold the golden Commandment of the Organisation on his shaky, fearful foundation, done precisely what the Organisation has forbidden him to do, threatening the reputation of the Organisation. With as little ceremony and as little trouble as possible, and in the gentlest possible terms though in the urgent need to be rid of him, the Organisation encourages Thomas to resign and leave his adoptive city to return home. Thus, Thomas has brought about the end he so feared: his desire to prove himself capable of this ethical undertaking has ended only in ruin and rejection.

It is a depressing story, and we must leave Thomas standing there, ticket in hand. Do not pity Thomas, though, I ask: not for his sake but for yours. He doesn’t need it, and any pity you could offer would be sadly misplaced. He had his chance and we must suppose that he has to keep going from where we leave him. Thomas is silent throughout this tale save for his self-deceiving lies and his outbursts of despair and rage; he has no need to explain himself any more than he needs pity, and even if he tried to, he could never seek to be understood. That explanation has no meaning for you. So why am I telling you this outrageous downer of a tale, if indeed you find it so? Why am I assaulting your sensibilities with it, if your sensibilities are indeed assaulted? It is certainly not to ask you whether the author of this parable is as fearful and as bitter a young man as our hypothetical doubting Thomas is here – there would be no point in that.

Indeed, the question should be: what is the point? If seeing from wherever you are you do not perceive, and hearing from wherever you are do not listen nor understand, then rest easy – there is no point. The story is what you make of it, for you to accept or reject. Speaking for myself, I still am not sure what to do with this story.


  1. It seems to me that the best stories are the ones we are "not sure what to do with." These are the stories that we continue to wrestle with, and in so wrestling they inform our life's journey. This is a parable I'll be wrestling with for a long time--thanks for sharing it.

  2. No problem, and thank you for the feedback. I get the feeling I'll be wrestling with this one for awhile yet - I hope it helps inform my life's journey in healthy ways.