George Weigel over at First Things has a short essay on the 50th anniversary of A Man For All Seasons, the Oscar-winning biopic of Sir Thomas Moore. It was a hugely successful film, and an odd one, given the tenor of the late 1960s, but Weigel notes it was author Robert Bolt’s decision to portray Moore as an “existential hero” that made the movie work in its time.
Moore, however, was not such a man. He was not sacrificing himself so that he could be honest to himself. Rather, Weigel says, Moore was sacrificing himself to an external truth. He was “a Catholic willing to die” for truth and love.
Which is something very different from the kind of existential heroism that is the theme of much of modern literature.
Then Wiegel writes this:
There was something worthy and inspiring about certain aspects of existentialism: not the soured existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which quickly decomposed into nihilism, but the heroic existentialism of a Camus, who could not abide the anti-clerical Catholic progressives of his day and who sought a world in which we could be, as he put it, “neither victims nor executioners.” But it was Sartrean existentialism that won the day, at least insofar as one can trace a line from Sartre to contemporary narcissism, displayed in everything from temper tantrums on university campuses by over-privileged and under-educated barbarians to voters across the Western world who seek relief from their grievances—some quite legitimate—in adherence to some pretty dreadful characters.
“Neither victims nor executioners.” This is where I have always wanted to be. This is where my early reading of Solzhenitsyn drove me to, a place where one lives where one is neither a victim or an executioner, not part of the messy world in which we live, as one who neither suffers nor inflicts suffering. Not invested in the things people make. It’s an easy place for me to want to be, since I’ve always been an outsider, a malcontent, and a misfit, someone who has never belonged much of anywhere. And never much wanted to belong anywhere.
Well, the church — the church is the first place I feel like I could without reservation belong. But the people in the church … don’t want me. And won’t make room for me.
Being a reporter has always felt comfortable, at least from the standpoint of being able to be a professional spectator. Someone who is not invested in the outcomes of things, and who can find some kind of belonging. It wasn’t satisfying — one of the reasons I left journalism to begin with was reporting left so many inchoate spiritual desires unfulfilled — but it may be all I am granted.
Unlike Bolt’s Moore, I am a modern, striving more to be true to myself and my nature than any truth external to me. (Because like most moderns, I have found that fealty and devotion to external truth is, in the end, intolerant and brutal.) And that may be a great part of my problem. For a brief moment I realized who I would have been had I been raised in something resembling a caring society — a ukulele-playing pastor — but no one is having that. I will have to find some contentment, some meaning, and some belonging, in what I can be. In what I am allowed to be.
I do want to devote myself to the truth — that Jesus Christ is Lord — and to love in a way greater than our casual or even professional Protestantism allows. I have always wanted that, and I have never known how to. In my call to seminary and ministry, I thought for a while it was possible for me to live like this. And the church, such as Protestantism is made right now, won’t let me. So am I stuck, almost exactly where I was in the summer of 2001, not sure where to go or what to do.
Actually, it’s worse than that. Because I know exactly what I am called to do and be. And no one will let me. No one wants me. I don’t fit. I thought I might, but the truth is, I don’t fit. I never have, and I never will. Learning to live in this … that will be the task for the rest of my life, I suspect.