We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
T.S. Eliot wrote those words and, with them, suggests that our choice in this life is not between calm and storm, but between two kinds of storm. He is right, of course, but sometimes it is good to vary the metaphor: We live in this world caught between two great gods, chaos and order. It is important to know that they are most different from each other.
Chaos is the god of fire, the god of fertility, of risk, of creativity, of novelty, of letting go. He is the god of dreams and brings what is idealistic, fantastic, and chaotic. He is the god more worshipped by the liberal temperament. Most artists worship at his shrine [and MTV daily gives us superficial glimpses of him]. He is also the god of sleeplessness, the god of restlessness, and the god of disintegration. In fact, he works precisely by disintegration which is, itself, the foundation of novelty.
Order is the god of water, the god of prudence, of chastity, of common sense, of stability, of hanging on. He is the god of pragma. He likes systems, clarity, and a roof that doesn’t leak. He is more worshipped by the conservative temperament and few artists pay him homage. The business and ecclesiastical worlds, however, more than compensate for this. By and large, he their god. He is also the god of boredom, the god of timidity, and the god of fearfulness and rigidity. With him, you will never disintegrate, but you might suffocate. However, while he does not generate a lot of excitement, this god keeps a lot of people alive.
Chaos and order, fire and water, are very different gods. Both, however, demand the respect accorded a deity. Unfortunately, like all one-sided deities, each wants all of us and to give that submission is dangerous. Allegiance to either, to the radical exclusion of the other, not infrequently leads to a self-inflicted wound by bullet to one’s own head. When chaos reigns unchecked by order, moral and emotional disintegration soon unleash a darkness from which there is often no recovery. When order too totally dispels chaos, a certain self-annihilating virtue, posturing as God, drains life of all delight and possibility. It is dangerous to worship at only the one shrine.
Both gods are needed. The soul, love, the church, practical life, and the structures of society need the tempering that comes from both fire and water, order and chaos. Too much fire and things just burn up, disintegrate. Too much water and nothing ever changes, a suffocation sets in. Too much letting go and the sublimity of love lies prostituted; too much chastity and love shrivels up like a dried prune. No. Both gods are needed – in practical life, in romantic life, in ecclesiology, in morality, in business, and in government. Risk and prudence, MTV and Gregorian Chant – both contain some whisperings of God. It is not of small consequence that we should feel caught between the two.
It should not be surprising either because God, the God of Jesus Christ, is the God of both – fire and water, chaos and order, liberal and conservative, chastity and wasted love. God is the great stillpoint and God is also the uncapturable principle of complete newness, resurrection.
That also should come as no surprise us because God is the God of love. In fact, God is love, and love wants and needs both, order and chaos. Love wants always to build a home, to settle down, to create a calm, stable, and chaste place. There is something too in love that resists the kind of surrender that obliterates everything. Love is about order. That is the thing in love that precisely pulls us out of our emotional and moral disintegration. But love is also about chaos. There is something in love that wants to be taken, and taken where one would rather not go. There is something in love that wants the new, the foreign, that wants to obliterate boundaries. That’s the fertile principle within love – and it has kept the human race going!
God is both of these and that is why it is healthy that both of these be kept always in a healthy tension. To be healthy, we need to bring them together within ourselves and we need to bring them together not as we would bring two parties to meet at a negotiating table, but as we would bring together a high and a low pressure system to produce a storm. In the tempest there is life and there is God. In it, as Michael Meade puts it, we are initiated, initiated through immersion into the intense fires of desire and the stunning waters of surrender.