[extracts from a sermon for Good Friday, to be given at the Chapel of Trinity College, Melbourne]
In less than three weeks Opera Australia’s production of Brett Dean’s Bliss, based on Peter Carey’s 1981 novel, will open in Melbourne.
The premise of Bliss – of the novel, at least – is that the protagonist, Harry Joy, a happy and fulfilled advertising executive with a loving wife and happy family, who is the quintessential good bloke, dies. He is revived, however, only to discover he is now living in Hell. His wife is cheating on him with his business partner, his children are doing drugs, communism, prostitution and incest in no particular order, and his company is promoting cancer-causing products.
While Harry believes he is literally in Hell, the reader has the benefit of understanding that after a near-death experience Harry has, through a set of accidents, merely seen his life from a different perspective. Harry Joy had woken not to hell, but to reality.
Many of us have a version of Harry’s malaise – not the one he woke to, but the one he died to. Good blokes (etc) as we are, we imagine that the world is fine, that we are in control (or that someone is), and we have only to do, say, think, or otherwise make the right things happen, to live lives as long, happy, and successful as we want or expect.
Harry’s distress – the reason he thinks he has woken in Hell – is not just about the specific horrors he encounters after awakening, but about the dissonance between the delusion of the world he had imagined into existence, and the one which meets him head on after he “dies”.
This is of course a challenge not unique to Harry. There are theistic and atheistic versions of Harry’s delusion.
Theistic versions are as old as the hills, and have come under particular scrutiny in the somewhat strident discourse about God in recent years, which despite its banality has some important points to make. The God delusion, which deserves to be de-bunked, is that God is a benign dictator, micro-managing the universe to please or appease those with whom he is on speaking terms. Offering such a god the right pigs or chickens in some forms of religion, or the right words or emotions in others, supposedly provides the devotee with some assurance of security. The conventional theist runs into trouble when this God, imagined as a means to defend, control or manipulate life to suit us, simply does not show up when bidden. Whatever God the cross allows is not that one.
But there is an equal and opposite delusion. Atheistic versions of Harry’s problem depend on the capacity human beings have developed to control our lives, which has of course grown enormously in relative terms, but not so much in absolute ones. The atheistic delusion is that we can, should and must have what we want; its failure occurs whenever our efforts at keeping chance, suffering and death at bay collapse, as they must, and reality floods in.
The cross of Jesus is no comfort either to conventional theism or to conventional atheism. The cross is the ultimate sign of dissonance between our attempts to see and make the world as we want it to be, and how it really is, and an affront to every effort that we make to use either theology or technology to keep suffering and mortality itself at bay.
The cross invites a choice beyond theism or atheism as conventionally understood. It invites us to let go of false gods, literal or metaphorical, those delusions of power, our own or others’, which plague us. And it also points to another possibility, which is genuine faith.