Satan Says “What’s the Point?”

I am afflicted with a sort of spiritual far-sightedness. I see the end of things more clearly than their present reality. My inner life is a constant battle between the hunger for joy and the awareness of its transience.

This temperament kept me sober and chaste in adolescence, and probably will help me again during my midlife crisis, but it’s not enough to build a life upon. Even asceticism, to avoid becoming a perverse form of self-gratification, has to treat renunciation as a means to an end, a clearing away of distractions in search of the greater pleasure of God’s presence. The man in the parable sells the field in order to gain the pearl of great price, not because he’s bored with the view.

Kafka’s story “A Hunger Artist” speaks to this dilemma. The title character made his living as a sideshow attraction, impressing and horrifying spectators with his willpower to abstain from food for weeks or months. Finally, fallen out of fashion, he remains in his sideshow cage, starving to death unnoticed, till a circus official discovers him:

“Are you still fasting?” the supervisor asked. “When are you finally going to stop?” “Forgive me everything,” whispered the hunger artist. Only the supervisor, who was pressing his ear up against the cage, understood him. “Certainly,” said the supervisor, tapping his forehead with his finger in order to indicate to the spectators the state the hunger artist was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food which I enjoyed. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.
An extreme case, perhaps, but deep inside my heart sits a little man like this, who can’t keep the dial set on Temperance but has to turn it all the way up to Disgust. Once I start looking at pleasure through his cost-benefit lens, I can’t look away. Designer handbags, pornography, hot fudge sundaes, preaching the gospel, obnoxious letters to the newspaper, conjugal love, long walks in the woods, writing my novel, attending church, all fall into the Total Perspective Vortex.

I take some comfort in Canticle 12 from The Daily Office:


Glorify the Lord, all you works of the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
In the firmament of his power, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

I The Cosmic Order

Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord, *
O heavens and all waters above the heavens.
Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew, *
all winds and fire and heat.

Winter and Summer, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold, *
drops of dew and flakes of snow.

Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O nights and days, *
O shining light and enfolding dark.

Storm clouds and thunderbolts, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

II The Earth and its Creatures

Let the earth glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills,
and all that grows upon the earth, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O springs of water, seas, and streams, *
O whales and all that move in the waters.

All birds of the air, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O beasts of the wild, *
and all you flocks and herds.

O men and women everywhere, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

III The People of God

Let the people of God glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
Glorify the Lord, O priests and servants of the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O spirits and souls of the righteous, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

You that are holy and humble of heart, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.


Let us glorify the Lord: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

In the firmament of his power, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

What could be more transient than a drop of dew or a flake of snow? Yet we’re told that each and every one of these is able to glorify the Lord.

This canticle is subtitled “A Song of Creation”. My little man’s perpetual refrain “What’s the point?” correlates with my resistance to being created. To me, it seems arbitrary that I am myself and not another. Therefore, every choice I could make seems meaningless, because I can’t see the larger pattern to confirm that it made a difference in the right direction. It’s like writing a novel without knowing what it’s about (which is, in fact, what I am doing). This scene might be fun, but does it advance the plot? What is the plot?

When I get tangled up in these thoughts, I often think back to James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation, which I reviewed on this blog last spring. Smith argues that we conflate finitude and fallenness, forgetting that God made us creatures limited to a particular space-time location even before the Fall. In fact, one could say that the seizing of the apple of knowledge was the first of many miserable attempts to judge our own lives from the God’s-eye view. The Total Perspective Vortex crushes us not because we are truly insignificant, but because we are not supposed to ask the question.

As a further refresher course in how to enjoy the present moment, I reread C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra trilogy this month. The first two books, taking place in Edenic worlds on Mars and Venus, deserve a place among the classics of Christian mysticism. (The final book, a social satire on the totalitarian implications of “progressive” political views, has always seemed the weakest to me, marred by cringe-worthy caricatures of lesbianism and feminism.) Lewis’ genuine testimonies of joy lend Christianity more credibility in my eyes than a hundred pages of apologetics. Almost like Buddhists, the denizens of these worlds fully enjoy the pleasures that come to them, but do not cling to them when it is time for them to give way to a new experience, because they completely trust God’s will.

(Such perfect acceptance, I fear, may be unattainable in a fallen world, where one must maintain a certain willingness to resist present conditions, lest evil triumph through inaction. One way this manifests itself is the need to distinguish between natural hierarchies and unjust inequalities; Lewis’ romanticization of the Great Chain of Being blinds him to the necessity of feminism–until he marries Joy Gresham and writes Till We Have Faces. But I digress.)

At the end of the second book, Voyage to Venus, our hero, the space-traveling philology professor Ransom, has saved the “Eve” of Venus from making the same mistake her earthly counterpart did. To the Venusian Adam and Eve, this is the dawn of a new era in the cosmos, in which an unfallen people may at last grow into the full stature that God had planned for all His creatures. But Ransom plunges into his own “What’s the point” mood. What event is the true crux of history? (“Tor” below is the Adam figure, and “Maleldil” is their name for God. “Eldils” are angels.)

“I see no more than beginnings in the history of the Low Worlds,” said Tor the King. “And in yours a failure to begin. You talk of evenings before the day had dawned. I set forth even now on ten thousand years of preparation–I, the first of my race, my race, the first of races, to begin. I tell you that when the last of my children has ripened and ripeness has spread from them to all the Low Worlds, it will be whispered that the morning is at hand.”

“I am full of doubts and ignorance,” said Ransom. “In our world those who know Maleldil at all believe that His coming down to us and being a man is the central happening of all that happens. If you take that from me, Father, whither will you lead me? Surely not into the enemy’s talk which thrusts my world and my race into a remote corner and gives me a universe with no centre at all, but millions of worlds that lead nowhere or (what is worse) to more and more worlds forever, and comes over me with numbers and empty spaces and repetitions and asks me to bow down before bigness….Is the enemy easily answered when He says that all is without plan or meaning? As soon as we think we see one it melts away into nothing, or into some other plan that we never dreamed of, and what was the centre becomes the rim, till we doubt if any shape or pattern was ever more than a trick of our own eyes, cheated with hope, or tired with too much looking. To what is it all driving? What is the morning you speak of? What is it the beginning of?”

“The beginning of the Great Game, of the Great Dance,” said Tor.

In poetic incantations, the angels then take turns telling Ransom that the center of creation is everywhere. Each beast, flower, speck of interstellar dust, or uninhabited galaxy exists for its own sake, because God, the ultimate giver of meaning, chose to make it. It doesn’t need any other justification. The angels say:

“Where Maleldil is, there is the centre. He is in every place. Not some of Him in one place and some in another, but in each place the whole Maleldil, even in the smallness beyond thought. There is no way out of the centre save into the Bent Will which casts itself into the Nowhere. Blessed be He!”

“Each thing was made for Him. He is the centre. Because we are with Him, each of us is at the centre. It is not as in a city of the Darkened World where they say that each must live for all. In His city all things are made for each. When He died in the Wounded World He died not for men, but for each man. If each man had been the only man made, He would have done no less. Each thing, from the single grain of Dust to the strongest eldil, is the end and final cause of creation and the mirror in which the beam of His brightness comes to rest and so returns to Him. Blessed be He!”

“In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed. Thus each is equally at the centre and none are there by being equals, but some by giving place and some by receiving it, the small things by their smallness and the great by their greatness, and all the patterns linked and looped together by the unions of a kneeling with a sceptred love. Blessed be He!”

“He has immeasurable use for each thing that is made, that His love and splendour may flow forth like a strong river which has need of a great watercourse and fills alike the deep pools and the little crannies, that are filled equally and remain unequal; and when it has filled them brim full it flows over and makes new channels. We also have need beyond measure of all that He has made. Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely necessary to you and for your delight I was made. Blessed be He!”

“He has no need at all of anything that is made. An eldil is not more needful to Him than a grain of the Dust: a peopled world no more needful than a world that is empty: but all needless alike, and what all add to Him is nothing. We also have no need of anything that is made. Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely superfluous, and your love shall be like His, born neither of your need nor of my deserving, but a plain bounty. Blessed be He!”

And that’s the point.

3 comments on “Satan Says “What’s the Point?”

  1. so much trust and And like all poets…while the shadows stand watching
    I seek the sculptured speeches
    The dialect of old in terrace work
    In time to put it to the proof…am still reading

  2. Steve says:

    This is so timely for me. My faith walk for the last year or so has been that of a simple beast, in self-imposed exile from thinking too much about final meanings and “the point.” Not that those questions don’t matter, but I had made myself ill chasing them, and I finally came to believe we can’t really answer them except with a simple childlike, or animal-like, trust. So that’s the drive behind my retreat as an oxen. I have been standing, shaggy and dew covered, waiting patiently for I know not what, and it has been good.

    “He has no need for anything He has created.” Yet he created it all. Sounds like glee, to me. Joy. Not hard for an oxen to understand – sort of.

    I know that I have been made as a man, and not a cow, and that I will at some point resume worship as a man. But for now, I am learning some valuable things from this bovine point of view. And one is that while things DO matter, it’s less our concern than we like to think it is. And that is a liberating lesson, because for years I also was plagued by the nasty little voice that tries to measure my every move against ultimate purposes. My paintings against ultimate paintings. My career against ultimate careers. My life against my death and infinity. While conscience is an important voice and goad, I’m convinced that this other voice is not my conscience, not even a relative, and that it’s never told me anything worth following. It’s easier to sort out the voices here in the pasture, and that’s why this sojourn among the sweetgrass has been so good for me.

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