The Passion and the Easter Sky Hook

My doctor once had a tree fall on his house during a storm. A tree specialist pulled a crane into his driveway. But the crane the specialist chose was too small and, instead of lifting the tree, fell onto the house, doing further damage – and not only to the house but to other trees, and the yard and driveway. A bigger crane was brought in that did the trick, but there was a mess to be cleared up before it was all over.

Perhaps because we’re in this special week, when all our thoughts come to a focus on a single point, the Redemption, the most special time of all time – Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter – but those crane follies seem to me a kind of parable.

The aboriginal disaster that hit the human race at the very start is indisputable. As far back as anthropology goes, it finds the same old human animal – violent, contentious, willful, treacherous. As Chesterton said, the Fall is the easiest Christian doctrine to prove.

Every era has its equivalents of our current plagues: regional wars, terrorism, cultural breakdown, moral chaos, weakness in the Church, tyrannical impulses in the secular world. And beyond all these specific trials, the perpetual human questions about who we are, what we are to do, where we are going, and what – ultimately – we can hope for.

And let’s not forget the woeful human belief that we can fix things all on our own. All we need is the right crane – politics, science, technology, therapy, art. The temptation to believe in our own powers to save ourselves is particularly strong in times like ours when material progress is great.

But all these “cranes” are too small to lift the weight of evil that afflicts the human race and only lead to further woes. Besides, the politicians (evidently) as well as scientists, therapists, artists, etc. are fallible beings like the rest of us. Whatever lifting capacity they have is something to be grateful for, but they never remove the basic problem and never operate without creating further problems of their own.

The Fall of Man by Hendrick Goltzius, 1616 [National Gallery, Washington, DC]

Any adult, you would think, couldn’t help but notice that. But another effect of the Fall is that we don’t have much of a grip on reality, especially the fundamental ways we were meant to exist in this world. So despite all historical evidence, we think some political party or scientific discovery or practice like “mindfulness” or esthetic experience will satisfy us.

Against all that is St. Augustine’s deathless line: “You have made us for Yourself and unquiet is our heart until it rests in You.”

Daniel Dennett, the neo-Darwinist enfant terrible, has graphically contrasted the two approaches. We shouldn’t look for “sky hooks,” he says, that drew us out of physical nature and have destined us for some non-physical end. They don’t exist. Rather, we should study the “cranes,” the cumulative material mechanisms that slowly produced us, and use them as we see fit.

As a hypothesis for how the material world formed, including our own bodies, that accounts for much of the evidence. As a theory of how the human soul and mind and will – and even the person Daniel Dennett – came to be, it leaves much out. Dennett and many other people around us who seem sane and reasonable may regard themselves and the whole human race as a kind of construction site. But how they know that – or think at all – deserves praise or blame for their acts, can love or be loved in the full human sense, belongs to another order of things.

Dennett argued the contrary in a book called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Normal people avoid danger unless duty requires. But here danger really means what’s chic. If you want to say something really dangerous today – the kind of thing that might get you fired or thrown out of school or ridiculed on Twitter or Facebook – try defending traditional marriage, or religion, or the differences between men and women in a professional or academic setting.

But there is something to learn from Dennett and radical materialists. The world is strange, far stranger than we imagine. Darwinism seemed strange in its day. The later Darwinists have yet to take into account the strangeness of relativity, quantum physics, and much else – but most importantly how strange the human person is and how persons transcend all natural categories.

I sometimes hear ex-Christians or non-believers say that the story of Jesus is just too bizarre. It’s unreasonable to think that God (if He exists) sent His Son (if He Exists) into the world (if it exists). And not just to teach us better philosophy or theology, a meditation technique or moral system. He came to suffer and die, in one of the most degrading ways known in his time, in order to liberate us from the load of sin under which we’ve been sunk since the beginnings of the race. To redeem us.

You could, indeed, call the Redemption “unreasonable” – if you knew what ails the human race and that what ails us can be dealt with by stacking one crane on top of another – that what we don’t need instead is some divine Skyhook.

Christianity altered human history in so many fundamental ways that maybe the assumption that the Redemption is too bizarre to believe, that our everyday lives in postmodern technological societies set the bounds of reason and unreason, is itself not wholly reasonable. You can fix a lot of small problems with small steps. But if it’s a question of turning the human race away from deliberately chosen illusions and a misplaced narrowness and self-sufficiency, and towards something so wonderful, so unexpected, so beyond us that we would never have thought it real unless God Himself showed it to us, then what’s truly reasonable may appear quite odd. As odd as the events we remember this week.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.