With thanks, again, to Paul Roberts...
A friend of mine recently visited New York, spending four days doing most of the obvious sights available to someone lodging in mid-Manhatten. But he was caught on the hop by his reactions to the Rockefeller Center. John D. sounds a thoroughly nice guy who liked to do things philanthropically, especially by taking a big risk building the Center with his own money when all other sponsors had pulled out in the wake of the stock market crash on Black Tuesday. By going ahead anyway, he provided much-needed employment at a time when no-one else was hiring. He described his surprisingly negative reaction to the frescos within the center and Rockefeller’s sense of what human rights might look like which is placed on a stone at the front of the building.
The frescos in the Center are a celebration of the achievements of Man and human progress, which are unremittingly positive:
I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.
I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.
I believe in the Dignity of labour, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a liking but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.
I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business or personal affairs.
I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.
I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man’s word should be as good as his bond; that character not wealth or power or position – is of supreme worth.
I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.
I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individuals highest fulfillment, greatest happiness, and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His Will.
I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.
This is a wonderful creed, which aims at the best for everyone, but ultimately bases its faith solely upon the human being, albeit with some niche found for faith in the penultimate article.
How do we square this monument of 20th century rationalist humanism with the history immediately preceding and following it. The glorying in human cleverness is incredibly positive, yet it was preceded by the slaughter of WW1, the tragedy of the Great Depression and was about to be followed by the gulags, the gas chambers and nuclear vaporization. What kind of faith manages to sing a triumphant hymn of praise to human beings when sandwiched by such huge, appalling examples of our inhumanity and brokenness?
On this Ash Wednesday, as we enter the Holy season of Lent, we are confronted with that same juxtaposition of our incredible God-given nature as people. Our abilities and drives. Our striving for betterment. This is rammed up against our capacity for hatred and barbarism.
Lent brings us up short, it reminds us of the bittersweet story of the whole of Scripture which commences with the wonder of creation, the paradoxical nature of human beings and their broken relationship with the Creator who on every pages goes on saying - I love you, I long to be with you, will you be with me?
As this story unfolds, God and humanity struggle against one another. Human power is a real thing and God sees it as an increasingly negative thing, having no limit. Rockerfeller’s hopes for human dignity are in a sense a striving after power and dignity. That striving though is sandwiched in history between periods of our worst inhumanity and depravity. His hopes for us as a race have deafened us to God’s love call to us, which reminds us that our power dignity are God given.
Lent is a time of, what the Orthodox, call ‘bright sadness.’ It is a gift from the church. It is a time for us to acknowledge humanity’s capacity for goodness but also a time to remove our fingers from our ears and the ears of our hearts and hear God calling in love to us again. It is a time to renew our relationship with him in prayer - listening to Him; in fasting - to remind us of our need of Him and our need to make time to be together; in almsgiving - in giving our time, talent, our riches, ourselves to others in need blesses them and us.
My friend had a dream, having returned from New York’s skyscraper lined horizon, of a little child building a sandcastle, then another coming along and kicking it over out of jealousy. Heaven help us: human nature, in all its beauty, needs some fundamental healing and the longer we walk this planet, the more obvious it seems to me, that we cannot fix ourselves by ourselves. Lent reminds us of that fact, and of the God who loves us, but instead of standing aloof above us shaking his head at what we have done and what we have become, instead joins us on the beach and rebuilds the sandcastle with us. Amen