It’s a hard knock life for us. And I’m not just talking about lame movies. However much Solomon Kane bordered on the lame when I watched it not too long ago, I was half-overjoyed by the profundity of insight it offered on the human condition: Solomon Kane is a bit of a treasure hunter in the early 17th Century, violently and mercilessly making his mark on the world and receiving some decent bounty. One misadventure in Africa takes him into a fortress; notably, his enemies that were guarding it refuse to follow him in. As he ascends, his men slowly disappear, until he eventually reaches the throne room, entering in alone with the doors closing behind him. A short introduction and Solomon Kane is before the Devil’s Reaper, who has appeared to claim his soul after his life of violence. Solomon quickly displays some sophistic sword action, managing to elude the supernatural and later return home to England. I apologise for the necessity of recalling the opening of the film in it’s almost entirety, but let me continue. Clearly affected by this experience, Solomon commits to being a man of peace by spending the rest of his life in isolation at a monastery. Later on in the film he meets a small party of pacifist Puritans. One of them, Mr Crowthorn, reveals his military past:
“I fought in the Queen’s Army once, before I found my faith. Taking another man’s life, that’s not an easy thing to do, don’t you agree?”
“I must confess Mr Crowthorn, I was never more at home than I was in battle. Killing came easily to me”.
That’s it right there. Mr Crowthorn and Solomon Kane approach Christian lifestyle completely differently. For Mr Crowthorn, his conversion and subsequent faith provide the necessary out and over, the new standpoint of meaning from which he can now view his old life of violence as completely without meaning. His faith is not a means to an end but an end in itself. If we take Mr Crowthorn for a type and read the entirety of his faith in this sense then even any hope beyond the grave is completely subordinated to the present, a live lived in the footsteps of Jesus. For Solomon, however, he does not know violence as empty and meaningless, but it remains to be the highest point of meaning he has yet experienced in his life, as the words at home indicate. His faith does not come naturally as a result of his conversion, but his faith and non-violence are the burdens he bears to withhold his damnation. He would much rather be exercising his bloodlust than living out the peaceful remainder of his life waiting for death, yet he knows he will be vindicated by maintaining this peace. Solomon’s lifestyle, if typified, is a more primitive, milk-and-honey faith, one that is only the means to an end and sacrifices the present for the future.
* * *
How does one make the move from the Solomon Kane faith of unwillful self-denial to the Mr Crowthorn faith of willful obedience? To realise and seek to overcome this disconnect is a part of the Christian tradition. One example is of Francis Xavier, a 16th Century Jesuit missionary, who challenges his own motivations:
Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
Shall I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven,
Or of escaping hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward–
But as thyself hast loved me,
O everlasting Lord!
To love for love’s sake is a higher expression and truer definition of love than one that gives thought to the self. I cannot discount this beautiful prayer. But what must be asked of all of these movements is, where ethically are they situated? With what motivations does Francis seek to change his motivations? Once Francis discerns the selfish nature of his faith, what dark-between must he enter into to complete it? In other words, why exactly does Francis desire to love for love’s sake (or for God’s sake)? If he desires to do so without thought of heaven and hell, and this includes in an implicit sense where he gives thought to any kind of reward, for example, more of God’s presence, then he need not desire to have a complete love because his desire is already an expression of selfless desire. If, however, he unwittingly seeks to be justified by moving from selfish love to complete love then he must necessarily arrive at this through incomplete love, his selfish love. In either case his primary desire annuls the destination desire. To put the words of Paul in another context, “Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!” (Romans 3:8 NIV).
* * *
If we ourselves cannot legitimately make the move from selfish to selfless faith (and I cannot talk of these in absolute terms, of course; each progressive move is from a less so to a more so, rather than a no to a yes), then the obvious prophetic answer must be that the cause must lay outside of ourselves. In one of the best games of all time, Ocarina of time, Link the protagonist must symbolically face himself half way through the game. Up until now he has slain various forces of evil that have been reclaiming his homeland, Hyrule. Half way through the water temple, Link finds himself in a seemingly endless, desolate, mirror-like room, with a tree and a pond in center. After looking around, a figure appears beside the tree. On approaching, the figure appears as Dark Link, a shadowy version of himself. Before Link proceeds any further, before he can confront Ganondorf, the source of evil who has been oppressing Hyrule, he must confront and overcome an entirely different opposition, himself. Naturally, this is impossible. We are ourselves; how then can we overcome ourselves? Link nonetheless proceeds… only to find that each strike is countered with equal force, and each raising of shield is mockingly mirrored. Could it be that Link cannot land a hit on his other self because he is in actuality aiming at nothing at all? Is suicide his only out?
Yet self-overcoming depends on this: that our two selves are not identical. A chess master who plays the most honest game with himself can only finish in a stalemate, a technical non-event. Yet if the player had access on one side of the game to an extra couple of queens, this would throw out of balance the identicality of his selves and allow for greater variance in the outcomes of the game (as also does the turns-based element of chess, but for a master this would make little difference). Thus in Ocarina of Time, Link is matched with sword and shield but not fire or a war hammer. When Link wields the war hammer, Dark Link cannot counter with the same, engendering immediately non-identicality, and consolidating the partition of the self.
In Christian theology, grace is God’s way of giving us a war hammer. As before shown, it is impossible to legitimately love selflessly, as it must be arrived at through selfish love, or it is already arrived at. If the latter is the case it is because the Holy Spirit has reoriented my desire.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws”
(Ezekiel 36:25-26 NIV; cf Jeremiah 31:33-34).
Back to the example of Solomon Kane, he cannot legitimately make the move from salvation-oriented self-denial to contentment and meaning in peace, as his desire for the latter is an expression of the former. His completed faith must arise independently of his struggle for it, as he will only eternally lock swords with his selfish desires. The Holy Spirit must take his own initiative and act as a war hammer upon Solomon’s desires, thus redefining and redeeming them. From a Calvinist perspective, even Solomon’s asking for the help of the Holy Spirit is mediated by the Holy Spirit, so that God can complete Solomon’s salvation without flawed human involvement.
* * *
Yet what if Solomon is not blessed enough to receive this providence? What if he remains, to use the proper Calvinist terminology, truly reprobate? Must we depend entirely on divine caprice for the redeeming of our desires? Is there a way, in Jesus’ words, to enter the sheep pen without going through the gate (John 10:1,9)? Speaking of Jesus, what are all these conveniently passed over mentions, just a few examples from Matthew’s gospel alone, of reward (Matthew 5:12, 46; 6:1-18; 10:42; 16:27; 25:14-30) and punishment (Matthew 8:12; 14:32; 22:13)? Is Solomon justified in missing half the point of the Gospel message just so he can secure his own salvation? Opportunistic hecklers of the Gospel miss the wisdom in Jesus’ admonishments based on reward and punishment: It is impossible to freely break from this orientation without the intervention of an external cause. If we remain selfish, let us continue in it and strive against it to eventually become selfless.
While causality blesses some, it is not yet impossible to attain the selfless orientation on your own means; it only requires a kind of coup d’état with selfish means. Further, this is only completely seen as selfish with a strictly prospective view of desire. Actions judged by their motivations through self-reflection may often be discounted, “I have been giving a lot of my time to that volunteer group, but originally only because I knew I needed to look beyond myself and that girl was pretty sexy too”. This requires some slaughtering of the literal meaning of motivation, but consider if motivations can not just be prospective (anticipating) but retrospective (reflecting). The previous example is one of prospective motivation. The volunteer group could have at the outset appeared unappealing, so the subject appeals to his responsibility and relationship opportunities to engage in something that requires self-sacrifice. These are the rewards. Retrospective motivation in this case is where reflection on completing the activity supersedes the original motivations, “I honestly had no interest in making soup for homeless people but after doing so I feel it’s more important than justifying my middle-class indifference and engaging casual flirting”.
The initiation of the Holy Spirit is not exclusive to Calvinist thinking but may be implicit in other evangelical/Protestant theologies. These theologies may allow for the movement Solomon makes with his selfishness into selflessness, but the assumption is also that Solomon makes the movement from asking help of the Holy Spirit to being moved by/moving with the Holy Spirit. This is to view conversion, as with Mr Crowthorn, as something drastically life-changing, a redefinition of all desires of the heart and patterns of the mind, in accordance with New Testament theology (eg. John 3:5-6; Romans 8:5, 12:2; 2Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22-24; Hebrews 8:10-11). The full conversion of Solomon would retroactively annul his original selfish desires with which he enters into it.
What is missing in this account of the Gospel is the progressive nature of faith. A few weeks ago somebody asked me to grow my hair. To grow my hair means I must decide every day to maintain my commitment, but to cut my hair I can decide on a whim. Not for everyone is faith like cutting your hair, which is once-off and can account for large changes; faith may also be like growing your hair. Therefore sometimes a life lived always asking for the help of the Holy Spirit is more of a reality than a life lived with the help of the Holy Spirit. And without the Holy Spirit, the constancy of always having to ask for his help and the commitment required to live out faith in his absence make faith more reminiscent of works-based salvation than Paul probably intended. But what out is there? Contrariwise to the film, if Solomon had maintained his unwillful life of self-denial, possibly he would have come to a point where his legalism would have been usurped by his greatest yet experience of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. The eventual meaning arising from the call to peace would act as a retrospective motivation upon the call, replacing his prospective motivation of self-preservation. Or maybe he would have continued to suppress his desire for violence until he died, without the real inner change testified to in the Gospel, and hoped that the Lord would look gracefully upon his self-righteousness.