I’m currently working on a production of Balanchine’s 1929 ballet The Prodigal Son and have been studying Mikhail Baryshnikov’s version. Baryshnikov’s genius was not merely in his technical facility as a dancer, but his extraordinary ability to generate empathy as an actor. His beautiful interpretation reveals dimensions of Jesus’ parable that I had not previously thought of.
Baryshnikov’s prodigal is a naive and unruly child. He bristles at his father’s affection and has no patience for religious devotions. He is constantly on edge, impetuous, high strung, like a wild animal. His eyes are wide with hunger and passion. When the prodigal arrives in “the world” he is out of his element, intimidated and frightened of the heathens. But he puts on a brave face and joins in their riotous living the best he can. During his seduction by an otherworldly siren, his complete lack of sexual experience is immediately apparent, but his curiosity and impetuousness get the best of him. It is all too easy for the heathens to ply him with drink and leave him naked and destitute. As he crawls back into his father’s arms, he is broken, humiliated, and reaching out to the only thing he has left in the world: the knowledge of his father’s unconditional love. In this version, the Father does not run to embrace the prodigal, rather the prodigal crawls on his knees and climbs up into his Father’s arms, where he is held like a crying child.
The Natural Man: An Enemy to God
In religion, we usually blame Satan for all the temptations that lead to rebellion. But who really allowed for the circumstances and temptations that we fall into? Scientists tell us that teenage rebellion is a necessary stage of human development which helps us form our own identities, increase our social status, and ultimately learn important lessons about consequences and decision making. The emotional part of the brain develops sooner than the part of the brain that governs rational thought. Much of the rebellion we see in teenagers can be blamed on the fact that they simply have developed no cerebral mechanism to bridle their own hyperactive emotional life. Theirs is an innocent rebellion.
The Book of Mormon’s phrase “the natural man is an enemy to God” reveals much about the paradox of life and religion. In this scripture, God admits to having created our nature, and then making it His enemy. He sets us at war with ourselves. Every act we might call a perversion in the human world has its origin as a God-ordained procreative behavior in innocent animals: rape, sadomasochism, murder, cannibalism, pedophilia. While mankind might not always adopt all these animalistic behaviors generally, those humans who do these things report that they are responding to natural instincts within themselves, instincts they cannot control, or have chosen not to control.
Does God look upon His animals species like the Tasmanian Devil, who procreate through violent rape, and say as He did at the creation: “it is glorious and beautiful!”? And does He then look with shock and horror when a similar rape is committed by humans? Of course He must sorrow that man is unable or unwilling to subdue or control his natural instincts. But because God designed those natural instincts, He would understand and sympathize with a creation who acted according to natural design. When the Father of the Prodigal embraces His son He embraces His own creation, a fulfillment of a path He Himself designed. His love is not mere forgiveness, but understanding, empathy, recognition. The prodigal having put up a valiant struggle, finally drags his fearsome natural body back to its Creator, unable to handle it’s raw power, like Icarus and his wings.
“He Charged Not God Foolishly”
In my previous post, I had a conversation with New Iconoclast where we discussed why God would create gay people, and then command them to live a life against their nature. I suggested that we should blame God for this, that this is His problem, not ours, and if God was the source of the problem, then He was also it’s solution. New Iconoclast bristled at this suggestion, preferring to blame “genetics, environment, and pure chance.” But isn’t this just semantics? Any court of law would hold one responsible if they refused to prevent a tragedy when they had full power to do so. By allowing these things to happen in His natural world, God becomes the de facto author.
We don’t like the idea of “blaming God” which sounds like we’re passing the buck. We try to follow the scripture from Job, “he charged not God foolishly.” But we misunderstand the scripture. Job DID blame God. He told his wife: “Shall we accept good from the Lord’s hand, but not evil?” Job acknowledged that both good and evil came from God. But this was not “charging God foolishly.” It was acknowledging, “though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” Satan is not the cause of Job’s suffering. Satan’s only appearance in the Book of Job is as a character in an allegorical opening chapter. This introduction attempts to create a distance between God and Job’s trials by positing a sort of mythical dialogue that explains how God got tangled up in them. But through the rest of the book, God is the author of Job’s trials.
Blame Creates Intimacy
While it is possible to blame someone in an antagonistic way, blame also creates an opportunity for increased intimacy. When someone “takes the blame,” they immediately become a sympathetic character, a martyr, a Savior. And here we come to another dimension of Christ’s atonement. He has taken the blame for our sins, because He is partially responsible for them. In the Garden of Eden, God tricks Adam into eating the forbidden fruit. It wasn’t Adam’s fault that he ate and got cursed. Yet this is often the nature of life. We often find ourselves falling into sins through no fault of our own. Sometimes natural forces beyond our control collude to make us sinners. As Paul said, “For the good which I want to do, I do not: but the evil which I don’t want to do, that I do.” Of course there are times when we openly and knowingly rebel. But often we are victims of the overwhelming power of God’s “natural man” within us. Why would God design such a cruel and unjust system of punishment and redemption? Why would He create us to fail, and punish us for doing so?
Christ is to blame. Satan’s plan was much more humane and just: all would be saved, and there would be no misery. But Christ was not unsympathetic to the drawbacks of His plan. He knew this was going to be a mess and He took responsibility for it. He came down to personally pay for these sins and advocate on behalf of the innocence of those who fall. Ours is the most beautiful of all Creators in religion and myth. Other creators like Zeus or Brahma create a cruel and unjust world and then abandon their creations within it. But our Creator comes down and suffers along with His creations. He teaches us how to suffer like a God, and how suffering is necessary for growth.
We call Christ an advocate. An advocate believes we are actually innocent, and strives to prove our innocence. Indeed, in the very act of the atonement on the cross, Christ advocates for those for whom He is atoning: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In the language of modern law, Christ pleads on their behalf: “Not guilty by reason of diminished capacity.” I believe that likewise for us, Christ pleads for our innocence. If we are addicted and have lost our freedom to choose, Christ pleads for us: “not guilty by reason of irresistible impulse.” If we acted rashly, without fully understanding the gravity of our situation, Christ pleads: “not guilty by reason of diminished responsibility.”
An Excuse to Sin?
Is my blaming of God just an excuse to continue sinning? If we acknowledge that God created the “natural man” within us, we must also acknowledge that He gave our eternal spirits, souls which seek for light. God may have started the war within us, but it is up to us to decide who will win. I find this paradigm much more useful than the Satanic paradigm, which sees natural instincts as the whisperings of malevolent and mysterious evils.
Of course there is evil. But it is not where we think. Joseph Smith said, “I do wrong, but I do not the wrongs I am accused of.” I would say similarly: “people do evil, but it is not the evil that we think they do.” The natural man is not evil, even though he is God’s enemy. The natural man is also God’s dear creation. The evil resides on in the creation, but in the soul’s individual knowledge and ability to choose what to do with that nature. In the absence of both knowledge or choice, there is no evil. As Paul said, “before the Law, I was free and could not sin. But then the Law came, and sin was born in me, and I died.”
- Do you blame God or Satan for the trials and temptations of life?
- Is the “natural man” God’s own creation, whom He then made His enemy?
- Is the “natural man” evil, or is it our knowledge and choice that turn it to evil?
- Does Christ “take the blame” for the injustice of the world, and is the atonement part of His taking responsibility for it?