Between Scylla And Charybdis

In the Greek tales of the heroic age, like those of Jason and the Argonauts or the Odyssey, poets used to exaggerate the admittedly serious dangers of certain paths by having their heroes thread the narrow course between two disastrous fates. The narrow Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria at the boot of Italy formed the place where on one side of the strait there was a crag that was supposedly the home of the once beautiful nymph who, as a result of rejecting the advances of one Glaucon, or because of the jealousy of a goddess who poisoned her bathing waters, was turned into a horrible monster who wrecked terrible vengeance on passing sailors, and where on the other side of the strait there was a whirlpool personified as a deadly sea monster. Whether in Greek stories or songs like Sting’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” the references to Scylla and Charybdis are full of peril. Compared to such a rich and dangerous picture, simply to say someone is between a rock and a hard place is not nearly so picturesque, even if it is more strictly accurate.

What was it that made these two dangers so troublesome? It was that one could not avoid both dangers simultaneously without supernatural aid. Even so, there was a clear bias in that the partial loss that one would face by aiming at Calabria would be better than the threat of total loss when aiming at the whirlpool. Of course, this depended on the ship that one was in, as the whirlpool was a threat to small ships but not to larger ones. When one is evaluating risks and choosing which course to take, one has to examine what resources one has and also which risks were the more dangerous based on one’s situation. This is an imperfect art, whether one is dealing with literature or dealing with life, and the course of our lives often depends on how well we are able to travel along dangerous ways, and the quality of the assistance we receive along the way. As I have often found myself traveling between two unpleasant extremes in one area of life or another, this is an image I have long kept in mind. It is worthwhile to ponder upon the sorts of extremes that one can deal with as one attempts to chart a course to avoid dangers. Perhaps most obviously this dilemma comes to mind when I think of the problem of love and marriage and family. It is worthwhile to discuss this matter in detail, and then to examine how the same concerns apply to other areas of life.

I have often mused [1] that were either my fear or longing when it came to intimacy less strong that things would be much easier to deal with. Were the longing far more powerful than the fear, then I would likely be like most people, finding that my longing leads me into the sorts of long-term relationships that, for someone of my moral worldview, would lead fairly inevitably to marriage. Were my fear far more powerful than my longing, I would likely be the sort of person who could live forever alone without feeling that much of a sense of loss. But, as it is, the two are fairly close in equilibrium, so that I feel the full force of both simultaneously, which is a reminder that life is not nearly as straightforward as I would like. The fact that it is fear that has put the brakes on what would otherwise be a fairly intense romantic longing has left me feeling somewhat unable to brag about my own level of virtue. While most who have my own personal background founder on promiscuity of one kind or another, I have found myself to be a far more restrained person than that, but a great deal of that restraint comes from immense anxiety and even terror. One cannot love without being vulnerable, but vulnerability has not exactly gone very well. Yet the compulsion to love remains strong for all of the reticence and hesitating and timid nature.

This sort of polarity springs naturally from other aspects of my personal nature that have stark opposites. For example, I consider myself to be a powerfully inertial person. Those who are aware of Newton’s three laws of motion will note that the first such law states that objects at rest tend to remain at rest and objections in motion will not change their velocity and direction unless an external force acts upon it. As driven as I tend to be, I am driven in consistent directions, and when I am at rest, I tend to prefer to remain at rest, although that is not often granted to me. The end result is that I tend to have a frequent difficulty winding up at the beginning of the day and winding down at the end of the day, because it is at those moments where I change from rest to motion, at least in a general sense, because I am in motion at times even during my sleep. This is not to say that sleeping or waking activities are free from toil and difficulty, but rather that the most difficult parts of the day are moving from one stage to another in the attempt of finding some sort of equilibrium in the other stage. The fact that this relates to the other difficulties I have in inflection points and changing from one state to another makes sense, as this is a consistent area of difficulty and struggle. To the extent that we focus merely on ourselves, we may see it as a hopeless struggle, lacking in any kind of glory or even any meaning.

This ought not to be seen as solely an individual problem, though. We see the same pull between apparent opposites in all kinds of areas of life. We even see them, very memorably, in the Bible. In James 2:14-24, we read as follows: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warm and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” This passage, it should be noted, was responsible for Martin Luther viewing James as an epistle of straw, and viewing it with a great deal of contempt.

He viewed it, of course, in contradiction to what Paul said in Romans 4:1-8: “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those who lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose deeds are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.” While the subject of imputation is too large for the discussion here [2], it is worthwhile to note that both James and Paul quote the same verse when making their points which might appear at first to be contradictory.

Yet while there is a tension, there is no contradiction, since they are talking about justification in different ways. Paul speaks of justification in the initial sense, in that we cannot be saved by our own righteousness, and that what God gives us freely we cannot deserve. This was true of me when I committed myself to God’s ways and was baptized as a college freshman in Los Angeles, and it is true of anyone else who has ever believed. James is speaking of justification to others, of the demonstration of one’s faith through righteous deeds. It is telling that they use the same passage in Genesis 15:6 to prove their points. Paul is saying by citing the passage that Abraham’s faith is what was accounted to him for righteousness, and that he did not fill up his righteousness account with God by his own works. James, in citing the exact same verse, is making the point that the righteousness that Abraham accrued through faith was used in doing good works that demonstrated his living faith. His works were his faith put into his life, and not meant as a substitute for faith to earn salvation on his own merits.

I hope I may be forgiven for what may seem at first be a terrible tangent, or at best an irrelevant digression, but it has a great deal of personal relevance. When we are trying to thread our ways through a difficult passage of life, we must be aware of the larger picture. When we look in literature, we see that Jason and his shipmates and Odysseus were both people on an epic quest of great significance to their peers, which is the reason why we still read their stories today, even if we do not endorse everything about their belief system, and even if we may have a great deal to criticize about their immoral personal conduct along the way. The fact that they were epic heroes on a quest meant that their overcoming of such difficulties as being caught between Scylla and Charybdis was in fact the sort of epic deed that made one a hero. So too it was that Abraham’s walking with God and his belief in God despite difficulties, and some fairly harrowing events of his own life, made him a heroic figure of faith to the Jews as well as to Christians [3]. So it is in our own lives; to the extent that we can recognize heroic struggles and difficulties in our own lives, which require all the courage we possess and a great deal of divine assistance in order for everything to work out well, we recognize that as we have been given heroic tasks to accomplish in our lives, that implies that we are heroes. We may be unconventional heroes, but the recognition of the heroism that is required to live an honorable life in immense difficulty is itself a clue as to our identity as heroes of a godly kind. And in the midst of accounting for the damages we have suffered, and the difficulties we face in achieving our ambitions of success in romance, and of having a loving family and achieving our ambitions for an honored place within our societies and institutions, we do not struggle for selfish ambition alone, but rather to become the sort of beings we were created to be, heroes whose deeds and lives are worth recording and remembering, and serving as an encouragement to others to engage in their own heroic quests.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/longing-for-a-house-united/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/27/sleeping-it-away/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/a-telltale-heart/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/borne-back-ceaselessly-into-the-past/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/where-were-they-going-without-ever-knowing-the-way/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/21/speak-memory/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/the-fractured-fairy-tale-of-israels-departure-from-egypt/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/03/all-over-creation/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/27/a-strange-oppression-of-spirits/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/love-reign-oer-me/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/you-never-know-just-how-to-look-through-other-peoples-eyes/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/excuse-me-sir-but-there-has-been-an-imputation-in-your-account/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/psalm-32-blessed-is-he-whose-transgression-is-forgiven/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/book-review-the-jewish-heroes-of-christian-history/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/he-waited-for-the-city/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Love & Marriage, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Between Scylla And Charybdis

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