April 7, 2003

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

The thought is expressed by Satan in Paradise Lost, when he looks around and contemplates the sulfurous landscape of his new home, shortly after he and the other rebellious angels have been cast down by the armies of God into Hell. I doubt Milton would have allowed one of his heavenly characters to communicate such a blasphemous idea: If one really can make a Heaven of Hell, then damnation is no big deal, and God isn’t as all-powerful as he’s cracked up to be. Milton didn’t mean for us to be inspired by Satan’s philosophy of self-determination; he’s supposed to be the bad guy. But somehow in the last three hundred and fifty years we’ve all come around to Satan’s relativistic point of view.

Olin, the guitarist in my band, talks a lot about thinking positively, and sometimes it makes me want to kick him. A few weeks back, there was a controversy down at the local community radio station, CFCR, where many of our friends volunteer. The Promise Keepers were holding a rally here in town, and they’d bought some advertising time on the station. A number of our friends were quite upset that CFCR would play their ads. They argued that the Promise Keepers are anti-gay and anti-feminist, and that their philosophy goes directly against what the station stands for. Olin, who is usually the first guy to pick up a sign and join a protest, angered some of these friends by staying aloof from the controversy.

“Last time the Promise Keepers were in town,” Olin explained to me, “There was a big protest, and a bunch of us went down there and stood outside the door waving signs and chanting, ‘Anti-woman, anti-gay, Promise Keepers go away!’ But all the men who came to the rally were very respectful and friendly to us, even though we were shouting these vitriolic slogans at them. After a while, the protest kind of petered out, and I wound up talking to some of the Promise Keepers. I came away very impressed with their movement. They weren’t a bunch of wild-eyed bible-thumpers, like we thought. They weren’t ranting about gays and feminists. They were focussed on changing their lives for the better. It was a very caring, supportive, positive atmosphere.”

Now, I didn’t really know enough about the Promise Keepers to have an opinion about the whole CFCR advertising controversy. But something about Olin’s comments really annoyed me. “I’m sure all the Nazis who went to the Nuremberg rallies,” I said, “Thought that it was a very caring, supportive, positive atmosphere.”

That was kind of a mean thing to say to Olin, but my point still stands. Perhaps it is possible to make a Heaven of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven. But we shouldn’t be distracted from the underlying reality of things. Maybe the Promise Keepers are just a harmless, warm-and-cuddly men’s support group. But if their philosophy is dangerous, then masking it with smiles and positive thinking doesn’t make it any less dangerous. In fact, it makes it more so.

In the end, Satan’s positive thinking doesn’t get him anywhere. God knows exactly what he’s up to, every step of the way, and his ultimate defeat is predetermined. I’m optimistic that we have more freedom to decide our fate than Milton’s characters do. But if our fate is predetermined, what is the sensible way to respond? To rebel, like Satan, even if we know we’re doomed to lose? Or to meekly submit, like Adam & Eve, in the confidence that we’ll eventually be rewarded with entry to Heaven? Positive thinking gives us power only to the extent that we really do control our own destinies. Beyond that, it can be self-destructive – but nobly self-destructive, perhaps.

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