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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

There is an etching by the 18th century artist Francisco de Goya that I find haunting and relevant. The picture shows an artist, perhaps a painter or writer, slumped over his desk. His pen and sketching paper are there. His face is buried in his arms that are resting over his head. We cannot see his face in sleep. We can only see his thick black hair tousled around his head. Behind him in the darkness are flying creatures that look like fierce bats and sneering owls. Next to him reclining on the floor is a large cat with big eyes with its head erect. It looks startled.

The title of the drawing is, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.”

Goya’s amazing pieces, there were 80 in all, were attempts to confront the political and religious institutions of his day, institutions that had turned cruel and oppressive and brutalized the common defenseless people of that era. His etchings were also wake up calls to fellow artists to use their talents to expose the intolerance, criminality and savagery of those in power both in government and in the Church.

Today, reason sleeps in our American politics.  Nearly all politicians are guilty of a comatose approach to the needs and interests of our citizens.  But right wing Republicans, viciously partisan justices, and especially Tea Party politicians and leaders are the worst. Reason is all but out of commission for those folks. And monsters of all sorts stalk us as a result. Indifference to human suffering. Appalling ignorance of how government can work for the good of all. Bigotry and outright disdain for large segments of our populace. Being unqualified and undignified and uncaring. Refusal to listen, to cooperate, to negotiate. These monstrous acts exist to ambush our citizenry while reason among our elected officials lies dormant in hibernation.

Reason sleeps in American religion and in American churches as well. Where are our religious leaders? Whose voice among the well known clergy today is speaking for women, for gays, for children, for those in addiction, for prisoners both foreign and domestic, for the poor and the elderly? What prominent ministers of the Christian faith are standing with Occupy Wall Street, Planned Parenthood, Health Care advocates, and students?  Name any popular religious leaders in America who are against war? What churches are helping us discover the immensity of our own souls with a capacity for love that can be healing and affirming? What faith is teaching us that compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity? Who is helping us push beyond our fixed versions of reality enabling us to find new ways to understand and care for one another whatever our race or class structure or sexual orientation? Instead, we have rampant fundamentalism parading itself as authentic faith dishonoring the teachings of Jesus. We have religious entrepreneurs leading our churches selling from their Hollywood sets angry hateful theology, militarism, materialism, and an unbending partisan political ideology.

To paraphrase the gifted poet and writer, Wendell Berry, there are two things that betray our humanity: the shoddy work of despair, and the pointless work of arrogance. These, I think, are perhaps two of the great monsters that chase us today and are the result of putting our reason to sleep. 

Both in today’s politics and religion despair is an end result of so many of our efforts. Where are we going in government?  What is the goal besides creating a system of laws and procedures that protect the wealthy and powerful and shut out the rest? And what is religion providing our nation? What is its purpose anymore beyond being used to divide and bully and browbeat those who haven’t the stomach to believe the pabulum that is offered or follow the politics that are preached in today’s churches? Where is there any hope in that?

Not only do our politics and religion betray us in the shoddy work of despair but they betray us in the pointless work of arrogance. This threadbare idea that America is better than any other nation in the world is so conceited and autocratic and useless. What good does that achieve with other nations? Do we even think about that? We have so stained our reputation and worth in the world with our push to dominate, control, impose our ideas on, and use up the resources both natural and human, of other countries. And of course Christianity has been turned into some kind of test of humanity. If you don’t believe it your humanity is somehow in question; you are flawed in some sick misguided way and God is not in you or with you. What arrogance it takes to believe there is only one way to God. Where is the reason in any of that? It’s not there; it’s asleep.

These lines from the Indian mystic and poet, Tagore, remind me of what we once stood for in this country:

“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers,
But to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain,
But for the heart to conquer it.”

There is human courage and wisdom in that kind of living. And there is more; there is reason.

What monsters we might put to shame and destroy if we as a nation of people would just wake up, think, and let reason guide our politics and our religion.

© 2013 Timothy Moody

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