• “The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.”
• “It would be fitting if I were apprehended… and punished. At least there would be some small sign of justice – some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning.”
Signposts in a strange land? In their own way, yes. They are quotations from Woody Allen’s film, “Matchpoint,” which I showed today in my class for the Capitol Fellows. We had read from Lesslie Newbigin, one of my own great teachers, whose work I have read and read again. One of the most meaningful lunches I have had was with him and a group of my friends in a Chinese restaurant on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s; forever after we called the large round table “the Newbigin Memorial Table”!
I wanted the Fellows to think through the hard questions that are theirs, inheritors of the Enlightenment that they are—and necessarily full of fragmentation as their experience must be. With no malice, Descartes carved up our world, and what we know about it. His argument that what is objective is trustworthy, hard truths after all, and what is subjective is not so much, so deeply personal as it is, was fatally flawed. We don’t know like that, and we don’t live like that. None of us do, because we can’t.
The next century this dualism came to us as the facts/values split, with Nietzsche insisting that with God gone, so was any honest conversation about meaning and morality—so all that was left were values. Yours, mine, his, hers, ours, theirs—and no one is right, because “right” doesn’t exist, because “good” doesn’t exist, because “wrong” doesn’t exist. All we have are values.
I told them the story of my conversation with the director of the first effort in Washington to address human trafficking, years ago now. She told me that she had access to graduates of the “best” universities in America. It was Harvard, Washington, and human rights, after all! But eventually these best and brightest walked into her office, first of all thanking her for the opportunity for such important work, but then asking, “What business do we have telling Cambodians that trafficking is wrong? Whose to say?” Wearied by the question, she said to me, “I just wish I had access to a kind of young person who believed in basic right and wrong in the universe.”
But that kind of universe is gone, in the world brought into being by Descartes and Nietzsche– and Newbigin saw that as well as anyone.
To press the point, I showed them some of “Matchpoint,” which is Allen’s second try at retelling Dostoevsky’s great novel, “Crime and Punishment”; 25 years ago he gave us “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which was a very good film, one of Allen’s last best great movies. Each is a telling tale of the human heart, full as we are of dignity and glory, shame and sorrow. Dostoevsky was the master, and told the truest truth about us, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are; and while Allen is very gifted, he falls short, and doesn’t have the insight or courage to face the realities he sees.
“Small signs of justice”? “Some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning”? Those are our longings, and that is what is at stake. Seeing this as I do is why I press my students to think it through, critically and carefully, wanting them to see that there are lines in the sand—and that the lines matter.