What Possessors of Maxims and Scriptures Can Teach Us

The first three paragraphs of William T. Vollmann’s ode to the Gnostic scriptures drew me in, both for the quality of the writing and the substance of the ideas.

Have you ever wondered whether this world is wrong for you? A death, a lover’s unabashed indifference, the sufferings of innocents and the absence of definitive answers — don’t these imply some hollowness or deficiency? For my part, the wrongness struck when I was 4 years old. I was at my grandmother’s house, and I saw a cat torture a baby bird.

Hoping to understand the purpose of our situation, I visit possessors of maxims and scriptures. Most of them are kind to me. I love the ritualistic gorgeousness of Catholic cathedrals, the matter-of-fact sincerity with which strangers pray together at roadsides throughout the Muslim world, the studied bravery and compassion in the texts of medieval Jewish responsa, the jovial humility of the Buddhist precept that enlightenment is no reward and lack of enlightenment no loss, the nobility of atheists who do whatever good they do without expectation of celestial candy — not to mention pantheists’ glorifications of everything from elephants to oceans. All these other ways that I have glimpsed from my own lonely road allure me; I come to each as a guest, then continue on to I know not where.

Baptized a Lutheran, I sometimes wander through the Bible, drawn in particular to those deep, strange stories that so many of us know after a fashion: the creation, the temptation in Eden, Christ’s execution and quiet return. As a reader and writer, I most love the tales that raise difficult questions: Why did an all-knowing God install Adam and Eve in a situation where they would surely disobey him? Why was eating fruit from the tree of knowledge a sin? Do I truly comprehend Christ’s enigmatic sacrifice? And why do cats torture birds?

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