It's official: I have a new favourite book--a book so awesome that one can only describe it with Canadian spelling. Thank you, Border Fellows class, for such an incredible syllabus.Before I tell you which book it is, let me whet your appetite a little bit.World War II.Eastern China.An internment camp run by (surprisingly?) hands-off Japanese overseers.Americans, Belgians, Cubans, Russians, Britons, and more.Catholic priests, protestant missionaries, Jews, humanists, agnostics.Not quite enough room.Not quite enough food.Required not just to survive, but to self-govern.Now, if that doesn't sound like the most fascinating social experiment ever, I don't know what does. (Admittedly, it feels a bit callous to refer to the lived experience of these former internees as an "experiment.") So, what happens when you throw all these ingredients together for a couple of years?Langdon Gilkey shows us the answer in his memoir, Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure. Gilkey's experience in the internment camp as a 20-something-year-old American would impact his life and career in profound and unexpected ways. The time he spent observing human nature without any of the social crutches of class, wealth, status, or even a common national bond heavily influenced his beliefs about God and man. After his return to America, he went on to become a prominent 20th-century Protestant theologian. But for the years at the camp, he was just Gilkey, a young, observant man just trying to get by until the War was over.
After returning home, Gilkey reflects on all he had discovered about himself and his fellow internees:
“The most obvious dilemma had been the moral one: men must be just, fair, and generous if a creative and stable society is to be possible at all, and yet apparently this is for us a supremely difficult if not impossible task. How are we to understand ourselves; why does such an obvious necessity seem to be unattainable and even unnatural to our present nature? As in camp, I continued to find both the humanistic and the rigidly pietistic answers to these questions unsatisfactory.
“Those humanists who insist that men are naturally wise and good enough to be moral seemed to me to be continually refuted by the patent persistence of dangerous selfishness among the people whose intentions were good. Those religious perfectionists who believe that pious Christians are holy and holy people are good were refuted by the intolerance and lovelessness of many of the pious.”*
This is a potentially crushing verdict for religious and non-religious people alike. You'll have to read the book to see how Gilkey resolves the dilemma in his view, but for now, sit with the dilemma. Reflect with me. Where does our morality come from? Does our piety bring about love or lovelessness? Does our faith in humanity overlook a pervasive selfishness? How do we solve the dilemma?
* Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure (New York: HarperCollins, 1966), 229-230.Posted by Carmen