Jeanne and I recently had the opportunity to see a local community theater’s production of Godspell, one of my all-time favorite musicals. We went because a friend was in the show; as it turned out, two other people that we know were also in the ensemble, one from church and one from the college. Godspell burst on the scene in the early seventies when I was in high school, around the same time as Jesus Christ Superstar.
Both shows shocked and offended many of the conservative religious folks I was raised in the midst of, but I loved both for their irreverence, new insights into Jesus, and memorable tunes. Godspell has a special place in Jeanne’s and my life because, close to thirty years ago and just a few months into our relationship, we took my sons, then eight and six, to an off-Broadway performance of the show where I also met two of Jeanne’s closest friends for the first time.
Almost every song in Godspell can make a claim for being best in show; one of my favorites is “It’s All for the Best,” a soft shoe duet performed by Jesus and John the Baptist. It’s a parody of an attitude prevalent in many religious circles—no matter how horrible things appear to be, no matter how awful your life is working out, God knows what God is doing and things will work out for the best.
When you feel sad, or under a curse, your life is bad, your prospects are worse,
Your wife is sighing, crying, and your olive tree is dying,
Temples are graying, teeth are decaying, and creditors weighing your purse . . .
Your mood and your robe are both a deep blue,
You’d bet that Job had nothing on you,
Don’t forget that when you get to heaven you’ll be blessed!
Yes, it’s all for the best!
My Baptist minister father, who was also a big fan of Godspell, particularly enjoyed this song because it pokes fun at the sorts of platitudes many of us tend to send in the direction of people in pain or trouble: “God knows what He’s doing,” “Everything happens for a reason,” “When God closes a door, He opens a window,” and so on. Nadia Bolz-Weber writes that when someone says that last one at the wrong time, the best response might be to say “Show me where that window is so I can push him the hell out of it!”
Whatever Paul meant when he wrote to the community of believers in Rome that “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God,” hopefully it was something more sophisticated and insightful than useless and often harmful platitudes.
Of course, the tendency to fall back on platitudes and obvious falsehoods when difficulties afflict us is not exclusive to religious folks. In the early decades of the eighteenth century, the European Enlightenment was in full swing. Over the previous century and a half, spectacular scientific advances, the exploration of the New World, and the rise of enlightened rulers had created a general optimism about human progress and our ability to improve the world around us.
The breakthroughs of Galileo, Newton, and others led many to believe that we live in a rational universe, created and overseen by a rational God, a universe whose puzzles and riddles are there for the solving through the systematic and rigorous use of the human mind. Leibniz, one of the greatest of the Enlightenment philosophers, summarized one aspect of this Enlightenment perspective in a memorable claim: “This is the best of all possible worlds.” A good and omnipotent creating God could do no other than create the best creation possible—the fact that it often appears otherwise from the human perspective is a result of our ignorance, an ignorance that Enlightenment progress promised to reduce and, perhaps, ultimately eliminate.
Then on November 1, 1755, one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history struck Lisbon, followed by three tsunamis. It was All Saint’s Day; the churches, filled with worshipers, simultaneously collapsed and burst into flames due to the hundreds of lit candles. Thousands of people fled the buildings and headed to the waterfront, just as a wall of water twenty-five feet high came ashore. Eighty-five percent of Lisbon was destroyed; tremors were felt as far away as Finland, North Africa, Greenland, and the Caribbean.
Casualty estimates range widely, but it is clear that as many as 75,000 people died. The earthquake had wide-ranging effects on the lives of the populace and intelligentsia. The earthquake had struck on an important religious holiday and had destroyed almost every important church in the city, causing anxiety and confusion among the citizens of a staunch and devout Roman Catholic country. Theologians and philosophers focused and speculated on the religious implications, seeing the earthquake as a possible manifestation of divine judgment. One of these intellectuals was François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume, Voltaire.
In 1759, a mere four years after the Lisbon earthquake, Voltaire published his masterpiece Candide: or, Optimism, one of the great works of satire in the Western tradition. Voltaire’s hero, Candide, goes through an outrageous and outlandish series of experiences in the novella, experiences that produce pain, suffering, destruction, and death in increasing frequency and intensity as the story unfolds.
Candide is joined in his adventures by a small cadre of companions, including Dr. Pangloss (“all tongue” or “all words”), an intellectual who is the mouthpiece for Leibnizian optimism. After each catastrophe, including the Lisbon earthquake itself which occurs in a central chapter, Pangloss ties himself in logical and argumentative knots in his “proofs” that, despite all appearances, this is the best of all possible worlds and everything happens for the best. Pangloss himself is often the recipient of the worst experiences, something that Candide points out to him toward the end of the story:
Candide: Well, my dear Pangloss, when you had been hanged, dissected, whipped, and were tugging at the oar, did you always think that everything happens for the best?
Pangloss: I am still of my first opinion, for I am a philosopher and I cannot retract, especially as Leibniz could never be wrong . . .
Candide, a naïve youngster inclined to believe the authoritative Pangloss’ arguments early in the story, eventually changes his mind in the face of his experiences and comes to define Pangloss’ optimism as “the madness of believing that everything is right when it is wrong.”
Panglossian arguments infect our contemporary world everywhere one looks. Just listen for a few minutes (if you can) to politicians from all sides defending and arguing for their pre-established positions concerning health care legislation, always in denial of clear facts to the contrary of their positions. Religious rigidity results from the insistence of faithful persons that a handful of doctrines must be true and are unrevisable, even when they explain nothing and do damage on a regular basis.
Toward the end of Candide, the remaining handful of Candide’s friends reflect on what they have learned. Pangloss’ admits to something that many of us fall prey to—paying lip service to commitments that one no longer believes are true. “Pangloss owned that he had always suffered horribly, but as he had once asserted that everything went wonderfully well, he asserted it still, though he no longer believed it.”
What is one to do when one finds out that what one professes to believe has become, as Macbeth said when reflecting on his wife’s suicide, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? For those of us who are honest, even our most cherished beliefs and commitments sound exactly like that on some days. After one hundred pages of disaster, the final episode of Candide offers something both practical and optimistic. Candide and his friends meet an elderly Muslim who has spent his life cultivating twenty acres with his children, noting that “our labor preserves us from three great evils—weariness, vice, and want.”
Candide is attracted to this and, as his friends make various suggestions as to how they might move forward, responds “we must cultivate our garden.” After Pangloss’ final attempt to prove that this is the best of all possible worlds, Candide turns his back on big-picture argumentation once and for all in the final line of the novella: “All that is very well, but let us cultivate our garden.” Candide has learned at a relatively young age what some learn only in their advanced years and many never learn at all: Happiness, contentment, and meaning are local. Cosmic commitments come and go, but what is right in front of us is always in the same place—right in front of us. Justice. Mercy. Humility. Let us cultivate our gardens.