I am a part-time novelist who happens also to be a part-time Christian because part of the time seems to be the most I can manage to live out my faith: Christian part of the time when certain things seem real and important to me and the rest of the time not Christian in any sense that I can believe matters much to Christ or anybody else. Any Christian who is not a hero, Léon Bloy wrote, is a pig, which is a harder way of saying the same thing. From time to time I find a kind of heroism momentarily possible—a seeing, doing, telling of Christly truth—but most of the time I am indistinguishable from the rest of the herd that jostles and snuffles at the great trough of life. Part-time novelist, Christian, pig.
In the Third Canto of Inferno, Dante says there "...trailed so long a file of people--I should never have believed that death could have unmade so many souls". Vergil tells Dante that they are the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise because they never chose sides. They are the "moderates," the nowhere men, those who take refuge in the mushy middle and praise themselves for their prudence and good sense. They now commingle with the cowardly angels, those who were neither rebels nor faithful, but stood apart, afraid to choose.
It wouldn't surprise me if Buechner was thinking of this passage or of Eliot's allusion to it in The Wasteland. But I would qualify it somewhat. I don't think the objective is to be heroic, because more often than not the pursuit of heroism devolves into a crude causa sui project. Muscular Christianity has little to do with the spirit of the gospels. I'd argue that the normal is ok, but that being normal is not normative; for the Christian impulse is about loving the normal and yet not accepting it as all there is, and from time to time acting in such a way as to subvert it. Whether those actions are modest ones or heroic matters less than whether they were inspired by grace.
Despite the pejorative connotations, I don't think it's such a bad thing to be a pig. It's simply a metaphor for our normal, natural life in a fallen world. There is so much that is good about that. Going to ballgames and hoping your team wins. Raising your kids to do well in school and to get decent jobs. Normal is the ordinary joys and sorrows, the tedium and excitement of a life lived through its different rhythms. It means arguing about politics and mowing your lawn. It's about falling in and out of love, and about our dreams for a better future. It's our life as talking, self-aware animals, piggies if you will, living on the earth, and if we see our normal life in this way, it's hard to take it too seriously, because really it shouldn't be.
This is not an argument for complacency, because while there is much in the normal that is truly good, it's not the only possibility. We may be little piggies, but we are capable being more. We want to be more or to think of ourselves as more, but there is a right way and a wrong way of going about it. The normal route people take to being more has to do with ambition and pride, this always leads to problems. The non-normal route is to recognize oneself for the piggy one is and then work with something that we don't think of as natural, but which is as much a part of our daily experience as the air we breathe.
You know the movie A Day without a Mexican? It tries to show how important to the life of L.A. is the mostly taken-for-granted presence of Mexicans. Well imagine the world without the taken-for-granted presence of grace. Maybe Quentin Tarrantino could be hired to do the movie about a world without grace--or maybe he already has. For surely he has a knack for showing us the lives of people who live in a world of banal vileness, banal and vile to the degree that they are closed off from the reality of grace.
I believe there is a principle of metaphysical evil that operates in the world, and its purpose is to close humans off from the possibility of grace. Hell is the soul's state when it has become completely impenetrable by grace. But I doubt anybody takes up permanent residence in downtown Infernoville. There are, though, plenty of people who live in its suburbs. And there are people who likewise live in the suburbs of Paradiso. But most of us live in the murky, in-between burb, which is downtown Purgatorio. It's the place we call normal, neither filled with grace, nor completely cut off from it. Dante puts the nowhere men in Inferno and they belong there if their indecision was a purposeful refusal of grace, but while sometimes it does, mostly it doesn't require of us heroic reaction to choose grace rather than to refuse it.
And so while these are metaphorical places, they are also metaphysical ones. It's the condition of all of us who live in a fallen world. Paradiso is not a physical place, but the physical world is changed when it is within the gravitational pull of those people who have Paradiso within them. Non-normal things can happen.
Natura est vulnerata, non delenda. Nature is wounded, not destroyed. I'm going from memory here, so I'm not sure, but think it's Aquinas who said it. It makes a difference if you think of the world as we live in it as wounded, because it suggests that health and wholeness was something lost and also that it can be regained. It suggests that what we have come to take for granted as normal is not necessarily healthful. It makes a difference because it contrasts with the naturalistic understanding that accepts the normal, natural world as the only possibility. And it makes a difference in contrast with the view, Eastern or Western, that understands the world as a prison with no possibilities other than to be a prison, so therefore a place that must be escaped.
It makes a difference because it frames for us the nature of the "heroic" work that we are called to do--the work that truly makes us more than piggies eating at life's trough. And it defines what heroic means in ways that circumvent all the recognition-driven motivations that are at the heart of the traditional meaning of heroism. Natural heroism is piggy heroism, insofar as it's driven by adrenaline and testosterone. It is in my view morally neutral because it's natural and it’s instinct driven, even if prodigious in its accomplishment. It's usually nothing more than bucks bashing one another in a battle for dominance. Such heroism that is neither here nor there. For the heroism about which Bloy and Buechner speak is not about the performance of tasks that require extraordinary gifts. It is a heroism inspired by grace.
Heroism in this sense is the cumulative record of a life lived, usually obscurely, in response to the presence of the possibility of true freedom or grace. It is about the development of the kind of character, which, because it is capable of responding to grace in small ways over the course of a lifetime, is then also capable, if the occasion arises, of responding in a big way. It is only because of a lifetime of small decisions, small gestures, and the habits of soul that are developed as a result, that if something big comes, and even if notoriety comes with it, there is enough ballast to keep him or her from being blown over.