You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through
the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
Walt Whitman, “Song Of Myself”
(The following is a brief reflection on the shepherds in the Christmas story, as delivered at a Christmas Eve service at my church.)
Christmas time and shepherds calls up a picture of poor saps in bathrobes and fake beards looking adoringly at a plastic baby in a fake manger. (Present company excepted.) What I think it should call up instead is admiration for Christianity’s first evangelists and a determination on our part to tell the story of the good news with as much passion and joy as they did.
A few things to note about the story, as told in Luke:
First, they were shepherds. Shepherds were the bluest of blue-collar workers. Shepherding was not an admired occupation. They worked a tough job for minimum wage with no prestige. And yet, these are the guys who get to know first about arguably the most significant event in human history—the birth of the Messiah. The announcement of the Incarnation. Immanuel. God with us. The absolute center—along with the resurrection–of the good news and of human history.
They find–out of nowhere–that they are part of the story God is telling to the world.And so am I and so are you, 2000 years later. Average people—maybe even a little below average in the shepherd’s case—made part of the Greatest Story Ever Told.
Second—they did not at first know what to make of this story. In fact, at first it scared them spitless. I like the King James wording: When the angel appeared to announce the good news, we find “they were sore afraid.” So afraid that it hurt. The Greek word behind the King James “sore” is “megas”—they were MEGA-afraid. And so would be you and I.
Why were they afraid? Because angels are not cute. They are awesome, fearful beings and when people experience one in the Bible, they usually fall face first on the ground. But the shepherds are also afraid because they don’t know what is happening. They’re just minding their lowly business—taking care of sheep in the outdoors at night—and suddenly the sky is filled with an angel and then a “heavenly host”–and everyone is singing like crazy.
A “host” in the Bible is an army. The sky is filled with an ARMY of angels—ready for battle if need be. This will definitely make you 1. sore afraid and 2. wonder what is going on.
For you see, the shepherds had limited knowledge. And so do I. They weren’t scholars or priests. They were simple working class folks. They might have known that a Messiah had been expected for centuries, but they had no reason at all to think it would be tonight, in a small town nearby, or that they were part of the story.
This is the part I most identify with. They have been told something amazing, actually something unbelievable—that the Savior of the world has just appeared not far away and that he is just a baby and, in fact, he is now laying in a wooden trough used to feed farm animals.
They could not have expected any of this, certainly not with these details. It stretched reason and common sense. It must have made them wonder if someone had spiked the stew that night.
Same with me, here in modern times. This good news that has been announced to me—first by people who loved me, and then by my teachers and guides, and over the years here at Hope. How can this story be true? It stretches reason and common sense.
So what did the shepherds do. They said, “Let’s go see.” They tested what they had been told. They went to see if there was in fact a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And God, I believe, invites us to test the story as well. If you are skeptical, don’t take anyone’s word for it. Test the good news in your own life. Taste and see if it is good.
The shepherds tested it, and when they discovered it was true, they became the New Testament’s first evangelists, telling everyone what they heard and saw. That’s what the word ‘evangelium’ means—the good news. The good news that the Christ has come who will reconcile us with God and redeem the world.
And then what do the shepherds do? They go back. Back to their flocks. Back to the everyday world of tending sheep.
But they are changed people. They are not the same people they were when that day began. Now they are “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” Now they are testifiers, which is to say, they are story tellers. They have a story to tell about what has happened in their lives and what it means for themselves and for others.
And so do you and I. We are average people, like the shepherds; we have been invited into a great story; we do not know everything we would like to know; but we know what we have heard and seen in our own lives, and we are responsible to tell that story, joyfully, to others.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
“I have never really left Pennsylvania, that is where the self I value is stored, however infrequently I check on its condition.” So says the late John Updike, famous writer who spent his adult life on the east coast but here claims that he left his best self back where he grew up. There’s a lot to ponder in this one sentence. I’ll just fly by a bit of it.
He is talking, among other things, about home. Home is not primarily a place—otherwise those of us who had many different homes would be left out. Home is a time of life and a state of mind and a condition of the spirit and a set of relationships. I think much of human activity is an attempt to return home. Not so much to return to innocence or coziness or simplicity—though each of these is part of it—but to a place where one fit and the world made sense and seemed of manageable size. The idea of home—even if not the reality—is a place where things are pretty much as they should be (which is to say a place of shalom). Something like that.
Another thing he is addressing is the distinction between the self I am, at whatever moment and in whatever place, and “the self I value.” We all would like to be, more often than we are, our “best selves.” Some fight hard to close that gap, others simply acknowledge it with a shrug. I think maybe east coast, highly successful, famous Updike knows his best self is none of these things. He sounds a little weary, like he wants to go home.
So what do you see in the quotation?
Most everyone seems to know what to think about Ferguson. I don’t.
It’s one of those “yes, but” stories—in which every assertion about it is answered with a “yes, but” that, if not exactly the opposite, is meant to blunt the initial assertion. “Yes he was stoned and punched the cop in the face and went for his gun (maybe), but he didn’t get his gun and he fled and the cop could have waited for help instead of shooting him.” Or, “Yes, it is a tragedy and race might have been a factor, but we can’t ask cops to protect us from dangerous people and then threaten them with prison if things go badly.” Yes, but. Yes, but. (And our President—a big fan of “yes, but”—leads the chorus.)
What’s clear is that most people already knew what they thought about this story before it happened. The witnesses who made things up already knew. So did the people who passed it off as a young thug getting what he deserved.
The reason they knew is that we live and react to life out of our master stories. A master story is one that explains the world to you–and your experience in it. When things get painful or confusing or threatening, we return to our master stories because they offer solace and an explanation. Each of us has a constellation of master stories—political, historical, religious, personal—that explain things to us. (The centrality of narrative being one of my own master stories.)
So one person’s master story tells them America is a racist nation and it, once again, did to Michael Brown what racist societies do to racial minorities. And another person’s master story says America is a free country—for everyone who plays by the rules—and that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is self-punishing. Or something like that. These are gatekeeper stories that determine what weight to give to various pieces of evidence and even what counts as a fact. And so these master stories collide in a place like Ferguson, which could be any place, and we talk and talk and talk about it—and it’s all yes, but.
I don’t offer the above with a cynical shrug. I’m not relativistic about stories. Some are truer and more helpful than others. I believe that when two stories collide—whether in Ferguson or Palestine or within our own family—we are required to try to look hard for a third story that contains the core truths of each. I think such a story about Ferguson would start by acknowledging how stunned we are at what can and has been lost in just a few seconds—a life, two futures, the sense that we are brothers and sisters (or at least a community) who are in something together. All gone.
Some of it can be put back together. Some of it can’t. This is not the way the world is supposed to be. We can only nudge it back in that direction by being willing to question our master stories and to look together for ones that we all can live with.
I’m going to give this blog thing another try. My kids say, make it short, make it long, make it shallow, make it deep, but the one thing you must do, if you are going to blog at all, is make it regular. So I’m shooting for twice a week, even if it’s only “here’s what I read and thought briefly about five minutes ago.”
Dan Wakefield has an article I enjoyed in the latest IMAGE journal (a publication I highly encourage you to look into—no, subscribe to) about his long-time friendship with the tolerant atheist (the words don’t always go together) Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut, it seems, insisted he was an atheist but he admired the heck out some aspects of Christianity. Like many people, he liked Jesus a lot but didn’t have much time for Christ. He complained to Wakefield “they had to make him a God.”
I understand Vonnegut’s complaint. Keeping Jesus fully human is much tidier—rationally and otherwise—and allows him to simply be another figure in the “Pantheon of Good People”—men and women we can tip our hats to and perhaps even try to emulate a bit when it’s not too much trouble.
But I think Vonnegut has it backwards. It isn’t “they had to make him a God,” it’s God had to make himself a man (in pre-inclusive language). Of course, it’s “chose to” not “had to” (don’t want to rile the neo-Reform guys—and they are mostly guys—by suggesting God might have been forced into anything that compromised his sovereignty). For my money, it’s the Incarnation—God with us—that gives Christianity its only significance and uniqueness. Otherwise, we’re just a Jewish (and secular) heresy.
But I like Vonnegut’s willingness to speak up for religion a bit amongst his fellow naysayers. Writing to a composer with whom he was collaborating, Vonnegut said, “I’m not a Christian either, but you have to admit it’s one hell of a story.” He and I agree on that, and I’m trying to live it best I can.
Hello. I hope to get back to making semi-regular posts to this blog. (I’ve been busy completing a novel!!-which will be published by Wipf and Stock near the end of this year). What follows is a longer version of an opinion piece I wrote for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper (it appeared on May 23 on the Opinions Exchange page, along with a nice photo of the young man who prompted it):
Grant Petersen was thrilled with his second place medal. While some of the players on the high school basketball team for which he is the manager sulked after losing the championship game, when Grant heard his name called he thrust his hands in the air and celebrated with smiles and jumps and thumbs up to his family in the crowd. Grant has Down syndrome. It is a fact about him, but it does not define him. What defines him more importantly is the daily, contagious enjoyment he takes in his life.
Many know this story because thousands witnessed it and many more read articles and letters about it in the local Minnesota newspapers. Everyone delighted in his delight and praised him for teaching us all an important lesson. At risk of being a dark cloud, I feel it important to point out that the Grants of the world are disappearing, and that we are responsible. (Pointing this out, of course, will make many people angry.)
Those who, among their many characteristics, have Down syndrome (I do not say “suffer from” because I think that is actually one of the questions we must consider), are at risk of extinction because of technology. We can detect the condition in the womb and therefore can abort any fetus with it, and in more than 90% of the detected cases we do. I say “we” and not “the mother” because although the decision is portrayed as an individual one, it is actually in important ways a collective one. We have collectively given ourselves the right to end any life in this first stage, have made the technology available, have made it socially acceptable (even wise according to many), and have encouraged individual women to believe that the “tragic choice” is morally neutral and theirs alone.
And of course the news that a child one has anticipated and dreamed a future for is disabled (fill-in your own term if you object to this one) is tragic and crushing and disorienting and deeply saddening. But the decision of what to do with the news is not morally neutral, nor could it ever be so.
And it is also not a place where it is useful to assign blame, either to oneself or to society or to God. I am not interested in assigning blame; I am only interested in having us think about the implications of our being glad that Grant is here to teach us things while at the same time collectively accepting his potential elimination.
Technology and social support for aborting the disabled has already dramatically reduced the number of those with Down syndrome and will do so more completely as screening becomes more common (even mandated by law?). This would be great news if we were curing Down syndrome but in this case—as in all abortions based on disabilities—we are solving the problem by eliminating the person with the problem. We are saying, to quote ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, that having Down syndrome, or any other disability for which we abort, is “an unacceptable way of being human.”
It is important to understand that the rest of us differ from the disabled only in degree, not in kind. I believe we are all disabled at some point in our lives—either physically, psychologically, socially, spiritually, or morally. If you are not physically disabled as yet, you likely will be. To put it less controversially, we are all limited, including in ways that negatively effect our ability to live as well as we could and should. So, if for no other reasons than self-interest, we should be very reluctant to use disability as a supposedly compassionate excuse for eliminating the disabled.
How a society treats its powerless is often cited as a measure of its character. I actually do not believe anyone (including the profoundly disabled) is powerless—witness Grant’s power to delight and inform thousands—but how we treat the disabled, among others, does reveal a great deal about us. It reveals, for instance, our willingness to judge another’s worth (and right to exist) in terms of cost, productivity, usefulness to society, and impingement on the happiness of others.
Everyone, of course, knows the arguments and counter-arguments in any issue involving abortion. Not only “right to choose” and “not a person until viable” but also “no child should have to suffer.” To which, predictably, I say “we have granted ourselves a right we should not have,” “no human being is genuinely viable until years after its birth,” and “our actual fear too often is that we will suffer from our own lives being changed.” (Is either Grant or his family suffering more in life than you or I?) And my assertions of course give rise to rebuttals.
For those widely accepting of aborting the disabled here are some questions: “What is necessary for a successful life and why should anyone be allowed to answer that for someone else?” and “Do you understand why people living with disabilities might be wary of society using those same disabilities as reasons for aborting the unborn?” And for those who argue against aborting the disabled: “Would you feel as certain if it were you or your daughter facing this situation?” and “Have you ever actually helped anyone with a disabled child?” and “Are you willing to pay higher taxes and support government programs that are the necessary consequence of bringing imperfect children into the world?”
The obviously disabled among us—as opposed to we covertly disabled—offer us a test of our humanity. We can see them as candidates for elimination, objects of charity, obligations to be met. Or we can see them as fellow human beings, limited but no less valuable, no less capable of friendship and sources of wisdom, and, even in the most extreme cases, occasions for love. They offer us the opportunity to learn how to be human and how to be a community.
Reason alone will not resolve these issues regarding abortion and the disabled because reason can be used to support any position. But perhaps at least some people on both sides of the divide can agree on this: Grant Petersen’s celebration of his second-place medal teaches us all, it is good that he is with us, and we will be the worse when no one like Grant is any longer around.
We arrived in Ireland, a motley group of poetry lovers (some faking it), on the day in 1995 that it was announced that Seamus Heaney had won the Noble Prize for Literature. I first learned the news from handmade signs in shop windows, in English and Irish, that were variations on the theme “Well done Seamus!” The sense of shared achievement and pride was palpable. “He’s one of ours” was in the air. It made me want to live in a small country.
One could lament that this could not—absolutely could not—happen in America. We do not prize the artful and incisive (as in the word ‘incision’—slicing to the heart of things) use of words. The death of a poet draws no attention, not, for instance, like the passing of drugged-up media creation (fill in a name).
But this is not a time for grousing and cliches about decadent cultures. It is time to celebrate—on the day of his death–that in one small country there was a man who took his place in a long tradition of such men and women and crafted language as best he could to help us understand this condition we call human.
So, really, rest in peace Seamus. You are one of ours.
(One of my grandfathers worked in the oil fields of California. The other worked the railroad in Kentucky. I see them both, and myself, in something like the way Heaney sees his father and grandfather and himself in the following poem—digging in my own way.)
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
More from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss—a book that has something underlineable (not a word until now) on every page. So I’ll just pick one underlining at random: “Lacking intensity in our lives, we say that we are distant from God and then seek to make that distance into an intense experience” (108-09). CS Lewis says something parallel when he talks about us treasuring the thing that keeps us from God because it is so familiar and comfortable. And I take my stab at exploring the phenomenon in The Skeptical Believer.
Wiman is investigating the common practice of intellectual, artsy folks to dramatize their lives and relationships, not least their relationship or lack of relationship with God. They know instinctively (and from reading many books) that the best drama requires emotional conflict, tragedy, failure, longing, and noble defeat. So when they think about themselves and God, they often think (and write and paint) in those terms. God is distant. God is absent. God is unknowable and all Mystery. God is on vacation. How sad for poor, sensitive, insightful me.
Wiman does a fair amount of this himself in his book, but at least he is honest about it. And I notice a streak of it in my own writing. I find myself joining the chorus of those who are willing to consider the distant possibility of a biblical-like transcendence (“G-O-D”—shh, don’t tell), but who will not, under any circumstances, admit that knowing this “ultimate ground of being” might be relatively straight forward and uncomplicated. If it’s uncomplicated, that leaves nothing for us complicated people to do. And we’re sure we have a big role to play in bringing this thing off. And what about the modern world? Really complicated!
Wiman rubs it in: “for the most part our dark nights of the soul are, in a way that is more pathetic than tragic, wishful thinking. God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love.”
Sometimes I want to comfort the afflicted. At other times I want to kick myself and my fellow mournful doubters in the butt. Today is one of those days and Christian Wiman is a big help.
I’m reading with pleasure the poet Christian Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer. With a poet’s gift for fresh words to express old ideas (“the hive-like certainties of churches”), he ruminates over his unlikely return to faith after decades away. At one point he says, “Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.” I underlined the sentence, not sure whether it was quite right, but knowing he was on to something.
The maybe not quite right part for me is the word “unbelief.” After ruminating myself a bit, I think I would say something like “God calls us away from illusory belief” or “faux belief” or “compromised belief” or “shallow belief” or . . . you fill in the blank. Maybe fill it in with a word that describes your own less than adequate form of belief or of unbelief. (Maybe my word would be “torporous.”)
The “on to something” part of my response to his claim, which is more important than my quibble about his word choice, is that a season away from all things Christian and religious and churchy is a part of the journey of many a person with God’s mark on them. There is something about growing up Christian—in a community that takes faith seriously—that both stamps you forever as “one of ours” and impels you to flee for your life. (True in many religious and nonreligious contexts of course.) You can reject that world you grew up in—quietly or loudly—but you have a mark on your forehead—whether the mark of Cain or of Christ is unclear to you, though others often see it.
And many, not by any means all, come back. But they do not come back to what they left or to what they were. God has followed them out of the church and he will, if we are willing, lead us back. But not to the same faith we left—which, had it been better expressed, would have been harder to leave. Rather God leads us back to a faith that takes more seriously who we are and what we have experienced—and who God is. That is the realistic hope—both for those who have left and those made sad by the leaving.
Picking up where I left off in the last post, I want to expand a bit on a metaphor I came across a while back in reading Barbara Hagerty’s Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality. She talked to a lot of brain scientists, including many who believe that God and things of the spirit are entirely a creation of the human brain. She found a number of other scientists who didn’t think agree with this conclusion, however, and the metaphor she presented was of the brain as radio and God as a transmitter. (I prefer to think of God as the ultimate DJ, a sort of Barry White in the Sky Sending Out the Love. Okay, maybe not.) I don’t remember exactly how Hagerty developed the metaphor, but here’s my shot at it. (I speak, of course, as someone who wants an excuse to keep believing in a God who infuses but is also separate from the creation. Even as one who doesn’t revel in mechanistic metaphors for things human (organic), I find this one useful nonetheless.)
Apparently, as I indicated last post, when people engage in certain spiritual activities—meditative prayer, speaking in tongues, and the like—certain parts of the brain light up. That looks like a fact, but it can be interpreted a number of different ways, to fit widely divergent views of the world. The secularist can say, “See, all this God-stuff is just brain structure and chemistry.” The person of faith can say, “Interesting, God designed our brain in such a way that he can communicate with us through it.” Using the radio metaphor, the secularist thinks the radio itself is creating the music that comes out of it. The believer thinks the radio is just a receiver for something coming from somewhere else. (I know, I’m using a metaphor that suits my view. Why not?)
By the faith view, the universe is filled with divine presence, just as the air is constantly filled with radio waves. People are like radios, able but not required to tune into divine waves in the air. I would go further and suggest that some people have a greater “talent” for tuning in to those waves than others. They have a greater frequency range, getting music and programming that others don’t hear. Or perhaps choose not to listen to. The Dawkinses of the world say, “I don’t hear any music. Therefore it doesn’t exist.” Some people say, “I used to hear that music, but I don’t listen to those stations anymore.” The person of faith says, “I love that music and you can find it right here on the radio dial.”
Personally, the music doesn’t come in as clearly or as frequently for me as it does for others I know. But I’ve heard it clearly enough to want to stay tuned.
One of the real advantages of not professionally professing literature any longer is expanding my range of reading. I have decided to get just educated enough about brain research to be dangerous, hence my latest Amazon order: books on Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, and the relation between brain science, psychology, and religion.
I’ll report on the latter if I find the book interesting, but in the meantime I thought I’d stake out my pre-enlightenment position, just so I can show how much I’ve grown once the experts clue me in.
A lot is made of the fact that certain parts of the brain light up when people are engaged in certain activities—including prayer, meditation, speaking in tongues, and the like. Some conclude—rather hastily I think—that this shows that all things spiritual and religious are actually only physical.
Not at all, mush brains! What it shows is that many scientists are lousy thinkers once you get them outside their narrow area of expertise. (It is the “only” that is the problem.) It also reinforces what I, personally, learned from John Henry Newman (19th c.), but which many have pointed out since—that a fact is not significant until it is interpreted. That is, put within a system of thought. When that happens, the “fact” can serve either truth or falsehood, depending on how it is used.
If it is true that parts of the brain light up when one is engaged in “spiritual” things, it “only” suggests that there is sometimes (often? always?) a physical dimension to such things. If there is a God, then God uses the physical world he created—including our brains–to communicate with us. Not surprising, nor new, though evangelicals are perhaps only recently catching on to God’s stubborn love of the physical.
I’m reading Alister McGrath’s new critical biography of C.S. Lewis (thanks to Mavis for the signed copy!). I was not sure that we needed another bio of Lewis, but am finding it useful and insightful because he engages Lewis’s writing more fully than the other bios, sort of a cross between “the facts” of earlier bios and the account of Lewis’s intellectual development in Alan Jacob’s The Narnian. I recommend it.
One of the ideas McGrath discusses is the distinction in Lewis between “imaginary” and “imaginative.” The imaginary is something “that has no counterpart” in reality (such as government budget projections). The imaginative is “something produced by the human mind as it tries to respond to something greater than itself, struggling to find images adequate to the reality.” In this sense, says McGrath, the world of Narnia is an imaginative one, not an imaginary one. (Same with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.)
I think this a very useful distinction in thinking about matters of faith. It requires the imagination to even begin to understand God and the story of faith. Analytic reason has a role to play, but it is not up to the task of mediating our understanding of and relationship to God (a central theme in my The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist.)
When we approach God (or God approaches us) through story, poetry, art, ritual, and the like, we are doing so not in order to “beat around the bush” or because we are afraid to tell it straight, but because these have proven the most effective ways to get glimpses of the truth that resists frontal approaches. We “tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson) because “slant” gets us closer to where we need to get.
I think of good books as time bombs. They sit there in the stack ticking away, waiting patiently for you to pick them up so they can explode in your mind.
I finally picked up a book that I bought probably twenty years ago. It doesn’t rise to the level of a “good book,” but it was a useful one. It was about how Christianity should think about other religions. I give it credit for being very fair in laying out the various positions—from so-called “exclusivism” (I object to the term because I think it is pre-loaded against the position it describes) to “inclusivism” to “pluralism.” It comes out in favor of the last, with arguments that I didn’t find convincing, but it was quite honest in admitting the problems with its own view as well as the others.
I think all views on most everything are “exclusivist” in that they object to opposing positions. Seeing Christianity as truer than other religions is seen as “exclusive.” So why is not seeing your pluralism or universalism as truer than other positions not also “exclusive”? (It is, but the one who controls the terminology and definitions is the one who controls the argument.)
What I most objected to in the book (I’m not going to tell you the title unless you email me), was the repeated notion that we “must” (a word used repeatedly) adopt the pluralist position in order to rescue Christianity from “embarrassment.” The position, in essence, is that all “major” religions (a cop-out qualifier in my view) are valid responses to God’s initiative and that even Christ commends us to see these other religions as equally valid. Anything other view, apparently, is embarrassing.
Depends on who you’re trying to impress, I would say. The author is very anxious to be acceptable to his fellow theologians (especially those of a certain stripe: Tillich, Hick, Cantwell Smith, et al). I just can’t work up that much concern to be acceptable to these folks. I think they have their own things to be embarrassed about.
Do not misunderstand me. Some of my best friends are theologians. But I think that looking to theologians (or academics generally) to help us best understand faith, religion, or the divine is like expecting coroners to be the best sculptors because they know the most about anatomy.
I gave a talk yesterday, at the invitation of the Bethel University art and English departments, on Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. I called her, for me, a “wow” writer, meaning that I find myself frequently pausing after reading a passage and saying, sometimes out loud, “wow.” Here is an example:
“In the newness of the world God had perhaps not Himself realized the ramifications of certain of His laws, for example, that shock will expend itself in waves . . . . Cain became his children and their children and theirs, through a thousand generations, and all of them transients, and wherever they went everyone remembered that there had been a second creation, that the earth ran with blood and sang with sorrow. And let God purge this wicked sadness away with a flood, and let the waters recede to pools and ponds and ditches, and let every one of them mirror heaven. Still, they taste a bit of blood and hair. One cannot cup one’s hand and drink for the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air . . . .” [p. 193]
Think of this passage the next time you see one of those cute, kiddie versions of Noah and the ark—mothers holding their babies over their heads as they both drown. This amazing passage speaks to the tragedy of the human condition. The novel is, in part, an elegy to the fact that things, and people, fall apart.
But Housekeeping also testifies to shalom in the creation. Things (and shalom) fall apart, but they are also constantly being remade. We see it in nature (watch it happening in the coming weeks) and we see it in our lives.
Both are part of what Niebuhr called Christian realism. You won’t understand this world if you don’t see the bentness of things, especially of human beings. But you also won’t understand if you don’t see that God is constantly repairing us and the creation.
I am happy to announce that the book I have been using as an excuse for not doing any profitable work the last few years is now available. The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist is available on Amazon. To give you an idea of what it’s about, here is the material from the back cover:
Can someone be both skeptical and a believer? In what sense is having faith like living in a story? And what, for heaven’s sake, is an Inner Atheist?
These are just a few of the many questions addressed in The Skeptical Believer, a book that is all about questions and answers, and about working out useful responses to questions that have no definitive answers. It steers a middle course between the modernist conviction that faith is agreement with a set of statements about God and the postmodernist assertion that religious faith is just one story among many, no more or less true than any other.
Written in dozens of short reflections, laced with stories and sometimes irreverent asides, The Skeptical Believer is by a person who tried for decades to kill his Inner Atheist, but discovered that it was better to let him have his say—and then go on living in the story of faith.
This book doesn’t prove anything, but then little of great value can be proved. Instead it explores the notion that one can live a rich and meaningful life of faith without proof (and despite the weaknesses of the church) by seeing oneself as a character within an ancient story. As believers, skeptical or otherwise, always have.
You can also read an excerpt under the title in the list of “Books” on the “Writer” page of the website (http://www.wordtaylor.com/writer/books)–once the book is listed. (That same excerpt can now be found at http://www.wordtaylor.com/writer/in-progress.)
To help find the book quickly on Amazon, here is the ISBN: 978-0-9706511-5-0. I’ve asked Amazon to allow “Search Inside” so that viewers can get a better sense of the book before deciding whether to buy it, but that will take a while to come about.
If you do read the book, I would appreciate you putting a review of it on its book page on Amazon—whether you like it or not. Apparently no one, including my mother, will buy the book if there are no reviews at all! Modesty forbids me doing it myself, not least because an author is often the last person to know whether what they’ve written is actually of any use or not.
I would be happy to engage responses on the website, or privately through the website contact page (http://www.wordtaylor.com/contact). When you spend all your days inside at a computer, you start to wonder if anyone is out there in the world beyond the window. So evidence of such is welcomed.
In the season of Wise Men, I’d like to say a word in praise of Charles Schultz, philosopher-theologian-cartoonist and wise man.In one of the Peanuts cartoons, Linus is sitting in the pumpkin patch with Snoopy, the place Linus does his best thinking (and hoping). He asks Snoopy a question:
“What would you say if you were the only one in the world who believed something and everyone else thought you were crazy?”
I feel like that some days. Keenly aware that most of my views and values are minority views, and also aware that I cannot in fact prove their validity in the same way that one can prove that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, sometimes my only response to “Can you prove that?” is “Woof.”
The dangers of being satisfied with “Woof” are obvious. It may just show that I am stubborn or irrational or lazy or all of the above. I should spend time developing “reasons” for why I see things as I do, even if I keep them to myself. We all have an inner voice asking us tough questions anyway, so we may as well come up with something to say to him or her.
But too often all that defensive reason-mongering is mostly smoke and mirrors and, in the end, not very relevant anyway. We generally believe what we do (derived from mind, spirit, body, imagination, and experience) and then afterward come up with reasons WHY as we need to, rather than starting as blank slates and reasoning our way to a belief. So it’s often more honest when pressed to defend a belief to just say “woof.”
As you will of course have guessed, I think this at times applies to faith in God. I suspect Schultz may have God in mind when, over the years, Linus sits in his patch and waits patiently for the spirit of the Great Pumpkin to arise. Linus has no proof it will every happen, but he has faith, and we love him all the more because of it.
Ask me one day why I believe as I do about God, the human condition, what’s important and the like and I will give you reasons and evidence and all manner of arguments. Ask me the same questions on another day and I’ll simply respond, “Woof.”
[Following is another excerpt from a book I’m finishing up, The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist. (It will be available in January and I’ll probably post if for free on this website.) The italicized words WITHIN parentheses is the voice of my Inner Atheist, who comments freely throughout the book on what I say. Non-italicized material within parentheses is plain old me speaking.]
We are always coming in on something that is already going on.
Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and courageous
and wait for the Lord.
Living the story of faith is not unlike the experience of being halfway through a great novel. The scene has been set, the characters introduced, the central conflict identified. Characters are up to their eyeballs in some kind of trouble, usually with no clear or easy way out. Whether the novel is plot-driven, character-driven, or centering on clashing ideas, there is a “what happens next?” quality to even the most subtle stories. We call this “suspense,” and it is a quality that we find in our lives as well as in our novels.
We feel suspense even in stories that we have read or heard many times. There is an “unfolding in the present moment” quality to even the most ancient of stories. The story draws us into the scene being enacted once again in our presence. We are witnesses. Better yet, we are participants—because we listen and evaluate and judge and make decisions about people and events in the same way as the characters themselves. And we feel it all in our emotions and will and desires as much as or more than in our intellects.
And because we are not static characters ourselves, our sense of a story will change over time. Reading Huckleberry Finn or Jane Eyre as a twelve-year-old is not the same as reading them at twenty-five or fifty-five. None of the words have changed, but experientially it’s not the same story. I am different, and so the stories are different. This is why great stories—including the stories of the Bible—are never finished. They are filled with potential energy—as the term is used in physics—and they explode in our lives at unpredictable times and in unpredictable ways.
We are also in the midst of our own story. We literally do not know how it’s going to turn out. (I’ll tell you: Cold and dead, briefly remembered by others who will soon themselves be cold and dead.) We are not completely clear even about what has already happened. As an audience for our own story, we try to sort things out, evaluate, make judgments, come to some understanding of where we have been, where we are, and where we are headed. We experience suspense about our own story, wanting to know what it all means, what’s coming next, and where it will end. And, of course, we wonder about after the end.
That is where both you and I are at present. I am in the fourth quarter of my life. (Feeling a bit cold?) I grew up in fifteen different houses in eleven different towns in three different states (a restless father). A common denominator throughout was church and communities of faith (too many to count). I had good school teachers (four different ones in four different places in third grade) and a good education. I vowed to read books before I could even read, and I approached grade-school reading contests like an addict snorting cocaine. Books have been filling my head with thoughts and feelings ever since.
I married well (in every important sense), have raised four better-than-I-deserve children, and am now the old grandpa to a growing number of new votes for the importance of the future (that is, grandchildren). I taught literature for almost four decades, getting paid—modestly—for my addiction to books. (What a scam!)
And throughout it all, I have always wondered what it all means, what’s going to happen next, and how it will all end. And so have you.
We are all characters in our own story, and we have only a limited knowledge of what’s coming next. I find myself playing many different roles at the same time in my own story. I am narrator, character, audience, and critic. I find the tone of my narration alternately hopeful, doubtful, confused, engaged, detached, mournful, joyful, and bemused. As a critic and interpreter of my own story, I am sometimes harsh, but mostly grateful. I find connections between things that give me a sense of my life having a meaningful plot and the realistic hope of a desirable conclusion. Overall, I have a very strong sense that I am living a better story than I deserve.
Not everyone feels this way about their story. Some feel cheated, or put upon, or victimized, or tormented, or otherwise treated unfairly by life. Others feel they had good chances but have failed themselves and others. And a lot of people are just confused, uncertain, or not thinking about such things at all. One can find Skeptical Believers in all these categories and others.
We Skeptical Believers tend to want to know more and to know it sooner than life seems willing to grant. We want a story to prove itself before we commit to it. The questions are always in our heads, “But what if it isn’t true?” or “How can I know for sure?” or “What about the claims of competing stories?” In essence, we want to know how the story ends while we are still in the middle. Because knowing, for certain, the end would remove the tensions of the middle.
But I think that’s cheating, and it’s not an available option anyway. In reading a novel we often want to skip ahead to see how things are going to turn out, and some people do. I think doing so is a character flaw. Being willing to accept incomplete knowledge for a time is part of the implied contract between a storyteller and an audience. “I will tell you a story, but you are going to have to hear it in the way and at the pace that I tell it.” Skipping to the end is bad faith.
I think it’s much the same with the story God is telling you in your own life. We don’t know what’s next. We don’t even know for certain that we’re in a truthful story. And we want to know. Yesterday, my three-year-old granddaughter Stella wanted something sweet to eat, but she had already had an ice cream cone not long before. When her mother said no, Stella replied with a drawn-out, plaintive cry against the universe, “But I want it!” She hasn’t figured out yet (as Ayn Rand never did) that the universe is at best only mildly interested in what she wants.
Some folks will say, “We do know how it will turn out, because the Bible tells us how.” But that won’t help the Skeptical Believer much, because whether the Bible speaks accurately or not is precisely one of the issues. (See, you can be rational when you try.) And even for those of us who accept the Bible’s description of the ending, because we have accepted the risk of being in the story, knowing how things turn out in general does not answer pressing questions about how things will work out for us specifically, in the day-to-dayness of our own lives.
My advice is to accept (and even enjoy) the suspense of the faith story as one does in a good novel. Much has been revealed to us. More things will be revealed. Some things never will be. This is the human condition, and it does not disappear for believers—it simply occurs on a higher plane with more at stake. Rather than wondering what next random, arbitrary thing will happen to me and those I love (which is all the materialist can legitimately wonder), I ponder what will be the next development in this story God has been telling since time began and which God is telling me personally in the details of my own life.
Because there is another element in the implied agreement between storyteller and audience. And that is that the storyteller will not waste your time. The storyteller will tell a story worth hearing. God does not tell stories to pass the time, but to redeem the time. There is suspense in your story and mine, we would prefer to know now, but, as with all good stories, the ending is worth the wait.
Just finished reading Andrea Palpant Dilley’s Faith and Other Flat Tires (Zondervan) and found a lot to like and ruminate on. (She’s a young writer, sort of a cross between Lauren Winner and Anne Lamott (on valium), without the book sales, as yet, of either.) One point she makes that I find interesting is that, for her, the fact of suffering seems more an argument for the existence of God than an argument against God. This is the opposite of what most, including defenders of God, have supposed over the centuries.
Here’s what she says:
“Sometimes I think the problem of evil in a strange, counterintuitive way actually points toward God. . . . Like the human experience is too dark to be meaningless. . . . If we lived in a godless world, I would expect to feel physical pain. We’d be all body, no soul. But I wouldn’t expect the kind of intense, existential pain that we experience as part of the human condition. That kind of suffering seems like it would only exist in a world where God exists, where the soul exists. The loss we feel must mean something. It’s too pointed to be meaningless.”
This is not presented as an airtight argument—one can of course quibble with any “must” in this kind reflection—but I think she’s on to something. Fundamentalist secularists argue that life came from nonlife—a big jump but one we have gotten used to (especially if we act like evolutionary explanations about the present forms of life also explain everything about the origins of life—which they don’t). But it’s an even bigger jump from assuming that nothing transcends the material (as materialists must) to the belief that one can have genuine right and wrong in the world that is anything more than an expression of preference. (That is, the great difficulty of getting from is to ought if one thinks everything can be explained as chemicals and the collision of atoms.)
Dilley is suggesting that deep, existential pain (as opposed to physical, material pain) is a clue (not a proof) that there may be more to us and to the universe than pure secularism can allow. And that it is linked to our being made in the image of God (who, by the way, also suffers).
Something to chew on.
Okay, so I’ve been away from blogging for a few months. And all five of my readers have been depressed, waiting anxiously for me to return. (I’m counting my mother, who has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t own a computer, because she would certainly be supportive if she could just remember who I am. I’m also counting what I call “The Unknown Reader” because Google Analytics tells me I get the occasional hit from Russia or Uzbeckistan. What, you say that is undoubtedly a spammer? Well, a hit is a hit.)
Actually, this post is a solemn one—in the old meaning of that word: something both deeply significant and joyful (as in a solemn occasion, like a wedding or a coronation). In this case the solemn occasion was a burial, and is was both deeply significant and joyful.
Most anyone who has read earlier posts knows that my nephew Jamie died in an avalanche on November 13, 2011. His mother, Pamela, died seventeen days later—“of a broken heart” is the easiest way to explain it—and that wouldn’t be wrong.
Pamela’s ashes have been resting in the family home, but not necessarily resting easily. It was time to take a next step, and the anniversary of Jamie’s death seemed a good time to take it.
The family decided to walk to the cemetery, not far from the house. It was a wise decision. People have been walking to gravesites with the remains of the ones they love for many thousands of years. It was important that there be a physical dimension to this occasion, that the body play its part, along with the mind and heart.
They carried Pamela’s ashes in a small wooden box in an old gym bag, with the name of both her brother and her oldest child scrawled on it. Husband Gerard carried it at first, but then Michael, the youngest of eight, said that he would carry his mother. They walked through the neighborhood and across the boulevard, toward the cemetery, with their mom. A large woodpecker led them, flying from tree to tree.
At the cemetery they found a small rectangular hole dug in the ground at the plot, covered with fake, green plastic sod glued to a board. They took out the beautiful mahogany box that Jonathan had made at the shop in the week following his mother’s death. They placed the sack with her ashes in the box, along with a braided lock of Pamela’s hair, tied with her favorite ribbon. Jonathan locked it with a key. A candle sat beside. They took photos of the family standing around the box, some smiling.
Then Gerard got on his knees and placed the box in the hole in the ground. Jonathan tossed in the key, the sound of it hitting the wood echoing on the air. Kate, Pamela’s mother, prayed, thanking God for her first born. Sister Jayne followed, invoking the cloud of witnesses that Jamie and Pamela have now joined.
There was a wheelbarrow nearby full of dirt from the hole. Each one took turns shoveling the dirt onto the box—including brother Jim and nephew Justin. Jonathan tamped the ground with the shovel and smoothed it with his hand, as a craftsman would.
Stones had been removed from the dirt as it was shoveled in. Gerard took the stones and laid out a cross on the bare soil, brushing off each rock as he laid it carefully in place, as an artist would. They patched the displaced sod around the cross and stood back to look. It was just right.
Gerard thanked everyone for coming and spoke of their collective love for Jamie and Pamela. He told the children that Pamela was a part of each one of them. He then invited anyone to say whatever he or she wanted to say. Sarah prayed, thankful for Pamela’s life and its continuation in each of the children. Naomi spoke to her mother, thanking her for what she had done for them all. Then they all said the Lord’s Prayer.
After that they took more pictures. There was a lot of smiling and even some laughter (especially when Gerard smoked a cigarette in Pamela’s memory). They had done the right thing. It had gone well. People felt their love for each other and for Pamela and Jamie. They were sad. They were grateful. They were relieved. They were many things mixed together. But the important thing is that they were together, as many as could come, and the rest in spirit.
Michael said his ears were cold (this is Minnesota in November, after all), so he and Aunt Jayne walked back to the house, the others following in their own time, making their way back to ordinary life. A hawk circled in the sky above.
The name for all this is ritual. We do it because it is what we know to do when we don’t know what to do. We do it with our bodies for the sake of our hearts. Ritual connects us to the past. It connects us to each other. It connects us to God. Ritual tells us who we are. We are the people who do these things because we believe these things.
It was right to bury Pamela on the date that Jamie died, because we loved them both. And in this ritual we affirm our expectation that we will someday love them again, face to face.
“I discover the holy . . . [by] peering under the edges of the ordinary.”
One of the great challenges of faith is wedding the spiritual to the ordinary. It’s not just the old matter of finding the transcendent within the immanent. That’s hard enough, but since the immanent world about us is often quite fascinating, the challenge is really greater than that. (Gerard Manley Hopkins saw God in the swooping hawk and the beautiful dappled things without any problem.)
I think the greater challenge is to see God in the humdrum things–the really ordinary, every day grind of one’s life. I know some people with the gift for this (Hopkins could see this as well), but it’s not something I’m good at. And yet I’m sure it’s a requirement for a healthy holiness. (Holiness being something practical we should desire, not a rare quality of the few.)
I commend to you a book by Belden Lane called The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. It’s all about the desert and silence and emptying and the quieting of the chatter of the mind in one’s quest for God. For that matter, it’s about ceasing to quest for God at all (seeing God as another “experience” to add to one’s collection) and just being very still before God (not simply thinking about God). It’s an ancient tradition.
Lane is the source of the epigraph above. He also says, “Spirituality is not the sublime transcendence of everything trivial and matter of fact. In the Western spiritual tradition, the journey of the soul in the vale of ordinariness is an equally good, if not surer, route to holiness. This is the way of being wounded, of being committed to the concrete, of being bound to the familiar.”
I like that phrase “the vale of ordinariness” and the idea of the soul as journeying in it. Keats referred to this world as “the Vale of Soul-making” in his letters. And I think that it is the ordinary, rather than the extraordinary, events that shape our souls most of all. What we do and how we think and feel repeatedly, day in and day out, shapes us more than the dramatic events that come now and then. We talk about “turning points” in our life, but I think most turns we take are one degree at a time over long periods.
Which means we should consider how to experience God, the holy, meaning, grace, and so on in the kitchen and at the desk and sweeping the garage and changing the diaper—lest we miss the holy that is all around.
In a copy of The Great Divorce that C.S. Lewis gave to Joy Davidman a couple of years before their marriage, Lewis wrote the following: “There are three images in my mind which I must continually forsake and replace by better ones: the false image of God, the false image of my neighbours, and the false image of myself.”
As usual, Lewis has hit a nail on the head. There are so many distorted images of God floating around in our heads that to say, “I believe in God,” or “I don’t believe in God,” or “I think that God . . . (fill-in the blank)” is to say something with very little discernable content. It would take hours of conversation and probing and distinguishing, and months or years of following you around and seeing how you live, to even begin to know what you meant by “God” and what your statement might mean—even to you.
This is not an argument for God’s inexpressibility or for saying God is unknowable. It’s an argument for, like Lewis, always interrogating our inadequate understanding of who God is and how God operates in the world and trying to improve it. I find that many who say (and write) that they don’t believe in God have an understanding of God (usually highly cliched and stereotyped) that I wouldn’t believe in either.Unhappily, I find the same to be true for many who say they do believe.
I do not claim to have the accurate view myself. I believe that of course all our images of God are partial and inadequate, but I think Lewis is right not to rest content with his present view, no matter how learned or pious it may be. When we are upset or dissatisfied (or confused) with God in our lives, more often than not we are acting out of some distorted notion of who God is and what he promises.
The same goes, as Lewis indicates, for our views of our neighbors (see Lewis’ essay, “The Weight of Glory,” for a higher view of your neighbor than you are likely to have), and of ourselves. Wisdom is, among other things, seeing things clearly (even if partially) for what they are and acting accordingly. We could all use more of it.
One of the most common questions for (and among) Christians, members of a supposedly “exclusive” religion (which I think is bunk), is “What about those who never hear of Jesus?” or, in another form, “What about people of other religions?” It’s a respectable question–sometimes asked out of sincere concern, but often asked as a way of deflecting Christianity’s truth claims. Respectable and worth discussing, but also highly theoretical and abstract. Good for people who like to debate.
When I think of this question, I also think of this rejoinder, “God only tells you your own story.” (Someone help me: I’ve forgotten where I heard this. I’m thinking maybe it was in one of Tolkien’s letters, or maybe he says it without using “God” in LOTR.) I think it’s disingenuous to use the supposed injustice of God in supposedly condemning those who haven’t heard the gospel as an excuse for rejecting the gospel yourself. You have heard. God is telling you your story. The person who hasn’t heard will be treated according to what they know. So what are you doing with what you have heard?
The biblical passage that comes to mind is Jesus speaking of Peter’s future death at the hands of others, and Peter asking about John, with the suggestion that John might get a better deal than Peter is getting. Jesus answers, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me” (John 21:22). The vernacular translation might be, “Mind your own business.” And Peter does have important business to mind. And so do we.
I do believe God is telling each of us our story, and showing us how we are part of God’s story. The sometimes frustrating additional fact is that he only tells us the details as we need to know them. We know the overarching plot of our past, present, and future—and that is our hope—but we don’t know how it is going to be worked out today and tomorrow—and that can be our frustration. We’d like to know more. Sooner. But God only says, “As for you, follow me.” It makes for a heck of a story.
I have in recent months been surrounded by people who have good reason to want to know what is going to happen to them and to those they care about—involving health, life and death, jobs, relationships, eternal fate, and so on. This is one (among many) of the story elements in our lives. Our lives unfold to us like a story (because they are a story) and, as when reading or hearing a story, we want to know how things are going to turn out.
There is a ‘page turner’ quality to a good life as well as to a good novel. Our natural curiosity, as well as our sense of self-preservation, wants an answer for “what’s next?” And when that desire gets the better of us, we get anxious, feeling we really need to know, now, the answer to that question. When reading a novel, we can flip to the back of the book, but we can’t do that in our life story. It must be lived each day, even as, for those who do not cheat, a novel must be read page by page and chapter by chapter.
We sometimes think God is teasing us. He knows. He could tell us. He could give us clues. Better yet, he could make happen now the things we want to happen. It may seem a little cruel that he doesn’t.
I’m expecting myself to say at this point that it is better that God doesn’t. And I am expecting myself to come up with an example in which God not telling someone what was next actually worked out much better than the person could ever have imagined. But although I believe this is true and that examples abound, I’m going make another point instead.
The slow unfolding of meaning and significance over the length of a life is a source both of pain and of joy—and for the same reason. Our fallen finitude means that our curiosities, our hungers, our desires, our hopes and needs are never completely fulfilled. As people of faith, we are creatures of the “yes, but not yet,” the “glimpsed, but not fully seen,” the “promised, but not realized,” the “genuine, but transient,” the“once and future king.” Therefore pain. But therefore also joy—the joy of the promised yes and the glimpse, here and there, of its reality.
Tolkien says this ‘joy’ is found in all faery stories and a key to both their attractiveness and their realism. More on that (and eucatastrophe) later.
I am in my home town–Santa Barbara, California–these last three weeks of January. Trying to write, sometimes with a warm sun on my back. Following is what I wrote the day before yesterday. Another rough cut from the ongoing work-in-progress The Skeptical Believer:
Faith is not made up, but it is made. Which is why it does not bother me to call faith a fiction, as long as you let me control the definition of fiction (the one who controls the definitions usually wins any argument).
If you think of fiction only as a synonym for false, or as the opposite of fact, you are not thinking enough. The Latin source for the word fiction meant to make by shaping, molding, forming, or devising. The word also carried meanings such as feign, invent, fabricate. It suggested a maker and a thing made, with the possibility that the made thing was a product of the imagination. That was the sense of the first known use of the word in English in the early fifteenth century and the reason the word became associated with literature in the late 16th century. Today, fiction is generally used to identify novels, as a synonym for false, and seen as the opposite of fact. I would like to preserve its ancient sense as a synonym for a thing which is made.
All life, in this sense, is a fiction—a thing made from other things–an invention even, a bringing together of existing things to create a new thing. On the physical level, we have the many not yet fully identified things (from quarks to muons) that make up the atom, atoms that make up molecules, molecules that make up compounds, and compounds that are brought together to make up increasingly more complex things.
The same is true in the shaping of an understanding of the world and of one’s life. We are, from our earliest moments, flooded with data, input, information—the flotsam and jetsam of moment by moment experience. (What William James called the “great blooming, buzzing confusion” of the newborn, a confusion some feel again when trying to make sense out of their lives.) When one is young, this stream of meanings and possible meanings may be highly controlled—filtered for you by parents, church (or some equivalent), school, and social context. You are offered, implicitly and explicitly, a way of understanding and explaining and valuing that makes sense of everything–or purports to. As you get older, more educated, more experienced, you become aware of other ways of understanding, explaining, and valuing. You negotiate between the way you were raised with and the other ways you find around you and, in a process that may go on for a lifetime (or be settled once and for all without even thinking), you create a way of understanding, explaining, and valuing that allows you to live.
And because you create this, as much as discover it, I think it is a fiction—in the sense of a made thing, with some input from the imagination. I do not think it is necessarily a false thing, or an unreal thing, or a nonfactual thing (though it could be). It may be almost entirely true, factual, and real (my belief in human fallenness requires me to say almost). But it is–inescapably–created, made, formed—from the things that have presented themselves to you in your life experience. (If you want to add, in a process directed by God in your own case, I will not protest.)
All of this sounds very post-modern. I am not a big fan of postmodernism, but like any influential movement it has elements of truth and insight (or it would be much less influential), and I think its assertion that all our ways of describing and living in the world are constructions is true and therefore not something to be fought against, rather something to be used in service of more important truths. Of course my understanding of the world is constructed, and of course others construct a different understanding. And of course none of us can prove—to everyone’s satisfaction—the certain truth of his or her own construction. That is bad news to modernist, rationalistic defenders of this explanatory system or that (including faith systems)—those who feel they fail if they do not prove. It is good news—and perhaps not news at all—to those who see faith as a story which is chosen and lived because it offers, in the individual’s judgment, the best possibility for the things one values most—in my case love, grace, mercy, justice, truth, and shalom.
I have moved, as you see, from the word fiction to the word story. It is both a big and a not so big leap. All stories (including histories) are fictions—created things. All are selective—selecting some things and not others from the “great blooming buzz.” (If there were no selection there would be no story and we would understand nothing.) All stories have the potential to be true—there being many kinds of truth. Some stories are more factual than others, though no competent story is without some basis in fact, even if only in the facts of human nature and the human experience. This whole book is exploring the assertion that the Christian faith is best seen as a story to be lived. Faith is also a fictive thing—something made from the fragmented materials of human experience that both explains that experience and offers hope.
That faith is a fiction, again, does not mean that it is therefore false, illusory, or unreliable. I believe the Christian faith to be true and reliable and real (knowing that each of these terms is a minefield). Consider a wall. A wall is a fabricated but real thing. It requires at least a minimum of imagination to conceive of and design. It is often made out of stones, which are also real, although they are not in themselves a wall until they are joined together by a maker with an imagination. I take these stones—factual things, if you will—and make a wall. Someone else can take those same stones and make a monument. Another will use the individual stones—the facts—as weapons, not joining them together at all, but using them in a way that the person finds desirable. A wall, a monument, a weapon—same stones, different uses, different made things. And some will ignore the stones all together.
This is only an analogy, not a proof of anything. It doesn’t solve the problem of where the stones came from (God? our psychological needs? indigestion?), or whether we have used the stones wisely, or even whether the stones are illusory or real. But I still find it useful for thinking about how I am required, in fact, to make something out of all these things that come at me from moment to moment. Everything I have ever learned or experienced or imagined is potentially a stone in the wall or monument or home I have decided to build. I have chosen these particular stones in this particular configuration to build this thing I call my life. The only alternative, it seems to me, is to sleep while it is yet day (Thoreau).
And so I make my choices. I choose my story—my true fiction—from among the cacophony of stories shouted around me. I both choose it and it chooses me. I both discover it (thankful for those who have preserved it for me) and create it (putting it together and finding my part in it). I piece together a faith that shares, in its essentials, the core elements that define faith in Christ, and at the same time is one that is not exactly like anyone’s faith has ever been or will be. My story is lived in common. My story is absolutely unique. I made it. And yet I didn’t make it at all. It was a gift. One that I accept for myself and offer to others.
Reflecting on the rapidity with which your whole life can collapse (in the context of living in Stalinist Russia where you could be an average citizen one day and in the concentration camps the next), Solzhenitsyn says the following: “The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: ‘You are under arrest.'”
It was true for Solzhenitsyn who was called in from his post as an artillery officer on the front in WWII and arrested for making fun of Stalin in a letter to a friend. But it can equally happen when one hears the words “you have cancer,” or “your child has been in an accident,” or “I want a divorce.” You lived in one universe the moment before and you live in a completely different universe the moment after. How does one learn to live in a new universe?
“Old things pass away; behold, all things are become new.” This sounds good when the new is an improvement on the old. But what about when the new is devastating, when the new makes you wish longingly either for the old to return or for life to end?
What you don’t need is people telling you, “You’ll be okay,” or even “I know how you feel.” No, they don’t know how you feel. Because they aren’t you. And even if they have suffered similar loss, it doesn’t relieve your own suffering to realize, as everyone does, that others also suffer. It’s your universe that has shattered and you are the only person who understands it. And of course you yourself don’t “understand it” at all.
The only thing to do is to continue on without understanding. Understanding is a luxury that life (God) only gives here and there. It’s where Abraham was when he set out from home “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11). Maybe it’s where Paul was when he prayed, unsuccessfully, to be freed from his “thorn in the flesh.” It’s where countless people have been, though knowing that doesn’t necessarily relieve the pain.
The best that can be said about Abraham and Paul and many others is that they still had a story to live by. That story doesn’t promise them freedom from loss or suffering. In fact it almost guarantees it. It simply offers the hope that this life is not pointless, including the parts that seem pointless indeed.
Paul Elie (as I think I mentioned in a previous post) defines pilgrimage as “a journey undertaken in the light of a story.” That story needs to have a place for shattering experiences. It needs to be bigger than life and death. When your universe is shattered, continue your pilgrimage. Stick to a story that works in every universe—old or new.
My brother-in-law, who has just lost his son and wife, was talking about how difficult it is to care these days about many everyday things, including his work. Yes, after great loss most things seem trivial. I spoke of the process of detachment one often sees in the very old as they progressively feel detached from the things of this world and cast their eyes toward eternity.
I then recalled what his wife, Pamela, had said after Jamie died and before her own sudden passing. “When you lose a child, you don’t think about the past anymore. You think only about the future.” And she wasn’t speaking, I believe, of tomorrow or next year. She too was speaking of eternity, not knowing she would be entering it herself very soon. (Though, in one sense, we always live in eternity.)
It set me wondering about the correct balance for a believer between detachment from this world and commitment to it. Clearly Christianity teaches the value of this world and our time in it. We are to embrace time and the world in which God puts us. At the same time, there is also a healthy detachment that comes from correct valuing. That is, knowing the relative importance and unimportance of things should allow us to be detached from many things that others ardently pursue. (Augustine, I think, called this ordinate love—knowing what should be loved and why.)
I pray that the Pierre family will, in coming days, stay attached to each other and to those things that matter most. Let the other things fall away, brothers and sisters, and think, with hope, about the future.
One of the things I have been wrestling with, given the recent loss of two loved ones, is God’s attitude toward death—and therefore what my own should be. (I know people have written about this but I’m not in a research frame of mind.) My tentative conclusion (not new with me of course) is that God hates death, we should too, and we should be slower than we are to jump to easy phrases like “he/she is in a better place.”
One of the great truths and consolations of Christian faith is that God, through the resurrection of Christ, has defeated death. But it is a victory won with great cost—to Jesus and to ourselves. God’s intention is shalom, which includes an affirmation of this life and a intention that we flourish in it. Death—especially early death—is a strike against shalom and against God. That he defeats death in the end does not remove the fact that death is a perversion.
Consider Jesus raising Lazarus. Jesus does not say, “Don’t worry, he’s gone to a better place.” Instead he is described as greatly disturbed and troubled. The same verb elsewhere in the New Testament indicates indignation or anger. He is angry because death is a symbol of Satan at work, trying to undo the shalom God intends. Jesus knows he will soon destroy the work of Satan by defeating death, but that does not lead him to accept death with equanimity. By raising Lazarus he will give a foretaste of that victory and an indication of how he feels about death. To put it crudely, it pisses him off.
So let’s do two things when those we love are taken untimely from us. Let’s be pissed off. And let us also love even more the one who hates death even more than we do and has defeated it—at great cost.
Planning a funeral or memorial service is a values-clarification exercise–“What was important to him?” It’s also a guessing game of sorts—“What would she want?” Being on the edge of the process these last few days, I think anyone over 18 should plan their own, or at least provide the raw material. Anyone, in a few minutes, can list examples of the music they’d like played, the Bible verses or poems they’d like read, maybe the people they would like to speak (a potential minefield, admittedly), and anything else they’d like included. It would encourage you to think about the meaning of your own life. You wouldn’t have to share it if you didn’t want. Put it in an envelope marked “Funeral/Memorial Service: Do Not Open Until Needed” and make it known that it exists and where it is.
I suppose there’s another point of view that would say a Christian funeral should be less an individualized celebration of a life and more a community’s celebration of the hope of resurrection. It matters less what anyone “wants” at their funeral and more the collective faith we have in God’s ultimate grace to us. I understand that too.
Perhaps the middle ground is a celebration of that collective hope in ways that reflect the shape of the individual life that now is experiencing the reality of that hope.
(What follows is a continuing reflection on the deaths of Jamie and Pamela Pierre, as in previous postings.)
The room is maybe five feet by ten feet, an enclosed porch actually. It was Pamela’s inner sanctum (for better and worse). It has a couple of chairs, a computer on a tiny desk, books stuffed high and low, and tall piles of magazines, clippings, and printouts from online articles of all kinds. It’s where she went to think and search and smoke and read and think some more and smoke some more. It was also her counseling office (by phone and internet) and prayer closet. So it is fitting that Gerard and I, and then Jim, sit there smoking and talking, me on my black pipe with the Scottish tobacco.
We talk mostly about random things, circling back to brief exchanges about Jamie and Pamela. We laugh a little. We are quiet at times. We don’t have to talk about death to know it is what has brought us to this place—this physical place and this emotional and spiritual place. The death of people we love and the pain of those who have been (can we almost say had the misfortune to be?) left behind.
I am sitting by one of the tall stacks of photocopies from the internet. On top of the stack is an article (post) titled, “When You Aren’t Sure What to Do Next” (Jon Bloom, http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/when-you-arent-sure-what-to-do-next). It was posted and printed out on November 25, 2011, twelve days after Jamie’s death, and 6 days before Pamela’s. I think it is safe to say it is one of the things she was reading—and thinking about—in her last days.
The piece reflects on the story in John 21 of the disciples going fishing after the crucifixion and resurrection. They have been crushed by the crucifixion but given eternal hope by the resurrection. But they do not know what to do. Jesus has been telling them what to do (or trying) for three years or so. Now they seem to be on their own. How do you go back to everyday life after you’ve be part of the central event of human history?
They don’t know what to do, so they do what they had always done before. They go fishing (I’m paraphrasing Jon Bloom here). They fish all night. Useless. What a waste of time. No fish. Then Jesus shows up on the shore. “Throw your nets on the other side.” They had already fished both sides and multiple places. Surely also useless. But they do it anyway, sensing that maybe this fellow on the shore is more than a passing stranger. Full nets.
I’m glad Pamela was reading this in her last days. She had experienced a form of crucifixion in the death of Jamie. She had, like the disciples, the hope of the resurrection, both for Jamie and herself and those of us left behind with her. Now she was waiting, not knowing, really, what the next thing would be. In pain, but in hope. Both real. She did not know that the next thing for her would be to join Jamie in death (though she talked about death a lot in those days between Jamie’s and her own).
Now the rest of us are in the same place—a kind of crucifixion mixed with a hope. But not knowing exactly what to do, for those suffering the most in this or for ourselves. We also are waiting, to see what life now holds. We also don’t quite know what to do next. Bloom quotes Elizabeth Elliot’s advice in these situations: “do the next thing.” That sounds right. The “next thing” these last few days has meant opening the door when friends knock, arranging things with the funeral home, picking up brothers and family at the airport, planning a dual memorial service for Jamie and Pamela . . . smoking in Pamela’s sanctuary.
Our pain is real. So is our hope—the hope that after the long night of meaningless fishing, eventually, at the time we really need to know, Jesus will be there to tell us where to cast our nets now. Why do we believe this? Our story tells us so.
We thought we had entered a season of grief and suffering with Jamie’s death in the avalanche. Now, with the death a few weeks later of his mother Pamela—largely from grief I myself believe—we find this season turning into a long winter. The whole family now feels itself engulfed in an avalanche, like Jamie, carried away from solid ground, battered by primordial rocks and free-falling over cliffs. (I, of course, do not pretend to speak for others.)
Being given to reflection and bookishness myself, I tend to process these things through ideas and stories, looking for explanations, contexts, and silver linings. But I have abandoned that for the time being. I will simply grieve among a community of grievers, in this case a community defined by its love of two people—Jamie and Pamela.
Still, I was reading C.S. Lewis a few minutes ago, Pamela’s favorite writer if one goes by her Facebook posts. He says the following in the Preface to The Problem of Pain: “when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.” I find that true, and therefore helpful. This is a time to set abstract knowledge aside and simply practice–the best we can–courage, sympathy, and love.
And when we think of Pamela with Jamie (and father/grandfather Fred), we can even smile.
This post is by Jayne Taylor, in honor of her loved nephew and in gratitude for the love of the body of Christ:
My 38 year old nephew, Jamie Pierre, died this week in a tragic ski accident in Utah. He is mourned by his parents, a grandmother, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, a wife and a young son and young daughter, friends, his church and people all over the world who knew him, saw him, met him, read about him, worked with him, played with him, filmed him, followed him, loved him.
What I have witnessed in these last days is the marvelous way in which the body of Christ, the church, the faith groups, the friends and beyond have been at work.
As his aunt I received calls within 24 hours from dear friends who called expressing their sorrow for my nephew and my family. Tuesday night, while I was absent from my prayer community, prayers are offered up on the behalf of my family in the loss of my nephew Jamie–a person unknown to them. Wednesday morning bread is brought to me at church from a dear friend. “I want you to have this–for you and your family as you grieve the loss of your nephew.” Warm hugs and expressions of sympathy and offered prayers for me–the aunt—on the death of dear Jamie. Arms around me as I weep in worship,
grieving for Jamie and his family. The body of Christ at work.
My daughter Julie receives calls from friends expressing their sorrow for her as she has now lost her cousin…one of sixteen. The body of Christ at work.
My 89 year old mom, the grandmother of Jamie, receives calls from friends and family “How are you Kate? Can I help you?’ Her son Jim and grandson Justin go to her apartment to speak of Jamie dying on the mountain, taken off the cliff by an avalanche. They spend an hour with her—it is the first of 21 grandchildren to die…. yet another loss for her, but a deep, young loss. Friends from church spend the day with her as she tries to understand and absorb this shocking news. They talk. They eat. They pray. They cry. The body of Christ at work.
Gathering people surround the home of my sister Pam and brother-in-law Gerard. People come. Food is brought. People stay. They talk. They walk. They pray. There is an understood quiet in their midst. Facebook messages and e-mails pour into their computers offering condolences and help. Love is felt like never before. The body of Christ at work.
Sister Naomi, who is manning the communications front for the family, hears from friends from the distant past. Prayers are offered. Conversations had. She is loved. She feels it like never before. The body of Christ at work.
Oh the fragrance of Christ. The sweet perfume-the aroma of the life-giving spirit of the living God in our midst. In the deep sorrow, in the deep understanding of loss, our Lord knows and goes. He is the prompter in the body to go and care and console and love. Now. Again later. In ways that can be understood by those prompted. “Go now and be my hands and feet. Go now and give your time, your skills, your love. Go now little body—go now in to the hurting places of the souls of these loved ones. Go now and demonstrate my love in the midst of this great human loss. I will be with you as you go. I will guide you as you go for such a time as this. The body of Christ at work.
A darkness came over the extended family last night with the news that Jamie Pierre—father, husband, son, brother, nephew, cousin, friend—was killed in an avalanche in Utah (Sunday, Nov. 13).
We older people tend to freeze the children of our relatives and friends at certain ages, especially if we see them only rarely. The dominant picture I have of Jamie fixed in my head is as a mop-headed little boy with limitless energy and appetite for adventure. Later snapshots are an extension of that early picture.
I am reminded of words from the great Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from his personal history of the Stalinist concentration camps. It comes often to mind when my children or I walk out the door: “prize above all else in the world those who love you and wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be the last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted on their memory.”
Loss and pain and grieving are in all our hearts. May God add other feelings as well as the days go by.
We love you Jamie.
Have you noticed that when you learn a new word, you start noticing it everywhere? Same when you write a book. You obsess on something (not literally) for a few years, start seeing the world through that lens, and then catch echoes of that way of thinking in the newspaper, overheard conversations in the mall, and in Seinfeld re-runs.
I’m happy to say that my book came out a couple of weeks ago: Creating a Spiritual Legacy: How to Share Your Stories, Values, and Wisdom. During the short time since it came out I’ve been forwarded (thank you Wanda) an article by David Brooks (New York Times) asking 70+ oldsters to send him stories evaluating their lives, and seen a comment by Billy Graham while celebrating his 93rd birthday (and a new book, Almost Home) about the importance of legacy. At the same time, Matt alerted me to a quote from the book that was posted on John Piper’s website (“Your legacy is the fragrance of your life that remains when you yourself are not present.”), which I have to admit I did not remember writing (but like the sound of it now that I see it).
“Story” has long been one of the main paradigms through which I see the world. Legacy depends on story. So the two are interwoven in my life and mind, and keep showing up everywhere. Watch out for them yourselves!
Skeptics are used to being accused of being too skeptical, even cynical. Many actually hear the charge with a touch of satisfaction (“No one’s going to pull the wool over my eyes!”). But in my view we skeptics are often not skeptical enough.
Consider the age in which we live. (People have long enjoyed trying to characterize the defining qualities of the time they live in.) It is generally thought an age not conducive to belief. Competing orthodoxies include many that are directly or indirectly hostile to traditional religious faith, from various isms (materialism, naturalism, feminism, rationalism, consumerism, postmodernism, defunct Marxism, and the like) to the common “‘ism’ of everyday living” that looks for purpose in life in toys, busyness, pleasure and the pursuit of a killing notion of success.
Once, it is suggested, it was easier to believe. (“The Sea of Faith/ Was once, too, at the full” says the melancholic nineteenth-century agnostic poet Matthew Arnold.) Society and social institutions supported religion. Even the great majority of intellectuals and artists supported religious faith in the west until well into the 18th century. Now, alas, it is not so. Hostility to religion is topped only by indifference, and that makes it hard for someone with a skeptical bent to be a believer.
Baloney. If you are really a skeptic, it should make it easier. Your natural bent toward doubting truth claims ought to help you doubt the confused and confusing claims of your times that cast suspicion on faith at least as much as it causes you to doubt faith. I genuinely believe it is easier for me, personally, to be a Christian in a secular age than it would have been in any century I know of in the past.
As one who is skeptical at least around the edges, I am a natural contrarian. (Especially inside my head. Outwardly I love to get along.) Give me a fence and I’ll sit on it until I know what side you’re on. Then I’ll hop off on the other side. You think the poor are victims of oppression; I’ll think the poor often make the bed they lie in. You think the poor are lazy; I’ll counter that no one in the wide world works as hard as the poor. Same with politics, theology, sports, and snack foods.
So being reflexively contrarian, my tendency in an age of faith would be to be skeptical of a faith that most everyone else supports without thought. Having been blessed by living in a age where faith is often disparaged or dismissed (especially in the academic world I have lived in), my contrarian skepticism often pushes me toward faith. You think religion the opiate of the masses? Then I think it’s peachy. You think no reasonable person could possibly believe this stuff? Then I think no reasonable person could possibly think that reason alone can settle what you should believe.
A very small example. I once contributed an essay on Christian humanism (of which I am a fan) to a volume honoring the memory of a much-loved graduate school professor. The last line of the essay used the word “One” in a not very subtle betrayal of my own faith in God. The academic fellow editing the book called me to ask whether I really wanted to capitalize that word. It clearly irritated him and undoubtedly he thought it reflected badly on me as a scholar. He was giving me a chance not to embarrass myself.
Two things came immediately to my mind. The first was the thought that the man we were honoring (who shared my faith) would not have been displeased, maybe even a bit amused. The second was, “I’m glad this reference to personal faith bugs this fellow. Maybe I should put something in there about being washed in the blood.” I told him to keep it a capitalized One. See—a contrarian (and not always cooperative).
Given that we live in a time that largely believes traditional faith passe (at least in the west), I’m glad I’m a skeptic. It helps me see through many of the confident secular pronouncements about what is reasonable, believable, acceptable and relevant. If it also makes me a bit skeptical about similar pronouncements coming out of parts of the church, that’s okay. I need to discern the spirits there as well.
If I sometimes need to be skeptical about external claims, I also sometimes need to be skeptical about my own skepticism (a point I’ve made before). I need to be skeptical about the many excuses, rationalizations, and self-justifications I use to deflect the call of faith on my life. When I hear myself saying, “Okay, I’m not that great a Christian, but I’m not trying for sainthood—and at least I’m not a hypocrite,” I should be skeptical enough to see that for the feeble evasion that it is. The same holds if I trot out some cliched objection to faith and use that as a cover for my own flaccidness.
Can healthy skepticism be used to diffuse unhealthy skepticism, or does skepticism about skepticism just lead to skepticism squared? In my own life, I think it has been more the former. When I have found myself piling up objections to faith in the past—and keeping it at arm’s length—by own skepticism about my arguments and my motives have often lead me back toward commitment rather than further away. The contrarian within me has addressed my inner atheist and said to him, “Given all your many objections to belief, I see that I need to either fish or cut bait.” Then, after a pause for rhetorical affect (my inner atheist is big on rhetorical affect), I say, “I think I’ll fish.”
So am I too skeptical? Maybe. But then, perhaps I’m not skeptical enough.
I’ve decided I need to lighten up a bit with these posts. Too many heavy topics—hell, doubt, skepticism, Bonhoeffer. So how about a bit on Bob Dylan’s twenty minutes as a Christian?
Actually, I think Dylan called himself a Christian for a couple of years at least, which is better than Kris Kristofferson did (remember him?). The excited word went out in evangelical circles that Kris K–singer, song writer, actor (dubious), and former Rhodes Scholar–had become a Christian (this was in the 1980’s maybe). For some reason that excited a few fans of the Christian celebrity circuit.
I never heard much more until a few years later when an interviewer asked him about it. His reply: “Yah, I got drunk one night and came to Jesus. But I sobered up by morning and that was the end of that.” Oops. (“Time to look for another banquet speaker, Marge.”)
But Dylan was more serious about it, even if relatively briefly. So when I decided to use some of my post-teaching life to read a bio on Dylan (I’m attracted to singers who sound like a cement-mixer), I was especially looking forward to how they were going to treat Dylan’s dalliance with Christianity.
I decided against going right to that part of the bio, figuring I’d work my way up to it and see how his shot at faith fit in the flow of his life. So imagine my consternation when Daniel Mark Epstein in his The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait, after dragging me through minute descriptions of his, his mother’s, and his sister’s reactions to the Dylan concerts they had attended, gets to the Christian Dylan and says, “This is the point . . . where I lost him. Or rather he lost me, and most his fan base. . . .” Epstein, who probes every recess of Dylan’s psyche for hundreds of pages, covers his two years as a Christian in five paragraphs, dismissing the music as “fire-and-brimstone gospel tunes of the most fundamental, doctrinaire, and judgmental ilk.”
Epstein claims it “was not his religion that put me off” but the fact that he let it affect his songs and performances. (Gasp, an artist’s view of reality affecting his or her art! Outrageous!) This is the classic privatizing religion line. “Believe whatever you want, but keep it to yourself—out of the public square and out of your songs.”
Of course Epstein abandons his responsibility as a biographer (he could have titled these two pages as “Dylan’s Icky Fundy Phase”), but it serves to warn me against doing the same thing myself. There are certain causes, slogans, and points of view against which I react instinctively and viscerally. Dismissive words arise quickly in my mind: foolish, idiotic, laughable, benighted (a fine word), and so on. My subculture encourages this. We are among the great mass producers of ‘straw men’—describing people and positions in such a way that we can knock them over with a rhetorical feather.
Here is a good question to ask yourself whenever you find yourself so tempted: “What is it in that person’s life experience and understanding of the world that might have brought them, quite logically even, to that position?” It’s a form of the “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” principle. Might be even better to ask in the form of “What could have happened in my life to make me see the world the way that person does?”
Hopefully that will keep us from being as “fundamental, doctrinaire, and judgmental” as Epstein is about Dylan’s twenty minutes as a Christian.
“I open the book
which the strange, difficult, beautiful church
has given me . . . .”
I once read that when Karl Barth taught, he would write all morning and then read to a class in the afternoon what he had written. I no longer have a class to read to, so I will share with you what I just finished writing. It’s a nice set up. (Responses, including objections, are welcomed.)
God says, “Do this together. You will not do it well, but you will do it better—together.”
Of the three adjective Mary Oliver uses to describe the church, the skeptical believer will most readily identify with the word “difficult.” It is a word with many meanings. The main reason the church is difficult, in the sense of troublesome, is that it is made up of human beings—you and me in particular. Every failing to which we are liable, and they are legion, is also a failing to which the church is liable. Are we hypocrites? Yes, and so, at times, is the church. Are we self-absorbed? Yes, and so the church. Are we liable to be judgmental, short-sighted, contentious, bored and boring, indifferent, culturally captured, obtuse, ad infinitum? Yes, and so the church.
The church is also difficult, in the sense of hard to understand, because it is trying to live out a mystery. Not an “if we investigate adequately we will solve it” mystery, but a “these are things beyond our ability to encompass” mystery. The church lives at the nexus of the immanent and the transcendent, of time and eternity, of the transient and the permanent, the physical and the spiritual, that which is and that which is to be—and that is a place of mystery. It is a place of glimpses and guesses and through a glass darkly. Therefore, difficult.
And therefore also “strange.” If we have been long in the church we may have lost an awareness of how strange it is. It is a gathering together of people who say they are on a pilgrimage with God. Strange. People who call down God to be amongst them. Strange. People who say they love God more than life—and love life because of God. Strange. People who say we will all live forever. Very strange.
All of these synonyms for strange also apply, or should apply, to the church: alien, weird, aberrant, abnormal, bizarre, unconventional, foreign, queer. If we are not queer, we are not the church.
And because the church is difficult and strange and both human and not, it is also beautiful. We are beautiful to God—the bride of Christ. We are good news to the world. We are agents, sometimes secretly, of shalom. We repair the world. We feed the poor, bring sight to the blind, and declare freedom to the prisoner. Sometimes. Often actually. But then, we are also difficult.
I disparage the church less than I used to. It is a gift. It gives me the chance to be—with the help of God and those with whom I gather—strange and difficult and beautiful.
[This is the third of three parts of an excerpt from the work-in-progress The Skeptical Believer. See prior two posts.]
I have been arguing in the last two posts that human beings are inescapably meaning-makers, constantly engaged in trying to make sense of the world—and that pure reason is only one, often tangential, component in the process. It goes on in the darkest of places.
A quick story. Like many people, I have gone to Auschwitz. After the gas chambers no longer poisoned their thousands per day, of course. After the satanicly ironic words over the gate, “Arbeit Mach Frei,” were no longer a death sentence. Auschwitz is a black hole that obliterates (I first wrote “obliviates” and that works too) sense and sense making, and no one should pretend otherwise. Nevertheless, it is also a place where, for evil and for good, people continued to be human.
Within Auschwitz is a wall between two buildings where thousands were executed by firing squad. In one of those buildings prisoners were held for interrogation, torture, and eventual execution. In this building Father Maximillian Kolbe and others were starved to death. I have looked in the room they died in and I can say I was unable to take it in. I lacked, perhaps fortunately, the imagination.
But in a nearby room I saw something more tangible that speaks to what I am trying to say here. It is a rough etching in the wall of the head and torso of Christ. A figure, presumably the image’s creator, clings to Christ around the waist. It floats there, in the semi-darkness, a testament to one person’s final effort to make sense of it all. I do not focus on the fact that it is Christ—though that was essential for the person who etched it. It could have been, as it was elsewhere, a Star of David or a flower or that person’s own face.
I bring it up here because I see it as an emblem of that sense-making hunger in every human being. I know nothing of this person’s life or convictions. All I know is that at its likely end, in a place of evil and nullity, he continued trying to make sense. He found meaning—and hope–in the story of someone who had been humiliated and executed two thousand years before. By etching that image in the dark cell, he showed a commitment to a community of others who had also taken that story as their own. He did not, it seems, give himself to despair or bitterness. He persevered—to the end. And now his story, or at least this sliver of it, is part of my story. And now part of yours.
The influence on me of this visit to Auschwitz is not primarily rational or pragmatic. Scraping marks on the wall did not save him, nor will it me. But it helps us both make sense of things.
(This is a continuation of the last post on “meaning making” from the work-in-progress The Skeptical Believer. See last post.)
The messiness of sense-making has certain implications for any thought-filled person, including the skeptical believer. They include the following.
Humility and sympathy. Because the sense-making process has more pot holes than a Minnesota road in spring time, arrogance about what one believes is a form of foolishness. I respect every person of good will who is trying to understand the world and to live justly. I sympathize with anyone trying as hard as I am to make sense of things. I not only respect them, I want to learn something from them. That doesn’t mean I want to trade my understanding of the world for theirs, but it does mean I am open to the possibility that they know something I need to know. Humility will lessen the chances of my becoming a Smoke Blower.
Risk and Commitment. Commitment is not, as some would have you believe, incompatible with intellectual humility. Humility does not necessitate relativity. It is, in fact, the very messiness and imprecision of sense-making that renders commitment crucial. If all it took were intelligence and reason to arrive at the meaning of life and a knowledge of how to live, then all intelligent and reasonable people would arrive at the similar positions and no great “commitment” would be necessary.
Simple observation teaches us that this is not the case. Equally intelligent people equally committed to being reasonable arrive at wildly different conclusions about almost everything. Reason itself tells us that a lifetime of floating without ever committing to anything important is a form of irrationality and not conducive to either happiness or meaning. Given that the sense-making process cannot rightfully promise certainty, it is sensible to make commitments, including to risky belief, rather than wait for a no-risk final answer that neither reason or anything else can ever produce.
Community and listening. No one can make sense of things all alone. Like it or not, we are in this sense and meaning-making adventure with everyone else. Personally, I like it. I have never had a completely new thought and I never will. I owe someone else for everything I think, even if my own exact configuration is unique. Countless people before me spent their lives trying to do what I am trying, and they left an endless variety of records of their efforts: stories, music, paintings (some in caves), dances, weavings, letters, sermons, songs, books, buildings, machines, poems, prayers, protests, manifestoes, benedictions, and on and on. All of them have something to teach me, a few by negative example.
Diversity. Because there are so many ways of making sense of things, and none of them is adequate alone, it is sensible to expose oneself to many ways of understanding. People who limit themselves to reason are not being reasonable. People who limit themselves to the scientific method are not being scientific (ought not one’s experiments in life go beyond the lab or the equation?) People who limits themselves to imagined worlds will miss exciting things in this tangible one.
Perseverance. Because sense and meaning does not come easily, we do well to cultivate the virtue of perseverance. Neither life nor God yields easily to human understanding. At age eight, after learning to read and years of Sunday school, I thought I knew the important questions and the important answers. At age fifteen I still thought I knew most of the questions, but I knew I didn’t have all the answers. By age twenty-two I knew I would never know all the questions, much less all the answers—and it bothered me. The main difference now? It doesn’t bother me much.
Which isn’t to say I’ve given up. I’m not a Pilate who asks “What is truth?” with a bit of a sneer. I am as hungry for an answer to that question as when I was twenty and as willing to listen. It’s just that I believe now that the question is likely to be answered in many different ways, that the answer is less likely to be one enormous assertion and more likely to be a mosaic of many little answers, each hard won, each subject to revision, many contributed from unlooked for places. I can, of course, formulate big assertions—about God and man, about time and eternity, about good and evil—but the truth of those assertions will only be meaningful in the living of them, in the unimpressive details of my life and yours. I need, like Paul, to learn to run the race, even when I am tired, even when it looks like I’m losing, even when it looks like there is still a long way to go. When making sense of things, I need perseverance.
(The next few posts will be from my book-in-progress The Skeptical Believer. Each will be a digestible excerpt from a section exploring how we make meaning for ourselves.)
“We use what we call reason to preclude thought.” Marilyn Robinson
We have more words for thinking than Eskimos have for snow—and they have dozens. All of them are attempts to get at some aspect of the ceaseless human process of making sense of things. The following are all words related to some part of the process, and this is the short list: intellect, logic, reason, intuition, judgment, curiosity, experience, evaluation, measurement, calculation, comprehension, creativity, discernment, cognition, weighing, memory, prudence, perception, inference, deduction, induction, explanation, discrimination, understanding and imagination. Also part of the process, embarrassingly to some, are emotions, personality, desires, hopes, aspirations, experiences, fears, will, prejudices, character and guesses.
All of these concepts and activities, and many more, contribute to the ultimate purpose of all thought: to help us survive and thrive in a sometimes perilous world. What we are trying to do, in a phrase, is make sense of it all.
Making sense is messy. It is also at one time or another difficult, wearisome, scary, contradictory, and impossible. At the same time, it can be satisfying, comforting, encouraging, confirming, and thrilling. Some people pretend to give up on making sense of things, but no one ever really does. No day passes in anyone’s life that they don’t engage in some sense-making activity. For the reflective person, the day is filled with moments of trying to figure it all out.
You are probably such a person, or you wouldn’t be reading this. Think over your own life: how often do you read a book or an article or listen to someone in hopes of better understanding some part of yourself or the world? How often do you find yourself turning over ideas in your mind, how often find yourself probing and questioning something that other’s believe without question? How often do you try to put two and two together, how often tie yourself up in mental and psychological knots, with the hope that a little more reflection will untie them?
The messiness of sense-making has certain implications for any thought-filled person, including the skeptical believer. They include the following. [To be continued]
I just completed an interview a few minutes ago for a documentary being produced on the recent controversy about views of hell (Hellbound), prompted by Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and the range of reactions to it. The director wasn’t so much interested in my views on hell (thankfully) as on how people form and defend their religious beliefs. He had read Myth of Certainty and asked questions arising from that book (now 25 years old but still scratching some people’s itch).
One question he asked was “Why now? Why does this topic create such passion among believers and nonbelievers in our moment?” Among my many profound and entertaining answers was this one. Christianity is now a minority position in the western world. Many feel the need to defend it against increasingly vocal detractors. The traditional doctrine of hell is one of the aspects of Christianity most commonly objected to by many, including not a few believers. So it is not a dead issue, nor a minor one, even though I, for one, think it at best a third or fourth level issue. It’s nowhere near the core of my faith, not least because I don’t think the afterlife is something that God cares to tell us a lot about.
I did say that the most common traditional view has something to be said for it in this sense. It claims that hell matters. We can argue, if so inclined, about the details of the afterlife (I’m not inclined), but it does have an important relationship to this life, and it is foolish to be dismissive.
I also said that there has been a sort of sea change on hell. When the issue of hell came up in the past, people used to worry about saving themselves from it. Now they often worry about saving God’s image. People want God to be all love, mercy, and fairness. The traditional doctrine of hell violates their own sense of love, mercy, and fairness, and so they feel pressured to explain hell in a way that gets God off the hook. I know there’s a lot more to it, but that’s going on too and it is a significant shift. I tend to think God can handle himself.
It was an interesting afternoon.
Reason is both a lovely helpmate and a whore. I have been exploring that idea quite a bit the last few months while writing this Skeptical Believer book. (Among other things, I’m looking for a more acceptable word than “whore,” which I am sure is considered offensive on many fronts these days. How about, “reason will serve any master”?)
The basic idea is that reason, while certainly a gift and a powerful tool, is so prone to manipulation by the other aspects of our being—hopes, desires, will, prejudice, fears, etc.—that to claim one’s ideas, views, and actions are governed by reason is hopelessly naïve. Anyone who understands how reason operates in real life (as opposed to in the abstract) understands what a secondary role it plays in the lives of even the most rational seeming persons.
John Goldingay, the Old Testament scholar (whose book, Key Questions about Biblical Interpretation, I recommend), writes “Christian theological interpretation of Scripture is always inclined to come down to the elucidation of our already-determined Christian doctrines” (p. 155). That is, most people have some form of a theology in place as they read the Bible (largely formed by preaching and teaching), and they will interpret what they read in a way that confirms their theology (and personality)—scholars more than anyone.
This is not unique to Christians, however. Anyone with any kind of pre-commitment (and that’s almost everyone), will argue, reason, think, and present evidence with the intention of ending up in the place they want to end up (think politics, economics, marriages). And when, voila, they do end up there, they will say, “I’m simply being logical.” If you want to get to some conclusion, reason will help you get there. If you want to get to an opposite conclusion, reason will help you get there too. “Just name your destination, master.”
This may seem too cynical and a discouragement to holding faith in a rationally defensible way. I don’t think it is. I think by seeing reason for what it is, a useful but limited tool, we free faith from the Enlightenment illusion that “If you can’t prove it, it’s crap.” Keeping reason in its place frees us for a risky, relational, mystery-respecting, story-shaped faith in God. Might also make us a tad more humble.
Consistent readers of this still new blog (that would be me and a certain redhead), will have noticed how often I center a post on a quotation, most often from a book I am reading at the time. Occasionally, I have thought this unfortunate, a clear indication that most of my thinking is derivative, feeding off of others like a piglet at mealtime at the state fair. But then almost all human activities, even the most creative, are derivative in one way or another–and are better for it. Few people are more obtuse (and often boring) than those who believe they are thinking or doing something completely new.
And so I use for this post a passage from Dickens, re-discovered in the very entertaining new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs (read anything by Jacobs and you will be glad you did). Jacobs cites the scene from David Copperfield in which David sees reading as having saved his life when, as a child, he was oppressed by his life living with the Murdstone family.
David lists the many characters from literature that became his companions—from Tom Jones to Robinson Crusoe, saying that “They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time” (Jacobs, p. 32). He concludes, “This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always arises in my mind of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life.”
I love the phrase “reading as if for life.” If it makes no sense to you—and it won’t for many intelligent, good people—then you are not one of The Fellowship of the Book. I am not referring to the People of the Book (though some of us are members of both groups)—a term usually applied to Jews, Christians, and Muslims—but to those read as if their lives depend upon it—because they do.
Jacobs suggests that readers of this kind will always be a minority—in any time or culture. It is the one subset of human beings for whom I have unmixed affection. If you are a omnivorous reader, I will forgive you almost all your other sins (not a power I actually possess, I hasten to add) and ask you to forgive me mine. We are like Kafka’s hunger artist–we do it because we have no choice.
Czeslaw Milosz, the Christian Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner, called the poet “the secretary of invisible things.” Unlike Romantic theories of creation, he said the poet did not create things so much as discover things. The poet is a prober of reality, not its maker. And many of the most important things cannot be seen or touched.
I think believers too should be secretaries of invisible things. Invisible does not mean non-existent, only non-tangible. And often resistant to logic narrowly defined and the scientific method. Saying so opens the door of course to all kinds of abuse, including self-delusion. But then all approaches to reality are subject to delusion.
Dealing with invisible things requires more care and wisdom than dealing with tangible things. That’s one reason poets are so careful with words. We should be as well.
In 1956, JRR Tolkien wrote in a letter, “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a “long defeat”—though it contains . . . some samples or glimpses of final victory.” I find myself resonating with that view, though I am not entirely sure whether it is because of my temperament, my theology, or my experience of the world. Or maybe all three. I posted earlier about “Christian realism” and Niebuhr, and these are more thoughts in the same direction.
A few observations about Tolkien’s assertion. First, he refers to “history,” not to the life of individuals. He is not characterizing his life or your life, or any particular life; he is talking about the collective human experience. (So he’s not Eeyore grousing in his Gloomy Place–which I have visited, by the way.)
Second, his view is in keeping with a tragic sense of life and with the Christian notion of the Fall. Shalom is ruptured and things are not the way they’re supposed to be (see Plantinga book of that title). One of the more profoundly naïve statements in recent decades (and I thought so at the time) was the senior George Bush pronouncing at the collapse of the Soviet Union that we were looking at a generation of peace. What? Six billion samplings of human nature on the planet and you think there could EVER be such a thing as a generation of peace?
Third, the phrase “the long defeat” comes from The Lord of the Rings, in which the elf queen Galadriel says, “Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” It is spoken elegiacally as the elves realize their time in Middle Earth is coming to an end. (If Tolkien got the phrase from somewhere else, please let me know.) These words suggests a number of things to which I am drawn: nobility, honor, courage, perseverance, virtue, realism, tragedy.
But, of course, one must balance this with the “glimpses” and the hope (a stronger word than most realize) of “final victory.” At the risk of sounding insufficiently buoyant, I think even the work of Christ and the empty tomb are only “glimpses” of the final victory. They change everything, but we weren’t there (and those who were didn’t understand), and so we rely on the testimonies and stories and reports from the field of believers from over the centuries, coupling these with the more direct but difficult to delineate experiences with God in our own lives. More importantly, the victory of the cross, while accomplished, is also still being worked out, often amidst pain and suffering.
There is, I believe, a kind of permanent longing in faith (and human nature generally) for that which once was and will one day be again—but is not now. Or at least is not now in a way that fully erases the longing. I am willing to admit that this longing may exist only for some kinds of people. Perhaps it is more temperament and personality than anything else. Perhaps it’s reading too many books.
I hear in my ears the rebuttals to what I am expressing here—everything from Christian happy talk to sober theological pronouncements with phrases like “once and for all.” Many will indeed find Tolkien’s view too Eeyore-ish. In some people’s lives, the glimpses are much more than that—they are an unending Hallelujah Chorus. (That’s the balancing truth.) I love the Hallelujah Chorus but The Messiah also speaks of Jesus as the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. Long defeat, glimpses of victory—we need to feel the weight of both in our lives.
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In the 18th century there was an ongoing debate referred to as “The Ancients-Moderns controversy,” in which one side argued that the present was clearly inferior to the past, especially in terms of art, virtue, and the state of civilization in general. The other side trumpeted the superiority of the present and future over the relatively ignorant past. That debate is still going on.
My instinct is to favor the “ancients” is this debate, but I am increasingly prone to say, with Theobald (Romeo and Juliet), “a plague on both your houses.” It has always been, in my estimation, “the best of times and the worst of times” (Dickens)—and always will be.
That said, I am increasing tired of the “narrative of decline” among conservatives and evangelicals. We are inundated with moaning about how bad things are in light of how good things supposedly once were. I think perhaps R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet I have cited previously in these posts, is on to something when he writes in his poem “Postscript”:
As life improved, their poems
Grew sadder and sadder.
Thomas does not say in the poem who “their” refers to, but the poem seems a subtle indictment of the emptiness of modern, consumerist society. The poem also includes the lines:
Among the forests
Of metal the one human
Sound was the lament of
The poets for deciduous language.
I would like to use Thomas’ poem for another purpose. Why, given the hope we Christians claim in God, grace, creation and love, are we so consistently mournful and pissed-off about the contemporary world–writing sadder and sadder poems, so to speak?
Here is another snippet from the work-in-progress, The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist:
You don’t have to worry about hurting God’s feelings—at least not with your questions and doubts. God has heard it all. You have never had a fresh doubt or question. This is not to be dismissive of your questionings; it is intended as an encouragement to get them on the table. God knows your heart and mind anyway, so you may as well be open with him.
The best advice I have heard about what to do with your feelings about God (from Ben Patterson’s fine book on praying the Psalms–God’s Prayer Book) is to “talk to God about how you feel about God.” This includes your doubts that God is even there to hear you. You can talk to others, talk to yourself, read books like this one, but better to God directly? Many skeptical believers before you have done so, and many have been rewarded. Be skeptical enough of your skepticism to risk it.
You have no question to ask as pointed and painful as the question God has asked himself. Consider the question Jesus asks on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (NLT). If one believes, as I do, in the doctrine of the Trinity, then this is a question God is asking himself. If there is, as I believe, an eternally intimate, inseparable, monotheistic fellowshipping among the three members of the Godhead (I’m sure this description is not adequate), then this is an internal question of great significance expressing indescribable pain. There is endless theological richness and mystery in that short question, including putting the lie to any view of God as an impassive Unmoved Mover (see the Greek philosophers and too many modernist Christians).
If God asks himself such questions, why hesitate to ask yours? Why assume God will be shocked, angry, hurt, or disinterested? Make a list of all the difficult questions asked in the Bible—including many which express doubt about God and his goodness (start with the book of Job, one of the oldest stories in the Bible, then move to the Psalms and the gospels). It’s a long list. And, of course, those questions aren’t always answered, at least not in ways that make the questions go away.
Which brings me to ask what kind of answers one should expect when asking questions of or about God. That’s a worth-while question, too.
In his book on the gospel of Mark, The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode writes, “we find it hardest to think about what we have most completely taken for granted.” This causes me to ask myself, what do I most completely take for granted, which is a question about presuppositions. What do I take to be true without feeling any need to prove it, even to myself?
There are a lot of everyday practical things in this category (such as my presumption that the fellow driving toward me will stay on his side of the line), but the question is most interesting when directed toward ultimate things. Do I presuppose the existence of God, for instance, as others presuppose that all reality is physical?
Actually, I don’t. But I think all of us engage in temporary or tentative presuppositions in order to allow us to think beyond what we can prove. I know the idea of God is contested, and I do not, therefore, presuppose it when I build my understanding of the world. But I often begin a line of thought with that tentative presupposition so that I can think about the implications of God existing and the claims that makes on my life. Otherwise, I would always be stuck at the first step.
I believe all reflective, inquiring people do this with all kinds of issues. Scientists and philosophers do so when they reason around a hypothesis. Sometimes the scientist can move on to testing and proof, sometimes not. With philosophers and the humanities, usually not.
Kermode adds a bit later in his book: “all interpretation proceeds from prejudice, and without prejudice there can be no interpretation.” That is, there is no “objective” interpretations of anything, if a human being is doing the interpreting. Which does not mean we shouldn’t interpret or that we cannot say true things—only that we should be as self-aware of our presuppositions and shortcomings as possible. We should show our cards, even to ourselves.
Karl Bonhoeffer lost his eldest son in WWI. He lost two others—Dietrich and Klaus—in WWII, both for their participation in the plot to kill Hitler. He also lost the husbands of two daughters, plus many friends. Writing soon after hearing of the deaths of Dietrich and Klaus, he said of that loss, “We are sad, but also proud.”
Such a view can only come from a tragic sense of life. I use the word “tragic” in the high, literary sense that combines nobility with loss and failure, not in the popular sense of “sad.” The tragic sense is compatible with a Christian understanding of the human experience—made in God’s image for the purpose of shalom, yet broken. One expression of that is Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known “Christian realism,” which said any world view must take into account the twist in human nature (sin and fallenness in Christian terms). The historian Arthur Schlesinger summed up Niebuhr’s influence this way: “His emphasis on sin startled my generation, brought up on optimistic convictions of human innocence and perfectibility. But nothing had prepared us for Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, concentration camps and gulags. Human nature was evidently as capable of depravity as of virtue… Traditionally, the idea of the frailty of man led to the demand for obedience to ordained authority. But Niebuhr rejected that ancient conservative argument. Ordained authority, he showed, is all the more subject to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness. Power must be balanced by power.”
A recent book, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos by Robert Kaplan, claims that arguments from Judeo-Christian morality offer too little room for compromise in real world international politics and should take second place to arguments based on realism, power and pagan virtues (cf. Henry Kissinger).
I lean toward Niebuhr but admit that Kaplan has a point. Perhaps it’s not an either-or.
But most of all I am impressed with and feel both the emotional and intellectual impact of Dietrich Bonhoeffer father’s assertion, “We are sad, but also proud.” It is compatible with both a Judeo-Christian and pagan understanding, and is how I believe many feel when they lose someone they love who has died in service to a worthy cause.
As a child I knew the world in a very particular manner. I knew that it snowed before Christmas, that bugs were annoying, that the Lakers were magical, and that GI Joes were the best. My world was the world. How I saw it, is how it was. Like most children, this great, common fallacy slowly disintegrated as I grew up. I realized to my great disappointment that the world did not revolve around me. As an adult I still struggle with this harsh reality. Not that the world doesn’t revolve around me (my daughter reminds me of that everyday) but that other conversations are happening right next door.
It is easy to think that what I find important is what others find important—that what I deem essential shapes the world. This was most apparent to me when I lived in Washington DC. The “beltway” mentality is real and alive when you caught up in the minutia of Congress and the ju-jitsu of politics. Politicians and pundits fall for this fallacy all the time. Even when they deride the beltway they still agree that politics and policy is what matters. But other conversations are happening—all around.
Here’s one example—a many-way conversation that includes poets, thinkers, God, and trees: http://www.gospelofthetrees.net/home
Here’s another very different conversation: http://www.newstatesman.com/200202250050
Redhead in Rapid
This is a “help the author” post. Working on my in-progress book The Skeptical Believer this week, I have created the following very tentative and incomplete list of categories of objections to religious faith in general, and to the Christian faith in particular. I AM ASKING FOR A RESPONSE! Please let me know (through “comments” or “contact” ) what you think of this list, what is missing or misstated or inaccurate or unfair or anything else. Thanks in advance.
At the very end of the gospel of John, the evangelist makes a famous observation: “Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25, NLT)
If we knew them all, there would be more chapters to the story of Jesus than could possibly be written down. The same could be said for all the objections to that story and to the larger story that it defines. There are as many ways of refusing this story as there are people who have heard and refused it. Disbelief, like belief, is as individualized as one’s fingerprint, but there are some large categories into which most objections to faith fall, and I think it is helpful to reflect on them. For now I will mostly list them. The reflections and ruminations on some are scattered throughout the book.
Since this is a book addressed to people who process much of life through their minds, I will begin with the intellect, though I do not think it contains the most important objections even for intellectuals. What follows is mostly an overlapping list, with a few clarifying comments. It is far from complete and includes terms subject to a variety of definitions.
SOME CATEGORIES OF OBJECTIONS TO FAITH
INTELLECTUAL OBJECTIONS. These are the objections that arise from systems of human thought—some ancient and lasting, some newer and fleeting—that find the claims of Christianity objectionable on the grounds of offense to their understanding of reality.
Offenses to reason—the general charge that faith involves believing things that reason demonstrates are false, illusory or highly improbable.
Offenses to naturalism and materialism—the more specific charge that faith is incompatible with the truths proven by the scientific method.
Offenses to historicism—the objection that faith refuses to acknowledge that it is the product of particular cultural and historical forces and has no greater claim to truth or universality than any other view of reality.
Offenses to relativism—the broad view, which lurks beneath the surface in many contemporary views of reality, that all truth claims are simply assertions of opinion and desire (and power) and have neither universal nor eternal validity.
EMOTIONAL/PSYCHOLOGICAL OBJECTIONS. These are objections based on highly personal, interior states of feeling (which may or may not have an intellectual component).
Objections based on pain—one’s own suffering and the suffering of others in the world makes Christian claims unbelievable and even offensive.
Objections based on unanswered prayer—God does give me the things I pray for, thereby calling into question God’s existence or goodness or promise-keeping.
Objections based on one’s own sense of worthlessness or failure—one feels inadequate or undeserving of God’s love or attention.
Objections based on self-esteem—one feels competent, independent, self-actualized and therefore not needing the things faith offers.
Objections based on self-determination—Christianity violates one’s right to choose what to believe and how to live.
Objections based on irrelevance—the claims of faith do not feel relevant to one’s daily life and commitments.
Objections based on busyness—the day to day demands of life are too pressing to add spiritual considerations.
Objections based on indifference—the claims of faith are simply not interesting or attractive.
OBJECTIONS BASED ON THE HISTORICAL EXPRESSIONS OF CHRISTIANITY. These are objections based on the history of the church and the actions of individual Christians.
Objections based on failures of the church—the church has so often been the source of injustice, violence and ethical failure that its claims are not credible.
Objections based on internal divisions—the church has so often fragmented and attacked other believers that its claims are not credible.
Objections based on comparative ethical performance—Christians are no better than anyone else, and often worse, thereby undercutting their claims.
Objections based on diversity of views within the church—Christians don’t even agree with each other about their basic claims, thereby rendering their claims difficult to establish, much less embrace.
Objections based on political association—Christianity is too often tied to conservative (status quo) politics
OBJECTIONS BASED ON SPECIFIC CHRISTIAN TEACHINGS. These are objections, some intellectual and others more visceral, to specific points of Christian theology and instruction. Following are a few of the more familiar examples.
Objections based on the doctrine of hell—ethically and conceptually offensive.
Objections based on the doctrine of election—offensive to a sense of fairness.
Objections based on the doctrine of sin—seems antiquated, judgmental and psychologically unsophisticated.
Objections based on the belief in miracles—offensive to scientific reason and common experience.
Objections based on Christian claims of absoluteness and universality—an offense to pluralism and diversity.
Objections based on confession and self-denial—an offense to notions of self-worth and self-esteem.
Objections based on the view of God—too authoritarian, vengeful, paternal and generally unattractive.
Objections based on the Incarnation of Christ—too mythical, exclusive, and culturally rooted.
Objections based on the Christian view of history—too linear, insular, and teleological.
Objections based on the Christian view of persons—too negative, psychologically unsophisticated, and generally unappealing
OBJECTIONS BASED ON TOLERANCE. Objections based on a complex of related contemporary values.
Objections based on tolerance—offenses to the value of affirming the equal validity of widely divergent world views and values.
Objections based on openness—offenses to the value of consciously seeking out views that might challenge and change one’s own.
Objections based on flexibility—offenses to the value of holding all convictions tentatively and being able to readily change in light of ongoing experience.
OBJECTIONS BASED ON THE ZEITGEIST. These, like some of those above, are objections based primarily on the dominant ideas, values and ways of seeing of our particular moment in history.
Objections based on the notion of progress—offenses to the sense that we are smarter, more informed and further along developmentally than those who went before us.
Objections based on the priority of time over eternity—offenses to the (existential) sense that this world is the only reality that we have and need to address.
Objections based on the priority of the physical and material over the spiritual—offenses to the conviction that reality is entirely physical and that talk of the spiritual is illusory and harmful.
Objections based on the suspicion of overarching explanations—offenses to our skepticism about any ideology or story (metanarrative) that claims too much, especially if those claims impinge on our own ideologies and stories.
OBJECTIONS BASED ON LIFE STYLE AND PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. These are objections based on one’s specific life experience.
Objections based on pragmatism—the “it doesn’t work for me” objection, varying from “I tried it and it didn’t work” to the conjectural “That would never work for me.”
Objections based on how one has been treated by Christians—testimonies to mistreatment by the church and by individual believers.
Objections based on informal experience with Christians—off-putting experiences with Christians in the workplace and other shared spaces.
Objections based on one’s overall image of Christians and Christianity—based on media, word of mouth, the views of colleagues and friends, and other personal sources.
Objections based on impact on one’s life style—based on how one is living and the perceived impact of having to live differently.
OTHER CATEGORIES OF OBJECTION? [Please suggest]
Why is any of this important for the skeptical believer? First, because the skeptical believer seriously entertains many of these objections. Second, because identifying the nature of one’s objections to faith—as opposed to a vague, on-going dissatisfaction—can help one more honestly consider the possible responses to these objections—theoretically and in one’s own mind and heart.
It’s worth knowing why you believe something, and also why you don’t—so that both can be more thoroughly tested than is generally the case.
Can one write about humility without being just a bit proud if it comes out sounding profound, well-expressed and, well, humble? Let me give it a try.
Humility is one of the most attractive and powerful of the virtues, but it will at best get you a tip of the hat in the culture wars and no respect at all from your inner atheist (who will take it as weakness). With humility plus four dollars you can get a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
The word ultimately derives from humus—the Latin for earth (soil, ground)—and includes the idea of being grounded and down-to-earth. It suggest modesty, respect for others, and a realistic understanding of one’s place in the universe (and before God).
I would like to suggest that humility is an indispensable virtue for those who would be wise and who would engage helpfully in the contemporary dialogue regarding values, world view, political engagement, remedies to social problems, intellectual and artistic endeavors, and the like. Requiring humility in public (and internal) debate would be like requiring cowboys to check their six-shooters at the bar room door.
The kind of humility most appropriate to public debate is epistemological humility. That is, humility about how certain any human being can be about anything, including what we know. Given our limitations, the complexity of anything involving human nature, our penchant for being self-serving, our tendency to ignore contrary evidence and balancing truths, and our general desire to “win,” humility is not only desirable, it is the only reasonable stance in proclaiming anything.
Humility, then, is simple wisdom, not weakness.
A second manifestation of humility is humility of expression. It involves how one engages others and the world. It involves related virtues like modesty, kindness, self-deprecation, humor (as opposed to mockery), openness, flexibility, wise tentativeness (not timidity), and eagerness to listen. It may result in losing some arguments but in the long run will strengthen your cause.
Humility is not a synonym for weakness, wishy-washiness, or lack of commitment. One can, and should, be both humble and committed. Committed because it is our responsibility as human beings (made in the image of God) to work diligently for truth and shalom in the world. It is also the appropriate response to having been given gifts, skills, and opportunities. Humble because we see as through a glass darkly (the apostle Paul) and because others, equally committed and wise, often disagree with us. It was Kierkegaard, I think, who wisely prayed that truth would not be overcome in his hands.
There are two, seemingly opposite, offenses to humility. The obvious one is pride—arrogating to yourself more credit than is due you. The less obvious, also perhaps a form of pride, is so denigrating your (God-gven) capabilities as to see yourself as worthless and having nothing to offer to the human community.
The skeptical believer should avoid both offenses. It is healthy to be humble about how much you know about God, eternity, the Bible, good and evil, salvation, and everything else. But also be humble about your doubts, frustrations, questions, and accusations. Do not let their mere existence keep you from commitment to the story of faith—as best you understand it. Take them with you as you try to live out that story, but do not give them more power than they deserve.
There. I’ve said what I have to say about humility. But not so well as not be proud about it.
It’s always nice to find that someone agrees with you, especially if they have a title. I posted a few days ago about deafness as a metaphor for combatants in the culture wars not being able to hear/understand each other. My point was that we speak different languages and mishear each other.
So it was comforting this morning to read the following in regard to Michelle Bachmann being questioned on the New Testament passage regarding women submitting to their husbands. This comes from John Green, director of the Ray Bliss Institute of Applied Politics:
“We often see in American politics that the language of a particular subculture—in this case, evangelicals—somehow gets out into the wider public as part of a political discussion and begins to attract controversy because it’s not understood in the broader community.”
You could argue, of course, that the controversy here is not caused by mishearing or misunderstanding, but by understanding all too well what the issue is. But I think the problem in this case, as in many, is that precisely because the “broader community” thinks they understand (and are appropriately appalled), it is eager to see this as further evidence for its stereotype of evangelicals, and does not want to hear any nuanced or thoughtful explanation. Secularists claim to be appalled by this further evidence of evangelical medievalness, but actually they are delighted, because it fulfills their stereotypes and keeps their world simple.
If you need a parallel example that reverses the roles, think about past reactions to banning the Ten Commandments from hanging in a court room—or supply your own.
My name is Nate Taylor and I’m a guest blogger for wordtaylor.com. I occasionally blog over at Redhead in Rapid and you’ll find me blogging here from time to time on a variety of topics, from public policy to science to the woes of the Timberwolves. Now living in the heartland of Indiana I seem to make it a life goal not to live in a state for more than two years. Thanks DT for the opportunity. My first post follows.
Redhead in Rapid
One of my favorite commentators on the intertubes is The Atlantic Monthly’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Always thoughtful, he is worth reading, even when one disagrees with him. Writing about “blackness,” identity, and community, Coates states:
“Put differently, as discomfiting as this may sound, all communities have boundaries–and not only do they have them, they are necessarily defined by them…It’s true that the boundaries of the collective create problems for the individual–problems that should be confronted and wrestled with. But this a human problem, and the implication that black people are in exclusive or chronic possession of that problem strikes me as wrong-headed.”
In discussions about race or politics or history Coates argues against creating artificial images of varying groups–either postive or negative–reminding us that “real” people live these lives. All groups, including black people, are human, with all their foibles and follies. The same goes for Christians or any other group. We cannot escape who we are.
In the passage above, Coates argues against the view that we should have no boundaries in human interactions. He says that boundaries matter–they are not only inevitable, they are also useful. To form a community you must not only belong to something, but also not belong to something else. (I can join my Neighborhood Association because I live in this neighborhood.) We all live within boundaries, recognized or otherwise, that help define us, often in beneficient ways.
As Christians we have an interesting relationship with boundaries. On one hand we follow a God who breaks all human boundaries—sin, racial, ethnic, personal. On the other hand we have defined boundaries because what we believe and live really matters. There is significance to the Christian boundaries, so we fight and debate over what matters when it comes to being a Christian. We ask, what boundaries need to be in place for us to be able to call ourselves Christians? For some Christians, boundaries are uncomfortable because they limit what (and who) is in and what is out. For others, our boundaries are insufficiently enforced, allowing too much to come in that dilutes the distinctives of the community.
For the Christian (or any other) community to matter we need to have boundaries. And to maintain our vitality those boundaries need to be pushed and pulled, always seeking after the Kingdom.
Redhead in Rapid
Frank Kermode, in his very interesting (and secular) book on the gospels, The Genesis of Secrecy: On Interpretation of Narrative (Harvard, 1979) quotes the 1930’s novelist Henry Green: “the very deaf, as I am, hear the most astounding things all round them, which have not, in fact, been said. This enlivens my replies until, through mishearing, a new level of communication is reached” (p. 13). (I’ve experienced this first hand from both ends: “Is this Thursday?” “Yes, me too. Let’s get something to drink.”)
This is both a humorous and helpful observation that describes a lot that goes on in conflicts of all kinds. (I say revenue increases, you hear tax and spend. You say spending cuts, I hear attack the poor.) People have ears (as the gospels declare), but do not hear.
It applies, for instance, in the case of the culture wars at various levels. Christian fundamentalists/evangelicals and secularists, for instance, are both largely ‘deaf’ in terms of the others’ worlds. It is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, to observe the apoplexy of secularists when they cite age-old evangelical commonplaces as signs of the end of civilization. For instance, the recent reaction to Texas Governor Perry’s prayer and fasting event, or to Baptists saying they want to evangelize EVERYBODY, including people who already have a religion. This is not a new thing of course: in Roman times, people heard Christians speak of eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ and charged them with cannibalism.
There is also a lot of deafness in fundamentalists and evangelicals when they respond obtusely to secularists. (We really DO want separation of church and state, even if Noam Chomsky is the one saying it.) One side hysterically thinks we are on the edge of becoming a theocracy and the other that soon the Bible and Christianity will be criminalized.
Enlivening, yes. Illuminating, no.
Needed: translators and interpreters and people who live in multiple worlds and understand many languages.
I was riding in a car yesterday and saw a scene straight from Norman Rockwell. A father was seemingly mowing his lawn and right behind him was his around four-year-old son pushing a small, plastic toy lawnmower, head down and very earnest in his mowing. (I say ‘seemingly’ because I don’t think the father’s power mower was actually running.)
It was cute, of course, (that all-purpose sugar word), but it was also quite ancient and profound. Most of the things that we know—practical, intellectual, artistic, spiritual, moral—we have learned (as individuals and as cultures) by imitating someone else–someone older, more experienced, and wiser.
This foundational truth has been obscured in recent centuries by two developments in the West, both of them good in themselves but with some negative consequences. The first is the rise of science as the measure of truth, with its future orientation and subtle suggestion (not found so much among scientists themselves) that we are smarter than people used to be. The other is the Romantic revolution that, as a corrective to other excesses (including scientific rationalism), tended to emphasize living in the moment and the individual as the maker of his or her own truth.
I found when teaching young creative writers that few of them wanted to read and learn from established writers. They mostly wanted to spontaneously explore themselves (resulting in a lot of spontaneous punctuation among other things). And, to be fair, they sometimes ended up with something quite nice.
Learning by imitating someone wiser is the oldest and surest way of learning anything (in the animal world as in the human). It is the genius of virtue ethics, of the artistic tradition, of bridge building, and of making disciples to go into all the world.
I’m not arguing for the heavy hand of Tradition. I’m not arguing for anything actually. I’m simply saying that it gave me pleasure to see the young boy trying to imitate his father. That both helps the young boy and puts responsibility on his father to be someone worth imitating—in areas more important than lawn mowing.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s cousin says that as a child Dietrich was greatly moved by reading a book entitled Heroes of Everyday, filled with stories of courageous young people who, with selflessness and clear thinking, often saved other’s lives, sometimes at the cost of their own (Metaxas, pp. 18-19). And, apparently, Bonhoeffer was reading Plutarch’s Lives–stories exploring the character of ancient figures–shortly before he was executed. Can we doubt that Bonhoeffer’s reading shaped his acting, including the decision to risk his own life to save others?
Ethics are more formed by the stories with which we surround ourselves, than by the rules that are drilled into us. Tell us what stories you value, and we have a good start on knowing who you are and how you will act in the world.
(Following in an excerpt for the work-in-progress The Skeptical Believer)
“I have been away from God for a large part of my life . . . . I had gone into exile of my free will.”
You Just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free
Paul Simon “Fifty Ways to Leave a Lover”
Why would anyone who has ever known God choose to walk away?
That other verbs come to mind–wander away, edge away, work away, slink away, suffer away, sprint away—indicates that people take leave of faith in many different ways. There are, as the old song says, fifty ways to leave a lover.
Only a few people, a very few, leave faith at a clearly defined point. Fewer still leave God because they have reached the conclusion, after careful thought and testing, that God does not exist. Most people who have ever been part of the community of faith don’t so much consciously choose to leave faith as they live themselves away from faith.
By live themselves away from faith, I mean they simply make more and more life choices, tiny ones as well as big ones, that do not take God or the story of faith into account. These choices might range from whom do I marry, what do I value, what do I do when I’m in trouble, how do I raise my kids; to how should I vote, what should I buy, who do I want as friends; to what books or films or activities do I soak myself in, who do I admire, or what do I do on a Sunday morning?
Some people suffer themselves away from faith. Their life is simply too painful for them to hold that pain and the goodness of God in their head at the same time. Some move from faith because they surround themselves only with people who find faith irrelevant or pernicious. It takes more strength of mind to live at odds with views and values of our immediate companions than most of us possess.
And one of the great deadeners of faith is simply the busyness of life. So many demands fill up the foreground—school, friends, coming and going when one is young; careers, marriage, raising children, getting and spending when one is older–that God is pushed to the background. Or even into another world that we only visit occasionally, if at all. And these demands are good things—or at least necessary things—and few have the luxury of not paying them attention.
Faith dies by a thousand cuts more often than by a single fatal blow. In this it is like other forms of love. We can fall in love in an instant, including with Jesus. We are less likely to fall, precipitously, out of love. More often we edge away from love as we are distracted by other things. We do not say, “I choose no longer to be in love.” We don’t say anything. We rather innocently devote our attention to other things, and at some point realize, “I am no longer in love.” Maybe we are in love with something or someone else instead, but more often we are simply “out of love” and floating.
The Irish poet W.B. Yeats, in one of the most quoted passages of poetry from the last hundred years, is writing of the collapse of civilizations, but he could as readily be speaking of the movement away from faith:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
Things fall apart,
The centre does not hold.
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the earth
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed
And the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction;
While the worst are filled with passionate intensity.
The falcon is trained to hunt, flying in circles over the head of the falconer, responding to verbal commands or whistles or arm motions. But as it flies, the circles get wider and wider. The voice of the falconer is farther and farther away. Now I barely hear it. Now I don’t hear it all. Did I, the falcon, consciously choose to fly off from God, the Falconer? Or did I simply fly too far, further and further from the Falconer’s voice, until, perhaps without even noticing, I am flying on my own?
And am I now free, as the secularist would say, free from the stupid rules and narrow constraints of childish faith? Or am I merely without a center? Am I one of those who now “lack all conviction,” not believing anything in particular, playing it safe, going in whichever direction the wind is blowing? Is it enough for me now to be, as so many claim as an adequate goal in life, “a good person”?
Wenders, I think, has it right. God exiles no one. Many choose, one small choice at a time, to exile themselves. As the church bulletin board asked, “If God seems distant, who do you think has moved?”
Many of us never officially leave faith; we simply move to the edge—just inside faith, or just outside it—and take up residence there. We are neither fully in nor fully out. Like T.S. Eliot’s spiritual sleepers we live dormantly “under forgetful snow/ feeding a little life with dried tubers.”
But can I be “just outside” faith? Is faith like being pregnant—you are or you aren’t–or is it like being a sports fan—ranging from fanatical to indifferent, with at some point, known only to God, not being a fan at all? Some are fair weather fans and are back on the bandwagon when the team makes it to the championship game. With faith it’s often the reverse. We are foul-weather fans, becoming interested in God only when life turns stormy and he seems useful.
We are like the prodigal son. Give me my inheritance so I can live life the way I want to live it, away from the burdensome voice of the Falconer. Our life without a center falls apart—or perhaps simply declines into emptiness—and we wonder if we can come home. The answer, always, is “Yes.” We can come home. It has been pointed out that the story of The Prodigal Son is misnamed. It is not primarily a story about the son’s failure, but about the father’s welcoming forgiveness. It should be called the story of the Forgiving Father.
But returning home is a choice. It will not be forced upon us. Coerced faith is no faith at all. Some return home in one giant step, moved by the power of the Spirit to repent and commit again. Others will return as they left, one small step at a time, in a long journey of small acts of belief. And, of course, some will never return at all.
But whether in a moment or as part of a long journey, those who choose to return will find the forgiving father, not just waiting but scanning the horizon, eager to forgive, eager to kill the fatted calf, eager for a celebration.
I was reading this morning about relatively new concerns about the Internet, and especially about search engines. Searching on the Internet is increasingly personalized, in ways that are not apparent to the searcher. Google and Amazon, for instance, have secret (for competitive reasons) algorithms that use your past searching patterns to give you highly personalized results. If you and someone else enter a search word in Google, you will not necessarily get the same results.
This may seem either harmless or beneficial. If Amazon has figured out what kind of books you like, why not have them recommend more of a similar kind?
But as this article pointed out, a possible result of this increasing personalization is that we are exposed less and less to things outside our current micro-world. One critic (sorry, I’ve already forgotten his name and can’t now find where I read this—early senility) says this tends toward auto-propaganda: immersing ourselves entirely in our own ideas.
It has been common to point out that people increasingly choose their sources of information to reinforce their ideas and values, but I hadn’t thought much about how the Internet silently reflects our choices back to us in ways that actually limit our choice. (That is, I’m less likely to be exposed to an idea that diverges from my present thinking but which I might have found attractive).
All of this applies to any person, including people of faith, who make strong commitments and want to engage the broader world. That broader world may be increasingly difficult to find if our “helpers” steer us only toward what we already believe.
“Reality is that which when you stop believing in it doesn’t go away.”
So said Philip Dick, the prolific science fiction writer who died almost thirty years ago. I am a sucker for short, provocative assertions like that. I like writers (like T.S. Eliot and George Eliot [no relation]) who use a lot of epigraphs, as I often do myself, and I think I will use Dick’s tantalizing assertion somewhere in my Skeptical Believer work in progress.
My first, easy thought is that it applies well to God. Not believing in God doesn’t get God out of your life, much less the universe. It merely makes you further removed from reality. But of course I can’t prove that. The inverse (?) of the assertion is that believing in something (such as God) doesn’t make it real, which is what any atheist could say in return.
Still, I like the assertion and I think it has wide application outside the arena of ultimate questions. It certainly applies to a lot of political situations, including our current budget debates. It applies in personal and societal relationships and most everywhere else.
I don’t think the principle is particularly helpful in doing battle with adversaries, because both sides simply claim the other is the one ignoring reality. But I do believe it can be helpful in self-assessment, in the quiet of one’s own heart where you can sometimes admit things to yourself that you would not acknowledge publicly. “What do I fail to believe—or fail to act on—that nevertheless seems not to go away?”
Each of us prefers that some aspect of “reality,” simply “go away”–but reality, alas, is famously stubborn.
The June 4-10th issue of The Economist has an interesting article on the Japanese view of the sea—historically and in wake of their devastating tsunami of last March. They cite Neil MacGegor’s discussion (in A History of the World in 100 Objects) of a famous early 19th-century Japanese woodcut depicting a huge wave with a fishing boat riding its crest and a dwarfed Mt Fuji in the background.
McGregor, like most westerners, reportedly sees in the image danger and fear. But The Economist points out that Japanese art critics, in contrast, see in the image brave and serene fishermen working at one with nature to reap what the provider sea has to offer for the needs of the people, dangers notwithstanding.
I would like to apply this to how Christians view the world in which we live. The prevailing view in my circles (now and perhaps for centuries) has been to see the world as evil, threatening, morally bankrupt, and antagonistic to all that we value most. Christians “fight” against this world, often with a kind of angry fatalism.
I prefer the Japanese view of this woodcut. The sea/world IS a dangerous place, but it is also a gift, given as a blessing by a good God, and has in it all we need to flourish (including God, who inhabits his world). We work with the creation, not against it.
There is plenty of biblical imagery to support both views. I would not ignore the imagery of decay and struggle, but I would also not give it precedence over images of blessing and shalom. There is more good news than bad even in a fallen world, and we can be serene rather than combative as we explore it.
I came of age when academics were officially pronouncing (again) the death of God—as a viable and energizing concept in the modern world—and people in the churches I went to knew that was hogwash. But I have since come to believe that many in those churches actually, in their own way, believed the same thing. They don’t believe God is dead, but they do want him to know his place and to avoid unpleasant surprises. They want him to act dead.
One of my favorite writers–the very, very Welsh poet R.S. Thomas—has God say the following in a poem entitled “Ann Griffith”:
These people know me
only in the thin hymns of
the mind, in the arid sermons
and prayers. I am the live God . . . .
How much easier to follow a safely dead or dormant God. Most everything that God is going to do has already happened. He has made everything, published the operating instructions, set down the rules, separated (given his foreknowledge) the sheep from the goats, and now, at most, monitors the creation—answering a prayer here and there, counting the days until the buzzer goes off and it’s all over.
A “live God,” on the other hand, is quite disconcerting, even frightening. You never know what a live God is going to do. He may even change (our perception of him at least)—in ways wildly unpredictable, and yet consistent, in our hindsight, with his nature. It is not possible to be an expert in this kind of God, to sing the “thin hymns of/ the mind,” nor to rest placidly in one’s presumed salvation.
The Israelites begged Moses to have God not speak to them, lest they die. We are mostly good Israelites ourselves.
In this season of (political) compromise—or rather lack thereof—I find myself thinking about the word. Its root meaning is “promise together” and originated in the practice of agreeing in a dispute to accept the ruling of an arbitrator.
Compromise is, depending on its context, a healthy or an ugly word. Ugly when it suggests abandoning core values for short-term gain; healthy when used to describe a necessary degree of self sacrifice needed for human communities to get along. The healthy version requires recognizing that wisdom and goodness do not begin and end with you.
I think Tolkien and Bonhoeffer shed some light here. Tolkien says the following of his big-footed creations: “Hobbits . . . liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions” (LOTR p 17). This, I think, also describes people who are extremely reluctant to compromise. They know exactly what they believe and why it is best and they abhor contradictions—or even complexity.
More soberingly, Bonhoeffer writes the following from his prison cell: “Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. . . . Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it make people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defence . . . A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel.”
You could argue that folly is, itself, a form of evil, but I think B’s basic distinction is useful. There are more people who are openly and eagerly foolish than are openly and eagerly evil. Perhaps folly is initially less harmful than evil, but it is still dangerous because it prepares the way for evil. Folly is a Bizzaro John the Baptist (see Superman comic books). Folly straightens the path and prepares the way for its more deadly cousin, Evil.
The refusal to ever compromise in life is a form of folly. And it prepares a path for evil.
And if you have been thinking only of your ideological enemies in this discussion, and not yourself, that may be a form of folly as well.
I am entering the funeral season of my life. Two weeks ago I saw two movies in the same week. Last week it was two funerals. Sixty-three myself, the generation above me is starting to die with regularity, and some of the early goers of my generation are beginning to leave. And then, saddest, a few of the younger generation are snatch from us, as Mark was last week.
Mark’s sister said something very wise at the reviewal. “Everyone should have young children around when they grieve.” As she has.
Children can be of great help to grievers. They are honest and open, asking questions about what is happening and why. They also know how to feel sad. Natalie’s five-year-old son walked up to his uncle’s casket and said to him, “I am sorry that you died.”
And they remind us that life, including new life, goes on. Each of us is headed toward eternity—the only uncertainty is the time and circumstances. But as we leave, and hopefully prepare for the leaving, others are beginning the journey, as we did not so long ago.
I participated in a three-day silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat house recently. One useful thing I noted—it is impossible to be impressive at a silent retreat. You don’t see the cars people arrive in, you don’t know what they do for a living, you don’t know if they are articulate or not, you know nothing of their station in life. For the most part, you don’t even know their names. (And everyone was dressed generically.)
I don’t think of myself as someone who tries to be impressive, but the fact that I noticed its impossibility may indicate otherwise.
It occurred to me that this is the position we have in the presence of God. Impossible to be impressive—including with our spirituality. Quite freeing—both with others and with God. All is grace.
I am just returned from a trip to my home town (Santa Barbara, CA), to participate in a memorial gathering for a great friend, Gordon Morez. His son, Larry, asked me to read the following poem by Mary Oliver, which succinctly captures a man who went through life bug-eyed at all its wonders.
I offer it as a description of one aspect of a good life to which each of should aspire.
It is entitled, “When Death Comes.”
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
If you want a yin-yang, run-the-spectrum experience, try seeing the following two films in the same week, as I did: Transformers (Dark of the Moon) and The Tree of Life. My thirteen-year-old grand nephew was in town and the latest film adaption of what started as a toy was exactly his cup of tea. (He afterward pronounced it the best film he has ever seen). A few days later, a reflective neighbor organized a trip that included my son and me to see Terrence Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life.
I recommend Transformers for those who want a work out for the limbic part of their brains, especially the parts associated with flight versus fight and the startle reflex. There is almost nothing to reflect on in this film. It has no ideas and only the most primitive emotions. The closest one gets to a thought is the yellow autobot (sorry, I’m not a devotee and forget the names) saying to the human something like “You may lose faith in us, but never lose faith in yourselves.” I think even Oprah might gag a bit on this use of her favorite cliché.
All of which is NOT to say “don’t see the movie” (it’s a movie, not a film); it’s simply to say it is best seen through the eyes of a thirteen year old boy. Way cool, apparently.
Now put on your running shoes and sprint for three light years in the other direction and you get to The Tree of Life. This film is ALL reflection and complex emotion—and almost no action—at least for those who define action as a string of startling events. There is actually a great amount of action in the film, but it all takes place between the ears—those of the characters and of the audience. A film for an old English prof (especially one who grew up in the 1950’s, not many miles from the Texas setting of the film, and, yes, who played in the white clouds of DDT poison behind the spraying truck, just like the kids in the film. Malick absolutely nails growing up in the 1950s.)
I won’t even begin to try unraveling a film that purposely evades neat explanations (it has a Virginia Woolf-type sensitivity to the interplay of finely nuanced emotional states within and between characters), but am interested in its strategy for approaching spiritual, even Christian, topics in a secular age often hostile—in the art world especially—to anything smacking of religion.
Malick is both direct and indirect at the same time. Too direct for some, I am sure. And too indirect for others. He begins with a verse from Job, has voice-overs of characters speaking to (and arguing with) God, makes the central family explicitly Christian in a way that is neither condescending or eye-rolling, and affirms very directly that if the universe and our lives are not about love, we are much to be pitied.
On the other hand, much of the spiritual significance of the film is carried purely visually. There are repeated still photos of great nebulae and the seeming creation of the world, and dazzling photos of the natural world we live on, and even wordless forays into our prehistoric past. The film abounds in symbols and symbolism but, as with all of our richest symbols, their meanings are suggestive rather than explicit—and open to a variety of interpretations.
I think the film is a must see for any artist of faith looking for strategies for talking about ultimate things to our contemporary culture. Be wise as serpents, harmless as doves, unashamed of the gospel, but speaking it in parables that people both do and do not understand.
(Comments on either film welcomed.)
(This continues the discussion of the definition of the term “skeptical believer” begun in the last post. It repeats that last paragraph as a transition to this continuation)
The are millions of skeptics in the world. And billions of believers. But how many skeptical believers (or faithful skeptics)? The word ‘skeptical’ isn’t often linked with the word ‘believer.’ A skeptic is skeptical. And a believer, well, isn’t.
Unless you are.
The two concepts can, and often do, go together because we live in a fallen world where knowledge of the truth is always partial and often distorted. Skepticism is a form of protection against believing too much. Belief or faith is a protection against believing too little. Skepticism keeps us from believing lies. Belief keeps us from failing to believe truths. If I have no skepticism at all, I will be a sucker for anything. If I have no belief at all, I will be an even bigger sucker for skipping the possibility for meaning.
So, is it good to a skeptical believer?
Not necessarily. It is simply one way of believing (and one way of being skeptical). It is not the best way, there being no single best way to believe. It is, in fact, a rather precarious way to believe. Skeptical believers often have their skepticism overpower their belief. They are prone to dark periods where belief, if possible at all, hangs on a thread. They often are plagued by an incessant grinding of the mind that leaves them weary and paralyzed. Their faith is prone to being theoretical and attenuated, rather than practical and robust. Encouraging spiritual highs are followed by new rounds of analysis and doubt-filled lows.
I don’t think I would choose to be a skeptical believer if I were given a choice. I would rather be the Peter who walks on the water than the Peter who almost drowns beneath the waves. But I take some comfort that the water-walker and the denier and the apostle and the martyr were all the same person. Peter was both skeptic and saint, and that’s a combination that holds out hope for me.
And I must admit that skeptical believers are among my favorite Christians. They are the Pascals and Flannery O’Connors and Apostle Thomases of the faith. They do not take kindly to Smoke Blowers. They ask uncomfortable questions when everyone else is smiling vacantly. They take clichés, intellectual and spiritual, as a personal affront. They tend to be more honest even if they are sometimes more prickly. Skeptical believers sometimes make lousy members of church committees, but they can be first-rate spiritual warriors. As long as they are allowed to say their piece before battle.
We didn’t much use the term skeptic in the churches I grew up in. We called such people doubters. Sometimes blacksliders, or carnal, or lost, but mostly doubters. I didn’t really know exactly what a doubter was, but I knew pretty early that I was one. And I knew enough to keep it to myself, sometimes I even kept it from myself. Now, even though I write books about it, I’m not a champion for doubt. I’m willing to argue, however, that there’s room for us doubters, us skeptics if you will, in this story we call faith.
There are a few things that make it more possible for a skeptic to also be a believer, not all of which occur to the average skeptic.
First is to remind the skeptic to be skeptical about skepticism.
Second is to invite doubters not into an argument, but into a story.
Third is to give doubters something to do.
This book (in progress) will explore all three. But it will not do so as a traditional book of apologetics. It will offer, in small units, some arguments and a fair number of assertions, but it will mostly proceed by way of reflection and rumination and storytelling. Some people will not be interested in the stories until they have had their brain itch scratched. Others will nap through the arguments and only wake up for the stories. And a few perhaps will find both argument and story mutually illuminating. (Yada. Yada. Just get on with it.)
This blog post is an excerpt of a work in progress–The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist. Both the skeptical believer and the inner atheist make an appearance in this excerpt and throughout. See the “In Progress” part of the website (under “Writer”) for another excerpt.
“Those who believe in God but without passion in their hearts, without anguish in mind, without uncertainty,without doubt, without an element of despair even in the consolation, believe only in the God idea, not God himself.” Unamuno
“Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.” Joel 1:3
The skeptical believer. No, it’s not a contradiction in terms. It’s simple everyday reality for many people of faith. And it’s a way of believing that is acceptable to God. (Acceptable to God? How do you know, mister author, what is and isn’t acceptable to God?)
Skepticism is both a technical term in philosophy and, as used here, a more loosely defined term that suggests a certain attitude toward life. (When did God give you a list of things he finds acceptable and unacceptable? And in what sense is God a ‘he’ anyway?) My informal definition of skepticism is as follows: a habitual resistance to accepting truth claims of all sorts.
A more street level definition of skepticism: the suspicion that anyone who claims to know most anything for sure is blowing smoke. (For that matter, how do you know there is a God at all—he, she or none of the above?) And the less testable the claim, the more the skeptic smells smoke.
Smoke blowing is as old as human nature. It has certain characteristics that distinguish it from merely affirming that one believes something to be true. (And even if there is something bigger than us that you could call God, why the Christian version rather than anyone else’s?) Here are some tell-tale signs of smoke blowing:
— making claims with a confidence (often smugness) in excess of what is supported by either reason or experience.
–substituting strength of conviction for evidence. (And what about how awful Christians have been? Does the word Crusades mean anything to you? How about burning witches? Or calling people ‘fags’?)
–speaking as though anyone who sees things otherwise is stupid or ignorant or evil or all three.
–making excessive claims simply because there is no one else in the room equipped or given the opportunity to say otherwise. (Why IS there so much suffering in a world supposedly created by a good God? And please don’t tell me it’s our fault. We’ll both just end up mad.)
–all talking and no listening,
–perceiving contrary voices as enemies to be defeated rather than as fellow seekers from whom to learn.
–using the tools of the mind and the heart manipulatively, for the purpose of winning an argument, not for finding truths that help us live. (Admit it. Sometimes believing in God just seems far-fetched. Big Guy in the Sky—really?)
There’s a lot of smoke in the world. Always has been. People of faith often blow smoke. So do those who scorn faith. Smoke, smoke, everywhere smoke. How can one help but be a skeptic with all this smoke?
And then there is the term “believer.” What is a believer? In the general sense, a believer is someone who accepts something as true or real or worthy of affirmation. (I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth.) There are certain characteristics I tend to associate with the word believer:
–risk. A believer is someone who buys stock in a company that may not return a profit. (And Abraham went out, not knowing where he was going.) Believers’ hunger for meaning is stronger than their fear of being wrong—or looking stupid.
–openness. Openness to the spiritual, the unverifiable, the mysterious, the intuited, the imagined. (I have never heard God’s voice, but I have, at times, strongly sensed God’s presence and direction.)
–love of companions. (I think I believe the most when I am singing—together with everyone else.) To the believer a shared belief isn’t mass delusion, it’s multiplied pleasure and shared risk. There’s something deeply satisfying about hanging out with kindred spirits. (We both believe today; if I can’t believe tomorrow, you believe for me.)
Belief can be in anything. When it is in something deeply spiritual, we tend to call it faith. (If we can prove it; it isn’t faith).
The are millions of skeptics in the world. And billions of believers. But how many skeptical believers (or faithful skeptics)? The word ‘skeptical’ isn’t often linked with the word ‘believer.’ A skeptic is skeptical. And a believer, well, isn’t.
Unless you are.
[to be continued soon]
For a lot of reasons, our culture no longer believes in wisdom. Wisdom is practical knowledge about how to live well in the world: right priorities–and right actions based on those priorities. Wisdom understands the relative importance (and unimportance) of things and builds a life accordingly. Most foolishness is not understanding what is important or not acting in accordance with what is important.
Applying this to an area in which I have spent much of my own life, I think the decline in literature (and the arts generally) as a cultural mainstay is, in part, its abandonment of the claim that literature (and art generally) offers us wisdom for living. The predominate academic view (shared by many writers and artists) is that poems, stories, paintings and the like change nothing. Not only do they not offer us wisdom, they are often seen as testimonies (overt or covert) to moral failure on the part of the author, understood in the categories to which we are currently most attuned: racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, and the like.
The much-vilified Victorians (in an era that saw a great expansion of access to literature and the arts) actually believed that their writers and artists had something important to say to them about how to live. If few people believe that now, it is no wonder that so many prefer turning on the television to picking up a book. The Roman poet Horace said that poetry should BOTH delight and instruct. We are finding that when we lop off the “instruct” part, our “delight” also diminishes.
Our contemporary attitude toward wisdom fits nicely with some of the largely uninspected assumptions of our culture: truth is something one finds (manufactures) only within oneself; the present is morally (as well as technologically) superior to the past (C.S. Lewis called this ‘chronological snobbery’); authority (of all kinds) is based on the abuse of power; diversity of views (pluralism) is proof that no one view is true (relativism); and so on.
I do believe that there is an inescapably subjective element in all our understandings of truth (and everything else). But our culture has exaggerated the implications of that fact (I do think it qualifies as a ‘fact’). As a result, we are suspicious of wisdom—including the things the past has to teach us. We deny the possibility of the very thing we need most.
Here are some musings for the 4th of July regarding Christians and patriotism. In keeping with the Neither/Nor theme of this blog, I find myself refusing two popular notions of patriotism. The first is a close identification of faith and country that sees this as God’s chosen nation (even a Christian nation) and bristles at any criticism of it—from within or without—as somehow an attack on our core values. The second approach, which I also reject, is hyper-critical of everything American and misses no opportunity to denigrate a way of life that has been a blessing to millions, both here and abroad.
I like Solzhenitsyn’s response to leaders of the Soviet Union when they criticized him as a traitor and anti-patriotic for his courageous stand against Soviet abuses at home and abroad. He said, essentially, a patriot is someone who wants his or her country to be the most just, humane, and freedom-loving place that it can be—that is, one that actually lives up to its stated values. He considered himself a hardcore Russian patriot who called his society back to its highest ideals, even if that made its leaders uncomfortable.
The operative verse for Christian patriotism (or that of any other religion) is Jeremiah 29:7—“And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” The Hebrew word translated “peace and prosperity” is shalom, a foundational biblical word and principle (which will recur in this blog).
In short, believers should be “good news” to their neighborhoods, cities, and country. And if we are, more often than not (though not always) we will be recognized as such. There is a sense in which we are aliens (“in exile”) in this world (“the world is not my home; I’m just a passin’ through”), but we are “resident aliens” (to use an OT term), and we should work to help our society flourish.
So neither the knee-jerk chauvinism of “America—love it or leave it,” nor the “evil America” of those with no gratitude for the blessings they enjoy in living here. Criticize it because you are grateful and because you want everyone to share in the blessing. And understand that we are called to do more than either bless or criticize it; we are called to work on its behalf.
Enjoy the fireworks!
I love this image of the whalers sitting in their frail craft above the looming Moby Dick, perhaps oblivious to his presence, perhaps sensing it but unsure, perhaps knowing exactly what is below them.
It is a fitting image, for me, of the human condition—especially in relation to God and transcendence. Here we humans are, in the frail boat of our bodies, floating on the sea of life, perhaps obliviously paddling along in the sunshine, or perhaps noticing the bubbles and wondering where they’re coming from, or perhaps knowing for sure there is something looming under the material surface of life even though we cannot see it.
That this “something” in this image is ominous, perhaps even deadly, is also fitting. I long ago lost interest in a tame, meet-my-needs, buddy God. God is as likely to take your leg off—as with Ahab—as to pat you on the head. We are asked to believe, however, that the taking of our leg, if God does it, is for our long term good.
That’s tough to swallow—especially if the leg is, instead, a job or our health or someone we love. That’s why Either-Or Kierkegaard said the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac is so terrible and an example of the absurd. Despair and disbelief is much easier, he says, than believing that God both allows (commands?) suffering and yet also is good.
Who am I in the boat? I see myself as a bubble watcher. I am neither satisfied to float along on the surface, nor sure I know exactly what is suspended below. I am watching the bubbles that testify to something under there, but what exactly it is, I do not know. Some in the boat say Moby Dick is a myth, made up by yarn-spinning whalers too long in the sun. Others in the boat say they know all about Moby Dick and how to deal with him. I’m watching the bubbles.
And what to make of the mother-ship on the distant horizon? Human civilization? The church and safety? God has sunk more than a few of them. Or the Church—unsinkable but also invisible?
Here is one metaphor for God. Another is God as a lamb. We are asked to find room in our minds for both.
I am in search of a high-minded rationale for launching yet another blog, given the more than adequate supply of such things that society currently enjoys. But upon further review, to quote football referees, I will instead simply describe what I’m up to.
The permanent description of “Neither/Nor” on this page gives the gist. We are shipping out–in search of the great white whale. What that whale exactly is, I am no more sure than Melville was. Our white whale is not quite truth (never mind Truth), not quite knowledge, not quite faith, not quite pleasure, not quite laughter, not quite tears . . . . Not quite a lot of things. That’s the nature of white whales.
What are the tools for the hunt? Ruminations. Siftings. Pokings. Snortings and snufflings. Smackerals of conjecture. Sometimes bright flairs of speculation.
All this for what purpose? To understand life? Too grand. Too strike a bargain with the human condition? Closer but still too big? To explain the ways of God to man? I leave that to Milton and present-day apologists.
I’ll try something more modest. All this to provide a bit more raw material for living well. More thought, more reflection—often passed on from wiser heads—for answering the question that arises each morning as consciousness returns, “What ought I to do today?”
I would like to raise, for myself and for you, the quality of our answer to that recurring question. I should make that plural, of course—answers. Because there is no single answer, hence the potential excitement of living.
And sometimes, perhaps often, I won’t aim even this high. Just something curious, something humorous, something floating by the ship that draws our attention. A bit of bright flotsam.
A word on the passage from Whitman, which I will quote within this post since I may change the epigraph for the blog from time to time:
“You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through
the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”
Walt Whitman, “Song Of Myself”
I am not a Romantic, nor a Sinatra-like “I did it my way” type, but there is something useful in what Whitman affirms. Skeptical believers, of which I am one, are hyper sensitive to arguments from authority or tradition or “just believe it” fundamentalisms. Like it or not, everything is filtered through the subjective self—even objective, factual truth. So one may as well admit that and defuse it, rather than pretend it isn’t so.
Read and respond to this blog as you see fit. Don’t take my word for anything. Test the spirits. Be thought-filled and thoughtful. Join the hunt and respect your fellow hunters. We’re all in this together.
All events are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted.
Daniel Taylor calls himself “a Christian humanist with a fondness for the life of the mind, spiritual pilgrimage, and salty snacks.”
You are invited to explore descriptions and excerpts of his books , essays and talks. Also check out his blog and a forum for interacting with him and others—where you can, among other things, participate in an ongoing book discussion.
If you have a bit of wanderlust in you, and a love of history and books, you may be interested in travel opportunities with Taylor through “Thin Places Travel.” A photo gallery offers, among others, pictures from past trips.