Friday, June 06, 2008

Looking for God in the Penny Press!

The New Yorker's current double-length extravaganza is being billed as its "Summer Fiction Issue, so naturally there's barely a word in it about fiction (unless you count a "new" short story by Nabokov, but surely "dentistry" would be a better term, as far as actually reading it goes?). Instead, a large chunk of the issue seems dedicated to matters of faith and doubt (the issue's highlight is a two-page piece by George Saunders called "Hypocrites" that's worth the cost of the whole damn thing).

The piece that caught our attention was "Holiday in Hellmouth" by the redoubtable James Wood, an omnibus review of various books that deal with the iniquities of the world and the problems faith has confronting them. Wood stays in book-reviewer mode for nine-tenths of his very deep, very thoughtful essay, but near its end a more passionate, personal note starts sounding more prominently:

Heaven, one of the tenderest verses in the Bible has it, is where God will wipe away all the tears from our faces. In her novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson adds, in a line just as tender, if a little sterner, "It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required." Robinson, herself a devout Protestant, means that the immense surge of human suffering in the world will need, and deserves, a great deal of heavenly love and repair; it is as close as her novel comes to righteous complaint. But one could also say, more skeptically, that Christianity needs the concept of Heaven simply to make sense of all the world's suffering - that, theologically speaking, Heaven is "exactly what will be required." In the end, Heaven, it seems, is the only tenable response to the problem of evil. It is where God's mysterious plan will be revealed; it is where the poor and the downtrodden, the sick and the tortured, will be healed; it is where everything we went through on earth will suddenly seem "worth it."

This personal note of doubt achieves almost anguished undertones at the close of the piece, when Wood chooses to end with a series of implored open-ended questions that will sound familiar to anybody out there who's struggled with personal religious beliefs:

If God supposedly wipes away all tears from our faces in Heaven, why does he not do it now? Why does God not now establish paradise on earth, as the Jehovah's Witnesses believe he will do? And what is the purpose of these eighty years of not having the tears wiped from our faces?

As some of you may know, we here at Stevereads detest the Church. We hate its hypocrisy, we deplore its smugness, and we've fought our whole life to pry open the whalebone corsets it puts around any of its faithful who dare to think for themselves, to create, or to question. And you all know how we'd answer Wood's questions, since they all have the same answer: there's nobody out there, no magical Neverland where phantom selves get transported at the moment of death, no mystical father-figure carefully measuring everything we do.

But we're nothing if not fair here at Stevereads, and so we showed Wood's article to Father Terry O'Brien of Boston for a different viewpoint, and we'll now turn the podium over to him. As always, your thoughts are welcome:

God is all-powerful, and for that reason alone He tends to get blamed for everything. I read the article our host showed me, and there's implied blame on every page of it. The problem with blame, I think, is that it assumes a greater degree of involvement with the world than God exercises - or rather, I should say a greater degree of interactivity, for God is very involved in our lives; He may not be "carefully measuring" as our host says, but He believes in each and every one of us, and if we clear our heart of clutter, we can feel that belief and take strength from it. I believe this is what praying is: quieting our inner chaos long enough to feel God's loving presence and maybe even lean on it a little. That presence is what awakened my own faith, it's what drew me to my service, and it's been my rock during all the very worst times of my life.

But God's support isn't interactive. He doesn't make earthquakes happen; plate tectonics do. He doesn't cause floods; tidal currents and earthquakes at sea do. He doesn't cause cancer; rogue cells do. It's true He created the superstructure of the world in which those things happen, and of the universe in which that world exists (something more and more physicists are declining to debate, I think), but He no more continues to prompt each manifestation of those things than you or I individually decide to grow our hair or toenails. He created the world and everything in it, but He hasn't directly interacted with His creation since the Flood. He saved one family (and representatives of all his wild creatures) and then destroyed all the rest of His creation; but after He did that, He decided never to do it again. In other words, He changed.

That's essential, I think: God changed, and it's in that very aspect that we all were made in His image, for in all of creation, only mankind can change. I know our host will disagree with this, but this is one case where his activist zeal has got the better of his insight (to say nothing of his theology). I shouldn't say animals can't change - obviously, they can be traumatized, they can grow stronger or faster, and they can mourn. But those experiences don't change their selves, unless to break them. If a horse develops bone cancer and goes through operations and chemotherapy for months, that horse may recover, but whether he does or not, he'll still be the same horse. His 'personality' will not have changed, nor will his emotional makeup. But if a man goes through the same experience, his self may change drastically. He may become more giving, more honest, more loving - I've seen it happen. A young child stricken with some disease or burned badly often changes in like manner: the bravery and grace that may lie dormant in most of his playmates becomes so clear as to be blinding.

Take the example of a young woman I know. Some years ago, she fell into debt and drug addiction. She did nothing to help herself, and her friends and family turned away from her. She reached rock bottom, and there she found strengths within herself she hadn't guessed she had. With a lot of hard work (and yes, with prayer, but she did the work all on her own), she reclaimed her life, and her friends and loved ones, astounded at the finding of this lost lamb, in turn examined their own hearts. That young woman is now a source of strength to others, and her friends and loved ones will never be so quick to turn away from helping someone in need.

I'm not saying God gave that man cancer to make him more loving. Rogue cells (or other factors, but you take my point) caused the cancer. I'm not saying that child was stricken by God in order to make him shine with light. Tragedies happen in the world, even to the very young. And I'm not saying God caused that young woman's drug problem or hardened the hearts of her family (although I know He has a rep for that!). People make bad choices every day, and sometimes they correct them, with or without their family's help.

What I'm saying is, none of those things could happen in Heaven. Heaven is our relief from all of that, and for all I know God really is ready to wipe the tears from our eyes when we get there. But James Wood (and Marilynne Robinson) is wrong when he implies we're all somehow owed that gesture by God. God didn't create the suffering and evil of the world - much of it is the accidental by-product of the world being the world, and much more of it is the product of mankind itself. God wants mankind to be perfect, as He is perfect. He believes in that potential, for everybody. Whether or not we achieve it is entirely up to us. And I feel one thing very strongly: when the tear-wiping is over, the questions will begin: when tragedy happened to you, did you rise to meet it? Did you make sure it changed you for the better? When tragedy struck someone you love, did you go to their aid, or count yourself lucky that it wasn't you? When you looked upon the evils of the world, did you fight them, ignore them, or worsen them? How did you let your one and only stay on this world change you, and how did you change the world while you were in it?

I've always believed the central question about Heaven is this: will God be happy to see you?

We are here in this harsh world to make it better, to make as much of it better as we can, and to make ourselves better in the process. None of that would matter if God just reached in and helped us every time it was hard, or even impossible, to do. I'm sorry James Wood seems not to see that, but he should trust me that it's true. After all, I wear the collar: it's my job to help explain God to those who are having a hard time seeing Him. If I'm ever having trouble writing a magazine article, I'll hope Wood returns the favor!


Kevin said...

"God changed", huh? Wow. That seems to raise all kinds of theological questions about the nature of the Christian God, far beyond Father O'Brien's convenient "watchmaker" theories.

Either way, I find the debate less and less interesting. It all comes down (in terms of Christianity) to whether or not you believe that the magical, metaphysical claims of the Bible have any special truth to them. I don't, game over.

Sam said...

God does change--evolves, really--throughout the length of the Bible. Much of the drama of the Pentateuch comes from God trying to find the best way to rule over humanity. He's startlingly intimate and down to earth at first, and then gradually becomes more and more obscure and accessible only through symbols and rituals (the adorable David being one of the few, and failed, exceptions).

As much as I love Father O'Brien's humanist theology, I fear it doesn't have much application outside of a certain Boston diocese. Wood points to many passages in the Bible where God intervenes to stop (or create) earthquakes and floods. And indeed, there's almost no believer who doesn't think that God has at some moment personally involved Himself in his or her life (and moreover, that such involvement wasn't precipitated by prayer). What is God's strength if it's not in some way interactive; how is it distinct (as it is absolutely believed to be) from the strength derived from an extremely inspiring mortal?

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