Did this world make itself? Maybe – but hardly. Did I go through this illness alone? Perhaps – but in the midst of the depression of it, something outside myself sustained me, nevertheless. Has my hard life been without joy? Not completely – and sometimes, in the midst of the worst of it, I have known peace and strength greater than my own making. Have I never known the presence of God? No, in fact I have sometimes known it with consuming awareness.
Joan Chittister, Essential Writings, 101.
What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all. The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in echoes of questionings and indecision; the church seemed to save you will fester with egos, complacencies, banalities; the deepest love of your life will work itself like a thorn in your heart until all you can think of is plucking it out. Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.
– Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, 29.
Re-reading Christian Wiman’s reflections on faith and doubt, My Bright Abyss. The fragments of the book are dense and worthy of much pondering. One could spend a year on it. (more…)
But this is a quibble. Good books leave you knowing more than you did to start with, and feeling less complacent about what you believed.
David Free, in Saturday’s Australian reviewing John Kampfner’s The Rich. He’s onto something, when it comes to books about ideas. Complacency is the default for beliefs. For years, it feels I’ve been undergoing a long, continual shedding of complacency, to the point that almost every belief I hold feels either hard-won or tentative. Start doing that too much and the complacency of others seems criminal. But of course, there are probably worse things than complacency.
It’s exposure to contrary viewpoints which sheds complacency. It’s critically examining the details, not just the brushstrokes. (You can spin anything to seem credible; you can squint at it, and pretend it’s not what it is.) It’s reading books you don’t agree with, not just to disagree with them, but to truly consider their arguments.
But I’m riffing on Free’s point, which is actually about what “ideas books” can or should do – and that is to complicate our beliefs. You think rich people are all this, or all that? Examine the details, and your generalisations turn out to need more nuance.
‘I don’t believe in an interventionist god,’ begins Nick Cave’s most overplayed song. A couple of years later, Q magazine asked him in an interview, ‘Why don’t you believe in an interventionist god?’. He gave a two word answer: ‘I do.’ I’ve always taken him seriously on that, and perhaps he was serious at that time. Anyone steeped in his music – and I have been, at times, obsessive about his music – would find God everywhere, saturating his world.
In the new quasi-documentary about him, 20,000 Days on Earth, nothing should be taken as the final word from Cave; everything is scripted and edging into the mythic or the surreal. But he surprised me, by telling a counsellor in an early scene that while God exists in the world Cave himself creates, God does not exist in the real world. The Cave of 20,000 Days is no theist, nor even a deist, but an atheist. His project as an artist is to create a world, and in that world, someone is watching, taking count, and that’s God. But maybe it’s really Cave. No-one’s ever accused him of humility.
He tells the story of how his deep interest in religion was a part of his drug habit, that he’d wake up desperate for a hit, and would go to church first, sit through it, before heading over to the dealers to buy drugs. That way he’d done one good thing before he did his bad thing. But his interest in religion has remained, even in this long period of him being clean. Perhaps he just likes the theatre or the symbolism of God and preachers and devils and hell. But it feels to me it goes deeper than that.
In one of my favourite songs of his, “Oh My Lord”, he walks the streets plagued by angst and the paparazzi, crying out:
Oh Lord Oh my Lord
How have I offended thee?
Wrap your tender arms round me
Oh Lord Oh Lord
Oh My Lord
Does it matter to me whether Nick Cave believes in God or not? Well, yes – more than it should. If I’m honest, when so many of my literary and artistic heroes are atheists, I take comfort from those who aren’t. I know the existence of God is not decided by popular vote, or even by the vote of those I like. But I can’t help the ongoing torn-ness of living in a world which some experience as full of God, and others as absent of God.
I like the work of Roger Olson, a brave evangelical theologian standing up for classical Arminianism against the tide of Calvinism. Yet my experience of atheists is very different to his:
I have certainly not met every atheist, so I can’t universalize or absolutize the following opinion. However, my experience of atheists is that, those I have met and talked to, do not really deny the existence of God (or any god or gods) due to lack of evidence. Underlying and causing their atheism is (I detect) a resistance to moral accountability. They do not want to believe that they are or will be judged because they want to live as they want to live without judgment other than their own.
The atheists I know well do not seem to be resisting moral accountability at all. Instead, it is far more to do with lack of evidence and being very unconvinced by what they see of Christians and the church. I know some people who dearly want to believe in God, but their experience of the world is that God is absent. They say with Julian Barnes, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” I think of a couple of the atheists I know who were brought up evangelical, and live lives in accord with much of the ethical framework of their evangelical upbringing (sex, drugs, forgiveness, love), and strive to be just, generous people.
Olson’s account of atheists is what I was brought up with. My church taught that those who were not believers actually knew the truth of Christianity but didn’t want to turn from sin. I don’t dismiss the idea that sin can blind people to God’s presence and God’s truth. That does follow quite logically from the Christian story. But it’s another thing again to claim that atheism is a willfully chosen rejection of a God who is actually apparent to the atheist. (To put this another way: I think almost anyone who was truly convinced of the extraordinary claims of Christianity, including eternal life, would choose to turn to God.)
Some possible factors leading to the difference between Olson’s and my experience of atheists. First, the strength of Olson’s Arminianism, with its emphasis on free will, could be part of it – to fully embrace Arminianism is probably to look for equality of opportunity for salvation and insist on the universality of God’s offer of grace. I suppose at this point I have some sympathy with a more Calvinist outlook (on this point only) which would place more weight of the hardness of the human heart, even the impossibility or difficulty of recognising God. (Really, I mean that my experience lines up better with the Calvinist account on this point – but also with the atheist claim that for many of them, they are completely unconvinced by theistic claims because of God’s absence.) Second, the Australian context is surely different to the US one. Belief in God is in the air in the US, it’s an assumption. Things are just as likely to be the other way round here in Australia. Maybe atheists really are different over there, or at least there’s less of the ones I meet for Olson to meet.
What do you think? Do atheists usually know God is there but choose to live in rebellion? Or are many of them genuinely unconvinced? Or something else different again?
In the 1980s, Noah was a kids’ story. Here is a photo of me as Noah, age five or so. I loved having a cotton wool beard and my own little ark on a trolley, my brother one of the animals. The story is a Sunday School favourite for its craft possibilities, rather than its theological meaning. I don’t remember feeling any concern for the people who perished in the flood; they were evil – the story explained this.
In the 1990s, Noah became a source of science. The glossy Creation magazine would arrive in the mail, and I would learn about how the global flood explained all sorts of things, from the existence of fossils to the extinction of the dinosaurs (the flood changed the climate, and the dinosaurs couldn’t cope). Significantly, Creation Science Foundation became Answers in Genesis, because it wasn’t just the creation stories which explained science and origins, but the whole of Genesis. (Except that I don’t remember many articles on the significance of the Joseph stories, or other later parts of Genesis. I’m sure this an undertapped part of Genesis when it comes to science.)
In the 2000s, I sat in the Life and Literature of Ancient Israel unit at university, and the Noah story became a touchpoint for source criticism and the claim that the editor of the Pentateuch wove together different traditions in this and other stories. I was confronted with the strange repetitions within the Noah story and the diverging details within it (how many animals? how many days?). I felt stupid for never noticing them before. Quixotically, I fought against source criticism, rallying together every scholarly objection or question mark over the theory. What was I trying to preserve? A particular view of the inspiration of the Bible.
In the 2010s, the Noah story was at the centre of theological problems with the Old Testament. I read Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior and wondered why I’d never been disturbed by the genocide of almost all the human race in the flood. How could it be a kids’ story? How could we not question this depiction of God? Is it consistent with the God we know in Jesus Christ?
And now, in 2014, I’ve just watched Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. It is a strange and fascinating film; its landscape and naive quest structure (and rock people) reminded me of The Never Ending Story more than anything, but it has a dark edge, and owes as much to the old-fashioned biblical epics. Here we are forced to question religious certainty, because Noah truly does some despicable things in his pursuit of what he believes to be his mission from the Creator. We see some of the realities of a global flood which kills thousands; the screams of the dying heard by Noah and his family within the ark are truly harrowing. (The scene felt to me something like what most evangelicals imagine the judgement of non-Christians at the return of Christ, while they are safe in their ‘ark’.) The story takes themes from elsewhere in the Bible – child sacrifice, barrenness, father and son arguments – and thickens the Noah story with them. It gives the Noah story the mythic sense which Genesis demands; this is something like our world, but it is certainly not our world as we know it. The Noah story is strange, and this new film captures some of that strangeness, closer to the origins of the Earth and of us.
I have not received official instruction on the ritual of the passing of the peace. It was something I used to look at with a little suspicion – why would you need a ceremonial passing of the peace if everyone was being truly hospitable and living up to their duty to make each other welcome? It seemed artificial. Yet sometimes we need a ceremony to make us do the things which should be habit, and if the only time you look someone in the eyes and shake their hands on a Sunday is when the order of service instructs you to, that is better than not at all, which is, if we’re honest, the default of non-liturgical churches.
My sense is that it matters how you pass the peace. It’s not just a handshake – surely it’s meant to be more of a hand clasp, with a genuine sense that you are imparting the peace of Christ to one another. Surely it is good, too, to look each other in the eyes and to say each other’s names as you wish that peace on them. There should be no whiff of the perfunctory about it. And I like the fact that in my parish, there are few enough parishoners that you can realistically hope to pass the peace to each and every person.
I’m glad we pass the peace in the Anglican Church, even if it’s sort of weird.
The first time I’ve marked Ash Wednesday has also been my thirty-third birthday, the age at which Jesus died. The coincidence led to incongruities. The season is meant to be one of denial; our impulse is to celebrate birthdays with luxury. I am such a bad Anglican I left the Ash Wednesday service quickly to make it in time for a booking at a restaurant to drink Chianti and eat fine food.
It felt medieval inside St Martin’s in the March evening heat, the sparse lighting illuminating the altar and leaving the congregation in dimness. The colours had changed to purple. The priest mixed the ashes of last year’s palm crosses with healing oil and smudged it in a cross on our foreheads. In the sermon she asked us to discern what it was we were holding onto which was not life-giving.
Each year, understandably, my Facebook feed lights up with Christians bugged by Easter eggs in January and Christmas trees in October. Living in Australia in the 21st century, our calendar is shaped by commerce and patriotism. Two central Christian seasons, Easter and Christmas, are co-opted by shops as seasons of consumption, with their own products and sales traditions. There are others with some religious connection too – Valentine’s Day and Halloween. To these are added the patriotic celebrations – Australia Day and Anzac Day. There are special ways to consume for these events too, particularly Australia Day, as well as the media solemnising the occasions with wraparound souvenir editions or special reports. We know what season we’re in because of what display Coles has and what ads are playing on the television.
I contend that the free church traditions are missing out on a powerful alternative to the secular calendar in not properly observing the church (or liturgical) year. Most people in the free churches didn’t mark Epiphany last week, and may not even observe Lent or Advent at all. Being somewhat Anglican now, I know what season it is because we celebrate a different phase of Christ’s life with many other churches around the world. The shifts are marked by distinctive colours in the church and a change in liturgy. I have an antidote to the secular calendar because church is shaping my sense of the year unfolding. It is, week to week, centred on Christ and helps me to live my life with a grounding in Christ’s life.
It needs to be done together like this, the whole church following roughly the same calendar (even if it has to be modified according to denominational differences), because when each church is left to set its own calendar, there is not a strong sense of an alternative to secular time. There’s just an individual church decreeing that January will be the month we do a series on King David and February the month we look at relationships. I call on free churches to give up some of their independence for the sake of the wider church and adopt more fully the church year.