My Saints & Prophets (Lent 6)

My Saints & Prophets (Lent 6)

  1. Marilynne Robinson
Alec Soth/Magnum

Faith always sounds like an act of will. Frankly, I don’t know what faith in God means. For me, the experience is much more a sense of God. Nothing could be more miraculous than the fact that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us and are moved by what is beautiful.

Paris Review Fall 2008

If she is a believer, what argument could I possibly raise against at least giving it a try?

Conversion Tables (Lent 5)

Conversion Tables (Lent 5)

I spent the entire day reading and re-reading C. S. Lewis (part of Mere Christianity, all of Surprised by Joy) as a kind of going-to-church activity–rather than muddle around in my own thoughts, I would subject myself to a sermon of sorts. Lewis has been a hero to my family. And he’s been commended to me many times by people concerned for the state of my faith, people who believed he could clear it all up for me. “He lays it all out so clearly,” they’ve said. “He makes it feel like an open-and-shut case.”

Conversion narratives are often dramatic—Saul struck blind on the road to Damascus the ur-text. The conversions stories of most Christians I knew growing up had a similar character. Someone was just going about her daily life, not even any real interest in God. Then something happened–an unaccountable coincidence, a miraculous turn of events, a flash of light–that made conversion irresistible. The stories can be powerful, irrefutable–even if they sound like madness to an outsider, there’s no way to separate a believer from her account of her experience. “If it had happened to you, you’d know….”

Lewis’s fills out the template but in a low-key, intellectual way, accessible to those who haven’t been knocked off their horses. He was a tough-minded atheist whose certainties were chipped away at bit by bit and then collapsed all at once. Yet I find it disappointing and unconvincing. Arguments for belief, proofs of Christianity’s veracity, have a kind of self-defeating character. If the position you’re talking about has the inevitability of a logical proof, is it really belief? Isn’t it simply being correct? In that case, choosing not to believe in that case would be a matter of willfulness or radical skepticism, like flat-earthing. There’s something in it—maybe something peculiarly British in it—that reminds me of the arguments of the so-called New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens), logic so watertight it feels arid.

The one part of Lewis’s account story that I found most interesting, most moving, was of a different sort, comes at the end of the book. By this point he’s accepted that some kind God exists, and has started going to church as a show of—pardon the pun—good faith. He’s still unsure about some of the final details:

I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought….It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.

Surprised by Joy, 237

I like that account, so different from the drama of the conversions I witnessed and even enacted growing up. I like the idea that the final development arrived unbidden, unheralded, almost unnoticeable. Rather than a lot of intellectual gear-grinding, it was a shift in perception that emerged organically and changed everything.

Maybe it’s that I feel that if a person can answer my question, my question wasn’t big enough.

Father Figure (Lent 4)

Father Figure (Lent 4)

Would I have this anxiety about faith if I hadn’t grown up in the family I did? Would I would even think about it? You can’t miss what you never had, I think they say, though the evidence of human history suggests that—in this case—we do.

I took a Freud class in graduate school from a professor who declared at the outset that he found religion absurd, an outdated myth that Freud, among others, had helped him dismantle. This was a mixed class of grad students and undergrads, most of the undergrads precocious kids from Virginia. One day the professor asked for a show of hands: ”how many of you believe in God?” Every hand shot up but two: mine and the hand of a young hyper-rationalist so calculating that I regretted not joining with the believers just to be in better company. The professor looked at the raised hands incredulously. “I hope this class will help you think differently about that,” he said.

The hands came down. “What do your kids think about God?” a student asked him—in Virginia, it was almost inconceivable that a child could grow up without participating at least in the rituals of church. “Their response to the idea of God,” he said from his perch on the edge of his desk, “is uproarious laughter.”

For some reason I couldn’t put my finger on, I found his pride in his children’s disdain weirdly off-putting. His kids were young—expecting them to continue believing what they believed as children seemed like tempting fate. Surely they’d end up rebelling against their father’s convictions, maybe even all the way to being born again. I imagined them as earnest adults, making dewy-eyed efforts to bring their intractable father around.

That fantasy speaks to my own fears. I’ve often thought that the worst fate for my children this side of drug addiction would be religious fundamentalism. But the idea that one’s attitude toward God is anchored in one’s relationship with one’s father is right out of Freud 101, isn’t it? It implies that belief is not an encounter with truth but a dialectic function, born of rejection rather than revelation.

Sometimes when I tell people that I was raised by ministers but turned out a nonbeliever they say something like, “oh, it figures,” as though it’s simply an inevitable reaction. But of the friends I had who grew up with minsters for parents, I’m the only one I know of who ended up outside the fold. Many of them, in fact, went on to become ministers themselves.

Maybe I’m the one trapped in unhelpful dialectics. At the very least I’m stuck tonight. I haven’t made this explicit yet, but my plan is to post something about faith, belief, religion, every day this Lent–even if some days, like this one, I can’t figure out what exactly I’m trying to say. More tomorrow.

Forms of Faith (Lent 3)

Forms of Faith (Lent 3)

My mother said something close, once, to what O’Connor said to Corn.

I don’t know how old I was–maybe 11 or 12–but I know I was young enough to be nervous about what I felt I had to say to her. I’d been mulling it over in my room and finally worked up a head of steam and went downstairs, where I found her folding laundry on the dining table.

“Mum*? I don’t know if I believe in God anymore.”

I know I was young, too, from her reaction. She didn’t seem alarmed. Instead, she put down the shirt she was folding and said the last thing I expected, given the stakes we’d been led to believe attended questions of faith. 

“That’s ok.”

Having doubts, she explained, was a perfectly normal part of being a Christian. Think of Thomas, who’d demanded physical proof of the resurrection before he’d believe it—not one of the Gospels’ heroes, maybe, but the kind of model you could be thankful for in moments like this. She herself had had struggles, she told me. What mattered, she told me gently, was that I had already given myself to God, and so all of these thoughts were occurring within the safe boundaries of my having been saved. God would not abandon me in my moment of uncertainty—and in the long run, my doubts would strengthen my faith rather than threaten or diminish it. 

I felt a superficial relief after that—first that she wasn’t angry, or even worried; second that the crisis I’d imagined I was having was all comprehensible within the framework of belief, of the church. I was in no danger. I was grateful to my mother then, and have remained so since, fo taking a broad view, reacting to what I’d worried a was a terrible confession with enough equanimity to assure me that everything was going to be ok.

But even when I was young I think I also felt disappointment fringing my sense of relief. Perhaps I’d wanted more of a scene, more concern—I was a child who often fantasized about being at the heart of a crisis. But also: was there something in her response that didn’t take my doubt seriously? How could God stand by me in my doubt if God didn’t exist? Maybe it felt good to be reassured that my feelings were normal, but those assurances made sense only if you took as a given the very assumptions that I was questioning.

The difference in what O’Connor told Corn didn’t hit me until now—my mother’s response was similar in shape but not in substance. In O’Connor’s formulation, doubt wasn’t just a normal bump on the road of faith—it wasn’t something I should expect to see dissipate on its own, or even that I should expect to overcome. For O’Connor it sounds like doubt was an essential component of faith, another face of faith. If God were entirely knowable, what kind of God would it be? Doubt is the substance of faith. If it were not, we wouldn’t call it doubt—we’d call certainty, or ignorance. Doubt is not simply a lack of knowledge: it is an ontological condition. 

A few years after Mother Theresa died, some letters she’d written came to light that gave the lie to the idea that her strength had come from her clear sense of connection with God. “Where is my Faith,” she wrote. “[E]ven deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain–I have no Faith–I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart–& make me suffer untold agony.” There were many of them, letters in which it was revealed that she had not always felt she had access to God, had questioned every aspect of her faith, her vocation. I found these cries from the dark not only comforting but moving, even persuasive as arguments for faith—not simply in the sense of thinking “oh, if Mother Theresa had doubts then it’s ok for me to have them, too,” but in the sense that it demonstrated the inseparability of faith and doubt, that the darkness and the hope were twinned. 

Faith is a struggle, my church taught. But not O’Connor’s struggle or Theresa’s struggle. In our church, the struggle was in fighting against your sinful nature or in being in conflict with the fallen world. It was a struggle against temptation, against assimilation. The existence, goodness, and accessibility of God were givens. The religion of my childhood was built around the idea that each of us can have a “personal relationship with God,” that we walked with a Jesus who was a kind of perfect friend. In my own family, God’s existence is considered indisputable because God had revealed himself personally and unambiguously to each believer in the house. My family say they could no more choose not believe in God than they could choose not to believe in the front door. A common conversion story arc in our circles included some sentence like “I wasn’t looking for God—I didn’t even want to believe. But after that, I had no choice but to believe.” If there were those of us in the family who hadn’t had those experiences, well…that was too bad, I guess.

Though it is my instinct to doubt the accounts my family give of their conversions, I try not to. They are unambiguous about having seen God’s hand intervene unmistakably in their lives, from the day he first stopped them in their tracks and said “come with me.” I have at least to consider the possibility that I have just not (yet) been called up.

It’s uncomfortable—even embarrassing— to talk about this. When I am drawn face against the glass of my religious upbringing I find myself contemplating a terrible choice: Is my family crazy? If they are not crazy, am I damned?

In writing these notes during Lent I am in part exploring what other options there are—what forms faith can take other than the ones my family presented me. But I love my family very much, and no small part of my drive to explore faith comes from a desire to close this last gap between us. If I were to find faith, but it weren’t one my family recognizes, will I have been glad I did?

Family photo, age 10-ish.

* Long story.

The Long Run Belongs to Faith (Lent 2)

The Long Run Belongs to Faith (Lent 2)

In the summer between my junior and senior years of college, I took a 2-week poetry workshop with Alfred Corn. I was not particularly fond of that class—Corn was a distant, formal man, serious about poetry and attentive to our poems but rather dour about the entire enterprise. In particular he didn’t compare well to the teacher we’d had the 2 weeks prior, the affable and sparklingly brilliant Robert Hass. Hass had ended our 2 weeks with him by walking around the room and giving every one of us a bear hug. 

Corn ended our 2 weeks by giving us a piece of advice—“If you are capable of doing anything else in the world, anything at all other than being a poet, I urge you: do that instead. Don’t do this.” It was a wry joke, and I think it was delivered affectionately, meant to inoculate us against the many disappointments and frustrations we would encounter if we chose that thankless path. But it stuck in my head like nothing else he said that summer.

I found plenty of things to do with myself other than writing poems; it turned out I was vaguely capable of several of them. I wasn’t a terrible teacher. I could design websites and code them. I could cook. At one point I thought I might make a go of it as a dog trainer. Since I could do other things, I thought, surely I should. But I kept yearning to write, kept wanting to throw everything else I had to the wind and take a crack at it. It would be unfair to say that Corn’s warning alone stopped me—my own laziness, my career anxiety, my fear of failure were more than enough to keep me from writing. But it worked in my mind like a fatal mantra, a constant reminder that to follow the path I wanted to follow would lead almost certainly to the abyss.

Years after that class—I was living in New York, working on the things I could do instead of writing—I spent some time reading through a Library of America edition of Flannery O’Connor. When I finished the stories, I got into her letters. One was to a young man from Georgia who’d asked her for advice—not about writing, but about faith. He was 19 years old, a first-year student at Emory University, confused about how to reconstruct himself after having had his childhood beliefs dismantled by professors in his philosophy and literature classes. How, he wanted to know, did an intelligent person reconcile faith with all that we knew and thought about the modern world?

“This experience you are having of losing faith, or as you think, of having lost it,” she wrote, “is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this….I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief ”

The man she was writing to—in 1962—was Alfred Corn.  She continued: 

If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation….Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian scepticism. It will keep you free—not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.

What a gift that letter was—and is. O’Connor was near the end of her life in 1962, her body wracked by lupus. She was famous, owed this kid nothing, presumably had plenty to do more important than to encourage a stranger in his doubt. And yet she did encourage him. She made the case for faith so well that I thought if someone had spoken like that to me when I was in college I would still believe.

Lent 1: Introduction

Lent 1: Introduction

Lent arrives with a familiar feeling of obligation, a feeling that tugs at me though I have no reason to acknowledge or honor it. If I have ever believed, it hasn’t been for a long time.

The word “Lent” is so simple, and I associate it so entirely with deprivation, abstinence, spiritual cleansing, that it hadn’t occurred to me until today to wonder where it came from. It’s a word that has come to seem almost onomatopoeic—an illusion generated perhaps by its rhyme with “repent,” or because it is such a gentle, fluttering, plaintive word, a tongue to the teeth, a wet leaf flicked by the wind. It seems a word designed for the use we give it now.

But “Lent” comes from an old English word for spring. It’s simply a designation of a season. Associating Lent with fasting, with Christ’s season in the wilderness, must grow out of an historical necessity. After the long winter, the storehouses are nearly empty but the ground is still too cold to replenish them. Spring—Lent—is a season of starvation, ironically butting up against the season of abundance and rebirth. Making a spiritual discipline of it is making a virtue of necessity.

New York is the first place I learned to understand how spring could be cruel. In the south, spring comes on fast and easy. Here it approaches and recedes, torturing the weather, tempting you to plant seeds, then crippling your sprouts with late frost. It’s also the first place I’ve lived where I saw regular people walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashy crosses on their foreheads. It came as a surprise to me, who’d grown up in the Christian south thinking of New York City as a wildlife preserve for pagans and atheists, to see this public demonstration of piety on the subway platforms. Perhaps the austerity of Lent is easier to embrace in a place like this, where spring isn’t a riot of flowers and sweet peas.

I’ve made symbolic (and secular) sacrifices for Lent in the past–I’ve given up meat, sugar, alcohol, sleep. This year I plan not to give something up but to meditate on something I lost long ago, think about a hunger I already feel.

Death of the author

Death of the author

I dreamed I was reading a new book by a widely-admired writer, and the passage I read was truly beautiful, and it made me understand why everyone loved him. But I was also a little discouraged, a little envious knowing that something as beautiful as that could never spring from my head.

Ray Meeks

Ray Meeks

 I recently felt I may never make another book. When I tell my friends that, they say: “You’re crazy. You’ve got many more books in you.” But I’m not talking about my ability to make or edit a picture or create a sequence. I’m talking about the way grace works in the world. Things are given to you, and I don’t know if I’m going to be given something like that again.

read more here

From

A wing, a web, the flutter of an old woman’s fingers, waving you off on a long slow run on the first day of the year.