Monday, December 24, 2012

Everything for Some Time

I was preparing to write a post along the lines of The Preacher, remarking on how little had happened since I abandoned serious blogging for Mr. Shakespeare.  The first draft (everything written should have at least two drafts) was about four hundred words strong when I put it aside for an afternoon.  Before I had a chance to come back to it, Newtown had happened, making my post on the vanity of vanities somewhat ... vain?

Listening to radio coverage of the aftermath of the shooting, I was struck by a clip from one of the local pastors.  When asked by a reporter what he said to the families of those involved, he replied that he told them that "he personally believed in an afterlife."  Pressed by the reporter about what account he gave of the shootings, he said that he didn't try to explain tragedies when they happened, but  offered sympathy and understanding to those who'd suffered.

The pastor was kind and infinitely well-intentioned, but something in his speeches seemed awry.  In the first place, it grated that he began his reference to eternal life with the fateful "I personally."  To be sure, not every denomination accepts the traditional Christian doctrine of heaven; and certainly the afterlife has historically been a matter of debate for Jews (and I will not rely on my memory so far as to insist that the pastor in question may not have been a rabbi).  But is this not a case in which the hobgoblin of dogma is more useful than we like to think?  When a definition or two from a higher authority might come in handy?  When an infallible statement might carry more comfort, as well as more certitude, than a mere wistfull personal opinion?  I do not mean to mock the minister's offering; like the widow with her mite, he clearly gave all that he had, and from a full heavy heart.  I question the effectiveness of his consolation, not its earnestness; and I very much doubt (given his way of speaking and probable theological circumstances) whether he could have done any better.  In the words of the bowdlerized Stabat, he was "giving all he had to give."

In the second place, the refusal—or, along the lines of what was said above, the probable inability—to give an account of the suffering in the world, burned me inside.  It is not that an account such as the reporter desired is easy to give.  It is not that, were it given, he or his audience would have been necessarily able to understand or willing to accept it.  That theological problem is one of the knottier ones the world has been set to solve; and that very fact means that many of the world's greatest thinkers have set out to try to solve it. I can think of few answers to the problem that  I would consider completely satisfying, but Dostoevsky's and C.S. Lewis' are both remarkably good and (with a caveat to the listener to examine the originals) capable of reduction into almost soundbite form.

What prevented the minister from offering these replies, or ones like them?  Perhaps he was unacquainted with arguments on the subject; perhaps he could not accept the arguments he had heard.  In either case (and now I will speak harshly, since the judgment comes natural and ready) he ought  perhaps not to be a minister. A psychologist might offer greater comfort with equal absence of reason and assurance.

But all this is neither here nor there.  The real problem with the situation was not the minister's answers themselves—they were merely symptomatic of a greater disaster.  His lack of theological equipment, and his people's lack, and the lack that is being felt across the country as people everywhere are forced to ponder the problem of evil as it was manifested at Newtown—this is all evidence of a general inattendance to religion except as a frosting, a trimming, a relish, a Christmas-and-Easter affair, a custom to be indulged in when convenient and ticklish to the fancy.  We (we human beings, we modern Americans) don't like to hear about evil and sin and judgment and hell from our pulpits on the occasions when we do make it to church.  These are uncomfortable topics; they force us (if we hear them preached too often) to make difficult choices that may have inconvenient repercussions in our daily lives.  Even heaven we'd rather not hear about, if it means we must remember we must die.  But then Newtown happens, and we desperately need heaven and all the rest of it—only we aren't sure we quite believe, because we haven't kept up the practice of belief.

In the wonderful TV adaptation of James Herriot's animal stories, Sigfried Farnon (played by the inimitable Robert Hardy) greets a group of carolers with typical curmudgeonliness.  "It's 'God rest ye merry, gentlemen,' NOT 'God rest ye, merry gentlemen!'" he shouts.  He's picking nits, but he's right.  We are not "merry gentlemen" because we cannot always be merry, but God will rest us merry, if we let him, if we keep him in mind, and the reason for his coming.

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay:
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born upon this day,
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray ...

There is no cross without its Christmas, but only because—or perhaps, rather, if—there is no Christmas without its cross.  That should not be a cause for dismay, but "tidings of comfort and joy."

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