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.
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."
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.
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.
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."