Sunday, February 8, 2009

Loving God

I have never managed to love God. A few years after I became a Christian, I had a vivid image in my head of being trapped in a dark room, of which I could only see one wall. In that wall was a window, looking out on to a beautiful landscape. I was filled with desire to go through the window and out into the sunlit grass and trees. And, in fact, on inspection, the window was not really a window -- only a frame without glass. But no matter how hard I tried to get out of the window, my body always somehow ended butted up against the frame, while I struggled and contorted my limbs in a hopeless effort to get more than one dangling arm or leg outside. At some point, I thought, "Perhaps the problem is that I'm trying. Perhaps I need to let go and let God bring me into the light." So I let go, and I am still here in the dark room, waiting.

Perhaps it is like 1John says: if you can't love your brother, who you do see, how can you love God, who you do not see? And, in all fairness, I don't particularly love my brother. It's not that I'm a misanthrope. I find that most people are perfectly pleasant and reasonable, provided they are not pushed too far. This is, after all, what social convention demands. But there's nothing lovable in that. And if they do happen to be pushed beyond that point, it is usually more accurate to assume that they will behave selfishly, based on survival instinct, or family bonding, than that they will behave altruistically; there is a reason why saints are saints - if everyone behaved this way, the term could happily return to its new testament sense, applying to all Christians rather than a special few.

But the problem for me goes much deeper than that, and gets to the heart of what we can know about God. The message of the conservative churches I went to for years focused on the "Abba, father" view of God, the idea of us as children, and God as all-powerful, all-loving father. But what I have never been able to reconcile in this picture is that God should love some and not others. The second this question comes into play, the all-loving father image vanishes, and stern truths emerge. The Calvinist says, "God plucked you from the jaws of Hell when you had no power to love God on your own. Rejoice that he chose you." The Arminian says, "God gave you a gift of grace, and by that grace you chose life rather than death. Rejoice that he gave you the gift." And for those whom God did not choose? He simply did not choose them. And why? For his own reasons, and not because of anything they did. And as soon as these words are uttered, there is a blanket of incomprehension between us and God. It is conceivable that, given the choice to save his own child or the child of another parent, a father might choose his own. But the father who has the ability to save both children, yet lets one die arbitrarily does not meet the minimum standard of behavior for human beings.

Either God is impartial, or God is not. If God is not, then, so far as we can see, God's actions are sometimes arbitrary. And if this is the case, then we are asked to trust those actions against our best instincts on the grounds that they are for the good, even if they are not for our good (in the human sense), and even if they result in the acute suffering of others no worse than ourselves or eternal damnation. If God were the impersonal ineffable god of Plato or Plotinus, or some great universal force that binds everything together, then I could accept this more easily. But in Christianity, we are told that God is personal, and oversees the smallest detail of each life. And we are commanded to love this Person. Psychologically, I do not see how this is possible, unless we close our ears to everything outside and focus the message down to the good things God has done for me. I have walked this path, and it was not pleasant.

So let's suppose that God is impartial. For example, if the father tries to save both children, but one child refuses to be saved, we do not consider it the father's fault. Could it be that God is impartial, but our free will trumps the ability of God to compel us? This might be plausible if everyone had an equal chance, an unequivocal experience of God's grace. But what does this mean? It cannot mean that everyone grows up being taught Christianity, since that is obviously false. So we would then need to believe that people in places completely outside the bounds of Christianity, who never hear of Christ through the testimony of any missionary, never read a word of the Bible, and, indeed, are brought up in societies and beliefs completely different and even antithetical to those of the Judaeo-Christian tradition can nevertheless experience grace. If this is true, the "one way to heaven" is very broad indeed, and the implications for our understanding of God are significant since the forms, beliefs and scriptures of the Christian faith as we have been taught them are now no longer definitive. This idea requires either an undermining of the Biblical text, or some subterfuge to maintain it (e.g. a special revelation of Christ at the point of death for all who had no chance to know him in life). And as soon as we solve one question using this method, another pops up. The desire to keep God loveable begins to trump knowledge and tradition, and any reasonable attempt to express what Christianity means wilts. God begins instead to take on image we create for him, and becomes what we want, but at the same time becomes blurry and indefinite, more warm feeling, less deity, more principle, less concrete reality. And ultimately, I think this is unsatisfying, and we simply turn back to ourselves and our "common sense" to make decisions, and belief recedes into memory.

I haven't though of the room with the window for quite a while. I know very well that there are theological answers to all of the stuff above. The problem is, those answers don't get me through the window. For that, I need something else, and what that something else is, I don't know. Maybe, like the man attempting to gain access to the law in Kafka, I will never find out.


  1. The window reminds me of Kathryn's favorite painting, although I am not sure if it is parallel and can't remember exactly what the painting looks like.

    My own picture I've had for some time has been a surfacing from waters. Above, I can see what looks like to be the sun and what was once dark looks promising, but the breath of pure air has illuded me. I have been "surfacing" for quite a while. I believe it has been 6 years, but not quite sure as the whole experience is dreamy... and may be a false chase.

    This has me thinking of what sounds like the horrible torture they call "dunking".

  2. I think the struggle for "resurfacing" hasn't been a religious one, although I tied it to that for a while. My best guess is that it has been what is commonly known as a midlife crisis. That makes it sound so petty. I can't type much, but think it may be due to a biological change of the brain, much like the crazy change in teenhood.

  3. Thanks for reading this.
    Your surfacing image brings out something that wasn't as clear in mine -- the urgency of the need to break the suface; the sense that at any moment your lungs might give out. For me, it is more like the Kafka story I mentioned. My sense is not that it is impossible to get out the window. Rather, the answer is "not now." It could be that this is a false chase as you suggest, that the outside is a utopian image. C. S. Lewis found that the glimpses of what he called "joy" became unimportant after he found real faith. But for me, they have not gone away, and they are not age-related (the window image goes back to 1991, for example). It may be that the reason that some people do not experience questioning is more to do with the way society devalues questioning in favor of achievement, and less to do with mid-life. If you've bought into the favored childhood-school-work-marriage-kids progression, mid-life is the point where you begin to sense that perhaps you won't achieve much more than you are achieving already -- that you have reached a peak, and the struggle will now be to maintain rather than grow. But the issues for me at mid-life aren't much different from the questions I asked as a teenager, and post-college, and post-grad school. It like I'm digging in the garden and I find a question only to realize that it's the same question I laid aside to come back to long ago, just a bit muddier over time.

  4. The Kafka story is scary!

    The Kafka story reminds me of church - or maybe my bad approach to it. I got the feeling after much beating on the door that the gatekeepers all met for ale after hours and loathed over their horrible posts and pathetic knockers. That was their life; this was mine - no reconciliation because the game of gatekeeper and knocker had to keep going no matter how ridiculous it was.

    I think of the parable of the guy that kept bugging his neighbor until the neighbor finally gave in.

    Maybe, at some point, that sitting became a crisis.

    The accepted reason for a "midlife crisis" is a peak or something like you described, however I read a book which suggests it is actually a biological change of the brain. Granted, it might simply be the author's attempt to feel better about "gettin' old"

    I am fairly certain that I am thinking about things much differently than I did a few years ago. The cool thing is that it's better. The crazy thing is that I don't know how I know stuff. Before, I would follow a longer line of reasoning. You might say I "had better memory" before. Now, I find myself asking myself, "How are you gonna get this one with your new brain?"

    If that author is correct, it is during this time of that change that we feel like everything is breaking apart or that the walls have become monuments.

    I'm sorry, I have deviated from the original post.

    The other cool thing is that I am beginning to believe that this side of that muddied mess may be much more productive and enlightening than the previous.

    The picture here is of a constriction to almost pure black followed by an illusive opening.

    Re-iterating, I think I've been through something other than "peaking out" and understanding my mortality. However, I can definitely definitely see how it could be a peaking out... because it takes an *enormous* effort to get past, one that I think many would throw their hands up on giving over to "quiet repose", "bobbing along", cynicism etc.

    Rip off the painting and tear it to pieces! Punch the gatekeeper! Toss the table where they drink their ale. Sieze the day! Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Sorry. Got carried away :)