3.07.2006

Myself (or someone like me) v. 6

Happy Cashmir Pulaski Day. The fundamental issue at the bottom of atheistic/agnostic Darwinism is the age-old problem of evil. This issue seems irresolvable for modern day evo-evangelists like Richard Dawkins, as it was for T. H. Huxley and Darwin himself. Darwin and Huxley lost young children to nasty, brutish, and short diseases--Darwin a daughter, Huxley a son--and it was ultimately these losses that pushed them over the brink toward unbelief (both were already "transmutationists," i.e., "evolutionists"). As Huxley famously wrote to a good Christian friend who attempted to comfort him by saying that Huxley would see his son again in heaven: "I cannot be intellectually dishonest." In the face of so piercing a loss, Huxley could only wonder and despair at the seeming cold distance of God. Heaven might be a comfort if one had felt what it was like to actually be in heaven. In the midst of so harsh a grief, anything like heaven seemed impossibly distant at best, and more likely a fairy tale. In either case, Huxley found the notion no more comforting than the notion that the universe was essentially undirected. I admit, it's the arbitrariness of death that shakes my faith. It's not easier to believe that our Watchmaker God has sunk into the unfeeling depths of space; unbelief in any form also doesn't seem an option. But it makes one wonder--what is the suffering for? The good reformed theologian in me (or is that the chastened grace brethren schoolboy) pipes up immediately: we deserve far worse than what we get. Pain is too good for our depraved selves. We deserve immediate and eternal damnation. That intensely good times are sprinkled throughout our lives is Grace, the golden exception to the iron rule that should be imposed. My wife's teasing smile, my cats' insistent purrs, the smell of fresh cut grass in June, the rush when I finally grasp a concept that has continually dodged my best efforts at comprehension, the roar of 100,000 football fans at the Shoe when a touchdown is scored, the supernatural peacefulness of heavy snowfall in the New Hampshire mountains, the thrill at hearing an especially powerful song, and--above all--my daughter's laugh when being tickled: I can't help but think that these things are not epiphenomenal glitches in an otherwise depraved universe. Despite the voice of the good reformed theologian, it certainly doesn't feel like all I deserve--all anyone deserves--is suffering, abuse, and death. For crying out loud, even Christ wept at the death of Lazarus just before he raised Lazarus from the dead. This doesn't seem like the rational response of a God-Man who knows better, who knows the stuff of the universe, who knows that he has the power to resurrect. So death confuses me. I can't make it fit in seamlessly with the rest of my world. Or rather I should say that I don't understand the randomness of death--how it gets assigned to those that seem to merit it least. If the universe is so well-designed, said Darwin and Lyell and Huxley (and now Dawkins et. al.), why the needless waste of life? Why should the universe return to the ashes and dust from whence it was made just because two people f-ed up? Perhaps it would be easier to believe there is no plan to be thwarted by a couple of nude Middle Easterners. I would like to say that my dad's unexpected death brought these issues to the fore for me. But to be honest, I numbed up pretty quickly in the early months of '96. These last ten years have been relearning and forgetting and relearning how to feel. The worst feelings--the unanswerable grief--came after the successive deaths of my aunt and uncle early in 2001. Joan was my mother's next-to-oldest sibling. She worked as a clinical psychologist for most of her adult life, starting in VA hospitals. She served a term with a MASH unit during the Vietnam War, which she described as the most fulfilling and disquieting time in her career. As a hobby--to relieve the stresses of working with patients who were often in considerable psychological stress--Joan planted roses in her modest garden. Her neighbors marveled that Joan was able to spend so little time with her garden and yet achieve such beautiful flowers. Her secret was a flower fertilizer that she sprayed on the leaves of the rose plants. In the late 1980s, the product was taken off the market because its main ingredient was thought to cause cancer if inhaled in high enough doses. Her friends at St. Luke's Catholic Church in Alexandria, Louisiana, described Joan as a "prayer warrior"--someone who spent as much time on her knees as she did in her garden or in the bathtub (another stress-reliever). St. Luke's was a little out of the mainstream in Catholicism--a charismatic-evangelical Catholic Church in a very conservative parish. Joan was not a high profile person in the church but she introduced a number of people to Our Lord over her year at the church. She touched many lives, prayed for many people, and loved, loved, loved. My dad had been dead several months when Joan told us that she had pulmonary fibrosis--likely through years of using the rose fertilizer. The disease was almost beyond treatment in her lungs. Only a full transplant of at least one lung could give her back breath. She refused to sign up for a transplant, however, because she believed that Jesus would heal her. In 1999, it seemed she was pretty much going to die without a transplant and her sisters pressured her into allowing her name to be put on a donor recipient list. She got two lungs several tense months later. We prayed and prayed for her. Her church laid hands on her several times. She lived two years with her new lungs but eventually her body rejected the transplants and she suffocated. I hate to even think it, but not-breathing-to-death seems to constitute a trend in my family. At her funeral in March 2001, one week after I first started working at Element, I met my Uncle Tom, my mom's older brother. I had only met Tom at a handful of family events over the years. He had become a raging alcoholic following his return to the States. He had served in the Air Force as a B-52 Bomber pilot--flying in some of the secret missions over Cambodia at the end of the Vietnam War. His entire squadron was shot down during one mission and most of his friends and comrades were killed. He made it to a field hospital, married the Puerto Rican nurse that took care of him (now my aunt), and moved as far away from anyone he knew as possible. He couldn't hold down a job due to his drinking. He refused to talk about his experiences in the war; likely the alcoholism and the isolation were covers for stories he would never utter, though he relived them continually. After my dad killed himself, Tom gave up drinking cold turkey. By 1999, he had rekindled a relationship with our family via phone and email. But I still was almost a stranger to him when we talked at Joan's funeral. I spent hours with him just listening to him talk. Without meaning to slight the rest of my family, he really was the most entertaining of my relatives. I would likely have had a close relationship to him. But during the funeral he contracted a cold. The cold turned into a sinus infection; the sinus infection worsened. And within a couple of weeks, Tom was developing terrible headaches that kept him up at night. Prescribed antibiotics did little to dent the pain or the interminable infection. Finally my aunt took him to a hospital where, when she pleaded long enough, they gave him a CAT scan. The diagnosis: bilateral thrombosis. His sinus cavities had been eaten away by an infection that was pressing against his brain. He went into immediate surgery from which he never awoke. After a week-long coma, Tom died in May of 2001. It's not death itself that is so hard to face. After all, aside from birth, it's the aspect of life that every human and animal and plant shares. We expire. It should be mundane, untroubling. It's the how and why of death that is inexplicable. The destruction of what...not usually mere shells of bodies that have been wasted away until they seem almost a hindrance--a "mortal coil." These people that pass before our eyes, that are just wisps of smoke, are not that to us at all. They're voices, laughter, glistening eyes, wrinkles, handshakes, grins full of teeth, sayings and jokes, habits, knowledge and wisdom, the mirth of life itself. They're far too complex to describe in sentences or even books. And they are taken from us while we're about our business doing other things...doing life. The voices stop; the eyes close; the tears dry up. They slip away. And what is there in the casket is not them. The plot of grass with their headstone above it is as much them as their bodies are then--and easier to talk to. The seeming arbitrariness, the unnaturalness, the incongruity, the awkwardness, the waste piled up high around us: this is what Darwin and Huxley and others could not stomach. It is easier to not see Our Father as the Author, even as the hands-off Permitter of something so alien and at the same time so intrusively familiar as the death which haunts us all. It is easier to ignore death and give praise to the Living One. It is easier to turn on the television and coolly observe the commodified spectacle of death than to face its emptiness, its meaninglessness. Death made Jesus weep. What hope, then, do we have in this world that seems to be organized around death? Where, Oh Death, is your sting if not right here in my gut?

3 Comments:

Blogger Andy Whitman said...

You're asking big, unanswerable questions. Or, rather, the questions have answers, but they don't even begin to satisfy in light of the cold, hard punch in the gut that accompanies the seeming randomness and meaninglessness of death. And death not in the abstract, either, but death in all its fully personal, idiosyncratic regalia; the death of aunts who love roses and who die from roses, the uncles who at long last get their shit together, and then promptly die before it can really make a difference. The answers don’t really help much in those times. It's not an intellectual exercise. It's a cry of pain, the worst kind of pain we ever experience.

And yet, what is faith if not the evidence of things not seen?

As a young Christian in college somebody handed me a stack of Francis Schaeffer books and said, “read these; they’ll give you a better intellectual foundation than anything else.” And mostly they were right. In one of those books Schaeffer took on the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote about “the leap of faith.” Schaeffer went to great lengths to emphasize the rational nature of the Christian faith, to emphatically assert that it makes sense, that it holds together in the light of the most rigorous intellectual questioning. And he took Kierkegaard to task for the seemingly irrational response of “the leap of faith.” I never bought it, and frankly I wondered if Schaeffer had ever experienced the death of someone close to him. Because in those situations, Christianity is anything but rational. It’s the difference between the C.S. Lewis of “The Problem of Pain,” with its nice, neat arguments, and the C.S. Lewis of “A Grief Observed,” which is just a great, aching mess, the story of a mere thinking, feeling man, not a theologian, dealing with his wife’s death.

For what it’s worth, I am a firm proponent of the leap of faith. And make no mistake. It is a leap across a great chasm. Sometimes it seems a lot like pedaling your bicycle as fast as you can to the edge of the Grand Canyon, and flying off, and believing that you’re going to sail all way to the other side, defying gravity. It seems to me that there are only two options if one is intellectually honest (hi, Mr. Schaeffer). One can believe that senselessness has the last word, that people die – brutually, inexplicably, without meaning or purpose – and that is all there is. Or one can believe that the senselessness will one day make sense, that we really do live in the shadowlands, that real life is yet to come, that every tear will be wiped away, that there will be no more death or mourning, for the old order of things has passed away. But I will tell that I distrust anyone who tells me that it makes sense in this life. It does not.

3/07/2006 9:13 AM  
Anonymous Ray Grieselhuber said...

Erik - you've nailed it. There is something indeed very comforting about fatalism / nihilism, if you're in the right (wrong) sort of mood. I think that's where Dawkins, et al. are coming from at a core level, although who can judge? All I know, is I've experienced times where it was much easier to accept void than stories about a loving God.

If it weren't for memories of grace that I've experienced, I'm quite sure it would swallow me for the same reasons and doubts that you bring up.

Thanks for the honest post. As Andy said, there are no easy answers.

3/07/2006 8:52 PM  
Blogger John McCollum said...

Erik, Andy, Ray, et al,

No easy answers indeed.

Even the most joyful moments of my life have been tinged with profound sorrow. As we prepare our homes and hearts for the arrival of our little girl from China, our exuberance is tempered by the reality that somewhere, some woman is mourning the loss of this child, for whom they were unable to provide care.

Thank God the Bible is filled with pathos, not platitude. From Jeremiah to Jesus, our scriptures are filled with men who are closely aquainted with sorrow, men who weep. It doesn't read like propaganda -- it reads like real life. How long, oh Lord?

I really do believe that we as Christians are most 'redemptive' when we engage our own suffering and that of those around us. And as I keep telling myself (and anyone who'll listen), 'engaging' doesn't mean 'fixing.'

Even Jesus, Emmanuel, the With-us-God, didn't banish all sorrow, sickness, death and suffering when he came to earth. But he did break its power to destroy us by changing death's ultimate significance. It's through this darkened glass that we struggle to catch glimpses of a new world where death is defanged; even the glimpses require a leap of faith.

"Nothing is colder than the winds of change
Where the chill numbs the dreamer til the shadow remains
Among your ruins lies your tortured soul
Was it lost there? Or did your will surrender control?
Shivering with doubts that were left unattended
You toss away the cloak that you should have mended
You know by know why the chosen are few
It's harder to believe than not to."

-- Steve Taylor

3/08/2006 8:34 AM  

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