A few words on faith
by Paul Mathers
Many years ago, I worked in the ticket booth of a theater in an affluent area of Orange County. Every Yule season, the theater mounted a production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I still remember the patrons coming to the window in foul moods, mistreating the staff, then dragging their spoiled brats in to see the overpriced production, the irony of the message of the story lost on no one but them. It must not have been a very good production because I did not see people exiting the theater with their lives and values changed.
Every year, after Thanksgiving (because anything Christmas before Thanksgiving is over is GAUCHE GAUCHE GAUCHE!) I read A Christmas Carol aloud to my wife. I do the voices and everything. I was thinking about this the other day and reflecting on the impact of the story, a story with a decidedly Christian morality, and the prospect of the vitality of the story continuing in a post-Christian culture. As far as I can tell, the immorality of the contemporary business world surpasses the anti-Christian values which spurred Dickens to write the piece as a critique of a certain type of businessman in his time. Not to mention the amoral disorder of the hoi polloi in contemporary America. I think it’s coming, possibly even already here. It think at this point the story is nothing more than a nostalgia piece for most people and that the morality of it is dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. That doesn’t change the power of the piece; it simply speaks to the bankruptcy of the civilization.
The video above was posted by my wife on her Facebook feed and it has been biting me ever since I watched it. It’s an anti-bullying advert. I was bullied mercilessly in my childhood and this video brought all of that emotion rushing back on me. I was reminded of earlier this year something I read when I was writing my epic poem about Glenn Gould. Gould was commenting on the anti-nuclear proliferation movement, one of the problems of which being that what they were seeking to remove from the equation were nouns. Gould said words to the effect of, “I don’t believe in the anti-nuke movement because there is not an equally fervent anti-child-who-tears-the-wings-off-of-dragonflies movement.” What he was driving at was human nature. I like that there is an anti-bullying movement gaining legs in our culture right now, but I also feel like it’s futile.
When I became a believer, it was largely because of the doctrine of sin, the Fall, and human nature. It explained so much of what I observed in others, in the world, and in myself. It spoke to my existential suspicion of the depth of seriousness to existence, and to my constant neurotic realization that no matter how much fun I was having at any given time, someone somewhere was having the worst moment of their life. It spoke to the bullying I’d experienced, bullying for no gain on the part of the bullies, entirely senseless malevolence. It spoke to death, decay, madness, addiction, and entropy, all the seemingly most recurrent themes in existence. It spoke to the imperfections in myself, which are so glaring in my own eyes. It also explained the age old problem of why bad things happen to good people with the succinct and true answer, “There are no good people.”
I know a man who does not believe in Hell because God is love. A few years ago, one of my best friends died quite suddenly. He was not a believer and was always very good to me. A number of other truly horrific blows to my faith came at the same time and I found myself asking a lot of questions of my faith, one of those long dark nights you hear about. I struggled with the concept of Hell because I knew what my faith would say about my friend. At one point I began to read those banal and jejune neo-atheists because I found myself at a crossroad where I asked, “Can I not believe?”
I found that the answer was “No! I can’t not believe!” And this was because of two truths that surpassed “faith” and wedged into my cranium’s crenellations like a trident: 1) the ontological argument and 2) the sin nature of humankind. That latter eventually lead me to reconcile God being love with the existence of Hell, by the way. God being love means he demands justice for evil, it means that we do not live in chaos. God being a God who loves order is a great source of comfort to mercurial me.
In John 6, things get real for the disciples, and many people turn away from Jesus because he starts laying down the hard stuff, the predestination stuff:
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’
“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’”
And that was (and is) where I found myself, saying “Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I’ll tell you something aout myself that I have struggled with in the recent years. I am a hypochondriac and germ-phobe (opening doors with paper towels, constant handwashing, carrying hand sanitizer and a little spray bottle of rubbing alcohol for phones, pens, and anything else anyone else has touched, washing my nostrils out whenever I’m around someone who coughs and then texting my wife to have her reassure me that I did not just give myself the brain eating amoeba – which may sound funny but I’m sure isn’t when you have to live with someone like me – eating sandwiches and pizza with a knife and fork, skin cracking from rubbing alcohol, avoiding shaking hands, and so much more) to the extent that I am fairly certain I would be diagnosed obsessive-compulsive. I haven’t sought that out because I know that if I rely on that path to overcome it, I will forever be a slave to it. I know I need to work it out in faith. In the past few years, it has exploded into a sort of mania. I’m better now than I was a year or two ago, but I still struggle. I am currently teaching a class on the history of the Reformation and this past week I taught on the life of Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli was a reformer in Switzerland and a priest. The bubonic plague broke out in Zurich and he stayed to minister to people. And he caught the plague. And he survived it! And after that the people respected him. After that, he became earnest in his faith and learned to trust God in everything.
That has stuck with me over the past few days so much and, indeed, has been such a balm to my soul. He took his faith that seriously. Indeed, it should be taken that seriously. It has to be taken that seriously. None of us takes it as seriously as we should. We all want out peccadillos and wisps of perfume of the seven deadlies to tell the world we are not stuck up. We want our autonomy. We want our pat pop answers of the needle’s eye being some kind of gate where they took their possessions off of the camel to get through and then piled them back on, or how the apostles were not communists. We want our childrearing manuals with the easy answers and our gender roles that we can take great pride in. We want to leave a church body because the songs don’t make us want to wiggle our butts and we want our pastor to write us permission slips to travel in the world with a tourist visa. In short, we want for God to bow to us.
Again, I am faced with the question of whether or not I really believe this and I have to say, “To whom shall I go?” Sure this world is beautiful in many ways. I am fully convinced that that beauty is only the vestigial remains of the imprint of the creator. In most ways, it is a very ugly world, a very brutish and bullying world. The seriousness of my faith is not only extreme; it is the only thing of any importance really. It is the only thing I have to hang onto in this world.
I do not wish to be so gauche as to write a Christmas post at this point, but I did want to remark on the coming season. I feel that the coming season holds a mirror up to us, whether we realize it or not. It is certainly an intensifier… and seems to be a bit of an accelerator. It’s amazing that we don’t all have conical heads by New Year’s. In that time there is a story all around us. It is undoubtedly there the rest of the year if we were willing to tap into it. It is a story that, if we really understand it and really take it seriously, is the key to charity, love, and the relief of redemption from this bleak, cold existence. We are beggars. This is true.
As I am reflecting on these things, making connections over the past few days, I would like to offer all of my fellow believers two phrases that are helping me tremendously right now. Write them down and stick them in your pocket. Get them tattooed on your forearms. Whatever helps. One is “To whom shall I go?” Think of this in reference to the seriousness of your faith. And also try walking around with this other one in your head in reference to the seriousness of your faith, and try saying it whenever your walk becomes difficult:
“Zwingli caught the plague.”