Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Almost Atheism (the confession of an orthodox rebel)

"He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. [...] Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief." Is. 53:3-10

I have seen a trend in mainstream Christianity, in all denominations and traditions. It has (perhaps) been an ever-present shadow to the substance of orthodoxy, but our modern realities of media and celebrity have made it more acute. It is in books, podcasts, T.V. and radio programs, blog posts, and even a few movies now and again. It is the siren song of our generation, and I call it "Syrup Christianity," an overly sweet, congealing parody of the traditional Faith. It is a "Christianity" of uncritical optimism, whose marshmallow God of warm fuzzies and easy explanations always makes sure that his real children are tolerating each other and having their "best life now." Yes, Osteen is a popular variant of this strain, but he is hardly alone. There are many others.

There's the "happy church" variety (whether Catholic or charismatic or fundamentalist) where every sermon or homily and every congregant or parishioner has been greased with fake smiles and forced exuberance because everything should be right if you're "right with God." There's also the "comfy doctrine" variety, where either serious reformed types tell you that Calvinism gives us no grounds for tears or anguish (for surely Calvin was not a man of sorrows) or serious radical types tell you that "love wins" in an unqualified, hazy way (for surely our versions of Hell and damnation are the scary concoctions of old curmudgeons).

Then there's the "culture of simplicity" where every Lifeway special or Cloud Ten production shills its cartoonish versions of light and dark, where the good is of the conservative Southern Baptist variety and the evil is some kind of New-Age atheism (and always a real jerk). And there's the "politics of triumphalism," where on the Right an American theocracy is trumpeted with jingoistic fervor, and on the Left the Kingdom of God can only be brought about by a socialist progressive agenda; in either case, legislation and activism are our only salvation.

I have rejected those answers, rejected them because they are all, at bottom, the same thing: "Syrup Christianity". They are all of the faith of easy answers and the eternal sunshine of spotless minds. Theirs is that world called "Perfect" that Walgreens always warned us about. Sorrow, fear, doubt, darkness, despair, death, loss, the insidiousness of evil, and fighting long defeats: these things mean nothing to them, nothing but irritations to be ignored, misrepresentations to be cleared up, or sins to be repented of. It is the religion of Job's friends, and with all due respect to its many adherents, I say a plague on all your houses. I want nothing to do with any of you. You are so unlike Jesus.

I have no patience for any system (either "secular" or "sacred") of life or thinking that makes no room for darkness and evil, real darkness and real evil. I am never more frustrated than when staring into the eyes of bald-faced optimism, with its naive temperament and clueless disposition. Do I believe that all shall be well? Of course: you can't be a Christian and believe otherwise. What I do not believe is that the road to redemption will run smooth or straight from our end, that things are somehow going to get better and better. It is all a lie. "Evil-doers shall wax worse and worse," and the Kingdom of God comes, not with rainbows and rays of summer, but with fire and thunder, and the violence of violent men, and blood pouring from the winepress of God's wrath. Christ will come indeed, but in righteousness to "judge and make war." All weapons will be beat into plowshares, but not until the final slaughter, of which Canaan was but a type and shadow. Apocalypse is our final eucatastrophe.

I am not morbid, and though I carry about a healthy does of pessimism, I am not a pessimist. What I am is someone who takes evil seriously, seriously enough to want real answers for it and solutions to it beyond childish dismissals or excuses. You cannot explain it away, nor is it reducible to soundbites about homosexuals or capitalism. Evil is real, evil hurts, and evil finds a way in. We are called to hate it ("abhor" it), not ignore it. God certainly hates it. As a man, He wept in anguish at death, met corruption with an almost reckless violence, and always carried a note of contempt in His words to not only the Pharisees and Sadducees but even the devil himself in the wilderness. I ask you: is your God big enough to hate evil? Hate it enough to do something about it? Mine is. He has to be.

My stake in this is neither political or even philosophical. Rather, it is deeply personal. For fifteen years, I lived in the same house as a chronically ill person. My mother's diabetes had somehow spawned a mysterious neuropathy that doctors have yet to explain adequately. All they know is this: it is eating away at her nerves, leaving her hands and feet in a paradoxical state of ever-increasing agony and ever-growing numbness. For fifteen years I watched this evil work its malice upon her. For fifteen years, I have seen the tragedy and the horror of the Fall. I've seen her lose everything she loved: teaching, playing the piano, hosting parties, seeing friends, attending church. All was swallowed into the void, and now all she can do is sit, sit, sit, sit, sit. And I do not like it, not one little bit.

How can you dwell in the presence of such suffering and walk away with easy answers about evil? I couldn't. I prayed for her healing everyday, but it never came. She only got worse. I prayed she'd be healthy enough for family events so she could get out and enjoy herself, but she often didn't (and still doesn't). God seemed to abandon her to this fate, and no smirking sentimentalism from the prophets of progress could come close to touching such a thing. In truth, I took them all to be one massive, monstrous joke; or worse, an insult straight at my mother and my heart. The religion of Job's friends is an affront to all Jobs, including my own.

Yet there is one more thing I must say about my Job: she has kept the faith, neither has she charged God foolish with her lips. I can remember, years ago, driving her to one of her numerous doctors. Her foot was in danger of collapse (again) and it needed to be set right. On the way home, I expressed to her my thoughts about her condition. I ended by saying that if anything could make me an atheist (I feared), it would be if she died without ever being healed. She listened to me patiently, sipping on a drink from Sonic, and when I finished she told me that she too had her moments of dark despair and doubt about God's purpose for all this. But she concluded with these words: "God has a plan. Even for pain. Don't let my pain shake your faith. It doesn't shake mine."

From that moment, I knew I could never be an atheist. There could never be an argument good enough, and I defy any skeptic to try. I have found a Faith that faces pain, that can face pain. Without fear, without a blink or flinch or shake. And that is the Faith I want. That is the Faith I love. Not the syrupy "faith" of Modern American Christendom, all pathetic smiles and perfect (or nebulous) explanations, but a Faith whose God has a place and plan for evil and pain. The Faith acquainted with grief and sorrow. The Faith of my mother. The Faith of Jesus, who was stricken, smitten, and afflicted, enduring the cross and its shame, who humbled Himself even unto death. My Jesus knows death, knows pain, knows darkness. He did not deny the dark but walked right into it, screaming up and out into its night like a flare burning blood red, and the darkness could not overcome Him. It has overcome all else except this thing, this one true thing, this new thing, this God-man who heals with His stripes, and was pleased to be bruised, crushed, and put to grief.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

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