Sunday, September 19, 2010

It's harder to believe than not to

When my friend was 15, we talked long about the difficulties of believing and I recall trying to comfort her with a fragment from Flannery O'Connor: "It is much harder to believe than not to believe."

Now, two decades later, my friend writes:
I have long had a question about the first of the blessings in the book Blessing Your Spirit by Sylvia Gunther/Arthur Burke... The first blessing is about identity and legitimacy, which I know is hugely important in terms of the well being of our spirits...  I was trying to pray it this morning, but I stopped because there is something I can't reconcile in my mind and I wan't your insight/opinion...
 In this blessing, there are phrases like "He chose your parents", "He put you in your family", "He chose every one of your 23 pairs of chromosomes" "He chose every one of your than 10,000 genes"... I can take this in for myself and find that comforting, but then I always wonder about things, like the friend who's father was physically abusive while he was in the womb and after he was born, and then abandoned him he was very young, or the child who could not be born because of a chromosomal disorder which dramatically impacted the course of development of his body in the womb, or the child with a genetic disorder or neurological disorder that resulted in severe autism or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia... Where is God in that?
 I guess maybe it's not God I take issue with but the language of this blessing... I believe God delights int he creation of each one of His children, but some of His children suffer so greatly from such an early age, and throughout the whole of their lives and, in light of that, I just don't know that I believe God is making active choices about the elements that are woven together to create us... How could He choose things that would cause such suffering?  How do we understand why sometimes physical or mental development is so different and challenging for some of God's children?  If it is, how can we say it's God's and blessing and miracle when that challenge does not occur?  It doesn't make sense it my mind....
I realize this is a big question, but I would love insight when you have the time...
I think this is an awfully good question from someone who has searched high and low and always seems to take God more seriously than anyone else, including herself. For what it's worth, here's my reply:

I was writing recently on crisis response into a corporate culture where people often use phrases like, "The Lord's has been good; we haven't had to face those challenges." I suggested that it's in the face of, and in the aftermath of, real emergencies that we may find ourselves replacing a phrase like that with the still truer declaration: "God is good all the time — and all evidence to the contrary."
Job plunges into theodicy along with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes — really just about everybody in the book, including Jesus who said our Father "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." 
The rising sun is generally accepted as an unambiguously positive development; rain can go either way — as the singer Mark Heard had it: "Rain can ruin your weekend; rain can spare your life; depending on who you are and what your thirst is like."
There certainly are passages in the biblical text that claim special attention from God in the womb to the development of David, Jeremiah, John and Jesus — there may be others.
And there is this from the 6th chapter of Ecclesiastes:
    3 A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.  4 It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded.  5 Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man—  6 even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place? 
All that to say I'm inclined to agree with you in taking issue with the blessing, which may be a bit overreaching compared with the overall sweep of the biblical narrative. Or maybe it trivializes the matter by framing things as if they were all about "me" concentrating on maintaining or returning to the perfect state in which God created me, as distinct from all us poor sinners in need of rescuing by the God who loves us and is redeeming us and saving us along with his whole creation for the restoration of all things. 
Back to Flannery O'Connor, whose words about believing I applied like a bandaid to my then teenaged friend. At the time my only exposure to the line, "It is harder to believe than not to believe," was a very fine song by Steve Taylor. I now the sentence is from a 1959 letter to her friend Louise Abbot. Miss O'Connor was on borrowed time when she wrote it, knowing it was just a matter of time till the disease that killed her father when she was 15 took her life as well. She certainly knew something about seeking the goodness of God in the land of the living and I give her the last word by including a bit of context from that letter to Louise Abbot:
I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child's faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.
— undated 1959 letter to Louise Abbot in The Habit of Being, p. 353-354

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