Thursday, March 08, 2007

Harden not your hearts . . .

I'm not particularly in the mood for this, but I thought our blog readers were due for a momentary interruption in my reveries about Liz.

I am more and more out of touch with whatever might be capturing the popular imagination at any given moment. I have neither television nor radio, and I take only a passing glance at current events on the internet. I do make an effort to assess as best I can the deeper cultural and spiritual currents, but this often means discounting the importance of the "page one" stories.

Since I have the great good fortune to be able to start my day with Lauds and Mass at the monastery down the road, and as it is there that I feel the presence of my saintly and recently departed wife most palpably, I tend especially during these Lenten days of personal mourning to take my cues from the liturgy and the lectionary readings.

Today's readings first reading was from Jeremiah 17:
Thus says the LORD:
Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a barren bush in the desert
that enjoys no change of season,
But stands in a lava waste,
a salt and empty earth.
This brought my mind back to something that occurred to me yesterday while I was on my daily drive over to Liz's gravesite in Worcester. I had been noticing that a fair amount of attention was being paid to a recent spate of books by angry atheists who know about as much about Christianity as I know about quantum mechanics, but who figure you don't need to know much to know that the world would be better off without it -- Christianity, that is, not quantum mechanics. Richard Dawkins has written The God Delusion, Sam Harris has written A Letter to a Christian nation, God: The Failed Hypothesis, and Daniel Dennett has written something or other about how ridiculous faith in God is. These books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

I haven't read these books, and I'm not likely to. (If I was a much faster reader or a much younger man, I might justify the time required to do so.) I have seen a number of reviews, however, and talked with friends who have the herculean self-discipline required to read these dreary and predictable tracts cover to cover, and I think I get the gist of the argument. If I'm even remotely correct in my estimation of them, they deserve the thrashing they have taken at the hands of serious and informed reviewers.

My state of mind these days is such that I can't work up the petulance these books deserve, but I can offer perhaps one little thought. So, with apologies for being as ignorant of their books as they appear to be of Christianity, here's what my response would be to Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, et al.
Whatever might be the drab qualities of the god you think Christians worship, and however perverse and politically dangerous you think this god is, the God Christ revealed and that Christians worship is a God who changes water into wine, violence into suffering, and (see the Beatitudes) suffering into joy -- the God, that is, who anoints the bowed head and contrite heart with the oil of gladness, the God who saved the pagan world from despair.

So, the god atheists are sure doesn't exist is banality itself compared to the God Christians are sure does.

If you think you can live without this (Judeo-Christian) God, good luck; you'll need all the luck you can get. But were you to succeed (which you won't) in your efforts to eliminate this God from lives of the rest of us -- by the draconian means that are now being proposed -- you would find that the result is not the peaceful and rational world of your dreams, but a world where the wine of conviviality turns to rancorous vinegar, where the hope that awakens and animates intellectual inquiry turns into cynical shrugs and idle curiosity, where suffering turns into violence, and where mobs roam the world looking for someone to blame for their despair.
Jeremiah's warning about the sterile emptiness experienced by those "whose heart turns away from the LORD," is followed by what is perhaps the most famous passage in this prophet's writings:
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose hope is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream:
It fears not the heat when it comes,
its leaves stay green;
In the year of drought it shows no distress,
but still bears fruit.
G. K. Chesterton warned that there are only two choices: dogma or prejudice, an echo of Dorothy Sayers' "creed or chaos." "I am quite ready to respect another man's faith," Chesterton wrote, "but it is too much to ask that I should respect his doubt, his worldly hesitations and fictions, his political bargain and make-believe."

Since Liz is ever on my mind these days, let me conclude with two verses from Psalm 127 which Liz and I used to recite together:
If the Lord does not build the house,
in vain do its builders labor;
if the Lord does not watch over the city,
in vain does the watchman keep vigil.

In vain is your earlier rising,
your going later to rest,
you who toil for the bread you eat:
when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber.
Please keep Liz in your prayers.


Athos said...

In That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis says of grief:

Mr. Maggs, seated in a little white cell, chewed steadily on his great sorrow as only a simple man can chew. An educated man (finds) misery streaked with reflection..."

Thank you for sharing your reflections even in these days and weeks of great sorrow and misery, Gil.

Mark J B said...


Before I read your posting of today -- I have not read for a week or so -- I thought to myself, "I bet he's in an emotional flat period."

Maybe I can suggest an idle bit of Biblical entertainment: use GoogleEarth to take a 'flying tour' of the Jordan River Valley from Mt. Hermon to Africa. (Tips: reorient the view to south facing, and tip the land upwards so you can see the land gradient. You can see the volcanic and geologic activity by clicking Layers, Geographic Feature and check Volcanos and Earthquakes (Rest of the World).)

As one travels south from Mt. Hermon, past Jesus' homeland and the Lake, the land becomes more and more desolate, eventually to the Dead Sea, thereafter the salt marshes.

The Jordan Valley demarcates a rift separating a north-northeastward traveling African tectonic plate and a north-northwestward traveling Asian tectonic plate – hence the volcanic activity.

Beyond the Dead Sea to the south, to borrow a phrase, "There be dragons." It is lunar landscape in the Sinai. It is easy to envision the Burning Bush there, and volcanic Jebal Musa, Adonai revealed in smoke, lightning and the sound of trumpets -- if that is in fact the place where Moses received his revelation. (Some scholars suggest he led The People deeper into Arabia than the Sinai.)

I am not a shill for GoogleEarth. I just think it is really neat.

Kindest regards,