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The recovery of hope

by
19 May 2023

Megan Dent finds God in life rather than in the library

I HAVE been thinking about how difficult it is coherently to express fundamental Christian concepts — God, prayer, sin — when speaking to friends, strangers, relatives, and acquaintances: to anybody, really — and especially in the 21st century. Interactions are increasingly short or fragmented in ways that seem designed to swipe right over nuances.

Take my three-year-old. He is baptised, and attends church on Sundays. We say prayers before dinner and before bed. But connecting the language that we use in those prayers (“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”) to his little life — the injustice of having to share a toy with his brother, the delight of singing in a soapy bath, the torment of having to wear a jacket — can feel difficult.

God is there in all of it, but to name God in the moments of delight, or to invoke Christ in moments of tantrum, seems trite at best and counterproductive at worst. How to communicate the nature of God to this nascent mind without diminishing its meaning or dismissing some of its challenges evades me.

 

OR, WHAT about trying to explain to a beloved gay friend why I stay committed to a Church whose deep ambivalence on issues of human sexuality feels hurtful to him? While I find the doctrine of sin solacing as an explanation for my own instinctive bent towards selfishness or self-destruction (depending on the day), the concept has an entirely different ring to a young gay man who has served the Church since he was a child, and who tries to be good, but knows that many believe that he is not.

In wrestling with what kind of language, disposition, or action could help me to convey my belief in God’s grace as the deepest truth of the world, despite human contradiction and despite the countless crises that can be felt to overshadow God’s love, I came upon a passage in the poet Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit. Nine months sober, she crouches on her knees in a bathroom, to pray dutifully to a higher power in whom she does not believe:

“The boundaries of my skin grow thin as I kneel there squinting my eyes shut. For a nanosecond, I am lucent.

“Inside it: an idea, the thread of a different perspective than any I’ve ever had. It’s a thought so counterintuitive, so unlike how I think, it feels as if it originates from outside me. The voice — the idea — comes in solid quiet in the midst of psychic chaos. . .

This passage struck my own hard heart to the core. “An idea, the thread of a different perspective to any I’ve ever had.” Indeed, isn’t this so often how God shows up? Not announcing his name, not explaining a piece of bewildering doctrine, but showing the divine nature, in the buds of something new. “For a nanosecond, I am lucent.”

I didn’t hear this idea in the pews, but it changed the way in which I understood what I did hear in the pews. And it put me in mind of the resources that we have within our tradition: of thinking about God in analogy, of finding God in bread and wine and water and flesh — and in that which is generative, that which is new. “And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God.”

 

A FEW weeks later, I was reading a close friend’s book about ideology. He is a social theorist and a historian of ideas. Among his many thoughtful considerations, he regards himself as “somewhere between an agnostic and a Lutheran”. He had recently told me that he struggled with the idea of Jesus’s divinity. He can wrap his head around God and the Holy Spirit, but, at the idea that Jesus Christ is God, he hits an impasse.

But, as I read his heavily researched academic prose — which was not theological in its nature — I kept finding myself face to face with hope, and even face to face with religious language. Some of his final lines read: The death, the resurrection and the life of ideology have been proclaimed on numerous occasions in the history of social thought. This book sides with those who see ideology not only as very much alive but entering a promising new era in its existence.”

After I finished the book, we discussed something entirely apart from the question of Jesus’s sovereignty: the importance of whether we — philosophically, or in any realm outside of the religious — choose to commit ourselves to hope. There was something that always caused him to insist on possibility, he told me, and to resist the academic temptation to nihilism. “It feels as if it originates from outside me.

 

AS WE find new ways to embody the gospel in the world, it is important, I think, that we don’t underestimate God by assuming that he confines himself to religious language or religious believers. Perhaps the best way in which we can witness to our faith is to enlarge our notion of God dramatically, and allow God’s presence in others’ lives to take the shape that it takes. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.”

My three-year-old asked me recently, while images of the devastation in Turkey and Syria filled our television screen, what had happened to the people whose homes had fallen down. “Who’s that? he asked, of the image of a woman in anguish, crying to the heavens. “That’s someone who is in deep pain,” I said. And “Who’s that?” he asked of the next image, of someone crawling, head first, into rubble, with blood on his face, desperately searching for a survivor.

“That’s someone who is helping,” I said. “That’s someone who will not leave the sides of those who suffer.” There ended our evening prayer.

 

Megan Dent is a freelance journalist.

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