My friend Andy and I used to get into these long theological conversations/debates/duels, which I miss. He wrote a post the other night that I thought was really interesting, based on a Neil Gaiman poem that ends:
"I really don’t know what I love you means
I think it means don’t leave me here alone"You should check out Andy's whole post here. He ended it with these questions:
"What if God isn't just that which gives us meaning or allows us to feel like we belong? What do we do then?"
I told Andy I'd write a post in response to his question, but he had to write a blog in response to the question, "What if God really is that which gives us meaning or allows us to feel like we belong? What do we do then?"
He's done his part. Now it's my turn.
Andy did something wise, which was to break his response into 3 shorter posts rather than one long post. So I'm going to follow that same format.
So, part one is: "What if God isn't that which gives us meaning?"
In Andy's question I hear echoes of the critiques brought against religion by the so-called "Masters of Suspicion"--Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. For Freud, God was just a projection of the desires of humans. Marx is well known for calling religion the "opiate of the masses," but the image he uses that I think is more illustrative of his position is of religion as the beautiful flowers hiding the chains of oppression. And Nietzsche (if I understand him correctly, which I probably don't) felt that the Christian religion was just a way to try to deny the creeping nihilism that he felt was infecting European society.
Christianity's response to these critiques has generally been to shout them down, to try to drown them out with the beating of bibles and the ever-louder singing of praise songs (don't get me wrong. I love me some ever-louder singing). But I think that if we're not willing to actually engage with these criticisms that it probably says more about us and our doubts than it does about some German (Austrian?) guys. And indeed a growing number of Christian scholars are doing just that, engaging with the Masters of Suspicion with an attitude of curiosity and self-reflection rather than defensiveness. (It's worth noting that Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, during which time chattel slavery, supported by many Christians, was the law of the land in the USAmerican South. I'd imagine Jesus was a wee bit more pissed off at the latter than the former).
What does that have to do with meaning?
First off, let me say that I very much agree with something Andy says in his post on meaning:
"For starters, I believe that there are acts that are devoid of meaning. I think that we can try our best to theologize everything, but acts like genocide, rape, murder, and the like are inherently meaningless. This doesn’t mean that we cannot grow or recover from such acts, just that the acts in and of themselves are meaningless."I'm preaching at a funeral this week for a young man (who I did not know) who died in a car accident. There's no inherent meaning in it. It's a tragedy, period. It is not part of a plan. It will not make more sense by and by.
And so I think what I hear in Andy's first question--"What if God isn't that which gives meaning?"--is an echo of the question that I think folks like Freud and Marx and Nietzsche first raised: "What if we've just created God because we need to feel like everything is ok?"
And the thing is that I just don't think that everything is ok. The God that I believe in thinks some stuff isn't ok. Stuff like what Andy mentioned--mass murder, sexual assault. Things like economic oppression and racism.
The prophet Jeremiah reports God saying: "Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more." There are some things that cannot simply be ok, some things that cannot be redeemed in-and-of themselves, some events after which there is no immediate comfort.
What God does, I'd argue, is stand in solidarity with us in the midst of meaninglessness, and give us the grace and the strength to figure out how to continue our stories. How to integrate meaninglessness into a broader story of meaning. And the thing is that God doesn't show up and "poof" do it for us, but rather walks with us and stands with us.
In Acts, there's this great story of Peter and Cornelius. At one point Peter sees a vision of unclean food and a voice telling him to eat (it's worth noting that he has this vision as he's praying on the roof instead of eating. I've had this happen as well. PrayPrayPray...mmmmbacon....PrayPrayPray). Then folks from Cornelius' house--not just a Gentile but a Roman centurion, so definitely not the "good guy" for Peter--show up and say that Peter should come with them. And he does, and by the time he's gotten to Cornelius' house he's decided that his vision means that he shouldn't call any person unclean.
Check Acts 10 out for yourself if you want, but at no point does the author say that God says to Peter: "You shouldn't think Gentiles are unclean." Peter has come to that conclusion based on a dream about bacon (well, ok, actually lizards or something) and a conversation with some Gentile servants. And yet exactly there is God acting to bring about meaning. Not by magically creating it out of nothing, but by participating in the meaning-making, story-crafting efforts of humans, who are in turn made in the image of a storytelling God.
God's grace allows us to read our stories as part of a bigger story. In Donald Miller's words, "I am a tree in a story about a forest."
But that's different than turning to God for meaning; different than saying "God has a plan"; different than saying "We'll understand it better by and by."
God empowers us to confront meaningless, not deny it.
Which, oddly enough, is sort of what Nietzsche--the great detractor of religion, the declarant of the death of God--wanted to do, too.