Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
~Wesley, The Princess Bride
Under the surface, when we let all our defenses down, with the lights out, lies an undercurrent of existential angst in each one of us. A wrestling with what it means to be alive, to exist in this world. We tell ourselves and each other stories, place ourselves in a narrative, or several, to quiet that restless voice. To fill in the yawning void. And I should mention that I don’t mean that in a demeaning sense; story is what makes us human, what allows us to create, what bonds us together and pushes us forward. “Oh, they’re just stories” is about the dumbest thing anyone could say.
But what happens when something cuts against the grain of our narrative? This usually happens when we’re brought face to face with real suffering. “Make America Great Again” sounds like a fine story to jump into, then we learn how America was made great by the exploitation of black and brown bodies, that America thrust itself into “greatness” by native conquest, war, ravaging the environment, and lots and lots of death. The left has its own narratives, too, the point is to expose the tension.
This destabilization is the whole point of Atheism for Lent (go back a post or two to read more about it), and this week has been full of blistering critiques of God as a being. I’ll link to some info on that last part below, but this week explored the space on the threshold of theodicy. The old Epicurean argument of “how does a being that is all-powerful and good allow evil and suffering?” We tend to want to just jump over the threshold and through the door, but this week stayed in the space without ever going in. The riff ended on a flat 5th. Because let’s face it, no theodicy theory can calm those trepid waters deep under the ground of our souls.
A couple months ago, Christianity Today wrote about a list of the top looked-up bible verses by country. I was fascinated that the vast majority of verses were ones that directly tried to calm that anxiety, verses like:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” -Jeremiah 29:11
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” -Joshua 1:9
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” -Romans 8:28
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” -Philippians 4:6-7
The funny thing is atheism can do this, too. Rejecting a something you see as a falsehood, and seeing yourself as “not deluded” can be in its own way a form of balm. In one of the readings this week, the author wrote of how to make an assertion, you have to negate the opposite of your assertion. Kind of like an equation, both sides of the equals sign have to be, well, equal. So in a sense, an atheist moving away from a concept of God affirms that a concept of God is something to move away from (I’m not sure I analogized that right, but you get the idea).
Look at Western Christian music, namely white Christian music. Most of us have a better life than kings did a millennia or two ago, and also way better than a lot of the world. When your immediate needs are met – food, water, shelter, safety, acceptance, etc – what do you sing about? Well, exhibit A:
You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand
~Oceans, Hillsong United
You sing to reassure yourself in the face of existential anxiety, to soothe those waters, or at least the space around you. Because if that doesn’t happen, you’re left exposed in oceans deep, where feet may fail. Isn’t this the foundation for Puddleglum’s famous speech in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair?
But, as I’ve written about before, what would happen if we sat with it? Looked at our reflection in those troubled waters, to see what it had to say about us?
Anyways, that’s enough for now. Until next week!
Peace and Tenacity,
(For more on Peter’s descriptions of God as types of Being, start here)