The late professor of literature and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis is reputed to have said “We read in order to know we are not alone”. I have only ever encountered this quotation in the movie about Lewis, Shadowlands, which chronicles Lewis’s relationship with American divorcee Joy Davidman. But, even if Lewis never uttered those particular words, the movie, at least, told the truth about my relationship with four texts that changed my life in critical ways: Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poem “Ulysses,” Prof. David Blumenthal’s Facing the Abusing God, Peter DeVries’s harrowing novel The Blood of the Lamb, and Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Though I did not realize it at the time, the confluence of these four texts would – at first on an unconscious, “subterranean” level – define my spirituality for decades after encountering them, despite the surface appearance of Christian faith I was always careful to maintain.
Rather than repeat myself by going into an account of the significance of “Ulysses,” I will refer you to my article in The BeZine for December of 2015. (I will also refer you to its companion piece, about the downside of “sailing with Ulysses” published the following month.) Beyond that, I will only repeat what I said in the December article: that “Ulysses” made such a powerful impression on me that, even though I was only in the eighth grade when I first encountered it, after reading the poem only a half-dozen times, I found I could recite it perfectly and verbatim from memory. I still can.
The book by Prof. (and Rabbi) David Blumenthal of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, I encountered as a result of a casual, off-the-cuff, oh-by-the-way remark from Victoria Riesz, who, along with Fr. Jim Eblen, team-taught a class called Theological Reflection in Ministry at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry (STM) during my first summer as an MDiv student there in 1998. At first, I was just intrigued by the title: Facing the Abusing God. There are two reasons the title prompted me to read the book itself, one reason “institutional-cultural”, and the second reason, of which I was not conscious at the time, quite deeply personal. To understand the former reason, you have to know that the “institutional-cultural” theology of STM is that God is radically approachable, radically non-threatening, and radically … well … radically benevolently disposed – even radically friendly – toward human beings. STM’s view of God was then, and I think still is, quite the opposite of the view of God expressed by C. S. Lewis in one of the Narnia books: the great lion “Aslan [God’s persona in Narnia] is not a safe lion”. The “institutional-cultural” theology of STM, by contrast, insists that God is very safe. Being exceptionally proficient at using the language, I could talk the talk of the “safe God”. But I was never very good at walking the walk. So for reasons I was not altogether conscious of at the time, I was never “at home” in such a theology. Hence my sense of intrigue with a book bearing a title like Facing the Abusing God. Not “the abusing Church” or “the abusing male-centric hierarchy”, both of which would have been quite congenial to the prevailing ideology of STM. But “the abusing God“. As the old Brewer and Shipley stoner song says, that was “one toke over the line”.
When I read the book, I discovered why – and the answer to “why” was considerably more than I bargained for. To his enduring credit, Blumenthal takes with utter theological seriousness what Fr. Ron Rolheiser, in a recent column, calls the “difficult texts” of (both Testaments of) the Bible. But unlike Fr. Rolheiser, Blumenthal reads the “surface” of the text just as it stands and unflinchingly draws the “plain-text” inferences therefrom: that God is – not always, but certainly on occasion – ruthlessly vindictive, cruel, and capriciously abusive, a conclusion that, Blumenthal argues, is amply justified by a reading of the account of God’s relationship to Israel in the Hebrew Bible. (I suppose I should say that, while Blumenthal, does not accept the historicity of all such texts, he does – as I do – take all of them seriously as theological parables.) He also cites the experience of friends of his, usually from various synagogue communities with which he is acquainted, as evidence that people’s contemporary experience of God continues to follow this pattern. Especially heartbreaking is the experience of one woman, whom Blumenthal calls “Diane,” who was abused by her father, who shrieked to God for help … but whom God did not help. Thanks to Blumenthal’s book, “Diane” taught me that I was not alone. At one point, “Diane” remarks that her experience with power, both “father power” and Divine power, is that the likelihood of abuse increases proportionately with the degree of power, so that, as Diane says, “I cannot trust omnipotent God not to abuse”.
Neither can I. Facing the Abusing God taught me what my real, actual, lived theology was – at that time, in my pre-atheism days – and revealed to me why, though I could “talk the talk,” I could not, probably never would, “walk the walk”: I had spent, up to that point, 40 years trying, as I say now, to “please the Great Unpleasable”. I was intent on “busting a gut for Jesus” – and in the end, all I ended up with was a busted gut. I remember vividly that as I read the book, I would have to stop every half-dozen or dozen pages, put the book down, go outside, and – in the concealment of our cedar privacy fence – pound my fists against the side of the house until my knuckles were bloody. Then I would go back inside the house, pick up the book, and read some more. From that point on – summer, 1998 – though I still believed in God … well … sorta-kinda … I from that day never hesitated to challenge the rhetoric of “Aslan the safe Lion” in my classes at STM, often to the chagrin of professors and fellow students. I graduated with my degree in December of 2000. I don’t know, but I strongly suspect, that STM was glad to get rid of me.
But Facing the Abusing God was just the final drop of water that caused the glass to overflow. Years before that, I had read Peter DeVries’ thinly fictionalized autobiographical novel The Blood of the Lamb. I say “thinly fictionalized” because, like the main viewpoint / first-person protagonist of the novel, Don Wanderhope, DeVries had endured the loss, due to leukemia, of his teenage daughter. Don started out as a Christian believer, albeit a gadfly to his more conventionally devout Dutch Reformed Church friends and relatives. Along the way, he falls in love with a young woman – a fellow patient in a TB sanatorium – whom he supports through the disease itself, as well as the painful diagnostic procedures she is forced to endure as part of her treatment. When she dies, Don begins his journey into the wilderness of the Problem of Evil, joined along the way by the world-weary director of the sanatorium, who endures Don’s questions, all of which the director has lived with for decades of his professional life. Finally, released from the sanatorium and cured, Don meets and marries a woman, who, as it turns out, becomes severely depressed and emotionally unstable, and who is eventually institutionalized. But together they have a child who seemingly is the compensation that the God in Whom Don still believes sends as recompense for previous suffering. When Carol is 13, she is afflicted with leukemia – just like DeVries’ real-life daughter – and the remainder of the novel comprises Don’s and Carol’s struggle with chemotherapy, radiation, the false hope of temporary remissions – followed by relapses. When Carol is in the hospital for what turns out to be her final chemo regimen, Don leaves her briefly to buy her a birthday cake so they can celebrate. He arrives back at the hospital, cake in hand, just in time to watch Carol die. When she is gone, he leaves the hospital, walks to a nearby church and, standing on the top step leading to the entrance, flings the cake straight up at a figure of the crucified Christ,hitting Him in the face.
At the end of the novel, I envied Don his cake-flinging abilities, and the final event of Lamb haunted me as I finished Facing the Abusing God. I also realized, as a result of both books that, unlike a lot of people who treat the Problem of Evil as a pipe-and-brandy armchair academic diversion, I take the Problem of Evil with utter and intimate and immediate “existential” seriousness. With me it’s personal. Carol is not the only one God left naked. God also did not protect my dad from a physically and emotionally abusive father, nor did He protect mom from a learning impairment and at-least-borderline mental retardation accompanied by extreme emotional fragility. Nor did God protect two women whom I deeply loved from accident and disease. (The upside of that is that I do not take my wife Diane for granted: as I also tell all and sundry, if you want a guarantee, go buy a damn fridge from Sears.) For me, the Blumenthal and DeVries books taught me that, over my lifetime, belief in God – and the value of same – has been like a pair of cheap denim jeans after a couple dozen or so washings: the blue gradually fades away. But if you paid too much for the jeans in the first place, you probably will be reluctant to admit this.
Finally, when I was a freshman in college, I read for the first of literally a few-hundred times, Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which to this day I regard as unsurpassed and seldom equaled in sheer wisdom.
After college, I went to work for Boeing at a job that required extensive travel to France (in fact, all NATO countries). Prior to travel, Boeing gave me intensive training in reading and writing the French language. (My fellow students referred to the course as “suicide French”.) This had the unexpected side benefit of enabling me to go back and read Sisyphus in the original language, and I discovered in Camus a French prose stylist easily the equal of Blaise Pascal (whom I could also now read in French). Even in a good English translation, Camus’ prose style is what I can only call “lyrically astringent”:
The only serious philosophical question is the problem of suicide: deciding whether or not life is worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest … are games. One must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche says, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must teach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act.
By now, I can quote the opening sentence of Sisyphus without even consulting the book.
For me, the most revolutionary achievement of Camus in Sisyphus is basically the same as the achievement of Blumenthal and DeVries in their books: looking reality in the face, seeing it as it is, and taking that appearance seriously on its own terms. And then saying as much.
It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. Albert Camus An Absurd Reasoning
The “why” plagued me in STM with the theology of the radically friendly God. The “why” plagued me with the parallel between the experience of my parents and loved ones, on the one hand, and the experience of Carol – both DeVries’s real-life daughter and her fictional counterpart – in The Blood of the Lamb. The “why” still plagues me. And you know what? I would not have it any other way. The “why” is life. Or at least, the “why” is my life. And, yes, it is indeed like rolling a great rock uphill, only to see it roll back downhill again. The Myth of Sisyphus, in a certain sense, gives me permission to embrace the “why,” futile as it is, and to keep rolling it uphill, and to keep watching it roll back downhill, again and again and again. At this point in my life, the “why” is the reason, as Tennyson says, “the vessel puffs her sail”. So I have even come to agree with what Camus says at the end of Sisyphus: Il faut imaginer Sisyphe hereux (“We must imagine Sisyphus happy”).
My relationship with books – these and others – has always been the reverse of the way that relationship is usually conceived in the ambient culture. Books have seldom been an escape from reality. For time and time and time again – for time out of mind – I have had the experience, thanks to books, of discovering that it was the life I was living that was fictitious. The life I discovered in books, on the other hand, was what Matthew Arnold, in much the same context, called “the hidden life” … my real life. And if you are asking yourself whether to give me comfort or condolences, the answer is “Yes”!
– James R. Cowles
© 2016, essay, James R. Cowles; Image credits: Books: CC BY 2.5 dk; C. S. Lewis: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License
Sacrificial lamb: Josefa de Óbidos (1630–1684) … public domain; Sisyphus: Titian … public domain; Forest fire: William L. Rowe, US Department of Agriculture, public domain