At last I have had some time to finish Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead.
It is a beautiful tale, and the theme I noted in an earlier post continues to the end.
The pastor, John Ames, is a man of deep, reflective faith, who seems to be able to centre on simple things, and thus to be a blessing to others: to act out the spiritual gift of bringing God’s healing to others.
There are two parts from the later sections of the book I’d like to quote.
First is the idea that there is no point in trying to defend God.
On page 202: ‘Young people … want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them ‘proofs’. I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.’
p.203: In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. We participate in Being without remainder.’
Here, Ames is offering us a completely different paradigm. In my own work on doubt and faith, I have found it more helpful to suggest that faith—this participation in being, without remainder—is in fact not identical with belief. Sometimes even it may be doubtful, or unable to say what or whether it ‘believes’. But it is trusting, honest engagement. This is faithfulness, no matter what. And this is the character of faith which make ‘defenses’ and ‘proofs’ rather beside the point. They don’t convince people who are not in this situation, and they are inadequate to explain what it is like for those who are.
Of course, the fascinating challenge is for those who ‘have faith’, in this way, to engage with people who say they do not, but who want to.
I have some students like this. They really want to ‘believe’.
How can I help them? And what will ‘make’ them believe? John Henry Newman said it was a matter of the will. Really? Can I will myself into having faith? If that was so, many of these earnest people would have a more restful, trusting sense of ‘belief’.
But I don’t think that is right at all. If anything, I think sometimes we can ‘will’ ourselves into a situation where our faith is ‘disturbed’, as Rev Ames puts it. By this I think he means we can misplace our efforts and energies, including intellectual analysis of faith. But we can hardly avoid doing that. The young people who are searching for ‘proofs’ are at least searching, and for them to abandon that search would be intellectual dishonesty. It is only in later, more serene experience that Ames has been able to write as he has.
So what will help the searching person, the one who ‘wants’ to believe but feels they do not have faith?
My conviction is that they do have faith: they have integrity, they have honesty, they are engaged genuinely with what Tillich called ‘ultimate concern’. I would simply encourage such people (of whom I am one) to think what they think, to question, to explore, and also to allow peace and hope, and just maybe a sense of ‘faith’ to come to them, when it will, how it will.
Be who you are. Think, boldly. Question. Search. Trust. But also, share the journey. Love your neighbours, you family, and yourself. ‘And all these things will be added to you’.
In the last pages of the book, Ames offers a blessing to a man who has troubled him for a long time, and who is now leaving town. It’s as if it has taken him many months to come to this, but when he does indeed make peace with him, and offers him a blessing, it is Ames who is deeply enriched. The younger man says ‘Thank you, Reverend,’ (p.276) but Ames says it is an honor to bless him. (What a great thought!)—but then he adds, as the narrator: ‘And that was absolutely true. In fact I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.’
This is a superb image of ministry. It has the character of Kierkegaard about it, I reckon: it’s about being completely in the moment. Being there for the other, and yet that means being most fully oneself. This is ministry, and it is not just a blessing for the other. It has a wonderful sense of fulfilment for oneself.
You can’t make it happen. It is given. Somehow, blessing is its own fulfilment.