(A painting by me, “Joy in July” c Frank Schaeffer 2013)
What should we pass on to the next generation? What is essential and non-negotiable? What have our parents founded their lives on that worked? Had they felt as inexperienced and alone as I did the week Mom died in March of 2013? Did being sixty feel like still being a clueless child to them too? Had they experienced what I felt, that the older I got the less I knew?
To which I’d like to add, that if after many wanderings you re-embrace the faith of your childhood people may dismiss that action as having some sort of psychological motivation. They’ll tell you that you are trying to fill some kind of void. But don’t give up.
As the American poet Christian Wiman writes in his book My Bright Abyss– Meditation of a Modern Believer faith in God at the deepest level is faith in the ultimate, if hidden, meaning of life. If you believe in the same way at fifty or seventy as you believed at five, you’ll have denied your life journey. Know this: you will always change your mind. Know this: we can’t have access to objective facts, just our best shot at interpreting what we experience.
As Wiman says, to know that within ourselves we have psychological needs informing our hunger for faith doesn’t diminish the spiritual truths we may stumble across in our journey any more than coming to understand the chemical science that makes us feel love reduces the meaning of the experience of love.
The reason-obsessed twentieth century was supposed to herald the end of the need for religion. But, as Wiman notes, what belief could be more self-destructive than existentialism? The fact that a commitment to secularism contains its own seeds of destruction shouldn’t surprise us. To say that there’s nothing past this world that we see is to make death the final arbiter of our lives.
We can’t ever return to our childhood faith but we can recognize the essentials of childlike wonder. As you pass through the innocence of childhood into philosophy, theology, art and literature a person finds that wonder at beauty is still the only basis for a meaningful life. Wonder remains the only condition in which the value of intellectual truth can be deeply felt. A sense of wonder is the password that gives you access to wisdom.
You have to protect your capacity for wonder as you grow so it can protect you. This is the “message” such as it is of my new book And God Said, “Billy!“ The contempt of secularism for wonder and the wonder-killing “certainties” of churches (fundamentalist or liberal, liturgical or make-it-up-as-you-go-along) will conspire to ruin the joy that will give your life meaning. The message of my book is that we need to remain open to feeling overwhelmed by the deepest experiences in our lives. We need to allow ourselves to stake a claim beyond us in the wordless mystery that’s quietly struggling to touch us.
Religion or some form of spirituality is what we do with these wordless mysteries in order to preserve and honor them. But while the mysteries are perfect, our descriptions of them are not.
The frustration we feel in trying to explain meaning to ourselves or to others points to the fact that knowledge separated from wonder incinerates truths that are beyond words. I feel a tugging to embrace the mystery of life’s spiritual beauty not when I read a book about God but when my five-year-old granddaughter Lucy puts her arms around my neck. When she wiped tears from my face after my mother died and said, “I’ll comfort you,” I sense the mystery of a truth beyond death.
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