Do Atheists Dream of Pearly Gates?

even when I don’t believe
there is a place in me
inaccessible to unbelief
a patch of wild grace

—Anna Kamieńska

If humans are the only intelligent life in the universe, should we feel sad about that? Should we feel bereft, or disappointed?

That’s how David Kestenbaum describes his feelings on a recent This American Life.

“This would mean,” he tells Ira Glass, “there’s nobody out there that knows more than we do…. Like, what we know is it. What we are is it.”

Most people Kestenbaum speaks with during don’t understand him, but it seems obvious to me. He has invested the idea of aliens with transcendent value. The “world” for him is defined by the limits of human knowledge, and he seems to doubt that we can save ourselves. His hope, then, is that some other intelligence could show us the way.

Therefore, the thought that there may not be any such intelligence troubles him. It struck me as a version of atheist doubt. I mean, they must doubt, sometimes, right?

Doubt has been a part of my spiritual vocabulary for a long time, though not in the way most Christian magazine headlines mean it. [Read more…]

Dinner with Dona Adélia 

Jessica Goudeau’s translations of the work of Adélia Prado, Brazil’s foremost living poet, appear in issue 91. 

The night I met Dona Adélia, she told me my husband was the perfect man. She came to the University of Texas for a poetry reading with her longtime translator and editor, Ellen Doré Watson. At almost eighty, Dona Adélia had aged with the grace of a self-possessed movie star, Sofia Loren as a Brazilian poet. Ellen, several years younger than she, translated her words with the ease that exists between women who have been friends for decades. They were traveling together with Dona Adélia’s statuesque daughter across the United States and came to Austin to read to a packed house.

The reading was a week after my dissertation defense. Kurt, my graduate advisor, had known Ellen since they were in school and had planned the evening. Dona Adélia lingered over one of her long poems dedicated to the figure of Jonathan, who sometimes stands in for the ideal man and sometimes Jesus, and about whom she has written dozens of poems, which differ from the earthier poems about her husband, Senhor José. When she heard that my husband’s name was Jonathan, she grabbed a pen to write in a copy of her book of poetry: “With happiness, for Jonathan (the perfect man) and his kind wife, Jessica.”

Over dinner at an intimate Italian restaurant, the scent of garlic and spicy wine mingling with candle smoke, we comfortably mixed Portuguese and English. Jonathan grew up in Brazil; we lived there together for a few years before graduate school. Ellen and Kurt and other translator friends joined us. Dona Adélia leaned in, breaking garlic bread delicately over her plate, asking questions in her melodic voice. We asked her about her poems, but she waved our questions away. She wanted to hear about what it was like for Jonathan to grow up in the western part of Brazil; they discussed fishing in the Pantanal. Dona Adélia’s children are older than we; we talked about how much she loved being a grandmother. When Dona Adélia asked about our children, we paused and looked at each other. [Read more…]

Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents

two nuns walking through an empty alleyway into light.After World War II devastated eastern Europe, the Red Army pushed into the countries allotted to them as spoils, such as Poland. There, they continued the destructive work that the Nazis had begun. Among those hardest hit were the women religious of Warsaw.

French Red Cross physician Madeleine Pauliac, sent to find and repatriate the French who were still in the Polish countryside, discovered that whole convents of nuns had been gang raped by pillaging Russian soldiers. Some of the women were molested thirty to fifty times each. Unsurprisingly, a good number died in the process, and those who survived often fell pregnant. Lives of avowed purity were changed forever into lives of violent desecration.

Pauliac, who herself died in an automobile accident while still on duty in Poland, wrote of these women in her diary. That work formed the inspiration for Anne Fontaine’s 2016 film, The Innocents. The movie provides a careful, respectful, and convincing portrayal of the emotional array that comprises such a tragedy. For nuns do not stop being women when they take the veil, nor are women who have not consecrated their lives to God any less called to the courage that nuns must possess. [Read more…]

Imitating the Saints

Heaven's gatesSt. Therese once wished aloud that her own mother would die. When her mother scolded her, Therese explained that then she could sooner go to heaven.

My children received this anecdote with perverse joy, telling their siblings to jump off a bridge, run out in the street, and let go of the tree branch…that you may sooner see paradise, of course.

Given a choice between heaven and hell, they will gladly choose heaven. But faced with a choice between heaven and earth, they start hedging: Are there Legos in heaven? Who’s going to be there? Is the music any good? Why do they have a gate that keeps all the fun people out?

They’ve already noticed the problem that villains are usually the most interesting character in any novel or movie. It’s far more troubling to envision characters who are not completely wicked, characters who struggle with temptation but don’t succumb.

I tend to love my heroes too much to attribute them with serious flaws. Or I imagine there is a class of unsullied souls, anointed souls who somehow, magically, don’t sin. They may have sinned in the past, but no more. They meet Jesus, they fall off their horse, or maybe they’re just born with an incredible endowment of piety, and sin can’t touch them. A heaven full of such insufferable people really doesn’t sound appealing. [Read more…]

Made Whole Again: 25 Years of Image

To celebrate Image’s twenty-fifth anniversary we are posting a series of essays by people who have encountered our programs over the years.

Guest post by Paige Eve Chant

I am not the kind of Christian my parents wanted me to be. Case in point: I rarely call myself a Christian in public. These days it seems more of a political statement than I’d like it to be—and often not one I’d care to make.

I just don’t want the ordeal.

Any faith I could be said to have is troubled by doubt, such that most days I do not know where one ends and the other begins. This is not a new problem for me and hardly unique. It is not even, when you come down to it, a problem. It is simply the way of things.

Most days I feel I am a terrible Christian. And most days that’s exactly what I am. [Read more…]