Let’s begin with a story. It’s funny, but I think this line is one that Rachel Held Evans, progressive Christian author, would have liked. She died yesterday after a fluke intersection of UTI, influenza, and allergic reaction to attendant antibiotics. She was 37 and leaves behind two very young children, along with a grieving husband and immense community that found in her challenges to evangelical conservatism a voice of strength and change. In one of her books, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, she explored–openly, with immense vulnerability and storytelling creativity–her struggle with some of the nastiest parts of the Christian bible. She’d moved away from stark evangelical thinking but, after a lifetime of Christianity, wanted to know if the stories she’d grown up with could be redeemed.
I, of course, don’t think they can be–I find the Bible on its own to be a terrible set of blueprints for moral conduct–which was why reading Inspired was a perfect test of something crucial to my beliefs, as a secular humanist: namely, the ability to hold dissenting points of view in tension. To recognize that my view is not alone in the universe, and that no amount of shouting over others will ever change this fact. To embrace the reality that I live alongside 7.7 billion fellow passengers on a fragile lifeboat: the majority of whom will live and die having relied prominently on spiritual vocabularies to navigate their brief bursts of sentience in the cosmos.
And honestly? Evans’ books and community presence (in person and online, where she joined with progressive voices from a range of faith backgrounds) changed lives. She may not have identified as a humanist, per se, but her sincere striving to make something useful and constructive and even joyous out of a rigid tradition she was born into (a culture of anti-evolutionary thought that informed her immediate world for decades) gave others to see transformation away from reductive discourse communities as possible for them, too. She did humanist work from her Christian faith position.
Now, many of my fellow atheists probably won’t be impressed by such a life’s work. Many would rather that the entire practice of Christianity were snuffed out, and might even consider the likes of Evans dangerous, for how progressive religious writers like her made (and continue to make) palatable the unpalatable–upholding a much friendlier version, say, of Christ than is found in New Testament passages, instead of repudiating the awfulness of the narrative on whole.
But it’s interesting how many of those same atheists would be among the first to chafe at my recent spate of posts calling for more self-awareness regarding white supremacy and other radical Western movements ending in mass murder and related societal fear-mongering. In my last post, for instance, the comments show a solid range of measured resistance and outright vitriol in response to the idea that such harm is a Western problem at all. Indeed, many in the secular world would happily argue that the church should die, for all the flaws it’s perpetuated since its inception, but… also that the rest of the West’s contemporary institutions should remain intact, despite having done significant harm since their inception, too.
There has to be a better, more coherently applicable solution for the problems of our world–and that’s what I admired about Evans: how overtly she sought to create and hold space for uncertainty, and to invite others to see difficult and dynamic discourse as an end unto itself. As such, even when the book Inspired finds her rationalizing away what I consider absolute Biblical non-starters from a moral perspective, she is upfront about the limits of her conclusions, writing the anti-certitude likes of:
“The biblical scholars I love to read don’t go to the holy text looking for ammunition with which to win an argument or trite truisms with which to escape the day’s sorrows; they go looking for a blessing, a better way of engaging life and the world, and they don’t expect to escape that search unscathed.” (28)
“I am a Christian,” I concluded, “because the story of Jesus is still the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.” (164)
“I’ve often said that those who say having a childlike faith means not asking questions haven’t met too many children.” (220)
What more can I ask of any humanist, religious or otherwise, than that they work as best they can out of whatever context they were born into–ethnic, territorial, spiritual, gendered–to improve our hurting world for all?
What Work Will Be Your Legacy?
Now, I had a handful of essays I’d been torn between publishing today… but Evans’ death hit me hard. Indeed, the death of any person who lived fervently and with such communal grounding tends to trigger survivor’s guilt for me, as someone who scraped through multiple suicidal episodes. (Times, that is, when the sheer exhaustion and pain of perceived estrangement from communal purpose became too much.) Who am I, my guilt whispers at me in such moments, to have survived so intense a doubt about the value of continuing, when far worthier hearts–folks with the means to make so much more of a positive social impact–are falling so early to their graves?
At present, my six-day work schedule has me especially fatigued, which doesn’t help on the mental-health level. But the more critical issue is, as always, the effort that often has to go into maintaining a sense of meaning on one’s own in an indifferent cosmos. (I’m tempted to suggest, too, that this is an issue exacerbated by singledom, but I know too many people coping alone with suicidal ideation in their marriages to permit myself the self-indulgence. Community is hard and ongoing work wherever one might find oneself in the world. Likewise, social estrangement takes many forms.)
In an essay for my birthday, “The Jesus Year”, I discussed how the completion of a first novel manuscript left me feeling like I’d said everything I wanted to say–a sentiment I still feel to be true, most days. If I died today, as long as someone had the savvy to see that manuscript eventually published… could I really have contributed better to the world? I honestly don’t know, I poured so much into that text.
But just this past week, I also came across a local community right now struggling to establish their story on the world stage–and more importantly, to do so without opening themselves to further exploitation. And that struggle struck so deep a chord in me, when I first spoke to the community organizers involved, that I’ve been using every idle minute between my jam-packed teaching schedule to organize my thoughts, rally possible contacts, and pitch an article to help make their voices heard on their terms.
Because that’s what we do with any conversation, isn’t it? That’s what Evans discussed when she presented church communities less as monolithic approaches to scripture and more as collectives of ongoing debate, collaborations between a range of voices within their congregations. Whether or not you agree with her on the church side of things… in general, when we converse, we take turns. We have to–for how valuable could our discourse possibly be if it only contained one member’s relentless monologue?
And so when I think of “legacy”… when I think of the work we might be fortunate to leave in our spheres of influence… it is this core component of Evans’ approach and character that calls out best to the global humanist in me.
Because our legacy is never one singular act, but rather our participation in an ongoing stream of thought and community.
And what an intricate stream ours proves to be, when taken as a whole! At our current growth rate, after all, every day a little over 150,000 human beings drop out of this active discourse, and some 360,000 are born into it.
So just think what a privilege the rest of us have–we who are neither freshly arrived nor departed, but rather, in a position to ensure that, even as the stream cascades into something wilder, its collective wisdom will grow stronger and more equally distributed over time. If we’re willing to hold space, that is, for ourselves and others, and to seek out the best that comes from living with people from all manner of forward-looking subject-positions in the world.
The world is already a little kinder for Rachel Held Evans’ brief existence.
May the same be said, in our own passing, of and for us all.