An aspiring scholar of English literature once bumped into W.H. Auden on Oxford’s High Street. Jay Parini at the time was troubled. “I wondered if God existed,” he recalls, “or if he was simply a human creation.” Parini struggled not only with religious doubt, but anxiety and depression. He needed “courage to continue.”
Auden helped him find it. The poet could tell that Parini “wasn’t in good emotional shape” and invited him to his home. He “suggested gently that few people managed to find appropriate or satisfying meaning in the course of seven or eight decades,” so Parini’s “flailing” was unsurprising. “I know very little,” Auden told him. “In fact, I know only two things. There is no such thing as time. And rest in God.”
Parini took the advice seriously. He began attending the Church of England and found comfort in its liturgy. He studied the Greek New Testament, and in what seems quite appropriate for a future professor of English at Middlebury College, he found solace in Emerson, Thoreau, Walden, and Frost. Partly because Middlebury is my alma mater, and because I regret not taking any courses from Parini as an undergraduate, I recently read his The Way of Jesus.
Parini does not suggest this is an easy way to embrace. The world is “scary and depressing,” full of suffering, physical and spiritual. Christianity, moreover, contains so many teachings and scripture passages that are either far-fetched, disturbing, or both. Parini neither sidesteps nor attempts to solve all of those riddles. Instead, he suggests that they are at least not an insurmountable problem for those willing to trod a path Jesus himself promised would lead to suffering. “Rest in God” for Parini comes through prayer, study, community, and works of love. His Way of Jesus is what one might call a generous heterodoxy, a suggestion to set aside Christianity’s internecine quarrels for a closer engagement with what Jesus taught and modeled.
While reading The Way of Jesus, I kept thinking about another thoughtful book, Teofilo Ruiz’s The Terror of History. “Any fairly reasonable human who reads the news or watches the international scene,” Ruiz writes, “cannot but be shaken in the belief that the world is all right or even rational.” That, of course, is nothing new. Plagues and wars have characterized far too much of the human experience.
How have and how do human beings deal with this terror? Many place themselves in the hands of God (or gods), understanding that terror as part of an ultimately good but currently inscrutable divine plan. Others “embrace the material world,” seeking goods, wealth, and pleasure. This is not simply hedonism: “By making love, working, owning things, spending money, building careers … we gain membership in a larger community.” Ruiz’s third option is the building of lives “around the pursuit of knowledge, art, and beauty.” Ultimately, Ruiz offers little hope. None of these paths allow individuals to escape what is not really the terror of history but the suffering inherent in human existence, present as well as past. Nothing he has tried to this point in his life has worked, in the sense of solving that basic problem. “But one must also acknowledge,” he concludes, “that we live because of those moments of beauty, of pleasure, of meaning that allow us to keep on going.” The Terror of History is quite literally a painfully honest book.
In addition to their thoughtful engagements with the fundamental challenges of human existence, both of these books have challenged me to think about how I as a Christian choose to understand and respond to individuals who have chosen paths other than my own. Jay Parini discusses the philosopher Charles Taylor, who explains secularity as “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” (The Secular Age, p. 3) Having grown up in an evangelical Presbyterian church and then having come of age spiritually through Young Life and InterVarsity, I once had a terribly condescending attitude toward atheism, agnosticism, more progressive or liberal varieties of Protestantism, and, to be honest, most everything other than my own faith traditions. I’ve tried to overcome it. Mainline churches, by contrast, have become rather expert at applauding doubt. It’s a virtue. Not to doubt betrays a decided lack of intellect and awareness. Sometimes I think the Mainline needs to praise doubt a bit less and faith a bit more.
It is hardly surprising that women and men when confronted with the suffering of the world and the problems and contradictions inherent to Christianity respond in myriad ways. Some respond as did Billy Graham when he came to grips with questions about the Bible. They take things on faith and charge ahead and that works for them. Other people make different choices, or simply find that given what they know and have experienced, they cannot believe. The Christian response to those choices is not to pretend that real problems do not exist, or that doubt or unbelief are unreasonable responses to them. The most Christian response is to “rest in God,” to follow the path of Jesus, and to love others whether or not they do the same.