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Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson in a beautifully written recent op-ed invoked deep life experiences he described as “signposts pointing in the direction of grace.”
A kindly, fervent Christian, Gerson asserted that these graceful encounters “culminate the defiant hope of Christmas: God is for us. God is in us. God is with us.”
“In enforced isolation and loneliness, God is with us,” Gerson wrote. “In chronic pain and degenerative disease, God is with us. In a shattered relationship or a cancer diagnosis, God is with us. In an intensive care unit or a mental ward, God is with us. In life and in death, God will not leave us or forsake us.”
These are the familiar, aching yearnings of believers in the Christian faith, like Gerson. And they reflect powerfully authentic human imaginings and hopes for deliverance from suffering.
Yet, as with the Islamic prophet Muhammad, the Asian sage Buddha, the Judaic seer Moses and other religious icons over millennia, the reality of the traditional legends that have accompanied Jesus Christ through history as part of the “Holy Trinity” (“God the father, the son [Jesus], and the Holy Ghost”) is profoundly suspect. And the divine capacities attached to them even more suspect.
Still, billions of human beings, including Gerson, continue to believe in the patently unbelievable — even in conscious doubt.
For devout believers, such acute re-imaginings of religious tales like the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth, may seem to herald a personal, divine connection but may simply be delusion, Gerson suggests:
“These are not logical proofs. … It is possible, of course, that none of this is true. Such Christmas hope may well be a pleasing myth or projection of our own desires. If we had been there on the night in question, walking the Judean hills, would we have seen and heard the angels? I have no idea. But I do know that the civilization I inhabit is unimaginable without the birth of the Christ child. I know that billions in the last two millennia have claimed communion with Him. And I have faith that this extraordinary person, who knew God’s heart so intimately, can be born into our hearts as well.”
This is the intoxicating vapor with which faith enshrouds believers. In fact, people like Gerson who cannot imagine Western civilization without “the birth of the Christ child,” hold that bias because all of their upbringing and their history books have been saturated with it. And billions have continued to believe for “the last two millennia” because Christianity literally conquered the western European mind starting in the early Middle Ages.
Not because Jesus is God. Or that God exists at all.
What is disquieting to me about Gerson’s wrenching fanciful paean to Christian faith, is that everything he is ascribing to God and Jesus could far more rationally be ascribed to ourselves. We are creating our own destinies, not (as far as can be verified) some invisible power in the background of material existence.
He writes of these very human experiences as “signposts” pointing to divine grace:
“[W]hen we are thinking clearly, most of us can recall glimpses of purpose, beauty and glory in our lives. In the overwhelming calm and joy of holding our child close. In the majesty and marvelous internal order of nature. In art or music that touches our deepest being. In the undeserved, sacrificial love of a friend. And maybe, if we are silent and open, in the sense that a benign God is speaking to us in the seemingly random events of our lives.”
He conflates opposites. Right up to the last sentence of this passage above, Gerson is describing pure humanist sensibility, but then he can’t help but toss a divine interpretation into a normal human moment of quiet and deep wellbeing.
Certainly, if a believer credits God with an acute sense of wellbeing, it might inflate the emotion. But that doesn’t mean the interpretation of what is happening is true, as convincing as it may seem to a God-enthralled mind in the moment.
Gerson references the poet James Wright (1927-1980), who wrote of “sorrow, salvation, and self-revelation.” Gerson’s piece reprints Wright’s poem “Trouble,” in which a pregnant 16-year-old girl, taunted on the street by a local boy named Crum Anderson for looking like she “swallowed a watermelon,” suddenly realizes that although she always thought of herself as “nothing but skin and bones,” she was more than that.
Fat? Willow and lonesome Roberta, running
Alone down Pearl Street in the rain the last time
I ever saw her, smiling a smile
Crum Anderson will never know,
Wondering at her body.
Sixteen years, and
All that time she thought she was nothing
But skin and bones.
Gerson’s take on this:
“None of us — no matter what Crum Anderson says — is merely skin and bones. We are skin and bones and the life of God within us. Even lives that feel relentlessly ordinary or hopelessly broken are vessels of divine purpose. We are embraced, elevated and dignified by God’s astounding humility.”
Except that that’s not verifiably true. There’s simply no evidence available to confirm that the presence of a divine power within us is what bestows our self-worth and purpose.
It is millions of years of biological evolution that has bestowed upon each of us in the human species with our super and not-so-super powers, with our actual, not imagined, agency in the world. How is that less wonderful than the fiction of divine fiat?
That a divine agent lives within each of us as a savior against want and suffering is an extremely attractive idea that billions of people in the Homo sapiens family have embraced since time immemorial.
Unfortunately, it appears to have been invented out of whole cloth. And insisting on maintaining the fiction can be dangerous.