Getting Beyond It

(Note: I wrote this in 2011. Reposting here for Kierkegaard’s commemoration tomorrow)

People have been getting beyond Christianity for a long time. “In our time,” Søren Kierkegaard wrote in 1843, “nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further.”

It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be … going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows … except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.

“Going further” is the continual preoccupation of the human mind. People who advocate it seem to think themselves bold and original when in fact it comes quite naturally. A colleague of mine made an appeal in this direction back in November, urging the church to get out of the “salvation business.”

In short, humanity has been growing up but religion, including Christianity, hasn’t been keeping up. In fact, it often has been resisting that development. It has been to the church’s advantage to keep its members in a child-like, dependent relationship. Over the past century or two, however, people throughout the modern Western world have been maturing and leaving the church by the millions.

Either I have long misread Kierkegaard on this point and he was not, in fact, being ironic, or else he was terribly mistaken and the world truly is full of people who can get beyond faith and doubt with the greatest of ease. I do not discount that possibility. All the same, I must confess that I am not among them. It would not help to belabor the point that I hear relatively few of my own contemporaries expressing the idea that humanity has “grown up” in any sense, awakened from any great darkness, and that whatever else good or bad we may have taken from progressive Christianity it is not that particular myth. And I don’t suppose it would be terribly persuasive to note that Christianity was viewed as retrograde and barbaric from the beginning and that it hasn’t had anything to lose on that score.

Rather, I have deep roots in those who left the church over these recent centuries of Promethean enlightenment. But I must have undergone some kind of hideous neoteny, because for me sin and death are absolutely real and terrifying things. I do not close my eyes and imagine pitchforks and brimstone, but neither do I have to stretch very hard to see what all the prophets and Jesus alike understood as the wrath of God. And yes, if there is any means at all to be saved from these things I would very much wish for it.

Interestingly, Michael Chabon offers a perspective on this that I see as coming from a much profounder skepticism. In his rueful reflection on the Tuscon memorial service, Chabon is unpleasantly startled by the president’s invocation of heaven:

Having struggled all the way through to make my own sense of sorrow and confusion congruent with what I saw happening in Tucson, having found that point of tangency at the rueful and admonitory heart, the father’s heart, of the speech, I fell all the way out again, right at the end. “If there are rain puddles in heaven,” the president said, evoking the words of an unnamed contributor to an album of photos of babies born on 9/11, “Christina is jumping in them today.”

This seems, as it often does, like an easy way out.

I tried to imagine how I would feel if, having, God forbid, lost my precious daughter, born three months and ten days before Christina Taylor-Green, somebody offered this charming, tidy, corny vignette to me by way of consolation. I mean, come on! There is no heaven, man. The brunt, the ache and the truth of a child’s death is that he or she will never jump in rain puddles again. That joy was taken from her, and along with it ours in the pleasure of all that splashing. Heaven is pure wishfulness, an imaginary solution to the insoluble problem of the contingency and injustice of life.

Fair enough. There is doubt trained where it ought to be–at the idea of a moral core to this life.

But I’ve been chewing these words over since last night, and I’ve decided that, in fact, they were appropriate to a memorial for a child, far more appropriate, certainly, than all that rude hallooing. A literal belief in heaven is not required to grasp the power of that corny wish, to feel the way the idea of heaven inverts in order to express all the more plainly everything—wishes, hopes and happiness—that the grieving parents must now put away, along with one slicker and a pair of rain boots.

When faced with an insoluble problem–and the problem of the suffering of children and the grief of parents is, to the best of my knowledge, pretty damned insoluble–an imaginary solution might be just what is called for. Getting beyond it is not a humane option, not a possibility that is faithful to the life cut short. If the idea of salvation means, in the end, nothing more than the measure of what we cannot bear and of our refusal to bow under it, it will be an idea worth upholding.

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