(Note: I wrote this in July 2010. While none of it is left there, it helped prompt me to write a book)
Last week I went to a local establishment to watch some baseball and read Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. In retrospect it was a comical choice. On the screen I watch the momentary heroics of a trivial pastime. On the page I read about archaeological digs and millions of lives come and gone and the conquering expanse of space and time. Why do individual lives matter, Dillard asks, against this infinite backdrop?
Of Allah, the Qu’ran says, “not so much as the weight of an ant in heaven and earth escapes from him.” That is touching, that Allah, God, and their ilk care when one ant dismembers another or note when a sparrow falls, but I strain to see the use of it.
Indeed. That’s why such precepts are recorded–the straining would seem to be the point. I have, coincidentally, ruined the task of ant-killing by trying to awake some wonder at the world in Soren by referring to a passing ant as “Mr. Ant.” Squashing an ant is one thing, but something my son consistently and affectionately personifies as Mr. Ant cannot be done away with so easily. Mr. Ant is just trying to find food and maintain the colony and do whatever else it is that ants do all day–oversee their little bailiwick of creation, not inherently more trivial than mine. To be fair, I don’t shoot sparrows either.
And so the second baseman of a doomed team makes a brilliant toss to feed a highlight-reel double play, a sparkling moment for the assembled fans that sinks back into the ether before the vain day turns again. Sports is important because it’s a chance to occupy yourself with something that obviously doesn’t matter. What I haven’t figured out is whether this should help us care more about our other vain occupations, or whether to worry less. So I don’t share the common contempt for athletes who cross themselves at each at-bat or pray before games or engage in other such godly obeisances in the course of their trade. I wish more people commended their work to God. Either it all matters or none of it does. A girl in the spare room needs eye drops. The Sox need a clutch hit with two out. The war funding authorization needs to pass. In the blink of an evolutionary eye, none of it will be remembered if it is not remembered by God–who sees in secret, counts the tears, and forgets nothing.
Dillard’s book is very fine in its bone-jarring way. It is a modern monument to the kind of problem we should not take for granted–the problem of doubt. More specifically, it concerns the problem of evil, which like the problem of doubt is only a problem for people who are tempted by the problem of goodness, or faith. These inseparable problems may only be leveled as accusations at God from within God’s own party, as it were. If evil is actually a meaningful concept, it only presents itself as a philosophical problem to those who have imagined a world without it. A random and ungoverned cosmos has no room for such trifling.
So it may be that if the atheist triumphalists are correct and the lights of faith really do go out in a generation or ten, Dillard’s book will become incomprehensible. What kind of people, one imagines the intellectual descendants of Richard Dawkins asking, speculated about the moral significance of 180,000 people drowning in Bangladesh in 1991? To quote a sturdy rhetorician of the death-of-God era, “Stuff happens.”
Or put another way, why didn’t the world’s ragtag array of saints and fools for God just take the obvious step and pledge fealty to the heavy reality of the ordinary rather than the fleeting ecstasy of the divine? After all, the godliest people in all history never spent less than ninety-eight percent of their waking lives walking in darkness, not seeing the bright light. Even the Bible portrays it thus–a few chats in the desert sprinkled over forty years of wandering and toil; a howl of despair from a Roman cross. Turn a pressure washer toward the legend-globbed lives of St. Francis or the Baal Shem Tov and I bet you’d find the same thing.
Sometimes God moves loudly, as if spinning to another place like ball lightning. God is, oddly, personal; this God knows. Sometimes en route, dazzlingly or dimly, he shows an edge of himself to souls who seek him, and the people who bear those souls, marveling, know it, and see the skies carousing around them, and watch cells stream and multiply in green leaves. He does not give as the world gives; he leads invisibly over many years, or he wallops for thirty seconds at a time. He may touch a mind, too, making a loud sound, or a mind may feel the rim of his mind as he nears. Such experiences are gifts to beginners. “Later on,” a Hasid master said, “you don’t see these things anymore.” (Having seen, people of varying cultures turn–for reasons unknown, and by a mechanism unimaginable–to aiding and serving the afflicted and poor).
Why do people vex themselves thus? Why do we fret about rims and marveling and gifts and why they diminish over the course of a life of faith? Why not accept such things for what they most likely are–momentarily lovely synaptic snapping lost in a void–and cast our lot with things as they happen to be? Does this not make faith itself into a confidence game of the highest order? Is not then faith founded only on rapidly-spinning doubt, as matter is said (by people I don’t understand) to be an avatar of whirring nothingness–rims and marvels and gifts as figures of absence rather than presence? That such experiences are real in their fashion changes nothing; they may be temporarily uncomprehended by our ways of knowing the world, but they’re still inside the sphere of life–a sphere that, apart from the convinced but confused witness of some Galilean fishermen, we have no reason to imagine has any trap doors or open tombs.
I have no answer to these questions. To the person who is beyond faith and doubt, beyond good and evil, I have no case to make. Go thy ways, eat thy bread with a glad heart. But for my own part, I find this possibility–that faith is, for the very best of us, a minority report; that there is no one whose faith has ever been qualitatively greater than mine or yours–to be one of the loveliest things to be imagined. I once had a conversation with a Divinity School colleague on how joyous it will be to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We had been to Jimmy’s for a longer stretch than physicians or philosophers would commend. I do not feel such things most of the time. That no one apart from drunks and children and the severely diminished should awake in the presence of God without total and complete shock is a thought one ought to entertain from time to time for the sheer pleasure of it. The saints were always content with what they had been given up until now; they had seen the eternal in the temporal and rendered their lives fully rewarded. Arguably more heroic still are those unepiphanied faithful who have done their utmost to divinize this world without ever having “known” or “accepted” Jesus “in(to) their hearts.” There is perhaps nothing greater and nothing more stupid.
For us, for them, we have to look forward to (with suitable irony) the moment when, as Ivan Karamazov’s demon recounts, we have walked our quadrillion miles and our shouts of joy at paradise cause the residents to think us reactionary–they who were unsurprised, we who had no other choice in the matter.