All posts by Dena Hunt

New Perspectives

We used to have a priest in our parish who habitually responded to any parishioner’s troubles or joys with the question: “Where is God in all this?” The effect of the question was an immediately altered perspective. It vaporized subjectivity, and from that changed vantage point, it called for an answer to the question itself.

Some examples of his response:

Father, Joe has proposed – Where is God in this?

I lost the election to city council – Where is God in this?

I have cancer – Where is God in this?

Anne wants a divorce – Where is God in this?

I got the job – Where is God in this?

These are small personal examples. But history asks the same question. Wars, revolutions, plagues, natural disasters, discoveries, inventions, explorations—all the events that alter history. How were we changed? What did we learn? And where was God in it all?

And so, now, in this new plague, we might ask, Where is God in all this? We can look at some effects so far. Internationally, it’s a major deterrent to globalism. Even the EU closes its borders. Nationally, it demonstrates that federal solutions are far less important than the measures that states, local governments, and communities are taking. And individually, it has already altered our perspective of ourselves vis a vis society: “Social distancing” is a new fixture in our lexicon; “stay home” is a new commandment. Large collectives break down into ever smaller units. Where is God in all this? At this point, the only answer is: We don’t know yet, but Pay Attention.

Humanity is distinguished from all other creatures in this one way: We pursue Logos, we search for meaning, we long for God. We are not different from other creatures just because we love—my dog loves (more and better than I do). For a long time now, secular humanists would have us believe that love is the “answer”, often citing St John’s “God is love” and bestowing approbation on any individual’s dissolution into something called “community”, manifest in varying numbers from one to millions, so that ultimately, the scriptural equation was transposed and became “Love is God”. Faith in God became obsolete, replaced by faith in our new god Love—our love for ourselves and each other. We didn’t need God anymore, we knew who he was, and the search was over. Logos found. Maybe not, though, maybe he is more than our human love, greater, other…. Maybe it’s a good time to re-read that oldest of all books, Job, and discover, again, what he discovered. Staying home, in our solitude, we may find that our personal and interpersonal love was never really enough for us…. In the midst of all our communality, we have been lonely….  

This new plague will alter our perspective. We don’t know how yet, but we need to pay attention.   

About Dying

While this is not a popular subject, it may be an appropriate one for the season of sobriety. Not long ago, I made a will, an advance directive, a medical power of attorney, and a financial power of attorney. Since I have no family, I asked a deacon and trusted friend to be in charge of my life and death—literally. The advance directive itself was a multi-page form provided by the local hospital in which the “patient” is asked personal preferences in the event he or she is unable to make cognitive decisions at a time of emergency. (Very popular among attorneys nowadays is the packet of forms called “Five Wishes”, intended to be completed in collaboration with family members. It’s a very involved group of forms, most of which don’t actually apply to most people.)

Recently I received a small book, some 80 pages, from TAN: We Are the Lord’s: A Catholic Guide to Difficult End-of-Life Questions, by Fr. Jeffrey Kirby, STD. Brief but comprehensive explanations answer those “difficult questions” referred to in the title. Those who will be terminal patients as well as those who will be entrusted with the difficult responsibility of making decisions regarding their care and treatment should read this book. An example: most of us think we know the difference between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” means of life support, but the distinction is not as simple as we think.

Priests should read it—funeral Masses have a purpose and meaning different from popular belief and different from many funeral Masses I’ve attended. For example, there should be no eulogies at a funeral; they are only for vigils. Most important, the funeral is not “for the living” as we’re often told; they are exclusively for the deceased Catholic. And they are definitely not “celebrations of life,” a term which has always reminded me of “the circle of life” from the film The Lion King. The purpose of a funeral Mass is quite other. Father Kirby also provides an unsentimental explanation of the purpose of suffering, not as a kind of unwelcome “consolation” but as the important part of our faith that it is. If we have chosen to live as a Catholic, we would likely choose to die as a Catholic. The book tells us how.

Brief, concise, and important, this book should have a place on every Catholic’s bookshelf.    

The Song of Martha

The story of Martha and Mary in the Gospels has often been a means of self-identifying among Christians, not just for women but for men as well. The common wisdom is that we are all both Mary and Martha, but many of us know very well which of the two sisters we most resemble. I spent a lifetime trying to be like Martha, but the Martha in me surfaces only very rarely in times of obvious need. I am decidedly more Mary than Martha—melancholic, given to solitude, far more imaginative than practical, with a tendency to violate social norms through lack of awareness.

But I have always been fascinated by Martha. How did she go from being the critical and angry person she was when Christ visited their house in Bethany to the saint who expressed such depth of faith when our Lord raised her brother Lazarus from the dead? Ignatian spirituality encourages imagination in lectio divina, or in contemplating the scriptures. I thought a little Ignatian-inspired imagination might help a little understanding of this great saint:     

The Song of Martha

There is always something or someone in the house or in the village who needs my attention. There are tasks to be accomplished, daily chores that need doing, or someone who’s ill and needs tending. I am just like my mother in that way. She never stopped working. She was always cooking, cleaning, weaving, mending. She was always doing something for other people.

She was so selfless, the way I want to be, the way I try to be. As a child I watched her, and I tried to imitate her. I guess I’m still trying. She was a saint. When people tell me now that I remind them of my mother, I feel flattered, but I know I can never be as good as she was—never caring about herself, but only about others. That was my mother, my saintly mother. She’s been dead now many years, but I still try to be like her.

My brother is like my father, scholarly and prayerful. Even before his bar mitzvah, he was always at my father’s knee, listening and learning, learning to read, to study, and to pray. My mother taught me never to disturb them but to wait upon them, tend their needs, and in this way, I learned that we performed our own duties as women. However much my father and my brother pleased the Lord with their devotion, we tried to please the Lord with our devotion to them.  

Our home in Bethany was a Jewish home, where righteousness was a way of life for all of us, where each of us tried to live our lives as prescribed for us by the Torah.

Except for my sister Mary. It was always hard for me to talk about my sister. I was haunted by the thought that the way she turned out was my fault. As Mary’s older sister, it was my duty to teach her. Mother must have been patient with me, with the mistakes I made in my eagerness to learn, and I wonder if I was too impatient with Mary. My role as teacher of my younger sister so overwhelmed me that I lost the memory of how Mother taught me, but I must have been as clumsy and slow as Mary. Mother must have had more patience with me–because I have no memory of running from the house in tears as Mary did that day when my impatience gained control of me and I scolded her for spilling the flour. It’s just that she seemed to make so many mistakes!

Finally, it just became easier to let her run outside to the garden. And when she returned, it was easier for me to treat her with kindness because I’d had a reprieve from my duty to teach her. She was happier that way and so was I. But I always knew I failed her.

Cooking was not the only difficult part of teaching Mary; there was also the serving. It was the duty of the women to serve the men. Mother and I would bring food to my father and brother and any companions that were with them. I never spilled anything! And I slipped in and out of the room unnoticed except for the expression of thanks that my father never failed to give. But when Mary tried to serve, she spilled the wine or dropped the bread. My father would smile at her, pat her cheek, and tell her it wasn’t important. He was always kind. The trouble was that Mary was too responsive to his affection. It made her so happy she forgot her mistakes and reveled in his kindness. This was not good for Mary. She lingered too long, and afterward, she even lingered at the door, watching and listening to their talk instead of returning to the kitchen to help with cleaning. I know this is how she learned her disastrous preference for the company of men. Even after my father died, she continued to linger outside the door when my brother spoke with his friends as they studied together.

One day the great rabbi—the messiah!—came to visit us. He was very fond of our family. Many men came from the village to sit in our house and listen to his teaching. Because there were so many, there was a very great deal of cooking and serving to do. Instead of helping me, Mary sat with the men! This conduct is contrary to the Law. Women do not take instruction, women do not pray with men, women do not sit with men. It was the most humiliating experience of my life! Our house, known throughout Bethany as a house of righteousness, was the scene of such unseemly behavior by one of our family.

My brother must have been so ashamed. He should have banished her, but he said nothing. I think he was deferring to our Lord, waiting for him to speak. But he never spoke a word. Finally, I did the unthinkable. I spoke up myself. I regret it with all my heart, but I was so embarrassed and so very angry with her! Why, my Lord, do you not tell my sister to help me? It was not a question; it was a demand.

There was a terrible silence. Everyone stared at me. And then, quietly, gently, the Master rebuked me.

I turned and fled. In tears, I tried to resume my work. I heard Mary behind me. Without speaking, she began washing cups and bowls. I had deserved the rebuke, and my face was hot with shame. I was grateful there was so much work to do, to keep me busy with no liberty to think about what I’d done or what he’d said.      

For many days I could not lift my head. Some people looked kindly at me, pitying me, but I could not bring myself to speak to anyone. Mary spent more time in the house trying to help with the chores. My brother was gentle with me, smiling at me whenever I entered the room where he studied, always expressing thanks. He knew how I felt.

As my shame began to subside a little, I had clarity of mind to think about the words of the Master’s rebuke. “Martha, Martha.“ The way he said my name—twice, in the way one speaks to a troubled child, with gentleness, kindness. “You are worried about many things….”

Yes. Yes, I was. I was worried about the food, about serving so many by myself, about my sister’s disgraceful conduct. I was troubled about many things. But his kindness, his awareness of my feelings—Was this really a rebuke?And if not, why had I seen it that way?

Then I dwelt not so much on the Master’s rebuke, but on my own reaction to it. I saw that my humiliation was not in his words, but in my own. What else did he say? He said, “Only one thing is necessary.” What thing? He answered my unasked question: “Mary has chosen the better part….” What was the “better part”?Well, what had Mary done? She had listened. She had sat with the others, listening to the Master. And he said, “It will not be taken from her.” That is what I was angrily demanding–that Mary should not be allowed to listen to him. Why would I demand that? Because I was not allowed–that’s why. And why was I not allowed? Because I’d been taught that way, raised that way. I had made no choice of my own.

That is when my life changed.

What followed after that moment was a long period of thinking, of watching my sister. As always, she tried to help me in the house, and as always, her greatest help was her absence. I tried to do less myself, but I was not at peace. So I spoke to Mary: Go into the garden, dear sister, and pray for me, pray that I will know my choice. And then I waited, and while I waited, the work went undone. I found myself tormented by unwashed cups, and the guilt of not serving my brother and his companions overwhelmed me.

At last, I knew: I must do what I must do. Everything changed for me then. If I had made a choice, then I had chosen to work. And I knew that in trying to shame my sister, I shamed myself. I know my choice now, and it will not be taken from me. I don’t know how much of my peace is due to my sister’s prayers for me; I don’t understand the mystery of such things. But I think now that she has a work of her own to do. My guilt about Mary, about not having taught her well, has vanished. It may be that her preference for solitude is his own plan for her, so that she could do the work he intended her to do. I don’t know, but I do know there is a woman in the village who is ill and needs someone to bring her food. There is always something or someone who needs my attention, and I must tend to it. That is my own “better part.”

Mothering

Every woman is a mother. It is not necessary to give birth to be a mother, nor is it necessary to adopt or foster children to be a mother. If you’re born female, you’re born a mother, and you’re going to mother someone or something. You have no choice in the matter—It’s like breathing. There are things about being a living human where freedom of choice is irrelevant.

If you don’t choose to marry and have children, you will mother something or someone else. You may become a teacher of other people’s children, and if you have not chosen to be a mother of your own children, you will mother those children. This often leads to predictable and very painful problems.

Avoiding children, you may very likely mother some man, but the trouble with mothering, as any mother can tell you, is that children tend to grow up.  You find yourself no longer needed. So you find another man to mother, and the cycle repeats itself. Perpetual mistresses are often caught in this repetitive trap.

Avoiding children, you may mother your friends. Again, however, you find that children grow up, and the close friendship you had with your friend vanishes when they no longer need mothering. Moreover, if you choose to mother friends, you will find that whatever problem they had with their own mothers will be projected onto you, and you will suffer their anger, distrust, or whatever negative feelings they have toward their mothers.

Avoiding children, you may prefer to become an entrepreneur, artist, writer, or some other kind of non-gender “creator” instead. The trouble here is that you’re over-protective of your creation-child. And rejections, failures, etc., tend to be infinitely more painful than they would be if you had children on which to project your maternal instinct. It’s like constant labor pains without the fruit of the pain.

This seems so unfair. Men don’t have such difficulty, as any feminist can tell you. And abortion does not alleviate any part of it. The pain only gets worse.

Perhaps it’s necessary to recognize that you’re not something apart from nature—no matter how well you try to keep nature at bay, with air-conditioning behind sealed glass, concrete buildings, and all the stuff we do to separate us from the rest of nature. You’re a part of nature, and all of nature is either male and female, and it was your (mis)fortune to fall into the female half. Accept it. Make peace with it. No rebellion, injections, surgeries, or legislation is going to change it.

If you find yourself pregnant, have the child, and if you don’t want to mother it yourself, let some other woman do it. Warning, however: You will not rid yourself of the maternal instinct your pregnancy hormones intensified. If you abort it, you will still suffer those effects, plus grief (worse because you don’t acknowledge it), plus, sooner or later, a remorse beyond your imagination.

Accept it. You’re a woman, and it is decreed by nature that, with or without children, you are a mother. Denying it only hurts you, and the collateral damage is horrific.

It may be that, although you’re a mother, God has ordained that you will be childless. In that case, there are steps you can take (also ordained by God). First, read Isaiah 54. Then look around and see what he has in mind for you to mother. Foregoing friends or emotionally immature men, there’s a world full of a need for mothering. There are the poor, there is nature (called by some “the environment”), there are animals, creatures abandoned, abused, and not least of all, if you’re Catholic, you could become a mother of a priest. Join the Spiritual Motherhood Society and adopt a priest. All priests deeply venerate the Blessed Mother, but on earth, they need a flesh-and-blood mother to pray for them, to have masses said for them on the anniversary of their ordination and their birthdays, a mother to care about them. After all, they are human and part of nature themselves. They have a Church-father in their bishop, but they don’t have a Church-mother. Be their mother. Care about them, pray for them—they need that.

The bottom line: If you’re a woman, you’re a mother. Who or what are you mothering?  

Loss and Gain

I’ve had at least one dog ever since the seventies, often as many as three but usually two. Because I did rescue, several of them did not have an especially long lifespan. I got them when they were sick or maimed, blind, deaf, or old, something that made them undesirable to others.

There are eight graves now in my backyard. I loved each of them, and the passing of each one grieved me. In fact, I tried to make it a rule never to have just one, because I knew that having another one to care for would lighten my grief at least a little. I noticed too how the remaining dog would react to the absence of the one who’d passed. It wasn’t any different. Like me, they would become more attached, need more affection. Seeing their response, I know that my own is part of nature.

The same response occurs with any kind of loss. We cherish what is left to us. Not just through death, but friendships lost through betrayal or atrophy, a job on which we’d become dependent as a part of us, a treasured object, and even such losses as identity, purpose, health, or dreams, goals, desires. The mutability of our lives is always spelled in loss. If age has any blessings—and it has—one of the greatest is learning the acceptance of loss.

For people who have no faith, love is a god. And if they have been fortunate enough to have a loving marriage, family, and friends, they are affirmed in their belief that human love constitutes all the meaning of life. But if they somehow lose everything they love, perhaps by outliving them all, they are devastated. It’s not uncommon among the elderly that a profound depression ensues, followed by serious illness and death or even suicide. I’ve seen films that attempt to address this loss by encouraging the consolation of memory.

But if I’ve learned anything about loss, I’ve learned that the only real consolation is gain. We turn to what is left to us because it’s our only choice, and if nothing is left, nothing is left.  Human lives are mortal, and so are human loves. Ultimately, we will lose our own lives; our physical bodies will die. But for people who have faith, this last loss will be the greatest gain of all: We will be reunited with all those we loved and there will never be loss again.

God teaches us gently, little by little, how to lose. We learn slowly that nothing was ever our own. Everything and everyone always belonged to him alone, and thus we learn gratitude, something that the secular world by its own definition can never teach us. We are grateful for the beloved’s presence in our lives, and as each loss happens, we find that he is closer to us, ever closer. That’s how the grief-stricken are comforted, and it’s how the poor in spirit receive the kingdom the heaven, for most blessed of all are those who lose everything except him.

It’s What You Give Up

A very long time ago when I was a grad student, the chair of our department was a man I much admired, not so much for his scholarly achievements as for himself. English Departments, at least back in those days, were full of crazy people. I was told by more than one faculty member that the reason Dr. Grove was made Chair was simply that he was unflappable. His serenity might have been the consequence of being the father of eight. I don’t know. I just know that whenever I had a serious question, he would give me a direct serious answer, without elaboration, amplification, or any sort of posturing or pontificating.

So one day when I was pondering (a lifelong habit, intensified in grad school), I asked him: What is freedom? He answered: It’s what you give up.

Boom. There it was. And there ended my existential angst.

I’ve never forgotten it. In one form or another, it has answered many questions I’ve asked about matters both great and small in all the years since that day. How many times, in the throes of agonizing decisions, has that single brief answer returned to me. I don’t want to do X, and I have the freedom to not do X. But I do X because I give up that freedom. Maybe I should be more specific: There’s a pint of Haagen Daz butter pecan in the freezer, and I am free to eat it. Or, I want to see him. He’s married. I have the freedom to keep seeing him. It’s what you give up. The peculiar thing about giving it up is that it always comes back to you, so each time you decide to give it up, it returns.

This happened almost ten years before I became a Christian. (But truth is like that. It’s recognizable by everybody who has ears to hear. That’s why there is art.) Ultimately, on a summer day in New Orleans in 1984, I gave it up for good. I became a Christian.

Since then, I’ve heard, read, a good deal of talk about “free will”, but that’s a phantasm. We have only one real freedom, and that is the freedom to bring our will into submission to His. Nothing else works—nothing.

The smiling little man who always looked like a happy chipmunk made one short statement in 1978, and then probably forgot about it. He couldn’t know it would change a life for all eternity.

 

Environment, Nature, and Creation

When I taught senior college-prep English in small-town Georgia public schools, I arranged the syllabus by literary movements. When we reached the romantic movement, and Wordsworth, I had the students bring a permission slip from home (necessary for leaving the campus) and took them on a short walk across the football field to a stretch along a creek of undeveloped pristine forest. I didn’t give them any explanation in advance but only instructed them that they were not allowed to speak during this time, but to follow in single file and be aware of the sounds, the smells, and the sights of their surroundings. When we returned to the classroom, still with no discussion or conversation, I wrote three words horizontally on the board: Environment, Nature, Creation. They were to choose one of the words as a title for a two-page essay that reflected their experience on the walk. The results were interesting. If I didn’t know my students by the time we reached romanticism, I knew them in reading their essays, as soon as I read their chosen titles.

Without over-classifying, and allowing for varied skill levels in writing, the essays’ contents followed a certain type: Environment essays were political, angry, activism-oriented. The Nature essays were emotional, sentimental. The Creation essays were faith expressions, even devotional.

All of these were actually romantic, romanticism being that mixture of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual psychic pubescence that visits every one of us sooner or later in our lives. If we avoid the romanticism in ourselves, it will come to wake us at 3:00 a.m. someday and leave us wondering what has happened to us. If it comes later in life, the consequences can be devastating, or at least, life-altering—for better or worse. If we use that experience to learn about ourselves better, a healthy maturation will result—even, or perhaps, especially—if the experience is a bad one. And that knowledge can save us from the downward gravitational pulls of addiction, violence, destructive relationships, and a number of other negative outcomes.

I never kept records on the subject, but sometimes I wish I had. It would be interesting to discover which groups went where in later years. I did notice that the division of titles was about equal: one third were Environment; one third, Nature; and one third, Creation. Only a couple of times, I got an essay with all three titles, followed by a thesis that how we look at creation, nature, or our environment, said nothing about any of those things but a lot about us. These were from “gifted” students and I suspect they were also the ones who would be awakened at 3:00 a.m. someday. One trait that is not romantic is objectivity.

 

Malice Unaware

A long time ago, a fellow teacher at a rural Georgia high school gave me a little booklet entitled “Pocket Prayers for Teachers.” I thumbed through the pages of platitudes of encouragement and exhortations to perseverance. One of the prayers caught my eye and has stayed with me to this day: A teacher sees the brutal ostracism of a child by his peers on the playground. She sees the pain in the child’s expression. Her prayer is that God will keep her from intervening, that she can accept his will in this situation. She acknowledges that everything in her urges her to stop the cruelty, but she knows that God has plans for that child, and perhaps the recurring experience of rejection is part of his plan. She prays for the strength not to interfere.

I’ve told a few persons about that prayer and they were shocked. Without exception, they felt that the teacher had a moral responsibility to correct the behavior. That was my initial reaction too. Now I see things differently.

At the time, I hadn’t yet read about René Girard’s theory of mimesis and scapegoating among primitive societies, about the sacred function of the innocent victim of collective hostility, though certainly any Christian would see Calvary re-enacted within this group of children. Nor is this kind of hateful cruelty confined to children, and certainly not to “primitive” societies. The truth is, we never lose our primitiveness, evolution notwithstanding; we just add layers of civilization, good manners and proper social behavior, etc., over a core of violence and cruelty underneath.

What could be the “will of God” that the prayer suggests in this little book? The malice of the group is blatant, overt, and demands correction by the teacher, though the group is unaware of itself, as each member in the group unreflectingly participates from the safety of individual anonymity. 

The will of God will meet, perhaps at some distant future date, the free will of the victim. The victim may take an automatic weapon to a school and shock the nation by shooting many students and teachers. The nation’s politicians will demand gun control, its expert social commentators will admonish people to beware of anyone who is a “loner,” anyone who is not part of the collective (thereby perpetuating the same event ad infinitum).

Or perhaps the victim will learn through his repeated pain that he can do another thing instead: he can forgive. If he does that, he will eventually be able to understand that “they know not what they do,” and learn to love as God loves. It’s the only way I know of to learn that.

Assent vs Belief

Something occurred recently that provided me a better understanding of the difference between converts and so-called “cradle” Catholics.

It was during a meeting of older parishioners, those groups commonly called by names like “Senior Catholics” or “Golden Agers” or “Young At Heart,” etc., groups where you might expect to hear laments of lost traditions. A woman in her eighties who serves as a Eucharistic minister bemoaned her observations of young people who, she said, “…don’t believe. I mean, they really don’t believe that it’s the real body and blood ….” I mentioned that they don’t really have to believe, what they have to do is assent to believe; that coming to believe, or to know, is actually a grace, not a criterion or some measure of their faith.

My comment didn’t do anything to make me more popular in the group, and I get it now that the purpose was to criticize, or just to mourn the lost traditional “have-to’s” that constituted the Catholic faith education of their youth. Nothing wrong with that. And it might be well argued that such is the privilege of the elderly. (I’m not totally sure I go along with that argument, however, since oppositional obstinacy is no more a privilege of the elderly than it is of the young—who can be just as stubbornly opinionated. I think it’s more characteristic of personality than it is of age.)

But it brings out something not much attended: the nature of grace, for one, and for another, the meaning of assent. I remember as a Southern Baptist child, being drilled repeatedly in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” This was the criterion of faith, followed by the warning that if you don’t believe, you’re condemned. Well, I tried. I tried hard. I didn’t want to go to hell for not believing. Somewhere, sometime, I gave it up. I couldn’t help what I believed or didn’t believe. Slowly and silently, I faced the truth that I would go to hell, and even more silently, grew angry with a God who would condemn me to hell for something I couldn’t help.

Fast forward many decades: Learning the difference between assent and dissent, and learning the nature of grace. Faith as belief is a grace. We can’t earn it, gain it, no matter how hard we might pursue it. It is a grace, not an achievement. Grace comes from God, not from us. However, we can’t receive the gift unless we assent to it; i.e., unless we are willing to believe. Those who dissent are unwilling to believe, and therefore not open to receive the gift of faith. What is up to us is not whether to believe or not believe, but whether to be willing to believe.

The vast majority of those in communion lines assent to believe that what they will receive is the true body of Christ; thus they are able to say Amen when the priest says to each of them The Body of Christ. They may not fully believe, but they are willing to believe. And that’s enough. It’s all God asks of us. Sometimes they may have something like an experience of peace when they consume the body of Christ, and it’s a peace that is valid.

There are others who dissent, who are not willing to believe, their minds are made up, and their decision is final. It is they who, as St Paul says, “eat and drink their way to condemnation.” It is a blasphemy. And that’s the reason non-Catholics are not invited to consume the Holy Eucharist, not because they’re somehow excluded from the church (their exclusion is their own choice), but because, if they eat the body of Christ in dissent, in an unwillingness to believe, they condemn themselves. In their own interest of spiritual integrity, it is better to abstain.

We can’t help what we believe, but we can be open to belief—or not. Frankly, I think all the millions of Catholics who have gone to their graves after a lifetime of always being willing to believe and never having received the grace of fully believing may well be the greatest saints in heaven. It’s us hard-core types for whom grace was an absolute necessity who will be very blessed indeed just to get a seat somewhere in the back rows of that great assembly.

Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God

I’ve just finished what is commonly called a “Netflix binge,” which means I watched an entire series of shows. The Story of God had a two-season tenure with some nine episodes in all. I was surprised to enjoy it. I had expected something like the kind of show I saw several years ago during the height of the “historical Jesus” interest. I still remember the superior attitude of the narrator and his remark at the conclusion: “As near as anyone can tell, Jesus of Nazareth was an itinerant preacher, the son of a Judean stone-cutter,” followed by a smile of benevolent tolerance: “If he was more than that for some, well, that’s a matter of faith.” The condescension was profoundly offensive.

Narrated by Morgan Freeman, each episode of The Story of God dealt with a theological/philosophical topic: the problem of suffering, life after death, heaven and hell, good and evil, and so on. Freeman visits various faiths for explications of these topics by traveling to locations associated with those faiths: Egypt, Israel, New Orleans, Rome, India, New York, Mecca, Africa, Australia, as well as his native Mississippi. He is respectful and interested, and expresses his own opinion from time to time. No particular faith is dealt with at any length, only insofar as the topic addressed for that episode. For what it is, it is very well done.

As democratic as the series is, it nevertheless provides an overarching thesis, overtly stated intermittently and conclusively: Our differences do not divide us but unite us. It was definitely “global fare,” and likely very gratifying for those who don’t align themselves with any religion but claim to be “spiritual.” His last episode was an interview with a woman who had an after-death experience and described it as “pure love”; she acknowledged no religious affiliation. Freeman agreed with her statement that God is simply love.

I enjoyed it, and found (almost) nothing arguable in the entire series. Except for that conclusive thesis. It’s all the same, it’s all love, and that’s all that matters anyhow. As consoling as that sounds, it’s a little problematic. Not because I believe there’s only one true faith, but because of something else: If there is no sin, there is no mercy, no forgiveness, and if there’s no chosen faith, there is no feeling of belonging to a community where your own beliefs are shared by others—i.e., no culture, and ultimately no real community. The thesis is an articulation of John Lennon’s famous “Imagine” reality: no country, no religion, no heaven, no hell, etc., just people living in peace together. The idea that people would live together in peace if we just eradicated religions and countries is a fantasy. People who seek differences as a cause for war and violence will only find other differences to justify their actions. It’s the illogic that says we can eliminate racism by eliminating races, or we can eliminate sexism by eliminating the sexes. In other words, we can eliminate intolerance by eliminating those things that require tolerance—that is, anything or anyone different from us. We don’t have to tolerate difference if we just eliminate difference.

I am reminded of an incident in an undergrad literary survey course when a professor authoritatively pronounced, “So you see that there are no answers!” After a moment of silence, a student tentatively raised his hand: “Well, it doesn’t seem like there are no answers, sir. It seems like there are a whole lot of them. You just have to choose one. That’s the hard part. Kind of like choosing one girl when there are so many. But it turns out pretty quick that if you don’t choose one of them, you don’t get any of them.”