Question Sixteen

If you’re an agnostic is your agnosticism a place of movement or a destination?

In an increasingly fractured world do you occasionally need a safe space?  "No, Mr. Wigdahl, never..."  Bludgeoned by information, opinions, and website "comments" in our age, our collective cry of "enough!" seems reasonable to me.  Please, a quiet space where I can be alone with my comforts, thoughts, and convictions, however vetted they may be.  And yet for me that safe space soon becomes my preferred destination, and I add it to my GPS so it can easily be located.  Take me to it.  And to it I make haste.  Of course then I wonder if safety has betrayed me and maybe even turned on me.  Has my protected space acquired that hard shell that blunts the approach of perhaps both loving and pointed thoughts — considerations that may disturb my private world, even for my good?  And when is my undoing in fact a good?

It occurs to me that being an agnostic is perhaps like being registered as an independent voter.  Having a preference for and embracing life down the middle, as though that were actually possible.  Is it?  But if the pendulum is stopped in the middle does time stop?  Granted, life is messy and clarity seems rarely achieved, but when does the middle of the road become a commitment to non-commitment, if not to safety?  To become comfortable with not knowing.  And more fascinating still is what agnosticism reveals to us about our willingness to go forward into any new territory.  Yikes.

And so we come to the dangers of movement.  Grow or die, they say.  Explore or be left behind.  But what if there is actually a freedom of movement offered to us?  A full freedom, but it has to occur within a culture and a world view that believes movement will only constrict you further.  Is my world asking me to receive, even by faith, an understanding of itself that claims breadth, depth, and openness, but actually forces me into a tight and closely monitored corner of acceptable viewpoints where I am then expected to happily live out my days?  Is this regard is there in play a new spirit of conformity (Question Three)?

So, rather than agnosticism, why not a full, spoken commitment to atheism?  To be all-in.  Perhaps one would rather hedge bets and remain in a fluid center.  And yet, does the posturing center eventually reveal itself as a place of despair?  We know something is wrong, maybe even within us, but achieving escape velocity seems too much to ask, so we ratchet back, center up, and hope that in the end we won’t be disappointed that we didn’t ask more questions of the world and of ourselves.  And isn’t it interesting that in this zone it becomes critical that we surround ourselves with “like-minded” companions?  Those who “love” us enough to stabilize and nurture our center, our indecision, our unquestioned unknowing.  Ahh, friendship at its best.

What say we bust out a bit?  Let’s launch into a no-holds-barred life of graciously…   I repeat, graciously…  interrogating ourselves and the world views around us, entertaining both religious and irreligious impropriety in the process.  Gasp.  Sticking a boot in our spiritual complacencies.  Let’s go down swinging, carving out a memory of ourselves in the world that at least leaves fellow travelers with nothing more to say than, “Wow, what the hell was he thinking?”

So, with your next cup of coffee:  If your agnosticism is a destination, does that say more about you than it says about God?

Intermission: Showing My Cards

Is that a question?

I’ve done very little research for this ongoing series of questions.  (You’ve noticed?)  I figured that, if you can’t drag a dredge through a life in its late fifties and scrape up at least a little content then, good grief, what were all those miles for?  And besides, I don’t really know how to handle quotations and attributions.  To say nothing of the semi-colon; someday I should learn.

Twice the Gospels record a curious statement from Jesus, which I take to mean that ultimate things are “hidden from the wise and understanding and revealed to babes.”  Heaven knows I am not among the “wise and understanding,” and though I hope there is nothing juvenile in my probings, I do aspire to the childlike in my questions and explorations.  And, as with a kid, may those questions be with few inhibitions.  And may they be thoughtfully and kindly relentless.  What the world needs now, it seems to me.

Perhaps only at the end of this world will there finally be the proper orientation of all things.  Maybe our souls, if we have them, long for that consummation above all other yearnings, even as we fear the day.  As a kid I wondered why anyone would avoid a search for God if there is possibly a God to be discovered.  Why would one choose to live independently of that consideration?  Made no sense to me.  And so I dig around.  And maybe in the process grace makes its way toward me.  And perhaps this is the most marvelous thing.

What do I believe?  I believe in the historic Christian message.  I believe in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, Savior of the world.  I believe that this believing is a placement of trust, rather than a mere assent to what may be the facts surrounding his existence two thousand years ago.  It is a throwing in of one’s lot.  A hoping and a confessing and a grasping and a cherishing.  And I have trusted this Jesus, not because it brings me peace, which it does.  And not because it can carry difficulty and sometimes permit confusion, which it does and will.  And not because there are not dark nights of the soul, because there are.  And not because I receive forgiveness, which I believe I have received and do receive.  And not because in a walk with Jesus there is embedded purpose, which I’m persuaded there is.  

No, in the end I believe in the Christian message because I'm convinced that what it claims about Jesus in time, space, dimension, history is actually so — that the message is in fact true.  And wouldn't that be something?  Yes, it seems to me that when all is said and done the problem with the Christian message is that it’s true.  And therefore, for any person, it becomes the most wonderful of troubles with which to cope.

I have been a believing person since my youth.  And though I have never suffered from chronic happiness, a full body scan would likely reveal deep veins of contentment and deposits of joy.  To say nothing of laugh lines.  But my writing here tends to express my specifically Catholic journey, which for me emerged in earnest at mid-life.  My itinerary developed over time, and I suggest it, or something similar.  In the end you may arrive at another destination, but I think I can promise that you will unearth considerations that had not occurred to you.  There’s a danger in that of course.  But, as you and I have always said, since when has a truth seeker ever needed to be afraid?

Here’s what I did, and I recommend it — search “Catholic conversion stories.”  You’ll find months of stuff to poke around in.  And give the personal stories themselves room to be important in this process.  Beyond that, follow the links and threads and references.  There will be plenty to sit with and walk with and argue with and consider.  Not surprisingly I also read a lot of Catholic writers, many themselves converts.  Authors whom one doesn’t normally encounter as a Protestant, only because they’re not usually part of the conversation.  Some of the writers who influenced me were Thomas Howard, Richard John Neuhaus, G. K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, Ronald Knox, Arnold Lunn, Romano Guardini, Walker Percy, Hilaire Belloc, and James V. Schall (born in Pocahontas, Iowa, so what’s not to like?).

And please, Flannery O’Connor is reason enough to become a Catholic.

What I came in touch with increasingly satisfied my mind and moved my heart, seeming both of reason and mystery.  History unfolding, bearing the marks of the promised keeping of God.  A place of rest and substance, offered even to me as a gift, a grace only to be received.

In the early days of my journey toward the Catholic Church I would attend Mass at St. Paul Church, Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I sat in the back, on the right, near the confessional.  Wouldn’t want to be too close to the front.  Me and some homeless guys.  A little chilly, wearing my jacket, with a rack of dog-eared song books and missals in front of me.  Sitting and standing and kneeling through what can seem the perfunctory readings and movements of the Mass.  I felt as a stranger, yet oddly at home.

And then during the Liturgy of the Eucharist we arrived at the Agnus Dei — “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us…”

And I stood there and wept.

Can you tell me why?

Question Fifteen

Isn't it exciting to know that in the end the stakes could be very high?

How is it that in popular thinking we always take a step up in the next life?  A curious assumption that we’ll come back as an Olympian, a film star, or the doctor who finds a cure for everything.  How come it’s never an option that I’ll come back as a retriever or a rodent?  But I’m not going to think about it.  At least not right now.  I’m young and vigorous.  And maybe even immortal on my own terms.

And then there’s the whole problem that in the end the natural world might view its own eschatology as Christocentric.  And where does that leave us?  But we know that couldn’t be true if we don’t want it to be true.  This talk of Yeshua being the Logos and the Lion, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  And the Cross, the crux of a spinning universe.

But even more interesting at the moment, what about our security of ambivalence in such things?  Why does a man not press into it?  Why doesn’t he sell everything he has to investigate last things for the world and last things for himself?  What’s he waiting for, his ninety-ninth birthday or a terminal illness?  And even then will he probe to discern if there is a God who might be saying something to him?  On a scale of one to ten, how hard can a man’s heart become in these things?  Or is it purely a matter of the mind, coming to terms with the expiration date on his animal life, as he attempts to suppress the musings of his spirit and his hopes for more?  How exactly did he gain this permission to establish his own ultimate outcome, to say nothing of his casual anticipation of it?

Do you listen to the conversations around you, and to the words that come out of your own mouth?  Have you noticed how often our focus is “he” or “she” or “they”, followed by our litany of offenses borne?  Or how much of conversation is dominated by the lifeless, the meaningless, and the pointless?  Extremely white bread in a world starving for whole grain content.  We rush quietly to the end of our lives, putting up little fuss that no one has challenged our beige convictions and our spiritual inertia.  What if it turns out that our choices in this life actually matter in a next?

And if so, what am I to make of the hard sayings of Jesus?  This stuff about the end of all things.  I mean, I liked Jesus a lot when he was talking about loving everybody.  Not judging other people or throwing the first rock, doing unto others as I would have them do to me.  Good, acceptable, inclusive teachings about playing well with others and helping the less fortunate.  What’s not to like about an agreeable Jesus?  Can we get him on our corporate payroll and our softball team?

If only he had kept his big mouth shut on hell.  And on the divisiveness of his own person.  Why would Jesus even ask, “Who do you say that I am?”, as though he imagines himself to be the focus of his teaching rather than those virtues to which he would have us aspire?  Enough of that.  This talk of sorting people out in the end.  Wide roads versus narrow roads with not many travelers.  Sheep and goats.  That he himself would be the judge of all people, holding the keys of Death and of Hades.  The one whose return coincides with the end and the beginning of all things.  And depending on one’s trajectory in life, is it simply our greatest hope that what he has promised will never come to pass?