Sunday, December 11, 2011

still hope

If God didn't exist, it would necessary to invent him.

-- Voltaire* 

My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.

-- Miguel de Unamuno**

I don't usually answer comments. Each reader has a right to pleasure or to pique: their words deserve to stand. I've had my chance, and second thoughts don't always improve on first ones. But the reader asks a question. "Do you think a minister can successfully do their job without personally believing in god?"

The question leads me in many directions, because the response must depend on many variables. What in this situation is "success"? What is the "job"? What does one mean by "belief" or for that matter "God?" Anyone who thinks these meanings are obvious should study the history of contention and murder on these precise subjects.

Unamuno thought that one could minister without belief. His San Manuel, martyr, spends himself in the comfort of his people, through words and rituals whose truth he no longer believes. By the church's own doctrine, his state of belief or unbelief has no significance.

The word "belief" often stands in for the word "faith."  Believers and atheists alike speak too often as if faith were a kind of knowledge. But faith is not knowledge: where there is knowledge, faith cannot arise. I cannot have faith that there is a blue blazer in my closet, because I know the blazer is there. I only act in faith when I must affirm what cannot be known.

When you pledge your life in marriage to a person who cannot possibly yet deserve such investment, you are acting in faith. Or when you go into harm's way for a cause that is worth your life. Or when Walt Disney bet all his profits from Snow White on an animated choreography called Fantasia. Or when Steve Jobs decided I would want a tiny shiny box called IPod to store and retrieve two months of selected music.

Faith can be horribly wrong, but we can't do without it. In faith we can do things that are impossible otherwise.  It's what Yeshua meant by "moving the mountain." For each of us there is a mountain that, if we give more than we have, more than is prudent, more than our accountant would recommend, will move when we tell it to. The search for that particular mountain, the one that has one's name on it, is the spiritual quest.

I don't believe a lot of the things that some of my clients believe. Some of them believe that their prayers will heal their diseases, or save their mothers from death. Some think they will survive their bodies. Some think that their suffering or their grief is a message from God. But I don't have to agree with them. This isn't a theology class.

Though what I do is a ministry, I don't come to the client as a "minister." If the client wants to hear a specific theology, I'll help him locate a person who can provide it; but I am not that person. A clinical chaplain assesses a spiritual crisis, names the dangers and blesses the assets. The client, his passion lifted up to the regard of the greater audience, is empowered to his own liberation. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes not so much.

I do not preach to clients. I study a "living human document:" that's what Anton Boisen called the person otherwise dismissed as a "patient." If I hear the document's message, I speak it aloud so the client can hear it. Yes, there is after all a theology of chaplaincy, an immanent theology. The Word has come to live among us, and we meet it at the bedside.

At our best we are poets, giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. And for this purpose we do not bowdlerize: we give form to loss and terror as we do to courage, love and hope. We are all dying, and we're all triumphing over death for another day, and how we do it is our story. Telling the story, even a tragic one, confirms the client to himself. It says, you are not alone. You are seen and heard. If the one who sees and hears is only mortal me, that is not nothing; and in moments of faith it seems that I am standing in for one who sees us all. If my client flatters me with that faith, that is his way to healing. How else could it be? how else than through flawed and dying flesh could an incarnate word be spoken?

Sometimes only tragic art can save us. How can there be a play like King Lear? An actor who specializes in the bleak art of Samuel Beckett said that as long as someone writes as beautifully as Beckett there is still hope. The tragic poet says to those who suffer -- and we all suffer -- yes, I have heard you, and you are worthy of being heard, and you are not mad, deranged or evil; but you have seen the truth. Beauty perishes, virtue is punished and sense runs to nonsense, and yet there is still truth, beauty and virtue. So hold to these things however lightly. My search for truth, like Unamuno's, is a search for what gives us life in the time we are given; and the search for life is a search for truth. Nothing else deserves the name. As the Grecian urn said to Keats, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know, and all ye need to know."

To us this is a ministry, though some would not call it so. Every day we learn again that we cannot rescue our people and we cannot save them, but there is sometimes revealed among us a healing power. I put on my shoes each morning knowing this could really happen today. That is my "success."

*Peter Gay, Voltaire's Politics: The Poet as Realist (New Haven: Yale University 1988) p. 265: "If the heavens, despoiled of his august stamp could ever cease to manifest him, if God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Let the wise proclaim him, and kings fear him."

**Miguel de Unamuno, "Mi religi├│n." (1907)

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