Sunday, June 29, 2008

Shield of Faith*

I have a confession to make: I was not entirely open with you in my post last Sunday about what I experienced in church. When I started writing, what I wanted to tell you about was the great joy I experienced in singing praises to God and realizing that this in itself was the way to free myself from the anxieties about my own performance, whether on the fencing strip or, as here, at the keyboard. But as I started writing, the anxiety returned, and gradually I realized I was no longer saying what I had set out to say. I was hiding and apologizing and doing everything I possibly could to avoid saying directly, "When I was singing in the midst of our church, I felt a great weight lift from me, and I knew, even if only for a moment, that this--praising God--was the real purpose of life, for which everything else is simply a preparation, not an end in itself."

Even now, my words are inadequate, perhaps inevitably so, for, after all, what we were doing was singing and the only way I can share this experience with you is to invite you, once again, to listen. [1] But if my experience on Sunday were simply about the music--its beat, its melody, its absorbing sound--would I have had the difficulty I had in my post in being open about its effect on me? Even now, I can feel the pull to start apologizing, making gestures of scholarly concession, acknowledging that there are other points of view about what it means to worship (or not), hiding behind demonstrations of my familiarity with alternative explanations for what I experienced (physiological, anthropological, cognitive, phenomenological, anything other than theological or devotional). Was I singing with the angels [2] or wasn't I?

The easy way to answer this question would be to say that it depends on your perspective. But that would be a lie. Either it is true that heaven and earth are full of the glory of God and the only appropriate response is to praise Him, or not. [3] There really is no middle ground. To be sure (understatement of the age, see below), not everyone in the world would agree with me, but this in itself does not mean that I am wrong about the terms of the question. More troubling to me is my own ambivalence. It is not that I am at all private about the fact that I go to church; I am, however, it seems, embarrassed to admit even to myself why I go.

I can think of two reasons (there may be more) for my reticence, neither of which reflects particularly well on me as either a Christian or a fencing bear. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given what I have said already about myself on the strip, both are failings of pride. The question is which is the more serious. The first I can state without reservation if not without embarrassment: I am afraid what others will think about my motivations and, therefore, my beliefs. The second I find somewhat harder to articulate because it is caught up with the first, but whether it is a consequence of that more externally directed anxiety or its cause, I am not yet sure: I am afraid what would happen to my life if I were to allow myself to become aware not just intermittently, but persistently of the presence of God.

Being naked before others

To begin with, my social embarrassment. It is, after all, a part of my job description (associate professor of medieval history at a secular university [4]) not to take confessional sides or, indeed, any side at all in the study of religious cultures, at least not insofar as to insist on the absolute truth-value of one or another formulation of humanity's spiritual life. Not that, in fact, I have a job description other than "associate professor of medieval history" but rather because such is the normative position that those of us teaching in non-denominational institutions accept as the grounds for scholarly and pedagogical inquiry. Having only ever experienced this state of relations between my interior convictions and public responsibility [5], I cannot in fairness say that I have any cause for complaint nor that I would, all things being equal, want it any other way. Which is not to say that I do not believe in truth or that Christianity in particular has not expressed a profound understanding of the relationship between humanity and God, beauty and creativity, suffering and the meaning of life. Quite the reverse! Nevertheless, it is my public responsibility to my colleagues and students to model not only acceptance of this truth but also, at least hypothetically, its reverse. Nor is this latter position in any way strictly speaking at odds with my status as a Christian: I am, as it were, playing devil's advocate for relativism and atheism, a good pedagogical position from both within and without the tradition. [6]

Why then am I embarrassed to admit fully why I go to church? Well, for one, while not exactly frowned upon, at least where I teach, it is nevertheless considered somewhat indelicate to be too overt about one's faith. Faith is all very well and good (and many of my colleagues, perhaps more even than I suspect, are quite devout in a quiet way), but it is better not to make a fuss about it lest somebody be offended, as it were. Unless, that is, one finds oneself in company with fellow believers, at which point the conversation may take on a tone of excited relief at finding such common ground. [7] I have this experience quite frequently with my students who, when they realize that I am not only Christian, but willing to talk about it, admit to me how refreshing it is to find a place for their faith within the conversation of academe. No, I cannot blame my immediate circumstances for my embarrassment. I must, therefore, look further afield--or, perhaps, closer to home. To my family, more particularly, my siblings. Okay, my brother.

Now, here's a funny thing. When I began working on this post, I knew I wanted to address some things to him, but I had no idea that I would discover his criticisms at the core of my more general discomfort with my public persona as a Christian. How deep the currents of our growing up run. Would I be a better (more open, more comfortable, more willing to proclaim my belief) Christian if not for the tensions in my natal family over whether and why one might go to church? Perhaps if I read my Scripture more often, I would be less surprised, but even this realization, in itself, is a cause for embarrassment: quoting Scripture is simply Not Done if one wants to make a point in my family, certainly not now that it is clear that the New Testament is a document crafted at a particular point in human history and, therefore, imbued with that moment's preconceptions about reality (to paraphrase the most immediate objection). I could give you further particulars as to the reasons for my brother's rejection of Christian belief: that the Gospel's story of Christ's birth from a virgin bears too great a resemblance to other ancient stories about human women giving birth to the offspring of the gods for it to be distinguishable from other such myths; that the Church exists as an institution only through the economic support of its members (historically, tithes; at present, at least in the United States, voluntary giving), which support (he contends) is coerced out of believers through threat and/or promises of spiritual and material status; that, in Catholicism, at least, the priest is considered a necessary mediator for the faithful through his administration of the sacrament (in his words, "A priest has more power connection with God than you"); that--and, here, at least, he is, of course, right--Christianity claims a privileged (in the sense of accurate) access to the revelation of divine and human truth, which privileging seems to him at once unduly limiting and overly confident.

And so forth (his list goes on, but this should give you the gist). Troubled as I am by how alienated he feels from the tradition in which we grew up and despite the fact that I am confident there are good doctrinal answers to most [7a] of his concerns (including his preference for the gnostics and pagan Neoplatonists), I am more immediately bothered by my own response to his not-all-that-uncommon objections (I said that this was embarrassing). In brief, I cannot bear to be thought foolish, as his objections tend to imply, for holding to my faith that God has revealed Himself to humanity through Jesus Christ. [8] You will ask why it is that my brother's opinion (insofar as I have access to it; we don't really talk much about these questions usually, for reasons I am sure you can guess) has such an effect on me. I am not entirely sure. What I do know is that I have somehow internalized it such that it is always available to pique my pride. My impulse is to want to argue with him, to give him books that will help him understand the great simplicity and complexity of Christian dogma and demonstrate how the things that he thinks he knows about Christianity are not simply reductive, but quite often caricatures. But do I want to do this out of charity--or pride? Here, my brother may stand in for all those whom I know (or suspect) are working with an inadequate appreciation of the history of Christianity and the teachings of the Church. I want to correct them (thus, you will realize, my inclination to teach), not so as to coerce them into accepting the faith, but so that they will have an accurate appreciation of what it is, precisely, they are rejecting.[9] Of course, I am sufficiently persuaded by the logic and beauty of Christianity to hope that once they have an accurate appreciation of its mysteries they will be inclined to acknowledge them, too, but this, I know, is the office of the Holy Spirit, not mine. My problem is my motivation in wanting to persuade them in the first place.

I know Paul said something about this temptation in one of his letters, but I am having trouble locating the precise verse. Am I remembering, "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18)? Or am I thinking of "Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise" (1 Corinthians 3:18)? Perhaps, rather, I am remembering Peter Damian's challenge to the monks of Monte Cassino for their embarrassment at the prospect of stripping themselves naked to be whipped in recognition of the suffering that Christ bore on their behalf: "What, I say, will you do when you behold him whose ignominy you now despise sitting on the fiery throne of the highest tribunal, and judging terribly the whole human race with the proper weighing of justice?.... With what effrontery, with what boldness of presumption will you hope to share in his glory whose disgrace and dishonor you disdained to bear?"[10] Yes, I, like the monks, am embarrassed at the thought of stripping myself, intellectually, at least, naked in witness to Christ; of having others believe about me--or believe that I believe--the kinds of things that my brother says he thinks Christians believe (in God as anthropomorphic [11]; that they know, because they are Christians, who is damned and who is saved [12]; that Christians think they know everything about God [13]; and so forth); even worse, of having others believe that I believe, because I am Christian, some of the things I hear other Christians saying about what they believe. And yet, as Peter rightly pointed out, what has God not suffered for me that I should be embarrassed to acknowledge Him, however foolish in the eyes of others, including my brother, it might make me feel?

Being naked before God

Which realization brings me to the second of my reasons for being embarrassed to admit to myself why I go to church: I am afraid that if I allowed myself not only to confess belief in God, but to experience it fully, as I do now only in moments such as when we were singing, I would be changed in a way that I am not sure I would like, in large part, because it would make me talk and behave in the way that my brother says he hates about Christians (sure of the presence of God in their lives, concerned to help others find this assurance themselves). I would be embarrassed to lose the shield of doubt behind which I function as an academic. And I am afraid that if I were to carry the shield of faith too openly, not to mention too confidently, I would not only alienate others, but also lose sight of myself. Which is all ridiculous, since the one thing God promises us over and over is that while those who would save their lives shall lose them, nevertheless those who would lose their lives--by surrendering themselves to God--shall save them. If I am to become fully myself, it is only through God; I cannot do it on my own.

So what am I so afraid of, if God's promises are (as they must be) true? Surely I don't imagine anything so foolish as to believe that I must first somehow prove--as if I could--that I am worthy of such promise, do I? Or that I still do not know enough about God in order to trust Him? That, after all, is the whole point of faith: putting one's trust in God without knowing everything about Him, for how could I, even if I spent my entire life studying Him? Perhaps I am angry because God has not made Himself and His desire for me clearer. But again, this is ridiculous. I just haven't been paying attention. But, then, again, I see those who have (paid attention, that is), and I am at once jealous and put off. What if I, like some of the friends that I have, prayed openly (sang even) before every meal? What if I prayed before and after my fencing bouts? Wouldn't this be perilously close to showing off, as if (God forbid) I were somehow proud of my faith? But, then, as we have already seen, I am not proud of my faith, at least insofar as it is mine, but rather embarrassed to acknowledge it publicly (perhaps more accurately, without irony) lest others like my brother impute to me beliefs and convictions I do not hold. Of course, in my pride at refusing to risk others making judgments about me, I am at the same time judging my friends, for how do I know what they are thinking about when they pray? Perhaps they see me in much the same light as I see them, while they themselves are full of doubts and are, in fact, praying for confidence in God as well as in themselves.

Here's a pretty paradox. On the one hand, I am embarrassed to think and act as if God were working in my life in the way in which He has promised He will if only I have trust in Him, because I am too proud about what others might think if I do. But, on the other hand, to think and act in this way seems to me an act of pride or, rather, presumption, as if to say--and to show others--that I am more pious or aware of God's abiding presence than I actually am. Either way, of course, my pride wins--and I lose. There may--I am not sure--be something of my family dynamics at play in my reticence (and pride) here as well, but unlike the ongoing impasse with my brother, in this instance the conflict at present is wholly internal. I have nobody to blame but myself. Why not pray, as I know one of my fellow fencers does, not, to be sure, because I have seen her do so myself, but because one of our friends remarked with affection and respect that she does, in explanation for why she had disappeared after a bout that she had just won. My brother-in-law is a devout Muslim (a convert, in fact) and, again, unashamedly excuses himself regularly throughout the day in order to pray. Just the other day, I was sitting at the gate in the airport waiting for my plane and one of my fellow passengers pulled out a breviary (I think, perhaps it was a psalter), crossed himself and began to pray. Every one of these people prays as if it were as natural as eating or making sure one's weapons were working properly before stepping on the strip for a bout. And yet, just thinking about praying so publicly, other than with everyone else in church, so that others might see me or even know that I am praying makes me more anxious than I can say.

I do not think here that I am at all concerned about Jesus's admonition to the hypocrites about praying so as to be seen by men because, after all, this is exactly what I do not want, i.e. to be seen. Rather, my shame is that I for some reason refuse to acknowledge that needing to pray is as natural as needing to eat and that I should no more apologize for it than I do for waking up early each day to practice my yoga. Perhaps it is as simple as that: if I did it more often, it would feel less strange and so I would not be so self-conscious about it when I happened to need to in public because there was no place to withdraw in order to pray alone. Now I really do feel embarrassed, for now I am starting to think about how one always feels when embarking on an activity in which one is not yet practiced and realizing that, just maybe, this is what I am actually feeling when I attempt to pray other than while I am in church, i.e. without the direction of others and the structure of the liturgy. Did I say that this post was about my anxieties in confessing why I go to church? Clearly, it is also about the anxieties that I feel when I want to take what I think and do in church out into my everyday life, into contexts in which, for me at least, it is less familiar. But it is also about the self-consciousness one more or less inevitably feels when taking on something new--or should I say Self 1-consciousness, for this is arguably once again where we are heading. As usual, Self 1 is here warning me not to make a mistake or else I will look foolish, a warning that becomes only the more difficult to ignore the more one wants to impress those (one imagines) who are watching.

Trick question: when do we feel like we are "showing off"? Is it a) when we are doing something at which we are so practiced that it is simply something we can do? Or b) when we are anxious about our performance because we are wanting to impress someone whom we are not sure we can, e.g. my brother--or God? How humiliating. I am ashamed to pray regularly because I am afraid God won't be impressed, as why should He be, given the multitude and beauty of prayers that others have offered to Him over the centuries? My fumblings must be poor fare indeed for a God used to such excellence as the saints and great artists have achieved. I am so proud that I refuse to pray unless my prayers measure up to theirs, as if only the experts deserve to pray and all the rest of us should merely listen. Someone asked me at church today whether I were a serious fencer. I joked, "Do you mean do I take it too seriously? Probably, yes." But of course what he meant was did I do it regularly, which, of course, I do, but the implied question that I heard (and which I am fairly sure he did not mean) was whether I was any good, for in my mind, I am only allowed to admit doing something seriously if I am also excellent at it. To do something and only be a beginner at it or, worse, to have been doing something regularly for years and only be mediocre, surely this is the real cause for embarrassment. But, of course, it isn't, not at all. The only real cause for embarrassment is refusing to risk looking foolish by attempting something one is not yet sure one will have the skill or the patience to do.


There's a fencing analogy for all of this, as I'm sure you've guessed. I remember the first time that I saw photos of fencers in their tournament gear, before I had become a fencer myself. The lames looked ridiculous and the jackets just as bad, like oversized diapers or badly-fitting swimsuits, with pants on underneath, no less. Not at all the dashing swashbucklers of pirate and muskateer fame. And yet, all of the fencers in the photos were smiling as if nothing were strange; this was simply what they wore in order to fence. Yes, it marks them out in a crowd; yes, most people who do not fence find not only the clothing but the whole activity itself incomprehensible; yes, fencers can be bores about how much they enjoy their sport, especially when they are trying to convince you to come try it out at their club. But the one thing they are not, or, at least, should not be, is embarrassed about their enthusiasm or about why they continue to practice, year after year, even when they are not tournament champions--or saints.

Yes, it is scary donning the helmet of salvation and taking up the sword of the Spirit. Yes, it makes one stand out in a crowd to be carrying the shield of faith. Yes, it feels presumptuous to do so when one is only a fencing bear-child, unused to their weight. Yes, your life will never be the same once you do. And, yes, there will be those who find you threatening or ridiculous. So, the question surely that I should be asking myself is not why are you afraid, but what are you waiting for? How else will I discover who I truly am--a sword to be wielded by God?

[1] Isaac was on the piano; Dara was leading the singing. Try "Canticle of the Sun" for a taste of their marvelous sound. (Oh, and, yes, you guys really are awe-inspiring!)
[2] As it says in the Great Thanksgiving to the Mass in the Book of Common Prayer: "Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts: Heaven and earth are full of thy Glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High."
[3] This is the way J.R.R. Tolkien put it in his letter to Camilla Unwin, who had written to him for help in answering the question, "What is the purpose of life?": "If you do not believe in a personal God the question: 'What is the purpose of life?' is unaskable and unanswerable. To whom or what would you address the question?.... Those who believe in a personal God, Creator, do not think the Universe is in itself worshipful, though devoted study of it may be one of the ways of honouring Him. And while as living creatures we are (in part) within it and part of it, our ideas of God and ways of expressing them will be largely derived from contemplating the world about us.... So it may be said that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis: Laudamus te, benedicamus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam. We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendour" (Letters, ed Humphrey Carpenter [1981], p. 400).
[4] Sort of. One of the great ironies of teaching where I do is that the most prominent building on campus (certainly, one the tours always stop at) is the chapel and that it, not the university, bears the name of the founder. And yet, if asked, I suspect the majority of my colleagues could not say what denomination Rockefeller was (Northern Baptist). For an insightful essay on the importance of American Protestants in the establishment of experimental and progressive educational institutions in the nineteenth-century mid-West, see Marilynn Robinson, "McGuffey and the Abolitionists," in her Death of Adam (2005).
[5] Ironically, exactly the opposite to that from within which Kant argued for the importance of enlightenment: privately, he was a professor and legally obliged by his office to teach the established (in the sense of state-supported) faith, but publicly, he wrote as an individual scholar and, or so at least he argued, should therefore be able to speak his own opinion.
[6] Some, like Stephen Webb, would put the case somewhat more strongly against the relativist position. Thanks to for this link.
[7] I am by no means assuming that this is purely a Christian phenomenon, but then I am not party to other such moments of relief except as a fencer.
[7a] Okay, I give, "all". This is almost two thousand years of concentrated theological argument we're talking about here. There can't be that many objections that haven't been addressed before, novel as they may sometimes seem at present.
[8] Not that this means that God has not revealed Himself in other ways, nor that this means that Christians as such understand even the revelation in Christ fully, but simply that the revelation communicated in Scripture is true.
[9] This, of course, is assuming that they are coming from within the Christian tradition itself. Again, I am well aware that many of my students are beginning wholly outside of it, with no background either to accept or reject except insofar, if they are Americans at least, they have had access to it through the general culture.
[10] Letter 161, chap. 4; trans. Fulton, From Judgment to Passion (2002), p. 104. Sorry, self-link, but at least you know now why I'm carrying such quotations around in my head. Not that I'm embarrassed that I know such things. Or that I practice self-flagellation, at least physically, myself. Not at all.
[11] There's a long post-to-be on this concerning the Trinity. For the moment, see Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (1941), pp. 22-24, on how it is idle to protest that we use human terms to talk about God; we have no other language with which to think: "All language about God must, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, necessarily be analogical. We need not be surprised at this, still less suppose that because it is analogical it is therefore valueless or without any relation to the truth. The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things.... To complain that man measures God by his own experience is a waste of time; man measures everything by his own experience; he has no other yardstick."
[12] Properly speaking, Christians don't even know this about themselves.
[13] Even Augustine had to confess in the end that he couldn't explain the Trinity, although he wrote fifteen books in the attempt.
[14] London, British Library MS Harley 3244, fol. 28r, detail.

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