Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Stendhal instructs the anthropologist struggling against his own passion for a woman to write down one's ideas about the love-addiction in question and to look back upon them in a month. The truly passionate person will be a different character altogether by that time, he claims, and thus the advice will be as good as that given by another person.

In the spirit of such a use of confessional, here we go: I wish I understood better the workings of God through time. I wish I understood how compassion and mercy were to be played out by a modern intellectual.

I spoke with my father until he was falling asleep tonight. I turned out the lights in the living room, went to bed, and opened the Bible on the bedside table to Paul's impassioned confession of his own weakness, a weakness to be the very demonstration of God's strength. I am in the throes of such a weakness, wondering where a PhD is taking me, feeling poisoned when I contemplate spending six years on some form of vanity, challenged everywhere with the apparition of uselessness in all forms of activism, toying meanwhile with stray projects, encounters ending empty, days crumpling like paper wads in the dusty silence of an empty apartment, everything fizzling into nothing:

It has recently come to my attention that I have been spiritually sleeping. A straight flush of pure conversation, straight-up, a few old friends and a few strangers, has left me staring into space.

In the emptiness there has been a little quickening. It is nothing from me; nothing from trying or cleverness, something out of the connection of a half-dozen conversations over the last week, something pushing me a little further.

Here is part of the conundrum. I am writing about what I think is a fundamental experience of faith, not of Christian chauvinism, but of the lingering shadow of a question of what it would be like to take others more seriously than I do. Or, to press the point, what it would be like to take that commitment seriously as something that it is possible to share with others - a community of intellectuals, a community of believers.

Whether because of a natural suspicion of be-name-tagged greeters from my childhood, or laziness, or distraction, I find myself often lingering around the edges of the congregation, waiting to see what happens, rather than plunging in. One thing I wish I understood better, maybe, is a funny sort of conviction that I have a duty to live among the worldly, to work as a translator for the natural compassion of atheists, and to witness in funny places – leaving me not quite sure how to request help from clergy or religious friends for how to say the right thing to the Buddhist. Year by year the game of speaking to the worldly becomes more complex as I figure out how many varieties of experience there are. increasingly I also wonder where to connect back to the faithful. The best support comes from my family, secondly from rare contact with seminarians whom I wish I knew better.

I am writing from Texas, and it is a good time to meditate on the meaning of that religious family. insofar as the family of famous journalists guide and exhort each other through the mechanisms of progress and propaganda, the family of cattlemen put their children to the right schools and apprenticeships; the religious family usually tries to bind some kind of faith in their children, prepare them in good habits, and send them into the world.
Over one summer in the Adirondacks, I served as an organist for a congregation of retired Episcopalian clergy. I remember telling the vicar’s wife how happy I was that I had been asked to do something for a group of people who meant so much to me, knowing that I would have never volunteered except if asked.

Evangelicals get a bad rap. But let me put in this ticket in praise of the confrontation, in favor of talking out loud, for academics and educated people to get down to brass tacks sometimes of the things deepest in their hearts: I say this having been taken out of my skin by the experience of talking to another Christian (something I never seem to do). But the same experience, I would allow, has just as much been coming from my clever atheist friends who keep probing the causes of their various ideas about compassion, mercy, justice: please, but let us keep talking. It has come over me like rain in a desert.


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