Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and this weekend, unbelievable as it seems to us in the Northeast who still see snow instead of crocuses on our lawns, will be Easter. Lent is my favorite season of the Christian year, a time when I can get serious about some spiritual problem or slackness of will. Since it’s only forty days (and it seemed shorter this year, somehow), I’m not daunted by the prospect of an open-ended vow, the promise to “never do that again” which undermines itself from the start by its very implausibility. It’s like Anne Lamott’s cure for writer’s block: rather than sit down to the monumental task of “writing your novel”, she suggests that you resolve every day to write as much as will fit within a one-inch picture frame.
Well, I didn’t do that, but I did more or less keep my Lenten resolution to stop talking to my novel characters instead of Jesus. What I discovered, when I no longer had my imaginary friend telling me “Girl, you look fabulous, and I love your defense of the Trinity!”, was that I still use others’ approval as a substitute for faith that God will either (a) bring to completion the good work He has begun in me, or (b) use my failures and humiliations for my spiritual growth and that of others, if I let Him.
My faith this year has been largely about “Not-That”. God is not Eros, not morality, not intellect, not the church, not my opinions, not others’ opinions. God is only authentic in the absence of all concepts about God. This is, after awhile, a dark and confusing space to inhabit. My plot problems, it seems, were really life problems, as I had fallen into radical doubt about all methods of knowing the right path.
That feeling found a companionable echo in Hugo’s latest post about his hiatus from church. I too have returned to the words of that old Negro spiritual: You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley/You’ve got to walk it by yourself/Ain’t nobody here can walk it for you/You’ve got to walk it by yourself. I keep wanting others to walk it for me, or at least with me, so that I can feel more confident that I am “right”. But only Jesus can make me right, or rather, lead me beyond rightness to God’s love. Jesus walked that valley for me, so why do I need anyone else to do it?
Kim Fabricius has posted a bracing Palm Sunday sermon about how the death of Jesus invites us to step into that emptiness, the place of not knowing and not being comforted:
So: for one Holy Week forget about the suffering of Jesus, the courage of Jesus, the wickedness of it all. Forget even about the dying of Jesus: it is not to the crucifix, or even to the deposition, that I would direct you – no! Rather look at the man – dead – gaze upon the corpse of Christ, fix your eyes on his cold and rigid body, laid out on a slab, already showing signs of decomposition. I am thinking of Hans Holbein’s painting “Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”. The Russian author Dostoevsky saw the painting, in a museum in Basel, stopping on his way to Geneva, and forever after it haunted him like a nightmare. He describes it in his great novel The Idiot. The character Prince Myshkin says: “Why some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture!”In an older post, Christopher at Betwixt and Between reflects on how Lent’s call to humility is heard differently by members of the dominant group versus those who are out of power. Traditional Christian rhetoric about “dying to self” has been addressed to those who already had a fully-formed, privileged self to lose. Without a nuanced understanding of the audience being addressed, this theology may further oppress those (such as women, children and sexual minorities) who have been forced to submerge their selfhood to the powers of this world.
This sermon doesn’t have three points, it’s got three words: Lose your faith! (I warned you I would be sacrilegious.) Yes, lose your faith. Lose your faith in God. For as the French mystic Simone Weil insisted, there is a kind of atheism that is purifying, cleansing us of idols. Lose your faith in the god that the cross exposes as a no-god, a sham god. Lose your faith in the god who is but the product of your projections, fantasies, wishes, and needs, a security blanket or good-luck charm god. Lose your faith in the god who is there to hold your hand, solve your problems, rescue you from your trials and tribulations, the deus ex machina, literally the “machine god”, wheeled out onto the stage in ancient Greek drama, introduced to the plot artificially to resolve its complications and secure a happy ending. Lose your faith in the god who confers upon you a privileged status that is safe and secure. Lose your faith in the god who promises you health, wealth, fulfilment, and success, who pulls rabbits out of hats. Lose your faith in the god with whom your conscience can be at ease with itself. Lose your faith in the god who, in Dennis Potter’s words, is the bandage, not the wound. Lose your faith in the god who always answers when you pray and comes when you call. Lose your faith in the god who is never hidden, absent, dead, entombed. For the “Father who art in heaven” – this week he is to be found in hell – with his Son.
No one puts it more starkly – or more honestly and truthfully – than Bonhoeffer. We must recognize, he wrote from prison, “that we have to learn to live in the world ‘as if God were not here’. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it… God would have us know that we must live as men and women who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us… Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross” – and then down from the cross and into the grave. “He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” God a Super-Power? That god is a demon, the Devil. If that god is your Lord, this week is a call for “regime change” (Walter Brueggemann).
So, yes, lose your faith! For as with life, so with faith: only those who lose it will find it. Or rather may find it. Faith is a risk, and discipleship demands that we learn to live with insecurity and uncertainty, setting out on a journey without a map, with companions who are as lost as we are, following a leader who is always way ahead of us, beckoning mysteriously, “Follow me!”, and then vanishing just as we arrive. God is mystery, ineffable mystery, naming a reality that we know, but the more we know, the more we are forced to un-know and rethink everything we thought we knew.
Finally, Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love is running a Gay Holy Week series of readings and artwork that retell the Passion narrative with GLBT imagery.