I hope this title is appreciated, and that the article is appreciated at least half as much as the title. I enjoy approaching serious subjects with a casual, Kermit the Frog tea sip before I get serious.
We are all naturally inclined to think that the proof is in the pudding. As Occam’s Razor interprets nature around us, we are wired to interpret nature between us and within us. Nobody should be surprised that today’s Christians, especially those of the younger generations, are losing their taste for the pudding. It flows through our guts as tasteless and malnourishing, at best, and outright poisonous at worst.
The sharp-witted atheist Christopher Hitchens once said, “If you ask the religious which world do they care about, and in which world do they want power, it will be this world every time, because they too know perfectly well that this is the only life we’ve got.” We live in a time in which these words feel true. The focus of this article is not to explain why, nor is it urgently needed. When America’s richest televangelist, a man in a position to do tremendous good in a character-revealing time, instead warns parishioners from the pulpit (in a transparently stereotypical fire-n-brimstone manner) not to stop tithing, who would want any part in that?
I concede that the depression, despair, and dement to which this drives us has been depicted far better than I am able at this moment. The blogger John Pavlovitz co-opted the slang of “adulting” and coined the phrase “I can’t Christian today.” This is what I feel, and probably what you feel at this point in history. If you don’t feel it, then I question your Christianity. I cannot describe our situation better than this. I have nothing new to say for today about the heaviness of the Cross in the era of the red hat. Enough has been said. We already had more than enough years ago.
We expect to suffer as Christians. I am not making any demeaning claims that this is hard to understand for any of us. We are simply suffering in places, and in ways, we had not expected—perhaps what we least expected. I am not offering empty promises of resolution, revelation, or closure in our lifetime. This is not “Everything happens for a reason.” Nor is it “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” What I am offering is an invitation to suffer: to suffer not alone, to suffer together and with Christ Himself as He promised. This is an invitation to Christian when we can’t Christian. By way of being these things, it is a set of reasons why the strange suffering we presently know is not actually strange, unless we think of it as strangely accurate, truthful, and familiar.
A balance of Christ, the Scriptures, and other influences that have shaped my faith have helped me greatly to recognize these times as such. First I recall the words of Christ to the Apostle Thomas, “Because you have seen, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” C.S. Lewis quite literally continues along this path of reasoning in The Four Loves when he describes the Christian life as a journey home on a mountain trail. He asks us to imagine for a moment that on this journey we reach an overlook from which we can see our village. We are, of course, too high to jump for it, but it feels closer than ever. However, we must leave the glimpse of home and move physically farther away as we move farther along the winding trail that leads us down through the mountains and ultimately to our home. In times when we can no longer see our home, it is a matter of revisiting our maps and examining them against what we see around us along the way. If our surroundings are consistent with the map, we can at least find some reassurance that we are still on the path home and not being led down a blind alley.
Perhaps one of the most significant and common themes among religions is the attempt to answer the problem of evil, and one of the first things to understand about the Christian answer is that Lucifer, the source of evil, is actually a chief angel. He is not a Zoroastrian autonomous power equal to God. He is a created being, but one possessing all the rational, supernatural, and moral faculties afforded God’s good servants. This creates a moral paradox in which we are resigned to live: the greater the good, the greater the evil. It’s through our beautiful human sexuality that comes infidelity, rape, pornography, and addiction. One can hardly find anything more scientifically advanced than a nuclear missile. If sex and science can be evil, of course, religion also can. Ever since my teens,
Les Miserables has been my favorite theatrical work of any kind. Inspector Javert is one of the most compelling villains ever written, and he falls not because of his vices, but his virtues. Really, you can hardly find even a protagonist in literature with more impenetrable moral standards and integrity. My own spiritual father once told me the advice he received from Fr. Alexander Schmemann while in seminary: “Where is the Devil? Is he in gang houses and strip clubs? No, his work is done there. He’s in the seminaries because that’s where the fresh meat is.” Religious evil confounds us because it hurts in what we thought was our safe place. The reality is that we should expect nothing less from powers whose goal is to destroy our souls.
Officially, the time between Christ’s Ascension and His Return are “the end times.” Dr. Larry Taylor, the unofficial pastor of the Old Louisiana College famously said, “I believe we are closer to the end than we have ever been before.” Nonetheless, the year 2020 has reached a remarkable level of apocalyptic character. Plagues that shake our sense of security, the culture crisis, and the climate crisis are all phenomena historically interpreted as apocalyptic. But the New Testament instructs us to pay particular attention to one sign above others, preparation for the reign of Antichrist. Fr. Seraphim Rose, whom I introduced a few months ago, said weeks before his death,
“It is no longer a question of being a good or a poor Orthodox Christian. The question now is, ‘Will our faith survive at all?’ With many, it will not survive. The coming Antichrist will be too attractive, too much in the spirit of the worldly things we now crave, for most even to know they have lost their Christianity when they bow down to him.”
He later goes on to explain that the word “antichrist” means “in place of Christ” as much as it means “against Christ.” This means it is necessary that an antichrist would inspire a messianic devotion from seemingly unstoppable masses of people, who will think they are on the side of the truth even if we can see his likeness to Christ as transparently false. So be it. Whatever is wrong with the world, no atheist has never managed to persuade me that we live in a morally indifferent universe. It is often beautiful and uplifting, sometimes comically bad, and sometimes it is intricately, exquisitely, artfully evil. But a world without God and the Devil, without Christ and Antichrist, cannot even begin to explain the evil we see around us, much less offer us any hope in the midst of it.
So what virtue can we aspire to when the evil and suffering that we thought was a foreign invader sets up camp in what we thought was our safe place? At the climax of the first Harry Potter book, Albus Dumbledore said, “It takes great courage to stand up to your enemies, but even more to stand up to your friends.” And this takes me back to where I started: there are certain kinds of evil and suffering—we might say natural evil and suffering—that do not trouble our faith. Even the worst of them, tragedies such as natural disasters and loss of our loved ones, can often drive us to prayer more so than ordinary life. But there comes a point, when we are confronted with the unnatural (or supernatural) evil and suffering when those vaguely religious platitudes that I mentioned earlier no longer speak to us. And it is then that God is asking us to have the “even more” courage of which Dumbledore speaks. God indeed is giving us more than we can handle so that we can become more than what we are.