Ayana Mathis, in her New York Times first installment in a series on American literature and faith titled The Prophetic, is recalling her childhood memories of growing up in a Black revivalist Christian tradition. She writes that:
the God of her revival childhood was all-powerful and relatively benevolent, but had a great many rules about what we should do (go to church 3x a week, live by the Word of God, literally interpreted) and what we shouldn’t do (listen to secular music, play cards, watch movies, drink). These commitments and privations would be rewarded with God’s love, palpable, like a bird alighting on a shoulder.
She describes leaving this world behind with the memorable image of plunging into the world on the other side of the stained-glass window. Mathis views the beginnings of her adult journey as one of growing beyond her conservative Christian origins to become an artist. Her’s was a journey of learning how to disbelieve but be imprinted by belief.
How to disbelieve while remaining imprinted by belief struck a deep chord in me. Mathis asserts that American literature –and by extension mainstream American culture – remains imprinted by belief, freighted by ideas about morality, justice, and standards for living. Her assertion is that whatever the condition of our belief at the personal level – as in do we, or don’t we? – the cultural impact of belief remains imprinted on us. That despite many manifold wrongs and derelictions, the literary and cultural landscape of America remains deeply imprinted by the nation’s historically Christian heritage.
She notes that this Christian imprint has both good and not so beneficial consequences –in her phrase it trucks in paradox. The Christian imprint on American society has often been used to justify great evil and at best inspire decency and generosity, acting as a hedge against oversimplistic notions of society and the individual. Her assertion is that our Christian legacy asks us to tolerate a degree of paradox – requiring us to wrangle with contradictory realities in mind and heart with sustenance and insight to be gained in that wrangling.
Omitting her more personal references to a fundamentalist upbringing, Mathis is speaking to many of us – I suspect- here in this church on this Easter morning. Few of us good middle-class, over-educated, professionally-successful, and predominantly White worshippers remain Christian if measured by orthodox belief and devotional piety and practice. Yet here we are on Easter Day. Some among us may be a little surprised to find ourselves sitting in these pews. Yet nevertheless we’re here – despite being unable to give a full account for why we have been drawn here.
Perhaps we’re being drawn by memories of an earlier phase of family life as children or as parents of young children? Perhaps it’s the influence of friends drawing us here? Perhaps – and this is the best reason of all – we’re drawn here by cultural tradition – tradition as the imprint of belief upon our personal struggle with disbelief? Deep-down being here reflects a questioning of certainties -once – easily taken at face value but alas no longer so. Many of us have lost confidence in a belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, and all is right in our lives and our world.
We are they who are seeking to find a fingerhold – to say a foothold here would be to overstate our confidence – to find a fingerhold on what it means to live well with a hope which at times aspires to the level of real courage – and love demonstrated through generous concern for everyone affected by our action or non-action – in short – a generous concern for our neighbor. We are they who are seeking a fingerhold on something ineffable. We wrangle with disbelief while remaining mysteriously imprinted by belief.
Many today think Christian belief is too hard. Belief has been reduced to yes or no answers. Such belief seems to us irrational – an artifact of a former time long passed. We think in terms of making the leap of faith – wondering can we leap that far or not. Edward Weber in a recent edition of the Anglican Digest recalls an Associated Press interview with John Updike not long before his death in 2009 in which he said that he was aware of the explanations for the creation of the universe, which did not require God, but that personally he just could not quite make the leap of unbelief.
So perhaps the leap of unbelief is as hard and irrational as any leap in the other direction? It’s not so hard to believe in a higher power. It’s not even so hard to believe in resurrection as an internal spiritual experience in the minds of the disciples. It’s quite another level of difficulty to actually believe in resurrection as a bodily experience for Jesus.
In his poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter, Updike unashamedly speaks of his belief in the literal, corporeal resurrection of Jesus. Despite his controversial lifestyle, and regardless of whether he practiced a conventional piety or not – John Updike remained firmly imprinted by Christian belief.
Make no mistake: if He rose at all It was as His body; If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, The molecules reknit, The amino acids rekindle, The Church will fall.
It was not as flowers, Each soft Spring recurrent; It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the Eleven apostles; It was as His flesh; ours.
I’m convinced – whatever the condition of our personal Christian belief – we remain imprinted by the Christian social and cultural legacy. For me, belief is no longer an either or proposition. Belief is neither something I can possess, nor is it something I can lose. Belief is like the tide – it ebbs only to return in the flow. For me, as I am today, belief is the expression not so much of objective faith in a collection of doctrinal propositions but a heartfelt experience of being deeply imprinted by belief as a narrative – a narrative of belief that creates meaning and purpose in my life – continually correcting my orientation to the world around me in all its evil as well as its glory. Mathis echoes Updyke – faith as the practice of wrangling contradictory realities in mind and on heart and finding sustenance and insight in the wrangling.
I agree with Updike that if Jesus was not bodily raised to a new and transformed life – yet a life so continuous with his pre-death human life that he remained recognizable to the disciples – – the Church will fall.
By the church’s fall I’m not imagining the church as the respectable middle-class institution – of which St. Martin’s is one of the finer examples. I’m thinking the Christian legacy which remains imprinted on our culture. Despite the process of relentless secularization – Christianity’s cultural imprint is of a generous orthodoxy which gives our culture its distinctive shape.
There is at the heart of Christianity a curious paradox – Jesus died on the cross – but Christ was born in an empty grave. Wrangling with this paradox is worth it- for it leads us to the realization that resurrection is both a present time experience as well as a future hope.
For me this is the paradox of living in the season of the resurrection – a period of time I think of as the-time-in-between – that is – the time between the resurrection of Jesus and the divine restoration of the whole of the creation at a point we can only poetically refer to as at the end of time. To live in the-time-in-between is to live bookended between the resurrection of Jesus and the eventual restoration of all of creation. If we can forget our narcissistic worries about belief – what is it and do we possess it or have we lost it?, – we become free to embrace living in the time-in-between as a narrative opening us to an immense enrichment of meaning and purpose that continually refocuses our attention on the day and its task of building a future better than our past.
The onetime legendary 19th-century bishop of Massachusetts, Phillips Brooks, wrote: The great Easter truth is not that we are to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the resurrection.
Living in the-time-in-between means the promise of being reunited in the Resurrection with all who we have loved and yet see no longer. It also means new beginnings after a failed relationship, healing after a messy divorce or a parent-child estrangement; it means new life on the other side of addiction recovery and the healing of old hurt; it means new life for a nation like Ukraine rebirthing in the fire of war.
The new life of resurrection in the-time-in-between can be found in the struggle for peace – not peace at any price but peace with justice; in the making real our hopes and dreams for a future better than our past – a future arriving step by step through our commitment to put right that which currently, is so very wrong in our world. In the-time-in-between we are called to strive for and to witness and to collaborate in the divine plan for restoration and renewal – challenging the world to see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new!
For us living in-the-time in-between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the whole of creation – poetically referred to as at the end of time – means to wrangle with paradox – holding contradictory realities in mind and heart, and thereby drawing sustenance and insight in that wrangling (Mathis). To disbelieve while being imprinted by belief is the best description I can find for living in the-time-in-between. All well and good you might say but what of the bodily resurrection of Jesus? All I can say is that living in the-time-in-between – we should rule nothing out.
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