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Friday, April 05, 2013  

At Church with Roger Ebert

I remembered over yesterday's eulogies that I once preached in response to one of Roger Ebert's blog posts on God. Reading the sermon tonight, I am not tempted to take any of it back, though I won't exactly mind if none of you bothers to click through. In any case, I have beent thinking about the passage that prompted my sermon in the first place (free media prompted all my best sermons that year--Dan Savage, Roger Ebert, some guy reviewing a movie for The Onion):

I was asked at lunch today who or what I worshipped. The question was asked sincerely, and in the same spirit I responded that I worshipped whatever there might be outside knowledge. I worship the void. The mystery. And the ability of our human minds to perceive an unanswerable mystery. To reduce such a thing to simplistic names is an insult to it, and to our intelligence.

What set me off at the time--and still does, honestly--is the suggestion that speaking to that Mystery by name is insulting to the Mystery and to our own intelligence. It can be, of course. But there are plenty of ways to insult human intelligence (I know nothing about insulting Mysteries, whatever my seminary education was supposed to impart), and they don't all start with naming The Name. I was, and still am, very much in a Bonhoeffer phase in which consigning God (or whatever object of worship) to the void, the mystery, the edge of being was, well, not at all what I thought I should be urging on people. 

But looking back on it, I think Roger Ebert and I could pretty much go to the same church. I don't worship the Void, exactly, and I would be lying if I suggested that I spent most of my days contemplating mysteries (profuse though they be). But the reality of Void, Mystery, or simply Openness in a highly determined world is, in some sense, where the notion of God becomes plausible. I don't buy into the whole notion that religion was a big mistake originating in our desire to make it rain on demand (obviously); I think at the very least that religion in its many forms testifies to the vastness and creativity of the human mind, whether or not it touches on anything outside of that mind. And it is that vastness, that openness that reaches back into the world and convinces us, some of us anyway, that the word "God" means something.

But leaving semantics aside, it's clear enough that Ebert really did seek, hope in, and love that edge of the mind where certainty gave off. His remembrance of his moment of death and his wife's conviction that he still lived could have come out of the pages of Letters and Papers from Prison. If I'd care to sum up the difference between how Ebert wrote about these things and how I do (pardoning, if you will, the presumption), it would be by asserting--or at least hoping--that the visible and real is a creature of the mystery, and not vice versa. 

The mystery, however, is what matters. As W.H. Auden once wrote, "the course of History is predictable in the degree to which all men love themselves, and spontaneous in the degree to which each man loves God and through Him his neighbour." I would not object if you phrased this insight differently: to the degree that the course of History is predictable, men love themselves; to the degree that it is spontaneous, there is the possibility of love of neighbor, and of God. It doesn't much matter, in the scheme of things, whether you name this spontaneity or not. It's either a real spontaneity or an illusion. For Ebert, unbeliever that he supposedly was, it was real. It's real for me, too. When it comes right down to it, Ebert and I could go to the same church. Really, I love this essay on "How I am a Roman Catholic":

Through a mental process that has by now become almost instinctive, those nuns guided me into supporting Universal Health Care, the rightness of labor unions, fair taxation, prudence in warfare, kindness in peacetime, help for the hungry and homeless, and equal opportunity for the races and genders. It continues to surprise me that many who consider themselves religious seem to tilt away from me....

Birth control? Here I subscribe to an unofficial "double" loophole often applied in practice by Catholics faced with perplexing choices: Do that which results in the greater good and the lesser evil. I support freedom of choice. My choice is to not support abortion, except in cases of a clear-cut choice between the lives of the mother and child. A child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.

I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself a atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable. My beliefs were formed long ago from good-hearted Dominican sisters, and many better-qualified RCs might disagree.

No one who told me this would ever be excluded from my church. I don't mean to soft-pedal the differences between what Ebert wrote and, you know, the Bible and the Apostles' Creed. For reasons hopeful, fanciful, or stupid, I imagine that the Open we both worshiped somehow preserves everything in a state of perpetual love and enjoyment. I am, admittedly, not as Stoic as he was in the face of universal extinction. That the soaring bone in 2001 or the towering sound of Bach's "Gratias Agimus Tibi" or the lifetime's memories of the little girl I saw on the Chicago Avenue bus today should not be remembered, in some unfading archive, is harder for me to bear that it apparently was for him. 

But that is, in the end, a bit of a quibble. What Christians have too little appreciated (thanks, I suppose, to a rather pinched reading of 1 Corinthians 15:19) is that if this life is not splendid and glorious strictly on its own terms, there are no grounds on which to hope for its eternal prolongation. 

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:54 PM
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