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Everything Will Be All Right?

I’ve been reading a lot of Peter Berger lately. His approach to theology, not to mention his honesty regarding doubt and certainty are aspects of his thinking that I am finding deeply resonant. He calls his approach to theology “inductive” in that it starts from human experience in the world, and then proceeds to ask what might account for it. While he certainly doesn’t claim that this provides us with proof of God’s existence, he does think there are enough “signals of transcendence” to take seriously the idea of a personal God who is in the process of redeeming a damaged world.

One of these “signals,” according to Berger, is the human need for order. Human beings seem to need to be socialized into believing that the world makes sense, that the world and the things that human beings desire are not fundamentally at odds with one another. He asks us to consider the following scenario: our child wakes up in the middle of the night crying, and we rush in to comfort them. What do we do? Usually, we say something like “It’s OK, it’s OK, daddy’s (mommy’s) here, everything will be all right.”

I’ve had this experience on numerous occasions, and I’ve often wondered what exactly I’m saying when I utter these words to one of my frightened children. I do not, in fact, know that everything will be all right, nor would a casual glance at the world I inhabit give me warrant for such a claim. Am I lying to my children? Presenting them with a necessary illusion? Why might it be necessary to deceive my children about the nature of reality?

As it turns out, I’m not the first parent to consider this matter (imagine that!). Peter Berger spends a good deal of time in A Rumour of Angels addressing this very issue, and his insights are, in my opinion, worth quoting at length:

To become a parent is to take on the role of world-builder and world-protector…. The role that a parent takes on represents not only the order of this or that society, but order as such, the underlying order of the universe that it makes sense to trust…. ‘Everything is in order, everything is all right’—this is the basic formula of maternal and parental reassurance. Not just this particular anxiety, not just this particular pain—but everything is all right. The formula can, without in any way violating it, be translated into a statement of cosmic scope—‘Have trust in being’.

But what are our grounds for having “trust in being?” Do we have good reasons to believe that everything will or even could be “all right?” At the very least, it must be said that such a conclusion is not the only one that could be drawn from our observation and experience of the world, nor is it the most obvious.

If reality is coexistence with the ‘natural’ reality that our empirical reason can grasp, then the experience is an illusion and the role that embodies it is a lie. For then it is perfectly obvious that everything is not in order, is not all right. The world that the child is being told to trust is the same world in which he will eventually die. If there is no other world, then the ultimate truth about this one is that eventually it will kill the child as it will kill his mother. This would not, to be sure, detract from the real presence of love and its very real comforts; it would even give this love a quality of tragic heroism. Nevertheless, the final truth would not be love but terror, not light but darkness. The nightmare of chaos, not the transitory safety of order, would be the final reality of the human situation. For in the end we must all find ourselves in darkness, alone with the night that will swallow us up. The face of reassuring love, bending over our terror, will then be nothing except an image of merciful illusion.

If a supernatural dimension to the world is ruled out, and what Berger has described above is, at rock bottom, all that we can, with absolute honesty, expect for our children then “everything will be all right” can only mean something like “I’m going to do my best to make things as good as possible for you in a world that is ultimately hostile to human concerns,” or “Everything will not, in fact, be all right, but you’re better off believing that it will until you’re older.” If some kind of eschatological “making-things-right” is rejected, it seems like my night-time words of comfort to my crying child can only hollowly ring out into a sea of indifference—the desperate wish of a creature who wants and expects more from the world than it can ever give him or his child.

Berger rejects this picture (as do I). Children need to believe that the world is a good, safe, and ordered place in order to learn, grow, and develop and parents, I think, have an obligation to provide such a conception of the world. I think we would find it morally problematic if a parent were to tell his frightened child “You have good reasons to be fearful and afraid! The world is a terrifying place! Your existence is fragile and tenuous, and ultimately all that you will love and hold dear will be swallowed up and negated by death.” The fact that responsible parents cannot (and should not) say this is, for Berger, a “signal.” And while this “signal” obviously doesn’t represent a metaphysical proof, it is, I think, highly suggestive:

Every parent (or, at any rate, every parent who loves his child) takes upon himself the representation of a universe that is ultimately in order and ultimately trustworthy. This representation can be justified only within a religious (strictly speaking a supernatural) frame of reference. In this frame of reference the natural world within which we are born, love, and die is not the only world, but only the foreground of another world in which love is not annihilated in death, and in which, therefore, the trust in the power of love to banish chaos is justified.The parental role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality.

Elsewhere, in Questions of Faith, Berger says that to have faith is “to bet on the ultimate validity of joy.” I think that to have faith is also to bet on the fact that what children need from the world and from those charged with helping them to learn about and make their way in it is, at rock bottom, legitimate and reflective of reality.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks Ryan for this thoughtful reflection. Well put.

    August 30, 2007
  2. Anonymous #

    Ryan,

    Great piece. Just a question of curiousity. Does Berger ever talk about the role of ‘hope’ in the Christian journey?

    August 30, 2007
  3. Hey Ryan,

    That was me. My computer had a hiccup.

    Not sure if the comment was posted, but what does Berger say, if he does, about the role hope plays in the formation of one’s faith?

    Dave

    August 30, 2007
  4. Hey Dave,

    Berger doesn’t talk much about faith formation. He’s more interested in discussing how you even get to the position where faith can start to be nurtured/developed in a world characterized by a historically unprecedented number of religious options for the average person.

    The modern situation forces us to choose in the area of religion in a way that is historically unique (i.e., the average medieval European peasant likely wasn’t agonizing about whether to devote himself to Kabbalah or Tibetan Buddhism…). I think Berger sees his job as presenting Christianity as a plausible – even the most plausible – option in the ideological marketplace. Berger describes his work as potentially placing someone in the “antechamber” of the “temple” of faith. He seems to be more concerned to present faith as possible and as a reasonable response to the world of human experience than to get into the journey of faith itself.

    August 31, 2007
  5. David #

    I read these passages from Berger years ago and thought of them again recently while reading a review of Vanessa Redgrave’s one-woman show based on Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking.” The reviewer, John Lahr, describes a scene in which Didion (Redgrave) addresses her late daughter who died shortly after Didion’s husband died:

    “She is never more powerful than when delivering Didion’s retrospective questions to her dead daughter. ‘Did I lie to you?” she says. “Did I lie to you all my life? When I said, You’re safe, I’m here, was that a lie or did you believe it? Is a lie only a story that the hearer disbelieves? Is that the only definition of a lie? Or did you believe it?’”
    New Yorker, April 9, 2007, p. 76.

    Designated Mourner
    Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
    by John Lahr
    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/theatre/2007/04/09/070409crth_theatre_lahr

    September 5, 2007
  6. Thanks David, for this very moving and thought provoking passage (and the link).

    September 5, 2007

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