Two Ways of Waiting
Lent is a time of waiting—something we are all, in various ways and to varying degrees, familiar with. During Lent our waiting is oriented towards Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the high points of the Christian calendar. But “waiting” is a theme that extends far beyond the period of Lent.
All of our days are spent in the “long Saturday” between promise and fulfillment. We live with one foot in the door of the world as we believe it ought to be and will one day be, but we are much more familiar with the world as it is, with its ambiguous mixture of joy and suffering, its waste and decay, its harshness and beauty, and its constant reminders that we will only be its inhabitants for a handful of decades if we’re lucky. All of our days are waiting days—to be born human is to be born waiting. The only thing in our power is to decide how we will wait.
The importance of how we wait was driven home from two very different sources in my reading this week. First, from Richard Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain. It’s probably safe to say that Dawkins hasn’t often been portrayed as someone with a keen interest in or understanding of human existential needs, but I found the following passages, where Dawkins describes his moral aversion to a Darwinian universe, to be suggestive:
So, the Devil’s Chaplain might conclude, Stand tall, Bipedal Ape. The shark may outswim you, the cheetah outrun you, the swift outfly you, the capuchin outclimb you, the elephant outpower you, the redwood outlast you. But have the biggest gifts of all: the gift of understanding the ruthlessly cruel process that gave us all existence; the gift of revulsion against its implications; the gift of foresight – something utterly foreign to the blundering short-term ways of natural selection – and the gift of internalizing the very cosmos.
As a human being, Dawkins is revolted by the way the world is—the brutal nature of the way in which life arose and evolved on this planet and its hostility to human aspirations – and considers it his obligation to “fight against it.” The world is morally unacceptable from Dawkins’ perspective, and to be human is to resist it. Despite his professed conviction that Darwin has forever answered such questions as “Why are we here?”, “Is there a meaning to life?”, “What are we for?”, Dawkins describes himself as a “passionate anti-Darwinian” when it comes to how we should conduct human affairs. While Dawkins is obviously not “waiting” for anything like the fulfillment of a Christian hope, he has a very specific conception of how the world ought to be, and is determined to “wait” accordingly.
A similar conviction about how human beings are to spend their waiting days, if springing from wildly different presuppositions about the world, comes from the following passages from Frederick Buechner’s A Hungering Dark. For Buechner, there are two ways of waiting open to human beings:
[O]ne of the ways that the world waits through its darkness… is to lust after the very darkness that makes us sick, to revel in our despair, to smack our lips over our own vomit. This is one way to wait, and it is a tempting way because it makes us seem brave and indeed requires a kind of bravery—laughing in the face of the idiot night. It is tempting also because sometimes despair is easier than faith.
The other way to wait is to say, “To hell with the dark. God damn the dark to hell because hell it is.” The other way to wait is to say, “Hallelujah,” which means “Praise God.” Praise God because the dark is never the end, the end is light and the light has already broken through the world out of the very heart of the world’s darkness, which is the cross of the world’s suffering. And it will break through again, as surely as, far down the road, the rider comes again his weary, lonesome way.
Like Dawkins, Buechner considers it a human duty to resist the darkness and despair that can arise from seeing the world as it is. Both deliver a passionate “no!” to the world as we observe and experience it, refusing to believe that it is the final word, a non-negotiable constraint upon future possibilities. In both the inextinguishable human need for hope comes shining through. Whatever their differences regarding the source or justification of that hope, both seem determined that their “waiting” will not be characterized by complacency, moral resignation, or despair but by a determination to rise to the moral dignity and responsibility of being human.
To be human is to demand better from the world and to live according to the “gift” of hope—whether we have Darwin or God himself to thank for it—that we have been given. This Lenten season, may our waiting be appropriately unsettled, angry, heartbroken, penitent, humble, joyful and, most importantly, infused with hope. May our long Saturday bear the marks both of the darkness of the Friday long past and the light of the Sunday on its way.