A Grand Thing that Ought to Be True
Most of us who have been Christians for a little while or a long while have moments where we wonder if we really are right about this whole God business. Some days it seems like nothing could be more obvious than that there is God out there guiding and sustaining the cosmos; on others, it seems like the remotest of possibilities.
Near the end of Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner quotes a character from a George MacDonald novel who has this to say about this question of questions:
Even if there is no hereafter, I would live my life believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it were not. No facts can take the place of truths; and if these be not truths, then it is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and John and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord. I will go farther, and say I would rather die forevermore believing as Jesus believed, than live forevermore believing as those who deny him.
That’s excellent! I need to read my Buechner (and George McDonald, for that matter).
Thanks for this post Ryan. And, I agree, it seems many of us have moments where we wonder ‘about this whole God business’ – I know I certainly have had those moments, indeed seasons.
The Buechner quote is a bit of a puzzlement to me and reminds me of what Tammy Faye Baker said something to the effect, Christianity makes her feel so good (or helps her life so much) she would happily live by its message regardless of its truthfullness. I can’t remember the exact reference right now but didn’t the apostle Paul say something quite the opposite: if Jesus isn’t raised, we (that is the believing community/believer) are deluded and should be pitied?
Your concerns certainly occurred to me as I was reading (and posting) this quote. It seems to fling wide open the door to comments like the one Bakker made—that whether or not God exists, if believing in him makes us feel (or live) better who cares?
I guess my only response would be to say that I think there seems to be a built-in apologetic (if a very subtle one) to MacDonald’s statement, especially this line:
What would it really mean to say that the loftiest part of who we are, what we aspire to, what our hopes are for ourselves, our neighbours, and our planet makes precisely zero contact with reality? That it is a waste? What is implied about who we are and what the world is like in that statement? Does it make sense?
I agree with Paul. If Christ is not raised from the dead we are to be pitied, regardless of how believing in lies makes us feel. I think what MacDonald is saying (at least as I interpret him) is that this (and other fundamental beliefs about God and reality) is both fact and truth, and that our intuitions about the latter provide good clues to the existence of the former.
That was what I took from it, that some truths are too good to be false. Of course, we might be deceived, but if so the best part of our nature seems to be in on the deception.
I share your sentiment and that of the quotation, although my own expression of it would differ somewhat from the quotation, as would yours.
There is that poem by Emily Dickinson, about one who died for beauty being laid in a tomb with one who died for truth, and they talked until the moss covered their lips. Many interpretations are possible. To my way of thinking, truth and beauty are closely linked, and both matter in life and death. Something like that is how I read the quotation.
I don’t think I can say that I agree with Paul completely. I think it is possible to find the beauty and truth of theology, of God, of life and death, even if the resurrection of Jesus is a myth. Even if one believes that, it is possible to see in the myth the hope, the truth, to which Paul testifies, the resurrection. In addition, I think that Jews have the same basis for hope – it is present as much in the Old Testament as in the New. Nevertheless, I have no and want no argument with Paul. I take him as he is. And I have no and want no argument with anyone else who believes the resurrection is absolutely essential. It is a good belief. No one who holds it will be let down.
A friend of mine, one who was, or is, an alcoholic says that his life has been so much better since he placed his faith in Jesus that if there is nothing else, no eternal life, only this life, he will be satisfied. I imagine that is how he would read the quotation here.
I guess the problem would be that seeing hope and truth in the myth isn’t worth a whole lot if it is ultimately groundless. I suppose there would be some “truth” and “hope” in a life lived well, a life lived with hope. As the example of your friend who was an alcoholic illustrates, some people seem content with shorter horizons than others. But the question always remains—at least for me—what does it mean to say that we need lies to live well and to have answers for our deepest questions, hopes, and fears? What kind of a world makes that necessary?
I agree that groundless myth has limitations. I don’t think of myths as lies. I think of myth as essential to life, to living well and to answering our deepest questions, hopes and fears.
In what must Christian myth be grounded? I would say if there is benevolence behind life and the universe and if in some sense life is eternal and good, then Christian myth is not groundless and understanding the Biblical narratives as myth does not limit them.
I absolutely agree, but those are a couple of very significant “ifs.” It seems to me that, from a Christian perspective, those “ifs” depend on the veracity of historical events. From a Christian perspective, if Jesus is not raised from the dead there are no good reasons to suppose that life really is “eternal and good.” I agree that myths can serve an important—even crucial—role in helping us to “live well” during our time on this planet, but whatever answers they claim to give for our deepest questions, hopes, and fears (which often go beyond the world of our experience) depend on certain facts about the cosmos really being the case.
Jews seem to have the same hope, even though they do not believe Jesus rose from the dead. Many liberal Christians seem to have the same hope, at least those who believe in God and in eternal life do. That is what I mean when I say that our hope does not depend on the resurrection being the real case.
That said, I don’t really want to disagree with anyone who sees the resurrection as a central and crucial fact of Christianity. Although in my own liberal faith the resurrection has been seen as mythical, I nevertheless feel connected to those testify to the centrality of the resurrection, as I do with you. None of us would be Christians today if not for the conviction of the first Christians that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead.
I hope I am making my point clearly here. In spite of my own theological inclination to see the resurrection and the Bible in a mythical way, I would only feel happiness to find out that the resurrection happened just as the apostles have said it did. At the same time, my experience with liberal theology seems to have given me the same hope and faith that the apostles had. In addition, the time I spent studying Hebrew and the Bible with Jews in a university gives me the impression that their hope and faith and ours are the same.
Perhaps, I’m getting old and jaded but I’ve become tired of what I would call ‘cuteness’ and have grown to appreciate clarity. I realize that Beuchner is quoting McDonald who is putting words into the mouth of a fictitious character and that the words are purposely ambiguous. I further realize we have only a short quotation before us.
Having said this, believing or ‘hoping’ don’t make it so. I’ve spent time with folk who are certified to be insane. One fellow called me satan when I told him I couldn’t see the bird he said was perched on his hand. That bird may have given him a measure of hope and a feeling of specialness and (quoting Ken) may have been a ‘good belief’ but he was deluded and held in a secure facility which among others housed the insane.
I agree Larry. Believing or hoping or wanting something to be true certainly doesn’t make it true. I guess I just interpret the quote as saying that the nature and orientation of our hope and desire is highly suggestive (I like how Ken put it: “some truths are too good to be false”). It doesn’t prove anything, of course. But it does force us to ask some interesting questions about the connections between beauty, ethics and truth, and what clues these connections (or lack thereof) provide about the nature of reality.