A Ragged Garment

Last night I was talking with a group of young adults about things like doubt and honesty and childlike-ness and the role these things (and others) played in the development and preservation of a mature faith.  Frederick Buechner, in a discussion of one of his former professors, has this to say in Listening to Your Life:

‘Every morning when you wake up,’ he [James Muilenberg] used to say, ‘before you reaffirm your faith the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again.’  He was a fool in the sense that he didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t resolve, intellectualize, evade, the tensions of his faith but lived those tensions out, torn almost in two by them at times.  His faith was not a seamless garment but a ragged garment with the seams showing, the tears showing, a garment that he clutched about him like a man in a storm.

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8 Comments

  1. I am not trying to be rude or provacative but I think a statement like FB’s quote reads as instructions on how to delude yourself. Evading tensions in your mind is another way to evade reality. Tensions or contradictions seem to be indicators that one’s premises needs to be checked. I don’t think holding these tensions in your mind is a virtue and neither is repeating a mantra to reinforce them.

    1. “I don’t think holding these tensions in your mind is a virtue”

      As I read it, neither does Frederick Buechner.

      1. Did I read it wrong then? Is he saying one should not say I believe after reading the news? I often
        misunderstand the meanings of things so I apologize if I have mischaracterized the meaning here.

    2. I don’t think Buechner is recommending deluding ourselves or, as Michael points out, that holding tensions in our mind is a virtue in and of itself. I think he is simply advocating a faith that is willing to look squarely at reality and not mouth empty religious platitudes. I don’t think anyone is exempt from the kind of tension Buechner is speaking of, whether they claim to be religious or not. Every worldview wobbles on the problem of evil. No matter where one places their faith, there is tension, in my view. It may come at different times and in response to different pressures, but it still comes. Living with tension is not unique to those who believe in God.

  2. The Muilenburg quote is consistent with a major reason that people cite for atheism. A suffering world without God, one made of only chance and necessity, seems more plausible to many people today than one with God. That this view is integral to the major scientific paradigm of our time adds to that plausibility.

    For me, the only thing that keeps me from total surrender to that logic is that this God, the one of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is not a stranger to me. The tension of faith that Beuchner describes is there whether I turn one way or the other.

    Perhaps Emerson is right: consistency is the hobgoblin.

    1. A suffering world without God, one made of only chance and necessity, seems more plausible to many people today than one with God.

      Yes, it is true. I feel the force of this logic almost daily. Questions haunt me though: Why, in a suffering world without God, one made of only chance and necessity, would it occur to us to expect otherwise? To search desperately not just for rational meaning but moral meaning? To be utterly unable to/unwilling to order our lives—individually or collectively—according to the process that we think brought us into existence? To be creatures who hunger after beauty and truth in world that is supposed only to reward adaptive utility?

      These questions, among others, keep the tension Buechner speaks of manageable. These questions as well as the fact that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not a stranger to me either.

  3. Re: Why, in a suffering world without God, one made of only chance and necessity, would it occur to us to expect otherwise?

    Yes, this is an important question. Even though natural selection can be and has been used to answer that question, I think the answer is less than convincing. A narrative that says that we have evolved to have a baseless hope is a dark narrative – so dark that it leads me to suspicion of it. That Camus quote seems to express the reality of our experience better than the dark narrative. The sun reminded him that history is not everything.

    1. I agree, the answers that appeal to natural selection are unconvincing. There is a tendency among some writers/thinkers to assume that once an evolutionary tale about some feature of human life is told (whether we find that tale convincing or not), we have thereby explained said phenomenon without remainder. I think this is an assumption worth challenging. It’s one thing to provide a possible evolutionary account of something; it’s quite another to actually explain it in a way that does justice to our experience of it—that does not turn it into an adaptive fiction foisted unwittingly upon us by our genes.

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