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A God Who Plays Dead

Now that I have started to jog periodically, I have done what all good joggers do: I have created a playlist on my iPod full of  bone-rattling, heart-pounding, anthemic rock songs to provide the requisite boost of adrenaline and inspiration once the legs start to feel like jelly, the breathing gets laboured, and the going starts to get pretty rough. For me, this takes place after about half a kilometre or so.

One of the tracks on my  playlist is a song called “Nietzsche” by The Dandy Warhols, which contains the following lyric:

I want a god who stays dead
not plays dead.

It’s a fascinating line—one that could allude to any number of points and experiences on the psychological/spiritual/philosophical landscape in postmodernity. God is dead, but God won’t away. We want nothing to do with God, but we can’t live without meaning and the hope of redemption. We cannot escape the shadow God casts.

A few weeks ago a friend sent me an interesting article by James Wood called “Is That All There Is?” In it, Wood is primarily concerned to evaluate a new book called The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now (which looks like an interesting read, incidentally), but he begins with a conversation with an atheist philosopher friend who admits to wondering, periodically, if it can really be true that there is no design, no metaphysical purpose to life. These are questions that atheists are not supposed to admit having, he says, but ones that haunts him nonetheless:

These are theological questions without theological answers, and, if the atheist is not supposed to entertain them, then, for slightly different reasons, neither is the religious believer. Religion assumes that they are not valid questions because it has already answered them; atheism assumes that they are not valid questions because it cannot answer them. But as one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one’s own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, such moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night.

Wherever one finds oneself on the atheist/theist continuum, it’s not hard to find oneself in these words. In fact, I would contest Woods’ portrayal of “religion” as some kind of a whitewashed space where all questions have been answered, and all doubts conquered. Even “religious” people experience the piercing moments Woods refers to, if my own experience is anything to go by. Religion is no inoculant against ephemerality, terror, and incomprehension. For every atheist that secretly wonders how there could not be a God, there are religious believers who secretly wonder how there could.

The world of our experience is ambiguous, it must be admitted. Some days God seems as close as our skin, and the hope and joy of a good world sustained by a good God seems self-evidently true and worth shouting from the rooftops. Other days it seems like we and our world are just a bunch of random molecules smashing against one another in a void of chaos and meaninglessness. Almost as if God is dead. Or playing dead.

It’s not always (or even often) easy to live in this conflicted middle ground, where these tormented questions refuse to recede quietly and obediently into the basement, where they rudely insist on putting their feet up on the couch and making a mess of the place. I suspect this is true for atheists, believers, and many in between.

Personally, I take comfort in the fact that the experience of the hiddenness of God is not a new experience (see Psalm 44, for example), and that this experience has long been located within the context of a commitment to God. Because at the end of the day, the most important question to me seems not to be “What rational explanation of the cosmos makes the most logical/existential sense to me?” but “Given the mixed bag of experience that I see all around me (and within me), to what (or to whom) will I commit?” These are not unrelated questions, of course, but framing it this way at least helps to isolate the crucial dimensions of volition and will and perseverance, in a world where all are like grass, where everything withers and fades away (Isa. 40:6-8).

Locating doubt within the context of commitment and fidelity to God does not magically make the piercing questions in the middle of the night go away, but it may just help us through them. And it may just help steer us toward the future of hope and promise, security and peace—the longing that lies beneath and animates our deepest questions.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Darlene Klassen #

    “Locating doubt within the context of commitment and fidelity to God” … I like that.

    August 23, 2011
  2. Russ Bueckert #

    I’ve decided to give you a cameo in my novel.

    August 24, 2011
    • A cameo?! How exciting… I’ve gotta hear more about this, Russ.

      August 24, 2011
      • Fame whores!! lol…

        “Locating doubt within the context of commitment and fidelity to God.” I’m not so sure. Perhaps its only semantics but I’m more comfortable saying explaining rather than locating. Locating doubt seems to infer that it is an inherent part of faith. I can’t view doubt as anything other than a symptom of faithlessness or at least the means through which faith is eroded.

        Doubt in a material context can be incredibly useful, ultimately leading to
        material experiments or consequences that either affirm or deny a material assumption. But how does one use this objective sense and understanding of doubt to identify and affirm that which is mostly if not wholly immaterial.

        Even this useful form of doubt, it seems to me, would always mitigate against “commitment and fidelity” to a mostly immaterial God.

        Explaining doubt on the other hand need not ever question the reality of God the Father in Jesus Christ, mediated through the Holy Spirit but rather point to the obvious fallibility and weakness inherent in man. In this way, God’s reality is not questioned but rather man’s finite ability to comprehend and remain faithful.

        As for the psalmists, I truly think doubt was an anathema to them. They may have mourned or even riled at what seemed to them as God’s absence but I don’t think for a minute it ever led them to hold a belief that would affirm or even resemble our understanding of doubt.

        ….” Because at the end of the day, the most important question to me seems not to be “What rational explanation of the cosmos makes the most logical/existential sense to me?” but “Given the mixed bag of experience that I see all around me (and within me), to what (or to whom) will I
        commit?…I’m down with this one a 100% , but as you once earlier observed, complete agreement on the issues under discussion doesn’t lead to much other then a “Yep, Uh huh” kind of dialogue.

        So when I challenge an assumption I get 5 paragraphs of mostly, “listen to me this is what I have to say” discourse or I can wholly agree and get a one sentence, ‘this is me cheer leading” kind of post.

        Apparently there is more than one “fame whore” at work on this thread. 🙂

        August 25, 2011
      • Perhaps a lot depends on what we associate with the word “doubt.” In a culture of skepticism, perhaps it’s an unhelpful term… God knows we don’t need more people baptizing endless navel-gazing and postmodern, hands-in-the-air, who-can-really-know-anything angst as some kind of a mark of spiritual “authenticity” or maturity.

        And yet… Dealing with the hiddenness of God simply is a part of the life of faith, in my view. It’s not a sign of faithlessness or the means through which faith is eroded—at least not necessarily. It’s part of the landscape of faith, given the way in which God has chosen to relate to his world. Of course, human fallibility is also a (big) part of the equation here, but I don’t think it tells the whole story.

        (Not quite sure what to make of the “fame whore” bit, but I’m OK with either five paragraphs of disagreement or one sentence of cheerleading :).)

        August 25, 2011
  3. The fame thing was a reference to Russ’s comment and your response to it. Maybe I’ll leave the comedy thing to funnier people. 🙂

    I really can’t catagorically disagree with what you say here. There is much that is wise and fair in what you say. My only further comment would be to encourage those afflicted with doubt to work through the process and continue to seek more certainty. Doubt has been one of the more toxic components to love relationships that I have experienced in my lifetime. In human relationships I have learned that one cannot remain in a doubting love relationship and expect anything more than an outcome that erodes into nothingness. Sometimes in ways that are cruel and demeaning to all involved.

    Be certain of your love commitments and certain that love is what your giving. Expect commitment and love in return. Challenge yourself and your relationships when things are clearly amiss. I also think this translates into our relationship with God.

    From my experience contemplative prayer is the loving medium through which God is experienced. I get this same sense of understanding through the Psalms. The whys and wherefores of suffering where no less cruel and offensive to them as they are to us, the difference I think is that through their prayer they had all experienced God’s presence. Pain suffering, sin and death where just as prevalent but so was the reality of God’s being.

    We are weak, inconsistent and yet incredibly resilient creatures. Knowing that there really is a God is enough for me, makes love and life worth living and fighting for.

    Speaking only for myself, I honestly believe that if I still truly doubted in our God, if I had never experienced His presence, I would still be mired in the world of self loathing and addiction.

    August 26, 2011
    • Wise words indeed, Paul. Thank you for introducing the importance of love into the discussion. The Christian life is not about joylessly committing to what is true, but of responding in love to the one who first loved us, however unlike this love is than anything else in our experience.

      I’ve been reading the Psalms over the last little while and am consistently amazed at how seamlessly they move between laments at the hiddenness of God, exhortations for God to move and act and expressions of love of God, love and devotion for God’s law, etc. We might see these two themes as contradictory; the psalmists, apparently, do not.

      August 26, 2011

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