On Shipwrecks and Crutches
Faith in God begins where faith in oneself ends.
This is the kind of line that I would have probably condescendingly rolled my eyes at when I was younger. Yeah, there’s probably a kernel of truth in there, but it sounded to me like a pious cliché, the kind of thing you’d find on some kitschy piece of religious art or home decorating paraphernalia. It would have been in the same category, for me, as that “footprints in the sand” picture or sayings like, “When God closes a door, He opens a window” and “Everything happens for a reason.” Yeah, ok. Whatever.
I didn’t have this reaction when I read it near the end of David Zahl’s excellent new book Low Anthropology: The Unlikely Key to a More Gracious View of Others (and Yourself). I didn’t roll my eyes or sigh or plow on to the next paragraph. Instead, I stopped. I read it again. I sat in silence for a while. I read it again. I underlined it. And then I underlined the words that preceded it:
We require a crisis of capacity to direct us “where true joys are to be found.” Jesus confronts us with our limits, not to discourage us but to engineer a situation in which the phrase “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27) might find traction. Faith in God begins where faith in oneself ends.
On one level, the story of my differing reactions to this sentence might simply be lesson in how life stages affect how we read and what we hear. When you’re young you haven’t had a great deal of time to screw up or get kicked around by life. You haven’t had as much opportunity to enter into the hard stories of those around you. You haven’t seen or contributed to much suffering yet. Your failures and destructive tendencies still seem like way stations on a path of inevitable progress rather than unwelcome companions on a journey that is longer and windier than you anticipated.
You’re still convinced that you’ll be the exception, the special case, the outlier. Disney and pop psychology have done their best to convince you that you can be anything you want in the world, and you almost believe it. Even though you know that sentences like “faith in God begins where faith in oneself ends” are the right answer on the theology quiz, you still secretly harbour no small amount of faith in yourself.
And then you live a bit. And you get to know yourself a bit better. And you see some hard things. And you fail more than you’d care to admit. And you recognize that some ugly traits of yours likely aren’t going away this side of the New Jerusalem. And you feel the weight of the sorrow of others. And you realize that there are so many things that you just can’t fix. And you run out of ideas. And you settle. And you stagnate. And you resolve to stop settling and stagnating. And you succeed for a while. Until you don’t. And you see that good intentions aren’t enough. And that love doesn’t always win, at least not here and now. And a few decades go by, and you come across a sentence like, “Faith in God begins where faith in oneself ends,” and you think, “That’s just about the truest thing I’ve ever read.”
David Zahl goes on:
This is why a religion of low anthropology tends to resonate with those who find themselves defeated by life rather than with folks on the upward swing. Those whom life has forcibly divested of illusion and idealism relish the sympathy they hear in a message that takes into account the shipwrecks of life. They naturally gravitate away from messages about participation and partnership and toward ones about absolution, reconciliation and resurrection.
A religion of low anthropology resists the urge to move past the human need for forgiveness and mercy, confident that, on some level, everyone always requires as much. It sings the same song of God’s grace over and over again.
There’s another phrase that I used to not have much use for. “Religion is a crutch for the weak.” I don’t know where I first heard it, but I instantly didn’t like it. I didn’t particularly care for the idea that faith was for those who didn’t have the fortitude (intellectual or otherwise) to face life as it was. I imagined myself to be a tough-minded realist, eager to prove that religion was just as respectable as any other intellectual system or ideology. I didn’t need or want a crutch; I wanted the truth.
And then… well, see above. Life intervened, as it does. Call it being shipwrecked or being wounded and having to walk with a limp and a crutch. Whatever the metaphor, we will all come to the end of ourselves at some point. And where we end, God begins, singing that same song of grace, over and over again.
The image above is taken from the 2021-22 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is called “Substance of Things Hoped For” by Brenda Stitcher, who says this about the work: “Faith shows best when all around is dark.”