In my last, I described my sojourn into apostasy. I had been intending to pass on from that and revisit it a few times later, but I feel it'd be better to camp there for a little while instead. (I've also changed the name of this series, accenting the personal angle that I feel must be taken with this -- accenting it for myself as much as anybody else, since I'm bad at that, but I digress.)
The apostate is something very different from the atheist who is sincerely convinced of atheism. I don't mean the person who has committed some concrete act of apostasy -- the burner of incense to the genius of the Roman Emperor, the signer of the Act of Supremacy, the one who treads upon the fumie. The one who does these things need not be surrendering to anything but the frailty of human nature, under torture or the threat of torture. Or conversely, they may do such things as these, or nothing at all, out of a sincere (if, in the Catholic view, mistaken) belief that God does not exist; or that the Absolute is so different from the Christian God that, for all intents and purposes, He does not exist.
Fumie (literally "things to step on") were used in the persecution of the Church in Japan: they depicted
Christ or the Virgin, and people were required to step on them. Those who objected were exposed as Catholics.
But this is not the kind of apostasy that I am writing of here. The apostate in this sense is one who has been abandoned by God, or has felt compelled to abandon Him, and may or may not be an atheist in the rational sense at all. It's expressed, I think, in the song "Dear God" by XTC:
But all the people that you made in your image
See them starving on their feet
'Cause they don't get enough to eat from God
I can't believe in you
Dear God, sorry to disturb you but
I feel that I should be heard loud and clear
We all need a big reduction in amount of tears
And all the people that you made in your image
See them fighting in the street
'Cause they can't make opinions meet about God
I won't believe in heaven or hell
No sinners, no saints, no devil as well
No pearly gates, no thorny crown
You're always letting us humans down
The wars you bring, the babes you drown
That is not the voice of a philosopher, delivering his opinion that there does not happen to be a Supreme Being; neither is it the voice of a teenager who's trying to make his parents mad. That is the anguished voice of one betrayed.
St. Paul's mystery of iniquity is the perennial complaint of the apostate. If I may trust my own weird experience, it isn't simply a matter of having an extremely puzzling riddle to crack. That doesn't help, but it also isn't what's at stake -- God knows there is no shortage of nuts-hard-to-crack in the universe (indeed, as Lady Julian and science conspire to tell us, all that is made is a nut). What's at stake is how the nightmare anguish that exists in the world, in our own lives, can possibly be compatible with the reality of a God who is both good enough to object to it and powerful enough to stop it, and of whom it can't plausibly be maintained that it's none of His business. Why did I have to lose this man over a stupid mistake? How could You let this innocent little girl be tormented? Why did you let these people be gunned down at random by a maniac?
The fact that apostates often wrestle with the problem of evil, in public and in private (frequently in their work if they are artists of any kind), for many years after some decisive renunciation of faith, may be an ironic testimony to the doctrine that Baptism imparts an indelible mark upon the soul. Some of my favorite authors are those, like Flannery O'Connor and Shusaku Endo, whose work depicts, not a knock-down argument for regarding the difficulty as having a complete and satisfactory answer, but the difficulty itself as material for faith: as a part of the human experience that must be treated as legitimate and somehow brought to God, if coming to God is going to have any meaning. Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the Manhood into God. And after all, we start with our own experience in a way that we definitely don't start with divine revelation; howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but the natural, and afterward that which is spiritual.
Translated into more poetic language, the apostate's case might perhaps go something like this:
This is one thing, therefore I said it, He destroyeth the perfect and the wicked.If the scourge slay suddenly, he will laugh at the trial of the innocent.The earth is given into the hand of the wicked: he covereth the faces of the judges thereof; if not, where, and who is he?... Let him take his rod away from me, and let not his fear terrify me:Then would I speak, and not fear him; but it is not so with me.My soul is weary of my life; I will leave my complaint upon myself; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.I will say unto God, Do not condemn me; shew me wherefore thou contendest with me.Is it good unto thee that thou shouldst oppress, that thou shouldst despise the work of thine hands, and shine upon the counsel of the wicked?... Thou knowest that I am not wicked; and there is none that can deliver out of thine hand.Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together round about; yet thou dost destroy me.
-- Job 9.22-24, 9.34-10.3, 10.7-8
Job is one of the most neglected books in Scripture -- the majority of allusions to it that I've seen have consisted in the single phrase I know that my Redeemer liveth, ripped from its original context and content, and slapped as a piece of sentimental uplift onto car bumpers and the dust-jackets of inspirational something or other. I can't think of anything more insulting. The fumie at least had actual icons on them. It'd be like taking a picture from Dachau that happened to have a smile in it, and using it to advertise sugarless gum.
But does your soul feel clean?
For it is the whole point of the book of Job that God, when He confronts both Job and Job's comforters, offers no answer, no explanation. He gives no account of Himself. As Charles Williams points out in He Came Down From Heaven, God's reply mostly only plagiarizes things Job has already said in his storm of accusation directed upwards. There is no theodicy offered there.
Or rather, there is; it is that offered by Job's friends: Job is suffering because he has, in some manner, sinned, and must repent. Reading Job's outrage, and his abuse of his friends as well as his God, those of us who were raised in the Christian faith might be inclined to agree with them, having been brought up to believe that there are certain things one simply doesn't say to, or about, God. The Almighty's own response to Job's friends is as follows:
And it was so, that after the LORD had spoken these words unto Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath. Therefore take unto you now seven bullocks and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you: for him I will accept: lest I deal with you after your folly, in that ye have not spoken of me the thing which is right, like my servant Job.
-- Job 42.7-8
Job, Leon Bonnat, 1880
This is why I cannot and will not despise the apostate, the anti-theist. Those who do despise them have no business with apologetics. I think that no one, however virtuous, can truly grapple with the problem of evil and not understand apostasy. Christ Himself, mounted upon the cross, his face lifted up into heaven, demanded of that heaven, Why hast Thou forsaken Me?
God's effective silence to Job was matched by His absolute silence to His Son. That silence echoes down the corridors of history; it resounds like music in the human heart; deep calleth to deep in the roar of thy cataracts, all thy waves and billows are gone over me; hearts and sufferings coinhere, and at the heart of them all lies the Sacred Heart, still pierced, still bleeding, still burning. The silence was followed by the Resurrection? -- yes, but that was in the macrocosm. We, in the microcosm that we (idly enough) call "real life," cannot see that.
Which means that that referral to the macrocosm, to the Resurrection, cannot really be used as an answer. That reality left its evidences upon history; and I do think that Pascal was right, when he said that there is enough light for those who wish to see as there is enough darkness for those who don't. But to place one's faith in the Resurrection and in the universe that it signifies is precisely an act of faith -- it is not simply the obvious and reasonable thing to do, ever.
That, I think, was my mistake. Not only as a child, but for years afterward, and even in my conversions from atheism to Christianity and from Christianity in general to Catholicism in particular. I never fully grappled with the fact that the act of faith was an act of faith -- that is, trusting a Person, not simply accepting an idea -- not of following a chain of reasoning to its logical end. Following that chain did put me in a position to make an act of faith. I don't regret that. And, while it's impossible to know whether I would have made the same decision if I had grappled with that question during my conversions, I think I might have done. But it has left me to grapple with that same problem now.
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Gustave Dore, 1855
I don't believe there is any irreverence in such a struggle; My servant Job hath spoken of Me the thing that is right. Returning to Charles Williams:
No pot -- so far -- has asked questions of the potter in a voice the potter can understand; when it does, it will be time enough to compare pots to men. The criticism is not aimed at Saint Paul, who dropped the phrase in the midst of a great spiritual wrestle, not as a moral instruction. But it has been used to often by the pious to encourage them to say, in love or laziness, 'Our little minds were never meant ...' Fortunately there is the book of Job to make it clear that our little minds were meant. A great curiosity ought to exist concerning divine things. Man was intended to argue with God.*
And how is any of this an answer to apostasy or an argument against atheism? It isn't; that's very largely the point. I believe Christians must accept and respect the fact that, for some people, the problem of evil is an insurmountable objection to God's existence -- the problem of evil as experienced in their own lives. And not accepted and respected as some sort of condescending indulgence of the weakness of others, either. The brute fact is, unless our own heart's been broken the same way theirs has, we don't know what we're talking about.
While, if our own hearts have been broken, we should know better than anybody that faith is a mystery. I don't honestly know why I'm not an atheistic apostate. The brain-breaking problem of how God could allow the suffering that exists in the world, I can't answer; the pain I've suffered, the pain I've caused, in my own twenty-seven years, I don't know what to do with that. Sometimes I understand why I believe, but those times, I couldn't express it in words: I could point at Him, but nothing else, not really. I could pile up arguments this high, putting someone in a position where Catholicism is intellectually possible and even plausible; and without the gift of faith, given mystically, it's not going to matter.
None of which is a reason to waive the rational element in the discussion. It's just a reason to put it in its place.
O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived: thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me.For since I spake, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil; because the word of the LORD was made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily.Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.
-- Jeremiah 20.7-9
*He Came Down From Heaven, p. 30.