Reflections: Crises of Faith, Smallness of Mind, Discomfort

Faith vs. Convenience.– A student recently wrote to me about the diary of a well-known Korean author, written for a Catholic magazine, describing her emotional journey following the death of her son. At the heart of the diary is the author’s struggle, quite typical of such stories, whether public or private, to find an answer to such questions as, “Why would God do this to me?” or “How could God’s plan require taking away this innocent person?” In other words, this woman’s diary is a variation on the standard “crisis of faith” story, based on the standard “Would a good God allow such terrible things to happen?” lament.

To be honest, this way of looking at life is always disappointing to me. It seems to me that a person who feels such a direct connection between his faith in God and the immediate satisfaction of his own personal wishes, such that not getting what he wants inclines him to deny or reject God, must not have had any real faith in the first place. Or at least the person was viewing God in a child’s way, as a personal assistant who provides gifts, where we get to choose what kind of gifts we want, and God has to prove Himself to us by providing the gifts that we requested. And if He doesn’t give us what we planned or hoped for, then we may dismiss Him as one would fire a bad employee.

The essence of genuine faith, I would say, is the acceptance that God (or the gods, if you are an ancient Greek) gives meaning and purpose to the universe in ways that are beyond our comprehension, and that His purposes include us, not as the central figure in the plan, but rather as one moving part within a much wider design. Furthermore, since God’s mind or meaning is so much more vast and essential than our own mind and intentions, it will often (if not always) occur that we will fail to understand how our life fits into that wider meaning. It requires considerable reflection and maturity to learn to see a divine purpose (or “God’s will,” if you like) not only in the experiences that please us, but also in the experiences that cause us pain. After all, why do we assume that pleasure is the essence of God’s plan, let alone that our own personal pleasure is the essence? Furthermore, why can’t we concede that what we call pain today might finally become the road to a much higher pleasure or happiness later, even if we cannot understand it at this time?

“But how can a loved one dying be a road to higher happiness?” asks the skeptic.

“How can you be sure that it isn’t?” replies the faithful one. “Perhaps the highest happiness can only be found on the other side of the worst suffering, like the most satisfying victory that is achieved only through the hardest and most costly battle. And if you decide that you are not up to that battle, or lack the strength to struggle along that painful road, then perhaps that too is part of a wider meaning that includes your weakness as the means to some cosmic goal higher than yourself. If you cannot accept that fate — your pain and weakness as the necessary path to some victory that transcends you — then that may be your failure, not God’s.”

(For more on this, see my essay, “The Problem of Evil In Microcosm.”)

Small lives.– It seems to be a universal law of the imagination that small countries, or countries that feel marginalized historically, tend to turn their artistic focus inward to certain types of “ordinary life” hardships, a parochial downtroddeness. I was a good student of Canadian literature — I won my high school’s Canadian literature award in my senior year! I read it well, but I didn’t like it.

On the other hand, there is an antithetical tendency of the literature of small or marginalized countries, probably a direct response to the universal law described above, which leans toward the phantasmagorically cosmopolitan and symbolic. This latter tendency would be the inclination of a parochialism that is ashamed of its smallness, but nevertheless lacks anything innately “great” to talk about, and therefore overcompensates with artificial and pretentious (other)worldliness. The writing of this subset, lacking even the honest though morose self-assessment displayed by the first group, will be even more boring and uninspiring.

The only exception to this latter norm that I know, an exception that almost justifies the mountainous dross of the unexceptional, would be Jorge Luis Borges, who escaped from parochialism into fantasy, but a fantasy so thoroughly grounded in the authentic quasi-worldliness of the universal library of his mind that his artifice never feels artificial, and his imaginary leaps beyond time and place remain entirely devoid of pretense.

Provisional desires.– We all desire comfort, naturally. If being comfortable means feeling more orderly or less confused in your life, that is good. But if orderliness and lack of confusion become ends in themselves, such that becoming comfortable engenders a growing reluctance to try strange things, to expose a weakness, to ask daring questions, or to accept unexpected challenges — all of which entail embracing some form of discomfort — then comfort has become a spiritual prison.

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