Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Joy of Footnotes
(If You Think It's Hard to Live Without God, Try Living With Him)

I wonder how you feel about footnotes. I used to skip them, as a rule. Too much investment, too little reward. A three-hundred-page book becomes a lot shorter without them. Only, recently - in the last few years - have I discovered what I’ll call the joy of footnotes. For sure, some authors make me think I was right for all those years to pass them over, trotting out opaque references in any of several languages I don’t know (boo). But others, perhaps seeking to reward the faithful reader who make the arduous journey through the footnotes, use the footnote as a kind of honest, reflective space. Like: “We both know I’m writing a professional article right now and my professionalism does not allow me to say things the way I might like to say them otherwise. But look, just now the rules are different - it’s a footnote! - let’s be real for just a minute.” I discovered the joy of footnotes because of authors who use them to be real. Indeed, I know authors whose articles I regularly skim so that I can grasp just enough context to make sense of the footnotes, which I savor slowly, like delicious morsels.

Allow me to share one such footnote:

At the end of his essay entitled “Long Live the Weeds and the Wilderness Yet”: Reflections on A Secular Age (1), Stanley Hauerwas includes this footnote about a separate essay penned by atheist Steven Weinberg. Here’s what Stanley writes:

Steven Weinberg ends his lovely essay, “Without God,” explaining why he cannot believe in God with the confession, “Living without God isn’t easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation - that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without wishful thinking - with good humor, but without God” (76). 

Stanley writes, “We have no reason to question Weinberg’s sentiment that he finds it hard to live without God, but it never seems to occur to those who express such a difficulty that it is by no means easy to live with God. The idea that somehow believing in God makes it all make sense cannot be held by anyone that has been shaped by the Psalms. One of the great virtues of [Charles] Taylor’s book [A Secular Age] is how he helps us see that atheism may not be all that interesting.”

How wonderfully honest. “It never seems to occur to those (who find it difficult to live without God) that it is by no means easy to live with God.” 

In Luke’s gospel tonight, Jesus asks his followers to count the cost of life with God. Evidently, he’s not cheap. First it’s the awkward comments about family relatives, then the statement about hating one’s life and carrying the cross. By the end, Jesus will say what American Christians can only dismiss as the truly absurd: “...none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." And in between, Jesus will give a kind of parable in which he compares the costs of discipleship with the costs of war. But it’s clear by the end of the parable that the point of counting the cost does not lie in assuring oneself that one has enough to buy off, defeat, or otherwise outlast God, with a little left over to spare; rather, the point of the parable pushes the hearer to the point of surrender: “...what king,” Jesus asks, “going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.” 

Peace. Jesus has come to announce the peace of God. And the peace of God is peace with enemies, as on a battlefield, an end to war. The gift of this parable is how it reminds us that peace with enemies - indeed, love of enemies - is not just debatable moral advice; loving one’s enemies is how God in Jesus first came to us, announcing God’s peace, even while we held onto our hopes of conquering God.

The challenge with all of these things - family, money, cross, enemy-loving, these buttons Jesus is pushing today (does he leave any out?) - is that most of us have grown up in churches that have desperately tried to convince us that Jesus didn’t mean it like that. But I wonder if instead of defending ourselves, or Jesus, or parsing intention - how rich is too rich? - I wonder if it isn’t enough simply to name from time to time that “it is by no means easy to live with God” - which may simply give us permission to let God disappoint us. 

We wanted God to appear one way. And God, when God came to us, was not that way. We wanted a god to give us the American dream - a good education any hiccups, trending toward a spouse and 2.5 kids, a home of our own, a good 401k - and the Son of Man came with nowhere to lay his head. We wanted victory for Israel and for us at all costs; Jesus came and, “like a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he opened not his mouth.” We wanted an endorsement for our many attempts to be our own gods, or - failing that - to uphold the illusion of control in our lives, and God came, instead, as the One who gave up his life for us on a cross and exposed every illusion of our control. What can it mean to follow such a God?

The Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells a story about a prince who falls in love with a beautiful peasant girl. Unwilling to overwhelm and intimidate the girl with his princely stature, the prince disguises himself as a peasant and works in the fields, next to her. As days go by, the story’s suspense is not so much whether the couple will fall in love - we know they will - but the suspense comes in the question of when he will finally show himself as he is. When will he confess his love, have that love returned from her lips, and at long last rip off the tattered peasant’s cloak?

Kierkegaard thinks that Christians sometimes think of the resurrection of Jesus as the moment God throws off the cloak to reveal a God other than the God we see in Jesus. But Hauerwas reminds us that, for Kierkegaard, “the only problem with so thinking of the resurrection is that Jesus has no purple under his flesh. Jesus is peasant clothes, flesh, all the way down.” The content of Jesus’ life matters. For Jesus “is not playing at being a human. He is human all the way down. The resurrected Christ is the crucified Christ.”

A good reminder: that the resurrection is not an end to a deception - like the prince’s deception - about who God really is, but the resurrection is the Father’s “yes” to Jesus, the Son of God. The question for our lives is what it means to follow a God who looks like this. 

But to say that living with God can be difficult is not to reduce the life of faith to questions of works righteousness and whether you can put up with performing kiss-up favors and superficial sacrifices sufficient to win you an eternal life in which you can, finally, do what you want in the end. The question is of receiving Christ in your life on Christ’s terms, trusting God to meet you in the broken bits, with the forgotten ones, and at the cross. For if Christ is there, then there is the place of joy.

The challenge in all of these things is that most of us have grown up in churches that have desperately tried to convince us that Jesus didn’t mean it like that. But I wonder if instead of defending ourselves, or Jesus, or parsing intention - I wonder if it isn’t enough simply to name from time to time that “it is by no means easy to live with God.” 

Because here's the Good News: that it is by no means easy to live with God exactly names God’s unfailing commitment to live with us, no matter what. Praise God,

and let God’s People say,


(1) In 'Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian,' Hauerwas, 2011.

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