Sunday, January 07, 2007
One day twenty-two years ago I ran into one of the Lawn Preachers at the University of Virginia. The Lawn Preachers were a shock when I first encountered them; I had just come from Columbia (well, with a year off to earn the money to attend graduate school for a little while in the first place—I didn’t have me no fellowship), and I was under the impression that a campus should be ringed by feuding members of the Fourth International. This is not a joke. Columbia was indeed ringed by members of the Socialist Workers Party, the Spartacist League, and the Revolutionary Youth Brigade, among others. I hung out with one of these grouplets for a month or two until I realized that their most hated foes were the Spartacists, on the grounds that the Spartacists had refused to denounce the leader of the SWP as a CIA plant. The Lawn Preachers, by contrast, were feuding varieties of evangelical Christians, and they had come to Mr. Jefferson’s “academical village” to spread the Word in the very den of iniquity itself, the American college campus. Some of them were loud enough to be heard in adjacent classrooms, and occasionally someone would complain about this; the university replied, back in the mid-80s, that they could not compel the Lawn Preachers to preach someplace other than on the Lawn because it was a free speech issue. Very well and good, I thought at the time, wondering if the university would have been so ecumenical if the Lawn Preachers had been a couple of loud, audible-in-class Trotskyites.
Anyway, so one of them followed me for a few steps one day and asked if I had heard the Word. Now, back then I was usually inclined to reply, “why, no I haven’t, brother—but have you read American Power and the New Mandarins? Here’s a free copy for your very own.” But on this day, I was feeling kind of annoyed with the world in general, and so I said, “why, yes—as a matter of fact I studied the Bible rigorously with Jesuits for four years at Regis High School. We read Norman Perrin on the textual sources of the New Testament and were introduced to Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth.” I’d intended to make his hair fly back in horror, but he didn’t miss a beat. On the contrary, he followed me all the way home (back then I lived just off the main campus), and in the course of our fifteen-minute conversation, this is what we said.
He asked if I had joined the Jesuits; I replied that I was, in fact, an agnostic. This confirmed his sense (as he said) that the Jesuits were the last group a Christian encounters on his way out. Ha ha ha, I said. He asked why I’d left the faith; I told him I’d never really had much faith to begin with, but that my parents, agnostics themselves, had convinced me that the intellectual and religious history of Christianity was well worth knowing. After a few months at Regis, I quickly came to agree. But once I’d studied the New Testament, I came to the tentative conclusion that it was a mistake to think that Christ had meant “this really is my body” as opposed to “this is a symbol of my body.” Luther, I decided, had the drop on the Church on that one. So much for transubstantiation. (What about John 6:53-58? I was once asked. Isn’t Jesus quite clear that the flesh and blood of the Eucharist are literally his flesh and blood? Sure enough, I admitted, but John 6:53-58 is a belated interpretive gloss on the Last Supper, not a corroboration of it; the Book of John was written some thirty to fifty years after the synoptic gospels, and is especially concerned about the unbelief of the Jews, ahem ahem, filled with Jesus’ proclamations of his own divinity. Note that Christ’s insistence on the flesh and blood of the Eucharist comes just after John’s retelling of the fishes and loaves story in 6:1-14.)
Well, then, the preacher asked, if you rejected the belief in transubstantiation, why didn’t you become a Protestant? Good question, I replied. Because, basically, you folks are all bollixed up when it comes to the question of good works, and you’re not that clear about grace either. Sure, I understand that you can’t have an omniscient diety who’s up there wondering if you’re going to stop and help the old woman across the street. But you know, even the Puritans believed that justification (grace) must be accompanied by sanctification (works). Outward and visible signs and all that: the person’s works help to testify, in an ex post facto kinda way, to the person’s state of grace. But if you believe that, then you really shouldn’t ever go around in the “conviction” that you are saved. The state of grace is completely unearned, and it’s not for us to declare ourselves to be among the Elect. I don’t understand how Christians can be so damn presumptuous about this. I mean, it’s like saying, “of course we cannot know the mind of God, for His ways are not our ways—but just between you and me, we have a pretty good idea of who’s damned and who’s saved.”
And what’s with the damnation and salvation, anyway? You’re really going to tell me that a just and merciful God is going to consign someone who’s led a blameless life to an eternity of torment and pain just because she believed the Host was the body or because he had doubts about the doctrine of the Trinity? Or because she didn’t consume the Host at all and didn’t care what it was? Run the “just and merciful” part by me again, please.
The preacher tried to back me up a few steps further, to the part about how we cannot know the mind of God, His ways are not our ways, etc., whereupon I said, look. I like this caritas and agape idea. That was a good idea. I like the bit about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. That was a good idea. I like the idea of treating the least of our species as if he or she were the moral equal of the most powerful person on earth. That was a good idea. But the history of your religion, I’m sorry to say, looks like a history in which some of the finest legal minds in the West set about festooning those central beliefs with all manner of pernicious nonsense about transubstantiation and consubstantiation and the three-personed God and the Virgin Birth. Not to mention the Ascension and the Assumption. See, I’m a graduate student in literary criticism. So I just love the idea that centuries worth of brilliance went into developing the idea of type and antitype, figura and fulfillment, in order to reconcile the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. But when it comes to the question of how to live in the world, I’ll take the caritas-and-agape part and leave the pointless doctrinal disputes to you-all.
So you really don’t care whether Christ was divine? the preacher asked. You really don’t care if your immortal soul is at stake?
Well, that’s exactly the point, isn’t it, I said, stopping at the corner of my block. See, if I’m hearing you correctly, the insights about caritas and agape and the human dignity of the meek and the wretched of the earth make sense if and only if Christ was divine. If he was just a guy, you’re saying, then those insights are just ordinary human utterances with no special claim on our attention. Whereas I think they’re worth pursuing regardless of whether the guy who delivered them to us was a deity or the son of a deity or part of a mysteriously tripartite deity or just a guy. I honestly don’t care what you believe about Jesus. All I care about is how you act while you’re here.
And your soul, he said. You don’t care if you lose your immortal soul in that belief.
Right, here’s the way I look at it, I said. If you’re right about this and I’m wrong, then you and I agree that we have the obligation to treat others as we would have them treat us, but because I believe that we humans just made that up one day, I’m going to Hell for an eternity, and you’re pretty much in the clear. Whereas if I’m right about this and you’re wrong, my beliefs don’t visit any punishments on you. We live, we act as best we can, we die, end of story, except that we hope that maybe some of the good we do on earth will live after us for a little while. And that’s it.
Well, the Lawn Preacher said, I can’t say I’ve ever heard the argument for agnosticism put that way before.
Dang, that’s a shame, I said. Because lots of us agnostics have a coherent moral code. We just don’t feel the need to ascribe our moral code to a supernatural being. We don’t think that solves anything, honestly.
He did not say he would pray for me. I liked that. He simply nodded, extended his hand, and wished me well. I shook his hand, thanked him sincerely for hearing me out, and wished him well in return.