Please welcome today’s guest poster, Trenton Heille. Trent graduated from Calvin in 2014 with majors in English literature and philosophy. He currently lives in Minneapolis with his wife Katie.
I graduated from Calvin College earlier this year with majors in English literature and philosophy, and I discovered the answer to the most hated question I was asked as an undergraduate: “What are you going to do with those?” The answer: think a lot about things most people ignore. Since graduating, I’ve been thinking—thinking while I wrote resumes, thinking while I waited for responses to interviews, and now, thankfully, thinking while I slice limes and lemons, fry chips, and roll burritos for customers at Chipotle. (And just to make it clear for those smug bastards who might revel in the accuracy of their predictions that I would end up working in fast food, Chipotle Mexican Grill is classified as fast casual). What have I been thinking about? Plenty, but surprising no one familiar with Calvin College, I’ve been thinking recently about Christian faith, or more specifically, the incomprehensibility of Christian faith.
You can breathe a sigh of relief; I’m not going to quote Kierkegaard on “paradox” or the “leap of faith.” I’ll aim lower (or higher depending on your estimation of early 2000’s indie rock) and quote Jeff Tweedy on Wilco’s “Theologians,” which I recommend listening to if you have a spare couple of minutes: “Theologians | they don’t know nothin’ | about my soul | about my soul || I’m an ocean | abyss in motion | Slow motion | Slow motion.” At roughly forty-three seconds in, you’ll hear Tweedy sum up the collective indifference to Christian faith that permeates contemporary society: “Illiterati lumen fidei | God is with us everyday | That illiterate light | Is with us every night.”
Forgive the sweeping generalization about the perception of Christian faith in contemporary society (whatever that means); it would be more accurate, and perhaps more philosophically safe, to say that Tweedy seems to capture something true to my experience of, for the first extended period of my life, living and working alongside people outside of the Christian community of faith. For many of these people, my Christian faith, when not relegated to a place alongside details about me like my taste in music or fashion, seems irrelevant—irrelevant to their personal struggles, irrelevant to their political concerns, or, strangely, irrelevant to their interest in spirituality. The possibility that Christian faith might provide a framework for understanding and organizing their psychological, political, and spiritual lives seems remote at best, and laughable at worst. “Theologians? They don’t know nothin’ about my soul.”
You can breathe another sigh of relief; I’m not going to lament the steady weave of post-modernism and relativism into the fabric of contemporary, Western society (why not toss another ambiguous adjective into the fray?). Instead, I’ll point to a film in which the facture of understanding between those who claim Christian faith and those who do not becomes comically apparent: John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary.” The film opens on a close-up of Brendan Gleeson’s priest, Father James, as he sits to hear the confession of one of his parishioners, who remains unseen for the entire opening sequence; the parishioner’s words break the silence of the film’s first thirty seconds: “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” The context tells the story—the story of decades of sexual abuse by priests within the Roman Catholic Church, the story of the immense personal suffering and alienation caused by those who claim to represent God. Brendan Gleeson’s facial reaction and dry, darkly comedic response to these words encapsulates the conflict between empathy and bewilderment he will experience throughout the rest of the film: “Certainly a startling opening line.” What else can be said? What could a theologian know about the abysmal ocean raging inside someone who was “raped by a priest … every other day for five years,” someone who, in their own words, has “bled a terrible amount?” The irony softens the truth that Father James will eventually confess: “I don’t know what to say to you. I have no answer for you. I’m sorry.”
Of course, I’ve never been confronted with such suffering. My interactions with my co-workers, for instance, typically mirror those Father James has with his other parishioners, who seem to take perverse pleasure in detailing the collapse of their marriages or the depth of their sexual perversion to James. Not that my co-workers are so sadistic or depraved, but rather that I have so little to say that seems relevant to their own interpretation of their lives’ meaning. What use is Gospel, “good news,” to those who, at least in their conversations with me, remain sure that whatever news I bring (or fail to bring, as is the case most if not all of the time) won’t matter to them?
I can only guess as to the reason for the seeming irrelevance of Christian faith to these people I speak with almost every day, but I am reminded of the early verse in the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” A footnote in most Bibles will inform you that “overcome” could be alternatively translated as “understood” or “comprehended,” thus changing the verse from declaring the triumph of light to declaring something quite different: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it.” What can be said about a light that fails to illuminate, or an illumination that leaves the witnesses blind? What use is light to creatures who’ve adapted to life in the darkness of a cave? (Cue my inner philosophy major rearing its his head.)
I’ve passed my word limit, and I hope that my thinking has been at least partially clear. I’ve ended with a question, and I for that I’m sorry, but perhaps someone else has an answer: a way of responding to Tweedy or to McDonagh. Until that answer comes, I’ll keep thinking and wondering about that incomprehensible light.