In today’s Guardian “Comment is Free Belief” there is an article by David Bryant, a retired Anglican vicar. It’s title is “Heavyweight ethics are no way to help the newly bereaved face up to their grief,” and it is summarised with the words: “The only way I could help a girl whose boyfriend had just killed himself was to listen.” And as I read the article I began to feel that I had passed through the looking-glass. It should have been an article about sorrow and comfort, but it is really an article about being right and wrong.
Bryant was on a train for a five-hour journey. A young woman (he calls her a girl) came up to him — he was wearing a ‘dog-collar’ — and asked if she could speak with him.
It had all the hallmarks of the ‘chat up the vicar’ joke and I was tired. But no. Three hours earlier her boyfriend, a long-term depressive, had intentionally taken a large dose of tablets and she discovered him dead in their flat. He could no longer face the pain of his existence and she was travelling to her parents for comfort.
Here’s where we begin our passage through the mirror. Speaking in terms of ’a long-term depressive’ is callous and thoughtless, without compassion. Perhaps the young man suffered from clinical depression or some other form of chronic depression. But then we move further, and left is almost changed to right, up to down. Clergy dressed in clerical garb are often approached by people who want to talk. Why should he have thought it a ”chat-up line,” in a vicar joke, and why would he tell us? If you advertise yourself by your dress as someone who supposedly deals with people’s highs and lows you can scarcely duck out just because you’re tired. Nor should you complain if people take you at your clothes.
All he could do was listen. And, of course, what else could he have done but listen? There’s nothing that is really going to explain the long, weary road that life sometimes seems to those who suffer from acute forms of depression. You have to have been there to understand. There’s no answer to the question: ”Why am I suffering?”, even though it is almost impossible not to ask the question and try to answer it. But the good vicar might have tried to listen actively, and might have explained that often there simply is no reason. Shit happens, as they say. One day someone is there; the next they are gone forever. It happens by accident, through sickness, and sometimes, as in this case, because life itself seemed empty, pointless and forbidding (but because he was depressed, not because he was ungrateful or wicked — see below). Sometimes and to some people, just to survive one more day may seem an obstacle as great as Everest to someone in a wheelchair.
In the end, says the vicar, she came round, as expected, to point the accusing finger at herself. She had failed, had not been sympathetic enough, had let him down, and felt guilty. Well, yes, it is hard not to feel guilty when someone close has, in desperation, taken their life, and nothing that we could do could heal the pain or bind up the wounds. But not only in such desperate circumstances; it’s hard not to feel guilty when someone has died. There are always so many unresolved issues, unspoken words, unhealed hurt and pain, hopelessness, uncertainty. But the vicar, it seems, remained silent. No comfort, just the comfort of being listened to, perhaps, but this man of God had no comfort to offer, no words, no wisdom. His silence was, he says, practical.
There were practical reasons for my silence. It was hardly the time to point out that her conception of God was questionable. A deity such as she imagined, who dished out punishments, rewards, death, life and tragedy with tyrannical arbitrariness, was in dire need of theological reshaping.
Well, was it? And is that all that he could think to say to someone in pain? But to anyone who had read the Bible is it so very clear what the Christian God is like? To anyone who has heard about sin and redemption, is it so obvious that God does not punish or reward? No, of course not. The God of the Bible often dishes out punishments and rewards, and almost always with tyrannical arbitrariness. If the vicar had another concept of God, it doesn’t obviously answer to the brutal unpredictability of life, or to its suffering, its desperation, its loneliness, or its despair, otherwise he’d have had something to say, wouldn’t he? Or was chastising her for her theological naïveté the only thing that came to mind?!
And had he forgotten, already, those reassuring words:
Can a woman forget her baby, or show not compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. [Isaiah 49.15]
Had he forgotten the Christian promise, that “God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ die for us”? (Romans 5.8) Why was it that all he could think of to say was: “You’ve got a really lousy conception of God”? Perhaps because the same God who is supposed to have said these things, also speaks of judgement and the fire that is never quenched, promises misery for millions and salvation only for a few, excludes those who do not believe that Jesus was the Christ, or that God is one, and harbours nothing but bitter hatred for those who do not believe at all.
And if this is true — and the doctrine of univeralism, the belief that all will be saved is a Christian heresy — then is Bryant’s God not one who rewards and punishes? The story of Job makes it clear that the idea of divine punishment or reward is not straightforward, since the good often suffer and the evil prosper. Indeed, I think that Job shows that the life is essentially meaningless (this doesn’t mean that we can’t find meaning in life, for obviously we can, but this meaning is ours and not ultimate), and weal or woe come, not because we have sinned or lived uprightly, but simply because people are in the right or the wrong place at the time. They get caught in storms, earthquakes, landslides, fires, they catch diseases, or starve, or are involved in accidents. Just as Job said. He had done nothing to deserve the suffering he was enduring, suffering that led him to curse the day that he was born. There was no reason, and God was not just. That’s the point of the story, even though this point is often subverted by the great theophany when God challenges Job to explain how all this came to be. If Job wasn’t there when God created all these wondrous things, then how dare he presume?! If there is a reason, that is, it must be hidden in the mind of God, and may never be vouchsafed to us. But, we are assured, God knows, if we don’t. It all happens for a reason.
And yet sickness and disaster often seem arbitrary and unjust. Why else does Bryant think that people thought of God in terms of reward and punishment, and why else should they have concluded that God’s reasons are hidden from us? God’s ways are not our ways, after all.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. [Isaiah 55.9]
So, how would the vicar have reshaped God for this despairing young woman, who had just lost her love, and could not understand? Was there any concept of God that would have provided comfort for her in the midst of her anger, confusion and grief? What? That God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God and God in them? (see 1 John 4.16) Would that resolve the anger and the confusion or allay the grief? Not likely.
And what is it with heavyweight ethics? This was not the time says the vicar,
… to plunge headlong into heavyweight ethics. To inform her that life is a gift of God and that her man was ingrate and wicked to spurn it would bring no comfort.
Come again? Is that what he really thinks? That life is a gift from God? Even that desperate, despairing life, in which tomorrows simply retreated into a black future, full of inescapable torment? Even such life? A gift? And that her young man was ungrateful and wicked to spurn so great a gift? No, of course it would not be appropriate to have said such monstrous things to this grieving young woman. But was it appropriate to think them? to believe them? to hold them true?! All the words he had were words of judgement. So he had nothing to say, and, saying nothing, he let the young woman talk, talk about her love, and about the joyful memories of the young, doomed man who had been her love. And so “she talked and wept and wove her tale till journey’s end.”
Being a listening presence was no doubt a strength and comfort to someone who so badly needed to talk, needed someone to listen to her grief, to hear the memories which made that grief so intense and unyielding. But what thoughts lay behind that listening visage! Not, apparently, kindly thoughts, thoughts about a shared humanity, a shared questioning of life’s enigma, its arbitrary and casual brutalities, its unpredictability, and of the sometimes unforgiving distance between persons, who may love, but may not really know each other.
Notice how David Bryant says that the young woman’s concept of God was questionable and in need of theological reshaping, and yet how he goes on almost immediately to say how ungrateful her young man was to have turned his back on God’s gift, and spurned his love so wickedly. We can reshape the concept of God all we like, but we are still left with life as it is lived. It was, I believe, in response to life as lived that the concept of God took shape in the first place. The biblical concept of God is of a being – you have to read straight through the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) to get a real sense of this – arbitrary and unpredictable, always threatening to break out randomly in anger and destruction, yet at the same time comforting and strengthening and providing too, just as capriciously. The biblical God is like life, unpredictable, sometimes unintelligible. Trying to understand life’s unpredictability — the sudden death, by suicide, of someone greatly loved, the accident that leaves one bedridden for life, the cancer that strikes just when life seems happy and full, the unsought and unexpected good fortune, the coup de foudre of an unbidden love in which life is transfigured — is to understand something of where ideas of God come from. As Isaiah says (in the prophetic voice of God): “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45.7)
In other words, there is no answer. That’s why the vicar had nothing to say, because he thought that only an answer would do. There is nothing to say in face of the brutal arbitrariness and casual brutality of life that will make it seem reasonable or just — aside, of course, from saying that life just is like that, and by saying that, sharing one’s humanity for the comfort it can bring. Talking about God wouldn’t have helped, because talk of God is really a way of hiding life’s ultimate meaninglessness from oneself, and pretending that such talk is meaningful. David Bryant had nothing to say, because he thought in terms of answers, and to his way of thinking the young woman had the answers all wrong. What Bryant’s religion would have urged him to say would have been judgemental and cruel.
But ask yourself this. If the woman’s concept of God needed refashioning, and if that concept would have helped, why wouldn’t the vicar have helped her do it? Bryant doesn’t say what this reconfigured God would have looked like, but if he had a better concept, that would have made her grief more bearable or the act of her lover more intelligible, why wouldn’t he have provided it? The truth is, I think, that the loving God that he had in mind — and this can only be a suspicion, because he doesn’t tell us – the God who doesn’t mete out punishments and rewards, does not bring weal or woe, is one that can have nothing to do with real life, which just is often cruel and capricious, and provides no sign at all that it is governed by a being who loves us and cares for us. If there were some sign of this, wouldn’t this have comforted that young woman in her grief?