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By Alan Jacobs


Jane Kramer and the Feast of St. Martin Elginbrod

Our grandfather in heaven.

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It's quite obvious that Kramer does not know the theological or moral reasons for any of the decisions she mentions, and that she does not feel the need to know: in her writing (as in that of thousands and thousands of other journalists, scholars, and intellectuals) it is simply understood that, if there is a God at all, that God is a relatively or utterly impersonal monad, a kind of beneficent Cloud of Unknowing. C. S. Lewis famously wrote, in his book The Problem of Pain, that we don't want a father in heaven so much as "a grandfather in heaven — a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves' and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, 'a good time was had by all.'" But the Monad of this default Unitarianism is neither as conscious in itself nor as conceptually distinct for us as a grandfather. Insofar as this Monad has any thoughts or feelings at all, they can only be ones of befogged gratitude toward any human beings who happens in any way to think of It. There's something appalling, then, about anyone who suggests that one thought regarding the Monad is to be preferred to any other, or that any such thoughts should be discouraged.

It's interesting how, in this mental environment, religious belief becomes a strictly moral matter, but in an odd sense: believing in the featureless Monad who tolerates or welcomes any attention becomes a token of one's own open–heartedness and generosity of spirit, while believing in anything more definite becomes a token of one's own "exceptional narrowness." I often think, in contexts like this, of someone who responded to a comment I had made about the Christian understanding of Hell, "But quite right that the damned are the damned, which might well be one of the three or four places at which I would be permanently unprepared to be a Christian myself no matter how attractive I found other aspects of it. A God who accepts that some must suffer infinite suffering for finite sins seems, well, evil to me. That is a huge can of worms to open, I know, and not a point unique to me by any means, but it's something I really cannot work myself around."

This is an honorable and serious objection, and I do not mean to trivialize what underlies it, but note that this isn't quite the Ivan Karamazov line: "I believe, but I refuse my entrance ticket." Rather, the logic is, "I find the thought of such a God repulsive, and therefore I do not believe." But what does repulsiveness have to do with it? We all agree that it would make no sense to say, "Cancer is a terrible thing, so I refuse to believe in it"; or "The Holocaust is an unimaginable nightmare, so I refuse to acknowledge that it happened." No one would see such refusals as noble or principled. Yet that is precisely how many people today evaluate beliefs in God. Those who believe in (at most) the featureless Monad which may be approached by anyone in any way, thereby indicate their good will; those whose God demands more reveal themselves as, in that belief itself, morally deficient.

Thus Jane Kramer freely acknowledges that a 1986 inter–religious gathering sponsored by the Community of Sant'Egidio in Assisi "had carried a risk of religious relativism and 'syncretism'"—but that's precisely why she approves of it, and why she frowns upon Assisi II (2002), where "John Paul II was installed on a big throne, surrounded by other Catholics, and the religions prayed alone." The notion that "a Crow medicine man named John Pretty–on–Top, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, the president of Morocco's High Council of Ulemas, and the Dalai Lama" may not all be praying to the same God, and therefore may not properly worship together in oneness, is of all religious notions the most greatly to be despised. And by despising it we avoid the hard work of finding out whether it is true.

Before proceeding to my conclusion, I should say that one of the things that makes me deeply suspicious of the Internet is the frequency with which it turns up exactly what I want to find in it. It's like a vast digital Mirror of Erised or something. How else to explain my recent discovery of one Father Cary Dobbie, who in 1996 appears to have written a letter to the Independent of London in which he proclaims, "I cannot and will not believe in a God who is more unpleasant than I am"? Not only does this statement perfectly exemplify the theology I have been exploring, but it contains the added bonus of pure self–congratulation: Is Father Dobbie really so sure that he is less unpleasant than the Christian God? My suggestion is that we provide the good Father with infinite power and then check back in a few billion years. At that point a comparative study might yield some interesting results.

Such speculation aside, I cite Father Dobbie because he quotes, as a kind of clincher to his argument, the figure whom I think of as the one true patron saint for the Monad's faithful, whoever and wherever they are. The Monadites should hold a great feast day each year—I would suggest March 25th as the proper date—in celebration of St. Martin Elginbrod. There are several versions of the epitaph on St. Martin's (legendary) tombstone, one of which comes to us via C. S. Lewis's favorite writer, George MacDonald; but here's the one I like best:

Here lies Martin Elginbrod;
Have mercy on my soul, Lord God,
As I would do, were I Lord God,
And you were Martin Elginbrod.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.

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