Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Ironic Christian's Companion: Finding the Marks of God's Grace in the World

In the last post (March 25) I made reference to this 1999 work by my friend Patrick Henry.  Previously I did a series of posts on Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett (Sept. 2013 – June 2014), by turns admiring, questioning, and protesting his work.  My biggest beef with Dennett is his lack of appreciation for the power of imagination, symbolic truth, and what Coleridge called “poetic faith.”

Although it was published seven years earlier, Henry’s book is the best answer I’ve read, from a Christian perspective, to Dennett’s often arrogant atheism.

The word “ironic” refers to some kind of discrepancy in language, in experience or in thought.  An “ironic” statement may mean the opposite of what it says.  (Sarcasm is a type of linguistic irony with an edge of hostility.)  An “ironic” situation involves a confluence of events that don’t seem to go together, with sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, effect.  An “ironic” thought, similarly, brings together ideas that one would not normally expect to coincide.

Openness to, even appreciation for, the unexpected is central to Henry’s version of Christianity.

Whereas Dennett dismisses anything that does not pass a verifiable scientific or demonstrably rational test as delusion and insists on the most literal, fundamentalist understanding of religion, Henry locates his faith in the unverifiable, indemonstrable, dizzying realm of uncertainty, and understands religion in figurative, symbolic, imaginative terms.

The sub-title of his book offers a clue as to what the reader is in for.  It is not a “treatise” or “study,” but a field guide, like Petersen’s field guide to wild birds.  The phrase “finding the marks of God’s grace in the world” even has a poetic rhythm to it.  This will not be a “defense” of or “argument” for religion.  Instead, we are invited on an experiential field trip into the wilderness of faith, a wilderness with as many hazards as beautiful birds and scenery, where there is as much danger of getting lost as promise of being saved.

Furthermore, while this field trip has a beginning, middle, and an end, don’t expect them to occur in that order.  Thus, while there is progression in the overall structure from the felt sense of uncertainty to the equally felt sense of Christian faith, this field guide wanders by a kind of association from the uncertainty of “little brown jobs” (birds that cannot be identified), through cosmic time and space, unexpected calls to attention, Keats’ concept of “negative capability,” human connections and interdependence, post-modernist decentering, the non-linearity of grace and faith, to trust in the universe. 

The “ironic Christian” is an uncertain, independent, imaginative, and ecumenical thinker, as well as believer.

Patrick Henry is a religious scholar who taught at Swarthmore College for 17 years.  Most recently he served as executive director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, MN.  A thoroughgoing academic, he is able to cite theological, scientific, philosophical, psychological, and sociological sources with proficiency; however, his style is personal, down-to-earth, and emotionally appealing, lending itself not only to esoteric Biblical and literary references but also to popular culture, including such children’s literature as Alice in Wonderland and Dr. Seuss.

In an age in which Christianity has come to be dominated by the literal, fundamentalist, narrow, evangelical, conservative brand, Henry seeks to break Christianity open in order to broaden its reach and enlarge its appeal—to save faith by testing it.  In the process, he opens Christianity wide enough to let non-Christians in.

“Once upon a time,” he writes, “the term ‘Christian’ meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around.  But these days ‘Christian’ sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow.  Many people who identify themselves, as Christians seem to have leapfrogged over life, short-circuited the adventure.  When 'Christian' appears in a headline, the story will probably be about lines drawn, not about boundaries expanded.” (p. 8)

The final message of the book is the same for both conservative Christians and atheists alike:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”  (Hamlet, Act I, scene 5, ll. 167-8)