Something More to Order and Assure: Old First E-pistle 05.03.13

A few recent pastoral visits have reminded me how difficult and painful life can be. All of us bear great burdens at some time or another. And some carry unbearable weight for periods or even long stretches. A few unsung heros do so their whole lives. (And sometimes hardly anyone else recognizes the troubles others see.)

Thinking about this reminded of Peter Burger’s “A Rumor of Angels.” Burger was writing in 1970 about the disenchantment of modern life. Noting that for a majority of people ‘the supernatural’ as a meaningful reality had disappeared from the horizons of everyday life, Berger predicted that post-modern folk would go looking for ‘the ghost in the machine.’ Weary of a purely mechanical universe, society would recognize a need to rediscover an unseen world that naturalism and secularism had eclipsed.

I remember a specific example Berger drew. He spoke of a child, awaking at night from a bad dream. Alone, in the darkness of her room and in the long shadow of a nightmare’s memory, the child is overwhelmed by fear and threat. The comfortable outlines of the familiar world around her are blurred or invisible; chaos looms. The frightened child cries out for her mother.

Berger suggested that the child’s cries invoke her mother as a high priestess of a protective order. He used the term “Magna Mater,” the prototype for a godly Madonna. “It is she (and, in many cases, she alone) who has the power to banish the chaos and to restore the benign shape of the world.” (I probably agree with him about the centrality of the maternal in our families and culture, even as I don’t doubt for a minute that in a family with two dads this same parenting function is fulfilled.)

Berger went on to describe how the good parent answers the child’s need. She turns on the lamp to create a halo of light, literally light shining in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome. She lifts the child into her arms, cradling her against bosom and heart. She coos softly, speaking or singing words of reassurance. The effective message, whatever the actual words and actions, is “Don’t be afraid — everything is in order, everything is all right.” With a mother’s ministrations working, the child, reassured and taken care of, can fall back asleep.

Berger’s example works because it’s basic and everyday, what a parent does. It happens almost “naturally,” (though that’s a loaded word and a dangerous and laden concept!) without relying on any overt religious imagery or understanding. But the whole interaction — the possibility of a parent’s reassuring a frightened child — depends essentially and ultimately on a religious presumption: an ordered universe, against much of our experience, in which we can find our way safely.

Reassurance before the vagaries, uncertainties and losses of life depends on what is unavoidably and inevitably a religious claim… appealing to a reality other than, deeper than that which is experienced. “If the ‘natural’ is the only reality there is, the mother is lying to the child — lying out of love, to be sure… — but in the final analysis, lying all the same.” Belief in a ‘navigable order’ transcends our immediate circumstances and appeals to “religious knowledge” beyond our natural experience. Good parenting and more broadly living free of crushing fear demands either substantial denial or taking upon oneself a religious worldview (and maybe both).

But connecting to a reality deeper than the randomness and the risks, offers the possibility of an ordered life, a universe that can be inhabited as trustworthy and sympathetic. “In this frame of reference the natural world in which we are born, love and die is not the only world, but only the foreground of another world in which love is not annihilated in death, and in which, therefore, the trust in the power of love to banish chaos is justified.”

I have sat recently with parents and partners suffering and sobbing over loved ones’ struggles over which they are powerless. They cannot prevent or mediate, and in some cases, do anything to change their loved one’s circumstances.

But I’ve heard those same people, even in their helplessness — dumb before the mysteries of life’s brutality — talk about grace they have known and still lean on. They have faith. Their heads lifted, their eyes seeing something more, beyond all the struggling and suffering.

But staying connected to that “something more,” it’s hard, particularly when you and those you love are hurting. Still, it occurs to me that church helps us “see” and “turn to” and “count on” the deeper realities that provide order in the face of the threat of utter chaos.

See you in church,