Even back in my hyper-Calvinist days–assured that I was chosen, secure, and Elected unto salvation–I recognized the reality that if I were not a Christian, I’d certainly be an Atheist. If there was some way that I could be convinced that Christianity was a fraud (and here are some ways), I would not face any temptation to be a Buddhist or New Age mystic or anything of the like. No, No. I would be a hardened, militant Atheist.
How do I know this? Well, Christianity has the idea that within each believer is the “Old Self” and the “New Self”. This Old Self is, essentially, who we are apart from God.
That Old Self, though we fight it our entire Christian lives, won’t actually be fully snuffed out until the end of all things. And so, in a sense, if we’re sensitive to it, we can sometimes “feel” that “without-God” version of ourselves rolling around in there somewhere in our hearts.
I’m in a lackluster spiritual season at the moment. In the past, these times have been marked by the increased stirrings of my inner-licentious, -apathetic, or -cynical Self.
This time, though, it seems my inner-Atheist is the one whispering in my ear.
I have those absurdities of the faith striking me harder than usual. I feel the utter improbability that the things I believe about Redemptive History actually occurred. I cannot imagine a situation in this reality, governed by the laws of order God has ordained, where the physical, tangible Resurrection of the Dead occurs.
It all seems so fantastical, and outside the bounds of anything else that God has ever done or typically does in the day-to-day life of his People.
For some reason, it’s far easier for me to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection than my own.
Usually, a trip to Isaiah 53 or 1 Corinthians 15 assuages these fears, but not right now. The Bible isn’t acting as an immediate salve for me–not yet, at least. It feels more like the gym: when I force myself to do it, it feels great for a time, then I just feel achy; I know it’s slowly making me healthier at a deep level, but I still won’t see results for a while.
That’s why I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art this weekend (well, that and to defend my dear Rothko’s honor).
After church, nourished by the Table and the Presence, I walked into the rainy day, had an amazing cup of coffee, and stumbled my way through a rather haphazard set of buses to the museum where I headed straight to the Medieval art section.
I’m usually an impressionist and modern art kind of guy. It is in these pieces I usually see the Beauty of God’s world and work both outside and inside my own soul.
But today, if I was honest, I really just needed to be with some saints of old; ones who had surely thought my same thoughts, and felt my same fears.
I needed to see the work of hands producing Beauty not simply for money, or in protest, or to “make a statement”–but truly as worship. I needed to see elements and art that had been blessed and consecrated by the old hands of leaders whose old ears had heard the confessions of doubters like me.
And had absolved them.
I needed to be reminded that mine is a faith firmly rooted in history; that I have been caught up in a current longer, greater, deeper, and stronger than all my doubts combined. I imagined tears falling on the various Books of Hours I saw and altars 1,000 years old. I sat in the reconstructed vestibule from an ancient French monastery (pictured above) and quieted my heart as I stared into the fountain, praying prayers the words of which I’m sure were familiar to the walls and pillars around me.
And yet they still stand. As do I.
I noticed that there was no art depicting the Resurrection or even the resurrected Jesus before his Ascension. There was a lot of Suffering Jesus and Exalted Jesus, but no Easter Jesus.
Usually, this would have bothered me, but today it sustained. I needed the Jesus who tasted my sense of alienation from God, and who conquered it, coming out the other side–exalted to rule, even over my doubts.
But Easter Jesus was there in the pregnant void, sacramenting himself through the visual silence of the art, mirroring my very own sense of absence and detachment from the Easter season (in which we still are).
And it was in this absence his Presence was known.
The Lord is still risen, indeed. Alleluia.