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Whether recounting a simple excursion ...
Whether recounting a simple excursion or unraveling a complex poem, Diogenes Allen shows us the pain of loss, the wellsprings of joy, and the power of a deep and lovingly cultivated faith.
Fools say in their hearts, "There is no God."
In 1955 I went to England as a Rhodes Scholar from Kentucky. Travel and living away from home were not new experiences to me. I had been around the world only two years earlier, visiting mission colleges and schools, telling students in India, Thailand, and Japan about life in North America, including its religious life. The single biggest impact on me from that year of travel was the overwhelming poverty of India. I still recall all too well the large number of ragged women, holding emaciated infants, begging outside every railway station, of entire families whose home was a railway station platform, and the ugly scars and missing fingers, ears, and even noses of lepers.
Even though I spent some of my childhood in the poverty-stricken mountains of Kentucky, living in the coal-mining town of Hazard, I was not prepared for the horror of seeing people dying on the street. Probably no one who grew up in this country would be. At any rate, I could not do justice to the experience in talks I gave to service groups and churches when I returned home for my senior year of college. It was a burden I could not share and, in sharing, find some relief. However far away I grew from India in space and time, the experience cast a dark shadow on my soul. It took a much deeper understanding and experience of the love of God than I had then, or for many years, before I was able to find some relief from that burden.
So part of the baggage I carried to England was a troubled soul. I had had a wonderful church life growing up. My parents were Greek immigrants, so naturally I was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. We had no local church, but I still have vivid memories of the Greek Orthodox liturgy from the occasional services led by a visiting priest. The Greek bishop arranged with the Episcopal bishop of Lexington, Kentucky, for the Greek community to attend an Episcopal church. I served as an acolyte for a few years, until a new Episcopal bishop withdrew the dispensation. For a few months I had no place to go to church, until a school friend in my ninth grade class said "Why don't you come to Sunday school with me?" My parents decided that it was all right and said nothing to the Greek bishop. It happened to be a Presbyterian church.
In those days Lexington was pretty well permeated with religion. You could not go long in daily life without being aware of it. I was at home with religion, but at the age of twenty, I could not put religion together with what I had encountered in India. Profound deprivation is devastating, especially for a person who had been shaped and formed by a vivid sense of holiness from the Greeks, by the experience of a tolerant, gentle love from Episcopalians, and by a very strictly held view of divine providence and care from the Presbyterians.
My sense of the disparity between the horrors of the world and the teachings of religion did not improve when I realized at Oxford how much Christianity had declined in England and so much of Europe. It was far stronger in Oxford itself. Oxford has been an Anglican stronghold for centuries, and many undergraduates were from schools that had good chaplains. Still the tone was that of a minority, in a slow but sure decline.
I felt alone with my questions and doubts. However, although I didn't know it at the time, many people were having experiences that transcend our secular view of life, that in spite of all our unanswered questions, God was becoming present in one form or another in so many people, while I was in Oxford, feeling abandoned. I learned about such experiences of transcendence only much later as a seminary professor, when, by chance I came across a book by Michael Pafford called, Inglorious Wordsworths.
Pafford loved Wordsworth's poetry, especially its suggestions of a hidden, glorious reality, permeating all things, and in high moments making itself felt. He wondered what in the world it could possibly mean to his students. So he decided to try to find out. He distributed an example from a novel of an unusual experience, such as Wordsworth often presented in his poetry, to five hundred upper form high school students (equivalent of our college freshmen) and college majors in English literature. In his questionnaire, he asked the students whether they had had a similar experience and, if so, would they describe it. To his amazement, over fifty-five percent answered, "Yes," and proceeded to tell him about it. Interestingly enough, virtually none of them had told anyone about it before, and all of them felt that the moment or moments were extremely important. Half of them had no idea what to make of their experiences. The rest understood them as experiences of the presence of God. Pafford judged that one's previous exposure to religion made a great difference in the understanding of these moments. At any rate, he had an answer to his question. In spite of appearances, many of his pupils were able to respond deeply to Wordsworth because they had themselves experienced similar things. So right there, in my days at Oxford, in a situation of apparent decline of institutional religion, God was reaching out and touching young lives, utterly uninvited.
For many people experiences of the heart are a way to God. This is illustrated by a passage from the diary of Frank Hendrick Allen, which was written almost ten years before his death from cancer at the age of thirty-three.
We climbed to the peak above Windermere, between Windermere and Ullswater, today. Such a moment of wind and the elements and incredible beauty I've never had before. I have had similar moments. Points at which, if they were to continue, I've felt as if I would have a moment of insight and clarity that would make all other things simple and understandable. A moment of real poetry. I'm never able to stay where I am long enough, it seems, to have that long-awaited moment of insight. I have had the thought twice in the last two days, once above Windermere and once at Glen Nevis, that dying at such moments would not be a loss, or rather that such a moment or an experience was worth dying for. (American Oxonian, Spring 1988, 178.)
This young man echoes many of those young voices recorded by Pafford, as well as Simone Weil's view that the beauty of the world can calm the restless, selfish ego and give us the feeling that something of great importance is about to be given to us, that "long-awaited moment of insight and clarity that would make all things simple and understandable." Weil points out that the world never does yield what it promises, as if the world, through its beauty, pointed toward that reality that lies beyond itself.
Today we are aware of a massive spiritual awakening in America. Magazines such as Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and Atlantic Monthly all carry stories, sometimes cover stories, about Jesus, miracles, and heaven. They must find a ready readership for such articles or they would not have reversed a long-standing policy of ignoring organized religion. Years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber made a fortune with his production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. Even my health insurance company in its newsletters encourages people to practice meditation for their mental and physical health. And on it goes. But however visible spiritual awakenings are today, they were also occurring in my Oxford days. They were simply not reported. In public, it seemed as if the reality of God were absent. Pafford's report is not an isolated one. In a radio interview, the Nobel Prize winning biologist, Alastair Hardy, mentioned that he had an interest in studying religious experiences. He received over 15,000 letters from people who shared their religious experiences with him. God's Spirit is sometimes more active than we realize. Had I known at the time, that God was still actively entering people's lives, I could have been strengthened to live in tension between God's love that is experienced as a reality—not a as a theoretical idea—and human suffering. As it was, for a time I felt I had lost my faith. It could still stir my heart, but no longer could I affirm it with my head.
In retrospect, it was a good thing that for a time I had apparently lost my faith. Several of my teachers at university treated religion as a way for immature people to deal with the difficulties of life, and believed that a person who was emotionally strong and rational did not need such a support. For them, religious people had not overcome the need for protection from their parents and simply substituted a heavenly father as their guardian. A mature person, on the other hand, could face life frankly, and not rely on such wishful thinking. The Christian vision had meant so much to me that I wondered if I were simply immature and if the reason I had held to the Christian faith, and still longed for it to be true, was because I could not face life without it. Would I be able to enjoy life, take part in the larger affairs of society, to be active now that I had had apparently lost my faith?
To my surprise, I found that I could. I did not need to be religious in order to hold my life together, as though religion were an emotional crutch. I found that I was not an emotional cripple, unable to live with the uncertainties of life. Then, to my surprise, when I realized that my need to be religious was not immature and emotional, my apparently lost religious faith slowly returned. I realized I had a choice to make. My personal experience convinced me that the psychological account of religion as an emotional prop for immature people did not fit me. Moreover my, by now, extensive study of philosophy and science had shown me that religious belief had not and indeed could not be ruled out by them. On strictly intellectual ground, a Christian understanding of the universe was viable. So it was up to me whether I withheld or yielded my commitment to God. Emotionally, I could live a life that ignored the possibility of God, and emotionally I could limit my life to those organizations and groups that operated as though there were not a God. But I also realized that I greatly preferred the kind of life I experienced among religious people. The goodness, beauty, and kindness they aspired to, for all their failures, nonetheless promised a glorious life. It came through the liturgy and the gospel narratives.
One of the ways I became aware of how truly wondrous Jesus is was simply to drop all belief in him as divine, and then just to compare his words and actions to those of other great people I admired. At this time I had studied philosophy for five solid, concentrated years, and I had read a lot of the classics of Western literature. But Socrates and Plato, whom I admired the most, did not come close to measuring up to even a few of Jesus' remarks. Socrates' statement that an unexamined life is not worth living is indeed profound, and should be taken seriously by all of us, but it does not immediately penetrate to the core of the soul with the urgency of Jesus' question, "What does it profit a person to gain the whole world, and lose his soul?"
In Princeton, where I live, the university library, with well over three million books, is full of a wealth of knowledge, achievement, and beautiful, glorious ideas. Among the most glorious are the works of Plato, which I have read in their entirety, and some of his best works, several times. I find that to enter Plato's world or to think about it, my mind is filled with the color of gold. His is a universe of glory and beauty. Yet for all the wonder with which it fills me, there is nothing in Plato's world to compare with the story of the Prodigal Son for compassion, heart-rending pathos, and love. In a few simple, bold lines, which even a child can understand, Jesus opens a window to the very throne of God. He gives us an understanding of the mercy and love of God that is utterly beyond anything articulated in Greek thought, including the works of Plato, the most profound of their writers on love. The story of the Good Samaritan teaches us that all people are our neighbors. This concept is not to be found in ancient Jewish thought, where a neighbor was thought to be a fellow Jew. It is also not to be found in ancient Greek thought. Jesus never went to university. The village rabbi provided his only schooling. He never met or talked to or read any great thinker. Yet, Gregory Vlastos, one of the great Plato scholars of our time, gave a public lecture in which he expressed amazement at the unique and profound understanding of love and mercy these two simple, very brief stories, reveal. It is only because we are so familiar with them that their awesome and arresting splendor rarely overwhelm us.
Perhaps we need to be reminded of G. K. Chesterton's advice in order to recapture the greatness and uniqueness of Jesus' teaching.
When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door ... Nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.... (Orthodoxy, 1 ed. 1908; reprint London & Glasgow, 1961, 51.)
I am very fortunate to have spent a lot of time studying some of the great classics of our civilization, because the moment I compare the very best of them with Jesus' teachings and life, the contrast is as striking as that between rivers flowing with water rather than wine. The wonder and greatness of Jesus' everyday familiar remarks shine forth.
The life Jesus' words awakened in me, as they have awakened in other people over the ages, was the life in which I belonged, however troubled I was. I have learned an awful lot since then, earning several advanced degrees, and acquiring much experience with life and death at close quarters. I have published a lot of books, and there are even books and articles written about my ideas. But things, though I understand them more deeply, have not essentially changed. Jesus is still a man, but once you think about him carefully and seriously as merely a man, you realize that he is more than man. His words convey a life that we do not find anywhere else in the great minds of the Western world, and we find that life espoused and practiced by a lot of people. To be with such people is to be where at times we rise much, much higher than we ever do or can elsewhere. So just as I was completing my studies at Oxford, I had already come home, and I have never left that home again.
* * *
Many years after I left Oxford, I read the obituary of one Richard H. Baker, Jr., a man I never met, even though we were both in Oxford at the same time, and later I gave a series of lectures at St. Paul's, Charlottesville, Virginia, where he had been rector. But we must have been spiritual brothers, as can be seen from his son's report of the following conversations.
It was always amazing to watch Dad's eyes light up as he would start debating theology on any level.... In the midst of this intensely theological conversation about religion ... my father digging deep into his intellectual reserves, pulling out quotes from obscure authors no one ever heard of ... one of my friends asked my dad, "Well, do you believe in God?" He paused, "Yes." "Well," my friend challenged, "given all that you've said, how do you know there is a God?" My father responded, "Because every human has within him the propensity to love that's how I know there is a God." I think what struck me most about this comment was that my father addressed the culmination of such an intensely intellectual debate with something that was so profoundly unintellectual. (The American Oxonian, Spring, 1999, 272.)
It did not surprise me.
We do indeed have a propensity to love. But what is worthy of our utter devotion? If we can ever penetrate the blinding fog caused by our self-preoccupation and inadequate earthly goals, our hearts go out quite automatically to the God revealed to us by Jesus and the one who is supremely worthy of our love and devotion. After all, the Anglo-Saxon root of our word "worship" means, "to ascribe or find worth."
Into Deeper Waters
There is a massive spiritual awakening today, and yet a decline in the membership of mainline churches. There is also a massive change in the intellectual world. Since the seventeenth century, Christianity has been on the intellectual defensive, struggling to show the possibility of God in a modern world. I recall all too well attending a lecture by a well-known Christian intellectual in the chapel of Princeton University, a massive gothic structure. The audience was so small we sat in the choir, but still we were swamped by the vast, empty space. The setting turned out to be very appropriate to the theme of the lecture. The speaker referred to General "Vinegar" Stillwell, who led the retreat out of Burma in World War II, meeting reporters at the Indian border. He said very simply, "We took a hell of a beating out there." Our speaker went on to say that in the academic world Christianity was taking a hell of a beating.
Excerpted from Steps Along the Way by Diogenes Allen. Copyright © 2002 Diogenes Allen. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Part 1. "Fools say in their hearts, 'There is no God.'"
Part 2. "But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild ... Me thought I
heard one calling, Child: And I replied, My Lord."
Part 3. "Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path."
Part 4. "Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are
set on the pilgrims' way."