"I'm happy to report that I've found the third in a series of recently published books that takes up the study of God and his grace and does it in a readable and inspiring fashion. (The other two are Amazing Grace by Kathleen Norris and Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott.)" Jon Hassler, The Minneapolis Pioneer Press
The Ironic Christian's Companion: Finding the Marks of God's Grace in the Worldby Patrick Henry
A prominent religious scholar who isn't afraid to shake our assumptions and probe our imaginations, Patrick Henry has written a guide for the "ironic Christian"one who strives to integrate truth with faith, to let an expanding knowledge of the world translate into an expanded understanding of God. Drawing on the works of a diverse group of writers and
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A prominent religious scholar who isn't afraid to shake our assumptions and probe our imaginations, Patrick Henry has written a guide for the "ironic Christian"one who strives to integrate truth with faith, to let an expanding knowledge of the world translate into an expanded understanding of God. Drawing on the works of a diverse group of writers and thinkers, from C.S. Lewis and Julian of Norwich to Anne Sexton, Yogi Berra, and Dr. Seuss, he explores the ways in which we can maintain our belief in a God defined by mysteriousness. With humor, humility, and courage, he asks us to join him in this spiritual questand in the dizzying, thrilling leaps that faith invites.
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“A thinking Christian’s book . . . uncommonly candid and well-written.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“Both [Kathleen Norris and Patrick Henry] lace together personal experience, theology, and the wisdom of thinkers before them in explaining why they believe what they do. And both manage to avoid the extreme poles of Christianity that so many other writers adopt, allowing for ambiguity and doubt but also allowing for belief and conviction.”
“[Henry’s] tone is relaxed, sincere, and maximally accessible—he is no theological jargon-spewer. He fully understands the ambivalence so many feel about both religion and irreligion, and he ministers excellently to such skeptical spiritual seekers.”
“A guide to living with faith in a modern world in which there are no easy answers.”
—St. Cloud Times
“A breezy, conversational style that is likely to have considerable popular appeal.”
“[Henry] offers shared wisdom and teasers of the imagination for believers and skeptics alike attempting to live in a reasonably sane world.”
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ON WHAT YOU WILL (AND WON’T) FIND IN THIS BOOK
Am I one of them? You say it’s for ‘ironic Christians.’ How do I know if there’s any point in my reading further?”
A fair question. And if you require a neat, brief answer, this book is not for you. One of the chief characteristics of an ironic Christian is an instinctive, abiding suspicion of no-loose-ends answers.
Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist, Orthodox—these kinds of Christians are familiar. But Ironic? I’m not starting a new denomination. I can’t remember the moment when I first knew that the term was right, but it serves to identify a way of being Christian that seems strange in these days when the Christians who are the loudest are very sure about many things that might be thought still open for discussion.
An ironic Christian inhabits a world that is more “as if” than “just like,” a world fashioned by a God of surprises. The grace of this God is mysterious, sneaky. Some Christians chalk things up much too easily, too quickly, to the grace of God. “There but for the grace of God go I” has the merit of not claiming too much credit for myself, but it implies that I have more of God’s grace than the other person.
I trust God’s grace but hesitate to identify it in particular cases. It often blindsides me, regularly catches me off guard, seldom hits me square in the face. When I know the grace of God, it’s nearly always after the fact, usually long afterward.
Grace, as I have experienced it, makes me an ironic Christian. I cannot define “ironic Christian” in a few sentences. If I could, I’d not have bothered writing a book. The only way I can explain “ironic Christian” is to invite you to come with me into a world where I have found, and been found by, the grace of God.
This book is not an owner’s manual. I’m not telling you how to fix anything. If you picked the volume off a self-help shelf, somebody put it in the wrong place. The book is a Companion—the fancy traditional Latin term is vademecum, or “go with me”—a combination of shared wisdom, spiritual resource, antidote to boredom, helper out of jams, teaser of the imagination, and, ideally, a good read.
In some ways, too, this Companion is like a field guide. I’m thinking of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guides to the birds, which, he says, are “designed so that live birds could be readily identified at a distance by their ‘field marks.’” I find the term “field marks” especially helpful. I am concerned with what I have come to think of as the field marks of the grace of God. Since I usually discern God’s grace at a distance and after the fact, not up close and at the moment, I am always on the lookout for field marks that can be seen in retrospect and from afar. I want to be very clear: In this book, I am not defining the grace of God. I’m saying what I have found it to be like. I make no claim that this Companion is in some universal or objective sense true. I hope it is trustworthy.
Some of what I say is autobiographical in the conventional sense: what I did, how I felt doing it, the reactions of others. I want in these pages to be a companion for you as many writers have been for me. The borders between reading and writing and living are fluid. I do not take time out from life to write, nor do I take time out from life to read. When I quote somebody, I’m not hiding. I’m introducing you to one of my conversation partners.
The grace of God is not linear, hence the absence of chapter numbers. The sections of this book are called “On this” rather than “This” because they open up more than they finish off what they’re about. I take both cues and comfort from the title of a college admissions brochure that slyly offers A Question for Every Answer, and from movie director Jean-Luc Godard’s response when another filmmaker, not a fan of modern cinema’s haphazard adherence to chronology, harrumphed, “Movies should have a beginning, a middle, and an end”: “Certainly, but not necessarily in that order.”
The ordering of things in these pages isn’t arbitrary, but it isn’t sacrosanct either. It makes sense to read straight through. It also makes sense to jump around.
Stay with me, read on. You don’t have to know at the start whether you’re an ironic Christian. When you’re done, you still might not know. Demand for guarantees far exceeds supply. But even if you’re a non-ironic Christian, or not Christian at all, you might enjoy the journey. The root meaning of companion is “one who eats bread with,” not “one who agrees with,” and the best traveling parties, beginning with Chaucer’s motley band on the way to Canterbury, are those with an uncommon mix of guests.
ON LITTLE BROWN JOBS
If I say right at the beginning that grace, amazing grace, has brought me safe thus far and will lead me home, it may seem that I am stuffing the rabbit into the hat so I can pull it out later. This book is about the grace of God, but not about magic, and certainly not about anything easy. It’s about something simple, that God can be trusted but not taken for granted—a difficult simplicity that I didn’t learn in kindergarten or even in college or graduate school. I discovered it along a way that twists and turns, where Yogi Berra’s advice, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” makes perfect sense.
What is it like to find, and be found by, the grace of God in this world? I doubt it’s exactly the same for any two people. For me, it’s not even the same from day to day. Two divorces and a father’s suicide, hardly sufficient trauma to qualify me for Job’s league, have been enough trouble to rouse instant suspicion of anyone hawking cheap grace. When churches leave “he descended into hell” out of the Apostles’ Creed—to protect Christ’s honor, I suppose, or maybe to avoid making the congregation feel bad—I feel cheated. It’s where Christ comes to a fork in the road and takes it. Christ’s descent into hell is the guarantee of grace.
Over and over again, grace has come as irony: an off-balance deflating of my pride, sometimes as funny as vaudeville slapstick; a gentle dismantling of my despair (when I’m really hopeless nothing is scarier than hope, so grace has to be indirect, sneaky); clarity when I’m too confused and confusion when I’m too clear.
“As if” and “just like”
It is extraordinary what a difference there is between understanding a thing and knowing it by experience.” In this compact sentence, Saint Teresa of Ávila identifies grace as irony: it is the extraordinary difference. While the difference isn’t usually as sharp as I “was blind but now I see,” there is surprise around nearly every corner. If I say that I “understand” something, chances are that I have slipped it into an already stuffed file folder in a drawer that I have opened many times. “Now I understand” too easily equals “Oh, that’s familiar after all.” Knowing by experience, on the contrary, is very often startling, requiring a new filing cabinet, maybe even a whole new filing system. If astonishment has its effect, understanding itself is dislodged from the familiar. The world I have come to know through my experience is a place fashioned by, loved by, redeemed by a God who won’t let us lock the box of surprises.
To be both ironic and Christian is to know, with a knowing deeper than doctrine, the simple, unnerving truth that the visage of faith is not the happy face but the masks of comedy and tragedy, alternating, unpredictably, between laughter and tears, sometimes crying and laughing at the same time, or even, on occasion, crying because it’s so funny and laughing because it hurts so much.
An ironic Christian, suspicious of how things seem at first glance, looks at Andres Serrano’s notorious “Piss Christ” photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine and wonders whether the effect is to sully Christ or make piss holy. Being plunged into urine would hardly faze one who has already descended into hell. And if God really became a human being, isn’t piss part of the package deal? Some fastidious, non-ironic souls in the early church admitted that Jesus ate (the Gospels told them so), but insisted that he didn’t digest, since he would then have had to shit. They couldn’t bear to think that God’s swaddling clothes might be dirty and need changing.
In Serrano’s photograph, what looks like crystal-clear blasphemy makes, on deeper reflection, a profoundly faithful point. It works the other way too. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” widely regarded as the best thing Jesus ever said, could surely, we suppose, be classified as undeniably good. But the Golden Rule can wreak havoc on relationships. I was once called upon professionally to handle a tense standoff between two people, he an off-the-charts extravert, she an off-the-charts introvert. He interpreted her withdrawn behavior to mean what it would mean if he acted in the same way: “Please come to my assistance.” He (the extravert) did unto her (the introvert) what he would have done unto him—and things got progressively worse. He thought he was being a help, she thought he was being a pest. In a world of Myers-Briggs personality types, the Golden Rule must be applied with caution.
Many Christians are sure that God made a “just like” world, where blasphemy is blasphemy—“I know it when I see it”—and faithfulness is measured by the fervor with which one asserts the bumper-sticker litany: “The Bible: God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” They recoil from an “as if” world. They can imagine nothing to be said in favor of the Serrano photograph or against the Golden Rule. The ironic Christian, who knows an “as if” world and the God who made it, certainly does not claim that all blasphemy is masked piety or that all Scripture must be taken with a grain of salt but does insist that very few answers are given in advance, and even those that are may not be easy to understand.
Once upon a time 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.
This book is for Christians who think that what was true once upon a time can be true again and should be true always: curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity, a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload.
We are all explorers, telling each other what new things we have seen and heard. I will report to you some of what I have come to know. I take my cue from Anne Sexton: “A story, a story! / (Let it go, let it come.)” Notice that she does not add “and I will explain it to you.” A writer friend of mine says that the best advice she ever got was “Show, don’t tell.” Though I do not have the poet’s trust to let the story just go and come—I can’t always resist the urge to tell—I suspect that I am closest to the truth when I am least intrusive. One of Anne Sexton’s unexplained stories shows that she knew something about God that I have come to know too. She imagines playing poker with God, sure that she will win because she holds a royal straight flush, stunned when God holds five aces: “A wild card had been announced/but I had not heard it.”
Maybe you won’t see the same things that I do, or you’ll see the same things in another way. My effort to recover and restate a Christian vision is only one of many. Such efforts are taking place in pulpits, library carrels, publishing houses, in soup kitchens and homeless shelters and AIDS hospices, in refugee camps and Sunday school classes and church choir rehearsal rooms, in monasteries, prayer breakfasts, potluck suppers—wherever people are trying to figure out and figure forth the Christian life in a world not particularly interested in a Christian agenda shaped by the ironic, wild-card God.
Annie Dillard, appalled at the blandness and smug self-assurance that characterize some Christian worship, says that when we go into church “we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” I write mainly for Christians who know what Dillard is getting at, and who will be glad to hear that there are honest ways to be Christian besides being surer than they can be. I don’t understand Christians who have everything figured out, and I don’t envy them. I get nervous when things stay put, are cut and dried. Having it all figured out in the name of Christ is no more appealing to me than is the “explained world” that a Soviet writer thanked Lenin for bequeathing him. I would like it to be said of me, as has been written about one of my heroes, Czech Republic playwright and president Václav Havel: “Everything interests and astonishes him as if he had just seen it for the first time.” “As if—for the first time”: an ironic Christian knows new, knows fresh, knows surprise, but does not know it all. This book is about a Christian way of knowing. It is not about the Christian way, but I suspect that I am not the only one for whom the Christian way talked about here rings true.
Knowing and interpreting
Since age two I’ve been waltzing up and down with the question of life’s meaning. And I am obliged to report that the answer changes from week to week. When I know the answer, I know it absolutely; as soon as I know that I know it, I know that I know nothing. About seventy percent of the time my conclusion is that there is a grand design.” Maya Angelou’s seventy percent is, for me, about the best we can hope for. If I thought I had to be sure all the time, I would despair, and if I were sure all the time, I would be a menace to myself and everyone around me. What Richard Preston, in his electrifying account of an outbreak of the Ebola virus, The Hot Zone, says of biology, I find to be generally true of the world, God’s world: “In biology, nothing is clear, everything is too complicated, everything is a mess, and just when you think you understand something, you peel off a layer and find deeper complications beneath. Nature is anything but simple.” Simplicities lurk in the complications, but they are difficult simplicities, and you can’t—at least I can’t—get to them by an end run around the complications.
“A Christian way of knowing” is not the same as “a Christian interpretation of experience.” I hesitate to claim that I can offer “a Christian interpretation” of anyone’s experience, including my own. I do not step back, survey my life, and say, “Here is evidence of the grace of God.” Once, I proposed “a Christian interpretation” of someone else’s experience—I quoted Romans 8:28—“We know that in everything God works for good”—to a girlfriend who had just told me of her young brother’s death from leukemia several years before—and my relationship with her abruptly ended. “A Christian way of knowing” is characterized by candor and concreteness, not theological correctness or pious sentiment. It acknowledges, even revels in, what C. S. Lewis calls “the roughness and density of life.”
We are mysteries to each other, to ourselves. We can, and constantly do, talk about our experiences, and as soon as we start talking, we are interpreting. But it is one thing to interpret experience by talking about it and another to take the story told and give it “a Christian interpretation.” I am as wary of Christian spin doctors as I am of their political counterparts. I find myself always in a position like that of the Soviet Union as described by an official in mid-1990: “We are trying to sail a ship and simultaneously rebuild it. We don’t have a spare ship to step into for a moment and sail.” A Christian interpretation, as something different from the story I tell, is a spare ship I don’t have.
We make our way into and through the world we see depending on perspective and frames of reference. Seeing is believing, we are taught, but it is equally true that believing is seeing. The world that I see, the world that I know, did not come to me in an instant. It is not fixed yet, but it has recognizable and fairly consistent features. Its contours are shaped both by what happens “out there” and by what happens inside me.
Habit and change
I have come through many years of psychotherapy convinced that I am not so much a rational animal as a creature of habit. When change comes it is seldom in response to good ideas or persuasive arguments. I change when my imagination catches sight of a new possibility. Such sights usually sneak up on me. Sometimes they catapult me into conversion. The new possibilities are almost always, after the fact, “obvious,” and I can’t believe that it was so hard to get to where I could recognize them. But get to where is not just a figure of speech. It names a journey that can seem, on the way, a descent into hell. I know what Saint Augustine is talking about: “Lord, you turned my attention back to myself. You took me up from behind my own back where I had placed myself because I did not wish to observe myself, and you set me before my face.” “From behind my own back where I had placed myself”: it’s not as simple as gazing in the mirror. It’s more like being pushed through the Looking Glass.
Often I would go to a therapy session full of “reporting” that I thought would excite the therapist. Many things had happened during the week that I knew were “significant,” and, even more satisfying, “from behind my own back where I had placed myself” I “knew” what they “meant.” I was sure the therapist would be proud of me for the evident progress I was making (and making people proud of me I had developed to a high art). Invariably, when I rattled on in this fashion she showed no trace of heightened interest, and I would leave feeling the hour had been wasted.
Other times I would go to a session convinced that nothing at all had happened in the intervening week. I was stuck. I was sure I would bore the therapist. Invariably, these were the most electric sessions. The desperate urge to self-preservation stymied growth. It was when I gave up the effort to interpret my experience, the effort to control the therapy process itself, that I began to know, with the therapist’s skillful help, what had happened and was happening, and—the intrusion of grace—what could happen.
In countless other encounters as well, I have come to know how many ways there are to say the same thing, and how many different things an apparently “same” way of speaking can mean. People use words I would choke on and mean things that I endorse, or use my terminology in ways that I would expect to make them gag. Christian truth as conventionally expressed has for many people, including me from time to time, gone flat. Kathleen Norris, in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, has rejuvenated some of what she calls the “scary words,” theological terms like “eschatology” and “Christ” and “repentance” and even “God.” She says these words initially repelled her when she returned to church after being away for twenty years. She felt them excluding her, not inviting her in. For me, too, who never left the church, the terminology needs the kind of jump start that Norris provides. And she offers a grammar of faith as well as a vocabulary. She restores the words to their natural habitat—storytelling—where they dart like trout in a stream and soar like herons on the wind. By insisting that every Christian is a theologian, with a word about God (that’s what the term theology means), she helps free us from the kind of self-imposed plight I saw in a devoted church member who said in my hearing, “I never realized that the position on free will and predestination the minister outlined in this morning’s sermon is what I’m supposed to believe. Now I’ll have to start believing it.”
This book is written from Christian faith, but little in its form will seem familiar from books on theology or even on spirituality, although I have lived the tradition as long as I can remember and have studied and taught it for decades. Christian doctrine is in my bloodstream. My father and both grandfathers were pastors, and my great-grandfather was a lay preacher. The Christian story is woven into the fabric of my memories, my hopes, my fears, my desires, my dreads, my fantasies, my dreams. The way I think and feel, the way I read, the way I write are steeped in the Bible, in the words and tunes of hymns, and are crisscrossed with Christian terminology. But I no longer take the faith for granted, though I grew up so close to the life of the church that I was literally incredulous when one of my friends in high school said, “You know that there is no God.” By incredulous, I don’t mean simply that I didn’t agree with him. I believed that his opinion was impossible to have. At that time I could not imagine that there might be atheists. For some people, spiritual maturity means coming to know God. For me and, I suspect, others like me, so steeped in the church that “knowing God” came easy—too easy—spiritual maturing has meant acknowledging that it is possible to honestly not know God, and even to dishonestly know God.
There are vast regions between the wasteland of Macbeth’s despair—“Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”—and the dream land of “Christian” optimism, in which our problems will all be solved if we will just turn everything over to Jesus. I have gazed into both those lands and have been tempted to pass over into them. The temptations are similar—despair can be as alluring as optimism, for both promise a kind of clarity—but grace has held me back in this world where, for better or worse, most of us live most of the time. Abraham, who left home to go he knew not where; Moses, who knew where he was going but did not get there; and Paul, who saw through a glass darkly and kept pressing on toward the goal, give me courage.
Little brown jobs
Some years ago I learned from Diane Ackerman, in an article mainly about the most distinctive of all birds, the penguin, that even “avid bird-spotters know how easy it is to get confused about birds,” and that they have a catch-all category for ones they do not recognize: “most birds are what birders call ‘L.B.J.s.’” You might think, on hearing “that is an L.B.J.,” that you are being asked to imagine some similarity between the bird-in-question and the thirty-sixth president of the United States. But you are not. You are being told that what you see is a “little brown job,” a bird whose identity the expert does not know. I find the world full of L.B.J.s, and I distrust guides, whether religious or political or psychological or any other kind, who claim to know what everything is, who don’t acknowledge “how easy it is to get confused about” whatever it is they are looking at.
I want my contribution to Christian theology to be the Doctrine of Little Brown Jobs, a doctrine that encompasses many things. There are events that some Christians would tell me are clearly the will of God, but that look to me like little brown jobs. At least once a week on the nightly news someone who has just survived a car wreck or earthquake or some other calamity looks upward and says, “Somebody was sure looking out for me!” But what about those who were not so looked out for? Conversely, there are events that cynics would tell me are clear signs of life’s absurdity, but that look to me like little brown jobs. My father’s suicide doesn’t make sense to me, but I don’t know enough about it to draw a conclusion about the meaning, or lack of meaning, of life. Calling a spade a spade is a trait we are taught to admire in people. I value especially those who put candor and concreteness together and call a little brown job a little brown job, and don’t consider it their, or my, Christian duty to claim to know more than we do.
I could launch immediately into an analysis of scriptural passages that anchor the Doctrine of Little Brown Jobs, and in the course of this book I will offer some instances. I start not with the Bible, however, but with an odd and revealing sounding of our culture taken by Life magazine in 1988. Forty-nine contemporary “wise men and women” were asked to write a few lines of reflection on the question “Why are we here?” We are not told how the authors of the article, “The Meaning of Life,” were picked, and one might wonder why the Reagans’ White House astrologer and Oliver North made the list. It is something of a reassuring surprise to find eight identifiable religious figures (Elie Wiesel, Raimon Panikkar, Robert McAfee Brown, the Dalai Lama, Norman Vincent Peale, Harold Kushner, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Tu Wei-Ming) and only four sports luminaries (Muhammad Ali, Mike Ditka, Janet Evans, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), but among the eight, where there had apparently been some care to achieve balance (two Jews, one Catholic, two Protestants, one Buddhist, one Muslim, one Confucian), there is no woman and no black, and the Roman Catholic, Panikkar, is identified simply as a “Hindu scholar.”
In earlier eras almost everyone, if asked “Why are we here?” would have made mention of God. But only twelve of the forty-nine “wise men and women” use the name of God in a way more or less familiar to people who go to church. Two of the dozen are Jews, three are Muslims; Norman Vincent Peale is not among them, and Oliver North and Mike Ditka are. Christ is named once, by the (Roman Catholic) Hindu scholar, and there is a quotation from the words of Jesus in the remarks of singer Willie Nelson, but the words are identified as from Matthew with no reference to the one who spoke them. Prayer, whether by name or concept or practice, puts in no appearance at all.
The term “church” is used in the compound “churchgoer” by Robert McAfee Brown in a poignant reference to a recently deceased friend. “Church” by itself is mentioned only once, and not favorably: “We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our educational system,” says writer Charles Bukowski—who then, it should be added, goes on to declare, in a more positive vein, “We are here to drink beer.” Psychologist Julian Jaynes dismisses religion as primitive when he relegates “hallucinated voices called gods” to the experience of “early human beings.” Comedian Jackie Mason dismisses it as psychotic: “People call it truth, religion; I call it insanity, the denial of death as the basic truth of life.” Mason’s comment is a sign that traditional religion has simply dropped off the screen; his target is not Christian or Jewish theology but Shirley MacLaine.
It is refreshing to come upon a sharp, acerbic remark like that of Jose Martinez: “We’re here to die, just live and die. I drive a cab. I do some fishing, take my girl out, pay taxes, do a little reading, then get ready to drop dead. You’ve got to be strong about it. Life is a big fake. Nobody gives a damn.” This statement resonates better with the clear-eyed plain speech of the Bible than does the more conventionally religious language of social psychologist Kenneth Ring: “The meaning of life has something to do with realizing that our essence is perfect love, then going on to live our lives upon that truth, experiencing each day as a miracle and every act as sacred.” I suspect that Jose Martinez, with his energetic, if negatively expressed, spirituality is closer to “experiencing each day as a miracle and every act as sacred” than are we who claim, often rather blandly, that “our essence is perfect love” and that we “live our lives upon that truth.”
I’m not as gloomy as the cab driver (though on occasion I have been), but I would probably find his company more congenial than that of the apostles of positive thinking. He has a refreshing willingness to call a little brown job a little brown job. There is a spiritual parallel between him and my friend Father Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, of Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota, who sank up to his hips in a swamp while gathering watercress and had to be pulled out by a truck hoist. In his Christmas letter that year he said that after more than fifty years of monastic life, “What bothers me is that during the entire ordeal of about twenty-five minutes I didn’t have a single pious thought!” The tone of his sentence suggests that it didn’t bother him a bit.
Few of the Life commentators take their bearings from the Bible and Christ. While I would be happy if more of them did, I do not favor a quick reassertion of confident Christian claims. The imminence of the third millennium is encouraging Christians to wax eloquent—too eloquent, by my reckoning—about the prospects for church and world. We are still in the midst of a long stretch of what the liturgy calls “ordinary time,” or a time like the days after Christmas, when, in the words of W. H. Auden, “the Spirit must practise his scales of rejoicing” in a subdued fashion. By making a big deal of the millennium, by strapping grace to the calendar, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. We would be wiser to classify the millennium as a little brown job.
Liberty, death, and the crazy machine
You may have picked this book up because of my name. (If I saw a new book by Alexander Hamilton or George Washington on the shelf, I’d be curious.) I may come by the name honestly, though probably not as honestly as I used to think. My grandfather, also named Patrick, as were his grandfather and his son, my father, was adamant that the line went straight back to the revolutionary orator. However, a recent remark of my aunt sent me to materials in a file that show some uncertainty as to whether the line is direct. Records of Henrys who moved from Virginia to Tennessee and then to Texas in the early nineteenth century are hard to find and to verify. The probability of some connection is enhanced by the fact that the Patriot had seventeen children; he must have descendants all over the place. But who I used to think was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather may have been my that-many-greats-uncle, and the relation could be even more remote than that.
Rather to my surprise, this possible shift from one branch of the Henry family tree to another has had no detectable effect on my sense of who I am. It has deprived me of an easy conversation opener, but that opening itself seldom led to any response other than, “Oh, that’s interesting,” or the disconcerting, “Liberty or death: that gives you something to live by, doesn’t it?” But I still take more than casual interest in the Patriot and his influence. And what truly astonishes me is the discovery that my preference for a “both/and”—or at least a “maybe”—response to the complexity of the world can be traced right back to those revolutionary times.
Patrick Henry’s ringing declaration, “Give me liberty or give me death,” arguably the best-known phrase in American history, is the ultimate either/or, and helps account for the reverence in which he is held by right-wing militia groups. But Patrick Henry lived for more than two decades after the Revolution. For much of that time he was governor of Virginia and directed the force of his rhetoric against the proposed federal Constitution. He judged that without the protection of a Bill of Rights, citizens under such a government would be in danger of a tyranny to match the one that his earlier speeches had helped defeat.
I cannot decide which I value more highly: Patrick Henry’s role in the Revolution itself or his role in assuring that the Constitution has its first ten amendments. I can decide that I prefer one of his later statements, from the year 1791, to the “Give me liberty or give me death” of 1775. It is in a letter to the young and newly elected Senator James Monroe. Henry has been asked to cooperate with some of those whom he formerly fought on the issue of the Constitution, and he says: “The Form of Government into which my Countrymen determined to place themselves, had my Enmity, yet as we are one & all embarked, it is natural to care for the crazy Machine, at least so long as we are out of Sight of a Port to refit.” For that Patrick Henry, the 1775 world of birds with clear and distinct field marks gave way, by 1791, to a world of little brown jobs. He makes much the same point with the ship image that was made 199 years later by the Soviet official quoted earlier who, on the eve of the most radical political reorientation of our lifetime, the collapse of the Soviet empire, said, “We don’t have a spare ship to step into.”
How to fashion a new experiment in human government: this was the momentous issue that faced the earlier Patrick Henry. The task of this Patrick Henry, two centuries later, is more modest: to offer a way of knowing that increases life’s abundance. Liberty is my theme, too, but what I can report is that relinquishing control enhances liberty (though without a guarantee of happiness). The crazy machine of the world, this ship that we are simultaneously sailing and trying to rebuild without a spare ship to step into, is a good (though not easy) place to live. Little brown jobs need be neither ugly ducklings nor magnificent swans. They can just be little brown jobs.
ON WHEN IT IS
Once upon a time—it was March 26, 1975—my finger slipped as I typed a letter. I sat transfixed. In an instant I was transported to the middle of the 198th century: “March 26, 19756.” Alice down the hole to Wonderland, the Pevensy children through the wardrobe to Narnia, Captain Janeway and her Starship Voyager crew suddenly in a distant quadrant of the galaxy could not have been any more surprised. “Once upon a time”—I use the traditional fairy-tale opener, even though the date is known, because at that precise moment my imagination was sprung free from the trap of time as I had learned to calculate it.
When was long ago?
We who study human history have been reminded often enough by colleagues in the natural sciences that on the grand scales of anthropological, or biological, or geological, or galactic, or cosmological time, human history is at best the blink of an eye. Stephen Jay Gould takes the paleontologist’s long view: “The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so—roughly .0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time.”
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Meet the Author
Patrick Henry was a professor of religion, specializing in early Christianity, at Swarthmore College for seventeen years. He is now executive director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Saint John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He is the author of The Ironic Christian's Companion: Finding the Marks of God's Grace in the World, Benedict's Dharma and co-author with Donald Swearer, of For the Sake of the World: The Spirit of Buddhist and Christian Monasticism.
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