Almost a century ago the famous British writer G. K. Chesterton remarked on a problem that he saw in British culture that is amazingly apropos to our culture and time. He observed that many of the most popular critics of Christianity were caught in a twilight zone between Christian faith and total unbelief. He suggested that they were resentful of this zone that they found themselves trapped in. I think his thought aptly sums up where increasingly large numbers of Americans find themselves in the first decades of the twenty-first century.
They cannot get out of the penumbra of Christian controversy. They cannot be Christians and they cannot leave off being anti-Christians. Their whole atmosphere is the atmosphere of a reaction: sulks, perversity, petty criticism. They still live in the shadow of faith and have lost the light of faith. . . . The worst judge of all is the man not most ready with his judgments: the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic (G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, New York: Image, 13).
Well, don’t get to use ‘penumbra’ very often, do we? Shadowlands, twilight, penumbra… the edge of darkness. Have you ever journeyed there? What if… the light is the illusion and the bus signs are right:
O.K., that sorts that out. Now, what? Shall we read Camus, Sartre, listen to Sid Vicious and other savants? “Cheer up! You are matter/energy with the illusion of personhood living a purposeless life pregnant with a point of total termination. No celebration, no realization, just quick formatted carbon. You are, but you one day will not be. So cheer up and enjoy your life!” Is there another way?
Solomon (Qoholeth) tried to live in the enchanting penumbra. He said it didn’t work, even if with access to the pleasures of legions of women, wealth, music, productivity, indulgences of frivolity or anything else under the sun. I’ve tried it, though nowhere near as gustily as Sol. I couldn’t stand to live through peripheral vision. I couldn’t help but rubber-neck at the colossal agony of desire for meaning that plagues humanity in spite of the comforting slogans like “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life (before it ends in pathetic resistance to the delusion of significance)”. Not cheered.
So what do I do with the questions of those who do not see any ‘light’ to the idea that God loves you and the rest of the confused world you live in? Do I shout through a grin of optimism? I guess I still have a bit of the need to wander in the penumbra. Job spoke from his fog with this discomforting little spiel:
Job 23 Then Job answered and said: “Today also my complaint is bitter; my hand is heavy on account of my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat! I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know what he would answer me and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; he would pay attention to me. There an upright man could argue with him, and I would be acquitted forever by my judge. “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold. My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food. But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back? What he desires, that he does. For he will complete what he appoints for me, and many such things are in his mind. Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; yet I am not silenced because of the darkness, nor because thick darkness covers my face.
Eventually God told Job to stand like a man and proceeded to challenge Job’s basis of questioning the sum of all things. It didn’t go seem to go well for Job, but it ended interestingly:
the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.
Life really is overwhelming when looked at square on, trying to make sense of hope and despair, good and evil, what is and what only appears to be. We cannot presume to reduce it all to simple clarity, nor can we be justified in our dismissals. We have a Creator who is hidden in ways we do not like. Though we are tempted to behave like the religiously over-confident friends of Job, we should realize that we cannot force certitude, but must step up and make soulful decisions for the light we partially see.