Saturday, June 9, 2012

no atheists in foxholes... or believers either

I was thinking about the Vatican's depredations in terms of underlying policies and priest sexual abuse yesterday and I wrote this:

In the latter days of World War II, Hollywood began churning out patriotic war movies that I adored as a kid. I had no wider perspective and soaked them up with a gusto otherwise reserved for chocolate. Victory, glory, wisdom and the good guys always won.
And in the wisdom department, many of these movies were more than willing to recycle the unquestioned wisdom of countless others that preceded them. One such recycling depicted the very young and very scared soldier about to go into battle for the first time. Taming his fears was an avuncular, all-purpose chaplain who would soothe in a fatherly voice and probably say at one point or another, "Son, there are no atheists in foxholes."
It sounded good. It sounded reassuring. And as a kid, who was I to argue with Hollywood -- a place where grown-ups made movies and grown-ups wouldn't lie or fudge the truth, would they?
Sixty years on, with 40 years worth of interest in spiritual endeavor under my belt (much of it Zen Buddhist), I return like other old farts to their formative moments ... and smile ... or wince... or perhaps just self-indulgently chew my cud.
In the face of the Vatican depredations both through policy and through the actions of its sexually abusive priests, I return to those Saturday afternoons in a darkened theater when things were true and shot through with glory. "There are no atheists in foxholes" -- a formative truth.
I'm not exactly sure when the thought occurred to me that old set-piece nostrum was good as far as it went, but it didn't go far enough. There was another shoe to drop: True, there are no atheists in foxholes and simultaneously inescapably true, there are no believers either. Faced with immense and appalling danger -- where the mortar shells and grenades are everywhere -- there is no time for add-ons like belief or disbelief. Scared shitless is just scared shitless: Ask any soldier who has been there. Only later do the comforting intellectual and emotional constructs have room to roam. It is only after the fact that believers and disbelievers are born.
And it is not just in immense and appalling danger that anyone might notice this fact. Is there any nitwit who bothers to believe in love or some other compelling construct while in the midst of a loving kiss or a wondrously huge sneeze or a tears-run-down-your cheeks laugh?
All of this creates what the Binky-prone intellect might call a "paradox." Belief and disbelief rely utterly on the past and ...
Human beings live in the present.
I think it is important for individuals to admit this to themselves, even if they are not entirely ready to accede to the implications.
The victims of the Vatican's shelling are numerous. Small children, boys, girls, men, women, heterosexuals, homosexuals, families ... the list goes on an on. And one of the compelling aspects of that torn flesh and aching soul is the realization that a belief or a belief system has been decimated and a trust betrayed in horrific ways. When an institution claims to be an intermediary for God, and when I believe in God and credit an institution that credits itself as intermediary with God ... then when the shells begin to fall, it is not just my belief in the institution that is ripped to shreds. My belief in God is likewise under immense and appalling attack.
I would not, as a non-Catholic and as someone who has very grave doubts about the youthful excesses of Christianity, presume to tell anyone how to heal such heinous wounds. People heal themselves as best they may. Heaven knows if I possessed the balm that would heal the Catholic victims' wounds, I would supply it in quantity. But the fact is, I do not possess it.
The Anglican author and theologian Charles Williams once observed in one of his metaphysical thrillers, "People believe what they want to believe." This very simple observation strikes me as holding one of the keys to an honest healing. Read it again: "People believe what they want to believe." What they want to believe. In that one small sentence, belief is acknowledged for what it is -- a secondary matter, however cherished it may be. Secondary does not mean lesser or worse or something to be sneered at. It's just the lay of the land: Beliefs rely on the past. Human beings live in the present. It is human beings who want to believe, no matter what the belief. But it is they who are in the driver's seat, not whatever they happen to believe in. Belief has no free-standing, all-inclusive mandate or reality. It's a choice. Maybe a very good choice, but still a choice.
This is, as I say, important to consider, even if the implications are difficult to accede to. To imagine there could be an intermediary between man and God is a choice. To believe in the Vatican -- or disbelieve -- is a choice. To try to salvage some good from a decimated belief system is a choice. People believe what they want to believe.
This is not simply some cold-hearted dissection of a theoretical construct. It is just something to notice in a walking around life, I'd say. The Vatican barrage, as it falls, leaves no room for believers or disbelievers ... but there is suffering and there is blood.
The kiss of God is not important in the sense that it is God doing the kissing. It is the kissing itself, right now, without a backward glance ... same as one lover might give to another, same as a mother might give to her child ... no one gives a kiss to anyone they truly care for: There is just kissing.
Later we can give things over to the love-poets or arch-enemies. We are in charge, not because we say so and not because we hope so and not because we believe so but because there is simply no other possibility.

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