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Friday, July 14, 2017

Belief, Doubt & James Joyce


I have grown tired of ideologies (political, religious). It's exhausting to watch as people constantly draw lines and ask, "Which side are you on?" I get tired of the "Are you for us or against us?" stance that so many take. Even in my own faith, I am often uncertain and am filled more with questions than security. There are times that my belief soars over mountaintops and, at other times, hangs tenuously by a psalm. There are times when my prayers flow like streams and rivers, but there are also times where my throat is so dry and the words seem to choke in my throat like sand.  There are periods when I cannot imagine not reading the Bible and, still others, where I want to toss it aside in disgust at the concept of a God who would call for the annihilation of a people and that others would agree to enact such horrific violence in the name of a God.

Am I neither hot nor cold? Yeah, sometimes.

Am I closer to the doubters, the deniers, the questioners? Definitely.

I take hold of the fact that, at his ascension, as he gave out the great commission, that the Gospel of Matthew included in his conclusion, "And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted." What a glorious inclusion that Jesus welcomes the believers and doubters alike in his mission. Why? Because so often we are inconstant and swing like a pendulum between belief and doubt. The most honest prayer in all of scripture is, "I believe. Help me in my unbelief." Yet, as much as Jesus so often welcomes this, I find that so much of the Church prefers either not to, gloss over or ignore struggle, or they offer up verses and prayers in an attempt to keep from the honest baring of souls.

There are many who might even label me an unbeliever or lukewarm. Over the years I have been labeled a great many things and have lost friendships because I have attempted to honestly write about my eternal wrestling. I lay bare my soul and can offer only, "Kyrie Eleison" (Lord, have mercy). Is it any wonder that the Psalms are so often what tethers me to God? Like David, I cry out: When I call on thy name, listen to me, O god, and grant redress; still, in time of trouble, thou hast brought me relief; have pity on me now and hear my prayer.." (Psalm 4:2).


One of my favorite authors, James Joyce wrote to Lady Gregory, "All things are inconstant except faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills the inconstancy to light." He was poor, in Paris, knew no one, unable to raise the money for his tuition and desperate. He wrote to her for help. His letter was a mixture of ambition and despair. "I am not despondent," he wrote, "however for I know that even if I fail to make my way such failure proves very little. I shall try myself against the powers of the world. All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light. And though I seem to have been driven out of my country here as a misbeliever I have found no man yet with a faith like mine." He would go on to leave his pursuit of medicine to take up literature and his name forever celebrated as one of the greatest writers and his novel Ulysses to be one of the most important. Joyce left the Church, but his work is riddled with theology. In a letter to his brother, Joyce wrote: Don't you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of Mass and what I am trying to do?...To give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own."

In Dubliners, he wrote, "Jesus Christ, with His divine understanding of every understanding of our human nature, understood that not all men were called to the religious life, that by far the vast majority were forced to live in the world, and, to a certain extent, for the world."

All of this reveals that, unlike so many self-professed believers, Joyce wrestled and struggled and seriously considered and questioned and infused his work with his intellectual and spiritual striving.


In my own life, I have connected with Joyce's alter-ego Stephen Dedalus from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as he desires to rise above his background with its constraints of religion, nationality, and politics. As Stephen says in Chapter Five of that novel, "When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets."

Joyce writes honestly of the struggle between obedience and disobedience, of the discovery of self that comes through such a struggle. In my own life, I have been in flux, in an ebb and flow of belief and unbelief, doubt and faith. And, yet, each time I find myself wandering away, I find myself pulled back by the simple and undeniable and unshakable love for Christ.

No matter how much I tire of the Church and so-called believers, I am drawn in and by Jesus. Christ and Christ alone. I return to his Sermon on the Mount and his vision for the way the world should be and discover time and time again that it is rooted deeply in love. It is a call to love. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." This I cannot reject. This is what I cling to when I find myself unable to hold tightly to any of the rest of it.



In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce writes: The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

Whenever I find myself considering God in such a manner (unconcerned, distant, removed), I must look to the source of my belief: Christ. Christ is never distant, never removed, never callous or indifferent. When I feel myself at the margins, I must remember that it is exactly there that Christ made his home. He seated himself with the doubters, the marginalized, the forgotten, the broken, the hurting, the hopeless, the deniers, the unbelievers. Those who realized they were, at best, shaky and desperate, Jesus loved and reminded them to not be afraid because he would always be with them. It was only for those of such religious certainty that they were secure in their own belief that Christ has no time. Their rigid belief made no room for him. The walls of their self-assurance in their own perfected holiness kept Christ out.

For the misfits who struggle, wrestle, doubt, question, cry out, wane, wonder and wander, know that you are not alone. Know that you are welcome to the table and will find yourself embraced by a God who loves you. As Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 4:10, "We're the Messiah's misfits. You might be sure of yourselves, but we live in the midst of frailties and uncertainties. You might be well-thought-of by others, but we're mostly kicked around" (The Message). I love that! The Messiah's misfits. What a humble, rag-tag bunch that is. And I feel welcome there. I feel that my weakness is his strength. I cannot embrace my own virtues any more than I can my own vices, but lay them all down and proclaim, "In Christ alone." And, know, that this will always be followed by, "I believe. Help me in my unbelief." Why? Because I am not rooted in myself, my own certainties, my own strengths and weaknesses. I love how Eugene Peterson describes this, "All the persons of faith I know are sinners, doubters, uneven performers. We are secure not because we are sure of ourselves but because we trust that God is sure of us."

So, you can label me or love me as you wish. You can judge me or join me. You can exclude or embrace me.

But no matter what, you will find me at the table with the beggars, the battered, the bruised, the hurting, the humble, the marginalized, the lonely, the oddballs, the misfits, the weirdos, the freaks, the poor, the doubters, the deniers, the questioners, the outcast and the peculiar. Why? Because that is the table of our Lord. That is where Christ is found. That is home.

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