Why does our humanity mean we are at once of God and utterly separate from Him?
Alexandria Smith, The Uncertainty of It All, 2014. Acrylic and glitter on panel, 24 x 24 in.
© Alexandria Smith. Courtesy of the artist and Scaramouche Gallery
I tried for years to be an atheist, then an agnostic, and, after failing at both, I thought I might become a kind of religious omnivore, cobbling bits of doctrine into a patchwork spirituality that would offer inspiration, or solace in times of trouble. I couldn’t manage that either. In fact I despised the notion for its indulgent and self-serving nature, entirely absent of principle and tailored to meet only my most shallow needs, like a dating website or an expensive shampoo. I tried then to put the subject out of my mind all together, but my sense of the divine—my belief in belief—could not be suppressed.
I have never been able to parse it in any meaningful way. All my attempts begin with theological assertions and devolve into some syrupy business about the cosmos and the presence of God in all things. I am perpetually suspended between my belief—its resonance in my life, in the lives of the people I have loved, and indeed in the lives of millennia of believers—and the malignant distortions inherent in compressing that belief into doctrine. And too, there is a distance between belief and faith, into which doubt and half-heartedness interject. How to explore the conundrum of faith; with what language could I articulate the inarticulable?
Some months ago, I heard the poet Marie Howe read her poem “Magdalene—
The Seven Devils” on Krista Tippett’s radio show On Being. Howe was inspired by the figure of Mary Magdalene and by this verse from the book of Luke:
“Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven devils had been cast out.”
In the poem, Magdalene is a contemporary person, and her devils, the mysteries that torment her, range from quirky neuroses to the great sources of suffering in her life. Like any one of us, her psyche is layered with experience and want. Howe’s devils are representations of Magdalene’s inner life, neither good nor bad. They are instead truths, glimpsed only partially, that won’t let her alone. The complexities she describes are elusive and approached by association rather than linear argument. With immense gratitude, I have borrowed the poem’s structure to aid me, association by association, in the descent into the question, and the wound, of faith.
The first devil is very old: it is my earliest, and purest, experience of belief. When I was a little girl we were Pentecostals—my grandmother and grandfather and mother and me. We were the church, in the Pauline sense as described in 1 Corinthians: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” I didn’t know the verse when I was a child, but I did feel as though there was some larger thing of which I was an essential part. We Pentecostals were locked in a great battle for our souls and all souls. We fought alongside the angels, and when one of us left this world, he passed into the arms of God and those who remained would take up his fight. These were our articles of faith.
My mother’s conversion to Pentecostalism happened when I was five. She didn’t like church, but out of respect for my grandparents she took me to Sunday school every week. Then she’d walk around the block or sit in a park smoking until it was time to pick me up. One week it was raining and after she’d left me in the basement classroom she went up to the sanctuary where she sat in the last pew. She began to weep. She wept through the prayers for the congregation, through the offering, through the sermon, and finally through the call for souls. She did not know what was happening to her, but when the pastor asked if anyone would like to accept the Lord as her savior, she walked the long aisle to the altar. The pastor laid hands on her forehead and shoulders. The deaconesses and elders and indeed the whole congregation, nearly two hundred people, prayed together for my mother. She felt, she said, as though the top of her head had been lifted off. She accepted Christ as her savior and in so doing entered into a relationship with the divine that has lasted thirty-six years.
As a teenager, after I left the church, I was arrogant enough to scorn that relationship and what it meant to her. I wanted to believe my family’s faith was a great deal less expansive and powerful than it was. I disregarded the contours of the way we lived, reduced our religion to a matter of belief in something, as one believes or doesn’t believe in UFOs or some other unobservable phenomenon. I dismissed the matter of faith entirely. Faith is a perpetual participation in its object. It is a verb, not a noun. Our faith, right or wrong, was participation in the action that is God. We believed that all human beings were made in His image. We were commanded to love our neighbor and every person on Earth was our neighbor. In this way, all around us bits of God were reflected, as though the world were lit with the dazzle of a billion mirrors.
It is also true that the church of my youth espoused a literal interpretation of the Bible and left little room for theological inquiry. Why did we do the things we did as Christians? What of the big metaphysical questions the Bible so elegantly poses? How are we to understand the Book of Job’s meditation on human suffering, the problem presented by the existence of evil in a monotheistic system, or our deep sense of isolation despite our profound bond to each other? These discussions were absent in all but the most rudimentary ways. To my deepest questions the response was almost always: We cannot know. God hasn’t provided us with answers that we can’t comprehend. It is sufficient that God loves us.
These non-explanations began to sound like a cosmic “because I said so,” and corroded my faith in ways from which I still have not recovered. In his thoughts about absolutism in Christianity, theologian Paul Tillich described the problem roughly as follows: God becomes an object and we are His subjects. He is at the top of the heap and He holds all the cards and has all the answers and He just won’t budge an inch. This conception of the divine chafes against our free will and autonomy and we mutiny against this tyrant big man God.
I felt as though my face were pressed to a wall of glass that separated me from all the bounty and beauty of existence.
God became, for me, a very stern king with a lot of rules. We were not to dance, or drink alcohol, or play cards, or go to the movies. We were to go to church three times a week. We were not to sin (though we were bound to sin because we had sinned once in the Garden, so grievously as to never be restored to innocence). We were not to have sex outside of marriage. We were not to wear immodest clothing. Our understanding of God and His church was the only true path to salvation and all others were what the Catholics used to call heresy. To make matters worse, an unfortunate side effect of our “one true way” belief system was a somewhat aggressive evangelism, which seemed to me then, as it does now, ethically dubious and horribly invasive.
By the time I was fifteen, I stopped going to church. The world beyond the shadow of the cross was unbounded, and there I was living from Sunday to Sunday, counting my sins and asking, always asking, to be forgiven. I felt as though my face were pressed to a wall of glass that separated me from all the bounty and beauty of existence. The issue was not merely desire for the things denied me, but an urgent sense that my survival was contingent upon shattering the glass and stepping out into the world. Out there, I could think. In addition to its multitude of forced privations, the church had denied me my reason, and I couldn’t stand that.
On the subject of reason, Thomas Aquinas had a great many things to say, chief among them that reason and intellect, while not wholly adequate, are among the ways human beings can approach God. From his Summa Theologica: “…the ultimate beatitude of man consists in the use of his highest function, which is the operation of his intellect…” Aquinas, with his logical approach to the mystery of God, and his tenacious rescue of Aristotle from the pits of heresy, might have been a great comfort to me had I known of him. It was no small thing to lose my faith, or rather to bludgeon it to death as I did when I was a young woman.
I was at the beginning of a long process of the renunciation of everything I knew about fellowship or belonging or the love of a community. It was deeply painful for my mother and me, though I masked the loss with defiance. I wonder now if anything, even Aquinas’s affirmation of the value of intellect, could have spared me the violence of that rupture. It might already have been too late, or at the least irrelevant; Aquinian theology couldn’t have saved me from the rather more pernicious fear that our faith was a mark of our inferiority, that people who weren’t poor or black didn’t believe as we did, that our religion was yet another indicator of the ways in which we, in which I, were insignificant.
The first devil was the Pentecostalism of my youth. The second, my flight from that Pentecostalism. The third, shame. The fourth, again, the Pentecostalism that I can never erase. No, that’s not quite it. The fourth is the reason I tried to erase it in the first place. Certainly, I wanted freedom of the intellect, but there was another, greater desire beneath that one. When I was a little girl, I had a favorite game that I could not name. I would wrap my head in a yellow towel so it hung down behind me like a wimple. This was my blond hair. I swung it when I laughed and I tossed it over my shoulder. The game required that I avoid mirrors lest I break the spell and lose that blond, green-eyed, white little girl I wanted to be and drop down into my own brown body.
I know that I was not the only little black girl, or boy, playing at self-erasure.
I am not sure of the juncture at which race shame and religious shame met, but I know that they did. And I know I was not the only little black girl or boy playing at self-erasure. I also know that, without intervention, those annihilation games might follow a person into adulthood, consuming her little by little. There were so many wounds among us. My grandparents were born in the South in the early 1900s, my mother in 1934; the terror of those times was as much a part of them as the hairs on their heads. In my childhood in the 1980s the gains of the activism of the decades prior were already being eroded by Reagan’s politics of wealth. Black people and poor people of all races were once again tossed on the seas of racial hostility, racist policy, and economic inequality. People who are feared or maligned or excluded don’t experience those injustices as abstractions; they wear those hardships on their bodies like a suit of clothes.
There is a passage in Toni Morrison’s Beloved in which Baby Suggs, a woman escaped from slavery, preaches sermons in an open field:
“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard…. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them.”
The men and women gathered to hear Baby Suggs are ex-slaves. For the majority of their lives their bodies have not belonged to them; not their hands or their feet or any part of them. None of us reading this now can fathom such a thing. But we can imagine the miracle a sermon like Baby Suggs’s would have been to people in that circumstance. And I can wish my childhood religion had included some kind of a spirituality of personhood or a baptism of the flesh to ease the burdens of history. Contemporary theologians, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Paul Tillich to Martin Luther King Jr., have grappled with the role of the church in modern life. Baby Suggs’s sermons are a conceptual beginning, a broader interpretation of Jesus’s commandment to “…love one another, just as I have loved you.” The material and psychic conditions in which I and the others in my church lived were inextricable from our spiritual well-being. Did not the God of beginnings and endings have His eye, as the song says, on the sparrow?
In any case, I didn’t want to be a sparrow, I wanted to be a lion. When I left the church I took refuge in music, and in books. I read Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. I found a coterie of misfits. James Baldwin was such a misfit. Here was a writer who looked like me, who understood the singularities of my experience. When I read his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, it was as though the two of us were huddled on a couch, just he and I, whispering our lives to one another.
Baldwin, too, was raised Pentecostal. At fourteen he had a religious conversion and became a preacher for a time, following in his father’s footsteps. By seventeen he had put away that religion. As a young man he moved from Harlem to Greenwich Village and from there to Paris. He murdered the church in himself. He called Christianity a slave religion. The doctrine of Baldwin’s Pentecostal upbringing was, I imagine, much like mine: the same fraught and contradictory theology (or its absence). The same love and the same limits. How many times did he hear the pastor say: “We are in this world but not of it”? Is it any wonder that a man like Baldwin, so finely tuned to the richness of the world, would escape a faith that kept him corralled? He would not be separated from the world’s glories or its crises. Baldwin was a prophet and like all prophets he found exuberant and poetic language to describe the urgencies of his time (and ours). Of course he would reject a religious system that was, as he saw it, another boot on the neck of the black people he loved so profoundly.
“…We have become and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things…” 1 Corinthians 4:13.
These are Paul’s words, from his letter to the church at Corinth. He crisscrossed the known world to establish and support the newly formed, and continually persecuted, communities of Christ. Despite his eminence—and I realize this is unfair—Paul has always struck me as humorless, as an incredible curmudgeon. It is surely the case that a great deal of my vexation with him has to do with a kind of nostalgia for the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament, though more consistently benevolent and loving, more evolved, one might say, makes me long for His predecessor. I miss the messy, wrathful God of the Israelites, roaring out of dust clouds or burning on mountaintops. Vagaries, the mysteries of death and suffering, and of wonder, are on the surface of that God. He was at once the Israelites’ avatar and the source of everything they were and could be. In the New Testament, His contradictions are obscured, or at least softened, by the sacrifice of the extraordinary figure of His son. Nonetheless, in both testaments, the Jews and early Christians are the protagonists of a grand narrative of the underdog, an epic poem of the oppressed. The God of the Bible, for all the ways He has been twisted into monstrosity by the various agendas of our human history, has always been the God of the trash, of the forgotten and forsaken. Certainly, He was the God of American blacks and of their struggle for liberation.
In 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, a young girl named Bettie Mae Fikes sang “This Little Light of Mine” in a church in Selma, Alabama. Fikes was sixteen and a member of the Freedom Singers, the musical arm of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She sang with the soul of a warrior, improvising the lyrics of the second verse, “Tell Governor Wallace [the rabidly pro-segregation governor of Alabama], I’m gonna let it shine…” The song rose out of her like trumpets sounding before battle. And indeed young Fikes was going into battle, armed with, among other things, the theology of freedom. We have diminished the spiritual aspects of, as it was called at the time, The Struggle. History has transformed Martin Luther King Jr. into an activist first and a minister second, when in reality it was the other way around. The movement he led, along with his stance against the Vietnam War and his Poor People’s Campaign in the late 1960s, was a spiritual one to its very roots. He referred often to the establishment of what he called “the beloved community,” a global fellowship based on the dignity of all humankind as creatures of God and the eradication of poverty and racism through nonviolent protest. At the heart of that community, in King’s theology, was love: Christ’s commandment that we love one another. Love, not as a toothless feel-good sentiment, but love in all its ferocious and transformative possibility. Paul Tillich defines it thusly: “Love is not an emotional but an ontological force.”
I want the church to stand up to the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and to the courts that failed to uphold the value of their lives and sanctioned the brutality of their deaths.
Buoyed by this theology, ordinary people summoned extraordinary courage in the name of liberation. They were spat on at lunch counters from Greensboro to Montgomery, beaten bloody with batons and zapped with cattle prods in jail cells. All the while they sang those old church hymns I thought so insipid when I was a teenager. They sang “We shall overcome… The Lord will see us through…” and “…like a tree that’s planted by the waters, we shall not be moved.” They fought for their freedom and, in a radical interpretation of Jesus’s admonition to turn the other cheek, their struggle would also liberate the whites who had so terribly oppressed them. They aimed to cut out the rot so as to save the whole body, not just its parts.
What happened to that church? Where is the movement’s radical spirituality when we so desperately need it? What of this verse from 1 John 3:18: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth”? I want the church to stand up, as I wanted it to stand up in the 1980s when I was a girl. I want it to stand up to the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and to the courts that failed to uphold the value of their lives and sanctioned the brutality of their deaths. I want it to stand against mass incarceration, against income equality and schools that fail our children. We are living in dark days and there is no beacon. The church, with few exceptions, has allowed itself to fade into irrelevance. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech in Washington, DC, in 1959: “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion in need of new blood.” By and large, all that remains of that theology of freedom is grainy television footage and a handful of standard-bearers whom we are rapidly losing to old age and death.
I am devilled by the paradox of my religion: the narrow confines I fled as a child side by side with the transcendence of the 1960s, the passive church of my youth and the active church of the movement. Both are aspects of this religion from which I am alienated and to which in some strange fashion, I still belong. To which Baldwin, too, belonged. He said more than once that the church was imprinted on him indelibly. He marched alongside King, and despite his scorn for this old slave religion, I wonder, if Baldwin were still alive, would some part of him share my disheartenment?
In Baldwin’s essay “Down at the Cross,” he remembers the young black men of his adolescence in Harlem in the 1930s; young men he feared would be eaten up by street corners or pool halls. He wrote of them, famously, “What will happen to all of that beauty?” He was warning us—and his message is as relevant today as it was in 1963—of the dire consequences of inaction when confronting the menace of racial inequality. Baldwin’s work was gloriously multivalent—that simple question is a call for justice and an assertion of the personhood of those beautiful young men, but there is an intimation of something else that cannot quite be said. It is something like what we see when we catch a glimpse of what is inviolable in someone we love. That indescribable sacred something permeates Baldwin’s work and finds expression in civil rights hymns, in tent-show blues songs and John Coltrane’s horn. It is a thing just beyond the capacity of everyday language, and can be approached only through metaphor and music.
I will ever be convinced that the people at the bottom—poor folks, brown folks, the despised and disregarded of all nations—know something that eludes the ones at the top. Perhaps it is the necessity of articulation that spurs us to avow ourselves, to create something lasting that will stand against the threat of erasure and silence. The made thing is not limited to lamentation—side by side with sorrow is a fierce declaration of the fact of being alive. Osip Mandelstam writes of this doubleness in his last known poem:
What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?
Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.
He wrote those lines a year before his execution in one of Stalin’s gulags. The poem is not an explanation of his circumstance, or an attempt to elicit compassion; it is, rather, an ode to the tremendous beauty of existence. Mandelstam is telling us that his life was precious because it was his and because it was so mysterious and crushing and unfathomably lovely, even in its darkest hours. I am troubled by the notion that people who have been the objects of even the grossest injustice are living in perpetual abjection. The reduction of a people to vectors of suffering is as much a denial of their humanity as anything else. I listen to Mavis Staples and weep, because her voice, its timbre, is an iteration of Mandelstam’s poem, which is itself an iteration of scripture at its most profound. Which is, finally, an expression of our deepest fears and wonderment. I believe in the God of James Baldwin’s Harlem boys, and in the God of poor people and of the music my folk have made. If I have faith, it is in the God of the offscouring of all things.
For many years I was a lion. I answered to no one, really. And I was free. There were periods in which my freedom was a terror, as though I were untethered and floating off into the high thin air. And there were times my freedom made me ferocious and strong. I have lived, for the most part, as I wanted to and I have had the liberty to attempt, always failing, to become a person I admired. I am not sure what this has cost me. I am not sure now of what I mean by freedom. I do know that I have doggedly refused to belong—to a community, to a family, to a religion. It seems to me now that this is naïve and foolhardy, the idea that I could somehow outwit the nature of being alive.
For a long time I held onto my unbelonging like a jewel, as though it were the most precious thing I had.
A few years before I left the church as a teenager, my mother and I became estranged from my grandparents and aunts and uncles. She and I were a little battalion of two, fighting our way through the world without family or neighborhood or most of the things that bond people to places and to each other. I suppose it could be said that we were impoverished by this circumstance. It is truer to say that ours was simply one in the infinite variety of human experience, with its accompanying difficulties and mercies. For a long time I held onto my unbelonging like a jewel, as though it were the most precious thing I had. And I liked tumbling around the world and sending dispatches to my mother who was, for a very long time, most of what I knew about love.
But it is time, as the saying goes, to put away childish things. I am not, as I would like to think, hatched from an egg. It has taken me all my life to understand that I am a link in a long chain of fearless and flawed people: my grandparents, now dead; my aunts and uncles; my great-grandparents who came to Philadelphia from the South under harrowing circumstances at the beginning of the twentieth century. Also mine are Bettie Mae Fikes, and the millions who fled the Jim Crow South with nothing but a crumpled address and a few dollars in their pockets, the little children in those old colored schools with handed-down textbooks and more pride and hope than I can conceive of, and the children in the present iterations of those schools in Philadelphia and New York and all across this country. Also mine: Bessie Smith and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder and Lauryn Hill. To think that for so many years I refused to turn my head to see these luminous chains of souls, stretching across time and geography, to which I belong. I still turn away frequently. It is difficult for me to cede any bit of my growling individuality. But I have a few family photos, and I have the music I love, to chastise me when I am arrogant and to brace me when I falter.
God is in all of this. I don’t mean the God I encountered at church when I was a girl, the bearded tyrant up in the firmament jerking us around like marionettes. Rather, I believe in the God of the links in the chain of being. This includes ancestry and culture and history, but it extends beyond those particularities into a vast constellation of belonging, which seems to me to be a form of grace, and a bulwark against despair and disconnection. Certainly, it is what I mean by love.
Now we come, finally, to the last devil. It is the question of my girlhood, as simple and impatient as it ever was: Why? Why these impediments to faith, why these endless obstacles to belonging? Why this mingled existence of anguish and exhilaration, of desolation and awe? Why does our humanity mean we are at once of God and utterly separate from him? These are the mysteries of ultimate reality, and to live inside them is a condition of faith. As always, these complexities are best expressed in poetry. From Anne Carson’s “My Religion”:
My religion makes no sense
and does not help me
therefore I pursue it.
When we see
how simple it would have been
we will thrash ourselves.
Belief is easy. I believe in God, I never stopped, but to keep faith is another endeavor entirely. It may be that I am too exasperated with God, or too exasperated with religion to manage it. I have confused the two so thoroughly that I cannot separate them. Or it may be that they ought not to be separated at all. It may be that God and His flawed and paradoxical church are, in the end, God. I wonder sometimes if these doubts aren’t acts of faith, if faith isn’t also in the questions. But then I think, surely that can’t be right. Surely.
Ayana Mathis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the 2014-15 New York Public Library’s Cullman Center Fellowship. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, her first novel, was a New York Times Bestseller, a 2013 New York Times Notable Book of the Year, one of NPR’s Best Books of 2013, and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the second selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Mathis taught creative writing at The Writer’s Foundry MFA Program at St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn. She is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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