Monday, August 15, 2011

It Is Well With My Soul

This song presented me with my first ever theological issue to wrestle with. I remember singing it in church one evening and thinking about how beautiful it was, and then suddenly becoming profoundly uncomfortable with the lines:    
     Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
      It is well, it is well with my soul.

Thou hast taught me? I was confronted with an image of God as an unsympathetic math professor saying, "You will use this every day for the rest of your life. You need to learn how to do it right. Say it: It is well with my soul." I didn't have the education to articulate all of my thoughts correctly, but if i had i would have said that i pictured myself as a dog, and God as Pavlov, teaching me to respond in certain arbitrary ways to His predetermined stimuli.

I asked my mom about it. Since we were still in church, she couldn't address the issue fully, and i was left with my question only half-answered. She said that it was less about God teaching us (forcing us to recite) something, and more about us learning (wilfully submitting). But i was still uncomfortable with a God who, when tragedy struck, would ask us to simply recite a cliche refrain and expect us to be comforted. Merely saying that it is well with my soul does not make it so.

I faced a lot of other theological wrestling matches over my life, and this one fell to the wayside. But it was never really resolved. I read The Problem of Pain, and while it helped, it did not really answer the question. I heard sermons, i read books, and experience taught me. I eventually figured out that "taught" could mean an experiential lesson, that this was not a stern task-master forcing me to recite a memorized lesson; God had "taught" the lyricist to say that by showing him the beauty and peace that exist even in the darkest moments. God became not a Pavlovian dictator, but an advisor who walked beside me to teach me to see beauty in life.

But this was not enough.

There may be a rose growing in the dungheap, but while it may distract you from the grim reality, it does nothing to correct or even lessen it.

Life is full of dungheaps, and there is no good reason for this. The fact that i have been taught to find hope in darkness does not excuse the existence of the darkness in the first place.

magnet in my school store
I wish i could say that i had recently had some great revelation on this point. I wish i could share twelve alliterative bullet points, or a promise verse, or a piece of wisdom suitable for bumper stickers and t-shirts. I have none of that.

I can tell you that i have found peace to be a far deeper and less joyful concept than i had previously believed. You can be at peace with a situation and still be pissed as hell about it. You can even be pissed at God about it. Being at peace with a situation doesn't mean that you are happy about it, or even that you are neutral about it. I can't tell you yet what 'peace' does mean. I don't know all of the words to explain it, and i haven't completely figured out how to feel it.

Sometimes, even now, when something happens to me or to a loved one, i hear the little bell ring, and i obediently recite the cliches i have been taught.

I know that peace is something you have to fight for. I've seen the t-shirts: "Bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity". I understand the point, but it's not really right. Peace is not something that just happens. It's not the natural order of things. Everyone is born a virgin, but they are born into a world of conflict and pain. Fucking for virginity will get you nowhere. But you can't have peace without a struggle. This is the shape of things.

I have learned this: there is an extent to which merely repeating a worn out cliche does bring some measure of comfort. They are cliches for a reason. Truth does not become less potent with age or use.

And that's all i've got. It is well with my soul, but my mind is troubled. And i guess i'll have to learn to be okay with that.

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