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Thinking Out Loud

Endings and Beginnings

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 10, 2015

TOLImage031015Disappointment must have been written all over my face. The class, at first, stared blankly back at me, then they began talking about how bad it was that the two main characters in the book had been guilty of adultery. Awkward silence followed.

We were a couple of weeks into a Doctor of Ministry class that I was teaching on the subject of theological reflection on ministry. Our goal in the class was to make explicit something implicit, to take something we take for granted and make it visible so we can think about it critically and constructively. At that point, we had already looked at some good resources on what it means to reflect theologically on life and ministry and what it means to ask theological questions about what happens all around us and within us. Now we were engaged in an exercise.

We had read Graham Greene's novel, The End of the Affair (1951), and the class was being asked to reflect theologically on it. But we were spinning our wheels. No traction at all. So, I thought, maybe it's time to toss a little cat litter under the tires.

"Let's start at the beginning,” I said. “Not at the beginning of the novel, but at the beginning of theology. What's the basic concern of theology?"

Silence. A classroom of eyes closely examining desks.

So I tossed a little more cat litter under the tires. (Note to self: buy more cat litter when you go to the store.)

"What's the basic question, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer?"

We had just read a selection from Bonhoeffer's lectures on Christology, so I was pretty sure we were going to find some traction soon.

Then, sure enough, we started to move. From one student: "Bonhoeffer said that the question we ask is the question of 'dethroned reason'. Who are you, Lord?"

Another added, "He said the real question in theology is not a question about how, but who."

"Excellent," I said. Now we were getting somewhere. "So what is the basic question of theology?"

"Who is God?"

"And," as I boldly kept at it, "who is God in this novel? Or, to turn it around a little, what is the God in this novel like?"

From that point on, things in the class really got interesting. This God does things in space and time, and the things this God does change lives forever. Whether we like it or not.

The story is about a single man and a married woman who have an affair during the blitz in London. One night, a bomb hit the house where they were meeting. The man, who had stepped out of the room for a moment, was crushed in the blast. The woman found his limp body on the stairs. Weeping, she ran back upstairs to the bedroom, knelt beside the bed they had just vacated, and prayed that God would spare his life. In desperation she made a bargain with God to end the affair if God let her lover live.

Though she didn't believe in God at that point, she prayed to God to make her lover live (and she was quite sure he was dead). She would give him up, she would even believe in God. She would sacrifice the relationship with her lover so he could live and be happy again with someone else. She would lose him, but still be able to love him, just not see him. Like not seeing God, but loving God, she reasoned.

This scene, scrambled, is told from different perspectives as the story unfolds. The novel pivots around it. Something happened that night. Did God make it happen? If so, what kind of God does this sort of thing?

The woman comes to believe in a God she also eventually comes to love, though soon it becomes clear she is dying. She tries to explain that she has "caught belief like a disease. I've fallen into belief like I fell in love. … I fought belief for longer than I fought love, but I haven't any fight left." She has converted to Christianity under the instruction of a priest, and she is dying in the faith. Her disease that is killing her and the faith in which she is infected progress together.

The man dis-believes in a God whom he has come to hate. He becomes God-obsessed. Yet he is obsessed with trying to convince the God he doesn't believe in that he doesn't believe in God. Toward the end of the book, he prays, "I hate You, God, I hate you as though You existed." This is not a love story, we gradually come to realize. Or is it?

Our class pondered a whole series of theological questions that we found pretty unnerving. Maybe the most troubling of these questions was this one: "Do you want God to be like the God who is active in this novel?"

In the end, the “no” votes were even unhappier than the “yes” votes on that question. Especially when we went back to the beginning of the book and read again the epigraph, which we had only given a glance at on our way to chapter one. It is a quote from Leon Bloy: "Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence."

The gender bias of the quote fits the novel, but I think it reads better (and echoes Aeschylus more fully, when we make it plural: People have places in their hearts which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.

This is a sentiment straight out of Ancient Greek poetry. But is it Christian?

There's a passage I wrote down ages ago on a sticky note and stuck on my writing desk. Every once in a while, I pick up the note and read it. It's by C.S. Lewis. I can't now recall which of his books it is from. "We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be."

I am very uncomfortable with the God who uses all of life to make us into the sort of people God wants us to become. And I know that this view of God has been used to justify some god-awful cruelty, violence and theological sadism. But I am sure too that we lost something valuable when we Protestants decided that, just because we believe that Purgatory is mythological, then God isn't in the business of burning away dross anymore in a purging, refiner's fire. As I said to this group of pastors, as we split our votes on whether the universe is better with the kind of God Graham Greene portrayed or a God who doesn't get quite so far up to his elbows in the muck and the mire, "Aren't there things in you that you long for God to burn away?"

The end of the affair turns out to be the beginning. Again and again, we start over, trying to bring the whole world into focus, staring up into those eyes on the cross that see everything risen. Risen. And whole. But along the way, there are a lot of things broken, breaking and burning too. And something in me wants to believe that there's something more than blind fate in charge, that there's somebody behind it all, and that this somebody acts out of love.

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