My wife and I were watching an Audie Murphy western the other night. Murphy trains a group of women to be ready for an attack by Native Americans (indigenous people). (Note: In case you think this sounds like most westerns, I’ve been impressed by how many westerns actually support Native American claims and treaties — in this one, they are attacking in retaliation for a massacre of a village by the U.S. Calvary). As the battle begins, a woman who is pregnant out of wedlock is shot and killed, causing the most “religious” of the women to cry out that she was killed for her sins.
This type of thinking often shows up in fundamentalist religious tracts. I know this, because, for reasons not clear to me, I keep all the ones that come my way. They are usually left under the windshield wipers in the parking lot, perhaps stuck in our door at home, or even handed to me on the street. I like to read these tracts and imagine the faith behind them. While many may find them easy to laugh off, they come from a long tradition which we see in the bible.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 9, there is a story about the healing of a blind man. Most miracle stories center around the miracle occuring effortlessly and the cured person heading off. Here, Jesus is asked by the apostles, “who sinned to cause this man to is blind?” In other words, the apostles can understand evil and suffering in the world because it is caused by sin. Jesus responds that neither the man nor his parents sinned. Instead, he was blind so that the glory of Jesus could be seen (which, if I was the blind man, I would have asked for a less dramatic way of showing this then making me blind for most of my life!).
But, clearly, this type of faith has to often involve pretzel logic. My youngest son died of cancer at the age of six. Oliver was adopted and his birth mother was in a “half-way” house and his birth father was a homeless man. Did Oliver die because he was born out of wedlock? Or, perhaps because his birth mother was schizophrenic and set her parent’s house on fire? Or was his birth mother like this because of her parent’s sins? So, was Oliver being punished because of his grandparent’s sins? And, if they also suffered in life, who sinned then? And who caused the struggles in life for his birth father? Were those sins his own and Oliver had to pay for them?
You have to ask these questions unless you can say a boy who is 4-years-old somehow brought on his own sin and God gave him cancer to punish him. Most people would say that Oliver was an innocent child who suffered. Thus, if we use the reasoning above, Oliver died as retribution for someone else’s sins. If this logic somehow works for you, then you also have to explain why there are plenty of sinful people doing pretty well.
In an article on faith development by Father Richard Sweeney, this type of thinking falls in just the second of six stages of faith development. “The central feature of literal faith is a view of God as the rewarder of good and punisher of evil. God is presumed to operate as the parent who loves and praises us for being good, but also corrects and penalizes us for wrongdoing. Faith then entails bargaining with God.” And, indeed, many of these tracts offer the ultimate bargaining with God — if I believe and act a certain way, God will keep me from going to hell. For many people, this is the reason for faith. It is a self-centered faith focused on what I need to do to escape hell, instead of a faith seeking to show God’s love for the world through our thoughts and actions.
There are many other people who seem to live the same non-questioning faith, but in a positive way. They can explain the death of six-year-old with phrases like “God needed another angel,” or “God saved him from a painful life.” These phrases are no less damaging for the grieving than those who see all evil as arising from our sin. And they are no less a literal type of faith that actively avoids allowing questions or doubts to enter our mind.
Father Richard Rohr says “What we do when faced with our deepest wounds determines whether there is authentic spirituality at work or not. If we seek to blame other people, accuse, attack, or even explain and make perfect, logical sense out of our wounds, there will be no further spiritual journey.”
The more our faith grows, the more we are left with unanswered questions. Instead of avoiding this direction, we should seek it. Unanswered questions are not pleasant, but they are a humble reminder of the limitations of human understanding. Not all questions go unanswered and when we open ourselves to questioning the basic tenants of our faith we have the opportunity to make them our own. When we begin to understand our own faith instead of mimicking standard lines, we can grow deeper in our faith.
In the Audie Murphy movie that Mary Ann and I watched, I thought what a comfort it must be for that woman to be able to explain all evil as having a reason. But then, when a “good” woman is shot and killed in front of her 12-year-old daughter, our religious woman has nothing to say. Silence is the only answer when a literal faith realizes the failure of their faith to explain all evil.