Last week was awful and this week worse, what with being too nauseous to eat; too fatigued to be up; and too headachy to read, blog, or watch TV. When I wasn’t actually asleep, I brooded over getting old, over the recent loss of a friendship (and my partial responsibility for its demise), and over my terror of the day that Peggy’s death or mine will separate us. I also grieved over the fact that my life has no “spiritual” dimension, at least none that includes people beyond this blog.
I was so sick that I went cold turkey on every drug that I dared, a state that lasted until yesterday when I finally felt well enough to do yard work. During my time in bed, Brewsky was acutely aware of my suffering but at a loss what to do, so he finally settled on walking into my room from time to time and staring at me. I did manage to read for a few minutes at a time from three books, one of which was Honest to God by Anglican Bishop John Robinson (1919-83), the cofounder of “secular theology,” which I think it would be fair to describe as follows:
“To believe in God as love means to believe that in pure personal relationship we encounter, not merely what ought to be, but what is, the deepest, veriest truth about the structure of reality. This, in face of all the evidence, is a tremendous act of faith. But it is not the feat of persuading oneself of the existence of a super-Being beyond this world endowed with personal qualities. Belief in God is the trust, the well-nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted,’ that Love is the ground of our being, to which ultimately we ‘come home.’”
I would ask Bishop Robinson the same thing I would ask Christ: if you and your neighbor have an infected tooth, and you can only send one of you to the dentist, and you love your neighbor “as yourself,” who do you send? I question that I’ve ever known a Christian who struggled over such decisions. I’m sure some have—Simone Weil and Dorothy Day, perhaps, and maybe one or two of you—but for the most part, such decisions don’t revolve around whose needs should be met but rather what luxuries one can afford for oneself and one’s family.
I’m not saying that Christians are bad people (many are surely better than I), but rather that they live by an unrealistic standard that appears to have come to them through social inheritance rather than personal commitment. It seems to me that they are obliged to twist themselves into pretzels to rationalize their way out of obeying admonitions that I consider as clear as they are appalling. Yet, I was in my early twenties before I had my first hint that other value systems even existed, a realization that came to me by way of Ayn Rand and Frederick Nietzsche. Whatever their flaws, they expressed what I had long known to be true about myself, namely that my love couldn’t be freely given but instead had to be earned through my faith in the goodness of my beloved, particularly as it related to his or her commitment to me.
When I think of what it must be like to love as Christ commanded, my thoughts invariably go to Peggy because she is the only person with whom I don’t count the cost. For some of the people I know, I might go so far as to give a kidney, but to her, I would give all of my organs and consider even that an act of supreme selfishness because such is my debt to her whom I love more than I love myself. I have even asked myself if there is any amount of torture that I wouldn’t endure on her behalf, but I really don’t know because how could I claim the strength to voluntarily endure for so much as an hour when I’ve known what it was like to count the seconds?
But while many no doubt love as deeply—and as limitedly—as I, how can any of us claim to love everyone with the all-surpassing love with which Christ was said to have loved us, and to which it is surely the duty of all Christians to aspire? I cannot imagine that such a thing is even possible, but if it is possible, it would surely be a case of intellectual assent rather than deepest emotion. It would involve saying, “I will do this (whatever this is) because I know I should,” instead of, “I will do this because every cell within me says that my supreme good lies in it, and that by doing it my existence will be justified.”
When I was a Freemason, I took a vow that I would risk my life to save a brother Mason if there was more than an even chance that I could save him without dying in the process. I don’t know how many Masons would go even that far, but if the Bible is right that, in his mind, Christ freely died a horrific death for people he didn’t even know, then his love for us must have been similar to my love for Peggy. If such a love for humanity as a whole is even possible, I would be surprised, but if I have ever actually known anyone who could even love most of his friends—much less people he didn’t know—that deeply, I would be astonished. I simply know that I could neither do it nor even want to do it, yet it is just such a love that has given my life meaning.
This isn’t to imply that my behavior toward Peggy is worthy of the value that I place upon her, it being, perhaps, easier to spend a moment dying for someone than a year living for her. Truly, if I—being, as I believe, no worse than others—can’t succeed in loving one person well, and this after 43-years of practice (I am far from being modest), I can well understand why a Christian would beat his or her chest while crying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Though I am exceedingly rare among atheists for believing as I do, I agree with the writer of Isaiah that,
“…we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”