Yesterday may have been the last time I will see my dad alive. He is failing quickly.
He is the son of a Presbyterian minister who lost his faith in God around age 50. He is 88 now. As a Trinitarian theologian, I have been reflecting today about what to think about his struggles with God.
ON GOD -He was a high school science teacher and came to have faith in empiricism, not in God. At funerals, he could not conceive any meaning in what the preachers were saying. He said it was no different for him than saying the poem Jaberwocky over a casket. God was unavailable to his senses and that was a deal breaker. For me, I believe that relationships are always rooted beyond the seen, expressed in the seen. I understand his desire to see more, but I have come to find value in the unseen God who brings meaning and order to the world for scientists to study and persons to enjoy. The Trinity makes sense of the personal world in which I can function as a person. I am sorry for his loss of meaning.
ON THE CHURCH – Having gone to church until age 50, he was one to serve in ways he could. But in the end, he could not see a purpose for the church not met by social clubs. He would ask me why people still go to church, he could not understand. He was missing the relationship that sustains me, wanting a rational God who made sense of the world. Richard Dawkins became his high priest, and the explanations he gave became a “truth” that satisfied him. But facing death, it only leaves him with a sense that there is nothing more to life than the material world. It is empty. I believe in a God who is beyond the material and gives meaning. I can even see the meaning in my dad’s life as he served others as an echo of the life he had been raised in. Trying to convince him made him a foil for me. He drove me to find deep answers to his questions. I became a sharper theologian for his doubt. Though he was not convinced, he came to respect my search for truth in God, though he could not embrace it. The Trinity is my true family; I am patient with church and human family. And I have meaning.
ATONEMENT – My dad could not conceive that the God who is claimed to have created the universe would die on a cross. It was foolish. Yet as he faces death, I can see that Jesus’ death that conquers death is a message of hope and empowerment to face the end of this world and embrace the next. The cross is a message of a big God who can overcome our greatest fear and challenges in life and death. The cross was foolish to my dad, but I take comfort in the fact that Jesus died for all, he loves even my dad. As Bono said of his dad, “He is one step closer to knowing the truth.” So too, my dad stands at the threshold of that knowing door. Either he will find nothing or an amazing life he missed. I can find comfort in knowing that God’s belief in him is much bigger than his belief in God. He is held, not because of meeting any conditions, but because of God’s goodness. He did not find it in this life as his intellect became a barrier. I hope he can find the one he knew for the first 50 years of his life. He still can quote whole Psalms and hymns, with tears in his eyes. Something deep knows…
PRAYER – Asking God for anything seemed foolish to dad. He gave up asking. I think prayer is like continuing to have sex with your spouse even when children do not show up. It is the activity that achieves the end, but is not guaranteed. It is an activity that brings closeness from its very practice. It is a dialog that becomes cement in a relationship that is woven together. Silence and distance are a sad alternative to a life of closeness. I know that God still shows up in my dad’s tears, and holds him even in his aloneness. As a theologian, I am less interested in his getting right doctrine than being fed by the daily orientation of thanks and awareness that comes even in saying grace before meals. I live that dialog. The Trinitarian God has spoken a promise of life; it is our receiving the gift with gratitude that keeps one in hope. Dad lost this hope in God, and never came up with another thing to hope for in this life, except to be released from it.
JESUS – Dad once told me there is something special about Jesus. I agree. There is something compelling about Jesus which even an agnostic cannot miss. For me, Jesus is the beginning of the knowledge of the One who made us for relationship. Thus, I am a relational theologian. Jesus is the entry point into a life of love, hospitality, beauty, and service. Being a theologian is jumping into the deep end of the pool and having a party. My dad sipped water, but could not be satisfied. But I trust that the Jesus who he could not embrace has embraced him—unconditionally. My dad’s dad was once tried for heresy for teaching universal reconciliation—believing God’s love acts to redeem all. How my dad lost the grandeur of this reckless love is still unknown to me. I would rather hope in an unbounded God than one who requires hoops to jump through to get our reward. Jesus is pretty out of the box. We should live in hope.
So I am sad, with occasional tears, for the losses. But I am confident that the God I follow goes before us, with us, and after us. This God will be a Father to my dad where he has lacked a father since he was 30. This God will be the Jesus who meets the faithless and downhearted with faithful presence. This God will be the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and brings our spirits to rest. My daily walk with the Trinitarian God is not just a belief; it is the relationship in which I take each step for myself and those I love in life and death. I am sad I could not get through to my dad, but glad that he is about to meet the One who made him for Himself.