Like all good books, Paul Theroux’s Deep South got me thinking about things beyond the book’s covers. As the service wrapped up at an African American church Theroux visited (the congregants called him “Mr. Paul”), he picked up a Bible and turned to a passage in Proverbs he remembered. It read, “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood. A heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief. A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.”
My first reaction to this passage was to wonder how some Christians can square their allegiance to a president who’s way on the wrong side of some of these strictures with their belief that everything in the Bible is the inerrant revealed Word of God and the only path to salvation.
I’m just guessing here – the Christian right doesn’t keep me in the loop about these things – but I have to believe that they’re giving Donald Trump a pass on the Proverbs abominations because he relieves them of their Rodney Dangerfield “we don’t get no respect” complex. They see themselves as embattled by court decisions protecting same-sex marriage and local anti-discrimination ordinances prohibiting denying services to people some Christians disapprove of on religious grounds. And they seem puzzled and offended that anyone would take exception to their exercise of religious freedom to condemn and stigmatize people they think have it coming.
I think the congregation at the African American church Theroux visited in impoverished, map dot Sycamore, South Carolina, (2010 population 88 declining to 76 by 2016) can help out with all this. But, like Theroux, I’ll get to Sycamore by a meandering route.
To people not of their persuasion, it looks like Christian Trumpsters’ public posture of sharp edges and elbows is motivated by beliefs that make no sense to anybody but them. To show where I’m going with this, I turn not to one of the liberal coastal elites who get off on mocking Christians but to a figure from squarely within the Christian tradition.
Søren Kierkergaard was a 19th century Danish religious thinker who worked out what he thought were the implications of Martin Luther’s belief that we’re “justified by faith,” that salvation depends on our beliefs, not on writing checks for Puerto Rican hurricane relief. Kierkegaard took that idea very seriously, turning it into something so demanding that he wasn’t sure even he could live up to it.
In the Cliff Notes version, here’s the corner that Kierkegaard backed himself into. Like all mainstream Christians, he believed that nothing exists independent of God; everything ultimately is dependent on and comes from God. Since even space and time are God’s handiwork – see the creation story in Genesis – God exists outside both. But the central mystery of Christianity is how a being like that can act in our world, the world of space and time. How can he have revealed his Word to all the people who wrote the Bible? And in particular how can he have become human in the person of Jesus and undergone all the things that Jesus had to suffer for our redemption? Somehow God manages to be both in and not in the spatial-temporal order.
Kierkegaard was tortured by that seeming impossibility right at the heart of the Christian worldview. To see why, you have to appreciate the kind of impossibility he thought he was staring into.
Believing in God, who exists outside the spatial-temporal world of our experience but intervenes in it, isn’t like believing in Superman. To believe that Superman leaps over tall buildings in a single mighty bound, you have to believe that he’s exempt from the laws of physics and biology. Given what we know about the laws of nature, a being like that can’t exist anywhere except in comics or movies. But at least you can understand the story that there’s this guy whose day job is being a nerdy newspaper reporter and who sheds his disguise only when called on to strike a blow for justice and the American way.
But believing in a God who’s both outside of and in space-time isn’t just believing in something that defies the laws of nature. It’s believing in something that defies the laws of logic and sense. So it’s not something that you could believe even as a matter of faith, any more than you can believe as an article of faith that, say, Tuesdays are octagonal. You can say the words, “Tuesdays are octagonal” to yourself over and over with great passion and energy. But there’s no way you can actually bring yourself to believe that Tuesdays are octagonal because you can’t even understand what those words mean strung together that way.
Kierkegaard’s way of getting out of this box has commentators scratching their very erudite heads to this day. He said that your reason will reject as a contradiction the idea that God exists both outside of and in space-time. So he just called that idea something else. It’s not a contradiction, he said, but the Absolute Paradox. What’s the difference between a contradiction and an absolute paradox, a difference that makes the former something nobody can believe no matter how hard they try and the latter something they can? The jury’s still out on that.
This much seems clear though. If your North Star on life’s journey is a belief in God, the Absolute Paradox, then sharp edges and elbows aren’t a fitting posture in your interactions with other people, whether same-sex couples or anybody else. You can’t undergo the crucifixion of doubt that Kierkegaard thought is the lot of any believing Christian of integrity without being profoundly humbled by the experience. It’s no accident that he titled what became one of his best-known books Fear and Trembling.
All of which takes me back to Sycamore, about six miles from Allendale, formerly a thriving community, now forgotten and becalmed, like many others, since the construction of the Interstate Highway System. The African American parishioners at Sycamore’s Revelation Ministries Church have never heard of Søren Kierkegaard and, for all I know, the only Denmark they could find on a map is the one about thirty miles away.
These Christians have more than ample reason to feel besieged. It’s common for churches like theirs in the South to be vandalized or burned. They never know when theirs will be next. And knowing that somebody hated people like them enough to wantonly slaughter nine of their co-religionists in Charleston about 100 miles away, they have every reason to be wary of a white stranger who shows up in their midst on a Sunday morning.
But when Theroux – “Mr. Paul” – did, what greeted him weren’t questions about his sexual orientation, his views on same-sex marriage or abortion but, hugs, handshakes and a big banner announcing to all in gold letters, “We Love You – Ain’t Nothing You Can Do About It.”
If there’s a takeaway here for Christians who feel put upon because they’re not free to humiliate same-sex couples in the name of Jesus, maybe it’s that instead of looking to Trump to relieve their distress, they’d do better to model the example of people whose hearts are inscribed with the words on that banner.