As we drove to Apalachicola yesterday, Linda driving and me in the back seat gazing through telephone wires at the clouds, I was wondering about the contrast and strange compatibility of my faith versus my unfaith, and two things came to mind. One, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: its scene of the Weasley family’s tent at the Quidditch World Cup.
As the chaotic scene unfolds, stretching as far as the eye can see, a teeming crowd of wizarding folk gather happily, reuniting, greeting old friends on a campground. Each family or group have their own tent; their own tent. The Weasley family’s tent is pathetic, a tiny A-frame for two or four people. Harry watches as Mr. Weasley holds the flap open and one after another the entire family duck inside, one by one. Harry is astonished then when he steps inside to find himself wondrously in an enormous, incredibly, magically spacious room with other spaces leading off it. I compare my faith to this, that inside the faith community Tent, even if it’s just me by myself at the moment, I am not only a public priest but a believer, one of the faithful, a praying individual with faith experiences and a direct personal relationship with our God of the Christian creed who hears and responds in ways I sense, all rational and real.
“I AM speaking to you, Tom Weller,” was it stress relief, or was that really you, God? It’s existential for me, part of my memory and history, a pillar of my faith Tent.
Outside the faith Tent I am a long-lapsed but once fervid amateur astronomer who gazed out into the universe at sun, moon, planets and their moons, stars, galaxies, “the vast expanse of interstellar space,” as Eucharistic Prayer C proclaims. I have read possibilities, likelihoods, of infinitely exploding dots doing their own Big Bangs: a multiverse of universes beyond our own cosmos, whose immensity boggles the mind and staggers the imagination.
And as a religious man, I’ve explored the history of religion, man’s looking around and wondering what makes the crops grow; looking up, seeing, wondering, perplexed, yearning, needing to understand and explain what he experiences and what he sees; and, being egocentric, understands and explains it all in terms of himself. And further, incapable of conceiving of existence without himself and his consciousness, and, moreover, fearful of death, his own death and the deaths of those he loves, fearing darkness and the unknown, devises for himself the comfort and assurance of ongoing life: religion in which a soul leaves the body and continues indefinitely, even eternally when the body dies. This being only one of a multitude of religions and deities that man conceives with his, as Schleiermacher has it, sense of the infinite.
Outside the Tent, I wonder but what I have already experienced the reality of death: dreamless, unaware, absent, oblivious on the heart-lung machine that morning that could have stretched into eternity and I would never have known the difference. No peaceful land of eternal rest, it was not even darkness, but simply the oblivion of not being.
Rhetorically, not requiring my answer: does Eve biting the apple, and Adam, vindicating the serpent, making us aware of ourselves — does that make us different from the other creatures that Adam named. Other creatures do not fear death, nor are they even aware of death, nor do they need religion, as we do. The pelicans that fly by my window, mornings headed east and evenings west, have smaller brains than I because that is their existential need, flight and a sharp eye for the fish they snatch and swallow. From the same single cell, their branch acquired what it needs to perpetuate, as did my branch the naked ape: intelligence and speech to outwit predators. Does it mean that we are exceptional or superior, or simply that we in our way like pelicans in their way, acquired the gifts for sufficiency. A million light years hence, had we not long ago extinguished ourselves with blind hatred for each other, we might have come to our senses, accepted our fate, surrendered our baseless fear, realized that the kingdom of God is in the midst of us and that we can live either inside the spacious Tent, or out under the darkness without fear.
My other, the second thing that came to mind in the car yesterday, was the scenario in (C.S. Lewis) Chronicles of Narnia story, the seventh and final story, The Last Battle. Long years since I last read it, but in the scene I remembered, three of the Pevensie children (Susan having become too worldly, vain and sophisticated to believe what she experienced when childlike) find themselves inside a stable with all the good Narnia friends and rulers including Digory, Polly, Peter, Edmund, Lucy, Eustace and Jill, looking out as the final battle is fought fiercely, ferociously, mercilessly, conclusively. In the terrible massacre, Narnia itself is destroyed, disappears forever when Peter shuts the door on it, and Aslan’s country dawns. At the end, the children learn that they have died in a train crash, only to be whisked away once more by Aslan, into Narnia. I was not, am not, making sense, but Lord, I believe: help thou mine unbelief.