(Note: Black and White in this narrative is pertaining to a much wider contrast than just race)
I have a few scattered memories going all the way back to when I slept in a crib. Maybe I slept in that crib until I was three or four, but it couldn’t have been later than that. I remember learning of the world around me through the behavior and eyes of the towering adults, which had inhabited this strange, new world for much longer than I had. Maybe it was a congenital way of thinking or again, maybe it was learned, however, the essence of it was that the world was a place of order, of cause and effect, and where goodness triumphed.
I became familiar with the concept of death through TV shows. I saw Matt Dillon shoot and kill Indians and bad guys on Gunsmoke. Later, death came much closer to home when my grandfather and then uncle died. I understood then that our parting from this world came to us all but would only come when we were old and frail and wanted to die…or if we were an Indian or bad guy.
In this perfect world of the 1960s and 70s everything was well-demarcated into orderly causes and purposes. But the first crinkle came into this peaceful world of mine when my neighbor was killed in a car wreck. She was 19. I was stunned. I was only 6. I did not know that death could come to someone who was not old and frail, who was not an Indian or a bad guy, and who lived so close. Joyce was a Methodist and in my primeval construct of God, he would protect even Methodists…although we were Baptists. God would certainly protect us Baptists, wouldn’t he? We were told by our preacher that all things worked for our good.
In the subsequent days after Joyce’s death, there was much discussion about the cause and effect within the troposphere above me…in the space where adults whispered and winked to one another. There were suggestions that she had done something wrong. This became clearer during the trial about her accident and I think my own mother had to testify. I’m nor sure why there was a trial, except there was a family who was also seriously injured by the accident and they were trying to determine fault. During this time, I overheard the adults say that Joyce was upset the day she was killed. Either her boyfriend had broken up with her, or he had been seen with another woman. I don’t remember. I was probably too young to understand anyway. But she went to find him, driving very fast and passing a car on a curve between our little hamlet of Fall Branch and the “metropolis” of Kingsport.
After hearing those conversations which inhabited that upward space, I listened and tried to make sense of them all. I had to, somehow, insert those dialogs into my black and white world. So, Joyce was a bad guy and I never knew it? But then again, I heard my mother pity her, pity her and her entire family, as if it wasn’t her fault. I mean, one could reason that if the family in the other car had not been there—meeting her head-on—on a curve, that she would have been successful in making to her boyfriend’s house. Maybe then she could have confronted him, and like in the movies, he would have recanted, and they ended the whole mess in a great embrace and such a passionate kiss that it would put Wesley and Buttercup to shame. Then Joyce would be a romantic heroine…and not a bad guy after all, right? But the people in the other car were Baptists, good Baptists. The father was a preacher and they thanked him for protecting them. They were hurt badly though…but were not killed. Maybe that’s the way God works, killing the Methodists and only maiming the Baptists, putting them on that curve at the precise time. Is that right?
I’m sure that my orderly world had other challenges during that epoch of my life, challenges that I don’t remember now.
But there was Charlie—a year ahead of me—and his demise against a concrete bridge parapet…and another classmate—whose name now escapes me—but I attended his funeral. He also died in a dangerous curve on a county road when he met a box truck in his red VW Beetle.
The next major one—and I remember that one too well—was yet another car accident. This time it was a close friend, Amanda. I did not attend her funeral, regrettably, because I was too messed up about it.
Amanda was not racing to confront someone in a high state of emotions like Joyce was. She did not pass on a curve. It was a freak accident. She was on her first solo drive just turning sixteen. She had asked her parents if she could take the family pick up down the road (a very short distance) and get the grocery item her mother wanted. Somehow, the tire of the truck went off the pavement and pulled her into the ditch at a relatively low speed. The truck rolled over, her coming out the window and being crushed. I was devastated. I could constantly see her long, crinkled auburn hair and big smile, (encaged in braces), in my mind, thinking it couldn’t be real, that I would run into her once again when I came to visit her sister. But I never visited her sister again out of my shame for missing her funeral. She, and her entire family, were good Baptists. But then when I tried to hammer that event into the shape of the world, which I had imagined, it had to be very malleable to fit…and it took a great deal of hammering.
It was still later, while in college, I stepped into the world colored by John Calvin. While my contemporaries were maturing into an adult world with less certainty, I was venturing into one with much more. Within this construct, for God to be big enough, he also had to have total power over everything. This God also had to be totally just, totally loving, totally good, and unchanging. He even had to have total control even over my thoughts and choices, including my choice to love and follow him…or not. Considering that mindset; Calvin’s God decided before we were born if we were going to be good or bad and we had no choice in it, yet, those we considered bad, were to be despised for who they were. But oddly, us Calvinists were outraged when the “liberal sociologists” first suggested that sexual orientation was not a choice. We insisted it was, and a very bad one at that, yet—at the same time—maintaining that none of us had a choice in anything because God—as powerful as he was—preordained us for who we were. Confused yet? God was also going to condemn all the bad people to an eternity of suffering in Hell’s fire. So, the bad people were created as a simple fuel, like kerosene or kindling. Burned, yet with a soul. Unlike kerosene or kindling, the burning would come with great agony. There were a lot of “fuel people,” with the homosexuals being only one small fragment. There were more bad ones than good. The bad included the Muslims, the liberals, the Democrats, the Catholics, and even the Baptists and Methodists. In our deeply personal places, we hated the sin AND the sinner.
At the same time, thinking that we also had no choice but to be good, but because we were good, God loved us most. Conveniently, we were highly esteemed in God’s economy, but in—crocodilian—humility, because this higher esteem was bestowed upon us. In other words, God had created us with irresistible goodness and (paradoxically) we wore that goodness in great humility (wink, wink) …and we were—honestly—proud about that. We felt like only we had brains big enough—bigger than the Baptists and Methodists’ brains at least—to understand these—what seemed like—absurdities. It was the kind of absurdity as the “Liar’s Paradox,” which implies, If I state that I’m a liar, then it means that statement is a lie, which means I’m not a liar, which means the statement is true, therefore what I just said was a lie, and therefore I am a liar and so on and so on. This endless absurdity reminds me when I was about seven and I discovered if you hold a hand mirror in front of another hand mirror you created this tunnel of repetitive reflective images that go on to infinity. I thought I had discovered a portal to another universe, and it was my secret.
Like my Calvinistic contemporaries, I wanted to regiment my life like the citizens of Calvin’s Geneva in the 1550s. The blacks had never been blacker and the white, whiter, with clear boundaries between the two. It was like a checkerboard, where each square, black or white, was carved out deep as receptacles for the interpretation of real-life incidents. But those events came in round and sometimes triangular shapes, making the fitting an exercise in contortionism at its extreme.
This worked out fine for a while, a short while. Then other wrinkles appeared in the platform upon which these ideals were construed and practiced. Like when my friend Mark, the greatest guy I had ever known, and a devout Calvinist, died a horrible death at age 26 from a brain tumor. Until the end he praised God for giving him the gift of the tumor, knowing it was his destiny from the hand of a loving and merciful God. I saw no mercy in his suffering and death. But through mental gymnastics and squinching of the squares, I was able to continue in the black and white world. There, I knew everything, all the answers, with complete certainty, especially all matters of God and his thoughts. My mind knew all the boundaries of God and knew them well. It was a just world, so I thought, where the good people ended up on top and the bad people destroyed, by this “loving” God.
But then, I met a person of color, he was scary at first. Then I met another and another. I had been brought up within this black and white world that the white people were superior to the “colored.” These people of color were nicer than many of the white people. They were smarter than many, braver than many, and more moral. I saw no inferiority in them. Calvin’s God was not color blind but played favorites. I faced yet another paradox because I liked these people.
But then, as I matured, I saw that those on top were not so good, at least many of them. Some of them were down-right hideous. This didn’t make sense to me. I witnessed the best person I ever met, at least on the surface, was also the cruelest in his private places. This made me to start to wonder…and wander in my faith.
Soon I met people of different faiths. I met Iranian Muslims. They were very scary, with their great emotional candor. Later I met Arab Muslims, equally as frightening. But again, they—these bad guys—were better people than many of the people I had assumed were the good guys. They had greater hospitality, greater love, and greater faith with greater certainty. These bad, “fuel people,” were good people after all. Then I made the terrible slip-up of starting to love them and loving them I did with total abandonment. Would God be mad at me? Had he made a mistake? Was he confused? I suppressed my own confusion, downward with both hands and it was like trying to hold a sheet of Styrofoam under water.
Then one day, it dawned on me that women were smarter than I had assumed. Many were smarter than me. I already knew that they were kinder, and more mature in their decision making. But Calvin didn’t see them this way, not really.
Finally, as I ventured even further from home, I met a whole crowd of scary people. Some were queer. Some were gay…or sexually uncertain. Some were Catholics, some atheists. But most of them were thoughtful and nice. It became even more difficult for me to continuing seeing them all as fuel. The odd shaped pieces from the real world around me were not fitting well at all into the checkerboard squares of black and white, even with powerful hammering…with mighty hammers. The edges of the squares were starting to become gashed on all four sides.
I was suffering from the contortionist’s exhaustion. I paused for a decade to step back and make sense of things. The problem was that my God was too small. He was Bronze-age God trying to have meaning within a silicon-chipped world. He was a God of a 1550 universe, one where the earth was the center and it was only 20,000 miles wide. But we were living in a universe that is 27.4 billion light-years wide with many times more stars than sand grains on our shores. The Bronze-age God is not big enough. The real God, if there and I think he is, is too big to understand. Too big to define. To big put into a box and to build a wall around with our minds.
I don’t know the answer to the big questions of why there is evil in the world. I don’t know who is good or bad…but I still can recognize hate and lies in any type. I don’t claim to know why Joyce, Amanda or Mark had to die. I can still hold that God is loving and good, but I can’t claim to know him completely. He has to be a God of mystery, beyond human comprehension to be this big.
I am glad I did not get cancer while I still lived under the shadow of the Bronze-aged God, because if I had, I would have attempted to find meaning and purpose in something awful. I would have been forced to put the “regular icosahedron”-shaped object into the simple square receptacle as if I could have figured it ALL out with certainty. I would have been tempted to be mad at that small God, who should have known better. But it makes no sense to try to grasp with a comprehensive understanding. . . or to quarrel. . . with a God who is this arcane and immense. Mike