Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Not speaking the same language: the prequel

A few weeks ago I narrated an encounter with a fellow whose view of reality was significantly different from mine.

A couple of days later I followed up with a dive into how different people view the relative motion of the sun and the Earth.

The day before the incident in the first post, I was sitting at that same table in the Economics department.

Someone from facilities came by and went to check the documentation on the fire extinguisher to make sure its inspection was current - standard safety protocols, I assume, and it's good to know our facilities crew is diligent in the kinds of things to ensure safety, as best we can.

Trying just to be sociable, I quipped, "So, are we safe?"

"Only in Christ's arms," he answered.

And this is where mutual incomprehension set in, though I didn't yet realize it.
In retrospect, I think I may have heard him in a sort of Czech context. I know that's not the obvious go-to interpretative framework in a small city in upstate New York, but bear with me.

The Czech Republic is routinely ranked among the least churched and the least religious countries in Europe. And yet, like all European societies, Czech culture has Christianity deep in its bones. In the Czech case, one of their core national semi-myths is the Hussite wars of the 1400s, when many Czechs were so committed to what they viewed as the proper form of religion that they fought Europe to a standstill for the right to be Christian but not Catholic.

That past of deep religious conviction underneath a present of widespread religious cynicism or indifference leaves some interesting marks on the culture.

It's an attitude reflected by Field Chaplain Otto Katz in The adventures of the good soldier Švejk in the World War. Katz has a discussion with a fellow chaplain, a devout man who finally clues in that Katz doesn't believe in God at all. "If you don't believe, why are you a field chaplain?"
My dear colleague, so long as the state thinks it's useful for soldiers to receive God's blessing before they head into battle to perish, the field chaplaincy is a decently paid occupation in which you don't have to strain yourself. For me, it beat running around on the training ground or going on maneuvers ... Back then, I got orders from my superiors, but now I do as I please. I represent someone who doesn't exist, and I myself play the role of God. If I don't want to forgive someone his sins, then I don't forgive them, even if he were to drop to his knees and plead - which, by the way, happens damned infrequently. (Volume I, chapter 12, "A religious debate")
And in that setting, a remark like the one from the man inspecting the fire extinguisher comes across a certain way. It would be a sardonic way of saying that this thing I'm inspecting is a piece of trash, so you're better off trusting in Jesus, but not really, because who believes in Jesus?

I said, "So we're not safe?"

He then went on to explain the inadequacy of the fire extinguisher. "That thing's good for, maybe, a waste-basket fire, but other than that ..."

"So if the building is on fire ...?"

"You get out." Well, that seemed like reasonable advice. And he left to continue his rounds.

Five minutes later he returned. "I just wanted to clarify: the building has a built-in sprinkler system, but that's also man-made and can fail."

And so he touched on my rawest religious nerve.

As a young man I was somewhat strident in my religious views. But eventually it dawned on me that it was operationally impossible to prove the existence of God, and logically impossible to prove the nonexistence of God. So I really had no business being on my high horse about my own views compared to someone else's. People look at the world and see it differently. Some see God, and others don't, and there wasn't much point in either of us straining to get the other to see the world our way, so long as we could live well together.

A model of this was a long-time member of the economics faculty at the University of Washington, where I was a graduate student. He was a pillar of the local Episcopalian community, and when he died relatively early in his 60's, his memorial was a funeral mass in St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral on Capitol Hill.

The priest read the opening verses of John 14:
1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4You know the way to the place where I am going.”
5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
The priest stopped there. He explained that Paul - the deceased - was a fervently believing Christian, and the words, "I am the way and the truth and the life," were core to who he was. But he couldn't accept the next line (still in verse 6):
“No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Christianity was absolutely true for him, yet he managed to combine that faith with a sense that other people have their own truths.

Like any monotheistic faith, Christianity has the potential to be a totalizing force: if this is true, then what disagrees with it must be false. And there are certainly Christians who bring that potential vividly to life.

But I have had the great good fortune to know many Christians who manage some version of Paul's feat, holding Christianity to be absolutely true for themselves, while accepting that others aren't misguided just because they view the world differently.

I have tried to learn from them to have a similar humility about my own ability to define truth for others.

But the logical implications of certain forms of belief can still rub me the wrong way.

There are two ways of interpreting the remark that we're only safe in Christ's arms. One has to do with the theology of the afterlife and the idea that faith in Jesus is the key determinant of avoiding spiritual torment after death. I haven't been to the afterlife, so I can't really comment on this.

But by pairing the remark with the observation that man-made safety systems can fail, the man from facilities seemed to be saying that only Christ can keep us safe materially, in this life.

And that's a sentiment I have a problem with.

Looking around, it's easy to find instances of people who seem to be devout Christians, yet they suffer real horrors here in this life. Does their misfortune prove that their faith in Christ is only apparent, not real? Does the New Testament obviate the Book of Job?

And there are those who pass their days with nary a thought of spiritual matters of any sort whatsoever, and who are nonetheless blessed with goods and health and family and die peacefully at an advanced age. Well, perhaps they just got lucky.

But the most troubling implication of "only in Christ's arms" surfaces when we turn our attention to those who suffer torments and are specifically not followers of Jesus.

The go-to example for someone of my background is the barbaric mistreatment and murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. If Christ can keep us safe materially, here in this life, then it follows that the Jews of Europe could have avoided the Holocaust by accepting Christ. It is, in that sense, their fault that the Holocaust happened to them.

Rather than it being, say, the fault of the people who organized the whole enterprise, or the nameless functionaries, soldiers, and underlings who herded them into cattle cars and then into gas chambers or to firing lines at the edges of mass graves. With many of those herders, gassers, and shooters at least proclaiming their faith in Jesus and their acceptance of him as their savior.

To instead blame the Jews for having brought the Holocaust on themselves is, quite simply, an obscenity.

I don't think the man from facilities meant his words that way.

I assume he hadn't thought through the implications of his remark, but that doesn't mean they're not there.

Sadly, I don't know a pithy way to bring all that out, never mind doing it on the fly. So all I managed was, "Airplanes fail, all sorts of things, too. God doesn't save everyone." Not much of a response. More like an expression of annoyance.

In the end, it could just be characterized as not speaking the same language.
The illustration at the beginning of vol. I, ch. 12, "A religious debate"
The devout chaplain is on the left, with Otto Katz on the right.
Švejk is in the middle, standing at attention.
At this point in the book, he is the servant of Field Chaplain Katz.
He stands ready to obey his master's repeated offhand commands to "pour him another one."
The original illustrations for Švejk were done by Josef Lada.
I found this copy at


  1. While reading this I kept thinking of a quote, supposedly one of Napoleon's: "If it weren't for religion, poor people would murder the rich" (or something like that).

    1. There's a long and sad tradition of rulers not having any particular belief in their proclaimed religion but supporting it because of the impression that it keeps the rubes in line.