Then I looked down into the lovely cut of a missing river, something under dusk’s upflooding shadows claiming for itself a clarity of which my eyes were not yet capable: fissures could be footpaths, ancient homes random erosions; pictographs depicting fealties of who knows what hearts, to who knows what gods. To believe is to believe you have been torn from the abyss, yet stand waveringly on its rim. I come back to the world. I come back to the world and would speak of it plainly, with only so much artifice as words themselves require, only so much distance as my own eyes impose. I believe in the slickrock whorls of the real canyon, the yucca’s stricken clench, and, on the other side, the dozen buzzards swirled and buoyed above some terrible intangible fire that must scald the very heart of matter to cast up such miraculous ash.
2. 2047 Grace Street
But the world is more often refuge than evidence, comfort and covert for the flinching will, rather than the sharp particulate instants through which God’s being burns into ours. I say God and mean more than the bright abyss that opens in that word. I say world and mean less than the abstract oblivion of cells out of which every intact thing emerges, into which every intact thing finally goes. I do not know how to come closer to God but by standing where a world is ending for one man. It is still dark, and for an hour I have listened to the breathing of the woman I love beyond my ability to love. Praise to the pain scalding us toward each other, the grief beyond which, please God, she will live and thrive. And praise to the light that is not yet, the dawn in which one bird believes, crying not as if there had been no night but as if there were no night in which it had not been.
For Christians (as for religious people of various sorts), music is a basic human activity. We cannot live without worshiping, and we cannot worship without making music. Smack in the middle of the Bible are the Psalms, the blues and praise songs of the ancient Hebrews. And the earliest confessions of the New Testament may have been lifted directly from hymns that rang out in corporate worship.
Wasn’t it Augustine who said, evil is matter out of place? He kisses his love as he pivots from the brothel gate, his ardent heart already gritty with guilt. I imagine the big A trying to shake sin from himself as I haul our red rug out and shake it. Dear God, what we track in, how sin sifts like fine silt into our deepest grooves! And once inside, the dirt forgets that it’s our backyard. We keep tracking the outside in, sweeping it out again.
Or that’s what I get from The Confessions. How love, like soil, is out of place for, maybe, half its orbit. How sinning and repentance follow one another like all the circles on this fickle earth, rain taken up by clouds, then falling on us again. Maples spinning whiffs that grow to seedlings. Children begetting children. And every insult you bestow whirring like graying underwear in some dryer of regret.
Way back in Christianity’s kindergarten, Augustine had it figured out. He guessed our remorse and longing as he closed the brothel door, seeing a woman gaze at the sooty outline on her white sheet of a tall blacksmith the morning after.
The story of the proud and vital man who has lost his power and nobility is a recurrent theme, especially at the movies. Films have specialized in showing us the washed-up boxer (The Set-Up, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Fat City) and cowboy (Red River, The Gunfighter, Unforgiven).
A curving trail—the callused field obscures it until we shovel out the clotted brick, lug a ton or two of sand to fit trenches, level rumpled earth, correct courses. A mallet stuns a thumb, new blisters bud as self-impressed we shout, “This row is done!” but then a kid names names, prefers George Toad, Kate Cricket, slaps William Mosquito, pats Barkly, unleashed, our best company. We rest and share cold drinks. David brings homemade muffins, burned, blueberry plenty. Sun flickers around us, summer’s wings. Yet sand, we need more sand! Deer watch from trees while we adjust the pathways on our knees.
Philosopher Michael Ruse is an ardent evolutionist and unbeliever, but he often comes to the defense of believers who are under fire from militant atheists like Richard Dawkins. Ruse says his sympathetic stance toward religion is partly due to his Quaker upbringing. “I grew up surrounded by gentle, loving (and very intelligent) Christians. I never forget that,” said Ruse. He also objects to what he regards as bad atheist arguments. Evolution explains the existence of religion as an adaptive mechanism, but that doesn’t necessarily explain it away. “It is as plausible that my love of Mozart’s operas is a byproduct of adaptation, but it doesn’t make them any the less beautiful and meaningful,” Ruse said (New York Times interview, July 8).