At school, we often close chapel with a certain song. Each row of worshippers spreads out and joins hands, crossing the aisles to form one long line from wall to wall of the auditorium. We throw our arms up for the chorus of the song, with our eyes closed and heads thrown back, singing with all our might to the brick columns and powder coated rafters overhead.
I am thankful for chapel, for an hour away from work, and for passionate worship with others who need to devote themselves once again to God. But something troubles me about this song—or, perhaps my discomfort is not with the song, but with our misreading of it:
My friends, may you grow in grace
And in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour
My friends may you grow in grace
And in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
To God be the glory
Now and forever
Now and forever Amen.
This is a moving song. Its simplicity is a blessing on each of us, and we sing passionately. As we grow through our undergraduate years, we obviously need this kind of blessing. Christian humanism and neocalvinism emphasize a connection between deep and real spirituality and human life, so as we grow academically, we must always seek the blessing that reveals Jesus Christ. Chapel songs centre us on this growth.
But here’s the problem. We sing the whole thing to the ceiling with our eyes closed, as if steel I-beams 50 feet overhead were the ones we were exhorting to grow in grace. For a while I joined in this remarkable misdirection of blessing, but the irony eventually caught up to me, and I tried to sing the song while looking at people around me.
This was possibly the most awkward thing I could have done. It’s strange enough to be holding hands with strangers or friends. To then lean forward and look them in the eye and sing to them is to take a step too far. Most people whose glance I caught quickly jerked their gaze away or closed their eyes. A few close friends, feeling the same irony, met my gaze, but it was still obviously a little awkward.
We’ve grown so very comfortable at worshipping with each other. It is so good. Comfort is so good. Being a community is so good. But the fact that we sing these kind of worship songs with each other is very strange. St. Paul, in Ephesians 5, exhorts the church to speak to, not with each other. It seems to me that we’ve thought of worship exclusively as something done with other Christians for God, when it may have helped us to consider at least the closing song of chapel as a gift given to each other for the glory of God.
I don’t think we ever really meet each other for worship when we have to avoid looking each other in the eye. God’s call to gather together has to mean more than simply swaying and raising our arms in the same room. Perhaps meeting each other would mean more if we actually spoke to each other face to face, not via text or communication. It’s easy to end emails with some trite Christian words, because this blessing happens in an electronic and therefore somewhat abstracted context. But Jesus was a body, just as you and I are bodies. Perhaps in our culture, where the face is something we rarely bless, Christ would look at us and love us.
But the problems that come when we abstract ourselves from one another—from our faces—goes further, past the blessings. There’s also the problem of dealing with evil.
Through history, humanity has asked this question: if God is eternally good and eternally powerful over all things, how can evil exist? C.S. Lewis postulates one answer: that the apparent injustice of the powerful and loving God of the Bible, evidenced by evil, can only be understood in relation to the claim that justice is real. Since belief in God gives more basis for understanding justice than naturalism does, it’s wrong to give up this foundational theistic belief.
Even though this solution is fairly elegant and widely acknowledged, the terror and widespread violence of real evil far outstrips it. This is because, while we solve the question, we fail to recognize the person who experiences extreme suffering. Behind every question is a face, and it is awkward to look into that face.
Evil is always part of history and place. Though we must not give up hope in the power and love of God, it doesn’t do any good to deny the reality of the injustice of evil to the people in the places and stories where bad things have happened again and again. But again and again, we try to offer logical analyses to problems that grow from real human experience, because these analyses allow us a shortcut around the terrible face of our deepest questions. The lecture theatre is a context that can foster disconnection: our analysis blinds us to the evil, to the embodied need for some kind of comfort—a terrible underestimation of human suffering, and a misplaced trust in academic analysis.
When I sit in that lecture hall and accept the disembodied answer, when I close my eyes and throw back my head to sing to the ceiling, I have glossed over my own ability to look at and bless the other, to live out the troublesome doubts of the faithful and to wrestle with God for a blessing because doing any of these things makes me uncomfortable. And yet, at each moment, I still feel like I’ve accomplished something. In chapel, I feel like I’m worshipping God even as I give up looking for a face to bless. In class, I feel like I’m making a contribution to knowledge by learning to dissect and dismiss real human problems.
But these accomplishments are illusions because they have pulled me away from the real world. I have ceased to be embodied and ceased to acknowledge the other as an embodied mystery. Until I give up the self-delusion of effective service in the kingdom that comes from my closed eyes and my academic high horse, my witness must always be a waste of time.
But if we would honestly consider questions and their history—the faces behind the problem—we be forced to wrestle with them. If we would look each other in the eye when we bless them, we would be forced to wrestle with their realness and our awkwardness. And our wrestling match may even result in a blessing—and an awkward limp.