Many years ago, when I was actively thinking about seminary, I remember hiking in Colorado with some college friends. One of these friends, a confirmed agnostic/atheist, was trying to get his head around this vocational choice of mine–but even more broadly, why an intelligent, educated person would have need for religious faith at all. “I guess I get it,” he said. “Your faith provides solace for you.”
I shook my head. Solace wasn’t quite right; in fact, I bristled against it. Solace was too limiting, like the spiritual equivalent of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a breakup. Solace felt like a pat on the simpleminded head in the wake of life’s mysteries and griefs. Solace made you feel better, but had no other utility. A faith that’s all about solace, I argued back, doesn’t change the way you look at the world, doesn’t move you to action, doesn’t transform a life.
Right or wrong, I heard insult in the word “solace,” like my friend was quoting the Apostle Paul, knowingly or unknowingly, ironically or unironically: When I was a child, I thought like a child; but when I was an adult, I put away childish things.
This is the posture of anti-theists: religion is a childish thing. These are the folks who like to make jabs about all of us rubes praying to our Sky Fairy and adhering chapter and verse to a book that was written by illiterate goat-herders in the Bronze Age.
Anyway, the word solace came up again last night in a conversation between Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden, a conversation they were gracious to let millions of us eavesdrop on during night three of The Late Show. Both Colbert and Biden are men of faith, liberal Catholics, it’s safe to say; both have experienced terrible losses in their lives.
Their conversation about faith was nothing short of astounding. Colbert asked about Biden’s belief in God and how it helped him grieve the death of his beloved son Beau this summer. Biden gave a thoughtful and heartfelt answer that was full of solace but completely free of Sky Fairy.
He didn’t say, Well, God needed another angel in heaven. Or I guess my son’s work on earth was done.
He didn’t say, God has his purposes; we’ll all understand the plan someday.
He said–and I’m paraphrasing:
The rituals of the church sustain me and give me the strength to go on.
I pray the rosary, and it gives me comfort.
When I’m in mass, I am surrounded by a community people, yet I feel completely alone.
The last one was most remarkable to me. Isn’t it terrible to be alone? No–not if you need space to grieve, or just to find quiet in your own heart. There are so few places where we allow ourselves that space. Religion done well is one of those places.
Colbert and Biden, and so many others of us, aren’t in it for the Sky Fairy. It’s never been about the Cosmic Daddy for us, no matter how much the anti-theists want to make it about that. It’s certainly not about finding pat answers, from our Bible or from our God. It’s in the living. It’s in the struggle. It’s in the community.
Last night’s interview helped me articulate a more nuanced view of solace as one of the fruits of religious belief. I still think solace doesn’t fully encompass it. But nor does solace mean platitudes and cheesy explanations that somehow make the horrors of our lives less horrible because somehow God’s gonna make it all better. That’s not what Biden showed us last night. He’s still deeply broken in his grief–that’s evident. His faith is equal parts Psalm 22 and Psalm 23. And comfort and solace are nothing to scoff at.
One the gifts of doing the speaking work I do is getting to learn from other great leaders in the church. I preached at a conference with the great Eugenia Gamble some years ago and she closed with these words of blessing. I’ve used it far and wide since then, crediting her when practical to do so, though she thinks it came from the Franciscans first.
The words of this blessing came to me again while listening to the Late Show interview. To me they’re what good religion is all about. Forget the Sky Fairy and simplistic explanations and hollow solace. This is the nature of any religion or worldview worth its salt:
May God bless you with discomfort
with easy answers and half truths and superficial relationships,
so that you will live deeply
and from the heart.
And may God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people,
so that you will work
for justice, freedom and peace.
And may God bless you with tears to shed
for those that mourn,
so you will reach out your hand to them
and turn mourning into joy.
And may God bless you with just enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you will do those things that others say
cannot be done.
Stephen and Joe have been so blessed. So may we all be.
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