A Sermon on “Fiction and the Religious Imagination”

Once a year or so, I’ll fill the pulpit for a lay-led service at my home church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa. Today was one those days, with the sermon title as noted above.

Oh, what a long, strange and compelling story humanity has written for itself over the eons! Some of this story is reflected in our history books—especially those weighty tomes that tend to sit on our shelves for decades collecting heavy carpets of dust. Under the dust, we can barely make out grandiose titles like The Story of Man…or Civilization. Or, if you want to get more micro about it:  Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miners’ Strike of 1983 Recast Labor-Management Relations in America.

But there is another class of stories within the narrative of history. Another way of telling humanity’s tale. Rather than focusing on external events—who, what, when, where, why?—this way focuses on internal events, the ones that take place in the human heart.

It is the story of our interior life, of subtleties and shades of aspiration, longing, loss, tragedy, wonder, contradiction, bliss, rage, desire and transcendence. These emotional states are best expressed in fiction. It is in the human imagination, in the weaving of rich tales, that the story behind the story is told.

In fiction, what can only be described as the miracle of human consciousness is given full reign. For better and worse, humans harbor this exceptional capacity to turn inward, to reflect on our experience, to ask questions of ourselves dealing with our deepest desires, motivations and conflicts. Then we attempt to address those questions via an imaginative tale.

 

I say to heck with getting to the moon: in my book the singular achievement of humankind is the creation of fiction, of absorbing tales that have been known to keep us up all night in violation of all that is good for our health and our capacity to function at work the next day.

True (non-fiction!) story: Many years ago, I came home on a late afternoon to find my wife weeping copiously on the couch. Huge tears, convulsive sobs. Alarmed and wondering what horrible tragedy had befallen which family member, I asked,

“Honey, what’s wrong?”

“H-h-h-eeee dieddddddd….”

Now I was really alarmed.

“Who? Who died?”

“Augustus! Augustus is dead!! Wahhhhhhhh!!!”

Many of you may remember that Augustus was the main character in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove. Beholding my wife, I was struck with two thoughts. First, I readily understood her grief, because I had read the book just a few months before and had come to love Augustus just as deeply as she had. And now he had died again! Wahhhhhhhh!!

But my second thought was: How amazing is this?  A solitary human being, curled up with this thick rectangular object on which there are a vast series of ink blobs on paper that is cut and refined from trees. And this person is somehow able to piece together, via the miracle of an elaborate process called “reading,” an imaginary story that can reach to the deepest core of her emotional life, eliciting waves of affection and grief and making her care intensely about the fate of someone who doesn’t even exist!

 

 

Or does he? Is Augustus “real” in any sense? Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Anna Karenina, Leopold Bloom, Bilbo Baggins…..

Or stretching back even further into the tales of ancient mythology: Adam and Eve? Noah? Zeus, Hercules and Shiva? Lucifer? God his great bearded self? In what way are these memorable literary characters “real?”

If they’re not “real,” then do they matter, or should we just dismiss them with a wave of our hand as we pick up our remote and tune into the History Channel for another World War II documentary on the Luftwaffe?

But we know that “imaginary” literary characters matter greatly, don’t we? In many ways, more so than the “real” characters who parade across the human stage in such endless profusion.

Literary characters shape human understanding and destiny in ways both subtle and profound.

“That is part of the beauty of all literature,” said Jay Gatsby’s creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald. “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

Novelist Marilynne Robinson adds this: “I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.”

Just one of the interesting things about fiction is that this love, sympathy and identification can be elicited from us, by a great novelist, for characters who may not always be the most upstanding models of human goodness.

I think I was able to grow fond of Harry only because Updike was fond of him, too. Despite all Harry’s moral failings, his gluttony, his boorishness, there is something still redemptive about his life–if—and it is a big “IF”—we view him with tenderness and forgiveness…

A few years ago, a couple of friends and I from across the country gathered in Chicago for a long weekend to discuss the four “Rabbit” novels of John Updike. We’d spent many months reading and jotting notes on the books, then got together for a kind of “traveling book club intensive” to discuss them. This is a fine, fine way to pass a few days, I will tell you…

In any case, one point on which we unanimously agreed was that we didn’t much like the protagonist of the Updike novels, Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, with whom we had spent 1500+ pages and many hours of reflection. But we did come to care for and understand him in ways that helped us search ourselves and ponder what Harry reflected of his times, and how those times affect how we live today.

Harry is a lout, a serial adulterer, constantly betraying himself and those he loves. Updike does not spare him in tracing, in often painful detail, his in-many-ways pathetic life over four decades. There were many moments when I loathed Harry, when he sorely tested my appreciation for our first principle of respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

I found myself wondering: Is it possible to forsake that worth and dignity? If so, Harry would be a prime candidate.

But I also came to develop a curious fondness for Harry, which I maintain today, though my fondness certainly waxed and waned over the months I spent with him.

I think I was able to grow fond of Harry only because Updike was fond of him, too. Despite all Harry’s moral failings, his gluttony, his boorishness, there is something still redemptive about his life–if—and it is a big “IF”—we view him with tenderness and forgiveness, with acknowledgement of the basic human weaknesses we all share with him.

 

Christianity calls this “fallenness”—our inherently imperfect state. In that tradition we are saved from our own imperfection only by the perfect love and forgiveness of God. One of the tricks a great novelist can perform is to provide that perfect encompassing love for deeply flawed characters.

The multi-dimensional characters that novelists sketch on a page reflect our own, every human’s, multiple dimensions. In exploring the thousand shades and nuances of character and human relationship, these writers shed light on our everyday “reality” in ways that non-fiction is simply incapable of.

Today, the stories we tell in sacred literature are increasingly in conflict with what is undoubtedly our most highly refined non-fiction: science. Religious believers and skeptical scientists often rage at each other across a chasm of what are supposed to be competing truth claims. But both lose their essence within that chasm.

The truths of story, within which I include virtually all foundational texts from the world’s religions, are at once smaller and larger than the truths of science.

They’re smaller when they try to compete with science on how old the earth is, or in trying to hold up as literal fact a story about an epic flood and animals paraded two by two onto an ark.

 

But story is bigger than science when it addresses the mythical and psychic backdrop of human consciousness, when it explores our internal perception, our emotion, the wild jumble of thought and feeling and memory that make up our inner lives. Story shows us that human life is always more fantastic than mere observable reality and scientific “truth” would reduce it to. Science and other forms of non-fiction have to boil reality down to observable essentials. But these essentials track only a smidgen of what makes the human psyche such a wonder.

Science can measure the changes in respiration and blood flow that come with beholding our beloved, or weeping over her memory, or marveling at the glory of nature or art. But it can say nothing about our internal feeling state when doing so. This inner place is where our “spirit” lives—and science doesn’t go there.

To properly explore those domains, we need the deeper reality of the imagination, of made-up stories that reflect our truest, messiest, most soaring selves.

Marilynne Robinson turns her characters over and over like a prism, giving us glimpses into the subtlest turns of emotion, the most delicate self-delusions and unfilled emotional needs. When I was thinking up blog ideas on her work, one of my working titles was “Oh, What a Glorious Mess We Are: Fallenness and Grace in Marilynne Robinson’s Fiction.”

Robinson makes a powerful case for compassion and forgiveness in Gilead, her brilliant novel that consists of a dying minister’s long letter to his 6-year-old son. Robinson doesn’t much care for dark-hearted people, novelists included, who dwell on humanity’s moral failings as a way of indicting us and sneering at our self-delusions.

“These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice,” she has her character, the Reverend John Ames, say, “because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.”

Fiction in the hands of a compassionate author such as Robinson helps us readers enlarge our own compassion.

It ennobles and elevates us while still seeing us clearly. Great fiction does not ignore or sugar-coat our human failings, but neither does it choose to pick at them like a scab.

I think of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which the characters tear into each other’s weaknesses and failings like wolves tasting the blood of a lamb. That’s one side of human nature, one angle on the prism we are. But it is surpassingly bleak. Is it the final word? I have to think not.

More expansive, redemptive novelists like Robinson allow us to examine our failings with tenderness and acknowledgement that most all of us are doing our best, with the tools we have, in an often daunting universe.

It’s a hard slog, this life is—you really need to keep at it, with unwavering intention and resilience. Great fiction enlarges our capacity to do so.

And then there’s the transcendent dimension of fiction. The sacred sphere of everyday experience, the light that can enhance the otherwise most ordinary reality when we pay close attention.

 

 

Listen to this lovely snippet from Gilead, with Reverend John Ames penning this observation for his son:

 “I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping in the air, our insouciant Soapy! Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.”

This life, this world indeed…

For me, these lovely observations of this very world we inhabit, wrapped within a compelling story of complex human relationships, carry far more power than purportedly “non-fiction” stories that promise there “really” is a heaven out there in the beyond.

In these stories, some of which, tragically, make the best-seller lists, angelic choirs sing 24/7 and all our earthly relatives and even our pets stroll around us in the clouds with beatific smiles on their faces.

I don’t know about you, but all such heavenly tales strike me as unbearably dull and utterly devoid of literary interest. If my eternal soul were to actually wind up in a scene like that, I’d be searching for the nearest tavern-in-the-clouds so I could alleviate the tedium of non-stop happiness with a good stiff drink.

Thankfully, the vast preponderance of stories from the world’s religions don’t dwell on anything so namby-pamby as nice little walkabouts through eternal life.

Instead, we are treated to epic conflicts, as when Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and is sentenced to having his liver eaten by an eagle for eternity.

Arjuna engaging in a fierce chariot battle with Karna before ritually decapitating him!

Moses crashing his tablets on the licentious sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah who are worshiping a golden calf and committing unspeakable sexual acts!

Bring it on, I say! Now that’s “literature!”

That said, the more compelling stories for me are on a more intimate scale. Characters like the Rev. John Ames and Rabbit Angstrom hew more closely to the everyday conflicts of identity and relationship that provide so much grist for our own lives.

When we are beset by miscommunication with our mates, rebellious children, and difficulty getting our ideas across in our church building committee, it may feel like our liver is being eaten daily by a sharp-beaked creature, but really, it’s just life—in all its glorious imperfection.

That life is held up to the light and examined closely, unflinchingly, by our great storytellers. Fiction and drama writers perform the courageous and necessary task of peeking behind the curtain of “reality” to examine the far deeper, more layered realities that make human life such a product of mystery and endless fascination.

May we find ourselves—and ultimately, redeem ourselves—in their imaginative tales that speak so piercingly to the human heart in all its restlessness, longing and joy.
***

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I wish I could have videotaped our choir singing a lovely rendition of this song this morning, but the original is pretty good, too.


Deep appreciation to the photographers:

Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Books photo at top of page Andrew Hidas

Old library books photo by Swire, Toronto, Canada, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/18378305@N00/

Painting of “Adam and Eve” by Adriaen van der Werff (1659-1722), photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, Athens, Greece, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/telemax/

Bubbles photo courtesy of George, Tampa Bay, Florida, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/daniandgeorge/

Zeus sculpture photo courtesy of Webb Zahn, Annapolis, Maryland, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/webb-zahn/

 

11 comments to A Sermon on “Fiction and the Religious Imagination”

  • Lucia  says:

    And a very fine sermon it is indeed!

  • Tom  says:

    Hi Andrew – one of the best sermons of the year if not of all time UUCSR! Thank you

  • Walt McKeown  says:

    As a scientist, I naturally and placidly disagree. When one makes up internal “truths”, how do you know you are not fooling yourslf unless you compare them with reality? When someone hears what they want to hear, they can be pretty gullible. Self-hypnosis works!
    Scientists hate to be fooled and so use assorted instruments to validate that they are seeing what is real. To me, emotions and internal constructs founded on reality are much better than straight “anything goes” fiction.
    I’ve been wondering when you are going to address the biggest crisis in human history (no exxageration): climate change. The next thousand years will give everybody, religous or not, plenty of chances to see if prayer works (it doesn’t). Your spiritual response to a planet in convulsion will be pretty interesting, Drew. I hope it is also practical.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’m not clear on what we’re disagreeing about, Walt, so let me frame my response this way: Are you suggesting that the next time I feel intense love for a person or book or crisp fall morning, or grieve over the loss of a beloved, that I get in touch with you or another scientist so you can run a lab experiment or research project with your “instruments” so we can determine whether my experience is “real?” Different domains, is my point, and subjective internal and emotional experience is simply not in the domain of science nor any of its instruments. Since the extent and nature of my joy or grief cannot be measured, does that mean it doesn’t really exist and is therefore unworthy of our exploration? If so, we have just put all novelists and poets out of business…

      As for my not addressing climate change in this space, I try to choose topics on which I think I may have something different to say than anyone else, or that I want to explore to find out how I feel about it myself. In the case of climate change, there are legions of people far more informed than I writing about its portents and about how willfully stupid the deniers are, so I haven’t yet felt I can add anything meaningful to that discussion. As for your intimation that my “spiritual response” to it would be “prayer,” oy, if you think that, then you have failed to understand anything I have written in these pages about the nature and role of religion.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Annually for eleven years I trudged to the Colorado State Capitol with other higher education leaders to make a case to legislators for the value of public liberal arts education knowing that the panel of legislators on the budget committee wanted tangible evidence that somehow the liberal arts was a boost to the state economy and promised fruitful careers for our undergraduates. Each year I, along with my colleagues, did our best to promote the value of critical thinking, the development of imagination, creativity, and innovation. Occasionally one of us would venture into the world of empathy, human understanding, and the pricelessness of the human experience learned from art, poetry and literature. We did all of this knowing full well that our legislators needed tangible evidence of productivity (retention, graduation rates, etc) in order to make important budgetary decisions. None of us could compete on this playing field with those who specialized in engineering and the sciences. Oh, we could proudly present completion rates and name off success stories of those who “made it” and are contributing to the state economy. But we could never gain ground persuading our lawmakers that real growth and real intellectual (and perhaps spiritual) growth resulted from immersion in the life of the humanities. It was just not nearly as “real” as degrees in marketing, engineering, and all of those other academic pursuits that answer market demands.

  • wmckeown  says:

    Hi Andrew!
    Well, we are not disagreeing about anything since we both hold personal emotions and physical science in separate categories. What I was referring to was using personal emotions to say we determine physical reality. Scientists have been fooled enough by that mistake over the years to use instruments to determine what is actually physically happening.
    Your emotions, etc inside your skull are your own world…so far. The recent imaging of brain activity resulting from situations with laughter, tears, etc may be creep creep creeping into that world, but it will be a cold day in Kabul before they can affect what your emotional exerience.
    We agree that the two are different worlds.
    As for climate change, is there a spiritual or emotional side for you to work with? After years of effort warning about this, I still don’t find much emotional or spiritual involvement in it among the populace. This means my efforts are largely unsuccessful. However, when the population does finally “get it”, I think there will be plenty of juicy material for you to work on.
    One example is parents eventually realizing they hve been training their children for a world that won’t be there when they mature. Talk about emotional reactions……

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Jay, I think your point is likely age-old, and reflects a kind of structural split in the human psyche that unfortunately manifests as if we have to “choose” between the soft mushy humanities and the heartless hard sciences and finance. Liberal-conservative, dogs-cats, Dodgers-Yankees, hippies-jocks—all the other classic polarities are variations on this theme. The idea that the humanities are shunted aside and increasingly ignored by both students and the employers who don’t hire from that sector—or pay like crap for it if they do—is troubling indeed, but I suspect it has always been thus. Perhaps more tech & finance entrepreneurs with a fortune to give away will become patrons of the arts as they were in Europe in previous centuries. If you run across any, please do feel free to give them my phone number.

    Walt, the thought actually occurred to me during my sermon that brain imaging studies and their implications for my topic probably deserved some mention, but was too late by then. It’s a fertile field, but I would fight to the death any implications from those studies that emotions are “nothing but” chemical reactions. There’s somethin’ goin’ inside us all the time, and we often don’t know what it is, do we, Mistah Jones? And I daresay most of that “something” will always be too tangled and contradictory and messily wonderful for science ever to quite wrap its arms around.

    Finally, I think the spiritual/emotional side of climate change is not really different than the spiritual/emotional side of all the death terror, planetary extinction, and other nightmares of finitude that have haunted our species ever since we shed our animal skins and started asking ourselves what the heck got us here and why. (And why it has to end…) It’s a different fear from a scientific standpoint but not from a psychic one—the threat of extinction and eternal darkness is a perennial. Just have to look at religious conceptions of hell for that, which are universal. The difference is that this threat isn’t couched in literary terms and may indeed end things for us here—or at least so radically alter them that humans descend back on the cultural track toward the dytsopia of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” But that’s predicated on something else not ending our experiment first—such as nuclear Armageddon, always a possibility on this still fractured planet of ours. Sobering thoughts, against which we may be crazy to wear smiles on our faces most of the time, but crazy we must be, yes?

  • wmckeown  says:

    McCarthy’s novel was the only book I’ve ever thrown across the room while reading it! I hope his world is not in the forecast! On climate change, I was less talking about psychic fear than the guilt of screwing up a fine world and leaving the mess to our kids. Inexcusable….

  • kfeldman2013  says:

    Delightful exchange folks – Walt & Drew’s is a bit reminiscent of noted scientist Stephen Jay Gould’s view of Science & Religion having “non-overlapping magisteria” (interesting take on this at Miles Rind’s blog: http://skepticaljew.blogspot.com/2010/05/stephen-jay-gould-on-science-and.html – which is not what this post was exploring as much as the role of art/literature/music in human life… my friend Walt I think you may have fallen into the “reductionist fallacy” with attempting to use the epistemology of Science to address issues of the ineffable … but it makes for juicy discourse which is appreciated… Can relate to your comments, too, Jay—I remain an unapologetic advocate of the “liberal arts” education, not turning our Universities into simply job-training institutions… sending our “best and brightest” (supposedly) to Wall Street for the past 20 yrs resulted in creativity that brought us CDO and Default swamps, made a few people insanely rich but did not produce much life/culture satisfaction as near as I can tell… the concerns about climate change really cut to the bone of our limited grasp of our world — I think it, in part, comes down to a temporal issue — we are programmed through evolution to be good quick responders but not so great at the long view, can we figure out some way to frame this so folks can see beyond their noses??

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Wonderful exchange, all. As I read further into David Halberstam’s book “The Powers that Be” I am reminded of the uniquely American late-19th Century efficiency/production model in the industrialization of economics, which helped shape social views of cultural values. The Gilded Age produced our first “self-made” tycoons of business and emphasized pragmatism, production, and work efficiency: hardly a climate for an appreciation of the arts and humanities. Interestingly the fiction of the era turned out to be exceptional, driven mostly by the Muckraker journalists exposing the underside of the new industrial era. Sinclair Lewis, Stephen Crane, Theodore Drieser, et al picked up on the expoitative theme in terrific novels from the era. To your point on the temporal Kevin, Mass. Senator Warren is sounding the alarm of the long-term consequences that lie ahead in limiting educational opportunities for those unable to afford post-secondary opportunities.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Yes, Jay, and let us also note, interestingly enough but hardly surprisingly, that Senator Warren is the one figure who is striking terror in the hearts of our modern day tycoons, currently reveling in our own version of the Gilded Age…

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