(God’s salvation in Christ is more than forgiveness! Dear God, we want more than forgiveness!)
It’s true we get back to business as usual after hearing another story of the awful evil in the world—we’ve no alternative; we can’t stand permanently stunned; life must go on. Still, don’t we adjust quickly after the initial shock at the report of some truly savage event? Yes, we do, but just the same, maybe it’s strange that we’re shocked at all. Wouldn’t you think that history ancient and modern, the daily news from all the media—wouldn’t you think these would have made us shockproof? There’s something amazing about that. There’s something else that’s astonishing—it’s God’s amazing patience and trust in humans.
As soon as I wrote that last sentence I thought how startled or angry many people would be if they read it. Some would think he’s an idiot if he trusts us and some would rage against him (presuming he even exists); they’d say his patience is at humanity’s expense; they’d say his patience isn’t a virtue—it’s a crime! They’d say it isn’t God who is patient; it’s humans. They’d think of Edwin Markham’s words:
Two things, said Kant, fill me with awe
The starry heaven and the moral law.
But I know something more mysterious and obscure
The long, long, patience of the plundered poor.
That truly makes sense to me! A quick glance at history and that makes sense to me; at a national and an individual level that makes sense to me. If things are anywhere nearly as bad as they appear how can Christians, with straight faces and pious songs, go on speaking about God’s trust and patience? There’s no simple answer to that question—there may be a correct answer to it (and I believe there is), but it’s not a simple one; it’s profoundly complex and richly textured but there is one and it climaxes in someone called Jesus Christ who saw the world not only as it is but as it should be and as it will be. Well, that’s what he said; but of course, the question is, “Can we believe him?”
Humans, whether they believe in God or not can’t help but feel that there ought to be someone. The atheist H.J. Blackham confessed that for him the greatest argument against non-belief was not a rational argument—it was that it was “too bad to be true!” What is demonstrably false should be acknowledged as false—humans get that! They do! But if a proposal is one of cosmic and unyielding despair, if it’s too bad to be true, people don’t want to believe it and that means if there’s something, some story, some argument, some event that defies unyielding despair they’ll go for it. If it’s in anyway reasonable and suggests that non-belief with its pointlessness (Blackham again) is too bad to be true, then distressed humans will take sides with it. They’ll go for God—they’ll go for a God like Jesus Christ if they get the chance to hear about him. They’ll go for such a God even if they don’t understand why he doesn’t now step in to right all wrongs and obliterate agony that tempts millions to curse existence itself. They’ll settle for a promise if that promise has any foundation to rest on rather than settle for the arguments that support atheism with its despair and pointlessness message.
“There’s an answer,” they will insist, “there must be” and the words of some alleged wise man or woman aren’t enough to bury their longing to believe that there is right and wrong; and if they know that then maybe there is Someone who knows it also. In their best moments they know this too: though they know the job is far beyond human accomplishment, they’d fix everything even if it took a thousand lifetimes and if they would maybe there’s someone who will, someone who’s able; someone who cares at least as much as they do.
Let someone (Jesus Christ) come to them to tell them that what they feel down in their bones is true, that what they want to be true is indeed true and humans in their millions will believe his Story. (Do humans embrace lies in the face of demonstrable truth to the contrary? Of course! But they also embrace truth in the face of a life full or a world full of plausible, persuasive lies.)
Look what happened to Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. It was written as a fierce protest against overly-romantic literature about chivalry and knightly conduct all dressed up in clothing too unreal. His central character is plainly a lunatic who makes a mockery of outlandish literary knights. But somehow in the great mystery of humanness the novel took on a life of its own and it has become one of the Western world’s greatest literary forces promoting chivalry and knightly behavior and making it desirable. The literary argument against chivalry becomes its greatest champion. He makes us want to be Don Quixote—a sane one, of course, but in our best moments we’d rather be the lunatic than all his sane critics who want to cure him!
I offer the observations not as proof that atheism is false, only that no one wants atheism’s pointlessness, only that atheism will always be a minority view and that to even stay alive it will continue to feed on food from the Hebrew—Christian Scriptures, as agnostic T.H. Huxley said it did.
On his quest to right all wrongs or die in the process, Don Quixote, Cervantes’ glorious madman, comes across a self-hating, man-hating and world-hating scullery maid working in an inn where the flagrantly immoral and cynical traders gather.* She’s a self-confessed prostitute, used, abused and sneered at by her patrons.
When he sees her and calls her Dulcinea and “fair virgin” the heartless users laugh out loud and she is doubly embarrassed—not only does she know better, her vile companions know it only too well—”Dulcinea indeed; fair virgin” indeed! Nevertheless, in that woman who calls herself a whore and a slut he sees beauty and honor and denies what she and they say about her and claims he knows her better than she knows herself. “I have dreamed thee too long…I see heaven when I see thee Dulcinea…I have sought thee, sung thee, visioned thee.” He sees her this way because he sees woman that way—he sees woman as the “soul of man.” His lunacy is lovelier than the sanity of the world he moves in!
On the night when he is keeping vigil, believing that in the morning he is to be dubbed a knight he is alone and speaks to himself: “Don Quixote, take a deep breath of life and consider how it should be lived.”
Call nothing thine except thy soul
Love not what thou art,
Only what thou may become.
Do not pursue pleasure
Or thou mayest have the misfortune to overtake it.
Look always forward.
In last year’s nests, there are no birds this year.
Be just to all men, courteous to all women.
Live in the vision of the one for whom great deeds are done, Dulcinea.
She, coming up behind him, snaps, “Why do you call me by that name?”
Because it is yours.
My name is Aldonza
I know you milady
I think you know me not
All my years I have known you, your nobility of spirit, long have I seen you in my heart.
Why do you do these things? These ridiculous things you do?
I come in a world of iron to make a world of gold.
The world’s a dung heap and we are maggots that crawl on it.
No, milady knows better in her heart.
What’s in my heart will get me halfway to hell and you…your head is going to end up a stranger to your neck.
That doesn’t matter…only that I follow the quest.
[She spits] That for your quest. (Then) What’s this “quest”?
The mission of each true knight is duty; nay, is privilege
[and at this point he sings The Impossible Dream].
Later Aldonza is dragged off, used and dumped. Don Q turns up and swears the crime will be punished and she snarls back:
Crime? Do you know the worst crime of all? To be born!
For that you get punished your whole life.
Dulcinea!—Quixote says to her..
Enough of that! Get yourself to a madhouse!
Rave about nobility where no one can hear.
Milady. he says.
I’m not your lady!
I’m not any kind of a lady.
A lady has virtue and maidenly airs
That a blind man could see that I lack
It’s hard to develop these maidenly airs
In a stable laid flat on your back.
Won’t you look at me, look at me
God won’t you look at me?
Look at the kitchen slut reeking of sweat
Born on a dung heap to die on a dung heap
A strumpet men use and forget.
“Never deny that you are Dulcinea,” Quixote says and she snarls back,
Take the shades from your eyes and see me as I really am.
You have shown me the sky but what good is the sky
To a creature who’ll never do better than crawl?
Of all the cruel villains who badgered and battered me
You are the cruelest of all.
Can’t you see what your gentle insanities do to me?
Rob me of anger and give me despair
Blows and abuse I can take and give back again
Tenderness I cannot bear.
So torture me now with your sweet Dulcineas no more
I am no one, I am nothing
I’m only Aldonza the whore!
Don Quixote is robbed of his insane vision by the lords of the mirrors. They take his eyes off his glorious quest and make him look closely at himself with his pathetic appearance and too obvious limitations and make him see “the world as it is” rather than the world as it should and could be. With the loss of vision he sinks back into agedness, weakness, illness and pointlessness.
But one convert, one genuine convert changes everything; one Aldonza reborn as a Dulcinea restores his blessed insanity and in one he sees ten and in ten he sees a hundred and in a hundred he sees a thousand and in a thousand he sees a world. They called him mad because he refused to keep his eyes focused on the world “as it is”
We need to keep in mind that this book was written as a satire, a withering criticism of outlandish and unrealistic literature and look what happened. Year after year it remains at the top of the list of history’s greatest novels.
Why do famous painters like Picasso link Don Quixote with Jesus of Nazareth? Why after we’ve brushed aside the silliness in the “knight of the woeful countenance” do we still want to be like him?
There’s something in the character we know as Don Quixote that makes us think of Christ. He turns out to be the hero, while we despise the men of abuse and are thrilled at the transformation of Aldonza. He rescues her not only from any band of men who would buy or rape her—he rescues her from her self-hatred that results in the hatred of all men and the hatred of life itself.
But how does such a thing happen? I mean in literature and in life? In the case of Quixote and Aldonza an insane man sees beauty and dignity and decency in a woman who knows it isn’t there; but he makes her want it to be there! He makes such a life desirable and though he fills her with agony and though what he sees is at war with everything she thinks and feels and robs her of the energy that rage brings, she wants to be the vision he sees rather than the one she sees when she looks in the mirror.
Yes, but how does it happen? It’s a great question but while we’re working on the lovely mystery we ought to acknowledge the reality of such transformations and thank God for them.
(I’ve taken this material from Dale Wasserman’s stage play adapted as a musical movie called The Man of La Mancha. The music and lyrics are from Joe Darian and Mitch Leigh. The movie could easily have been better made but I think it is one of those “must see” creations.)