Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Casimir Pulaski Day

With apologies and condolences to Erik, who reminded me of what day it was yesterday, and why it matters.

Section 1. The first Monday in March of each year is a holiday to be observed throughout the State and to be known as the birthday of Casimir Pulaski. – Public Act 80-621, Illinois General Assembly, September 13, 1977

Golden rod and the 4-H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car to the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading

Oh the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

Oh the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

Oh the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window

Oh the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes
-- Sufjan Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day”

As a young Christian in college, a friend handed me a stack of books written by the Reformed theologian Francis Schaeffer and assured me that they would provide a better intellectual foundation for my faith than anything else. And to some extent he was right. But in one of those books Schaeffer took on the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote about “the leap of faith.” Schaeffer, following Descartes, went to great lengths to emphasize the rational nature of the Christian faith, to assert emphatically that it makes sense, that it holds together in the light of the most rigorous intellectual questioning. And he took Kierkegaard to task for the seemingly irrational response of “the leap of faith.”

I never bought Schaeffer’s argument, and here is why: he never knew Sarah Scott.

Sarah Scott was four years old when she died. She was the daughter of my friends Paul and Shirley Scott. She was a “surprise” baby; one of those kids born when her parents were close to 40. And her conception was only the first surprise. Upon her birth, Sarah showed all the evidence of having Down’s Syndrome, which was confirmed within hours of her birth.

There were many other surprises along the way. I watched my friends closely, watched their initial shock and dismay turn to unconditional love, watched what initially seemed to be a great burden turn to many moments of joy and deep pleasure. And it wasn’t hard to understand why. Sarah herself loved unconditionally. In a world where everyone else’s efforts seemed halting and stumbling, Sarah simply loved everyone she encountered, in the most natural and unforced way imaginable. She had a big smile and a hug for everyone she met. I believe I learned more about love from her in her short life than anyone I’ve encountered.

Then one normal, mundane Monday afternoon her mom put her down for a nap. She woke up, somehow got her head caught in between the bars of her crib, and in her efforts to extricate herself, strangled to death.

I heard the news and reacted the way countless others have reacted through the millennia. You’ve probably experienced it. The air is sucked out of your lungs. You feel like you’ve been sucker punched, and that you may never breathe again. There is a hole in your soul, and all the finest sentiments in the world cannot address it, because you cannot replace what cannot be replaced. And I found that death wasn’t abstract at all. It was very, very personal. A little girl named Sarah was gone, and the million things that made her special, that made her unique, were gone with her, and the hundreds of well-meaning friends did not and could not help at all, for the simple reason that they were Not Sarah. I felt that, and despaired. I truly cannot fathom what her parents must have felt.

At her funeral members of my church said the kinds of pious platitudes that only made things worse. “She’s in a better place now,” they told Paul and Shirley, who were overcome with grief. “God wanted her to bring joy to the angels.” I bit my tongue and sat on my hands, for fear that I would use them to punch some well-intentioned, clueless brother or sister. I didn’t say anything. There was nothing I could say, and there was nothing I could do to stop from crying, crying that just seemed to go on and on, without respite.

In these times the idea of a loving God seems like a cruel illusion, and I frankly wondered if Schaeffer had ever experienced the death of someone close to him. Because in those situations, Christianity is anything but rational. It is the difference between the logical C.S. Lewis of The Problem of Pain, with its nice, neat arguments, and the undone C.S. Lewis of A Grief Observed, a great, aching mess of a book, the story of a mere thinking, feeling man, not a theologian, dealing with his wife’s protracted and painful death from cancer.

For what it’s worth, I am a firm proponent of the leap of faith. And make no mistake. It is a leap across a great chasm. Sometimes it seems a lot like pedaling your bicycle as fast as you can to the edge of the Grand Canyon, and flying off, and believing that you’re going to sail all way to the other side, defying gravity. It seems to me that there are only two options if one is intellectually honest (hi, Mr. Schaeffer). One can believe that senselessness has the last word, that people simply die – brutally, inexplicably, without meaning or purpose – and that is all there is. Or one can believe that the senselessness will one day make sense, that we really do live in the shadowlands, that real life is yet to come, that every tear will be wiped away, that there will be no more death or mourning. I believe the latter. I hold on to that truth. But surely the author of the Book of Hebrews is right: faith is the evidence of things not seen. And I profoundly distrust anyone who tells me that the Christian faith makes total sense in this life. It does not. They either have not thought enough, or they haven’t lived enough, and time will bring them to that place of the silent scream that they have not yet experienced.

On Casimir Pulaski day I remember a great song, and a great loss, and the great hope that still some days doesn’t make sense.


jlee said...

this is one of the best written "arguments" for understanding what is un- understandable.

i esp like the part about " if anyone thinks the christian faith makes total sense in this life..they either haven't thought enough or haven't lived enough."

i will keep that in my heart.

thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

hi andy:

caleb maskell here. great post, great song, and great points. i'm on board.

however, there is one note of clarification about good ol' SK, my favorite modern christian philosopher by a million miles.

as you know, one of the tricks that Kierkegaard used more deftly than any other author in history was that of pseudonymity. he regularly wrote works from the points of view of imaginary individuals other than himself...imaginary believers and non-believers in all manner of different stages of life. "fear and trembling," the book that has the most explicit talk about the leap of faith, is one of those pseudonymous works, written under the name Johannes de Silentio...John the Silent, a character who is not a Christian but wants to be. he sees the way that faithful lives operate from an external point of view, but cannot bring himself to take the "leap" and understand the life of faith from within. he is john the silent because he is unable to speak about the reality of faith...its operations render him mute because they seem so paradoxical, mystifying, beautiful, and ludicrous. he says as much in the book. he says that his talk about faith as an unbeliever is similar to trying to learn to swim while suspended on a harness above a swimming pool...

the reason that this point is important is that when he writes from the point of view of a Christian, kierkegaard never ever refers to faith as a leap into the abyss, an absurd blind launch into fideistic darkness. why? because for SK, the christian has a sense of the inner logic of faith based upon a knowledge of the present reality of the Word of God to him in Jesus. it is this that provides the "water" in which the Christian can learn to swim. the presence of God in His Word to us in Jesus is the matrix through which we can see and know the presence of a substantial reality that transcends the need for logical explanation in history. in that place, the boundaries of history and eternity overlap in the concrete Word of God to us in Jesus.

tragedy in the presence of God? absolutely. comprehensible? certainly not. the tragedy of the cross is the archetype of an uncircumscribable injustice. but is our faith thus a leap into an epistemological darkness? i think SK would say that the Word of God to us says a definite No to that. in fact, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the bracing illumination that reveals the reality obscured by that very darkness. and by His light (not any comfortable platitudinous substitute about God needing babies for angels) we can know the truth, and be set free.


Mark K. said...


I think God transcends human rational. We just can't understand what God does, "we see in a mirror dimly." There will come a point where the mirror will be put aside and when we see face to face, our need to understand will be more than satisfied.

Until then, we will have to trust that God is good, in control, and knows what He is doing. I've lived and thought and keep on doing them but I get to the point where I have to say, "do I believe God is good?" or "is He in control?" etc.

I keep coming back to a point where I must chose to trust or not. I bet that's by design.

Jake T said...

i never really listened to the words of that sufjan song before. wow.

great juxtaposition.

Andy Whitman said...

Hey Grant, you ubermench, you.

The friend Sufjan is singing about dies on Casimir Pulaski day, which is the first Monday of March. That's the only connection.

Andy Whitman said...

I appreciate the comments, folks.

Caleb, it's great to hear from you. I wish we could sit down together over a meal and discuss this face to face.

I appreciate your commentary on Kierkegaard, and the distinctions between Kierkegaard the Christian and Kierkegaard the author who wrote from a variety of pseudonymous (is that a word? It ought to be be. :-)) perspectives.

I particularly appreciate the focus on "the presence of a substantial reality that transcends the need for logical explanation in history." I understand this. It makes sense to me, although I'm not sure it could possibly make sense from the perspective of a non-believer. This is "the peace that passes understanding," if you will, the supernatural comfort and assurance that comes from experiencing the presence of God. And that's very real, and certainly I hope that anyone who has to live through the nightmare of senseless death can somehow experience the presence of God. My experience of that experience, though, is that it cannot be turned on and off like a faucet. God may be in control, but He can't be controlled. And there have been times in my life when I've deeply desired that presence, and it hasn't been there. Other times, often when I least expect it, I am acutely aware of God's present reality. It certainly transcends logic, and I'm sure to many people it must sound like pure hokum. But I know what I know, you know?

None of it ever supersedes the need for faith, often faith that requires a great leap. To believe that God is in control, and is wholly trustworthy, while sitting through the funeral of a beautiful four-year-old girl, seems like a kind of madness. If this is control, then up is down, black is white, and Adolph Hitler ought to be nominated for Humanitarian of the Year.

One can marshall all the standard theological arguments during those times. Jesus himself knows horrible, senseless death. We live in a fallen world, but things aren't meant to be this way, and they won't always be this way. You can hold to those truths and believe them. But they often don't make much headway against the waves of grief and acute pain. And they particularly don't make much headway if the presence of God (not the objective reality, but the subjective experience), so desired in those times, is absent. O death, where is thy sting? Right here in my gut.

Enter the leap. It's the only way through, I'm convinced. But it is a leap, and there is an element of the absurd involved, even while holding to the objective truths of the faith. It is the evidence of things not seen. It is literally believing what your eyes, and your brain, don't apprehend and comprehend.

In any event, good conversation. I've appreciated the feedback.

Anonymous said...


yes. that totally makes sense to me too, and bless his heart, i bet it would to SK as well. my guess is that his whole goal is to make us think these things through all the way and realize that we're far from the controlled, responsible, rational agents that we sometimes conspire to be in theological war rooms.

one of my favorite lines from SK (i forget where its found...postscript?) is that his goal as an author is to creep up on his reader from behind and wound him. pretty amazing.

i'll see you in ohio some day...me and hank sr., if the good Lord's willin' and the creek don't rise...


Anonymous said...

leaping with you, my friend.

Anonymous said...

Religion is a tool made to ease the emotional and mental pain of reality. The fact that reality cannot be made to sound poetic and yet religion is so comforting, seems to answer all our questions and assuages all our doubts should be a red flag.

Life is hard, we all know that, but if someone came to you and said "For just a million dollars, I will make sure you will be brought back to life and get your one million back, plus 2 million dollars more...the only catch is we can't prove anything til after your death"...we would ALL be (and for good reason) very suspicion and dismiss the offer as a scam. However, the minute we add religion into the equation, suddenly it makes perfect sense?

Pain hurts. Death is sudden and leaves us no closure. Children are born with horrible defects for no reason and people are born into terrible, terrible lives for no fault of their own.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if "everything happened for a reason"? Sarah's death would be justified and we could (as some Christians believe) actually celebrate the beginning of her beautiful life with no pain up in the heavens with her almighty Father...except there's no reason to believe this is true and it's honestly unhealthy and removes the urgency of living life to the fullest and the importance of taking full responsibility for one's actions.

It's better to live with the pain of reality than the happiness of delusion.

Sara said...

very well put. If we understood everything then it wouldn't be called (or there would not be need for) faith