Friday, August 05, 2016

Silent figure in a wheelchair

John Goldingay is prominent liberal OT scholar. He used to be even more liberal, but watching the inexorable progression of his wife's MS gave him a newfound appreciation for the resurrection of the body

It’s hard for people who knew Ann only in her latter years to imagine her as a person full of regular human strength, full of drive and energy, as she was...When we started dating, she was a top student in her medical school and also the lady vice-president of the London University Christian Fellowship; there was a glass ceiling for women (I think there probably still is), and this was as high as a woman could get.  Through her life from then on she served God and served other people, though in changing ways.  For the first third of the years that she lived with MS, she combined with aplomb being girl-friend and wife and mother, student and doctor and psychiatrist, not to say clergy wife and professor’s wife.  Then the course of the illness changed and she gradually lost her physical capacities and her capacity for remembering things and so on, so that for most people in California she has been a silent figure in a wheelchair.  "Ann's Eulogy"  
I met a medical student called Ann, who in due course became my wife. Soon after we started dating, she diagnosed herself as having multiple sclerosis, with which she and I then negotiated for forty-three years until she died in 2009. 
One of the first papers I published required me to think about demythologizing, a more important topic in the 1970s than it now is. I concluded that I would be quite content if Bultmann was right and the idea of resurrection and eternal life is not to be taken literally. As Ann's illness became more and more disabling, I changed my mind and came to attach importance to the fact that Ann will be able to dance on resurrection day. 
As a young assistant rector (curate, in Brit-speak), I once expressed satisfaction in a meeting of the church council that the introduction of a new prayer book would mean less use of the Psalms in worship. Singing them seemed torturous and tiresome. My rector withered me across the room with a look at which he was expert, and declared, "One day, my boy, you will need the Psalms." I am only sorry that he didn't live long enough for me to acknowledge to him that he was right. The freedom in prayer modeled in the Psalms became important to me. I think the medics had told us that multiple sclerosis doesn't usually affect people's mental capacity. I suspect they were simply lying; certainly it had a terrible effect on Ann in this respect. Early on, I did not realize that the slowing of her mental functioning was why she was having difficulty with her work as a psychiatrist, which naturally made her anxious and so preoccupied by her difficulties that she had no energy to be interested in me. It was as if she had left me. I would get up in the middle of the night and cry out to God about it, and I recognized that I was praying in the manner of the protest psalms. 
Ann's illness made me mull over the question of suffering, though not exactly to fret over it. I am always a little puzzled at the way many people are troubled by it as a theoretical question–usually people who don't have much suffering to fret over…The nature of God's purpose in the world makes it not surprising that God sometimes acts to put things right, and also not surprising that God doesn't very often do so. Jesus' resurrection is the guarantee that God's purpose will find fulfillment and it enables some fulfillment now, but the day of ultimate fulfillment and of our resurrection has not yet arrived, which makes it natural that in the meantime death, illness, and tragedy are still realities. In between Jesus' resurrection and ours, it is natural that there are some healings, but also natural that there are not many… 
…I know that God's declining to heal Ann has turned me into a different person from the one I would otherwise have been, and a person whose scholarship has aspects to it that it wouldn't otherwise have had…It is an example of the way the Scriptures "explain" suffering in terms of where it can lead rather than what caused it. I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship(Zondervan 2015), 95-97.

You have to wonder how someone can say they'd be content that the idea of resurrection and eternal life is not to be taken literally. I suspect the reason is twofold:

i) For some professing Christian intellectuals, theology is an abstraction. They play with ideas. 

ii) They take intellectual pride in looking down on traditional orthodoxy, looking down on Biblical promises that the average Christian clings to for dear life. 

However, Goldingay's experience ripped away the glib liberalism of his early days and forced him to take refuge in the only source of consolation available. Although it's a pity that he's still so liberal, his experience is a useful example of how liberal theology just isn't a viable alternative. You can't live liberal theology in the face of what the worst life has to throw at you. Traditional theology is the only haven. If all your hopes are vested in this world, and the world turns against you, what's left?  

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