Bad Days and Heresy: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
One of the best existential, proto-theological books to come out of the 1970s was written specifically for… seven year olds. It was entitled, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. You see, Alexander is a young man for whom, on a particular day, everything goes wrong.
“I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
After a terrible day at school, a horrible visit with the dentist, ands a no good stop at the shoe store, Alexander slumps in his chair at the supper table. His troubles continue.
“There were lima beans for dinner and I hate lima beans. There was kissing on TV and I hate kissing. My bath was too hot, I got soap in my eyes, my marble went down the drain, and I had to wear my railroad-train pajamas. I hate my railroad-train pajamas. When I went to bed my brother Nick took back the pillow he said I could keep and the Mickey Mouse night light burned out and I bit my tongue. And the cat wants to sleep with my stupid brother Anthony, not with me.
It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
Now, I suspect that we have all had days like that. Maybe not quite so terrible, horrible, no good and very bad as Alexander’s, but we know what he is talking about.
My particular problem is that, as a theologian, bad days of that sort tend to turn me towards heresy. You see, I become convinced in the midst of such a bad day of the reality of evil. I go one step further, however, and I convince myself that there is some sort of conspiracy of evil directed against me, personified by the Devil and represented in the materialism, selfishness, corruption and self-destructiveness of everyday life. Like a cloistered medieval monk, unconvinced of the goodness of God, I envision a pessimistic, dualist construct of the world as the scene of an eternal struggle between good and evil.
Now, it may seem to you that this is not an altogether unrealistic representation of the way things are, especially as we consider both Church and State in 2018. Pushed too far, however, such a theology can result in a heretical Manichean doctrine of the existence of two gods – a god of light and a god of darkness. Suddenly the Devil is not a fallen angel, he is an anti-God, slugging it out perpetually with Christ, the good god. Suddenly, evil is not a perversion of God’s good creation or a falling away from His original intent or an act of outright rebellion against God but, rather, it is “anti-matter”, a stain of darkness that covers the world and blocks out the sun. Now, before we make light of the attraction of such a vision, perhaps it would be well for us to remember that a number of Church Fathers, including Augustine of Hippo, were attracted by such an idea for at least some part of their careers.
When I become submerged in such a heretical vision I begin to believe that the only escape is by finding delight in the small flowers that I find growing in the undergrowth of the darkness of a frightening forest. These are the small things that make me “feel good” – my favorite music, a walk in the country, the power of a painting, the escape of a well written book. Being thus encouraged, I once again go out to do battle and slay the dragons that I know lie in wait. Yet, might I suggest that all of this misses the point of what we as Christian should believe concerning the goodness of God and the Incarnation of Christ.
You see, it is to those of us who have been driven to the edge of a heretical vision of life and the cosmos, that Christ comes, changing our vision of all that He encompasses in his Incarnation.
Behold my servant… I have put my Spirit upon Him… He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench… He will not fail or be discouraged… I am the Lord… I have taken you by the hand and kept you… New things I now declare.
Looking forward in time the prophet tells us that God will do something remarkable, that He himself will appear among us and that because of this all life – yours, mine, the life of the whole world – will be changed. It is, in fact, the coming of Christ among us that the prophet foretells.
We catch glimpses of this changed world in the birth in Bethlehem. We catch glimpses on the banks of the Jordan River, where the promise of the coming of this servant is made real – “This is my beloved Son”. Because of the Incarnation, because he sees God with us, sharing our humanity in the person of Jesus, the Messiah, the
Christ, John the Baptist knows that a new day has dawned, a new age has begun. The voice from heaven tells him, and all of us, that whatever may happen in the future, it has all changed, for God is among us.
The battle between light and darkness no longer rages outside our doorstep. The battle is already won – not by the might of spiritual armies or secular politics, but by the great and awesome mystery that God has dwelt among us, that our lives are caught up in His life.
We find ourselves now to be sculptors like Michelangelo, not seeking to create a statue of our own devising but, rather, extracting from the stone the finished sculpture that already lies hidden within. We are like Mozart, not laboriously putting pen to paper as Salieri, constantly revising notes and orchestrations to our liking, but, rather, we hear the music that surrounds us and we quickly set it down that others may know the joy of it. We are in Narnia, the mythical land of C.S. Lewis, but it is not the Narnia of the white witch where it is always winter and Christmas never comes – no, Aslan, the son of the Emperor From Beyond the Sea, has come among us and the signs of Spring are everywhere and the more that we notice them the more that they appear around us. By Christ coming among us our warfare is ended. Evil is conquered. Joy is come to us despite the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days which we all know.
Yet, for many of us, this vision, this truth, remains hidden away in a small corner of our lives, simply waiting to be found. Often, however, we find this hidden theological treasure in circumstances which are unexpected.
It happened to me.
Over twenty years ago this summer, I sat alone during the night by the bedside of my father in the intensive care unit of a mid-western hospital. A progressive cancer which had sapped his strength and will for over a year was now it its final stages. My father was dying and had now, mercifully, lapsed into unconsciousness. The low rhythm of the machine sustaining his breathing masked the other sounds of the night. The dim green glow of his monitor provided the only illumination. I sat, helpless, with his hand in mine, hoping for some response, or a miracle, or, perhaps, just the opportunity to tell him what I had so often not said… that I loved him. The frustration, the sense of wasted years, the pain of a fallen world began to overwhelm me in the silence and darkness of that place. Then it happened. As I felt his hand in mine, the reality that God had come among us transfixed me. I can’t explain it, others have experienced it, but the curtain of darkness slipped away and I was “surprised by joy”. Suddenly, it was all so clear. Because Christ took upon Himself true humanity, our lives, and yes, our deaths, were not locked in the fatal embrace of some unending conflict. The hand that I held in mine, the flesh that pressed against my flesh, had been transformed by the Incarnation and made one with Christ because it shared in His Life, His Death and His Resurrection.
My father died the next day, but in the midst of the sorrow and the grief, I felt my life transformed by a moment of theological revelation. I discovered that in our distress and in our joy, in our bad days and in our times of delight, because Christ has come among us, all has been transformed and the words of the prophet are not merely poetry, but truth… “I am the Lord, I have called you… I have taken you by the hand and kept you.”