By Kate Nesheim
The rise of a certain political figure has me brooding over the lemming-like quality of human beings. It’s nothing new. When in a certain mindset we will follow anything or anyone who appeals to us on that mystical gut level. On the flimsy grounds that I liked someone better than the other guy, I myself have supported a number of candidates. I have been swayed by dirt-throwing political ads, and voted for candidates whose names I had not seen until I reached the polling station, and most often I have sat home and done nothing at all. I am no less a lemming than the people whose political selection seems suicidal.
This gloom stretches far beyond the democratic process. You and I could each make a laundry list of ways humanity might be killing itself, but we hope everything will be alright, anyway. We want to close our eyes and let someone else take care of it. Why are we humans so fatally short-sighted, and is there any possible upside to it? I’m a Christian, after all, and I want to believe that a divine creator fitted us with the proper capacities to care for the world around us. But this sheep-like willingness to shut off our own mental faculties and follow our leaders has resulted in a long history of wars, oppression, environmental degradation, and so on, etcetera, to infinity.
These melancholy thoughts call to mind Annie Dillard’s lesser-known masterpiece, Holy the Firm (1977). Her short and poetic book is, among other things, about how God has custom-fitted the world around us with reminders that our powers of comprehension are tragically limited. Dillard calls it a lesson in ontology. Human beings, she says, are sprinkled by God onto the Earth with a healthy measure of idiocy that ensures our dependence on God. Dillard argues that we are this way because we must trust God, even when our senses tell us not to.
But God can’t have designed us to be lemmings about it. Neither would a benevolent God let us flounder endlessly by the light of our own miscalculations. God requires my trust. Okay. Still, it seems brutally unfair that I would be incapable of making good choices by my own independent efforts. Holy the Firm doesn’t try to explain this away, and I won’t, either. For a pithy reflection on the challenges of what often seems to be “blind trust,” I recommend Allison’s post on the Alter translation of Genesis. What Dillard’s book provides is a brilliant and refreshing reminder of one of the upshots of our incompetence: because we are like sheep, it is easy for God to shake us out of our complacency and direct us toward divine wisdom. In this book God is a trickster, and God’s tricks are laid to get our attention. “The joke of the world,” says Dillard, “is the old rake in the grass, the one you step on, foot to forehead.” In other words, we have these reminders of our own absent-mindedness in the form of temporary pains or difficulties. Dillard sees these as gateways to a richer, more God-filled life. When we “wake up with a piece of tree in [our] skull[s],” then God can get to work on bigger, more important things. (42)
These Minecraft sheep are probably going to die.**
This is a hackneyed Christian argument, of course. And, moreover, we might demand to know whether Dillard believes that God laid this metaphorical rake in the grass and covered it with leaves so that we would step on it. In Dillard’s theology, does God cause our misfortunes, both the tiny and the tragic? Certainly not. She refutes this idea by presenting us with the story of a young girl she knew who survived a plane crash but suffered third-degree burns on most of her face and body. The girl was not in any particular need of spiritual awakening; it was simply a terrible accident. This sort of thing she attributes to the small-“g” gods who play cruel jokes for no reason. This is the Dillard who believes in a mystical world, full of strange and impish forces—or at least, the Dillard who believed this in her early writing career. Others of us might say instead that the girl was on the wrong plane on the wrong time. Neither of these philosophies accuses God of being a terrorizing puppeteer.
It is important also to add that Dillard in Holy does not bother discussing final things. The book does not speculate on what God might be doing in our lives to bring about our eternal salvation. It is not about being “awoken” so that we might be ready for heaven. Instead, Holy is about needing to pay attention to God right now, in this earthly moment. The book isn’t about revelations, and there is only one fireball (the burning airplane that causes the girl so much suffering), which Dillard dismisses as the unfeeling mischief of small-“g” gods. As with most of Dillard’s early nonfiction, the book is about making the most of our immediate situation. It is about seeing God around us, as difficult as that often is. Encountering God is also a frightening, exhilarating prospect: “’Teach me thy ways, o Lord’ is, like all prayers, a rash one, and one I cannot but recommend” (19). Dillard argues that most of us go about our lives in a clueless fog until we train ourselves to look for something more essential. In an earlier book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the tragic flaw she attempts to train out of herself and her readers is inattentiveness. For Dillard in Pilgrim, it is tragic to be surrounded by thousands of natural events and not learn how to notice them. In Holy the tragedy is to stumble through life inattentive to God’s presence. To do so would be an unthinkable waste of our brief time here. This carpe diem philosophy is why she argues it is a great kindness of God’s to trick us into paying attention.
This brings me to my point: one of the crazy tenets of my Christian belief is that, at some level, it is my job to be a fool. Not always, because there is a lot of brain work involved in prayer and study of scripture, and in working together with other God-fools to worship. We need to muster all our wisdom and attentiveness to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). But alongside this work, there is an element to Christian life that necessitates a willingness to behave like a sheep and follow with a nearly unshakable trust in one’s leader. To pray before I act when the action matters. Dillard’s point in Holy is that we cannot help being fools, because it is our nature. The hunger I feel for leadership in this election season also means I am open to what God requires, and this may be my saving grace. For this reason, my foolishness is a virtue.
What relief or insight is there for us, today, troubled as we are by events around us—whether personal, local, national or global? When we look around ourselves and say, how can we be stewards of this, and do our God-given job so badly? It is only by sustaining our connection to God that we can ever hope to be anything more than idiots. We are, at our core, conduits for the divine; as conduits, we cannot also hope to spark with our own energy. That would only get in the way. Her metaphor is a moth lured by in a candle until it ignites, becoming a second wick that burns for hours. Dillard says we are designed to be connected to God, and the best favor that God can do for us when we lose that connection is to knock some sense back into us.
Perhaps best of all—better than the promise of being something beyond myself when I am connected with God—is the peace that comes in knowing that the same sheep-like nature that makes me susceptible to political polemic actually has a purpose. For those of us who believe in a God who made humankind the stewards of this planet, this is perhaps the only plausible explanation for how it is that we’re doing such a poor job of it and yet God has not replaced us with anything more intelligent. By Dillard’s logic, greater intelligence is not the answer, and this is a relief, because I will be just as capable tomorrow of supporting systems that could destroy me. This will always be true; but I will be equally capable of trusting wholeheartedly, dumbly, sheepishly, the God who knows how to prevent these things from happening. And since that God seems to be the only one capable of doing that, I think it will have to do.
[Jesus said,] “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down
my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also,and they will listen to my voice. So there will
be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 1o:14-16)
When I said above that God fitted us with the capacities we have and sent us out as stewards of the planet, that is only part of the story, and it’s the flimsiest part. And from here on out it’s only me talking, not Dillard. If we say, as many Christians do, that all good things come from God, and we say that God is omnipotent and endlessly good, then it follows that the best possible outcome to any situation will come out of the closest obedience to God’s will. Not cleverness or human insight. Obedience. But not fool-headed, lemming-like obedience, either. God will knock that out of us as many times as necessary. God demands wide-eyed, scripture-reading, community-seeking obedience. It is holy to be awake enough to find God in the world. And it is holy to be a fool for what God asks, foolish enough to follow what is asked, wherever that might lead.
We want to hear from you …
- As a person of faith, what do you do (or read) when you are troubled by human nature?
- When has God used a moment of weakness or crisis to speak to you?
*Image copyright Sega 1992
**Image copyright Mojang 2010