In his Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind, Philip Ball argues that the Chartres Cathedral demonstrates a shift in the way western Christianity thought about God, the universe and our role within it. What had once been predominately dark and introspective became a celebration of the light of reason and the movement from an age when God could only be feared to one where his Word and his works might even be understood. Indeed, if you sit in the cathedral late in the day, you might even believe that the place embodies the idea that a reconciliation of faith and reason is not only possible, but inevitable. The famous labyrinth on the floor of the Cathedral’s nave has never been adequately explained. But it is not truly a labyrinth. There are no possible wrong turns — all roads lead inexorably to the center.
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Psalm 46 opens with words most of us recognize, even in an age when knowledge of the Bible is fast diminishing.
God is a safe place to hide, ready to help when we need him.
We stand fearless at the cliff-edge of doom,
courageous in seastorm and earthquake,
Before the rush and roar of oceans,
the tremors that shift mountains. Jacob-wrestling God fights for us,
God-of-Angel-Armies protects us.
Some who claim the mantle of Christ want to interpret that and other passages so as to turn God into a cosmic vending machine. “God wants you to be rich” or “Have enough faith and you will be healed.” Similarly, some who deny God’s existence support hold that view, at least in part, because God doesn’t do what they think He should when they think He should. Note Ophelia Benson yesterday:
The blessing is that he is with us, standing by and refusing to help, watching us as we struggle and gasp and flounder and kick, like the poor birds in the oil.
Remind me why that is a blessing, exactly? Having an all-powerful witness who could help but doesn’t, watching?
My reminder comes not by proof but by example. The first comes from the first half of the last century. Two days after Adolf Hitler was installed as Chancellor, a brilliant young scholar and pastor delivered a radio address in which he warned Germany against slipping into an idolatrous cult of the Führer, who could very well turn out to be Verführer. He was cut-off mid-sentence. Later, he left a comfortable academic post in New York to return home and lead the Confessing Church, the faithful Christian resistance to the Third Reich. As he wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr:
I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security. (Quoted in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 736)
He returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic. Later, he was imprisoned and, after a lengthy imprisonment, was hanged at Flossenbürg concentration camp for his participation in the Abwehr’s plot to assassinate Hitler. At each place where he was imprisoned, he ministered to others in his position. On his final day, at dawn, he was stripped of his clothing, led naked into the execution yard, and was hanged with thin wire. The execution came just four weeks before the Nazis surrendered.
The camp doctor wrote the following about him after witnessing the execution.
I saw [him]…kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. (Quoted in Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 927).
Late in the war and before his transfer to Buchenwald and finally to Flossenbürg, a small scrap of paper was smuggled out of the prisoner’s cell. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had scratched out these words on it, “Only the suffering God can help.” Christians in misery take comfort from a God who stands and suffers alongside them. In seeing his pain as necessary to his own discipleship, Bonhoeffer redeemed it and knew the comfort of the God who bore the suffering of the cross for the sake of His people. So he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship (p. 98), “To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.”
Jürgen Moltmann, who later became one of the great theologians of the 20th Century, was entirely secular and from a secular family when he found God in a POW camp in Scotland.
I began to understand the assailed Jesus because I felt that He understood me in my God-forsakenness; He is the divine Brother in distress, who takes the prisoners with Him on the way to resurrection and life. I began to summon up the courage to live again, seized by a great hope.
The great famous mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead co-authored the epochal Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. After his only son died in a car accident at the age of 21, Whitehead delivered the 1927 Gifford Lectures (later published as Process and Reality). During the course of those very abstract lectures he uttered this very concrete and personal sentence, “God is the fellow-sufferer who understands.” God is no cosmic vending machine nor should we want Him to be.
“Only the suffering God can help.”