You Must Be Gentle, Part 3

I watched an interview with Ingmar Bergman on the DVD version of “Persona” called “A Poem in Images.”  He spoke in English, not his native language, but I left the quote below verbatim because I liked the ideas expressed as they were.

“I was ill and they had to make some sort of operation.  And I got in my arm an injection…I had been unconscious six hours.  You know I had no feeling about time, of hour.  From existing, I have being in the situation of nonexisting.  And that makes me very happy….I am conscious about myself and everything and then suddenly, or slowly, my consciousness fades out, switches off.  And it is a not existing.  That is a marvelous feeling.  From existing I am not existing.  And at that moment nothing can happen to me.  I think it would be terrible if somebody came after this marvelous not existing and wake me up, and said, ‘You are a returned soul Mr. Bergman,’ or something like that, ‘and you have to go here or there; you are guilty for that, not guilty for that.’  I think it’s just crazy.”

I was about five years old when I accepted what I thought was the gospel: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or burn in hell for all eternity.  It seemed like a no brainer.  I was surprised that everyone in children’s church didn’t choose Jesus right there and then.  (I can’t say for certain that I was taught this until an evangelism course I took as an adult, but the first time I seriously questioned whether this ultimatum was the Gospel was during that course.)  I was saved, saved from hell, because I confessed that I was a sinner and believed in Jesus.  And it worked in the sense that I grew up among fundamentalist Christians and can’t recall ever having any fear that I would go to hell, not as a child, anyway.

Hell was never taught as something I should fear.  It was taught as motivation to invite my friends to Sunday school, friends who would go to hell if they didn’t confess that they were sinners and ask Jesus into their hearts.  I tried to invite my next door neighbor once.  In fact, I probably tried to save him myself right there and then.  But my Catholic friend knew as much (or more) about trusting Jesus as I did.  So I decided that my Sunday school teachers didn’t know much about my friends.

“So this feeling of not existence made me very happy,” Bergman continued, “because it was a feeling of relief, because this feeling of a god, this idea about a god, was very unhealthy.  It was a feeling of something that was perfect, extremely perfect, the most extreme perfect that exists.  In comparison to that I always must feel like a snake, like a dirty snake.  For a human being to feel like a dirty snake is not good.”

In Junior High I pretended to be ill one morning so I could stay home and finish reading “Phaedo” by Plato, the death of Socrates.  Socrates concluded, “if while in company with the body the soul cannot have pure knowledge, one of two things seems to follow—either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death.”[1]  This has had a lifelong impact on me.  Perhaps the main reason I have believed that each of us will give an account of himself to God[2] (when I believed little else) is the hope that some clarity will come in his response to my account.  The primary torment of Sartre’s hell in his play “No Exit” is not knowing for certain why, or if, one is there.  Knowledge was the hardest thing to give up when I flirted with atheism.  To accept that knowledge is either unattainable, or that the verdict of a jury of my peers (or even a cadre of knowledge elites) is the highest form of truth and justice, is a camel I can’t swallow.

So though I have experienced anesthesia and even wondered if that was what death was like, it was never comforting to me.  Still, I could relate because I had been enamored with the fantasy of having never been bothered with existence in the first place.

As a child I prayed for two things: that my parents would get along and that I could hit a fast pitch baseball.  Sure, I probably prayed for other things, too, but these are the prayers I remember.  I certainly prayed them the most.  My parents never did get along any better.  They separated in my early twenties.  And I hit the ball once, until my neighbor friend shared a record with me, a recording of Stan Musial talking about hitting.

I was hit by a pitch at practice early in my first season.  It broke my finger and I had to sit the season out.  Stan Musial seemed to understand my fear.  I don’t even remember now what he said.  I only remember that I began to stand in without shying away, watch the ball all the way to the bat and make contact.  I’m sure coaches had yelled things like that at me many times before.  But I had stood at Sportsmen’s Park banging my wooden seat on its hinges when Stan the Man came up to bat.  Sometimes he struck out.  But the next time we stood and banged our seats again, and more often than not, often enough to satisfy us all, Stan the Man hit it out of the park.  When Stan Musial said it, I listened.  And I decided that he was a much better hitter than God.

In my late twenties I spent several years studying the Bible, history and philosophy.  I prayed for answers to the questions my studies posed, then I trusted that those answers would be forthcoming, and kept on studying.  By contrast I hated the Bible as a child.  When I was forced to read it I didn’t hear anything because I thought I already knew what it said from Sunday school classes.  I didn’t particularly like Sunday school classes either.  The few times I did pick it up on my own I found some things that didn’t sound like my Sunday school and I assumed I didn’t understand the Bible, or that my understanding couldn’t possibly be right because so many people before me had understood it like my Sunday school classes.  In my late twenties I probably still thought I already knew what the Bible said, but I was driven to read it, insatiably driven.  Answers came, sometimes amazingly.

One was in a book from the British Museum.  A friend gave it to me after a trip to London.  He didn’t know the question I was asking and he didn’t know the answer was in the book he purchased for me.  He simply thought I would like the book.  And he was wrong!  Apart from the question I was asking, I would have had no interest in this book at all.

Nietzsche: Friedrich Nietzsche was much smarter than I am.  He would have convinced me of atheism apart from the Lord’s answers to his questions, or the questions he fostered in me.  I will be forever grateful to Nietzsche for those questions.  The Lord’s answers changed the way I read and understand the Bible.

Yet after that amazing time I was still disgruntled.  Writing this has forced me to ask myself why.  The answer that comes to me is that I was not actually as open-minded as I like to remember the story.  I was trying to find a rational alternative to faith (i.e., that arrived at the same conclusions but required no faith).  My best effort was indistinguishable from faith.  In other words, I had failed.  So as the Lord and I did our postmortem on those years, I said the time was better than I had expected (recalling my parents and hitting a baseball), but that I was still inclined to wish for never having been born.

He was angry.  But I didn’t respond in what I consider a typical male response to anger, matching anger for anger, blow for blow.  To repeat what He said wouldn’t mean much.  It was completely in tune with the years we had spent analyzing statements and their negations.  The thrust of it was, “I don’t care what you want, I called you into existence to love you.”  My uncharacteristic response—one I have noticed in women responding to men’s anger, especially their jealousy—was, “He loves me.”

So while Bergman’s musings about anesthesia and death form a bond of recognition in me, and his taking comfort in nonexistence is endearing, I can’t follow Ingmar Bergman.  Clearly I am inferior to God.  But He has gone so out of his way to demonstrate his love and mercy to me that I can’t help but feel like a beloved child rather than a dirty snake.  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, Paul wrote the Romans, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father.”[3]