Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man, loved nature. So do I. I got my love from my older brother, Herb. He was nine years older and a powerful and influential figure in my childhood. Given our troubled home life, he wanted to protect me and, as my son noted after reading my story Faith of a Father, Herb even acted like a father toward me. Big Brother introduced me to Mother Nature who became my adoptive mother and I her adopted son. As a teen, Herb and I spent hundreds of days hiking and camping and climbing the small mountains of the Adirondacks. Big Brother and Mother Nature were key in keeping my youthful sanity in the face of my parents’ reactions to their shattered dreams—and crucial in pulling me into a much bigger world than theirs.
Nature was—and still is—a nurturing female figure to me. She is gorgeous, from her drop dead evening gowns of her spectacular orange-red sunsets to the soft, gentle nuanced beauty of her silky, rose petal skin. I love her roses. In fact, I raised roses as a boy and have sent my wife a dozen every Valentine’s Day over the decades. Hiking the Adirondacks, nature’s splendor across her rolling mountains wasn’t wasted on me as a teen. On one hand, she was a tough and demanding taskmaster; you had to follow her rules—or you’d get hurt. We’d hang our backpacks over tree limbs far from our tent or lean-to so a bear would not attack us, as one had Timothy Treadwell. On the other hand, my adoptive mother richly rewarded us for our reverence, hard work, and obedience. All the sweat poured out to humbly walk with her on her terms was returned a hundredfold with her peaceful and warming embrace as we hiked her woods and gazed at her beauty from the mountaintops. Looking out over the valley from atop Mount Arab, her trees were stately, pulling the canopy of the sky toward them as if they were climbing to meet the sun. And walking her trails, her flowers appeared tender and fragile yet quietly strong, arrayed in wondrous palettes of deep rich colors. Indeed, within nature’s bosom lies life.
But within my adoptive mother’s bosom also lies suffering and death. If we anthropomorphize nature, Mother Nature is even cruel. The Grizzly Man and his girlfriend died a terrifying death. Mother Nature made him pay dearly for not obeying her. My father however…what did he pay for? He got multiple sclerosis. I never saw him walk. He was first paraplegic then slowly became quadriplegic. That disease shattered my parents’ dreams—and shattered my parents. Mother Nature fed me with her warmth and beauty while slowly and torturously deconstructing my father’s body, and, with it, his life. Not to mention what that did to my own life as a child. And just last week, within a few days of finishing the final edit of my book, Faith of a Father, my dear Big Brother to whom the book had already been dedicated passed away. None of us were prepared for it. He went from gallstones to pancreatitis to death within four weeks. He had an adverse reaction to the combination of dye for a CAT scan and an antibiotic. One system after another collapsed until he was dead. My brother was not only a hiker and mountain climber, but an avid, award winning, amateur squash player in the city of Rochester, NY. The little brother in me finds it yet hard to accept that Big Brother is gone. After all, aren’t Big Brothers supposed to live forever?
But…foolish me. Nature is not a real “mother.” She is no person at all. So she cannot be cruel. Ultimately, life and death are not held in her bosom. Instead, they are held in the bosom of our heavenly Father—and of Jesus whom he sent. If we believe Moses and the apostle Paul, all suffering and death are mysteriously tied to our dance with evil—and therefore with our relationship with our Father. Timothy Treadwell’s terrifying death, my father’s torturously slow demise, my brother’s blindsiding death, my limiting disabilities…they’re all tied to that crazy cosmic dance among evil, suffering, and death. The apostle Paul even called it a law—“the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).
Like the apostle, the new Catholic Pope Francis stood on the truth of this cosmic dance to understand Jesus:
It is no use to lament the sufferings of this world if our life goes on as usual. And so the Lord warns us of the danger in which we find ourselves. He shows us both the seriousness of sin and the seriousness of judgment. Can it be that, despite all our expressions of consternation in the face of evil and innocent suffering, we are all too prepared to trivialize the mystery of evil? Have we accepted only the gentleness and love of God and Jesus, and quietly set aside the word of judgment? “How can God be so concerned with our weaknesses?” we say. “We are only human!” Yet as we contemplate the sufferings of the Son, we see more clearly the seriousness of sin, and how it needs to be fully atoned if it is to be overcome. Before the image of the suffering Lord, evil can no longer be trivialized.
The Cross of Jesus is a cosmic event.*
Pope Francis affirmed that Jesus joined us in the dance—suffering and dying just like us—so that ultimately we could be free. Free from evil. And ultimately free from suffering and death that stood as our condemnation for engaging evil.
But—are we the proverbial fools for believing all this? For believing evil and death are tied together? For believing the apostle’s law of sin and death? Are we just religious mythmakers, no better off than any other snake oil salesman out there? Are we making the Cross of Christ the center of the universe much like the medieval church made the Earth the center of the universe?
Many think so. And not just atheists. Innumerable church leaders, including theologians, priests, and ministers across the globe, believe the cosmic dance does not exist. They think it is foolish and naïve to believe we suffer and die for our engagement of evil. To the Bishop Spongs of the world, “death for evil” is culturally primitive and outrageously cruel. For them, the apostle Paul was wrong. There is no law of sin and death. And Jesus’ death was only an example of God’s love—not a death that set us free.
If we join these leaders—if we go against this pope’s affirmation—then don’t we strip Jesus of the meaning of his mission…stripping him of his royal robe (Rev. 19:16)? If we do that, doesn’t the whole house of cards called “church” come tumbling down? It’s already happening. Denominational membership in the United States is going down dramatically. Europe has already become hugely disinterested in Jesus. Protestant or Catholic…doesn’t matter.
The implication of disregarding the cosmic dance is the same: practically speaking, Jesus becomes useless. As the apostle Paul says, we might as well eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Cor. 15:32b, NCV). If we strip Jesus of his royal robe of meaning, all that is left for those who play the game of “church” is some New Age, quasi-spiritual social work ministry. Jesus then offers no real vision. He offers nothing to mobilize the passions. There’s no muscle to him anymore. The core problem with our crazy universe of evil, suffering, and death remains. So there’s no good reason to believe in him. And there’s simply no good reason to get out of bed to “go to church.”
But many Christians do remain loyal to the Bible. They hold on to the Pope’s affirmation that Jesus suffered and died to pay for our evil. They hold on by faith; many hold on by, what they call, blind faith.
Some people wear “blind faith” as a badge of honor, as if they were more courageous or more spiritual than others. But, with blind faith, you can project anything you want to believe onto the world around you—and who can challenge it? After all, it is “by faith” that you believe, not by sight. So there’s neither logic nor evidence to discuss. Just like with medieval church leaders. How is blind faith any different from any fool’s mythmaking? If faith were to be blind, wouldn’t we be stuck? For how do we discern the difference between divine inspiration and human inane imagination? Between inspired prophets of the God who is actually there and our modern delusional “witch doctors” of the gods who are not there?
We can wear blind faith as a badge of honor all we want, but it is still blind—based on nothing…absolutely nothing. Where does one go with the conversation with someone who believes blindly? There is no evidence—and no logic—to appeal to. It’s a dead end. Blind faith is at best an emotional crutch. At worst, it can be dangerous, leading to an idolatry of one’s own imagined truth, thereby exchanging the truths of God—and life—for lies. Just like Moses’ people at the base of Mount Sinai. Or Timothy Treadwell. Or medieval church leaders.
So—is faith blind?
We officially reflect on Jesus’ death and the meaning of the law of sin and death on Good Friday. However, as Tony Campolo says, “It’s Friday…but Sunday is coming.” We will celebrate Sunday’s coming this Easter, April 5th.
Do you believe in ghosts? I think it’s as easy to believe in ghosts today as it was back in Jesus’ time. Perhaps easier. There are now television programs dedicated to exploring the paranormal realm—including both human and animal spirits. As a friend of mine mused, “Well, the energy has to go somewhere after we die.” Besides, no one wants to think that death is like before conception—nothingness. So people dump the afterlife into some ghost-like, ethereal realm that we float around in after death. Our spirits remain alive. Many think their near-death experiences—hovering above the operating table or seeing bright lights—are their spirits floating away from their bodies only to get sucked back in at the very last moment. Heaven is for Real is a recently released movie depicting just that. This is like how the disciples thought when they first saw Jesus, thinking he was a spirit or ghost. It’s easier to believe this way…much easier. Nothing outrageous with this physical world would ever need to happen:
While the two followers were telling this, Jesus himself stood right in the middle of them and said, “Peace be with you.”
They were fearful and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost. But Jesus said, “Why are you troubled? Why do you doubt what you see? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have a living body as you see I have.”
After Jesus said this, he showed them his hands and feet. While they still could not believe it because they were amazed and happy, Jesus said to them, “Do you have any food here?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish. While the followers watched, Jesus took the fish and ate it.
He said to them, “Remember when I was with you before? I said that everything written about me must happen—everything in the Law of Moses, the books of the prophets, and the Psalms.”
Then Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He said to them, “It is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that a change of hearts and lives and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations, starting at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things….” (Lk. 24:36-48, NCV)
Jesus said they were witnesses. Witnesses of what? Witnesses of Jesus being alive after having been dead. They didn’t witness Jesus as a ghost or spirit. They witnessed him eat fish. They talked with him for over a month. Thomas, the apostle who wouldn’t believe unless he saw for himself, touched Jesus’ wounds. Paul mentioned in passing that over five hundred people in the hearing of his letter saw Jesus alive.
Witnesses. The difficulty in believing the story is not that we don’t have witnesses. We have plenty of witnesses. It’s what those witnesses testify to: that a dead man came back to life to free us from the cosmic dance. The apostle Paul was keenly aware of all the apostles’ sacred duty as witnesses:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is worth nothing, and your faith is worth nothing. And also, we are guilty of lying about God, because we testified of him that he raised Christ from the dead. But if people are not raised from the dead, then God never raised Christ. (1 Cor. 15:14-15, NCV)
Our faith is not the opposite of reason. Nor is it the opposite of evidence. We are not making a “leap of faith” to believe in Jesus, leaping over both reason and evidence. We have evidence. And we have reasons that make some sense of that evidence. So, our faith is not blind. Rather, our faith is trust in the eyewitnesses that they knew what they saw. Some may argue that our trust is foolish—because the eyewitnesses were unreliable or made the stories up. But witnesses we have. In that way, faith in Jesus is not mythmaking.
Timothy Treadwell did not obey nature—and he paid dearly for it. Adam didn’t obey our Father—and we have all paid dearly for it. But Jesus obeyed. He bowed the knee to our Father. In doing so, he paid for our new life. A new life free of suffering and death.
But in order for each of us to have a life free of such nonsense, the apostle Paul asserts our universe will have to be set free as well:
The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay…. (Rom. 8:21, NIV)
And in our universe’s liberation, the apostle John asserts that our Father:
…will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:1-5, NIV; abridged; italics mine)
Incredible! A renovated universe where, like Jesus, we eat fish and never suffer again. If believing in this grand vista were to be blind, we’d indeed be the village idiots. After all, the panoramic is outrageous. The universe is immeasurably huge…beyond comprehension. Suffering and death permeate all space and time. To even contemplate that one man…two thousand years ago…on a small planet…in a practically infinite universe came back to life—and that that man is the focal point for the cosmic drama—is one huge myth. Making us grand mythmakers. Making us more foolish than Moses’ people making a golden calf or Timothy Treadwell’s touching bears or medieval church leaders holding onto the belief that the Earth is the center. In the spirit of the apostle Paul, trusting in such a grand fantasy would make us fools to be pitied…except for one thing (1 Cor. 15:19).
Sunday did come. And with it, the death of Death.
Happy Resurrection Sunday.
* Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Meditations on the Stations of the Cross (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005, http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/2005/documents/ns_lit_doc_20050325_via-crucis_en.html.