These Glories Were Unimaginable
It’s difficult to have an honest conversation about religion unless you are in substantial agreement about it with your fellow discoursers. The emotional muscles needed to talk about it without becoming either defensive of your beliefs or evangelical are pretty substantial. We mostly do everything we can to avoid it. As in all things this means that the loudest are those left to represent the entire topic, to our great loss.
I think that humans want to believe in something greater than themselves. The easiest to believe in is a grand creator. Something, someone, beyond the patched and broken people around us. When we become disillusioned and lose faith, early or late, there becomes an absence that wants to be filled. With art, or a mission, or a career, or other people. But it’s not ever an exact fit.
Hearing anyone talk about it with the sense of loss, of grief, that I feel for my lost faith has been rare. Discovering it in James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain has been a lovely surprise.
I honestly had no idea of the content of the book when I picked it up, only that it was a good place to start with Baldwin. In this passage that I love he wrestles (as a young adolescent) with how you live in a world that is this beautiful but has only been created as a test to get to the next world.
It was the roar of the damned that filled Broadway, where motor-cars and buses and the hurrying people disputed every inch with death. Broadway: the way that led to death was broad, and many could be found thereon; but narrow was the way that led to life eternal, and few there were who found it. But he did not long for the narrow way, where all his people walked; where the houses did not rise, piercing, as it seemed, the unchanging clouds, but huddled, flat, ignoble, close to the filthy ground, where the streets and the hallways and the rooms were dark, and where the unconquerable odour was of dust, and sweat, and urine, and home-made gin. In the narrow way, the way of the cross, there awaited him only humiliation for ever; there awaited him, one day, a house like his father’s house, and a church like his father’s, and a job like his father’s, where he would grow old and black with hunger and toil.
The way of the cross had given him a belly filled with wind and had bent his mother’s back; they had never worn fine clothes, but here, where the buildings contested God’s power and where the men and women did not fear God, here he might eat and drink to his heart’s content and clothe his body with wondrous fabrics, rich to the eye and pleasing to the touch. And then what of his soul, which would one day come to die and stand naked before the judgment bar? What would his conquest of the city profit him on that day? To hurl away, for a moment of ease, the glories of eternity!James Baldwin – Go Tell it On the Mountain
These glories were unimaginable—but the city was real. He stood for a moment on the melting snow, distracted, and then began to run down the hill, feeling himself fly as the descent became more rapid, and thinking: ‘I can climb back up. If it’s wrong, I can always climb back up.’ At the bottom of the hill, where the ground abruptly levelled off on to a gravel path, he nearly knocked down an old white man with a white beard, who was walking very slowly and leaning on his cane. They both stopped, astonished, and looked at one another. John struggled to catch his breath and apologize, but the old man smiled. John smiled back. It was as though he and the old man had between them a great secret; and the old man moved on.