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August 8, 2011 / Caitlin Wheeler

An Excerpt from Vic Sizemore’s essay, “An Atheist and a Saint”

For the believer, according to Westphal, ambivalence begins with the awakening to the ontological poverty of the believing soul. The realiza­tion is expressed in phrases such as this one from a Baptist invitational hymn I sang countless times as a boy: Thou art the potter, I am the clay. From our earliest years in Sunday School we are taught to say, “He must increase, I must decrease,” a mantra which only brings our attitudes into plumb with the already-established reality of our nothingness before God. Stickers are popping up in car windows around town that say NOT I, BUT CHRIST–the website advertised below the message without in­tended irony was at first http://www.falwell.com, and has since changed to http://www.trbc.com. A perfect example of this very ambivalence.

I, the believing soul, am drawn to God, to the All, but at the same time I am repulsed because of what it means about the nature of my own existence: when faced with the Ultimate, non-contingent reality, I experience what Westphal calls a deficiency of being, a realization that my very existence is small and worthless by comparison. At the same time, God holds out to me the only chance at giving my small, weak existence any real meaning. Could I be anything but ambivalent? Like someone standing on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Westphal writes, or a toddler standing before a huge dog, I am simultaneously drawn in and repelled.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost, as has often been noted, is a good example of this kind of believer’s ambivalence. Milton, a Protestant who opposing King of England, could not help feeling sympathy for his rag-tag band of fallen angels as they stood in defiance of the Dictator of all creation–for whose ways Milton had ostensibly set out to write a defense.

In the unbeliever ambivalence is experienced in the other direction, as a longing for something beyond material existence: for love that is truly love and not simply evolutionary impulses designed to propagate the species; for life to make some kind of sense; for existence to have real meaning. It is what Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” calls an “appetite for the absolute and for unity.” The absence of an Ultimate Other leaves a longing in the unbelieving soul–St. Augustine’s restless heart and Adrienne Rich’s lament about being an ice-fast rowboat gazing out at winter’s red light, with its own small gift for burning.

4 Comments

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  1. Carolynn Kingyens / Aug 10 2011 10:56 pm

    Vic Sizemore’s excerpt from his fine essay, “An Atheist and a Saint” takes on the pluralistic plight of the “thinking” believer who ponders on God and His supreme awesomeness more than those who have mastered the art of decreasing. It’s the wrestling between the mind, heart and maybe a little ego. As Vic writes, “I am simultaneously drawn in and repelled.”

    Ambivalence – simultaneously feeling opposing or contradictory feelings. Most parents love their children, and will unconditionally nurture the newborn into adulthood. Ambivalence is not typically an emotion of a newborn, toddler or even young child. It’s when we’re a little older and can perceive rightly the sleight of hand of parental figures, those sometimes cruel manipulations always embedded with love. It’s when familiar trust is beyond broken, and suddenly you are faced with two opposing feelings at the same time – love and hate but never indifference. Why can’t God, our heavenly Father, reserve the same emotion from us?

    What Vic touches on in his excerpt is the need for ambivalence in the evolutionary process of the believer or we’ll just regulate at the believer’s equivalent of a newborn.

    I very much enjoyed reading Vic Sizemore’s thought-provoking excerpt. Vic is an emerging writer, definitely one to watch.

    • heidi stauff / Sep 15 2011 9:09 pm

      good thoughts Carolynn. 🙂 -Heidi

  2. heidi stauff / Sep 15 2011 9:27 pm

    I think there’s something to be said about scope. We are cut off in our scope because we have a finite understanding of something infinite. I think it was St. Augustine who compared it to pressing your face up against a stained glass window depiction of the crucifixtion and only seeing the tiny shard of glass in front of your face. Perception of good and evil is finite. We measure things based on the structure of time where there is none in the infinite. If a child is tortured raped and killed we can’t understand how God can let that happen because we measure that’s child meaning and existence based on the framework of time, on the finite. If we are truly, infinite eternal beings, that child’s “life” was just a millisecond in the scope of it’s infinite existence. See, I’m still talking using time as a measuring tool because our existence is so defined by it we can’t operate otherwise.

    That’s why when Job questions God, He replys; “where were you when I formed the foundations of the earth?”

    If all eternity is a one hour t.v. program, our earthly lives make up one millionth of a second of it. But we still want to argue with God about what the show was all about. Just my thoughts. Good article Vic.

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  1. What Can We Steal from Vic Sizemore’s “Freedom’s Just Another Word”? | Great Writers Steal

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