A short poem and essay introducing this special issue of God & Nature magazine
A young man in my extended family took his own life this summer. At seventeen years old, his experience of doubt, depression and loneliness must have been so penetrating and so complete that nothing else seemed real, anymore. Most of us live with doubts every day, doubts about our work, our family, our faith, our future. We fail hard and we fail often, but we move forward from these failures and, if lucky, remember the lessons and heal quickly from the lesions. If we emerge from our teenage years with our lives and (some of) our sanity intact, we later think only hazily and occasionally about just how small our worlds were made to be when growing up, how full of frustration and cruelty. As functional adults with full schedules it can be difficult to imagine how crippling doubt can be for a child, how hard to manage a positive thought when you don’t possess the power to change the people or circumstances of your own life.
I’ve never known doubt so dark and deep it stifles all movement, occludes all horizons—but I have witnessed the suffering of those who do, and I cannot imagine anything more painful. I wish doubt was a topic we talked about more in church. I wish our children were given the opportunity to speak to this presence in their lives early on, with guidance from wise and loving adults before they ever wake up to find its shadow blocking every egress from depression.
This short essay is meant to serve as an introduction both to this special issue of God & Nature magazine and to a poem I wrote while rocking in a hammock at a seminary near my home, thinking about the unfathomable, excruciating, and ultimately lethal doubt and loneliness of a boy I will never get the opportunity to know.
And it’s about my own response to the challenge we inherit every time something like this happens near enough for us to feel its radiating awfulness. No one, not friends nor doctors nor my young cousin’s kind and wonderful parents could save their son from the darkness he thought had become his life. We will wonder forever what words (if any) could have made his pain manageable another day—and we will conjure these words of comfort despairingly, since we can never go back and say them.
What we can do—and all we can do—I think, is our best to create a kinder, gentler, wiser world for the next generation who has to live in it. We can commit to not causing other people unnecessary pain by pretending that we have only ever been our successes. We can admit loudly and openly that we have not always possessed mature faith and at times have seemed only to be clinging desperately to the coherent fragments of a religion that can seem, sometimes, monolithically useless and unfamiliar.
We can quell the urge to grow ostentatiously confident about our own interpretation of the will of God for our and other people’s lives. We can choose not to casually anthropomorphize God, who is so truly and vastly and powerfully incomprehensible to us. We can cease oversimplifying the subtle and perplexing words of our prophets into mottos and aphorisms in our own image or—even more disturbing—explicitly harmful moral imperatives. We can choose to show radical compassion in place of judgment; we can strive for congregational diversity and inclusion where we currently experience segregation and alienation; we can stop designating blame for oppression and poverty and instead beg forgiveness for our role in allowing it to continue. All of us, including myself as I write this, can be more vulnerable to the idea that our theology craves revision, no matter how advanced or philosophically and biblically sound, remembering humbly that Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
This edition of God & Nature magazine is for every person struggling to know God and themselves, every soul in need of permission to doubt boldly their religion or role in the cosmos, every mind churning with fear that they will be marked a traitor or a fool if brave enough to admit the questions keeping them from feeling like a full and precious member of their family or fold. It is my hope that if readers never share another issue of this magazine, that they will share this one in the hope of starting conversations in places desperate for honest and doubt-full dialogue.
—Emily Ruppel, editor