Monday, November 30, 2009

The Case of Julia Sweeney & Other Tidbits

Actress Julia Sweeney was a cast member of Saturday Night Live from the time she joined in 1990 until the time of her departure in 1994. After exiting the show, Sweeney experienced a series of personal disasters in which family members - including herself - were diagnosed with some form of cancer. Raised a Roman Catholic, Sweeney's adult battle with cancer culminated in a public declaration that she was an atheist, and even wrote a monologue called Letting Go of God, in which she elaborated on her newly formed atheistic beliefs. According to Wikipedia, famed atheist Richard Dawkins has quoted Letting Go of God extensively in his book The God Delusion.

When I was a member of my Church choir, I knew a man who lost both of his parents in rapid succession. Such an excruciating experience drove him away from the Church and never again did I see him return. I think both his and Sweeney's experiences might be structured almost identically.

I actually empathize with people who have shifted to disbelief that was caused by an extreme, personal ordeal. The hurt and the anger that compels them is more heartbreaking - at least in my eyes - than the tragic abandonment of God and their faith. I'm always reminded of the fact that these individuals have reached a breaking point in which pure exasperation took control of their senses.


I think sometimes we inadvertently get a little overzealous and focus too much on the excerpts of Scripture that describe the sheer difficulty (and, perhaps, likelihood or unlikelihood) of reaching the abode of the saints. Some people unjustly focus too much on that and build a fire and brimstone sermon that makes it sound like we're ALL going to hell. Yes, God is infinite justice and His wrath should make us all tremble. But God is also Love, and when the phrase "infinite justice" is evoked the first thing that comes to the minds of some is a God who mercilessly tosses wayward souls into the fires of hell without a second thought. Have you ever considered the possibility that the highest form of infinite justice God can apply might actually be infinite mercy? A God that embraces your return to Him very similarly to the loving reception experienced by the prodigal son in the famous parable. I'm fairly certain that we make the whole salvation desire much more difficult than what it actually is, and it's hard enough already!

Here's a brief video (again) of Thomas Merton. Listen to the narrator, speaking in the voice of Thomas Merton, say: "Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it. A man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith." Towards the end of the video he concludes with a profound observation that has had me thinking about it since the first time I heard it: "...the gate of Heaven is everywhere." What a beautiful thing to say.


Shirley said...

Tom, the last 26 seconds of that video put into words something I've been looking for; a description of that point inside ourselves that holds the Spirit of God. How sad it is that people like Julia Sweeney never found that point and look only to themselves and this world for the source of happiness.

Tom in Vegas said...


Very well said. I too found the same words quite moving. I knew that someone as spiritually mature as you would notice those words as well.

Melody K said...

I remember reading about Julia Sweeney's battle with cancer. I am sorry that it caused her to become an atheist. Like you, I can empathize with someone who reached their breaking point. I do believe however that God isn't finished with her yet (and He isn't finished with Dawkins, either!).
I agree with you that there is a tendency sometimes to emphasize God's punitive justice at the expense of His mercy. Someone who is hurting could turn away in despair from this image of a pitiless God.

Angela M. said...

This little clip give me hope.

Mike and Kim said...

I love your empathy, Tom, and I agree with you. I feel profound sadness for those who have suffered so... which in turn has resulted in losing touch (or never getting a chance to get there in the first place) with that inner place...and ultimately leaving the Church. My brother-in-law is very active and passionate about counseling those who have been abused by clergy...their pain and suffering, still, is so intense and real. Bringing them back to God through the Church is one of the most rewarding parts of his work.

Great post.

Terry Nelson said...

Tom - you are incredible. Thanks for the video... "the gate of Heaven is everywhere."

I have nothing to say.