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God, Crisis, & Narrative: A Vaster Kind of Humanities Education

How do we encounter God during moments of crisis?

The global pandemic did not just isolate—“socially distance”—individuals and families. It also emptied classrooms, churches, movie theaters, concert halls, sporting arenas, and various businesses nationwide. In our BYU Humanities Center, it postponed and eventually canceled events both large and small. Not knowing how to respond, we sat on our hands for a couple months, then began planning virtual meetings, then took up some new, COVID-proof activities.

Podcasting is one of these. Our main series, Faith and Imagination, features people whose faith informs their life and work. One of our guests was Sarah Bachelard, an Australian theologian who in 2012 published the small, elegant book Experiencing God in a Time of Crisis. While it seems tailor-made for a pandemic, its purview is wider. For, in some form or other, crisis befalls everyone: “Very few of us (and perhaps ironically they are the unlucky ones) make it unwounded through life.”1 What engages Bachelard is the question of what it means to encounter God—“an authentic, as opposed to a falsely consoling” God (13)—during these periods of personal, familial, or financial struggle.

How do we encounter God during moments of crisis? Bachelard enlists a provocative model for explaining and negotiating this question, one that appeals to a literature professor like me: the model of story, of narrative. Crisis, she observes, introduces “a break or a deep rupture in our life . . . a before and a very different after” (47). It institutes a change of perspective and perhaps direction. What makes crises different from mere difficulties is that we merely endure the latter, whereas the former entail “suffering created by the collapse of meaning, by the loss of the story we knew and were able to tell of our lives. I thought my life was amounting to this, but now that has gone. Who am I, now that my marriage has ended, my child has left home, my job has disappeared, my faith has become empty, my body is breaking down?” (48–49). Our stories give us direction and purpose; they connect our pasts to our futures. In attacking our stories, then, crises corrode our deepest sense of identity and meaning.

Happily, for Bachelard, Christ is the ultimate narrative revisionist, one who is supremely adept at helping us understand where and why our stories failed us and how to build new ones. These subsequent, more spiritually mature narratives help us make the transition to the people we need to become even as they help us share in “the vulnerability of the whole creation” (75). “So in the same way that Jesus’s life and death and resurrection could be given back to his disciples in such a way that fuller communion with God and with humanity was made possible, so our lives, brought into deeper wholeness through the costly pilgrimage through crisis, may become an offering for the healing of the world” (76–77).

Such insights capture what initially inspired me to study the humanities. I wanted to experience God more fully by way of his creation. Literature in particular was the imaginative vehicle providing access into all aspects of that creation—the minds and lives of others from across cultures and history, acute poetic perceptions of the natural world, and the most delicate thoughts about what it means to be. What is more, and as Bachelard’s lovely book illustrates, literary structures like narrative helped me better understand and respond to the nuances of God’s presence in my own life, including during seasons of crisis.

The pandemic has introduced such a season into so many lives. And so, while the Humanities Center has been unusually quiet over the past year, I’ve been more grateful than ever for my humanities education. In large measure, it accomplishes what Bachelard, a contemplative theologian, writes about contemplation: “By taking us more deeply into our selves . . . [it] send[s] us back into the world with radically deepened capacity to be with and to love other people, [and] to live non-anxiously in ways that offer wholeness and hope” (111).

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Humanities alumni magazine.