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Monday, July 4, 2016

Elie Wiesel: "Wounded Faith"

Tributes have been pouring in for author, teacher and Holocaust-survivor Elie Wiesel who died on July 2 at the age of 87.
Elie Wiesel Sept 30, 1928 - July 2, 2016

Wiesel’s classic Night was one of the formative influences on my spiritual and theological development. Although written as a work of fiction, it is based on Wiesel’s own experience in the Nazi concentration camp where his father, mother and younger sister all perished.
Wiesel’s forty books all deal with the mysteries of suffering, God and faith, and the vital importance of memory. Wiesel has written extensively about the suffering of the Jews, but with no trace of self-pity, rage or entitlement. His voice has carried such moral authority because he has spoken on behalf of all innocent victims, not only his own tribe. He insists that we remember so that we will learn, grow and heal. 

Wiesel also reminds us that faith is a struggle and that doubt is an essential element of belief. 

It is common today for people to give up on faith too easily. “I see terrible things happening – so God must not exist.” “The Bible was written 2000 years ago – so it must not be relevant to today.” “Christians are responsible for wars and oppression – so the church must be wrong.” “I can’t make sense out of doctrines like the Trinity – so I’ll just dispense with them.” “Science has vastly increased our knowledge – so we’ve outgrown ancient traditions.”
From Elie Wiesel we can learn the importance of struggling with faith and wrestling with God.

In a 2005 interview with writer Cathleen Fansani, Wiesel talked about what he called his “wounded faith.”

Why on earth does he still believe? I want to know. I need to know.

“Doubt is there all the time,” he says, softly. “The questions are there, and all my questions are stronger than all my answers.”

And yet you continue to wrestle with God?

“I continue because what is the alternative?” he says.

You could walk away.

“And do what, really? Could I not believe? If I were not who I am, of course I would not. But I am who I am,” the professor says. “I cannot not believe. Not because of myself, but because of those who were before me. It is my love for and fidelity to my parents, my grandparents, and theirs, and simply to stop, to be last in the chain, is wrong. It would humiliate them. They weren’t at fault. Why should I do it to them? I feel such a presence when I think about them and even when I don’t think about them. I want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to break the chain. And to choose what? Is it better to be agnostic or better to be an atheist? I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. I accept having faith. I call it wounded faith, my faith is wounded. But I believe. A very great Hasidic master once said, ‘No heart is as whole as a broken heart.’ And I paraphrase it differently: No faith is as pure as a wounded faith because it is faith with an open eye. I know all the elements of the situation; I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t have faith. I have better arguments against faith than for faith. Sure, it’s a choice. And I choose faith.”

(From Cathleen Falsani, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People.

Wiesel’s voice is so powerful because it is the voice of authenticity. There is nothing facile about his faith. It is the faith of someone who has wrestled with God. Atheists often accuse believers of taking the easy way out, of using God as an avoidance strategy. They haven't listened to Elie Wiesel. Faith for him is not an opinion considered at a safe distance. It holds him in its grip. It compels him. Far from blinding him to the realities of human existence, his is a faith “with an open eye.”  

I fear that we are losing that willingness to wrestle with God. I hope that Elie Wiesel’s voice will continue to be heard by future generations, that they will read him and remember him, and be both challenged and encouraged by his remarkable, wounded faith.