Actually, it's a factual story and has to do with my grandfather. He loved to fish; you need to know that. And he was pretty good. You could always count on him to bring home a nice catch if there were any fish at all within a reasonable proximity to his fishing line. So he liked to fish, but another thing you need to know about him is that he was a modest man, not given to boasting, empathic to the hardships of others, and usually short on small talk. Which makes this story all the more interesting to me as it was somewhat out of character for him.
I remember sitting at our dinner table where he most often ate and commented sparsely as we all shared out various accounts of the day's events. But on this one night, he inserted his own tale of his day's fishing trip with Arthur, a good friend and fishing buddy. Arthur was much more expressive of his religious faith than my grandfather who usually said very little about matters of religion, politics, or sex, all of which he held within his soul as quite private matters.
But in this evening, he opened up with a very uncharacteristic joviality that made me wonder at the start what was coming. Well, it had to do with his fishing experience that day. Things had not gone well, the weather was not all that good, the bait was not the best, and the fish had taken the day off. My grandfather and Arthur were getting no bites. Then, suddenly, Arthur got a strong tug on his line. He pulled it in and held just above the water this large, beautiful redbreast sunfish. Arthur held the fish just out of the water and looked over at my granddaddy, who had not had even a bite all day. Then, Arthur could not restrain himself any longer and said, "Thank the Lord"!, at which time the redbreast fought off the hook and flipped back into the water, leaving Arthur's hook dangling empty and Arthur's gaze following the fish as it dived deep into the water and swam away.
At this point in his story, my granddaddy couldn't contain himself any longer and led the entire table in laughing at poor Arthur's confoundment. I am using that word now to describe what I think we all must have been projecting on Arthur and his lost redbreast. At any rate, the dictionary defines "confound" like this:
1. (as a verb): cause surprise or confusion in someone, especially by acting against
2. prove a theory, expectation, or prediction wrong;
3. defeat a plan, aim, or hope.
This was the image that my granddaddy must have had in his mind, an image which I gather all of us shared around the dinner table. Here was Arthur, so confident in his piety that he was sure the Lord had given him a fish. But it got away just as Arthur's prayer of thanksgiving escaped his mouth! What confounding surprise and confusion. "Did you laugh?" we asked my granddaddy. "Oh no," he said, much too gracious to take delight in another's misfortune, even if it served humorously to reveal the childish ways we may understand our relationship to God.
For example, as of this writing, Boston, MA, has recorded 95.7 inches of snow for the winter of 2014-2015, just 11.9 inches away from the previous record. My friends there are having a hard time of it. Not only is it a problem for coping with daily life in general, but there is also the question of where they are to put the snow as the freezing temperatures do not allow for any melting!
So in the midst of this ongoing bout with the snow, a prominent president of one of the respectable theological schools in the area has announced that the school will delay the liturgical season of Lent, due to begin on February 18, and even Easter if the snow continues, because "we can only respond to what God is doing now. What God will be doing six weeks from now is another matter."
Poor God, so busy -- putting a fish on Arthur's hook, helping it get away, dumping snow on Boston, and then having to contend with the president of a major theological school making a unilateral decision to delay the Church's liturgical season! What else? Surely it was not God that deflated the Patriots' footballs for the American Football League championship game with Green Bay. But, on the other hand, I am suspecting that somewhere there are some souls in Boston and Green Bay who may be thinking just that, so ridiculous are our day-to-day observations of "life with God" -- at least in our present day's religious piety that is sinking in sentimental God-talk devoid of any theological depth.
This is an easy, sanguine, irresponsible way to talk about the deeply sacred dimension of life. It is a resort to fall back on "the God-of-the-gaps," to explain things we do not understand. This idea of the God-of-the-gaps surfaced back in the 19th century in Henry Drummond's Lowell lectures, published as The Ascent of Man. However, the origin of this explanation for things we do not understand goes back to the beginning of human history when the mysterious happenings in our physical world were attributed to spirits, gods, divinities, beings of some kind that we thought responsible for natural events we could not explain otherwise. Such a primitive and superstitious fallacy has fallen into religious devotional life and talk about God. However, theologians today caution us to focus talk about God in terms of the depth dimension of what is known in human existence rather than as explanations for gaps of natural phenomena that are unknown, but which are being narrowed each day.
Such superficial talk of a God-of-the-gaps has served to set up a straw man fallacy by which people like Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion attack theism in behalf of their atheism. This atheism is, in fact, one that I understand as it dismantles the fallacious belief in a God-of-the-gaps. But in spite of the Boston theological school's president making such a strange statement associating God with the city's recent snowstorms, no serious theologian attempts to account for a spiritual presence in life by resorting to using God-language in such a way.
Unlike my grandfather's reflections on the matter. As he was finishing his story with a good laugh, you can imagine that it sparked a lot of conversation around our dinner table. Not the least of which was the topic and question -- that I may have asked -- "So do you think the Lord caused the fish to get off Arthur's hook?" To which my granddaddy replied, returning to his accustomed restraint of religious language, "Oh, I wouldn't go that far." But the glint in his eye gave me reason to wonder.