Throw-Pillow Theology

By Ellen B. Koneck ’16 M.A.R.

He’s at peace,” the chorus of well-meaning Christians wrote in notecards and whispered in the days and weeks after my brother died. But such sentiment – even if true – didn’t, doesn’t work when facing down the dark abyss of death.

He’s in heaven now,” they asserted, as if it were easy or obvious. As if heaven were an effortless expression, the kind well-suited for stitching on throw pillows. As if we could rest our heads on such a theology, stuffed with the fluff of bromide. As if something so shallow could do more than decorate. As if decoration could distract from death.

Believers like to pretend we hope because: because of confidence in the promise of an afterlife or the reassurances of our faith. But in fact, we hope despite: despite the unavoidable evidence of death and decay we daily face. Despite knowing death intimately while merely hearing the rumor of heaven through a friend of a friend (of a friend). Despite discovering our desire and our desperation for heaven, oftentimes, only because death has visited us. “Parting is all we know of heaven,/And all we need of hell” writes Emily Dickinson.

Before his parting, the parting that has given me all I need of hell, I didn’t know that cheap hope betrays us in the hour when the real thing is most needed.

Before his parting, the parting that has given me all I need of hell, I didn’t know that cheap hope – the kind offered me by well-meaning Christians, the kind I’m sure I’ve offered others – betrays us in the hour when the real thing is most needed. When we’re pacing, frantically, desperately, as the stitching begins to unravel. When it’s gently slipped into sympathy cards. When offered, this throw-pillow theology wounds when it should reassure. It decorates our daily lives but offers no cushion when everything comes crashing down.

Before his parting, I believed in this cheap hope. I believed this cheap hope was hope. Before his parting, I could imagine him in the years ahead, healthy, happy, mid-40s or even older, not just fighting to bear the bare minimum of daily life, but fully alive. In my willful optimism I could see it. I can still see it. I can see a thing that did not come to pass. I have been betrayed by this almost-hope, this thing akin to but not quite hope.

Akin, but not quite, because I’ve learned hope is not kin to optimism or silver linings or best-case scenarios. Now I know it is closer to despair. I know that hope looks squarely at hell; knows hell intimately. Flannery O’Connor writes that we must “feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horrors, been found by God to be worth dying for.” For all its horrors. God dove down to places designed only to host despair, and rose again. The horrors are why I cannot stomach something more sentimental, why this throw-pillow theology does not just fail to comfort, but cuts.

I cannot let go of the horrors. The stories of a universe so cruel that nihilism nearly seems a more generous guess than a God who’d allow it: A woman losing her toddler in a department store only to find him, strangled, hanging from a hook in a fitting room where he had wandered to play alone. My mom, holding her son’s limp body in her arms screaming, screaming, (hoping), screaming.

Does this seem a good nominee for delicate stitching?

Far from sentimental, Christian hope faces hell, and then Christian hope rebels. It rebels against the despair and nihilism that would be so easy to accept and so clear to concede. Facing hell, Christian hope does not resign to these horrors but is at rest beside them. Because God dove down to these horrors, these places designed only to host despair, and now God dwells in this darkness.

This is why I can’t bear a theology too pithy. I cannot politely nod along at any overly tidy theodicy, suspiciously well-suited for sewing, any platitude prone to unravel when pressure’s applied. I cannot bear this throw-pillow theology, which betrays me, asking me to betray my brother’s death, to betray God’s death by skipping ahead, glossing over the very horrors that call for hope. Glossing over the presence of God amid these horrors. Asking me to hope despite the horrors, but how? I hope because of them.

Because I have not yet tasted heaven; I have only heard rumors.

Because, amid the horrors, I have met God.

Ellen B. Koneck is the head writer and editor at Springtide Research Institute. Her writing has appeared in America, Commonweal, Plough, and other publications. She lives in St. Paul, MN.