The curmudgeonly comedian W. C. Fields lay dying in hospital and Cary Grant visited him. As Grant entered his room quietly, he saw Fields – a notorious agnostic, if not atheist, who professed that “religion is for chumps” – reading the Gideon Bible. Grant, surprised, asked, “What are you doing there, Bill?” To which Fields, never at a loss for drollery, replied “Just looking for the loopholes.”
Fields left his childhood home in Philadelphia at the age of eleven or eighteen depending on who you read, reputedly because he could no longer take the beatings and miserable treatment he got from his father. He never went home again but made his living initially as a juggler and then developed into the actor-comedian whose material never seems to grow old. Contrary to popular opinion, his tombstone does not read, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
I suggest that Fields’ early experience of bad parenting, poverty, and miserable life had a lot to do with his view that “religion is for chumps.” Like so many of us, he covered his sensitivity with a veneer of prickliness. How often have you done this to avoid being hurt one more time? We all learn to hide our lamp under a basket, if we think that we are going to experience rejection and the hurt that goes with it by exposing ourselves to others, especially those in our own families.
J. B. Phillips, in his classic book YOUR GOD IS TOO SMALL, has a chapter entitled “God as Perennial Grievance.” God may come across initially as a bitter pill to swallow because of an experience you’d rather not have – a mean and unjust parent, a spouse who died “too soon,” the pain of suffering children, or the ravages of war. Fields was looking for loopholes, perhaps, because he never found the solace and consolation available from the God of Love to whom the Bible witnesses. When you call God Father and you have this backdrop of misery connected with that word and that person, it’s a bit hard to overcome the obstacles and affirm parenthood as benevolent or loving. Many people have had such a negative experience, all the way from sullen rejection to the horrors of incest. It would be a wonder if they did not have some sense of God as perennial grievance.
Yet in the end, I have to insist that it’s a matter of personal responsibility. How much blame do we spoon onto God that really belongs with us? When we lose our tempers and go into the irrational space that anger occupies, who is to blame: God or our own loss of self-control? Violence and war are but large-scale examples of our collective inability to control our temper tantrums and remember that the world is grounded on love. Sometimes we find ourselves in grand clashes with others who have also forgotten the nature of life, or who want to deny life to some while enhancing it for others. These are epic clashes, as with the Nazis in World War II, but it still comes down to failed individual and collective responsibility. God is not to blame for my failures; God is not the perennial grievance.
W. C. Fields’ father was a despicable parent who failed to display love toward his children, but as an adult Fields had a choice. He could have forgiven God for his father and his father for his distorted view of God. We have this choice repeatedly. It is so easy to blame others for our own failures, so easy to find scapegoats especially for the shortcomings we loathe in ourselves.