Surgery and Unbelief—and “Thank You”

In the weeks since my last blog installment, I underwent carpal tunnel release surgery.  Although the surgery itself was uneventful, one incident that happened during that 20 minute procedure remained in my mind as a metaphor—the basis for deeper insight.  I was awake during the surgery, but in a tent, so I couldn’t see what was happening in my hand.  The carpal ligament was very tight and when it was cut, my hand jumped up from the surgical table, prompting the surgeon to say, “That’s your nerve saying ‘Thank you!’.”

As you might guess, the metaphor grows out of that image–cutting the ligament.  This immediately reminded me of something I recently came across in Christian Wiman’s spiritual memoir.  He recounts his own journey from childhood evangelical Christianity through skepticism and even atheism to an emerging, still questing, “modern belief,” which has returned him to a faith, a life of prayer and a theology that is informed by Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He writes, “the same impulse that leads me to sing of God leads me to sing of godlessness,” quoting Bonhoeffer: “Before God and with God we live without God.” Wiman concludes, “Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.”

I see the truth of this metaphor in our world today wherever I look.  The metaphor does not point us to an easy transition from one condition of life to another.  It takes a sharp scalpel, in the hands of an experienced and competent surgeon, to cut into the hand and slice through the ligament; it takes weeks of recuperation and exercise to restore the hand to health and a full functioning.  Living without God and in unbelief is more like a pilgrimage through the desert than a walk in the park.  This exemplifies Paul Ricoeur’s insight that new meaning emerges from the metaphor only through a process that he called self-destruction.

Marriage equality; re-ordering the social class system; learning to live with a plurality of religions, races, cultures; establishing genuine justice in a context of the common good—these are examples of the ligament-cutting that life is calling us to today.  Jim Wallis, in his latest book, reminds us of the centrality of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, chapter 25, “As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me….as you did it not to the least of these you did it not to me.”  A large portion of our agenda today is captured in Wallis’s emphasis.

Even though it requires a very sharp scalpel and a great deal of courage to cut through personal, societal, political, and cultural ligaments that hold us so tightly that we can scarcely entertain the changes that these life-challenges call for, there seems to be no other alternative if we are to free our lives.  Unbelief enters in as well, because the new paths are obstructed by belief systems that we have inherited and lived with for generations; far too often we venerate these beliefs as if they are divine.  A degree of unbelief is essential if we are to free ourselves. This was true in Jesus’ time and no less in ours.

I chose the metaphor, “raising the screen,” as the metaphor for my blog.  I could just as well have named it, “cutting the ligaments.” In either case the challenge is before us: to see squarely and honestly the world in which we live.  Cutting the ligament was painful-and stressed my hand—the pain and stress will persist for some weeks.  But my hand got the deeper point when it literally leapt up and cried out, “Thank you.”  There’s an entire world in that response—even a metaphysics in that “Thank you”—because it’s a cry of life freed from death.

5 Responses to “Surgery and Unbelief—and “Thank You””

  1. Tom Ford June 10, 2013 at 2:48 am #

    It’s also noted on your experience that someone else had to do the cutting.

  2. Kim June 10, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    I like Tom Ford’s observation. I’ll have to think about how that intersects with my first thought, about the stages it takes to move from pseudo to true community… one of them being kenosis or the letting go of illusions. Is there any way to make the cut yourself, to joyful renounce, to turn and live from “mind-fistedness” as one of our hymns says. Or does it take the uncontrollable labor pains of new creation, the slice of economic upheaval, the surgeons of social change in legislature, judiciary, etc. Maybe both.

    • philnevahefner June 11, 2013 at 2:58 am #

      Let me know where this leads you. Each individual has to undergo the cutting–each of us has to feel the bondage, release, and liberation,and the struggle afterwards. As daughter Julie observes, the cutting is in a sense the easiest part–it’s the aftermath that is the real struggle.

  3. Pat June 11, 2013 at 8:19 am #

    Thanks Phil – I really appreciated this post.It chimes very well with ideas which have been running through my mind this weekend as the Iona Community has celebrated its 75th birthday and we have remembered its past, reflected on its work and recommitted ourselves to discover and pursue where this might take us in the future.Your metaphors gave me a different framework within which to look at this – and that has added a helpful further dimension to the process. Pat

    • Phil Hefner June 12, 2013 at 3:05 am #

      Good to hear from you, Pat. The iona experience must be a rich one–Blessings!

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