A Dickens of a Time with Theology

by Valerie Wilkinson

I joined a theology class recently, looking for a place where I could explore the very things that mattered most. I longed for an open and respectful sharing of ideas. I found that and so much more. Every Tuesday evening, nine casual acquaintances created a safe, sacred place that burned with excitement, the elixir of ideas so large that often we merely grasped at the corners.

But, oh, when we made contact, no matter how brief, those moments shone with inspiration and grace.

Tale of Two Cities
Tale of Two Cities Giclee Print

Although our belief systems differed dramatically-humanist, agnostic, naturalist, Christian, Eastern influenced-we reached for surprisingly similar concepts. The desire for truth, justice, love, forgiveness, and authenticity drew us together. Most unexpected, amid all of this probing and contemplation, was that my thoughts returned, again and again, to my favorite novel. A problem for me because I've always been embarrassed by my choice for favorite novel: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. It sounds so quaint and juvenile, as if I never progressed past ninth grade.

My children have been no help with this. Each has read the book, all earlier than ninth grade, and each gave me that same sideways glance that clearly said: Really? This is your favorite?

To make matters worse, I can never remember the details. I've read the book five or six times and still struggle to recall character names and specific events. So imagine my astonishment when I threw myself into the immense challenge of building my own theology and kept coming back to Dickens.

I even looked at myself sideways. Really? Your theology is in that book?

Here's what I remember about the A Tale of Two Cities. It is a time of intense poverty and great wealth, a time of conspiracy and revolution. There are backroom meetings, passionate mobs, and an inordinate amount of bloodshed. Now that I think about it, that sounds a lot like what I learned in Sunday school-except for the guillotines and all that suspicious knitting. And in the center of it all, a trinity, a love triangle between the sophisticated Charles Darnay, the beautiful Lucie Manette, and the downtrodden Sydney Carton.

Okay, I admit it, I had to go back and look up the names.

But what I always remember, without fail, is the beginning and the ending.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . ."

To borrow from Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire, Dickens had me at hello. With ease and elegance, Dickens introduces the conflict of the human condition that is as relevant today as it was in 1775, a conflict that in many ways fuels my own system of belief.

And then the ending. From Sydney Carton, the losing side of the triangle, who chooses to lay down his life in service to the woman he loves. "It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

In that one statement, Carton forgives himself of his shortcomings. He chooses love. He gives himself in service to a greater good. He transcends his situation. He overcomes death and finds everlasting peace.

It seems my theology is in Dickens' perfect little novel where every person and every event turns out to have impact and significance.

Theology class taught me more than I'd hoped to learn. I discovered that I had good reason to love my favorite novel because it taught me that something need not be true to convey truth and that theologies reside in the strangest of places. I realized that whether you find your theology in open vistas, colliding stars, the wisdom of Buddha, the fire of Mohammad, the passion of Christ, or merely in a book that you were forced to read in high school, the vehicle matters little in comparison to the meaning you make of it and the impact it has on your life. Whichever path is chosen, hope prevails for safe and sacred places, conversations that challenge and enlighten, truth that flows in love, and blessed moments of peace.

So I forget the details of my favorite novel, just as I can't quote scripture or recite the seven principles of my church. Maybe that's how it should be. For what are the details, really, other than vessels for the truth? And the truth I carry with me. Whether I ascribe it to Charles Dickens, my Christian upbringing, or my Unitarian beliefs, the truth remains for me in compassion for the human condition, belief in the infinite power of love, and reliance on our innate ability to forgive and transcend.

BIO: VALERIE WILKINSON lives in Virginia Beach where she balances her time between family, work, and writing. She has written speeches for state and national politicians and has ghostwritten communications for business leaders, regional and international charities, and political figures. She is the co-author of Whispers from Our Soul: The Voice of Tahkamenon and is currently completing her second collaboration Mafia Madness: My Life under Siege. Contact Valerie at: v.wilkinson@cox.net

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