A dying person's last words are often, and perhaps too easily, held out as the key to understanding all that went before, and so it has been with Elizabeth Edwards.
Her final public message, posted on Facebook, was characteristically eloquent, to the point, and full of grace -- that last word being one that Edwards herself often invoked, and one that was often applied to her, especially as she bore up under so many trials, the last of them the cancer that claimed her life on Tuesday.
But the opening line of her public farewell
was especially notable for its careful phrasing (Edwards, who did post-graduate work in literature, was, after all, a student of the novelist Henry James) about matters of the soul:
"You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope," Edwards wrote.
That she seemed to carefully evade a mention of God or Jesus or things eternal and Christian was striking, and it struck some as "odd," in the words of "American Power" blogger
and neocon Donald Douglas.
"I can't say what it is -- spiritual or otherwise -- that animates her sense of grace, but it's not God," Douglas wrote before proceeding to add some even less graceful conjecture.
"Being anti-religion is cool, so Edwards' non-theological theology gets props from the neo-communists," he said. "Still, at her death bed and giving what most folks are calling a final goodbye, Elizabeth Edwards couldn't find it somewhere down deep to ask for His blessings as she prepares for the hereafter? I guess that nihilism I've been discussing reaches up higher into the hard-left precincts than I thought."
Douglas drew some sharp critiques in the comments on his post but also strong support, and even in the report on the faith angle at Christianity Today
-- the leading mainstream evangelical publication -- some commenters rued Edwards' apparent lack of orthodox Christian faith.
But a closer look at the faith of Elizabeth Edwards offers a more nuanced view, and one that might elicit more charity from those who would judge her at her death.
What seems clear above all is that Edwards' late-in-life spirituality was forged by the flames of unspeakable heartache, from the death of her 16-year-old son, Wade, in a car accident in 1996 to the faithlessness of her husband, John Edwards, who ran for president in 2008 and thrust his wife into the public spotlight while he betrayed her with a private affair. And of course, there was the cancer that since 2004 ravaged her body and also shaped her theology.
As Adele M. Stan recounted in a July 2007 profile
of Edwards for the liberal journal the American Prospect, Edwards told audiences that she "grew up in the Christian tradition" and attended a Methodist church with her husband, but that during her early years as a child in Japan -- her father was a Navy pilot, so the family moved around -- "I grew up with Shintos and Buddhists."
That Eastern influence seemed to emerge as Edwards faced her illness:
"I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God," Edwards explained to an audience of women bloggers when asked how her beliefs inform her politics. "I do not have an intervening God. I don't think I can pray to him -- or her -- to cure me of cancer."
Edwards, according to Stan, laughed after describing God as "her" -- hardly a heresy and certainly understandable given her audience -- and continued on:
"I appreciate other people's prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don't believe that we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that's what's right. We should do those things because that's what's right."
Stan thought Edwards sounded a bit like John Lennon singing "Imagine," essentially arguing that there is nothing beyond ourselves and this moment, so make the best of it.
Yet Edwards clearly seemed far more engaged with the dilemmas of God and evil -- and grace -- than such a narrow reading allows.
In a moving interview with Larry King in May 2009, for example, she spoke frankly
about the death of her son and the religious questions it raised and the recalibrations it forced her to make.
In the weeks and months after Wade's death, she told King, "I had this idea that God was going to find some way to turn back time and he was going to be alive." She continued to ask herself, as many do, whether she had done something wrong -- did she not teach him well enough, not get him a safe enough car? And then when cancer struck, and her husband's affair was revealed, she agonized about the possibility of her own cosmic cooperation in it all.
"And I have to recognize with each of these things, they just happen," she told King. "You didn't have to do something wrong to justify them."
But she added, "You still sort of wonder: Is there some grand plan where you've done something someplace else?"
Edwards said she had to move on from such magical and negative thinking, and she quoted a line from the Bill Moyers PBS special on the Book of Genesis, to the effect that "You get the God you have, not the God you want."
"The God I wanted was going to intervene. He was going to turn time back. The God I wanted was -- I was going to pray for good health and he was going to give it to me," she said. "Why in this complicated world, with so much grief and pain around us throughout the world, I could still believe that, I don't know. But I did. And then I realized that the God that I have was going to promise me salvation if I lived in the right way and he was going to promise me understanding. That's what I'm sort of asking for . . . let me understand why I was tested."
Such openness to doubt and, in particular, to the persistence of suffering runs counter to powerful currents of American Christianity that stress the blessings (mostly material) that will flow to those who believe (and donate), as well as to the premium so many Christians place on voicing a confident and undiluted conviction, no matter what the reality.
For instance, compare the testimony of Elizabeth Edwards to that of her husband, who frequently touted his faith -- as it seems every candidate for office must -- which he said came "roaring back" after the death of Wade. Edwards alternately cited Jesus to reprove Americans for not caring for the poor and for his (albeit reluctant) opposition to gay marriage.
John Edwards, who was raised a devout Southern Baptist and is now a Methodist, told Beliefnet
in 2007 that his Christian faith also helped him deal with Elizabeth's cancer.
"It's important in my case to have a personal relationship with the Lord, so that I pray daily and I feel that relationship all the time," he said. "And when I'm faced with difficult decisions, which I regularly am, I very often go to Him in prayer."
This was at the time Edwards was having an affair with a campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter, who would soon bear their child.
The testimony of Elizabeth Edwards, by contrast, seems much more human, but is also orthodox in channeling the Stoic philosophy
that influenced early Christians along with the biblical tradition of lamentation, from the Psalmist whose words
are echoed in the cry of Jesus dying on the Cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
And Elizabeth Edwards' view that Christians should take care of others not out of a self-interested salvation but out of selflessness and love of God is also about as mainstream as you can get, since it was the command of Jesus himself.
Moreover, Edwards seemed increasingly embedded in what might be described as the "communion of saints," relying on those around her to provide the spiritual support she so badly needed and desired.
"Connections have enriched and sustained me; they have strengthened me by holding me up when I needed it, and they have strengthened me by letting me hold up my end when it was needed," she wrote
in her 2006 memoir, "Saving Graces."
That communal sense of the faith is also characteristic of American believers, as demonstrated by an extensive study released Tuesday, the same day Edwards passed away. The surveys showed
that across all creeds, religious people were more satisfied than non-religious people and that the satisfaction was tied to the number of close friends people said they had in their religious congregation rather than factors like individual prayer, strength of belief, or subjective feelings of God's love or presence.
Whatever Elizabeth Edwards believed at the hour of her death is known only to God, and is beyond the scope of our ability to judge or to affect. But her honesty in posing hard questions that most leave unasked -- or simply gloss over with biblical bromides -- seems like a legacy equal to the joys and griefs of her life.