Heidi is a beloved children’s book. Like many books written for children, it also contains material suitable for adults. In it, Johanna Spyri addresses some interesting religious questions. Neither children nor adults reading the book have to be aware of these questions to enjoy the story. But for adults, the problems the questions bring up can be fascinating.
In the first chapter of Heidi, Johanna Spyri provides critical background information about Heidi’s grandfather. She reveals it in a conversation between Dete, Heidi’s aunt, and her friend, Barbel, as the two walk part of the way together up the Alm to Heidi’s grandfather’s hut. Heidi is absent, having wandered off with Peter, a local boy who tends goats.
Barbel is curious about Heidi’s grandfather. The villagers fear and dislike the Alm-Uncle, as they call him, partly because of how he looks. He has a fierce countenance, big bushy eyebrows, a wild beard. But they also fear him because of his behavior, gruff and ill-mannered. Rumors abound. Dete sets the record straight, as best she can, for Barbel.
As a young man, the grandfather, the elder of two brothers, fell in with the wrong crowd and ran through the family’s fortune in short order, spending most of it on drinking and gambling. His younger brother descended into beggary. His parents, overcome by grief at their elder son’s misdeeds, died in close succession.
With nothing left to him in his hometown, not even a decent reputation, he traveled to Naples with soldiers. There is no news of him for several years. But then, he returned unexpectedly with a half-grown son named Tobias. Talk of his having killed a man in a brawl in Naples followed closely on his return. He tried, unsuccessfully, to place Tobias in the care of relatives. But no one would have anything to do with him or his son. He shook the town’s dust off his feet and moved with his son to Dörfli, a small village halfway up the Alm, where Dete grew up and where Barbel lives.
The Alm-Uncle had Tobias trained as a carpenter in Mels, a nearby town. After completing his education, the boy came back home and married Adelaide, Dete’s sister. The couple had one child, Heidi. Tragically, while working one day, a beam fell on Tobias and killed him. Upon seeing her husband’s disfigured body, Adelaide took ill and died not long afterward. At this point, Spyri introduces a challenging theological issue. Dete, speaking about the death of her sister and brother-in-law, says:
Their sad fate was the talk of everybody far and near, and both in private and public the general opinion was expressed that it was a punishment which Uncle had deserved for the godless life he had led. Some went so far even as to tell him so to his face. Our minister endeavored to awaken his conscience and exhorted him to repentance…Spyri, Johanna. Heidi (AmazonClassics Edition) (p. 9). Amazon Classics. Kindle Edition.
Some religious people have the incredibly annoying habit of pointing out others’ sins; at times, they even appear to enjoy doing it. Often this is done without knowing the entire situation in which the “sinner” finds himself, nor understanding the circumstances that have placed him there. There is a familiar pattern. The criticism starts in private, moves to the public arena, and then becomes accepted general opinion.
What makes matters worse is that these critics think they understand God’s will and know why God has done what he has done. Many people in the village of Dörfli were familiar with at least part of the Alm-Uncle’s history. They concluded that God was punishing the Alm-Uncle for leading a godless life. They drew their minister, who didn’t require much tugging, into their way of thinking. He, who one might hope would have known better, “endeavored to awaken his [the Alm-Uncle’s] conscience and exhorted him to repentance.” (ibid).
Where do religious people get the idea that God would go so far as to kill someone the sinner loves to drive the sinner to repentance? Are we to believe that God killed Tobias and Adelaide to make the Alm-Uncle repent of his “godless” life? Heidi is fiction, but let’s consider a non-fictional case.
In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story that happened early in his pastoral career. A nineteen-year-old college freshman collapsed while walking to class one morning and died so quickly that no one could help her. Her parents were members of Rabbi Kushner’s congregation. He visited the couple. Here is his description of what happened.
I entered their home, feeling very inadequate, not knowing any words that could ease their pain. I anticipated anger, shock, grief, but I didn’t expect to hear the first words they said to me: “You know, Rabbi, we didn’t fast last Yom Kippur.”Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen to Good People (p. 12). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Rabbi Kushner then asks a question similar to the one asked above: “Why did they say that? Why did they assume that they were somehow responsible for this tragedy? Who taught them to believe in a God who would strike down an attractive, gifted young woman without warning as punishment for someone else’s ritual infraction?” (Kushner, p. 12).
The idea is rooted, so it seems to me, in some not fully understood Biblical texts, and in our ignorance of how God deals with sinners and how they “pay” for what they have done. To assume that we understand this process is the problem. Part of wisdom is knowing when we don’t know something. The prophet Isaiah writes: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9).
The villagers of Dörfli may be correct in their opinion of what God is doing in the Alm-Uncle’s life. After all, God tested Abraham by asking him to offer his son Isaac to him as a burnt-offering. Who would have thought of that? The problem is not solely whether or not the villagers are correct, but the arrogance of their assumption that they understand what God is doing. As humans, we need to acknowledge our reasoning’s limitations, as much as we hate to consider that it has limits. Some humility is required. We need to know when we are at the end of what we understand.
So, in Heidi, what is the result of the villagers’ words and actions; what is the effect of their pastor’s attempt to bring the Alm-Uncle to penance?
The old man grew only more wrathful and obdurate and would not speak to a soul, and everyone did their best to keep out of his way. All at once we heard that he had gone to live up the Alm and did not intend ever to come down again, and since then he has led his solitary life on the mountainside at enmity with God and man.Spyri, Johanna. Heidi (AmazonClassics Edition) (p. 9). Amazon Classics. Kindle Edition.
We can only imagine what would have happened if the pastor had a different conversation with the Alm-Uncle. What if he had said this: “Alm-Uncle, I’m sorry to learn of the death of Tobias and Adelaide. Your boy once did some work for me at the church. It’s beautiful! Every time I look at it, I picture him working on it. I knew Aledaide her whole life, baptized her, and, as you know, married her to your son. Is there anything you need, anything I can do for you and your family. If there is, please let me know. May you have the comfort of good memories.”
Well, for one thing, we would not have had Heidi. I find something intriguing in Spyri’s conclusion. That the Alm-Uncle is at enmity with God is strong evidence of his belief in God. It’s difficult to hate something that one doesn’t believe exists. It also stands as a refutation of the villagers’ idea that the Alm-Uncle leads a godless life. No one is closer to God than someone angry with him.
Over the years, various readers have objected to the high religious content of Heidi. They like the mountains, the flowers, the birds, Heidi’s personality, but the religious content? Well, not so much. I also enjoy the story’s setting and Heidi’s beautiful view of life. But the book’s religious content is an integral part of the work. It’s worth grappling with it.
All the best,
The whole issue of divine reward and punishment is an interesting one. I agree with your main premise that we cannot understand God’s ways and there is no magic formula we can know to make sense of God’s actions in the world. The Torah does suggest at times, however, that reward and punishment can be passed from parents to children.
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