Belief & Unbelief, Part III of III

Allow me to pick up a thread I began to weave in our last conversation. My experience is that believers and unbelievers live in a darkness that is remarkably the same. More than once I have been in conversation with a respected scholar who confessed to me that he would like very much to believe in God, but when he looks, he finds nothing at all, only silence. I have sometimes replied that that is pretty much what I have found. Nothing. Silence. Once or twice I have quoted for my companion some texts from St. John of the Cross, about the nada y nada y nada. St. John writes in poetry of his much-sought Lover:

My house being now at rest. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart. This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday, to the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared.

It is the teaching of St. John of the Cross that the mature Christian ought to expect to dwell in the darkness. And he offers some guides for doing so. (These guides go back to the First Epistle of St. John, mentioned in my previous post.) When the mind goes dark, one can with confidence fall back upon acts of kindness toward one’s immediate neighbor. Love is a dim but steady guide when the light fails.

Sometimes I have also told the story of the drunk who is looking intently up and down the curb under a street light. The policeman on the beat, before hurrying him along, asks him what he is doing. “Dropped a half-dollar. Looking for it.” The cop hesitantly asks, “You sure you lost it here?”

“No,” the drunk says. “Down there,” waving down the dark street.

“Then why aren’t you looking down there?”

As if deeply pained, the drunk looks up at the cop incredulously:

“Any fool can see there’s more light up here.”

If you are looking for God, it makes a big difference what you think you are looking for, and where you are looking. If you think God is going to show up in the searchings of your senses—some voice or blinding light or scent or taste or touch—you are bound to be disappointed. God isn’t like that. He is not like the golden idol of Baal. The senses are not his wavelength, so to speak.

If you think you might be able to imagine him, sorry—can’t be done. Except by little children. (“Where is God?” the nun asks her second-grade class. “Louise?” Louise shakes her head, but Mary Margaret is waving her hand. Called upon, she blurts out: “In the bathroom.” Amused, the sister asks Mary Margaret, “And why do you say that?” “Because every morning my father knocks on the bathroom door and yells out to me and my sister: ‘God, are you still in there?’”)

That leaves you with the best efforts of your mind. You try to form a coherent, plausible concept of God. Sorry again. God is not on the same wavelength, so to speak, as our poor minds. He is much more full of intelligence, light, and benevolence than our minds can handle. Approaching his vastness, our minds blow out like a 120-volt hairdryer in a 220-volt socket. Or worse. No one can conceive adequately of God. Any concept we form will be found to be conspicuously ridiculous.

By the effects of his intelligence and efficacity in the universe, which our minds try to grasp, however, we are led to aim our minds in a certain direction, like arrows that are bound to fall short. We are led toward awe. Wonder. At times, silent admiration. And by the drive to push further. As if like deer in the wood, we run swiftly and somewhat in panic toward the infinite.

“Our hearts are restless, Lord,” St. Augustine addressed the Creator of the sun and all the nighttime stars into which he stared on the shores of the Bay of Tunis. “And they will not rest until they rest in Thee.” That is to say, one path along which we aim our arrows upward is by reflection upon the quarry our restless minds seek, and upon the working of our own minds as they relentlessly pursue. “I sought Thee everywhere, and when I found Thee, Thou wert within.”

I remember a British-American journalist telling me—a man who often says he is a hater of God, a man who attacks religion with delicious ferocity again and again—that one argument that almost does convince him about God is the mystery of our own conscience. Why do we cling so to telling the truth and seeking out what is true amid all the lies? Why do we have so fierce a longing for justice and such burning outrage at all the myriad swamps of injustice that life drags us through? Why, that is, if everything is at bottom meaningless? If it is all random? Then who the hell would care about honesty or justice or outrage? That would all be wasted breath, a bit of utterly pathetic histrionics. A very silly pose.

“That is,” he intimated, “almost enough to turn me toward God.” But, instead, he is sickened by the hypocrisy of the religious, so he turns back from his most promising lead.

Yet what on earth have the moral failings of others to do with what he himself pursues with all his heart? With what he himself decides to make of his own life? So long as there are only a dozen just men, or even one just man on earth, the teeth of his original question still cut into the flesh. How are we to account for the persistence of a burning sense of justice and truth and, yes, even love in this bitter world as we know it?

As I said at the beginning, neither the believer nor the unbeliever actually sees God. But they do reason a bit differently about what their own experience presents to them. They understand their own destiny under these stars, with the wind on their faces, a little differently. Perhaps, most strikingly of all, they reflect quite differently upon their own inner experience of the relentless drive to understand within them, and their striving for truth, for justice, for love.

They read the clues differently. But neither one actually catches sight of the quarry they ardently pursue. This fact—that they both stand in darkness—is not often brought to attention and meditated upon. It is pregnant with clues—about, for instance, how humbly we ought to proceed.

Published In First Things Online August 10, 2006