Why Believe in God?
Over the past few years, the Image staff contemplated assembling a symposium based on this simple problem. But we hesitated. Should we pose such a disarmingly straightforward question to artists and writers, who tend to shun the explicit and the rational? Or were we hesitating because the question itself made us uncomfortable?
Then, over the past year, a handful of manifestoes appeared criticizing religion as a corrupting social force, as vengeful, nonsensical wish-fulfillment, as closing people’s minds to science and leading to war and environmental destruction. Christopher Hitchens and the “New Atheists” have much to lay at the door of the faith traditions of the west. Hitchens calls religion “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
And so we were spurred into action in spite of ourselves. We put it to a group of writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians: At a time in human history when, at least in the worlds of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe? Our goal has been neither to publish rebuttals to Hitchens et al. nor to host a debate, but instead to seek out brief meditations from the artists and writers who make up our extended community. Their responses are collected here.
THE OLD RIVER Control Auxiliary Structure near Simmesport, Louisiana, is an odd site for a pilgrimage. The compound is visible for miles across the flat land, each building stamped with the Core of Engineers’ signature red and white fortress, and nothing else around but cornfields and levees. About fifty miles northwest of Baton Rouge, Old River connects three rivers: the Mississippi, Atchafalaya, and Red. These three would have become one a long time ago had it not been for human intervention. This triptych of concrete and steel, along with oil industry dredging and agricultural run-off, is killing the wetlands where I grew up. Even before Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, southern Louisiana was designated the fastest disappearing landmass on earth. In 2003 two friends, filmmakers, dragged me as a reluctant guide/subject into a documentary about the catastrophic land loss in the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary, my home and the setting of many of my poems. (Once upon a time—about the time of Paul through the time of Aquinas—the bayou I grew up on, Bayou Lafourche, served as the Mississippi’s main outlet.) Ted and Elizabeth didn’t have to drag me to Old River, though. It appealed to me as a point of geographical and spiritual intersection, a second chance at an opportunity I’d passed up, like discovering a shrine close to home only after out-of-town company arrives.
Ted told me where to stand while I wondered what I could say about the dams, levees, and locks that keep the Mississippi from flowing west into the Atchafalaya Basin. I’m no engineer, and my memory is lousy. I was not even eight when the Old River Structure failed and the Mississippi flooded. Now the quiet water has been herded behind even higher, stronger gates. Egrets fly overhead, and shaggy cypresses lean off the bank as if they could as easily step back on solid ground. I looked at Ted and started saying some clichéd thing about human hubris and the paradox of knowing we can’t control nature while trying to do so. But just as I was procrastinating by pointing out a great blue heron flying low across the inflow channel, Elizabeth asked a question that surprised me: “So how is your work as a chaplain connected to your poetry about the loss of your home?”
During my sabbatical from university teaching, I became a chaplain intern at Tampa General Hospital, a busy transplant center and level-one trauma facility that provides care to low-income, uninsured, and vulnerable populations. Studying pastoral care in this setting is a combination of triage training and intensive psychotherapy. Interfaith chaplains at TGH are responsible for an unusual number of ministerial and bureaucratic tasks: identifying trauma victims and contacting families; filling out body release forms; preparing living wills; accompanying the sick and dying. In a day I might bring communion to a patient, hold the hand of someone whose burns are being dressed, arrange a body viewing, listen to a family trying to decide whether to withdraw life support, and pray (or offer positive thoughts) with Pentecostals, Catholics, Jews, Hindus, and others who prefer energy transfer to prayers for intervention.
Elizabeth battled a strand of hair blowing across her face while I paused to take in her question. Several years ago she suffered a serious brain injury in a biking accident and has, on the surface at least, completely recovered. We now swap neuroscience ICU stories: families strained by the conflict of losing someone even as that person remains present in the room. Elizabeth’s family grieved for her for weeks while grateful she was alive—holding her hand and kissing her goodnight and feeling torn by her real absence.
“Paradoxes,” I said to her. “We can’t control nature, but it’s human to have to try. We can’t control death, but we try. In fact, we’d rather blame ourselves for our own illnesses or injuries than admit we sometimes have no control over our lives. People will contort themselves with guilt rather than take in our lack of agency.” I noticed Ted was fidgeting with the camera. He’s not big into religious talk, and he’s graciously endured a lot from me. On the ride up from New Orleans, I coaxed him into pulling over at a steep drop-off when I saw a small wooden building I wanted to investigate. Someone else might have recognized it right away as an old guardhouse (which it turned out to be). My childhood experience in rainy Louisiana suggested it was a school bus shelter, but the indistinct blue figure inside had me hoping for a grotto. It turned out to be on the grounds of an old state trooper training facility, and what I mistook for Mary was a wet/dry vacuum cleaner.
“Poets and chaplains,” I continued, “we try to stay with paradox, a kind of negative capability. My supervisor says a chaplain’s job is not to provide comfort. It’s to take people into their pain so they can begin to incorporate it into their lives and start recovering. My job as a poet is not to comfort either, or at least that’s not the charge I’m following. My home is gone. That’s a fact. It can’t be saved. But I write poems that are calls to action in some ways. I elegize and proselytize at the same time. I suppose I work through my loss while fighting against it.”
Elizabeth, who indifferently coexists with her Protestant upbringing, seemed to be listening, so I kept talking. “At the hospital, people are often struggling with apparent contradictions. Those who don’t believe that God can perform miracles pray for one. People who want help dealing with horrible news want to refuse the news at the same time. It’s hard to accept what seem like oxymorons—like foolish conjunctions—in order to stay with the tension, but if that’s what the moment is, then that is the fullness of life at that moment.”
Many years ago I realized that poetry and theology are inseparable pursuits for me. Both are attempts to express the inexpressible, and, like Rav Tarfon, I tell myself I am not expected to complete the task, nor am I free to desist from it. Simone Weil writes that prayer is “absolute unmixed attention,” a noble definition of poetry as well: attention to language, to image, to emotion, to the present moment. Prayer opens me to the possibility of incongruence and the limits of my own agency. I search, knowing I will not find in this life. I write words that aren’t static conveyors and can never be proven to signify any one thing—certainly no meaning under my control.
Early in my chaplaincy training, I overanalyzed the words I was choosing. I was being a word-obsessed poet, I guess. My religious experience is with rote prayers, and I still favor the mantras of the mass, rosary, and petitions to saints. Once I got more comfortable with improvised prayer, I started trying to anticipate what kind of metaphors individuals prefer. My stock questions were “Would you welcome prayer?” and “Do you have a faith tradition?” The wife of the man needing the liver transplant answered that she was Episcopalian, so I ended our prayer “through Christ our Lord.” The man with pancreatic cancer asked for meditations to the Goddess. The Pentecostal mother said it didn’t matter, “all prayers go to God.” The family of the nineteen-year-old in the drive-by shooting wanted to pray anytime they saw me. The father would just take off his John Deere cap and close his eyes whenever I walked up. Whatever I said, they quietly voiced their own thanksgivings and calls for help. Even the most stoic people, those who mouthed, “It could have been worse” and “She’s going to be just fine,” started to cry while we held hands. I almost believe I could have chanted in Hindi or recited Whitman, and all would have recognized the tone and intensity of sacred speech. Our eyes were closed. We were letting in the pain together—it was too urgent for classification—and the joy of not being alone and the release of fears broke us down to our essences.
In my hometown, water holds up crew boats, fills the nets of trawlers, and washes nutrients into a gasping marsh; it also claws at levees and homes and sometimes slams into buildings and bridges without discrimination. When I think of home, I feel that irreconcilable tension. I believe that truth is found only here, in the nowhere and no thing of paradox. God does not exist because God does not meet any of our criteria for existence: God cannot be perceived through the senses or through the mind; that is, God cannot be “gathered” in the physical or mental sense. God is not some objective reality, nor is God a location or something found in a particular place, as “existence” suggests. Yet God does exist because perception is possible beyond my five senses, and I believe what I cannot fully understand.
The principles by which I try to live are based on my confidence that I am part of a whole, and that whole has meaning even if I cannot gather it completely and qualify it. I see the world as composite just as the body is composite. (Once you’ve seen a chest pared open like star fruit and have seen how we are well-packed duffel bags meant to sustain us for shore leave, it’s hard to deny that we are fragile bits of montage.) To view myself as separate from the rest of this world—living and nonliving—is to render myself meaningless, a single grayish-green organ in a basin, without connection. One river flows into another and sends out a dozen tributaries. Land erodes, and silt travels somewhere else to form new land or, because of our hubris, to drop off the edge of the continental shelf. Even that cast-off silt will create something new somehow, some new life, but it’s hard for me to see beyond the decreation of my home: stagnant pools of water under houses, telephone poles wading in what are now lakes, swamp mosquitoes far inland, and salty tap water in kitchen sinks.
Fortunately for Ted and Elizabeth, I did not try to say all that into the camera. I summarized my belief this way: the water I love is destroying the land I love. The land will get swept away as it was swept away from somewhere else before it became the land I know now. The water I love created the land I love a thousand years ago, and the water will create something else and then destroy it, too. We can observe this change and study it. We can even interfere with it, but we cannot stop it. The land is becoming what it is becoming. So is the water. So is God. The Tetragrammaton unutterably expresses this eternal current in ways no other word can. God is an unpronounceable verb phrase. Can I perceive this motion and correspondence enough to prove it exists? I don’t know; at the hospital it seems enough to wonder along with the patients and families. But I stood with Ted and Elizabeth where three rivers want to be one and where people have tried to refuse them that union. If they cannot merge to reach the Gulf, then the Gulf will take over the land, deliberately and inevitably, until it joins them and pulls them into itself.
Martha Serpas’s second book of poems, The Dirty Side of the Storm, was published last year by Norton.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.