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of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe?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.
A Song before Dying
LAST WEEK A FRIEND of ours passed away. When ALS took her ability to speak, she would e-mail us updates from time to time to let us know what she was thinking, how she was doing. When ALS took away the coordination of her hands, she typed her e-mails with one finger. Eventually, all went silent.
Her family placed her in hospice care, and the day before she died, some friends of ours stopped in for a visit. There was an electrical outlet on the wall next to the bed with a sign above it that read, do not unplug: for bed only. But the bed had been unplugged, and a different cord had been connected. This tiny subversive act allowed our friend, on her next to last day on earth, to listen to music.
This has everything to do with why I believe. When science does what it can to identify our disease, to ease our pain, to provide us with electricity so that our beds can be mercifully adjusted just so, the soul and spirit remain hungry for something else. If I don’t believe in the messy possibility of God, I’m left to believe in the laboratory—that which can be observed, measured, labeled. Stories and music are bigger than the lab, bigger than any sanitized hospital room. I write songs. I know that the music our friend was listening to could not have been nurtured into existence in a carefully controlled environment or captured under a microscope.
I have nothing against deep observation. I enjoy peering through a microscope for a closer look. My pulse quickens at observatories. Something stirs in me when those mechanical panels part slowly to the night. But somewhere along the way, from the time I was a child, I was wired to look beyond empirical evidence for something deeper. I’ve tried to snip that internal wiring at times, to remove God from the circuitry. I have failed. If I were to succeed, my hunch is that I would drain my life of soul, of dimension, that I’d be left closed in, pale, rigid.
I went to music school and studied music theory. I can identify a half-diminished chord by ear. I can play a crisp, four-octave A-flat Major scale on the piano. The chasm between a knowledge of music theory and a good song, one that makes a person feel something on her skin, that makes the lungs expand to let in more air than usual, is vast. The difference could be called soul. Soul can’t be reduced to a formula or nailed down or explained or quantified, but every music lover knows when it’s missing.
Being a songwriter in search of soul is one revolving door which allows God to walk through my life from time to time. Soul gets tangled up with suffering, darkness, hope, forgiveness, awe—the slippery stuff of life. In order to move from music theory to a song worth listening to on the day before dying, you have to enter a veiled area. It’s the difference between having sex and making love, stretching out and yoga, malt liquor and Malbec: physically, the same thing is being accomplished, more or less, but one invites the spirit in.
I wonder if soulfulness is partly a place of surrender, openness, where joy and sadness blend freely, as in the words of the old hymn: Sorrow and love flow mingled down. I suppose this is why the face of Louis Armstrong could light up the world one moment and wear immeasurable pain the next—all during the same song.
When I was younger and my life felt too big, full of too many possibilities, too many options, too many wasted days of indecision, I finally looked at the alluring array of lives before me and picked one that I could hang my hat on. I chose songwriting. On the evening that sealed my fate, I was outside of Wellington, New Zealand. Some friends had invited me to tag along on tour with their band and play bass. There we were next to an outdoor stage in a valley cradled in a little mountain range at a music festival in its first year of existence. About four hundred people had shown up to hear us, and it was pouring rain. We kept waiting for the audience to leave, to throw in the towel and go home. No one was leaving.
So we walked up on the covered stage and we played our songs, and four hundred (mostly young) people stood in the rain and drank in what we had to give. Thus far, songs had been my mile markers in life, my companions when I was lonely, my cup of cool water when parts of me that I could not name were thirsty. I realized on that stage that very few of us will stand in the pouring rain to hear the evening news, or the latest scientific discovery, or a religious creed of what we supposedly know for sure. But we will stand in the rain for what we hope will be a soulful song.
When we got home to the USA, I started writing the song that would usher in the rest of my life. The first line of that song, which became the first track recorded on the first Over the Rhine record, remains: “Eyes wide open to the great train robbery of my soul.” Maybe a life without soulfulness is dead already.
When my time comes, unplug the hospital bed.
Play me a song before dying.
Play me something good.
Linford Detweiler and his wife Karin Bergquist make up the core of the band Over the Rhine. Their tenth studio album, The Trumpet Child, was released in August.