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of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe?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 god who let us prove his existence would be an idol.
God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.
The mysteries of the faith cannot be either affirmed or denied; they must be placed above that which we affirm or deny.
A man who lives by his faith is necessarily isolated. At every hour of the day, he is in acute disagreement with his century.
A proof of God’s existence should really be something by which one could convince oneself of God’s existence. But I think that believers who have provided such proofs have wanted to give their “belief” an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe through such proofs. Perhaps one could “convince someone of God’s existence” through a certain kind of upbringing, by shaping his life in such and such a way.
Life can educate one to a belief in God. And also experiences can do this; but not visions and other forms of sense experience which show us the “existence of this being”—but, e.g. sufferings of various kinds. These neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts—life can force this concept on us.
MY FATHER SERVED in the Pacific in World War II. After Tarawa, Tinian, and Saipan, his platoon was sent to New Zealand for R&R. One evening as he sat alone on the beach and watched the sun sink into the ocean, “consciousness of God,” in the words of Karl Jaspers, “became for him a natural presence.” When I was a sixteen-year-old insufferable atheist, he told me this, and I immediately rejected it—in a tone and turn of mind that now makes me cringe—as embarrassingly sentimental. Far too many years later, the full context of his experience suddenly dawned on me. Here was a man with a wife and daughter whom he had not seen for three years and a three-year-old son whom he had never seen, a man who had for months been living among the wounded and the dead, human agony and waste beyond belief, and some of the most grotesque violence that tribes of humankind have ever visited upon each other, and in a few days he would be returning to the same hell. If anyone at that moment had bitter and manifold reasons to believe that there was no God and to beat into submission anyone callous enough to suggest that there was, it was him. Seven years later, returned from the war, working sixteen-hour days and living in a small white-frame rental in Kansas, with every dime he and my mother had saved now invested in an apparently failing machine shop on the edge of town, one night after work he would speak into the darkness in a voice ragged with exhaustion, I may not make it here, but they will have to shoot me to keep me from trying. I was standing in the shadows in a corner of the room. He wasn’t talking to me. He wasn’t talking to himself. And I was thinking, He’s talking to God.
Twenty-six years ago our daughter was in the hospital with the flu and a frighteningly high temperature. I walked down the hall from her room and looked into another room where there were four nurses gathered around a small, redheaded boy in a wheelchair with his back to me. When one of the nurses walked out, I asked her what had happened. The boy and his parents had been traveling by car to visit a relative one evening when they were hit head-on by a drunk. Both parents were killed, and the boy survived, paralyzed from the neck down. Imagine: you are seven years old in the warm embrace of your loving parents whom you also love, you are happy, the future is bright and suddenly coming toward you at seventy miles an hour, and the next morning, you have no mother and father, you cannot and never will move your body for baseball or a Friday night dance or anything else, you are as alone as a human being can be, and you will never know why. Scarcely a day has passed since then that I have not at some point thought about the redheaded boy. I have thought about him and not returned to the church I attend for months. One Sunday this memory flew into my head and I left before communion and did not return for a year. But I returned. This could be interpreted as weakness. But that’s what Christians do when they attend mass or services: they admit that they are weak. They talk to God. This includes the one in the far corner who has been absent for months and is, in the depths of his own weakness, meditating on a passage from Alasdair MacIntyre he has copied out and brought from home:
To have been first aware of the presence of God and then later to find that presence withdrawn is of course a terrible and difficult moment. But those familiar with phenomenological accounts of absence will have understood its possibility as inseparable from the possibility of presence. To experience the absence of something or someone is not just different from, but incompatible with, treating that something or someone as nonexistent.
One day I had what might be called a negative vision. I was driving home from my Eliot class at the university and trying to imagine what a world entirely devoid of the sacred would be. It would be, I began to realize (on a much deeper level than I had been teaching), the world of “Preludes,” “stretched tight across the skies,” also Prufrock’s world, where at every turn the universe is made finite, “squeezed into a ball,” “measured out with coffee spoons,” “spread out against the sky,” a closed room—the “corners of the evening”—with no way out. At least in “The Hollow Men” there’s an open door; they just can’t get through it. A friend of mine in Nebraska was hunting for arrowheads and other artifacts and suddenly realized he was walking on a sacred burial ground. He said that if he could have levitated he would have. He was Roman Catholic, but if the ground was sacred to anybody, he felt that it was sacred to him, too. Inviolate. Non-negotiable. But in a world absent of the sacred, the holy, everything is negotiable, bought and sold, owned, possessed, everything is diminished to utterly material and finite proportions. There is not even, as in “Preludes,” a “notion of some infinitely suffering thing” because there is no infinite except as a mathematical concept. I parked my car by the side of the road and got out and walked around and felt a bit as W.H. Auden did during the Spanish Civil War when he entered a town one morning to see all the churches boarded up. What had been a possibility, at least in Auden’s terms, was now impossible. It was the sort of claustrophobic sense that Blake had of the eighteenth century and which forced him, with some appearance of madness, to imagine his way out of it, though of course for him the imagination was infinite and eternal—even, in his own version of gnosticism, divine. I felt momentarily as if I were locked up in a huge building such as a Wal-Mart full of consumer crap and nothing else, with no windows, no doors, just television screens advertising all the stuff in the store, including the televisions themselves. I had nightmares for weeks.
Unamuno says, “Those who believe in God but without passion in their hearts, without anguish in mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the God idea, not God himself.” In all humility I cannot assert that my belief is the latter. I can only hope it. It is a matter of faith, as they say. And for those recent defenders of atheism who are interested only in the God idea and who seem to prefer to treat the ultimate mystery as if it were a high-school debate topic, may I recommend Alvin Plantinga’s excellent and quite persuasive God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God.
B.H. Fairchild’s books of poetry include Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (Norton), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.