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of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe?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.
Facts about the Moon
THERE IS NO WAY to tell the story sequentially. No line of logic to follow when I try to answer the question of why I believe in God. When I turned ten our family began attending a Pentecostal church. How different it was from the church we’d previously gone to, a staid and solemn place that I loved anyway because of the smooth finished concrete in the basement. Someone had donated boxes and boxes of old metal skates, the kind you tighten with a key. During coffee hour the kids were allowed to go to the basement and strap those skates on and put fear and dread into anyone who crossed their paths.
There was no skating at the Pentecostal church. That is not to say my brother and I didn’t find it entertaining. We attended services anytime the doors opened, and that meant at least three times a week. Sunday night services were the best because the format loosened up and people would sing and dance. It was not uncommon for people to speak in tongues and for an interpretation to follow. It was not uncommon for sick people to go forward to the altar and to return to their seats healed. An elderly couple, Paul and Elizabeth, often met people at the altar for prayer. The pastor referred to them as “old-time saints” and “pillars of the church.” Paul was a tailor, Elizabeth a seamstress. They were Jews who’d fled Germany during the war. They’d been stuffed into a railcar headed for Auschwitz. They prayed that somehow God would save them, and somehow God did. Paul found a hole in the floor of the carriage, and he and Elizabeth slipped through while the train was barreling along. They fell onto the tracks and somehow were not crushed. Though it’s been years since I’ve seen Elizabeth or Paul, years since I’ve been back to that church, I know that their story of God’s providence is just one of many that they could tell. And I also know that there are a hundred Elizabeths and Pauls at that church.
With such a cloud of witnesses, with so many stories of God’s presence, you would think I would never doubt.
When I was twelve, my family took a vacation on the coast. It was a warm day, warm enough to venture into the water, which I did, recklessly, being twelve. The waves crashed over me and my brother as we body-surfed. At one point a large wave carried off my glasses. Without them, the water and sand and sky were all one thing, an oily smear, the sky a brighter gray. I squinted and could just make out two dark blobs, my parents. I ran toward them, my nose in full panic snuffle. “I lost my glasses,” I wailed. My dad put a hand on my shoulder.
“Let’s pray,” he said. I felt hope rise in my chest. Prayer, I knew, worked. I believed this absolutely.
As we finished our prayer, a man in flippers and a swim mask and bright orange snorkel approached. “What’s the matter?” he asked. My dad related the story about my glasses. “What color are they?” the man asked.
I looked at my feet. “About the same color as this sand.”
The man trundled toward the water, paddled and floated, paddled and floated. We could see where he was because of the orange snorkel. Not five minutes passed before he came back out of the water and thwunk thwunk thwunk across the sand. “Are these them?” I discerned my glasses dangling from a finger. We were overjoyed. The glasses were everything to me, as sight is to a twelve year old who has always had it.
My dad thanked the man profusely, then turned to my mom for a celebratory hug. I blinked behind my glasses, amazed that they’d been retrieved from the sand and weren’t even scratched. Then my dad turned back to the man. “Listen. We want to take you out to dinner—” But the man was gone. We looked in all directions, behind us, around us, looked in the sand for his footprints, but there were none. We looked at the water for his bright orange snorkel, but he had vanished. That was my first answer from God, an answered prayer divinely worked out before my very myopic eyes. From that moment on I knew God existed. He heard our prayers. He cared.
When I was fourteen I fell in love with the night sky, and in particular the moon. It looked to me like a buoy marking a dark sea. I began collecting facts about the moon and learned that every thirty-three years two full moons occur in the same month. These are called blue moons. If it were not for certain invisible forces, the moon would drift away from the earth in a straight line at a uniform speed. Because certain invisible forces do act upon the moon, it remains tethered to the earth’s orbit. It has no water of its own but holds great sway over the earth’s water, regulating the tides, pulling and pushing from a great distance. I look at the moon, amazed that once men walked upon its surface. I look at the moon governing the night and I marvel at the providence of the maker who knew how badly we needed it.
Ever since I had corrective eye surgery, I’ve not needed those glasses that were lost and then found again. Even though I can see pretty well, all things considered, there’s much I cannot see. The dark side of the moon. Heat. Wind. Love. I’ve not seen any of these things with my eyes, yet I’m certain they exist. Beyond metaphor, beyond gut feelings, they are tangibly, palpably present, and I’ve learned to believe in the invisible. In the same way, though I’ve not seen God with my eyes, I believe God exists. God is not a metaphor, a handy but passive stand-in for something else—fate, coincidence, synchronicity. God is an active agent, though his activities may fall beyond the scope of my perception. God exists. Beyond easy observation, intellect, and human reasoning, some say even beyond imagination, God is. If I could easily grasp how and why God exists, if the scope of my mental capacity could account for such a God, I think this would be cause for some despair. I would have cut him down to my size, limited him by the boundaries of my mental capacity. I would have made him into the image of myself. I can’t imagine anything more monstrous. I am thankful that God does not need or rely upon our ability to imagine him. He exists beyond his creation, independent of our will, reason, or belief.
Astrophysicist Janna Levin elegantly explains in her book How the Universe Got Its Spots that we are made of celestial debris. She writes, “Our bodies are made from elements synthesized in stars. Our hands are reshaped atoms made only in the centers of stars.” When I held my son for the first time in the hospital, his finger curled around mine. His hands were stars.
Wait. Before stars and hands, I need to say something about the girl who never doubted. This girl grows older, but not wiser. She forgets about the miracle with the glasses, forgets about the moon. She enrolls in a writing program in a town where she doesn’t know anybody. She is pregnant already when she arrives, and that was not part of the master plan she had worked out for her life. She is terribly afraid that something will go wrong. She’s all water and feels most days like heavy clouds have set up shop inside her body. One day while walking home from a class, her leg turns to wood. She is reminded of the girl who wanted to be a tree and the tree who wanted to be a girl. One wore bark and the other skin, but they both wept amber tears, wishing to be the other.
The left leg grows larger and larger, twice the size of its dance partner, the right leg.
“Congratulations,” the doctor says to the girl. “You’ve got the biggest clot on record in the state of Oregon.”
I was raised on the old Pentecostal hymns. Staunch and sturdy tunes. So many of them about blood, the power in blood, the cleansing nature of blood. Never did I think blood could betray me like this. And for the first time in my life I felt fear. The real article. I couldn’t see the trouble with my blood, but I could feel it. It existed beyond will or reason. Over the next week the clot diminished, and during those days the nurses took many ultrasounds to be sure no harm had come to the baby. When I left the hospital they sent me home with those pictures. Dark oceans and in them a white head like a moon and a white hand held to a dark opening—the mouth. He was sucking his thumb.
Connor arrived a few weeks later, healthy, but very small. It was his hands I noticed first, the strength in the grip. I thought again of that song I had learned to sing when I was a girl: He’s got the whole world in his hands. I looked at my tiny five-pound boy. I held his tiny hand in my hand. I held a star inside the star of my hand. God’s got the whole world in his hand, and for some impossible reason he entrusts a universe to ours. A reminder. A thumbprint of his design, generosity.
Over the next week complications emerged. Back to the hospital I went. Another problem with blood. I’d been losing a lot of it and there was trouble finding a donor match. Even worse, my veins were rolling and collapsing. I didn’t know they could do that, but none of the phlebotomists could get a good stick in and my situation was beginning to look serious. The doctor pulled my dad aside. “You might want to get a lawyer in here, on account of the baby. And if you want a priest or something, too.”
God—are you there—even in this? I wondered. My mom stayed by my bedside, cradling Connor. I looked at Connor and thought, Yes, he is. In the middle of what seems an insurmountable difficulty, here is joy, another clue to God’s boundless generosity, his tangible presence.
At last a match was found. Again, as we had long ago when I lost my glasses, my dad prayed aloud: “God help these people to get this IV into a vein.” And with the very next try, they did.
My son is in the fourth grade. He likes science. We talk about the moon a bit. He knows more than I ever learned and have since forgotten. He had to write a report about great innovators, people of gymnastic thought. He picked Sir Isaac Newton. Few history books record his unswerving belief and love for God whose handiwork astounded him. He is remembered for having sat in the right place to observe a phenomenon that had been troubling him for some time: things fall down. God may hold the world in his hand, but the world at hand is always falling, failing. Newton devoted his life to studying this phenomenon and to formulating laws that explained the relationship between heavenly and earthly bodies. He articulated the elegant suggestion that an invisible force beyond observation in the conventional sense acts upon every body from massive planets to tiny pebbles. This force he called gravity. Other scientists scoffed at Newton’s seemingly simplistic proposal: How could something they couldn’t see, touch, taste, hear, or even imagine be real?
What I’ve learned from thinkers like Newton is that belief lies beyond perception. We live in a world composed of invisible elements and governed by invisible forces. I can’t see the air, but I’m trusting that when I need the next breath, it will be there. A force holds us here at the bottom of an ocean of air with just enough pressure to preserve us without crushing us. Who am I to say that this thing we call gravity isn’t the unseen hand of God holding us lest we fly to bits? Who am I to say that this phenomenon (among many others) is not one more instance of God’s manifest providence and care for his creation, one more piece of evidence that God is among us?
Gina Ochsner’s most recent story collection is People I Wanted to Be (Mariner). Her debut collection, The Necessary Grace to Fall (Georgia), won the Flannery O’Connor Award.