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of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe?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 Fluid Compendium
From my notebook:
—I know what it is until I try to tell you.
—Two women in a coffee shop. [I was sitting with my husband] One jammed her hands together. “Here’s God and here’s Steve,” she said. “Now I believe in God and all, but boy, don’t get me that close.”
I PROMISED MYSELF I wouldn’t resort to quotes for this essay. It has become such a lazy way to think, I think, when I think. But I can’t resist. What Augustine said of time I find myself saying of God, and then I imagine that woman behind me, saying precisely what she believed in but preferred to keep at arm’s length. I know what it is until….
What I draw from this is small, a God so real he requires a formal visitor’s distance.
I have a number of oddities in my notebook. At an airport, a woman and a man who turn out to be prison guards casually talk work.
“They’ll roll up a newspaper real tight and shove back the end to make a knife,” the woman said. “You can’t stop them.”
“And you know how they love newspapers,” said the guy.
A relation of mine was a prison guard, murdered by her son. I have no illusions about the world. It is not pretty nor, in a certain way, even acceptable. The problem of evil cannot be argued away, not by the concept of fallenness, nor as a hateful but necessary expression of our free will, nor any other rationale. War, poverty, famine. A mass of humanity, taking the news of the world and shoving down the end to make a knife. You can’t stop them.
My impulse is to respond to questions about belief with a tautology: I believe in God because I do. I have believed in God as long as I can remember, though it’s been a relatively unlearned, unearned belief. When I was a child, the presentation of religion in my life had fluidity and no substance: my mother had only broken with the Christian Science church of her family in her thirties; my Catholic father observed fish-on-Friday type rules but did not generally go to church; and my mother told my brother and me that she was agnostic but to call ourselves Episcopalian. This last, in our blue-collar New Jersey town of Jews and Catholics, felt as exotic as calling myself Latvian, but I think my mother found something fancier, more tarted-up than our religions, in the Episcopal Church, more than just a place in the middle of family affiliations. Declaring myself Episcopalian made more sense than listening to my grandmother’s harangues about Christian Science, hearing about how my body had no reality and unless I thought wrong about it I could not be sick, as I went through my bouts of chicken pox, measles, flu. Her husband, my grandfather, survivor of two bouts on the front lines in World War I (he had several missing fingers and a bullet in his neck to show for it) had become a florid atheist, I think because any God he did believe in, he would have had to hunt down and kill.
I suppose for many Americans this is typical, for churchy things to be around in a muddle if they’re around at all, and far removed from the presumed impulses behind religion. Several members of my father’s large, Catholic family are truly devout, saintly to me. My Aunt Philomena, for instance, who took me to church a lot. I admired her and my Uncle Vito and their devotion, though our trips to mass were more kooky than lyrical; back before the Second Vatican Council uncapped female hair, my aunt could never find enough chapel veils for her daughters and me, so I was carted off to the pews with an old antimacassar on my head. My cousins, as we entered our teens, swore and went to first, second, then third bases with their look-alike boyfriends, then told me confession and communion wiped them, not me, free, as if someone above us licked sweet sin off its fingers. One day every year my male cousins rode their motorcycles to Long Island’s Our Lady of the Island shrine to be blessed.
Mr. Hitchens argues that teaching children religion is abuse, though it’s hard to see where to pin the blame in a not-unusual case like mine—these scraps and orts, tangible invisibles and antimacassars smelling of scalp and Vitalis. Perhaps my family offered what the Upanishads call neti-neti, not this, not that, a holy openness. My God was mine, less formed out of pieces than out of the white spaces around those pieces floating through my life. I knew I had a body, and a meal of flounder, goggling up in the supermarket from its crushed-together eyes, may have equaled a moment of briny accusation but not belief. I don’t mean to sound above it all; my ideas were childish and I would throw in anything that came my way—reincarnation, voodoo—if it caught my attention. But I had a spirituality always, scarily, secretly mine.
A prayerful history:
—At eleven I wrote in my journal, I pray to God that, if it be his will, and if Kevin likes me, would Kevin please say something?
—At fifteen, drug-dependent, I wrote in the journal I still kept, God, please help me, I’ve been calling to him all day and I love heroin and LSD…. What a rush. Thank you God that was outtasite.
—I overdosed at sixteen and woke up to myself in a Catholic church. I don’t know where I had been or what I’d been doing, just that I woke up there, somewhere around the altar, and a nurse who knew me recognized me and took me away.
—I had, at seventeen, after an overdose, in one of those on-again off-again periods of being clean I used to have, three days of the peace which surpasseth understanding. I call on other words but they do not come. Stair-stepping into a gossamer no-time, all around me the visible world contraptioning along harmlessly. I did not do drugs again because I understood all that they could not do.
I would like to say I have been striving to get back to that time, but the claim feels only partly true. Perhaps those three days functioned as a proof of sorts, but I didn’t really need proof. If anything I am less now than I was then, and I was very little. My faith still feels poorly reflected in my life; I still have the oily scrim on my head, between me and what I believe can touch me. As an adult, I have occasionally tried to talk myself out of my Christianity on the grounds that it makes no sense; I’ve given up on the idea of an afterlife on the grounds that this one life tires me out plenty—I’m not along for wish fulfillment or fear of dying. Nothing could convince me I can be cleansed. Yet somehow the small fiery core has refused to yield.
I would like to wrap this up in a way that offers not closure but something like it, a sense of things coming together, but where in the world can that be found. I give up. And so, in response, I offer this compendium of nothing: why I believe: neti-neti.
Suzanne Paola’s most recent book of poems is The Lives of the Saints (Washington). She is also the author of a prose memoir, The Body Toxic (Counterpoint).
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.