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of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe?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.
AS SOON AS I KNOW in the back of my head that I am going to be answering this question for Image (as soon as I am free to sit down at my computer and ponder it) I find myself trying to respond to it under all sorts of circumstances.
I get up in the morning and brush my teeth. “Why do you believe in God?” I ask the face in the mirror.
I ride through the city on my bicycle and stop at a red light. “Hey, why do you believe in God?”
Filming at the G8 summit, I find myself sitting on the asphalt among the protesters in a roadblock. I stare into the sky: “Why do I believe in God?”
Right now, for instance, I’m in an airport waiting for my connecting flight. I eat a sandwich and try to avoid looking at the TV screen above me. (Is it a disease or a bad habit that I always have to watch whenever something presents itself, no matter what it is?) I take out my notebook: Why do I believe in God?
The answer is never the same. Depending on where I am and how I feel, on who I imagine I’m answering to, the response changes. Is that a good sign or a bad sign? Shouldn’t my answer always be the same?
And doesn’t the question somehow intrinsically imply that I am asking it of myself? But why would I? Would such a self-interrogation ever cross my mind?
Not now, but some time ago, it might have.
I have been away from God for a large part of my life, so I remember his absence. No, that’s the wrong way to say it. He wasn’t absent, I was. I had gone into exile of my own free will. I meandered through all sorts of philosophies, surrogate enlightenments, adventures of the mind, socialism, existentialism, psychoanalysis (another ersatz religion). Some of these I won’t deny or badmouth. I’m happy to have been there—and back.
I remember how tentatively I started to pray again. I remember how that slowly changed me. I remember how I wept when I realized I had finally come home, when I felt that I was found again.
And how that feeling slowly transformed into a certainty.
Yes, a certainty.
But can I now answer: I believe in God because I remember how lost I was when I didn’t care? Or: I believe in God because I couldn’t take his absence anymore? Or: I believe in God because I cannot imagine any alternative? Or could I even conclude: I believe in God because in my life God has become such a reality that the very question is like asking myself why I breathe?
Asking myself is obviously not the right approach. Any reason is necessarily redundant. It will not get you, the reader, anywhere. I have to imagine somebody with that burning question on his mind, somebody to whom I can respond.
I’ll think of somebody who does not believe in God.
“How are you?” I’ll ask him. (Somehow I imagine a man. I meet far fewer women who do not believe in God.)
“Fine,” he’ll say.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” I’ll say. “You seem like an intelligent, caring, decent person. It is difficult for me to grasp how you live your life without knowing God is watching you.”
He smiles at me. “Same to you. How can you even know he’s watching? I mean know, not just vaguely sense.”
“If God could be taken for granted, so that we could all be certain of him, there’d be no more sense in believing—”
He interrupts me. “Obviously. But ‘believing’ leaves me with a choice. I took the other option. God didn’t seem to want to present himself too obviously to me.”
“Did you try to listen?”
“Very much so. I just didn’t hear a thing.”
We fall into a silence.
“That was the wrong approach, then,” I finally say. “Tell me another thing: How come we’re here, even thinking about God.”
“We could be thinking about any other concept.”
“Only God’s existence is beyond any concept.”
“I’m not sure I’m following you,” he says.
“For me, God is the creator of all, and therefore of any concept,” I say.
“I hear you. But for me it’s all biochemical reactions and cell activity and evolution. No need for a creator.”
“So you assume that the very existence of life, the very existence of love can be explained by that.”
“Yes, my friend.”
Another silence. And I realize that in the long run there is no convincing argument between a believer and a nonbeliever. We can’t really dispute the existence of God.
If I can’t persuade (let alone convert) an atheist, and if, when I put it to myself, the question is redundant, how do I answer it? I believe, therefore I am?
I go for a walk. By now I’m in the countryside in Italy, no longer in a big city. Funny how that changes perspectives. Sometimes, surrounded by technology and man-made objects, people have difficulty experiencing faith. They feel so self-sufficient that God can only be a second-hand experience for them. (That’s common enough these days. It’s stunning how people have gotten used to living practically without self-acquired knowledge, without any apparent need for a first-hand life.)
So once more, sitting in a field and letting the sun shine on me, I ask myself: “Why do I believe in God, Wim?”
“He called me by my name.”
He did. That’s all I can say in the end.
I am thankful for that every day.
Wim Wenders’ many films include Buena Vista Social Club, Wings of Desire, The Million Dollar Hotel, Don’t Come Knocking, and Willie Nelson at the Teatro.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.