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of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe?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.
The Last Book on the Shelf
I BELIEVE IN GOD because the poetry of the scriptures revealed him to me. By God’s grace I opened the Bible and discovered his near and palpable presence. Now when I read, illuminated by the Spirit, I give thanks as I find myself abandoning my own limited understanding to seek his perfect will; cleansed by the power of the gospel’s simple truth, I long to walk with God.
This wasn’t always the case. In fact, most of my life I entirely disregarded God. Instead, I was devoted to books. And even though I was aware of its centrality to the western tradition’s poetry, politics, philosophy, and art—the very things most precious to me—I disprized the Bible. It wasn’t until my forties that I gave the Bible a chance to perform miracles in my life.
As a young man, my quest was for understanding. I thought the best way to realize such a dream was through poetry. Poetry, I believed, was sacred. Poetry would reveal everything with its perfect light. High notions for a young man who had seen little and knew less, and who did not know that beyond the zenith of intellect there was an even higher spiritual plane where the heart is reborn.
My ambition was to teach myself a new way of seeing. I studied the world’s great books. Much of what I encountered told me my quest was foolish, and time’s most gifted writers could but point to that which is infinitely mysterious. Still, I longed for clarity, wisdom, insight. I consumed words, setting days and years ablaze as if that which I sought would rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
By the time I was forty I realized that my life—measured in syllables—had come up empty. I’d found lovely words, appealing thoughts, human wisdom—good things, but not what I was after. I walked about astonished at how little I knew, and wondered if I understood anything at all. The world’s relativism assailed me, and I had no defense against its absurdity.
Things got worse: I took stock and saw my heart and my mind for what they really were—a stone, a darkness. I was ashamed and could puzzle no way out of my existential predicament. But there was one last book on my bookshelf, one last book I had yet to read. I am not sure what moved me finally to open the Bible, but one day I did, and it was as simple and profound a gesture as I ever made in my life.
I did not come to faith easily. My redemption came word by word, parable by parable. I was no longer a reader searching for answers, but a sinner turning the page and reaching out to my savior. I considered my life and asked myself how it could ever be redeemed. I mourned for my sins. Then I heard Jesus say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
I read the gospel of Mark. I’ll never forget the experience: like coming to my senses after a long madness, or like physical health returning after years of illness. It was as if Jesus cured not only the people in the gospel story, he cured me of spiritual blindness. My eyes opened, I was able to see God’s kingdom. What I had always wanted—the ability to see—came as a gift from God.
Jesus rejoiced that God “has hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants.” For years I had been self-reliant, searching all the world’s books of wisdom and intelligence, forging my own path. The scriptures changed everything. I began to rely on God’s revelation of himself. Then I felt the Lord’s breath on my cheek, saying, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!”
Anyone who knows me will tell you that my conversion is nothing less than miraculous. The Adversary himself must be flabbergasted. Yet how could I not fall in love with Jesus, the greatest poet ever? The Lord never wrote a word, yet his parables, speeches, and least remark—even his terrible silences—are monuments of poetry. Jesus is poetry incarnate, his very life an enacted parable that I might believe.
Poetry explains the human experience: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Of course Jesus’ parables and prayers are poems, but there is also the poetry of the cross, terrible and brutal, yet radiant with love. There is the dark, atoning poetry of the cup, the tiny, three-letter word that contained the world’s iniquity, which only Jesus in his blamelessness could drink.
Salvation, too, shines when expressed as poetry. Jesus is the Lamb of God, the light of the world, the true vine, the shepherd, the narrow gate. He is the way. To be his follower is to take on his yoke. To be his follower is to take up one’s cross. To be a believer is to hate one’s selfishness, to surrender the stone of the heart and accept a heart capable not only of believing in God, but also of loving him.
I thrill to know that the Bible was written over many centuries by many hands. For I believe this incomparable masterpiece—utterly coherent, astonishingly logical, consistently sound, and perfectly holy—could have been created only by a single, divine, heavenly, omniscient, eternal author. God—a mystery that cannot be expressed—has revealed himself in human words that we might share in his divine nature.
God is in the miracle business. He knows I never would have believed in him without seeing him with my own eyes. He revealed himself to me in the scriptures. And because I was so slow of heart, because I needed a lifetime to learn how to read, how to see, God gave me all the time I needed—the exact number of days it took me to read everything before coming around, finally, to the last book on the shelf.
Richard Jones’s most recent books of poems are The Blessing and Apropos of Nothing (both from Copper Canyon). He directs the creative writing program at DePaul University.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.