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of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe?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 Pragmatist’s Prayer
I WAS RAISED among what some call God’s frozen people, the Episcopalians. I liked all the ritual and liturgy (ours was high church, and we even had incense); I liked even more the sonorities of the King James Bible, especially the Psalms, which were the basis of responsive readings between priest and congregation; and I simply loved the music performed by our organist, a master of that unruly and elegant instrument, who could vernacularize when he chose—slipping into rock-ribbed melodies like “Old Rugged Cross” and “Amazing Grace”—though his main repertoire was German baroque. I felt closer to God by way of the music than ever I did by way of the priest’s rather plummy sermons.
The music took me someplace. It still does, but that is another story.
When I arrived at Yale College in 1960, I discovered that the hippest and most sophisticated of my schoolmates were atheists, or at most agnostics, and, provincial and sheepish as I was, I tried as hard as I could to affect such edgy secularism. But God, or at least a thirst for God, simply wouldn’t leave me alone.
As I proceeded through college, the modern civil rights struggle began to boil. I was instinctively drawn to its ambitions, and was conscious that many of its most cogent spokespersons were driven in large measure by Christian urges. This was of course most evident on a national scale in the person of Dr. King; locally, the fervor and eloquence of Yale’s own controversial chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, bore down on me mightily.
By the time I needed to decide what to do with my life as an adult, I was torn between graduate programs in the humanities and seminary. Luckily for the sake of whatever parishioners might have had to put up with me, I chose to pursue a PhD in comparative literature.
I took a job in the English department at Dartmouth College, and after four years or so, my chairman (then and now a friend) said that although I was reasonably well regarded by his senior colleagues, I needed to publish lest I perish, as the cant phrase had it.
I dusted off my dissertation, a tract written under the influence of the early Yale theorists, a piece of writing inscrutable to everyone including its author, and hied me to the college library. In the early seventies, “publish or perish” did not yet mean that one had to write books that no one would read, merely articles that no one would read, and I thought I might tweak one or two chapters from the dissertation for periodical publication.
But merely to consider the job nauseated me. (To indicate how perverse I had been in choosing my topic, with which I won’t bother anyone here, suffice it to say that most of the texts considered were in German, the one major western European language I don’t really know much at all.)
I suddenly said, aloud, at age thirty-four, “This is not what I want to do when I grow up.”
There were no writing courses at Yale when I was an undergraduate there. I simply wrote and showed roommates and friends the products. They tended to find them pretty good, but it had never occurred to me to pursue an MFA in writing at one of the very few (by today’s measure) institutions that offered them back then. I thought there was some sort of secret to being a writer, and that no one had told me, or would, what that secret could be.
Truth was, long after the average laboratory rat might have come to the same conclusion, I recognized that in order to be a writer, one had to write.
Which I proceeded to do. I was lucky early, getting a few poems in the New Yorker and Atlantic and landing a first book contract in a scandalously short time. (Competition was less keen in those days.)
Publishing creative work did not count as real publishing then, and I knew my persistence in poetry would cost me my job. But Jesus’s old injunction to take no thought for the morrow prevailed, and I trusted that, if I let the chips fall, they would fall in a good place. I soon had a job at Middlebury College, where the tradition of writer-professors was pretty longstanding.
I will now cut to the chase. Though I believed even then that my choice had been God-directed, that faith had put me in so good a circumstance, there was something radically amiss in my spiritual life. Alcoholism, which runs riot in my family, was taking that life over, spirits replacing the Spirit, and I didn’t even know it, though my marriage had collapsed, and even though there seemed less and less point in churning out the poetry.
I would—I needed to—bottom out. I found myself in a locked psych ward without a thing to be proud of. I had a wonderful new wife and terrific children, but I was, despite myself, alienated from them, because I had become a drinking machine; I worked to support my addiction. Drink was, incredibly and horrifyingly, my life.
My two oldest children had delivered me to the hospital, God bless them, and I’m not sure what would have happened in the absence of tranquilizers and sedatives those first two days. On the third day, however, as I lay there in my utter shame and desolation, a voice said, “It’ll be all right.” I can remember a great weight lifting from my body then, and a great peace settling on my soul.
The voice was colloquial, undramatic. No bolts of thunder, no great supervention of light. Just peace that passeth all understanding.
By the grace of the God I heard, along with the fellowship of kindred souls in recovery, I have not found it necessary to take up alcohol or any substitute since that third day. And that’s some time now.
To loop back a bit, the peace I felt that night was something like the odd and disembodied feeling I had when I heard the great church music, low and high, of my childhood. I can’t adequately describe it, even if I sometimes (perhaps always) try to do so in my written work. It does not admit of syllogistic consideration.
This sustaining peace has nothing therefore to do with theology, an enterprise that once tempted me and that still fascinates and stimulates. Theology—and anti-theology, and all modes of criticism—are, after all, human constructs, and my faith is not in humanity but in a higher power, without which, I am convinced, I would be either drunk or drugged now—or better, dead.
I pray a lot. I pray almost constantly, more out of church than in. I pray for other addicts, especially those who have not found recovery, and I also pray for family, friends, saints, and strangers. It just seems important to get outside myself: devotion to liquor was, after all, devotion to self in its least exalted avatars, and insistence on the superiority of my own thinking took me to the nuthouse.
The two principal prayers I reserve for myself are as simple as simple gets: Help me and Thank you.
Uncannily, or perhaps not uncannily at all, there is a pragmatic benefit in this mode of living: whenever I put myself into the hands of the power I choose to call God, my life goes well, my heart feels serene; when I take it back and try to run the show unaided, I don’t drink, no, but I revert to that mess of a man I want to leave behind.
I don’t usually talk about my faith except to people who share it, primarily fellow addicts in recovery. It is not something that lends itself to ratiocination; it is at once too profound and too simple. It doesn’t make good controversy, because controversy, to me, runs against its grain. Nor do I engage in hostilities toward people of other religious persuasions (and certainly these new atheists, sentimental about their skepticism, have their own religious intoxicants). I don’t fight with Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, or Seventh-day Adventists. Paul enjoined me from such dispute in a letter to the Romans: “Who are you to judge another’s servant?”
I recently heard of a judge’s asking a Native American to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” His translator seemed to struggle, and at length rendered the man’s reply: “I don’t know what the whole truth is,” he said. “I only know what I know.”
Same here. I am an ignorant man; I do know that much. But so, I suspect, are many of the refined intellects who would call my experience a vapid emotional cure. They are ignorant because they don’t know the whole truth. They are, after all, human.
I know the hospital experience I’m recounting was real, because I was there, as surely as I am here now with a prospect onto the Vermont woods that have surrounded me for years. Real as that. If that’s an emotional cure, I’ll take it over no cure at all.
There is One who has all knowledge. I’ve met him/her more than once.
That One helps me. I thank that One.
Sydney Lea’s most recent collection of poems is Ghost Pain (Sarabande). He is founder of the New England Review and author of the nonfiction volume A Little Wildness: Some Notes On Rambling (Story Line).
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.