Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.
– Mother Teresa to the Rev Michael Van Der Peet, September 1997
I often pray when I run, not out of fear of the traffic although some drivers have attempted to run me down on occasion, but in an attempt to have a dialogue with God. Recently, I have increasingly felt that I am talking to silence and that is troubling because it has not always been the case. There have been times, admittedly few, when reactions to my prayers have been almost immediate. Once, when receiving word that my grandmother had died and I was trying to make arrangements to return to Indiana for the funeral, the high school running coach appeared at the front door with our older son, who was obviously in pain, in tow. A misstep while running cross country had caused considerable damage to his knee. I was now in a quandary about what to do, how to handle a situation which had suddenly gotten very complicated. I sat down in the quiet of our bedroom and prayed that the anxiety be taken away so that I could see what to do. Almost immediately it was as if someone reached deep inside of me and I felt all of the frustration and anxiety being pulled away and I was calm. I knew with certainty what had to be done and acted accordingly.
There had been other occasions, not quite so dramatic, when I understood that I had been heard. My quick prayer had been answered. But not of late, not as I run into the growing darkness.
My religious upbringing was casual, typical of the time. It was expected in rural Indiana in the 1950s that people would go to church of a Sunday and that children would receive a Christian education and be confirmed in the faith. I dutifully went to confirmation classes and memorized the appropriate responses but always with the nagging feeling that something was not quite right. I early on questioned some church teachings, but never out loud, never to the pastor. To have done so was to risk censure and a somewhat geeky child did not want to stand out any more than necessary. I knew in my own mind that the stories in Genesis were myth, a belief bolstered by outside reading. In reading the biblical texts, some, out of doubt, others out of conviction, react to various passages differently. Conservatism Judaism could interpret the binding of Isaac differently from what Christians are taught. In at least one interpretation I know of, God did not command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. God was silent. It was Abraham’s own torment at having banished his firstborn, Ishmael, which was the voice in his head. And ultimately it was Abraham’s own sense of the holiness of life, and not an angel from God, that stayed his hand.
As other voices clamor to be heard, it becomes plain that the concept of a geocentric God has to be addressed. The writers of the various books of the bible had no idea of the immense grandeur of the universe, nor of its age; estimated at 15 billion years, give or take a few million. The God of these writers created a world at the center of the universe and the Church charged Galileo, among others, with heresy for saying otherwise. If, as some say, the biblical writings are inerrant, then how do they square the fact that we occupy a rather insignificant world in an average-sized spiral galaxy with its portrayal in scripture? Can it be true that the salvation of the universe comes down to this speck of dust orbiting a small star?
Some insist that God is an inner force, a creative life force that shapes our actions and desires. To discover God and what God wishes of us, we must look within. Several of the Eastern religions hold to that concept. Charged with impiety, Socrates was forced to take Hemlock. The impiety charge stemmed from his reference to his personal spirit, or daimonion, a spirit that never urged him on but only warned him against various prospective events. Contemporaries were suspicious of Socrates’ daimonion as a rejection of the state religion. It didn’t help Socrates’ case any that he claimed that the concept of goodness, instead of being determined by what the gods wanted, actually precedes the entire business of deities.
Speaking of the business of deities, just when did God make his presence known to his creation? The myth in Genesis states that we knew God from the 6th day of creation. The myth aside, one has to ask whether he made himself known to the Neanderthal. The presence of grave goods in some Neanderthal burials would suggest some sort of belief in the supernatural. Did the Neanderthals see ghosts? Did the painters of Lascaux know God? Is the expression of individualism, as is demonstrated by the hand prints silhouetted on the walls of their caves, an indication of their first steps toward an awareness of God? Creationists would have us believe that none of this is true; the universe came full blown into existence a little over 6,000 years ago. They will tell you that man and dinosaur existed at the same time, even though an immense chasm of time separates the two. Our mammalian ancestors co-existed with the dinosaurs but it is likely that, being very small, they were given little notice. When, in the several million year evolution of our species, did God make himself known? It is an unanswerable question and, as such, probably doesn’t matter.
As I grew older, I was distracted by this and other wonders. We stood at the threshold of the space age and I devoured anything written about it; a series of articles in Colliers Magazine, with marvelous illustrations of space ships and space travel, spoke of going to other worlds. At about the same time, thanks to Playboy and Ray Bradbury, I discovered science fiction. The science fiction I read looked outward at new worlds and alien species. We were not alone in creation. An editorial note is appropriate here. The very first issue of Playboy, the one with the nude pictures of Marilyn Monroe, also contained the first half of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The concluding portion of the story was contained in the second issue. A family friend spending some time with us gave me both issues without the slightest hesitation. He had no children and I am forever grateful that he never questioned the appropriateness of giving the first two issues of Playboy to an 11 year old boy. This was the push that opened the marvels of the science fiction writers to me. But I digress.
By the time I reached my 20s, I no longer prayed and, to all intents and purposes, I had left the church. God, apparently not caring for this state of affairs, made certain that I made friends with a woman who was in the same state of doubt. The daughter of a Lutheran pastor, she also no longer saw the relevance of remaining in the church. She discovered C.S. Lewis and urged me to read Mere Christianity. Conversations and letters on this and other of Lewis’s writings talked me, and her, back into the church. A decision I have never regretted. And yet I have doubts.
Not doubts about the existence of God. Personal experience with the numinous has convinced me of the existence of the same. But I am not absolutely certain that we have gotten it quite right. For example, some that I know are excessively complimentary, one could say fawning, in their praise of God in their public prayers. You would think that the God of creation would know all of this and not need us to continually tell him how great he is. That should be a given. Yet we continue our flattery with language foreign to our daily existence. Do we do so to propitiate a god who could squash us like a bug? Certainly there are enough examples in the Old Testament about the almighty doing just that to give us pause. The Incarnation, central to Christian belief, of course, changes the nature of God. The jealous and vindictive storm god of Abraham becomes a God of goodness, love and mercy. Even so, I don’t think we have it quite right. The exclusivity of Christianity, for example, has been responsible for more excesses, some particularly horrific, than I care to recount here. God, in the opinion of some, is far more inclusive than others might think.
I am left, then with the question of the silence which descends on some of us. Early church fathers call it the dark night of the soul and Mother Teresa is but one prominent example. Some would say that the devil sits on my shoulder and whispers doubts into my ear, but that only complicates the matter. The doubts come not from the devil, but from the silence and we are left with the eternal question; “why?”