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I woke up around four o’clock this morning to sit with my father in his jon boat on the Kentucky River. The whole world was dark except for a new moon that lay on the surface of the water like a child’s glass of milk. Still waters feel fragile, so I held my breath, afraid that I would splosh light over the cup edges into the clean, black deep.
A water strider cut straight through the moon’s reflection, dividing it into the rungs of a staircase. I didn’t see angels ascend and descend those steps, but a barred owl flapped her strong wings twice slowly over the water while the heron and the egret coughed and jabbered through their morning prayers. A snapping turtle’s nose rose and she stared at me with cold, black eyes, as if she were suspecting me of a great wrong, then she sank back down below.
A carp jumped, leaving a beaded curtain of the river behind her. With her leap, I felt like she had grabbed my soul by its dorsal fin and given it a shake. She frolicked like David in his ephod, dancing before the Lord with all his might.
The book of Genesis says that God once hovered over the surface of the deep, and when I am on the river, I can imagine that more easily. Some religious people claim that the Lord has directly spoken to them, but I tend to get cynical when I hear those claims — not because God is incapable of talking to people, but because I’ve seen this sort of language used to justify such selfish things in the past.
You must remember Mrs. Joanna Thurman from Providence. She told me once that she has been able to sense God every moment that she can remember. She’s a humble woman, sincere and gentle, so when she says something like that, I believe her. But faith hasn’t always been like that for me. There have been times when I have been certain (or almost certain) that I have felt or heard the Lord, but there have other times when he has just seemed so terribly silent. That silence has been hard for me to talk about, because American evangelicalism tends to focus on mountaintop spirituality. We like to pass around “wow” stories that remind us of the goodness of what we believe, but stories about long, lost years in the desert are sometimes harder to tell. We feel like we are betraying God somehow to admit the dry spells, as if our tiny force of human belief could somehow confirm his existence.
Remember how the glory of God faded from Moses’ face after he came down from the mountain? He took to hiding the change with a veil, and I think a lot of Christians tend to do this too. We get afraid to admit the fade — those long, sad months when God seems to be hiding from us for some reason. We start to feel like our faith is messed up when there isn’t a constant endorphin high every minute that we choose to believe. We feel ashamed of the quiet.
We expect the presence of the Holy Spirit to feel only like falling in love, or like being held by a mother, or like being blessed by a father. And sometimes it is like all of those things, and sometimes it is different. When he has come to me in a way that I haven’t expected, I have wondered if I was just too sinful to hear God, or a bad listener, or out of tune. I’ve wondered if he just didn’t like me, then my shame has turned to fear. I’ve felt rejected, wondering what sort of God would veil himself from me while apparently revealing himself so freely to others. In my darkest moments, when I have been hurting, begging for a tactile confirmation of His presence, I have even wondered if He exists at all. Because I have expected him to conform to my understanding of love, I have wondered how he could care about me while keeping quiet while watching his daughter in pain.
The Psalms tend to be more honest than we are. In fact the Old Testament is packed with laments that show God’s children asking where he is and why he doesn’t show up more clearly. Why do we put pressure on ourselves when God’s own book gives us a model for crying out? He seems to welcome our honesty about his silence, while I have made the mistake of trying to win people to Jesus out of only my certainty and my confidence.
I have tried to heal souls by talking about what is logical obvious (because some parts of faith are logical and obvious). But it would have been more honest for me to admit that I have pledged myself to a God who appears in razor sharp detail in some moments, and who obscures himself in others. Why haven’t I just said, like the Psalmist, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
I haven’t done that because I’ve been afraid the atheists would attribute that flux to some sort of Stockholm Syndrome. I’ve been afraid they would accuse me of being scared and needing a Divine Santa, that my fear drives me to imagine that he exists. I hate being misunderstood more than almost anything, but I have told a lesser truth at times because I was trying to avoid it.
Isn’t it possible that God could love a person too much to dazzle her with constant wizardry? Doesn’t every parent let go of his toddler’s fingers at times while she is learning to walk? When God teaches faith through fog and allows for gaps, it strengthens us. Our balance improves. We learn a freer dependence.
So many giants in the faith spent their young adult years walking through disappointment with God’s silence, devastated that He wouldn’t wow them in a grand and certain display. They reached up to heaven with sincere appeals that if God would just _________. But he would not, and the quiet felt cruel. They felt abandoned, of course, just like I have. Yet after years of struggle, even after years of abandoning the faith altogether, these men and women learned to release their own demands upon “how God should be” and accept him as he is. While running away from him, they found him in the very places they tried to hide . . . in physics, in music, in mathematical proofs, in mythology. They realized that some of the barriers they had fallen over were only their own edges.
I tend to find God outside, where waves smack against the sides of a metal fishing boat, and when those moments of precision come, I am sad to come indoors again, where silence falls like a empty concert hall after a symphony. I don’t have any way to prove what I am seeing is anything more than a woman’s fantastic daydream, but it’s also possible that when Love chases me, it whispers in my native tongue to pull me onward, to realign me, to show me what is coming in the end.
Dad used the trolling motor to turn a bend, and in a crook of a wooded island we found dozens of slender columns of steam rising like a choir of fog angels. The ancient Greeks wrote stories about naiads, river nymphs who bathed in waters while wooing men into trouble. But this morning I saw the river rinsing her long, pretty arms in a morning bath. How eagerly she yielded to the sun. I was almost jealous of her trust.
Clouds ran the length of the sky like the pink, soft tissue of a womb. Just as we turned into the open river, morning kicked his feet through their cover and the day was born. My spirit shifted and rolled like a belly full of life. I saw that the sun had come, and something inside me instinctively whispered, “The Son has come! Emmanuel, the Light of the World. God with us. He was, and He is, and He will return.”
You have known me at my weakest, Ben. You have seen me break, doubt, rage, and violate almost every commandment. You remember times when I have let fear guide me. As strong as my public declarations of praise have been, I have also lived betraying what I claim to love. It’s been difficult for me to forgive myself for the things I did while coming to learn the limits of my own strength.
It’s also been difficult for me to forgive other Christians who are finding the ends of their own determination. I have seen so many leaders that I once admired fall that now I flinch when a new hero rises. “What are you hiding?” I wonder. “How will you betray us, too?” I have seen Christians grow frightened and rage. I have seen them distort science and logic because of fear. I have seen them create lesser gods and name them all Jesus.
I know there were glory days for the Christian faith, but those of us who still cling to orthodoxy have very few delusions about what can be accomplished by human intellect or will. We know that no matter what we achieve, we will always fail in another area that hurts us and that hurts other people. But as I have failed alongside others, my compassion has grown. I have come to see how we are all in process, even the strongest among us. I have seen failures recycled and maximized, and I have seen the broken healed.
Jesus said we must come to him as a child, and I wonder if one of the things He meant by this was that children tend to be humble. They are open to discovery and to being reformed by what they find. I’ve seen a similar humility in you, Ben, which is admirable after all you’ve been through. You are so bright, it would have been easy for you to become arrogant. Instead you have remained a seeker. This is one of my favorite things about you.
I know an educated man who laughs at those Hebrew fools who believed the sun actually stood still for Joshua. He laughs because he knows the basics of physics, and biology, and math. But there he is, 206 of his bones stuck together with ligaments, a lymphatic system pumping protection like clockwork into his heart, the synapses in his brain firing while his pituitary gland runs military drills from the base of his skull. He commands himself from feet planted on grass, grass stuck to rock, rock flung round a tiny fireball on a thin string of space time, a string measured in just enough miles to keep his guts from boiling.
Science says life grows where life can grow (“ta-da!”), but whenever I have taken time to unpack that in detail, I have found mysteries as bizarre as the crudest tales told around the crudest fires. Today’s alchemists tell me that I can turn my flesh into god, that I can become the master of my own destiny. But I live in a culture full of people who can’t seem to lose twenty extra pounds, who marry the wrong people, who vote for charlatans and narcissists. We don’t remember our turn signals, and we tailgate, and we can’t parallel park. Divinity seems a little ambitious.
The name of Jesus has been abused in the past, so it’s probably healthy to have a little skepticism before making a big decision about who he is. “Be shrewd as serpents” the Bible says. Still, most of the definite atheism that I have seen hasn’t been any more reliable than the most superstitious of religions. It’s been reactive and premature. It’s been blind angry at the very idea of any sort of authority that might outrank humans. Even Einstein said that “fanatical atheists are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who — in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ — cannot hear the music of the spheres.”
Scientists have now determined the ideal waist-to-hip ratio for a woman. (I need to get my measuring tape out to see how close I am. Ha!) We live in the era of knowing the exact evolutionary worth of a wide pair of birthing hips, and an atheist will take this information and trace it through the history of natural selection. But a little old couple in central Ohio shares a hospital bed during visitation hours. The wife has cancer; the husband can hardly see through his cataracts; and yet, they are whispering plans for a summer vacation that both of them know will never come. Her breasts have fallen, and his hair is all worn off. Still he leans over to tell her that she is as beautiful as the day they met, and she blushes. Nothing is gained for the species in this. Nothing at all. Yet I believe the deep romance of their exchange points to something beyond the material. You can talk to me about eagles mating for life or the communal benefits of monogamy, but none of that catches what is happening here. There is something more to it. I can tell there is.
Last night I walked my daughter down a driveway after dark, and she pointed up and said, “There¹s Cassiopeia.”
Either I had forgotten that story or I never knew it — how the wife of Cepheus was beautiful but vain, and how she now floats through the heavens tied to her chair, sometimes holding a mirror, always reminding us of the dangers of pride. I don’t think about those stories much because I have studied enough astronomy to walk outside at night and think small thoughts about light years, and black holes, and helium gas. I have forgotten how to stand unguarded in the dark and let infinity tell humanity’s stories back to me.
Why did we have to shake all the stories out of the stars when we cracked them open? As much as we have gained (and we have gained so much), haven’t we also lost something important by reducing infinity to only rock and flaming gas? When we shattered the prime story, we sacrificed ourselves on that altar. While Nietzsche declared God dead, the eulogy he was truly writing was that of the human soul. Humanism has not glorified us; it has lobotomized us.
T.S. Elliot once wrote:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Maybe he was right. Or maybe the world ends before the blue flicker of television on a Thursday night. A thirty-year-old man is watching Family Guy reruns while his wife scrolls through Facebook.
I am tired of listening to people argue about the origin of humanity because most of them are only trying to prove what they want to be true. Whether we started with a divinely-planted seed of RNA or a clay baby matters very little to me, because the poetry of Genesis allows for either. What concerns me is what strict materialism does with our capacity for human creativity going forward. If we are really made in the image of a Creative being, what might we miss about our own creative capacity if we don’t live with our model in mind? How will our potential to innovate be distorted if it is disconnected from the prime source? If truth really is personified in the God who said “I am the Truth,” will the trajectory of beauty eventually fly far off track if we attempt to live apart from him?
Philosophers have asked questions about the connection between beauty and truth for centuries, but empirical scientists are starting to notice it, too. They are finding a single thread that runs through chemistry, biology, physics, music, math, and art. Nobel Prize winners have found that symmetry and loveliness are predictive. Christians jump on this like they used to use that old argument about finding a watch on a beach. “If we find a watch, that proves there is a watchmaker,” they say, then they stand back and dust off their hands as if nature’s order has validated God to a doubting world. But natural order doesn’t prove God, because infinity is bigger than we imagine. You’re the one who showed me that in a real infinity, the chances of finding a single watch at some point in time and space go up exponentially.
Still, we live in a world that begs to be read like a book. We don’t just have a watch. We have millions of species clicking along in biological harmony, dozens of separate disciplines operating with correlating truths; entire ecosystems that chug forward, mathematical proofs that just so happen to sync. We have hundreds of tribes of Homo sapiens who are drawn to some similar ideas on order, and justice, and art. But mostly there is something about humans, something uniquely generative, responsive, and awake. Even when we ask, “Why would a loving God allow ugliness?” we don’t realize that the only reason the question even comes to our lips is because the universe has trained us that beauty is normal.
I don’t consider this a proof for God, of course; but I do know that I would feel dishonest somehow, or at least strained, to deny that the epic story read aloud to me by this world is only a random occurrence of words typed out by one lucky monkey among infinite monkeys typing on infinite typewriters. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else,” and the older I get, the more I think I see what he meant.
Ben, you and I are so similar in some ways and so different in others. I pray for you day and night lately, fasting for you, refusing to take fullness and sweetness into myself until you find a hunger in your own heart that cannot be answered by a flattened world. That might sound condescending, but as I have prayed for you like this, I have found that we share more doubts than I realized. You have helped me see where I have lied to myself about what I thought I believed. You have shown me hidden corners of my soul where I have been an agnostic, and a materialist, and even an atheist. While I was appealing to God for your faith, he has shown me where my own faith did not exist. While I have asked God to appear to you, I have found myself asking for that same mercy.
You deserve a better evangelist than the one I make. How I wish you had someone different than I am to tell you about him, someone stronger, someone further down the road who speaks your language better than I do. But the best I can give you is this ceaseless desire for us to find him together. I want to see God through your eyes. I want to hear what you notice when you discover him beside me.
Maybe he will appear to you in an upper chamber of Calculus that I could never understand. Maybe that is where he will let you touch his wounds and put your hand in his side. I dream about when you will tell me that story someday, drawing diagrams all in a flurry, saying, “See? See how this works?” and all on fire about the gears of the mechanics of the heavens. I believe that day will come, but writing these words makes me cry in the now. I’m lonely for you to walk with me toward him. It’s the most I have ever wanted anything.
I have been honest with you about my doubts. Will you believe me, then, when I tell you that the glimpses I have seen of the Living God have been worth risking everything for? Everything. Remember how when we were looking at models scientists created of 4-D space, there was that split second of “I get it!” It was beyond comprehension, and yet we could almost comprehend. I’ve had those moments with God, and in the quiet that falls after they pass, I am run through with want for more.
A character from my favorite book falls in love with a mountain God that she has heard described in old tales. She says, “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home?” That is what this ache is like in me, this loneliness for my Creator that promises infinite joy. There are parts of him I can only see through a glass darkly. Still those flashes of a different dimension pull me onward and upward. I cannot forget that I have once seen them.
Nor can I forget these impressions of Him that are left woven into in the beauty of earth, his invisible attributes scattered through the fabric of all disciplines. I listen to good music then ask for an encore. I watch a sunset on a Tuesday night, then stand out on the porch Wednesday waiting for another. I plant one more peony. I grieve honestly, then find a pull of hope following my lament. I drink and then find myself thirsty for something I can’t quite catch. I feel an urge to climb the ladder of moonlight that a water strider has left, to ride the back of the barred owl, to follow the snapping turtle down into her black deeps, to resign like a choir of fog angels to the morning sun.
I am homesick listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams and Tomás Luis de Victoria. I am homesick when I walk past my husband in the kitchen on a chilly, rainy Sunday afternoon, and he pulls me into his warmth. I was homesick holding my firstborn to my chest. He was milk drunk and heavy with sleep, and his little hands unfolding in the moonlight. “There is a Redeemer, Jesus, God’s own Son,” I sang to him over, and over, and over again.
Whatever I love here feels like a beginning. Whoever I love here seems to open into a thousand dimensions. In every delight is hidden not only a present thrill, but also a foreshadowing. In every beauty I catch a glimmer of what purpose pain might serve, of how it will end, and of what good is yet to come.
Rebecca Reynolds teaches Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy of Faith in eastern Tennessee, and is a contributor to the Story Warren website. She’s the author and illustrator of the pediatric series From the Medical Files of Dr. Phineas C. Bones and collaborated with Ron Block as the lyricist for his critcally-acclaimed album, Walking Song. She lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, with her husband and three children.