And there are no truths outside the gates of Eden.
“At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.’” Matthew 11:25-26
“She placed a blue-veined hand with its swollen knuckles over his hand and spoke as if to one of her grandchildren. ‘Poor man-person! You’ve most fractured yer head tryin’ to be wise-witted, ain’t ye?” - Catherine Marshall, Christy
I was an atheist, once. When I was 16, it was surprisingly easy to turn my back on the faith in which I’d been (sort of) raised and which had never really taken root in my heart. I shrugged it off thoughtlessly, blithely, while delighting, I’m ashamed to say, in my father’s furious disapprobation. “I’m an atheist!” I declared pompously, like a child who’s just learned a new word (honestly, I probably had just learned it and begun to appreciate the delicious offense it would cause) from the top of the stairs where my parents sat watching television in our family room. My dad balked, ever so briefly, then frowned and turned back to Fox News. “No, you aren’t,” he said. I, like any respectable 16-year-old who had stumbled upon a novel way to outrage my parents, was gravely insulted by the lack of credence he was willing to grant my VERY SERIOUS LIFETIME revelation, and stomped back to my bedroom.
I persisted in professed atheism for seven long years, eight years during which my dad never missed an opportunity to attack my reasoning, of which there was very little. Our conversations were so emotionally charged and contentious that little he said could have persuaded me.
Still, I decided I was going to read up on this professed belief of mine and prepare myself to philosophically triumph over my dad and give a reason for the hope I didn’t have. Yet the more I read, the more I began to sag under the weight of nihilism. I recall disconsolately sliding my copy of “God Is Not Great” by the late Christopher Hitchens under my bed one bleak evening to take up residence with the eddies of dog hair and dust. I’d already read through “The Blind Watchmaker” by Dawkins and a couple of Sam Harris’ books. No dice.
Although I was thoroughly committed to being an atheist, and practically shrieked at any mention of or reference to Jesus in my vicinity, I disinctly recall thinking, “if this (atheism) is truth, why does it feel so empty? Dull, lifeless, gray, devoid of goodness?” It was bleak. I didn’t feel any spark of courage or thrill of freedom in “creating my own meaning” or forging my way through life as my own captain. I intellectually assented, yes. Here was truth, I guessed, cold and sterile, all mystery shucked from the core of creation. This was reality, and to be a person of any kind of intellectual stature I must accept it, I told myself. But deep down, my soul writhed against the strictures with which I’d bound it. This is truth, my brain cried shrilly, with ebbing degrees of confidence. Yes, but where is Truth? My soul answered. It haunted me. It haunted me right into a Damascene encounter with the stultifying, atomizing holy terror of the Living God. But that’s another story (which, if you’re inclined, you can find in my blog archives).
I’ve been reflecting with a shudder on my atheist days and thinking about atheism lately. A little too much, actually. I’ve been listening to Jordan Peterson (who is often so linguistically obtuse I’m not even quite sure he’s a theist) and assorted others debate prominent atheists. I’ve balked in disbelief when one of them (Susan Blackmore) stated “Whenever I read about something terrible in the newspaper, I say to myself, ‘life is meaningless, it’s all meaningless, it’s totally empty, just accept it and get on with your life, girl.”
I’ve pondered how they think, why they think the way they do, and how they begin each day by getting out of bed instead of laying paralyzed in a trembling ball of existential terror at the idea that there’s nobody home in the universe. I don’t mean to be cruel, or manufacture straw men. I genuinely want to know. But it gets me into trouble, specifically, protracted debates in the comments section of Youtube videos with staunch materialists who want me to prove God on their terms, which is, ultimately, impossible. Such was the case last month with my good friend John L.
“Are you STILL thinking of that guy?” Steven asked me when I must have looked particularly pensive on our vacation in July. “Yeah, I was just thinking how I can rebut him,” I said sheepishly. “Geez, give it up, the guy’s an idiot,” Steven replied, never hesitant to call a spade a spade.
The thing is: he wasn’t, really. John L., with whom I ended our impressively civil discussion on polite terms, was obviously intelligent and quite the sparring partner. I finally had to beg off, though, because we were approaching the question of, well, everything from such foundationally different places. John L. was not really willing to countenance the question “why” as a category, or rather, the questions “why” and “how” were suitably overlapping for his tastes. “The how of how the universe came to be and how we got here is the why,” he claimed. “It is what it is.” No further explanation needed, according to John L.
I disagreed vehemently, of course, and still do. As any parent knows, why is an infinite question which must eventually be met with totally unsatisfactory responses such as “Because I said so,” or “because that’s just the way it is.” But because why is an infinite question, it demands an infinite answer, or perhaps an absolute answer, a ground of being. You can only why yourself so far before you but up against the dimensions of something intangible, ancient, eternal. And here, ultimately, John L. and I diverged: for John L., the buck stopped at “it is what it is.” Cosmic shrug. This “something” is a mere phantom, John L. believes. Eventually science will solve it all, every iota of the cosmos will be mapped, measured, accounted for. God will be definitively ruled out, mystery will be vanquished, and we can all get on, like Susan Blackmore, with the merry business of living out an utterly futile existence in a meaningless amoral vacuum of a universe. O, yay!
Personally I think it’s quite a bold thing to say that all the transcendent yearnings of human beings over thousands of thousands of years were nothing but a firing of neurons with some kind of evolutionary advantage and that said humans were too dumb and ignorant to recognize as such, and I said so. I even tried to be cheeky (he said “cheers” once so you know he was British) and pointed out that if Jesus appeared and took him on a magical mystery tour of the cosmos, he (John L.) would still have to choose to believe that Jesus was who He said He was. John L. said this would be “good evidence”, but I kinda doubt it would be for him. I think of Jesus’ answer to the rich man’s request to warn his brothers: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” If you’re resolutely set on seeing “proof” (which I would argue is a tricky term anyway) on your terms, you will never see it.
It is what it is. This, what you see, is all the truth you can hope for.
I think of Jesus before Pilate, another clear-eyed pragmatist. Pilate doesn’t go in for the airy philosophizing of those damned Greeks. And the Jews and their superstitions – don’t even ask. He sighs and barely veils his contempt as one of them requests that he come out to greet their captive because their ridiculous cleanliness laws prohibit them from entering his palace. He sizes up the one they say is a grievous threat: just another bedraggled peasant whose claims to Godhood couldn’t interest Pilate any less.
He tries to reason with this man, he really does. But he can’t get a read on him. He’s all mystery and evasion and answering questions with questions, maybe a student of that blasted Socrates. Pilate wags a didactic finger at him, perhaps a remnant of his own conscience flickering within him as he desperately tries to educate this back-country rube on how the world works, how its dominance structures rule the day, how a blind scrabbling for power is its only truth, if we can even meaningfully evoke the word.
“My kingdom is not of this world,” this man claims. Not of this world? Pilate muses. This world is all there is.
Pilate parries back, delighted to finally pin this man down, to catch him with a definitive statement: “You are a king, then!” he exclaims.
“You say that I am a king,” Jesus replies. Pilate sighs heavily: I got out of bed for this?! Jesus continues: “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
A sere chill runs down Pilate’s spine, just a fleeting frisson. But it does its work. He remembers his wife’s dream, her frantic warning that he have nothing to do with this man, the terror in her eyes. For a millisecond he doubts it all: the secularism, the materialism, the moral relativity that’s worn the texture of his conscience down to a smooth plane where death and torture and tragedy, even and perhaps especially the heinous crucifixions that are decreed by his own hand, slide away into oblivion, the necessary collateral damage of Pax Romana. That’s just the way it is. It is what it is. No. No. NO. For a millisecond, he wonders, dumbstruck and stultified as a man always is when he encounters what – or Who - is holy beyond words, beyond comprehension. For a millisecond he entertains the call of another kingdom, another King, and wonders if they are in fact what is Real.
He flinches, just barely, as hard rationality reasserts itself. He recovers from his fugue and it comes to him, the cynical retort, the sarcastic rhetorical question that serves as the carapace over his disillusionment. “What is truth?” he asks. He has learned not to expect an answer, and he gets none but that steady penetrating gaze. It’s eerie, uncomfortably intimate and incisively appraising but saturated with a willful vulnerability that feels like… love? Who is this guy?! He haunts him. I wonder if he haunted him all the way to a blubbering Damascene encounter with the living God. I sure hope so, because him, even him, would Jesus receive, would welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve, to quote my dad’s favorite hymn, Just As I Am.
What would I say to 16-year-old Ashley, drunk with the newfound brew of rebelling against everything her parents held dear? I couldn’t prove a thing to her, just as I couldn’t prove a thing to John L. Since our little debate, I hear his objections in my ear sometimes, even now as I think of the rest of that verse from Just As I Am: “Because you promised, I believe.” Not good enough, says John L., says 16-year-old Ashley.
But I don’t operate on their terms any more. I have met Truth. Truth that is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, Truth who created the terms. I don’t just believe what I have believed: I know the One whom I have believed. I can’t “prove” He’s there, no. It’s not scientifically verifiable. And yet I’m pretty darn convinced, far more convinced than I ever was of my atheism.
Sometimes it frustrates me that all I can seem to do with an atheist is argue against nothingness and prod the most vulnerable places of scientism. There’s only so much you can say to someone who dismisses the validity of Scripture and anything that can’t be measured by scientific methods as “subjective” and therefore illegitimate (I think subjective and objective are kinda false categories anyway but that’s another can of worms upon which I’m not very qualified to speak and this is already more than 2,000 words and nobody is probably going to read it except for my husband who will be guilt-tripped into it, so...).
I don’t know why God hasn’t provided definitive proof of himself on the terms that some people demand, hasn’t appeared to take every unbeliever on a magical mystery tour of the cosmos. Actually, I think I do: God loves freedom a bit more than I’m comfortable with. If we want to see the universe as a vapid sleigh ride into nothingness, we are welcome to go our own way and call it another lonely day, to quote Fleetwood Mac.
But there is a Someone who calls from the center of it all. I know it. And that won’t ever be good enough for John L. unless he meets Him, too. Our God is not one who can be measured, diagrammed, pinned in a shadowbox. And I would argue we can’t really reason our way to Him, either.
No, He must be encountered. Radically, dramatically, intimately. He is a living God, and One who must be reckoned with not on the plane of ideas and abstractions but on the rough and rugged terrain of experience. And that’s scary, because that means He is out of our control. As long as we deal with God as a concept, even a good or intriguing or plausible concept, we don’t really deal with Him at all.
He is the God of viscera and sweat and blood. He is the God who is here, only here, and not out there or up there or over yonder. He is the God who stood before Pilate, a most very reasonable man, so reasonable that he supported an incomprehensibly brutal method of execution in the interest of spurious “peacekeeping” (In the words of Nick Fury, “Yeah, you say peace... I kinda think you mean the other thing.”). But He stands before Pilate and Pilate finds his cynical polemics confounded. His wry realism goes scuttling into a dark corner and he stands naked for a moment before this indomitable Someone.
He is a God who must be reckoned with and not merely thought about. And at the end of my reasoning is the beginning of Him. When I’ve broken my brain again trying to fathom the infinite God, trying to wrangle it (and Him) all in under the pretense of getting closer to Him which is really just a masquerade to avoid the presence of the living God, He is there, waiting. But not really waiting at all – living and active and shimmering with mystery that beckons from the deeps.
“I praise you, Lord, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children,” Jesus said. I remember: there’s only one way in, and it’s not through endless rationalizing and parsing and analyzing and reducing everything to a rambling philosophical taxonomy. Perhaps God made this weird upside-down world where the smarter you get the dumber you are and some of the most religious people are the farthest from the Truth and many so-called mentally disabled people know more about the joy of the Lord than seminary PhDs to keep us from being conceited, which is how Paul frames his thorn. Weird world, God. Very, very strange.
But when I drop my defenses and drop the obsessive apologetics and feeling like I must be able to answer materialists pound for pound, the magic returns, the living God whom I tried to deaden with grandiose mental calisthenics. And I know again as I reckon with and worship Him: He made His kingdom this upside-down way because it is beautiful. Beautiful beyond words, beautiful beyond reckoning, beautiful beyond reason.
I grab my praise flags and head for the door and tears run down my face as I enter His kingdom again as a child, and I swoop and dance and try out bizarre new flag movements, just for the fun of it, like a child would. Self-consciousness is so… adult. Ew. But this, this is joy, spinning and swooping and not thinking for once, just being engulfed by the utter looniness of God’s love.
What a weird, wonderful, upside-down way our God has, where the last are first and the first are last and suffering is joy and mercy runs deeper than the dark and redemption springs eternal because the eternal God lived and suffered immeasurably and died as one of us, and came back to life in a wild last-last-last-last act (like, only the old janitor is left in the theater kinda deal) of stunning redemption. It’s all mad. It’s all true. I can’t prove it to you, but I know it, deeper than I know anything else, deeper than I could ever know anything, as the flags undulate and snap in the air and I cry out in worship before the rocks can get a word in edgewise.
I echo with Jesus: “Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.”