THE END OF UNBELIEF
A New Approach
to the Question of God
My Experience with Atheism, Pantheism, Pure Theism,
[Part Three is a blend of argument and memoir. It describes my passage through atheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, to Pure Theism -- which I described in Part One -- and finally back to Christianity. I dramatize and debate the problem of evil in a courtroom scene with God as defendant (“A Trial for the Ages”). A few excerpts appear below. An elipsis (******) indicates that material -- often a number of pages -- has been deleted from this sampling.]
In 1970 – forty years ago as I write -- I was a first-year student at Princeton Theological Seminary, studying for the ministry. In my second semester I took a course entitled Philosophy of Religion. It was given by Professor Diogenes Allen, the most brilliant lecturer I had ever heard. There were no tests, only a final paper on which the entire grade would depend. The topic assigned was “My Reasons for Believing in God.” The reasons could be personal as well as metaphysical.
One student had the temerity to ask, “What if I’m not sure there’s a God?” Without hesitation Professor Allen said, “Then your topic is ‘Why I’m Not Sure There Is a God.’” Emboldened by the first question and answer another seminarian ventured, “What if I don’t believe in God?” The unflappable professor replied: “Then your topic is My Reasons for Not Believing in God.”
These exchanges shocked me and perhaps others in the class. But the Vietnam War was raging, and many with no interest in Christian service were drawn to seminary because it offered deferment from the draft. I wondered if this explained the professor’s apparent indifference to whether these prospective ministers were believers, agnostics, or atheists. The professor himself was an ordained minister and a devout believer.
What follows – with some revisions and additions -- is the paper I submitted to him May 1, 1970 on the topic “My Reasons for Believing in God.” I got an “A” in the course, and the professor wrote on my paper beside the grade: “Thank you for letting me read this document.”
That semester was my second and last at seminary. I left because of conflicts between my Catholic past and my Protestant present, which made it inappropriate for me to enter the ministry. But the convictions I expressed in the paper have not wavered in the four decades since I wrote it.
Many believers are either untroubled by the problem of evil or adjust to it by a reasoning process that doesn’t make sense to doubters. In college I found the problem of evil so unsettling that it drove me into atheism. Then over a period of a decade – ending when I wrote this paper -- I moved gradually from atheism to theism and back to Christianity. The stock formulas of Protestant and Catholic apologetics didn’t get me there. Some common-sense reasoning did, in combination with insights of great thinkers, emotional traumas, happy accidents, the influence of good people, and, I believe, grace.
This paper gives a brief account of that transition. It offers a way of thinking that penetrates the major obstacle to belief in a personal and loving God. I wrote it when I was about thirty. Now I’m about seventy. That way of thinking brought me out of atheism. And it’s got me, faith intact, through forty years of confrontations with the problem of evil.
In a confrontation, the Horror -- whether carnage, agony, death, or grief -- glowers at us and says: “Can you look at me and still believe in God? You know I exist. Don’t I prove he doesn’t?” I may recoil, tremble, and weep. But I can call up the insight, the perspective described below, stare down the Horror and say, “I can still see God. You are terrible, but not as terrible as you seem. He can transform and redeem even you.” I feel impelled to share that insight.
Part 1 (of Book Part Three)
The Rocky Road to Faith
I am not as rigorous as Descartes. (The first principle of his philosophy was a proof of his own existence: “I think, therefore I am.”) This paper presupposes that I exist and I offer no proof of that happy fact, except that I rejoice in it. I laugh, therefore I am. But I don’t always laugh, and there are times when I grimace, curse, groan, and shed tears. The universe is a splendid host one moment and an antagonist the next. A caress may turn without warning into a practical joke. A pat on the back may precede a knife in the ribs. And the wine of success – if ever tasted – may smack of vintage arsenic.
Still more dire are the crushings, burnings, starvings, and amputations that bleed and scream across the earth. In short the problem of evil confronts me at so many turns that I cry out for help. It is the business of this essay to discuss whether such outcries are (a) rational, (b) helpful, (c) heard. Since I have referred to my existence as a “happy fact,” the reader has a clue to the final answers.
Emotional Reasons for Unbelief
For eight years of my life I took pride in not crying out and maintained there was no one to cry out to. The problem of evil vexed me as much then as now, but I viewed it as disproof of the very salvation it made me crave. If there was a God with the power and inclination to get me out of all this, the mess would never have happened. Undeniably the argument has weight – no more then than now. But I liked it better then because it served my emotional purposes:
(a) I wanted to be a novelist and, in the 20 Century, one’s art is gravely hampered if he views the great human drama as choosing between heaven and hell, sin and virtue, God and Satan. That theme was all right in Dante’s time, but I doubt Hemingway could have got famous with it, and in my humility I thought myself a shade less able than he.
(b) To one who had always been a Roman Catholic of the pious sort (I very nearly entered a Trappist monastery at seventeen) there was an exhilaration in reading secular philosophy and a sense of wild adventure in sailing out of the old harbor of faith and onto “the bold sea, with cunning sails” (Nietzsche’s phrase).
(c) How can a young romantic, in quest of art and romance, hope to find them if he’s worried about smudging up his chastity? Religion had its compensations, but they looked pallid next to Hemingway’s experience with a certain lively nurse. That nurse was not necessarily easy to find, but I knew she was out there. Her image was far brighter than God’s in my mind, and the thrill of knowing her replaced any vague notion I had of a beatific vision. (I was too ambitious to marry, so there was no hope of combining the ideals. I had to choose between them.)
Religion Without God
At age twenty (eleven years ago) I changed my religion from Catholicism to the passionate pursuit of a secular trinity: art, philosophy, and beautiful women. That isn’t just rhetoric. True, I became an atheist; but I adored a new trinity that seemed no less divine than God. I worshipped saints (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Lawrence, Huxley, Eliot, Voltaire, Spencer, Russell). There were “virgins” who kept my vestal fires burning. And my feelings for all these were religious in the deepest sense. They were my way of coping with existential anxiety. Uniting with them was my idea of paradise, and if I was not a saint I had my share of mystical experience. Enough to hunger for more and persevere in the faith.
As the years wore on, the splendor wore off. Maybe the paradise was there and no mirage; but I stormed its gates and couldn’t enter. Salvation depended on my succeeding as a writer. That would have combined the diverse strands of art, philosophy, and romance in a sublime synthesis. But I couldn’t pull them together. Beauty and truth seemed sterile things if I could only perceive and not create them, if their grace could flow into me but not out again. I found fragments of romance, and the elusive Nurse made her appearance. But to realize the full scope of the dream, I would have had to be a saint in my own right. For only saints can enter paradise.
When the limbo of aspiration became a hell of frustration, I lost my religion. Only a barren atheism was left to me. I tried to fill the void with Hinduism and Buddhism, and for a while they seemed to work. (“to work” – Notice my budding pragmatism.) They were so exotic, empirical, unhistorical, and – at least in the Western sense – unmetaphysical, that I could indulge in them without blushing. The God of Abraham would have been a great embarrassment: Apart from his lack of sophistication and plausibility, he had too much blood on his hands. I really couldn’t be seen with him.
Buddha was a sterling fellow, and you could take him anywhere in Manhattan. He was presentable and in vogue. As an ex-Christian I was always a little dissatisfied with him for not being divine – but nobody’s perfect. He had lots of practical ideas about pulling one’s self together, and there were twelve good reasons for following him: the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Yet I wasn’t enthralled with where he was going. Nirvana (the extinction of selfish desire; enlightenment) sounded like a nice place to visit, but I didn’t think I’d want to live there.
The Hindu “Brahman” (the Godhead, the supreme soul of the universe) was a more luminous destination, a harbor were I might blissfully cast anchor. I had a sneaking suspicion that Buddha, like Columbus, had misnamed the continent he had discovered, and that nirvana was Brahman after all.
Meditations in solitude, in a posture approximating the lotus, were the extent of my practice for several years. I read the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, and some of the Buddhist writings, pondering them and bathing in their mysteries.
Light in Central Park
One autumn day in Central Park, under a tree (not a Bo tree), reading a book called Practical Mysticism, I experienced something so like enlightenment, as the mystics describe it, that all other joys seem like species under that exalted genus. Every vestige of sadness was obliterated, the prison of self was shattered, and I sat with no bars or walls around my consciousness, suddenly entranced by every amber leaf and stone and tree, by the physical book I had been reading, which was itself more fascinating than any thought it contained, by the sunlight and the cool air and the glistening lake. But the leaves I remember best, the leaves and the book....
“Man’s Extremity Is God’s Opportunity”
Some months after I had stopped attending yoga classes, my vague nostalgia for a personal God was galvanized by a situation I couldn’t cope with. I needed help and I needed it fast. No one on earth had the solution; I was sure of that. The problem called for a wisdom and power that were nothing short of divine. Don’t be naïve, I told myself. There’s nobody up there you can talk to. If there were, this earth wouldn’t be such a bloodbath of tragedy and disease. Are you going to bury your head in sweet illusions like every pious ostrich? Come off that stuff. Hang on to your self-respect. Grit your teeth. Stand up straight.
But dammit, I returned, I’m flat on my back. That’s the fact I have to face. I can’t hack it alone. I’m sick of trying. Even sick of living. If things don’t change fast, I’m checking out. Oh, God, I wish I could pray. But how can I pray when I don’t believe? Talk to the darkness like a fool? Make an imaginary playmate? Like hell!
But what if – just what if – God exists in spite of all your arguments? What if the problem of evil has some solution you’ve never thought of? What if Bertrand Russell and Voltaire and all those other geniuses just happened to be wrong? What then! Why, then I’d be a bloody fool to lie in this pit, starving and groaning, and not yell for help. What if he’s watching me go through all this? What if he hears everything I think – even now – and is reaching down his hand, if only I’d have the sense to take it?
Oh, God, I don’t believe in you. I think it’s very unlikely that you exist. I don’t have any faith at all. In fact, I think faith is stupid. But I’m desperate, and I wish you existed. I really do. Because if you made me, you’d know how I work, and you could fix what’s all wrong inside me. It’s such a mess. Such an ungodly impossible mess that I can’t even begin to set it right. Oh, Lord, if only you existed! There’d be hope then. There’d be a way out of this dungeon. I have to get out. I can’t breathe here. Please help me, I need you.
Observe the process: A pain became a wish. A wish became a hope. A hope became a prayer. A prayer became a tiny whispered answer… maybe just an echo of the hope itself. But that brought more hope, and more prayer, and more life to a dead spirit. And with that life, or in that life, or from that life, grew faith.
For maybe half a year my religion was a pure theism. I’ve heard it said in philosophy class that theism isn’t a religion – or “isn’t anybody’s religion” – but I don’t know of a term that better describes my private creed during this period. One definition of “theism” given by the Oxford English Dictionary is: “Belief in one God who created and intervenes in the universe.” I conceived of that God as a personal being who understands the workings of his universe (including my psyche), who cares deeply about his creatures (especially man), and who is willing and able to guide and aid those who call on him.
After six months another crisis developed that was, if possible, even more grave than the last. At the very nadir of my life, nearly paralyzed by despair, I came across a printed sermon that my father had sent me a long time before. It was one of ...
Part 2 (of Book Part Three)
The Value of Faith
What I have given above is an account of my practical -- largely emotional -- reasons for believing in God. Stated briefly, I believe because I want to, and have found no compelling reason not to. (In Part 3, I show why the problem of evil is not a compelling reason.) Through faith, linked with hope and love, I get the power to live a happy and fruitful life. Those last five words have wide implications. To note a few: ...
Part 3 (of Book Part Three) appears under the next heading on the menu list in the left column. Click on "God on Trial for Evil."