Memo to Atheists: Why I Choose God

My last post addressed to the atheists who frequent the HuffPost Religion section triggered nearly 800 comments, many of them properly taking me to task for seeming to suggest that all atheists share certain less-than-congenial traits that some exhibit. But one put forth a query that I now address: "So, Eliot, what do you believe?" Okay, here goes:

First, it's not about "beliefs" for me. It is about experiencing God. For many, beliefs are somebody else's statements about the purported actions of God and/or the agents of God that "believers" now apparently adopt as their own. For them, giving credence to these passed-down statements is tantamount to a relationship with God and provides what they consider to be their "faith." Although my three years in a theological seminary familiarized me with such beliefs, they are largely irrelevant to me except as poetic expressions of others' direct experience of God. They may be a pointer, but they're not a portrait. And many deserved to be abandoned and superseded generations ago and would have been, during the pre-literate era when perceptions of God were transmitted orally, enabling the routine abandonment of no-longer-relevant stories in favor of fresher perceptions. (See my 9/30/11 HuffPost piece for more on that issue.

Instead, I give credence to the notion of "God" because of my own direct, multifaceted experience of God.

I remember as a collegian taking the famed Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a psychological inventory which included a yes-or-no question that gave me a laugh and a shudder: "I have heard the voice of God." I wondered at the time just how long it would take the men in white coats to swoop down and cart off to a padded cell anyone who checked "yes."

But since then I have heard the voice of God. Twice. In my early 50s I elected to leave my role as co-founder and co-CEO of a quite successful company in order to experience new challenges, including a possible return to college chaplaincy which I had done in my 20s. Some weeks after pulling the plug and with no ideas or prospects in mind, I was beginning to feel very anxious. Would I find a satisfying outlet for my gifts? Had I trashed my role as father, husband, provider? How long would our money last? As I sat in my study at home one day with my head in my hands, God said, "I will take care of you." If there had been a tape recorder running at the time (or if I had been wired to EEG channels or a PET scanner, as contemporary researchers do it), I swear it would have been detected. That voice spoke. My brain registered the exact words. Clear. Unmistakable. Unforgettable. And, given the content of the message, from whom else could those words have made any sense whatsoever? I will take care of you. Maybe only my father, but he was long dead.

Later, during that same transition, I was on a plane from NY to LA. I had divested our more costly indulgences (e.g., cottage, boat, clubs) to free myself to entertain relatively low-pay positions such as chaplaincy and teaching, but none panned out. Now I was aloft in first class again, en route to seal a deal that would in all likelihood generate an unseemly amount of wealth for me. It felt like I was abandoning the impecunious do-gooder roles I'd just been trying to adopt. I was mulling this when God spoke to me again, this time in a voice every bit as clear but now tinged with a hint of asperity: "Just go do what I'm sending you to do."

I must add one disclaimer here: despite my experience of God's speaking to me in my daily life, I am far, far from convinced that God intervenes in the physical universe to change the outcomes of forces that have long since been set in motion. Even though I have had some tantalizing experiences that could conceivably persuade me otherwise, I still don't believe God occasions fate-changing or physics-changing "miracles" in human affairs, whether wrought by a Tim Tebow "Hail Mary" pass in the fourth quarter or a group of believers in passionate prayer to reverse a lethal cancer. (But I give far more credence to the latter possibility than the former; our understanding of those dynamics are ridiculously primitive, and I am open to considering almost anything in this electromagnetically entangled universe.)

I couple these specific mid-life experiences with my lifelong daily wonder at Creation. I have always delighted in the universe, and in love, and in others, and in my own abilities. Every single day I marvel at the blessings I experience. I receive them as a gift. At the same time, I cannot explain "the problem of evil" and the inexplicable pain in the world (or in my own life), but they do not invalidate my enduring, inexpressible wonder.

At the heart of the blessings (and even the pain) is this question: Are all these just freak occurrences? I'm reasonably well read about the Big Bang and have the benefit of occasional conversations with some of the world-class scientists who are friends and neighbors here in Princeton. I think scientists are doing a splendid job of tracking down the physical origins of Creation.

But they are not tackling the questions that are of much more interest to me as a human being: 1. Where did the stage, the combustibles, and the spark come from? 2. Why?

As to the first question, I respectfully submit that, while the tools of science ca. 2012 are wonderfully advanced compared with those of, say, 1012 or 1512, they are laughable compared to the tools and understandings that will be readily available to scientists in 2512 or 3012 who will smile indulgently at our lack of understanding of the mechanisms of ESP and hypnosis and myriad other phenomena utterly beyond our ken today. These future scientists will have rendered today's definition of "natural" unthinkably inadequate and obsolete; today's dismissive epithet "supernatural" will have been rolled over and buried by the ongoing tide of scientific revolutions, as Thomas Kuhn has so well documented and predicted.

But I suspect that even these future geniuses will continue to encounter the phenomenon that theologian Paul Tillich noted in his "method of correlation": that is, as our questions and understandings about God become ever more penetrating and well informed, the mysteriousness of God becomes precisely that much more impenetrable and inexplicable. And that defines, of course, exactly the essence of "mystery." For God to be God, God must forever be beyond capture by the most exquisite tools of understanding which God's creatures are capable of inventing. As much of a fan of science and scientists as I am, I (contrary to many atheists) do not imagine the day when their tools will comprehend it all, including both the first question and the second: "Why Creation?"

As for that "Why?" I keep pretty well abreast of the arguments of the atheists and others who attribute all our meaning-making to physiological and psychological and sociological phenomena. All three of my degree programs and much of my subsequent learning has featured study in these fields. And, fortunately, the seminary I attended (San Francisco Theological Seminary) eagerly brought to campus all manner of critics and cynics from S. I. Hayakawa to Ken Kesey who cheerfully assured us we were wasting our time and did their best -- which was often very good indeed -- to explain why our pursuit of these illusions was a fool's errand. And of course in recent years I have been engrossed with the new research and literature exploring brain function, cognition, and the formulation of thoughts and decisions.

But I have yet to encounter concepts or debunkings sufficient to invalidate my own lifelong sense -- or call it an active understanding -- that I am on purpose. That you are on purpose. That Creation is on purpose. Not a curious accident. On purpose.

Can I prove this? Oh, come on. It is neither provable nor disprovable -- no more subject to unequivocal, conclusive evidence than either a) my conviction that I love my wife or b) any doubts you may harbor about that. No more provable than the assertion that a certain painting or poem or concerto is exquisite, not ugly. And trying to nail it down definitively is truly a fool's errand. But more to the point, it ignores the essence of "faith."

The word "faith" is used pretty variously. Some use the word to denote a set of religious beliefs. Some use it to denote unquestioning credulity for tales that are highly improbable (e.g., virgin births and walking on water).

For me, the essence of "faith" is choice, and the key quality is "nevertheless." Faith is the very tension between yes and no, between reliance and rejection, and is the occasion for making an utterly personal decision all by yourself, all for yourself.

It works like this:

On the one hand, I really, honestly, do see, hear, and experience everything that atheists adduce as evidence that God is an illusion. What is more, as a former executive in a brain-monitoring company I understand perhaps better than most of them the scientific basis for their argument that there is no "there" there beyond some intracranial synapses creating an illusion some call "God".

On the other hand, I also see, hear, and experience in my everyday life what I just as really, honestly, understand as God.

This brings me to a free choice: I can choose to live my life according to either one depiction or the other: without God or with God. The act of "faith" is choosing one over the other "nevertheless." The nevertheless means I don't deny, dispute, or dishonor the evidence and the argument to the contrary; it simply means that I choose not to adopt it as the definitive guide for my own thinking and feeling and actions during what poet Mary Oliver calls my "one wild and precious life." Perhaps the same process holds true for those atheists who acknowledge that there really are two sides to this issue: they, too, see some evidence on both sides, weigh it, and choose the alternative instead (although I can imagine that calling this decision an act of "faith" might not be very palatable to some).

NB: In closing, let me point out that none of the foregoing addresses "religion." Naturally I share many atheists' abhorrence of the crimes against humanity that have been and still are committed in the name of religion. Like the quest for money and power or even for bread and water, religious fervor has driven many human beings to brutish behavior. I do hope that responders to this post will avoid conflating the experience of God with the experience of religious mayhem. To suggest that the very existence of the former inevitably and necessarily results in the latter is akin to suggesting that the existence of money inevitably and necessarily creates greed.

More widespread receptivity to the life-giving God I know and to that God's well-articulated yearnings for a peaceful and generous human community might well obviate both the mayhem and the greed.