A birthday gift

Dear T,

I spent a few teenage years pretending I didn't believe in God, but the first time I actually didn't was at church.  I was around 30 years old.  I remember because we were in the middle of a song and it felt like the air had been sucked out of the room.  Not like someone had left, but as though everything had left -- as though a building crammed full of singing people could be empty.  I have no way to explain it other than saying the vaulted ceiling felt higher than usual.  It was like the cold darkness of space had intruded into the room, and up meant up forever and ever; that there was nobody there to hear us, or to welcome us at the end, or to care for us at all.  I was next to my wife and my parents and it was the most alone I ever felt in my life.  I was singing but I wished I was dead.

Thankfully I don't feel this way most of the time, and despite not having a religion I've gained back the feeling that God cares for us.  I couldn't convince you of this, but I've convinced myself.  Or rather I've been convinced.   Not that God is working through any particular church but that He's got His people in all churches, that He's working through them, and that the saints know it.  To convince you of this I would have to tell you a thousand little stories, many of them small and others almost unbelievable, a blanket of life-sustaining raindrops that add up to a torrent.   No man can be convinced of this by one other man.  It has to be many men and women over a course of many years --  maybe over a lifetime.  I believe you can be trained to watch for it as a child, because I was.  I feel bad for all the children who weren't taught to*.

We pretend that a relationship with God is about sin and righteousness, but I think this is unlikely.  It seems to me that "doing good" is a part of it, but not all of it; and when it's made to be all of it, it ruins most of it.  What I've come to believe is that God interacts with little people and big people, solid people and weirdos, for the simple fact that we can stop a second, turn a suspicious eye skyward, wonder if it was Him, and then thank Him for it anyway**.  Not to be obvious and smother us but to keep us going.  To give us that wonder of life and security, on some level, and get us through the hard times and really appreciate the good stuff.  To be here, with us, through the victories and defeats, funerals and weddings, from sun-up to sun-down.  Could I be wrong about this?  Absolutely.  But I have reason to believe this is the case, and if you ask Christians of all kinds*** about the miracles they've seen, you will have reason to believe it too.

I don't want to close this essay without any examples, so here's one that's going to stick with me for the rest of my life.  I met a man recently.  He's black, and kind, and upright, and easy-going, and loves this country, and he's going to fight for us in the Navy.  Solid man in general.  Well I had known this man only a couple of weeks when he came up to me at random and asked me when my birthday was.  I told him it was the --th.  "Of this month?"  he asked.  I told him it was -- a few days away.  He said he had a kind of sixth sense, and that whenever it was close to someone's birthday he'd get a feeling, and if he asked them when their birthday was it was either that day, or a few days before, or a few days ahead.  I told him I didn't know what to even think about that, and I didn't.  But now I do.

This man is being whispered to.  Your mother asks me why any force in the universe, which has the power to know everyone's birthdays, would go telling this particular man it's time to wish them a good one.  It's because this man is the present.  He has been sent, by God, to whisper a birthday message in everyone's ear -- not even just to have a happy birthday, but that they aren't alone, and God is whispering and sending little gifts to many of us, and that we ought to be paying attention.

Your father,

*Jonathan Edwards once wrote a book, almost completely forgotten today, titled A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World.  The premise of this book was that God built the whole universe for us to tell Him how great He is, which I used to think was selfish until I read Ben Franklin and Ayn Rand and realized vanity is a blessing.  Yes He gets the praise -- but why?  Because we dealt with Him a few millenia and decided He deserved it.  We get loads of good things and He gets some songs for them -- a good deal for humanity in the long run.

But the best part of the book dealt with the Christian mindset.  Jonathan Edwards' big idea was that everyone puts himself through suffering on a daily basis, and we do it to get things that are worth it.  I'm talking everything from running up the stairs to get your phone to going to war.  This kind of suffering, whether big or small, is put up with by us for the simple fact that we get something out of it -- and the fact that we get something out of it makes us almost cheerful, in many cases, to suffer.  He called the suffering we put ourselves through a subordinate end.  The reasons we put up with subordinate ends are called ultimate ends.  To put it simply, we go to work so we can feed our families.  We go through the subordinate end of surgery so we can ultimately end up feeling better.

Well, Edwards believed that God created this messed-up world for a purpose.  For many of us it's to turn us into saints.  To grow us, inch by inch, into giants of spirit and wisdom and goodness.  The problem is, down here we suffer a lot of things without a purpose; or at least it looks that way.  But when a man has a truly spiritual mindset, when he takes the hard stuff of life and looks for the good he got out of it, or believes the good is coming, and that the troubles of life were designed to get that good -- then he's a man of faith; boistrous, hopeful, joyful, and virile.  The faithful have reverse-engineered the the idea of goal-setting.  In order to get something, all of us make plans to suffer.  The faithful suffer things outside their plans, and believe it's because God is in the process of giving them something.  They are thus, on a psychological level, better equipped to deal with life -- in which suffering is guaranteed, and oftentimes without an obvious payout.

Atheists say religion is a crutch and it is -- because atheists are trying to walk on broken legs.  It's why countries that go atheist turn into weak-wristed existentialists, stop making babies, and get old -- only to die off and be replaced by Muslims.  God's people have a crutch and the atheists have lost their balls.

**Why does God play hard to get?  My guess is it's the same reason a woman does.  We're never quite so interested in things as when we're unsure about whether we've got them.

I also suspect God has a master's degree in psychology, and the reason He likes to surprise us is because surprises make us happier than things we saw coming.  We spend all day waiting for something, and we've already spent half the enjoyment on dreaming about it****.  Thus the end result is never what we expected.  But God is a master showman, and He performs only for high ratings.

God's poking in and out of our existence is a divine game of peek-a-boo.  We are His children -- and He plays with us as such.

***It might be asked here, why Christians?  What about Muslims and Buddhists?  Doesn't God interact with the rest of His half-wits, scoundrels, know-nothings and fakers?  I say Christians for the simple fact that these are the only believers I speak to about religious matters, and thus the only miracles I have direct knowledge of.  I mean to exclude nobody based on their or my ignorance.

The idea that God interacts only with the "orthodox" is 100% ridiculous on its face, and, second to liberation theology and social justice, one of the best heresies worth throwing people to lions over.  Imagine a God who took theology as the matter of supreme importance, and refused to deal with anyone who had a fact wrong about His limitless history, or His inscrutable motives, or His metaphysical characteristics.  A church that believed this would be full of mean-spirited, know-it-all circus clowns -- a church we have seen, and do see, and will continue to see.  You forget about Baalam's ass and you become one.

I'm not saying what people believe about God is irrelevant.  It's of utmost importance -- to public safety.  What I'm saying is that if God only talked to us because we were right about Him, nobody would get talked to.

****On the other hand, things we spend our time dreading are usually less painful than we imagined.  We pay into them like an investment, letting the fear of them dampen our fun -- but making them easier to deal with when they arrive.  The Stoics, knowing that terrible things are in store for us, advised us to spend time imagining all the worst things.  St Paul, a man who believed heaven was around the corner, already had the antidote -- and thus advised us to do just the opposite. 

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  1. I used to believe in The Great Pumpkin. Until I realized like the other God's, he refused to intervene despite unspeakable atrocities being committed against innocent children. It is difficult to respect anyone who tritely justifies human suffering in the way you just described. Any honest and rational person would consider such a god to be a Moral Monster.
    The fact that most advanced cultures have become less likely to believe in the supernatural is more likely attributable to advancement in the sciences. We are now much more aware of the link between belief in deities and our cultural bias, in addition to now understanding the human propensity for delusional thinking.


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