I am reading many uplifting comments in the wake of the carnage at the Boston Marathon, most of which are about God. They are all in some way true and they are all heartfelt, but I find that I am more or less indifferent to them.
This reaction isn’t new. It happens to me a lot. And it has often made me wonder if I am fundamentally an impious person.
Although I do speak of God and offer my earnest prayers at times of senseless violence, tragedy and horror, I don’t experience connection to God in these moments or in their aftermath, unless you count the experience of silence and a kind of motionlessness at the center of the soul. I find it hard to engage in confident God-talk the way my friends and colleagues do so sincerely and well.
My inability to speak of God with felt confidence at such times—and at many others that are not so tragic or compelling—can leave me feeling faithless, and not a little envious. What grace do others have that I don’t? Why is God so real to them, and so unreal to me? Why is it that others find clear spiritual affirmations useful at these times, and I find them useless? When they speak so affirmatively of God, why does it sound like gibberish to me?
Comparisons are odious; eventually I stop complaining, dig deeper, and re-accept the condition that has been mine for as long as I can remember: not impiousness so much as darkness.
I have always known that I am not spiritually wired for devotion in the ordinary sense. I tend towards the apophatic, the way of negation. If I have a spirituality that merits the name, unknowing is its default position.
It’s different if we’re talking about doctrine. I am reasonably sure of my beliefs. I am also relatively unhesitant when it comes to making judgments about liturgy (which can make me a little, well, insufferable at times). I am fairly clear-eyed about the ethical life and my moral bottom lines. I am crazy about the gospels and relish the Jesus I find in them. I welcome with a joyous heart the vision of life and the character of God they portray and proclaim.
But when it comes to theology proper—that is, when we are speaking of the mystery of the true God and not of idols or projections or fantasies—I falter. I cannot say I “believe.” I certainly do not “feel.”
I do, however, surrender. Which is to say only that I live every day on the brink of full-blown atheism. My faith is the dark sort—it would not be at all surprised on the last day to learn that there is Nothing. At best I hold on. At best I demand to be held onto.
And that is all I can do, unless I decide to be dishonest. In the end, it may be all anyone can do, after words fall away, and in the boundless void God is still God and God alone.