I read an article recently that recounted the shared qualities of people who are classified as geniuses. I was heartened by a few (they are voracious readers, for instance) and crestfallen at one in particular: Most geniuses count themselves as atheists.
This “bums me out” (to use the vernacular) not only because I find the statistic sad, but because one would think a bona fide genius would have more imagination than that. The human brain is a marvelous thing. To be able to conceptualize great theories of science and mathematics while being simultaneously unable to conceptualize an all-loving, all-merciful God? That seems…limited. And geniuses aren’t limited people, by and large.
Also, let’s face it: “Most” does not mean “all.” There are plenty of intellectual giants who proudly touted their belief in God — Soren Kierkegaard, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Vivaldi and Voltaire, to name a few. There are theologians who are geniuses, as well as scientists, writers, artists and humanitarians. The combination of intellectual and spiritual genius may be rare, but — like the most precious of endangered species — they do exist.
Thomas Merton — a genius if there ever was one — posited that many atheists don’t reject God out of ignorance or rejection of goodness, but because no human definition of God has ever measured up to their conceptions. All human explanations fall short. They make God limited, small, vituperative, vengeful, judgmental. The response of many thinking people is, “Well, if that’s what God is, there cannot be a God.” It isn’t God they reject; it is small picture they’ve been handed of God by those who claim to believe. Merton, himself once an atheist, was dumbfounded to discover that not only is every description, metaphor and analysis of God that human beings can make necessarily too small, but that we are called by God to eschew all of these descriptors and keep looking for something bigger.
We must never rest on our laurels, never think that we have God pinned down. We don’t and we can’t. It is up to fools like me (and you) to continue to push the limits of what God is, to discover God in deeper ways and through our intimacy, express larger pictures of God to others.
In other words, if you reject the idea of God because of what you’ve heard about God, congratulations. You’re right. Everyone else is wrong. Oh, there might be a kernel of truth to be had here and there, but mostly, we shrink God down to human size in order to comprehend God, and God can’t be confined that way.
So, if you call yourself an unbeliever, I urge you to use your imagination. Make God big enough to believe in. Surely, that’s doable — especially for a genius.