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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.

 

 

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I still have a little jewelry box I received at age nine, during a brief stay in the hospital. In it are the small, precious keepsakes of my childhood: a pink rubber cat I got at the dentist’s office, various toys from cereal boxes, incense (it was the ‘70s), a soap shaped like a rose, the Snow White and Seven Dwarves figures from my tenth birthday cake, and a pile of paint sample cards I must have picked up when my parents were painting our new house in Placentia. (It is fortunate that they did not allow me to choose the paint colors, as my tastes seemed to run toward shades with names like “Sun Glo” and “Ultra Purple.”)

What we choose to keep from our growing-up years — and what we discard — interests me greatly. In many ways, our spirituality is built in the same way. Spirituality takes root in the earth of our childhoods, in what we are taught about God and about ourselves. Do we feel loved? Then we can imagine a God who loves us, too. Do we feel safe? This, too, colors our perceptions.

Some of us grow up to reject the precepts of our childhoods. This, it seems to me, has less to do with the reality of God than it has to do with how we were treated by those around us. The most vehement atheists often have childhood traumas attached to faith and religion. (Or they grew up in England, which, with its centuries-old history of religious turmoil, could turn off the hardiest of souls.)

Which moral values and religious teachings you keep, and which you throw away, ultimately comprise your spirituality. Some things I’ve thrown out over the years: The idea of an angry, vengeful God; a God who thinks of women as “lesser” or “unworthy”; a God who only loves and saves a special, select group of believers, to the detriment of everyone not privileged enough to grow up Christian. My God has gotten bigger over the years.

I want you to remember the God of your childhood. Who was God? How has your understanding of God changed? Because I hope it has changed, except in one regard: The joy God gave you, the dizzying sense of greatness and love. I feel terrible for anyone who never had those feelings. But you know, it’s not too late. With God, we can always become children again. There is very little to do but let go. Open your heart and let God in. Of all the things you hold on to or discard, God is the ultimate keeper.

I have a theory about people who describe themselves as atheists: They have been badly used by religion. Not by God and not by faith, mind you, but by religion — those all-too-fallible constructs we humans have created to codify our beliefs. Just consider the British. You can’t throw a rock in Great Britain without knocking over a gaggle or two of atheists. (Aside: What does one call a group of atheists? A denial? A reject?) The reason is all too apparent when one considers their history. One minute, Catholics were being burned at the stake, the next minute, Protestants. That kind of harassment could make anyone jump off the faith wagon.

So, faith isn’t easy. Few of the greatest things in life are. Faith is also rather scary — there are a number of unknowns to embrace, a fair amount of unanswerable questions to accept. It requires, as Kierkegaard would say, “a leap of faith.” Not all of us are built for leaping.

But to the most hardened unbeliever, I say this: At least believe in love — the transformative, redemptive quality of love. It accomplishes all, sustains all. There is nothing it cannot conquer, no wall it cannot tear down. Love creates — art, poetry, opportunity, even life itself. Love never destroys. Oh, sure, destructive things are done in the name of love, but those things are blasphemy, done by people who wouldn’t know love if it bit them on the foot. Which it would never do, being love and all.

Furthermore, know this: If you know nothing more about God than that God loves us, you know everything there is to know on the subject. God is love. If you can believe in love, you do believe in God. Simple logic, folks.

But it’s okay if you can’t get there just yet. Focus on love, on seeing it, experiencing it, reciprocating it, desiring it. Start by believing in love, and all the rest will come. You’ll see.

A Facebook friend of mine posted the following: “Conservative Christians oppose abortion even in cases of rape because Jesus was a rape baby.” Please understand: She is a self-proclaimed atheist. To have countered (as I immediately wanted to), “What part of ‘Be it done unto me according to thy will’ do you not understand?” would have done no good. Understand also: She is a good person. She’s a terrific mother, a kind and funny friend. But she has a blind spot when it comes to God, as many atheists do. It rubs me the wrong way. It’s meant to.

Some people have a problem with religion. I get that; it’s easier to doubt than to believe. Belief requires a leap of faith into territory that can be illogical and frightening. It is far simpler to hunker down in rationalism and not make the leap. What I don’t understand is the amount of venom directed at religion. Mind you, I understand legitimate criticism — when the Catholic Church misbehaves I am usually among the first to take them to task. That’s not the kind of venom I’m talking about. I refer to a more undefined, all-encompassing anger — buckshot, not bullets — aimed at any and all religious or spiritual beliefs.

A favorite author of mine (Lewis? Merton?) once wrote (and I paraphrase), “I didn’t believe that God existed. And I was very angry at Him for not existing.” The paradox ought to punch any right-thinking person in the face: You can’t be angry at something that you say doesn’t exist. You shouldn’t have any feelings about it. You certainly shouldn’t be throwing rocks at those who believe. Why should you care what they think?

Thomas Merton (I’m certain this time) had a theory about atheists: They don’t believe not because they hate God, but because what they read about Him fails to encompass a good enough, complete enough notion of Him. What they want from God isn’t contained in humankind’s feeble attempts to reduce Him to words, commandments, and stories. They want God to be bigger than that. And guess what? He is. It is humans that fail, not God. Just because we cannot apprehend Him in all His goodness and relate that information without fault, without shadowing it with our own human traits of selfishness, greed, political interest and xenophobia doesn’t make God any less than what He is. Place the blame where it is due: On humans, not on God.

I won’t try to convert my friend. I too am impossibly flawed; I can’t effectively counter her arguments against a just and loving Deity. I just know what I know. God is as good as you can imagine — better, in fact. He is “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” There are proofs galore to His existence, but what matters most is this: God loves us. He will wait for us, believers and nonbelievers alike. Anger might slow Him down, but it will never stop Him.

“My dad doesn’t believe in God,” my friend whispered.

“What?”

“He thinks that after you die, there’s nothing. No heaven, no hell. Just nothing.”

I had been invited over to my junior high best friend’s house for dinner when she sprang this news on me. It had never occurred to me prior to this that belief in God was optional. During the meal, I stared at my friend’s father, wondering if his nonbelief would show up in his everyday habits. Did he seem particularly sad? Joyless at the prospect of the lack of an afterlife? I couldn’t honestly tell. He looked like a man eating his dinner.

Since then, of course, I’ve met dozens of nonbelievers, of various ages and character. Most are nice people, generally optimistic, altruistic even. A number of them are kinder and more thoughtful than some of the so-called believers I know. They just don’t believe in God. Or religion. I get the sense that a few of them think I’m something of a soft-headed goon for being a believer. That’s okay with me. And I feel no need to proselytize to them. I don’t necessarily think they’re having a bad life without faith. Faith is necessary to me, but perhaps it isn’t for everyone.

However, I do know one thing: Not believing in God isn’t God’s fault. Oh sure, you can look around at the world, at bombs dropping and children starving and the worst sorts of inhumanities, often done in the name of God, and claim that God must not exist. The world is too spiritually polluted. And if indeed He is all-powerful, why does He let such atrocities occur?

We could argue about that point (free will and so on), but ultimately, God’s work is beyond our understanding. I tend to agree with the great Thomas Merton who, having himself been an atheist for many years, understood why some people choose this route. It is not God’s fault; it is religions’. Those who do not believe do so because no church has spoken to them of God in a way they can relate to. The God of most religious people isn’t good enough for them to believe in.

I get that. I often wonder at religions who claim their God wants war or who thinks their particular religious sect is superior to all others. The gods of these religions aren’t good enough for me. I even think God is kinder, larger and more expansive than my chosen religion, Catholicism, although for me Catholicism comes closest to my beliefs.

It all comes down to this: God is bigger and better than human beings can express. If you haven’t found God yet, it’s because nobody has given you reason to. We have failed. But please believe that God has not. He’s there, and He’s greater than you can imagine, and better than you could ever hope for. All I can do is pray that if someone truly wants to find Him, He will be found. And for the rest of the nonbelievers? I’ll let you eat your dinner in peace.

A question came up on my radio show the other day: Can atheists go to heaven? My vote? Yes, with a proviso: That they’ve lived good lives, been accepting of others and caring in their actions. To me, choosing to live a moral life is extra commendable in this particular situation because:
1) There are no religious strictures in their lives commanding such behavior.
2) They don’t believe there will be a reward for this behavior. Yet they choose it anyway.

I know a few atheists, and they are good people. Their choice not to believe in a higher power stems from a whole host of reasons — from trust issues to a reliance on pure logic to the quite just realization of the havoc religion and religious people can cause in the world. Let’s face it. Any sane person who looks at groups like the Westboro Baptist Church really should think, “If that’s religion, I want no part of it.”

I understand them. I wish they had the gift of faith in their lives because it brings such peace, but if they don’t want it, I understand. And I don’t think it bars them from heaven. Because God understands them, too. And He sees how they behave. And isn’t that the true indicator? They will know we are Christians by our love — by what we do, not just what we believe in our hearts.

No one knows what heaven will be like. We will all be surprised in some way. The beliefs we held on earth will almost certainly be challenged or shattered or laid before us in a new light. I don’t think atheists will be those most shocked by the afterlife. No, that honor will go to folks like Fred Phelps’ tribe. It’s gonna be hotter than you imagine, guys. A lot hotter.

 

 

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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