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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.




I recently read an article in which a woman dismissed belief in God as “magical thinking.” She preferred the world of science, of certainty. I took the words in. And then I thought, “Wow, what a fundamental misunderstanding of faith.” I’m sure the author would not have appreciated this take-away, but there it is. Belief in God has nothing to do with magic. Mystery, yes. But not magic.

Trying to explain faith is a lot like trying to explain love (not a coincidence since God = Love). Why does love happen? Why does it endure? Who knows? Certainly trying to justify belief in an all-powerful, all-good God presents similar conundrums: Why does God allow disasters to occur? Why does God let children die? What kind of God slaps his Chosen People in the face with a Holocaust?

Those are tough questions, questions centuries of scholars and saints have struggled to answer. I fully understand if someone doesn’t find these answers acceptable; they were, after all, formulated by fallible beings for fallible beings. God has not given us the real answers, and for good reason. Like Tom Cruise in that movie everybody quotes, we can’t handle the truth. It would be like trying to explain calculus to toddlers.

The truth is that believing in God demands not magical thinking, but a radical acceptance of mystery. Science cannot explicate everything. In fact, when it comes to faith, it cannot explicate anything at all. Mystery permeates human existence. That faith in God exists at all is a mystery. Yet it has endured, in myriad faces and guises, over all of time and history. Belief in That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Thought precedes and supersedes any scientific theory one can conceive.

I don’t know how to explain why bad things happen to good people, why those we love die young or tragically, why storms ravage and earthquakes consume. It’s not my job to explain, or even to understand. And if that’s your sticking point, I can only say this: I’m sorry. Not everything is explicable. Some things are mysteries. Human beings are fated — by our very humanity — to living with mystery. All the science in the world can’t fix that.

But guess what does help? You guessed it: Faith.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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