Today I was reading an essay by Jacques Maritain. This quote struck me deeply:
“There are pseudo-atheists who believe that they do not believe in God and who in reality unconsciously believe in Him, because the God whose existence they deny is not God but something else.”
This struck me because atheism is something I have pondered lately, seriously and at length. I have had heartfelt conversations with a sincere atheist that have left me a bit rattled and musing, because she threw some challenges at my faith for which I had no answers. I can be okay with accepting that I do not have the answer to something, but I’d like to at least know what I can answer and what I can’t, along with why.
The question of a definition of God comes up in relation to these thoughts. I do not believe I have a coherent, comprehensive definition of God, and I’m not at all sure that I would want one, either. Perhaps I could phrase that better by saying I’m not at all sure it is possible to have one. Words, after all, are only symbols that point to something beyond themselves– actual entities or felt experiences or both. God is a symbol for Something that transcends any symbol or system of symbols that we might use to describe. He is to be worshiped by His creatures, not laid on a dissecting table by them. A God you can dissect is a God you can control. There is a lack of humility in this approach, and it has been said that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. I feel like I must strive, in my following after God, to avoid intellectualizing it all away from lived experience and existential reality. We are to love God with all our minds, so I don’t think the intellect is in any way irrelevant to the spiritual task, but it should exist, along with the heart, soul, and strength, in service to the injunction to love God and one’s neighbor. I think in this manner we might properly exercise our smarts without ascribing ultimacy to them. We should want to understand what we can understand, make sense where sense is to be made, all the while having the humility to stand in awed silence before the incomprehensible.
All this brings me back to the question of a definition of God, and belief in God versus atheism. If I believe God transcends any words we might use to describe Him, to the extent that He cannot be defined in any adequate way, well then is there really nothing to discuss? To debate the existence of God one must first have a definition and if there is no definition, there can be no debate. There can only be a question of orientation and of action. In which way does one orient oneself to the question of God? With a dismissive shrug or with worship? If the latter, then in the context of a religion or in the context of silence? In community or in solitude? Do we place faith in revelations purportedly vouchsafed to others? If so, which ones?
I have had the experience of being so gripped by the story, teachings, and character of Christ that I can receive the dogma that declares Him to be the manifestation of God in the flesh with believing joy. This seems to be a response from the deepest core of my being, although I admit that I do not understand it and that there are parts of me that sometimes doubt.