State of Grace: A Short Explanation of a (Former) Atheist’s Faith
Historically, I have not been a person faith comes easily to. I am a rational science geek — albeit with a serious artistic streak — who feels about Carl Sagan the way a lot of people feel about John Lennon.
I have to wake up every day and make a concerted effort to discover God as if I’ve found Him for the first time. Some people have experienced few blessings and have perhaps seen no evidence of miracles in their lives, yet they believe with an unwavering passion. As for me, I’ve had blessing upon blessing, been the recipient of Divine Providence, Divine Intervention and of miracles large and small. Yet it is a struggle for me to believe.
It is my single greatest failure of imagination.
Despite my meager faith, every prayer I have ever uttered — whether it was to the Catholic God of my youth, or to a god (or goddess) borrowed from another religion, or to “the universe,” has been answered.
Given that kind of track record, when I first folded my hands nine years ago and reached out to God — not “the universe” — and asked Him if He could bestow upon me the blessing of faith — I felt a certain degree of confidence that whoever, whatever God was, He was listening.
Even if I’d closed my mind to Him for so long.
And having a pretty good grasp of scripture after umpteen years of Catholic school, I knew God wasn’t going to deliver faith on a silver platter just because I made the ask. Any more than He would deliver fame and fortune to a garage band that got high all day and never played an actual gig.
This was going to hurt.
But for some crazy reason, even though I really, really don’t like pain — especially the emotional kind — I couldn’t bring myself to take back my appeal for faith.
Faith had always gnawed at me — even when I was at the apex of my “rational period” — an atheist who delighted in boring the snot out of people with my backhanded insults about religion and intellect. Mainly how they don’t go together.
And being a great lover of all things science, I just couldn’t let that little, gnawing feeling go. I had to investigate. Even it killed me. Or at the very least, embarrassed me, which it did. I’m not proud to tell you that more than once, I found myself going along with the crowd, making fun of believers — pretending I wasn’t one of them.
Then, right in the middle of this mid-spiritual life crisis, I had a kid born with cancer. Yes, of course that was the inciting incident for my current, rather devout faith in God.
But not for the reason you might think.
However flawed, mine is not a foxhole faith (as in “there are no atheists in a foxhole”). I’d be lying if I said I never prayed for my sick baby’s recovery. For her to have a chance at a normal, happy life, and for me to get a chance to know her and love her. But I really didn’t pray for that very often when she was sick.
What I prayed for was strength. And I got it. I also prayed for a deeper understanding of my own weird, sometimes tenuous faith. I got that, too.
I suppose the strongest testament to my faith is that I don’t believe in God because he spared my daughter and I get to bask in the joy of hearing her laughter on any given day, and I get to do her hair in the morning, and help her learn to spell. I would have been lucky to have known her at all — for however brief a period. Strangely, I would have been thankful to God for the experience of her death, too, however insane that might sound to a rationalist. It even sounds insane to me.
The increasing depth of my belief can be explained with mystical clarity in the eulogy from one of my favorite movies, Pan’s Labyrinth.
“The essence of God’s forgiveness lies in His word and in His mystery. Because although God sends us the message, it is our task to decipher it. Because when we open our arms, the earth takes in only a hollow and senseless shell. Far away now is the soul in its eternal glory. Because it is in pain that we find the meaning of life and the state of grace that we lose when we are born. Because God in his infinite wisdom puts the solution in our hands. And because it is only in his physical presence that the place he occupies in our souls is reaffirmed.”
My rationale for belief can be explained with non-mystical clarity in my own words:
I believe in God because I believe in love.