Early in his pilgrimage, the literary monk Thomas Merton wrote, “Very soon we get to the point where we simply say, ‘I believe’ or ‘I refuse to believe.’” Faith runs hot and cold over time, offering up reasons both to believe and disbelieve.
It did not surprise Jesus in the least that some would disbelieve him, regardless of evidence. He had predicted as much: “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” It does not surprise me either that some disbelieve the reality of an unseen world, especially in an age which excels at mastering the visible world. For many, God cannot possibly exist unless he makes himself visible or tangible—and God does not perform on our terms.
Why do I believe? I ask myself. Why do I, like Merton, continue to make that defiant leap of faith?
I could point to a conversion experience during college days, a transforming moment that bisected my life into two parts, an age of unbelief and an age of belief. Yet I know that a skeptic, hearing that story, could propose alternate explanations.
I could point to shafts of light that have (rarely, I admit) pierced the veil between the visible and invisible worlds. These, too, the skeptic would dismiss, forcing me to fall back on what the philosopher William James called “the convincingness of unreasoned experience.”
In my own days of skepticism, I wanted a dramatic interruption from above. I wanted proof of an unseen reality, one that could somehow be verified. In my days of faith, such supernatural irruptions seem far less important, in part because I find the materialistic explanations of life inadequate to explain reality. I have learned to attend to fainter contacts between the seen and unseen worlds. I sense in romantic love something insufficiently explained by mere biochemical attraction. I sense in beauty and in nature the marks of a genius creator for which the appropriate response is worship. Like Jacob, I have at times awoken from a dream to realize, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
I sense in desire, including sexual desire, marks of a holy yearning for connection. I sense in pain and suffering a terrible disruption that omnipotent love surely cannot abide forever. I sense in compassion, generosity, justice, and forgiveness a quality of grace that speaks to me of another world, especially when I visit places marred by their absence. I sense in Jesus a person who lived those qualities so consistently that the world could not tolerate him, and so silenced and disposed of him.
I believe not so much because the invisible world impinges on this one, but because the visible world hints, in the ways that move me most, at a lack of completion.
I once heard a woman give a remarkable account of achievement. An early feminist, she gained renown in the male-dominated field of endocrinology. She brushes shoulders with Nobel laureates and world leaders, and has lived as full and rich a life as any I have known. At the end of her story she said simply, “As I look back, this is what matters. I have loved and been loved, and all the rest is just background music.”
Love, too, is why I believe. At the end of life, what else matters? “Love never fails,” Paul wrote. “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” He could only be describing God’s love, for no human love meets that standard of perfection. What I have tasted of love on this earth convinces me that a perfect love will not be satisfied with the sad tale of this planet, will not rest until evil is conquered and good reigns, will not allow its objects to pass from existence. Perfect love perseveres until it perfects.
Jesus’ disciple John brought the two worlds together, in a unity forged through love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son… For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Love deems this world worth rescuing.
(Adapted from A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith)
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