The Terrible Comfort of Nothingness
“What if he has shown himself to me some time – one of those nights, perhaps, when I was out till the sun rose – and I didn’t know him! – How frightful if there should be nobody at all up there – nobody anywhere all round.” – ‘There and Back’ by George MacDonald
When it comes to the profession of certain knowledge, we may pretend to know more than we do, and we may pretend to know less.
We desire the security of having a defined position, both in the world of affairs and in the world of our thoughts. So, we are tempted to say we have a solid confidence that something is true when such confidence is but a sheet of thin ice: the slightest thaw in the coolness of our presumption will melt it and send us crashing into the black waters of honest doubt.
But honest doubt is good. It can lead us to a well-examined truth upon which we can stand. So long as we pretend to know that which we do not, our position remains precarious. This is perhaps why people respond with verbal and, in some cases, physical abuse when their professed truth is challenged. What they purport to be a conviction is little more than a prejudice that cannot withstand the slightest scrutiny and must be protected with raw power.
Some who say they believe in God do not, in fact, really know Him. Their belief is something they have inherited, like a piece of antique furniture. They cherish it and polish it and woe to anyone who scratches it. But they make no use of it. Their protected treasure has no function in their lives and is merely something preserved for posterity, for someone else to whom it will also become an object of practical irrelevance.
This is why there is so little difference in the way theists and atheists behave. If God is only a vague and occasional thought, He is unlikely to influence a person’s life in a significant way. Such a theist may have certain practices – prayers and rituals – that provide a pleasing decorum to family events, but God remains a superficial concept, not a living reality. Like formal dress, He is exhumed from the closet for special occasions, then consigned again to the garment bag until needed.
It may not be far from the mark to say that most Catholics – and most members of other sects that identify as Christian – treat God as an occasionally useful thing. They want God in their life, but they want Him in the background, not front and center, where He would get in the way of the normal and central pursuits of daily life: wealth and pleasure.
For most people, belief in God means little. They don’t know God and have taken no time to make His acquaintance. They may have read the catechism, memorized a creed, continued in the practices of their parents and had their children receive the sacraments. This is something. It is a beginning, a necessary foundation. But it is hardly enough. It may be but a perpetuation of the hollowness of a formal religion with no vital essence.
For belief in God, if it is to be of any account, must be transformative. It must reach into our bowels. Otherwise, it may be best to leave religion alone. We are not ready for it and will only give it a bad name and encourage those who see no significance in it. Of all the enemies of Christ, none have been more enduring and formidable than those who claim to be His but have never come near Him.
A comfortable religion is what most people want: something that soothes but never upsets. Comfortable Christianity is an oxymoron. It implies that we are here to enjoy ourselves in all the usual carnal ways and that the Church should facilitate these pursuits. We may also like to feel virtuous, so the Church affords us an opportunity to contribute to this or that “social justice” cause, usually aligned with the godless Left. Then, we can put religion away, along with our checkbook, and get back to our lives.
But what if God will not remain in the background, waiting to be summoned for ceremonial occasions? What if His will is our sanctification, as Jesus says, and He will not leave us be until we become perfect, or finally reject that perfection?
We sometimes wonder why things go so badly in this world and in our lives. Is it because we have turned away from God? Partly. But it is also because God will not turn away from us. We say, “Let me rest with my worldly success. Let me just have the good things that I value.” And God says, “I love you too much to allow it. I want us to be together. And I will take from you whatever gets in the way of our union.”
This may seem hard to us at times, for we think God’s mercy should conform to our notions of mercy. That we should suffer loss and pain may be Our Lord’s kindness to us, His calling us to Him. We may think of it as cruelty, as God punishing us. But God has no interest in our suffering; only in our redemption. It would be cruel of God to let us continue living in sin and not to chastise us. Do we not correct our children because we love them? Are we not imitating our Creator when we do so?
So, when we say we believe in God, let’s not pretend to know more of Him than we do. Let’s not presume to prescribe His mercy nor dictate the terms of His Providence. But, most importantly, when we say we believe in God, let it be the same as saying that we trust in Him completely; that our lives are His completely. Then, perhaps, by slow or fast degrees, our profession of belief will mean something to us and to those who share our trust.
All of the above has to do with the temptation to pretend we know more about God than we actually do, and that our professed belief is real and operative when it is only imagined and irrelevant. But we can also err in the opposite direction and pretend to know less of God than we actually do. Most of today’s complacent atheists commit this error.
I say complacent atheists, for one does encounter some who are on fire with their denial of the deity. There is reason to be more hopeful about the militant atheists, for the existence of God appears to be a crucial concern in their lives and that means they may come to know Him. But in almost all such cases, the god who is vehemently denied is a god who should be vehemently denied. He is a product of imagination or misunderstanding and not the God who made us and loves us.
But the complacent atheist is like the comfortable Christian: he wants no Divine interference in his life. But rather than accept the existence of God and relegate Him to a position of practical insignificance, the complacent atheist simply says he sees no compelling proof for a Creator and goes about his business without a backward glance. To do this, he has to pretend to know less than he knows.
For we all know love. There is no one who has not, in some way, willed the good of another above his own good. Even the meanest of men has known a moment of self-sacrificing tenderness toward a child, a spouse, a friend, even a stranger. And in that moment, he has known God. That experience is God’s invitation to him: “Here is My kingdom. It is yours for the asking. Come inside,” God says. But the Divine voice is often drowned out by the coarse cries of selfish concern. Still, God will not be silent, nor can any man not hear Him, if ever so faintly. Just the slightest attention to that voice, the feeblest turning in the direction of love, will be answered immediately with grace.
To pretend that we have no evidence of God is really perverse. It rests on the false presumption that we can only know things through the senses and, therefore, only that which is verifiable by direct perception, including perception amplified by scientific instruments, can be called genuine knowledge. But we simply do not apply this criterion to any other aspect of our lives.
We do not – indeed cannot – understand or explain our enjoyment of music or art or nature in this way. Mere perception we share with the animals. Appreciation of beauty, repugnance to ugliness, a desire to comprehend causes and know the meaning of phenomena – transcendent meaning – are peculiarly human and cannot be accounted for materially.
Our thought is divinely given, for we are Divinely thought, and our being reflects our Creator. Our consciousness is given us by He who is conscious of us. It cannot be accounted for as an “epiphenomenon” of matter. Such talk begs the question. And we can only regard this empty verbiage as somehow definitive or final by ignoring the vast experience of life we have that cannot be contained or described by it.
But there is comfort in believing in nothing: it imposes no obligations. It drains all action of ultimate meaning and justifies whatever we may choose to do. In fact, actions need no justification for right and wrong are merely conditioned responses, cultural programming, part of the epiphenomena that have their provenance in the brief flash of a mysteriously born and quickly decaying bit of matter.
As I say, there is some comfort in this reduction of all to ultimate meaninglessness. It allows a seeming relaxation of the moral tension of life. But this comfort is purchased at a terrible price: our humanity. If we are not made in the image of God, if we are not made at all by design, but merely by accident, then we have no dignity, no purpose. Nothing does. How black the world then becomes.
But can anyone actually accept the position of the complacent atheist? If God is the prime reality, then denial of God rests on a falsehood that all of nature is in the business of contradicting. Every sunrise and sunset, every smile of an innocent child, every impulse to love and give and will another’s good, every feeling of moral failure – these and a myriad of things – belie the pretended ignorance of God.
We appear to have arrived at some crucial juncture in our collective history. Both the secular world and the politicized religious world are bent upon either denying God’s existence or making Him subordinate to a human providence. The Church, allying itself with the global Left, has emptied belief in God of its transformative power and made religion an adjunct of the state. And the state will have no other gods before it.
Our only hope lies in realizing that God will not abandon us to our own perverseness and stupidity. Like a loving Father, He is always scanning the horizon for the return of His prodigal children. Our sufferings, our disappointments, the failure of our schemes to make a better world according to human wisdom – all of our pains and frustrations – are but God saying to us, “Come home. Take your place in your Father’s house, where you are loved.”
How long will we tend the pigs in a foreign land, looking with hunger at the very husks we feed the swine? God only knows. But we will each have to make the return on our own. And we can begin now.