My Faith: A Confession

January 29, 2013

by Justin E. H. Smith

Different people, different closets. I don’t quite know how to say it delicately so I’m just going to come right out and say it. I believe in God. Apart from periodic spells of foolish pride, I have believed in God all my life. Even during these spells, I did not so much cease to believe, as turn my back on what I believed.

As far as I’m concerned there cannot really be any concern that God does not exist. Even to see God’s existence as a problem is to misapprehend what is at stake, since God just is the love, sweet and radiant, that charges through every drop and leaf and mote of the creation, always ready to be felt by anyone who is ready to believe.

God is not male, and I cannot say ‘he’, however tempted I am to remain with the conventions of my beautiful language and its beautiful tradition of devotional writing. But this is a relatively trivial corollary of the more important point that God is not a being, and so also neither a monarch nor a father nor a ruler of any sort. God is love, and I can keep my love of God and have my anarchism too.

Indeed, as I see it the two not only can but must go together. To believe in God, and to feel the divine love that charges through all of creation, is precisely not to bow down, but to rejoice. The great travesty of the history of religion, and the victory of its enemies, has been to bend the idea of God to the legitimation of earthly rulers, to convince people that God is like dad, or the king, or the tyrant, but more so, and that, conversely, these mundane potentates are little reflections of God. There is none of this in my love of God, which shines out of my encounter with creatures, God’s creatures, themselves having no power other than the power of their own growth and integrity, their own life, which is itself an expression of the same joy in God as my own.

To experience this joy is to know that the states of my soul and the states of infinite nature always fit, that each is an expression of the other, and so, that my death cannot be the end of anything, since nature, of which my soul was a modulation, a beautiful if dirty outcropping, will keep doing what it always does, and I, now only more obviously a convolution of nature, will flow along in streams and breezes and cosmic rays and will no longer be held up on this concern about the ‘I’ at all, about its finitude and its mortality. (I have just expressed a version of what is sometimes called ‘monopsychism’ or ‘the Averroist heresy’, and it is the first of a handul of heresies to which I will assent here.)

For some centuries now, no small confusion has arisen from the fact that we talk about belief in God, rather than love of God. The two amount to the same thing, but the first of these expressions, at least since the beginning of the modern period, pushes us willy-nilly into the field of evidence and argumentation, a field where the standards of commitment have nothing to do with the issue at hand, and so not surprisingly, though for poorly understood reasons, belief in God cannot but be a failing proposition.

But start from love, start from joy, and the demand for further evidence vanishes. To continue to make it would be like demanding to see the hormones that cause an erection before accepting that there is such a thing as eros. It would be vulgar. It is vulgar, every time we hear it from the puffed-up fools who believe they are defending the honour and integrity of something, which they also do not understand, but which they call ‘science’. Science has more often than not been driven by what its practitioners have experienced as joy and wonder before God’s creation. This is a historical fact, and even if you are one of the puffed-up fools who thinks belief in God deserves nothing but mockery, you cannot change this fact.

Too often, God talk is set over against science talk, as if the one were concerned with fiction and illusion, the other with truth and reality. But this distinction presupposes an understanding of all talk as principally concerned with denoting entities in the world, and so takes those varieties of talk for which no entities are to be found as inferior or off-target. But there is another method of dividing up the different ways people talk, on which what the aforementioned fools think of as science finds itself in the undistinguished company of insurance claims and warehouse inventory lists, while God by contrast shares space, in the universe of human meanings, with music, metaphor, poetry, and dreams.

Everyone understands when God comes up in the lyrics of a Pixies song, for example. One song says, insistently, ‘God is seven!’, as if recalling some forgotten Pythagorean numerology, or, just as likely, deploying a Chomskyan example of a nonsense sentence.  When I hear that song, I hear something, born though it may be of irony and the exigencies of rhyme, that I can only hear as a crying out to God. Countless rock songs could be substituted here to make the same point, which is that no one who was into such a song up to the moment where God came up will suddenly throw off the headphones and declare that there has been a mistake.

In his poem ‘The Angels’, Rainer-Maria Rilke attributes to God a pair of ‘wide workman’s hands’ which move through the pages ‘of the dark book of the beginning’. Does God have wide workman’s hands? No, and yet, if you ask me, Where is the truth to be found, in Rilke’s poem, or in my 2011 tax returns?, I will answer without a second of hesitation: the poet is telling the truth, and of the two sorts of text it is only the first that can even be said to be engaging with something important enough to be called ‘true’ or ‘false’ at all. The turn to metaphor is not a turn away from truth, but a response to the difficulty of its expression.

But metaphor is not always what conveys the truth best. When Al Green sings the lines of the old gospel song, ‘My God is real, for I can feel him in my soul’, no proposition could be more direct, and only a puffed-up fool would seek to tell him he is mistaken. Just listen to him; he’s not mistaken. And we can know this because of the depth of the feeling that motivates its expression, so much like the erotic desire we might find him singing about in the tracks that precede and follow ‘My God Is Real’. Some of the most incontrovertible expressions of belief in God move in just this way, between RnB and gospel, so to speak, between different modalities of love. In this respect, Al Green positions himself in the same lineage as Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. The expression of their love of God is the more compelling for their refusal to cordon it off from carnal love.

Much invocation of God in music and poetry is not declarative at all, but vocative; it says not that God is so-and so, it says ‘Oh Lord’, ‘Oh my God’. (Sometimes people even say these things when they’re fucking.) The puritans will tell you that this is ‘swearing’, that it is taking the name of God in vain. But listen attentively, openly, in the spirit of charity, and you can only understand that it is not in vain, and that we have no a priori rule to distinguish between swearing and praying.

Are the lyrics true? (Is God seven?) Are they more true or less true than a correct inventory of the items held in a warehouse? This is an argument I am not interested in having. But I am certain that music, poetry, all those contexts in which everyone understands, whether they ‘believe in God’ or not, that it makes sense to invoke God: these are not to be dismissed as illusion, shadow, deceit, nor yet as distraction, playtime, divertissement, kid’s stuff. An account of human life that does not include them would not amount to much.

But enough about wrong-headedness; this is not a debate, but a confessio fidei. I am proclaiming what I believe, not beating down opponents. Opponents and sympathists alike are by now probably saying, God, God, fine. But which God? And I answer, with even more trepidation than I felt in making the initial profession of faith: the Christian God.

But what is Christian here? So far I’ve only spoken in the sort of vagaries that a few hundred years ago would have found me accused of Spinozism, which is to say crypto-atheism. They were wrong about Spinoza, then, too. Spinoza believed in God, and as far as we can tell his mature philosophy was in no small measure the product of a deep interest in radical Protestant reconceptualizations of Christology. To say ‘God or nature’ only appears to be a reduction of God if you already hate nature; if you do not hate it, you will understand Spinoza’s formula not as a reduction, but as an exaltation. Too often, to say, with Einstein, that one ‘believes in Spinoza’s God’, is interpreted as a way of distancing oneself from belief in the proper sense, a way of sounding respectably modern while also expressing some concern that our various insurance claim forms and inventory lists are inadequate as sources of meaning. It is the high-brow way of saying one is ‘spiritual but not religious’.

But I want to say something unmodern here, something that would have made sense in 30 AD. I am a Christian because I affirm the core message of the Gospels, which, I take it, is that God is love, and that therefore a life that aspires to love of all of creation is a life lived in accordance with God’s law. This interpretation of what I have called the core message is one that emphasizes what is often called ‘the social gospel’, and that aligns itself with thinkers like Tolstoy who see Christ as a social revolutionary. From love flows the principle of unconditional forgiveness, and from this flows a commitment to pacifism which underlies all of a Christian’s political commitments. To be a Christian is by definition to abhor war. It is also to abhor conventional morality, and family values (see Luke 14:26). It is not only unmodern, but untimely in any era, in 30 AD as much as today.

The only adequate fulfillment of the core message of love, for me, is the one that, as I have already suggested, extends this love to all of creation, and not only to one’s ‘fellow man’. This is a challenge, since the Christian tradition, and indeed for the most part the Gospels themselves, is overwhelmingly anthropocentric. Animals come up parabolically, as representatives of singular human virtues or vices (sheep good, goats bad, etc.), but seldom as works of God in their own right. This absence is somewhat compensated in the lives of saints –Francis of Assisi, Seraphim of Sarov, Theodora of Sihla– who retreated to the wilderness, who learned how to talk to the animals, and who, we may thus infer, understood that animals are an expression of the same divine order and divine goodness as we are. But one must go looking for these tendencies in the Christian tradition in a way that one need not in, say, Buddhism. You might now ask, Why not just be a Buddhist, then? To which I would reply: Quit joking around. I can’t be a Buddhist. (I could pretend, I suppose, like many Westerners have, though they usually get tired of doing so before long.)

I confess I do not have much of a feeling for the meaning of the crucifixion, and for the cult of death that sprang from it. My part of the four Gospels comes early on: the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount; they lose me with the crucifixion. It is not that I don’t believe in or understand sin: on the contrary, I find the picture of God’s creation as always charged through with grace but also simultaneously tainted by sin entirely compelling. Eating, for example (as the Chandogya Upanishad, by the way, vividly conveys) is a transgression against what is eaten, against that portion of living and striving nature that you have usurped for your own living and striving, but it is by God’s grace –by ‘saying grace’, as some wholesome folk do– that this usurpation can be made right. Sin is pursuit of self-interested ends as if you deserved the fruits of this pursuit simply in virtue of who you are, as if God had nothing to do with it. Sin is pride, turning away from God in the belief that you have what it takes to make it on your own (one telling and somewhat archaic synonym of ‘atheism’ in German is Abgötterei, which translates as something like ‘away-from-Goddery’, ‘the condition of turning from God’; atheism here is not a doxastic state about the existence of something or other, but rather an emotional state, a stubbornness). So I get sin, but I don’t get what it means to say that Christ died for my sins. I just don’t get it.

I know that I am picking and choosing, and that by many standards I’ve failed to meet the requirements of being a Christian. Many, like those with the banners at the sports events, take John 3:16 to contain the core message of the Gospels. I also claim to know what the core message of the Bible is: love and forgiveness (1 John 4:8, 1 Corinthians 13:13, Matthew 5:38), and I claim that there is much extraneous stuff too, which can have little to do with our understanding of the essence of Christianity: the rules concerning marriage, the disregard for animals, the cosmic significance of crucifixion. How do I justify my picking and choosing? Well, who wants me to justify it? The hoarse-voiced goon at the sports match shouting about how Jesus Christ died for my sins? What concern is he of mine?

Those who know me or have read me will probably know that I have often claimed that I am an atheist. I would like to stop doing this, but if I had to justify myself, I would say that it is for fear of being confused with that blowhard with the ‘John 3:16′ banner that I am unforthcoming about what I actually believe. I am infinitely closer, in the condition of my soul, to the people who feel God’s absence– the reasons for this feeling are a profound theological problem, and one might say that it is only smugness that enables people, atheists and dogmatists alike, to avoid grappling with this problem. I am with the people who detect God’s hand, perhaps without even realizing it, where the smug banner-holder sees only sin: in jungle music, dirty jokes, seduction, and swearing. I am with the preacher who puts out a gospel album, then goes to prison on fraud and drug charges for a while, then puts out a hip-grinding soul album, and then another gospel album. I am with the animals, who can’t even read, but can still talk to the saints of divine things. I am sooner an atheist, if what we understand by Christianity is a sort of supernatural monarchism; if we understand by it that God is love, though, then, I say, I am a Christian.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.