Magazine article USA TODAY

An Agnostic Encounters God

Magazine article USA TODAY

An Agnostic Encounters God

Article excerpt

THE FIRST TIME GOD spoke to me I did not believe He existed. Rev. Billy Graham once mentioned, "I know God exists--I talked to him this morning." Theatrical posturing, I thought. Graham may have been talking to God, but was God talking back? I remembered psychologist Thomas Szasz's comment: "If somebody talks to God, that's praying. If God talks to them, that's schizophrenia."

I had been raised in a Christian home, but those beliefs did not survive Philosophy 101, where arguments for the existence of God were shot down like skeets. Since that time, I had been what one of my professors, Philip Wheelwright, called himself: a "pious agnostic"--respectful of belief in a higher reality but, when it came right down to it, staying eye-level with the natural world, the world of experience as I then knew it.

It is said you do not have to believe in God in order to pray. That is what happened to me. I had been divorced for many years. I always thought I would be happier married but, as the decades rolled on without Miss Right showing up, I began to think she never would. Then one day, the phone rang; it was Abigail Rosenthal. She was a professor at Brooklyn College, a school with an outstanding liberal arts curriculum, which campus administrators were proposing to trash. Rosenthal and a colleague in the history department were fighting the change. They had succeeded in rallying most of the faculty, but the administration was driving a steamroller. She called the higher education organization I ran in Washington, D.C. Could we help? "Yes, that is what we do," I said.

Our only hope was to take the issue to the public, and we did. The battle raged in the press through the spring and into the summer. Rosenthal and I talked almost daily, strategizing and getting the story out. None of the talk was personal, and we never met, yet I found myself thinking, "This is a very remarkable woman." Finally, our side won and, meanwhile, she had won my heart. In fact, I fell in love with her on the phone.

The pace of our phone calls quickened and grew more personal but, other than hanging on her every word, I was not fessing up to my feelings, and she, of course, was playing her cards close--as much as her impetuosity permitted. Thinking to maintain her feminine elusiveness, she nevertheless warned, in a stream of modals, "If there may be or might or possibly could be something personal, at some point perhaps, between us, we should make sure it does not interfere with our efforts for Brooklyn College." My lips said, "Of course, the college comes first," but my heart said, "She loves me!"

I was not just in love; I completely was overwhelmed. I suppose it is a well-known phenomenon. Poets have sung about it ever since poets learned to sing; yet, I never really had believed in love, not romantic love. Being in love was a delusion, based on projection--even the poets call it a form of madness--the kind of thing you expect to outgrow as you get older. I only was looking for compatibility--even had a Myers-Briggs personality profile in mind.

Being in love not only was a profound new experience, it shook my world view. My whole life took on a new meaning. No, that is not quite right. My life went from a collection of purposes to having a meaning. It went from black and white to Technicolor. No, more radical than that, it went from a two-dimensional universe to a three-dimensional--or, as it turned out, n-dimensional--universe. I felt surprise and joy and gratitude. I did not know whom to thank, but an extraordinary gift had come into my life.

One summer morning I felt an urge to express my thanks, to pray--to Whomever. I did not see any reason not to express what I genuinely felt. So, I fell to my knees, as I had been taught as a child, and thanked "the Lord." I now believed in love, but not much else. I did not know if I was praying to the God of Israel, to Jesus of Nazareth, or, for all I knew, to the Lord Krishna worshiped by Hindus--or simply to a benign universe. …

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