Looking for God in All the Wrong Places
Stecher, Carl, The Humanist
Have you found him yet?" The question usually comes from an academic colleague, and it's typically accompanied by a waggish smile. "Not yet!" I respond, "Still searching!"
The still-missing him of the question and response is God. The question is itself a response to the posters I periodically tack up around campus publicizing my English 378 course, "The Search for God." These posters invite students of varying beliefs (or disbeliefs) to participate in a three-credit course exploring through literature the great questions about God: His (?) existence, his moral nature, his communications with humans, his moral demands upon us, his rewards and punishments. The literature itself ranges from the Old and New Testaments to Thomas Paine, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, and Elie Wiesel.
I suspect my colleagues think me to be the village atheist and do not anticipate much more than a quip for an answer to their question. But I have been teaching this course since 1984 and seriously pondering these questions for many years before then. In the process, my thought has evolved in unexpected ways. Perhaps a more serious response is now in order.
But first a disclaimer. I am not a professional theologian or philosopher. My reading in these fields has been wide but unsystematic. Many of my ideas have been acquired directly or indirectly from this reading over the years; I am now unable to document some of these sources. I do not delude myself that I have some entirely original thought to contribute. Nevertheless, there might well be some originality in my synthesis of these ideas or in the process by which they gradually emerged for me or in my expression of the experience. I invite those readers who find such possibilities intriguing.
Do I believe that God exists? The first time the question occurred to me I was an eighth grader recently finished with the mild doctrination of my parents' Congregational church and confirmed a thirteen-year-old Christian. I had just completed my dutiful bedtime prayer ("... and God bless Mom and Dad and ...") when something resembling a reverse revelation occurred--a considerable shock. Everything that I had been taught about him suddenly seemed nonsensical, even preposterous. The experience reminded me of Paul on the road to Damascus, except that I was lying in bed, and the voice was saying, "Carl! I Don't Exist!"
As I now recall, my disbelief then was based upon a sudden realization of the gigantic gulf between the world I perceived and the fundamental assertion of Christianity: that an invisible spirit is everywhere, listening to and watching over all human beings simultaneously. The idea seemed contrary to all common sense. In fact, God seemed no more real than that rotund gentleman who, in a single night, delivers Christmas gifts to all the world's children. Santa, at least, was not invisible. The one inexplicable fact was that so many otherwise normal adults, having outgrown Santa Claus, still seemed to believe in God.
Despite years of searching since then, my answer to the question of God's absolute, objective existence has not changed. The God of my fathers, of the Bible, and of orthodox Christian confession--omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, the creator of heaven and earth, the supernatural father who listens to our prayers and sometimes answers them, who is angry at our sinfulness but who so loves the world that he offers his only son as a blood sacrifice to himself so that whosoever shall believe in this son shall not be tormented forever in hell but shall have eternal bliss in heaven--this God is not my personal lord and savior. This God is no more real to me than Jupiter or Wotan.
And yet, paradoxically, this God of Christianity has, over the years, attained for me a very real existence. The only way of clarifying this apparent muddle, this contradiction between disbelief and belief, is to consider carefully both the subject and the predicate in the assertion "God exists. …