Editor's Note: It should be noted that in the text of Paquette's essay, the letters "g-d" were used -- except in the title, in place of the word "God". The reason for this, one can presume, was to better illustrate the hollowness or emptyiness of the concept as experienced in the face of what seems overwhelming evil and its etymological relationship, at least in the Germanic family of languages, to the word "good." But lest this substitution be misunderstood as standing for a common expletive, the author has agreed to our taking the editorial liberty of reverting to more standard usage. We have particularly chosen publish this essay to provoke further reflection on the matter, especially as it reflects theological dimensions of the experience of good and evil -- as well as the distinction between "belief" (as a intellectual articulation) as distinquished from "faith". Then too, the more philosophically inclined may also want to reflect on the term "exist" when used analogically (and as some theologians would claim, improperly) of God. Notice also the play on the words "nothing" and "everything" towards the end as this paradox reflects the inadequacy of our human concepts. (R.W.Kropf, ed.)
"Does God exist?"
A Personal Response
On one hand there are the various religionists who assure us that they have the answer to that question and if we would only follow them, they would introduce us to the real, the true, and the only God. They claim direct and exclusive access to God. They walk regularly to the mountain of God, giving and receiving messages concerning the management of human affairs. Taking our prayers about death and dying, birth and joy to the throne of God and returning with new improved sets of "Thou shalt's" and "Thou shalt not's." Yes, they have the answer, they assure us, and in the very words of God himself.
On the other hand there are those empiricists who assure us that the question is a rather pointless one. Whatever this God might be, they insist, it will never be anything more than a fabrication, a figment of our imagination. The answer we seek concerns nothing factual. There is nothing that will count as evidence. Not miracles, not holy books, not personal witness, not even the well reasoned arguments of those who feel confident they have discovered their g-d as a necessary conclusion deduced from certain facts of the universe, such as the necessity of its origin by some intelligent creative act, the order and purposefulness of its evolution, or the moral sense within our minds as our conscience deliberates about the righteousness, the justice of our acts. They believe there can be no other explanation for the fact that this God has not shown up on any of their measuring apparatus, neither in their radio telescopes nor in their electron microscopes than that God is simply not real.
So where does that leave me? I was raised as a Roman Catholic Christian which is to say that I was given and received during the 50's one of the most rigorous and thorough religious formations possible. In addition to that, at the age of seventeen I entered a monastery to deepen my knowledge of and commitment to God as I understood it then.
But then God died. Gone like a balloon that had burst into nothingness with a startling bang. Riding on the subway deep beneath the streets of New York City in 1968. On my way to work up in Harlem, which was referred to at the time as a black ghetto and was filled with all of the urban degeneration and decay one can imagine and more. As I rode up town I spotted among the advertisements along the wall of the subway car one that reported the latest body count from Vietnam, killed, wounded, missing in action. The madness of the war enraged me as I dangled at the end of the strap. I was standing there amidst a crushing crowd of strangers all silenced by the roaring rattle of steel wheels on steel rails. We were all assailed by the smell of powdered steel, iron oxide, this rust that tastes like blood and fills up my nose, my mouth, my sinuses and even stings my eyes. Beyond these statistics about the "boys" in Vietnam I hear the screams of children as they stumble about in flaming pain trying to escape the searing fire of the napalm that consumes their delicate skin. A small price to pay, we were told, in order to avoid the untold misery that "Godless" communists would have inflicted on them.
At 135th Street and Lennox Avenue I ascended from under the ground and walked amidst the riotous destruction of a neighborhood. The riot had exploded the night before. All around me was the violent expression of the anger and outrage flowing from the grieving hearts of the descendents of those slave laborers that made America so great and yet so full of shame and hate. This hate had killed the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior.
My Faith no longer made any sense. I was alone on the streets of New York and no promise of a paradise in heaven could make any of this right. But still I experienced an absence. The absence of God. And it did not appear to me to make any more sense to rest in the puzzles contemplated and explored by science. These scientists had even less to say about the meaning of it all. "What happens, happens," they would say. "There is no point in taking any of it personally." We are not supposed to ask "why?" in any important sense but simply to describe "how".
This experience of the absence of God is the context of my faith, if I have any. This is the starting point of my believing, if I do believe. Perhaps I don't have enough faith to have faith in my faith. I could not shake my sense of the absence of God. There was still a hunger in my soul. Was this some kind of addiction craving satisfaction? Was I still hooked psychologically to the religion of my youth? God was dead but this memory lived on. Deeper than a memory. It was as if God was immortal and the spirit of God still hovered around me.
But not to haunt me. It couldn't be so, for all of this is from within me. It was a product of my imagination. From within my heart, from within my soul.
The umbilical cord had been cut. The faith of my childhood that had nurtured me for so long was gone. And now the new born child was crying for the milk it had not yet tasted. I presumed I did not need anything. In fact I thought the depression I felt when I had faith would now disappear since I was free of repression and guilt. But it didn't. It was replaced by confusion and doubt. And the dispair increased. There was no satisfaction.
Finally when I was in my deepest despair I wrote to this woman, a holy woman, a Christian Catholic nun, that I had known. The letter contained the flailing desperation of a drowning man. I sent the letter off and waited in my own darkness. Nothing could console me. I was ready to surrender myself to this person. Whatever answer she would give I would take to heart if only my metaphysical despair would end. Life without meaning had become a terror. I waited. I was ready to return to the faith of my childhood. But no answer came. I waited.
Then one day I read the announcement of her death in the local newspaper. "Peacefully in her sleep, after a long illness."
This was the answer. There was to be no answer. There was to be no go-between. I was on my own. Whatever was to be, was to be between me and God.
So after many years of searching what can I say? Who am I to say, except for myself? Over time the search and the answer all becomes entwined with personality and attitude and character. It is all shaded by my personal history. So first I say, you must follow your own heart, you must clarify it all with your own mind.
To the empiricist our minds are nothing more than a manifestation of our brains. That might be so, but it does not lessen the mystery of identity, it does not negate the reality of the person, nor does it invalidate the passion with which we live our lives even if they all end in death. They may say it is all in our minds, and they are right. But they confuse things if they also insist that our minds are all in our brains. "Brain" is a word that functions in the realm of the empirical whereas "mind" is a word that functions in the realm of the personal.
The task is not to prove that my mind is something more than my brain but rather to puzzle out how to communicate effectively concerning the mystery of the personal. That dimension to our reality that cannot be studied using the methods and equipment of the physical sciences. I that says, "Hello," to You.
And even before that, perhaps deeper than that, how to listen for what we are able to tune into with our very heart and soul. What is it that we are able to see and feel and hear but not with our eyes, our fingers, or our ears.
How are we able to feel the warmth of icicles hanging in the sun, or hear the sound of falling snow as the silence settles in, or see the sorrow in the young mother's eyes as they cover her child with its blanket of earth.
My senses and understanding had become stuffed with decades of explanations, descriptions, and arguments. There were tales of wonder and horror. Of the presence of g-d, of the absence of God. Of the power of faith, of the foolishness of belief. So I let all of this stuff float free. And listened.
If the mystery is as incomprehensible as they say it is, and most say it is, then the words and even the ideas that are used to describe it have little hold on it. These words and ideas may point us in a direction but they do not contain what it is that we seek.
What came from out of the silence? Everything and nothing. The "nothing" that is the source of "everything" going back to the Big Bang and before. Before time, before mass, before space, even before energy. Before "before and after". A metaphysical "before" that cannot be put into words though it can be contemplated. We can look out into space with our eyes but it is only with our minds and hearts and imagination that we can contemplate the limit of this universe.
And at my death, emptiness again. My own personal emptying. Though this is a contradiction in terms, for to assert, "I am dead," makes no logical sense. I can be asleep, I can be dreaming, but how can "I" be dead? Where do I go? Where does the flame go when you blow out the candle? Where does the music go when you burn up the tape? Where does "I" go, "When God cuts the thread."?
For now I am convinced that we are able to tap into the source of hope, of compassion, and of courage. I see these as unconditional ideals for they seem to energize me in spite of the gravity that causes the skin of my face to wrinkle and sag, in spite of the doubts that cause my heart to sink in bitterness, in spite of the old age that causes my eyes to fail, in spite of heartless arrogance that will not hear the silent resignation of our starving children.
That I am able to hope in spite of my fragility and mortality, in spite of these crimes against justice and compassion, committed sometimes even in the name of "God", this is the action of my faith. This is how I understand the existence of God now.
It is for me to generate God. Letting my ego go, to respond creatively with unconditional hope, and with compassion.
Wayne E. Paquette, Kirkland, Christmas 1997.
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