The Apocryphal Believer
God stuff. It’s a ticklish thing to talk about. Normally, it is only acceptable to discuss God stuff in forums where one can be reasonably assured that everyone– from the writer to the readers– will agree with everyone else. Politics, same thing. Still, one of the things I have always enjoyed about this forum is the wide variety of opinions and perspectives expressed by the readers.
Thus, with my last post, The Fake God, I broke the rule of discussing God stuff, and I’m glad I did. I asked for the perspectives of people who don’t believe in God, and I was gratified to see some very interesting reader responses. Their arguments are reasonable, logical, and thought-provoking.
And yet, as I considered (and continue to consider) their points, I realized that they didn’t effect my own belief. I wondered about this, because I really do want to challenge my world-views by seriously considering counter-arguments. Am I really like those knee-jerk fundies that believe stuff regardless of the evidence (or lack thereof?) Is this where I start snake-handling and refusing life-saving blood transfusions for my family because God doesn’t approve of hoity-toity modern medicine and will heal us himself if he damn well wants to?
Not… quite. (If so, I wouldn’t have used the word “damn” in that last sentence.)
What I realized is that all the arguments against the existence of God are purely– and by necessity– logical. I like logic. I consider myself a logical person. Mr. Spock is a hero of mine. So why don’t the logical atheist arguments work for me?
“Live long and die and go to heaven.”
Simple. Because they ignore personal experience. It makes perfect sense that they should, but it doesn’t change the fact that it renders them somewhat weak.
Trying to convince a believer that God doesn’t exist via logic is like arguing with Buzz Aldrin about the existence of the moon. You might present the perfect, airtight argument that a geosynchronous planetary satellite is utterly impossible. You might even provide irrefutable proof that belief in the moon has led to worldwide psychosis and human atrocities. Imagine that old Buzz cannot offer a single shred of counter-argument– imagine you are smarter than him in every respect– Steven-Hawking-meets-Albert-Einstein smart. Eventually, you’d walk away with the reasonable assumption that you’ve won the debate.
But Buzz Aldrin has walked on the moon. He listened to your words, he considered everything you had to say, but none of it erased the very real memory he has of bouncing along under a teensy percent of earth gravity, leaving footprints in moon-dust, and looking up at the circle of the earth over an alien horizon.
Experience is king. Reason, intellect, and logic make the rules, but experience sometimes just breaks those rules all to bits, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.
Belief can’t be based solely on experience, of course. Individual experiences are apocryphal. But they are interesting and singularly compelling for the person to whom they have happened.
I am stalling. I am nervous about sharing the following, since it is all 1) personal, and 2) likely to make a certain kind of reader think I am a gullible boob. I promise, these are actual things. They really happened. They don’t form the foundation of why I believe in God, but they do make said belief a little easier.
The following are three of my own experiences with what it makes sense to me to call God.
1) The Not-So-Subtle Hint
My wife’s name is Jael. If you were a straight-A student in Old Testament History, you’ll remember that Jael is a Bible name. All of my wife’s siblings were named from the Bible, although rather haphazardly. For instance, my sister-in-law’s name means “bitter”. My brother-in-law’s name means “terror” (or something like that. “Snake-pit” maybe? Something totally bad). In keeping with that tradition, my wife is named after an OT woman made famous by a particularly inventive act of regicide: she drove a tent stake through the head of an evil king. It was a popular subject for the original grindhouse crowd.
I was in love with Jael for years before she ever saw me as anything other than a “nice guy friend”. When her perspective of me finally began to change, I was unprepared for it and couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it was happening. We lived in different states– Ohio and Michigan– so we were corresponding almost exclusively by phone and letters (you remember letters, right? The kind written on dead trees with whale oil, usually by the light of kerosene lanterns?) Thus, in spite of all that intellectual and emotional bonding, there was none of what I will whimsically refer to as kissy-face.
In fact, while Jael was separated from me by a state border, I was still conveniently “dating” a very nice younger woman who lived in the same zip code. Kissy-face ensued with some regularity. I warned Kissy-girl that we were, at best, a summer fling (and at worst, a rom-com starring Matthew McConaughey and Julia Stiles), but I knew I was being stupid, both toying with her emotions and not telling either girl about the other. It was, to be sure, a really stupid thing to be doing.
One afternoon, Kissy-girl came to my apartment, sat down across from me, and with no preamble said, “I had the weirdest dream about you. I dreamed we went camping and I pounded a tent peg through your head.”
OK, so maybe it’s possible that that was a total coincidence. Maybe loads of girls experience dreams about creatively using tent stakes on the temples of their boyfriends. Or maybe Kissy-girl had the drop on me– maybe she had somehow found out about Jael and was just trying to freak me out, right?
Like I said, they lived in separate states. Furthermore, Jael and I were just beginning to realize what was happening between us, much less telling anyone else about it. No one else knew what was going on. No one.
Also, I should mention that Kissy-girl didn’t even believe that there was a Bible story about a character named Jael puncturing a dude’s head with a tent stake until I showed it to her.
Thus, for me the whole thing was a pretty clear not-so-subtle God-hint: Quit being a jackass! I’m trying to hook you up with the girl of your dreams and you’re wasting time being a small town casanova? Seriously?
I immediately told Kissy-girl about Jael. The angst of being broken up with was surely offset by the sheer strangeness of how it happened.
“I can’t believe he used the old ‘it’s not you, it’s me and your crazy prophetic God dream’ break-up excuse.”
2) The God Texts
As some of you know, my faith in God as a personal entity is an ongoing struggle. Frankly, I’ve always found it pretty easy to believe in a creator. The idea that that creator might be personally interested and involved in my life, however, has always seemed, quite simply, too good to be true. This is a recurring theme for me, and a source of much angst.
And still, despite my doubts, God seems to sometimes go out of his way to get the message across.
A few years ago, I was ranting to my wife about it. She is always very patient with me. Although she doesn’t wrestle with the same issues, she knows I have to. She knows my faith in a “father God” is a constant challenge, complicated by a historically strained relationship with my own father, who has often seemed aloof and detached. Jael knows that there is very little she can do or say when I get ranting, and on this particular day I was in rare ranting mode. I complained about what a cruddy father God was, and how I could do a better job than him, and why he wouldn’t just do something– anything— to defend himself and make himself real to me.
And at that moment, the phone rang.
Jael and I just looked at each other. It was like one of those movie moments where one character says to another character, “The last thing I’d expect right now is for Aunt Hattie to come knocking on our front door,” and you just know that in the space of one movie beat there is going to be a rap at the door and a shrill female voice calling “Yoo-hoo!”
Without a word, I went to the kitchen and answered the phone. It was a friend from back in Ohio– a former pastor and buddy whom I hadn’t spoken to in years. He had called because… he didn’t really know why. He just thought that he should call me– me specifically– and ask how I was doing.
So I told him. I told him the whole big fat ugly thing. He listened and he offered a few encouraging words. That’s all. It helped that the words came from another male and not my wife. It also helped that he seemed to know God had sent him to me. That, really, was almost all that mattered.
“God also told me to tell you to break up with that Kissy-girl. Oh, you already got that one?”
Maybe that was another big coincidence. It’s possible. After all, it didn’t last me forever.
A year or so later, I was on a bike ride around one of the local trails. Once again I was ranting at God in my head.
As I rode, I remembered something Jael had said to me the day before. “You operate on the assumption that God doesn’t care about you,” she pointed out. “Then, with every little disappointment in life, you think your assumption is proven. Why don’t you try out the opposite assumption? See what happens.”
I was reluctant. I was even petulant. But as I rode, I made an effort to change my perspective. I tried to imagine that God was, in fact, interested in me. I tried to imagine that he didn’t just love me (somehow, divine love seems strangely impersonal. I figured he loved people the same way I love chicken wings– as an aggregate, but not individually. That would just be… weird. right?) Instead, I tried to imagine that God liked me. That he thought I was pretty cool. That he cared about what I do, and liked checking out the stuff I make, and hung up my artwork on his gigantic divine fridge with enormous fruit-shaped magnets.
It felt kinda good to think that. And yet, I wondered if I was just fooling myself. After all, the brain is a muscle. We can conjure up anything we want and make ourselves believe it’s real. Truthfully, I think a lot of religion falls into that category. I didn’t want to be like that. I didn’t want to fake myself out.
So I said out loud, “All right, if this is just me psyching myself out, I want to know it. If this is really how you feel about me, then show me it’s the truth.”
The words had barely left my mouth when I swept past a big stone erected by the side of the bike path. I glanced down at it. Spray-painted on it in colorfully artistic graffiti was the word “TRUTH.”
I had passed that stone many times before. I had passed it only days before. It had never been painted in the past.
Of course it’s possible it was just another coincidence. I told myself that the very moment I saw it. But seriously, what are the odds? What are the odds that that particular rock, that I would pass at that exact moment, would be graffiti’d with that one specific word that I had asked to see? The only word that perfectly answered my question?
Sure, it could have been a coincidence. But I don’t believe it was. I stopped and took a picture of the rock with my phone. I still look at it sometimes. Maybe it wasn’t a text from God.
But if it wasn’t, that sure is one amazing coincidence.
And so is this.
3) The Challenge
Some of you know that I have dabbled in video game production. My first iPhone game, dream:scape, did pretty well for a first time game. Unfortunately, my ego insisted that it should have been a monstrous mega-millions blockbuster, so I found a way to be disappointed with the success it did garner. With my second game, I tried much harder. I took what I had learned on D:S and made something much better, much bigger, and much more geared toward the mainstream gamer market.
You see where this heading, yes?
The game was called RobotGladi8tor, and when it was finally released– as a featured app on iTunes, no less– I watched with ridiculously high hopes and nearly painful levels of anticipation. I did some quick mental calculations: when D:S was released, it sold nearly 4000 copies its first day. From that point, it steadily diminished over time. My research on mobile game sales trends supported this. Games inevitably make a splash on their release date, then experience a steady decrease in sales. In short, a big opening dictates the success of a game.
When RobotGladi8tor’s first day numbers came in, I was devastated. The game had sold exactly 934 copies.
This was horribly depressing. I was making no other income at the time– all of my creative energy had gone into the production of the game. I ranted some more to Jael about it. She told me to have faith. She told me I didn’t know what was going to happen in the following days.
But I did know, I proclaimed. I told her about sales trends. I told her what had happened with my previous game. I told her there was no way that tomorrow’s numbers were going to be anything but down.
She persisted. She reminded me that our livelihood is not in my hands.
That pissed me off. I told her, “If tomorrow’s sales numbers are even one more than today’s, then I will admit that you’re right.”
It was a challenge. I knew it the moment I said it. The reason her words made me mad was because she believed that God was the final authority in our future economic survival. I didn’t believe that. I thought it was all up to me, and that scared me. I didn’t trust that God was involved. Once again, I doubted that he cared enough to even notice that we had fumes in our bank account and my game was dropping like a stone. I was terrified that I was all alone in this, with no one to call on for help.
So I turned that fear into a challenge. I thought about it the whole day. We went for a family hike and I told Jael what I was thinking. I told her it was impossible that the next day’s sales figures would be any higher– things just did not trend that way in the mobile game business– but I allowed that if they were higher, even by only one sale, I would consider it proof that God was in control. I told her I would consider it his way of putting his arm around me and saying, calm down, boy. I’m in charge. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.
It wasn’t going to happen. But I felt a very strong suspicion, a subtle but deep pressure, as if God was daring me to dare him. So I did.
The next day’s sales figures were late in being reported. Usually iTunes updates sales figures by 8 or so in the morning. I checked, but nothing showed up. I checked a few hours later. Still nothing. It wasn’t until nearly four o’clock when the numbers finally came in.
That’s the number for the second day’s sales. You can see it for yourself. 935 sales. Exactly one more sale than the previous day.
And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t surprised to see it. Jael wasn’t either. She was actually angry. She said I should have asked for a million more sales as proof God loved me. It was a joke, but only by half. Because it’s true. It could have just as easily been a million more sales, rather than just one.
But one is exactly what I asked for.
The odds of that happening are just silly. Especially since the next day’s sales, exactly as predicted, dropped by a third, and continued to drop steadily from that point on. One more was what I challenged God with, and one more is exactly what he gave. It wasn’t that one sale that mattered. It was what it represented to me: calm down, boy. I’m in charge. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.
I calmed down. And you know what? Everything did turn out all right. RobotGladi8tor made us enough money to get us by, and since its release I’ve had nearly as much freelance contract work as I can handle. It’s been very good. I have the freedom to write again just for fun. I have days off here and there between jobs. I get to go on afternoon bike rides. It’s all good. It’s all, actually, scary good.
It isn’t what I would have hoped for, but maybe what I hoped for isn’t actually any good for me. Who knows? I sure don’t. But I think I know someone who does.
And maybe this guy.
So. Those are just three of the strange, completely true ways that my experience tells me there must be a God, and not just that, but a God who actually wants to get involved in my little life. It still doesn’t make any sense to me. For my unbelieving friends and readers, I am sure these experiences don’t count for anything. After all, they’re my experiences. Secondhand experiences lose almost all of their power.
And maybe I am just a gullible boob after all. But these things aren’t images of Jesus burnt onto tortillas. They aren’t easily faked. They aren’t even all that subjective. They really happened. They don’t occur often, and to some people, I suppose they don’t occur at all. I feel for those people, because as much as I’d like to say my faith is based on fact, logic and truth, I can’t deny that these moments– these Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon moments– stick firmly in my mind and make my faith something more than just blind hope and superstition.
Anyway, for those who offered arguments about why you do not believe in God, about how it is akin to believing in unicorns and leprechauns, do know that I am still seriously considering your arguments. I’d like the chance to respond to them, if you are interested. But I hope you understand why, even in the face of a logical argument, my faith is not immediately deflated. Faith is, at least in part, rooted in experience.
And if you are asking why you haven’t had any of those convenient Goddy experiences, I’d challenge you the same way my wife challenged me: would you be able to recognize them even if they happened? Or are you so sure of your convictions that you’d never see evidence of God even if he dropped on you like an anvil?
I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. I really don’t mean it that way. I’d just challenge you to challenge everything. Even the God you don’t believe in.
See what happens.