Notes from an Ex-Agnostic
Sometimes believing is seeing.
I was driving down the road one bleak February morning, feeling immersed in a monochromatic world. The gray road snaked its way around a rocky gray hillside. To my left, a large gray river moved sullenly in its path. Gray concrete buildings blended into a sky that was – you guessed it – gray.
And then I asked myself a question: What if God exists?
Something within me shifted. Just a bit, but it made all the difference.
This day came after months of struggle. Actually, the struggle began many years before, while an undergraduate student at a Catholic university. A young woman of simple, unexamined faith who had considered becoming a nun, I embarked upon a double major of psychology and theology. I studied philosophy of religion, where I learned for the first time that there were arguments against the existence of God. I studied Freud, who wrote that religious beliefs are an illusion, a projection of our wishes and fears. And I was counseled by a priest, who ended up acting not very priestly.
If God's existence was questionable, I concluded, I would no longer leave myself open to being duped.
If God's existence was questionable, if it could not be proven, I concluded, I would no longer be taken off guard, or leave myself open to being duped, or base my life on something so… insubstantial. I embraced reductionism, determinism and behaviorism. I wanted to boil things down to their core elements so I could be sure of no illusions. I would be rigidly scientific. A product of my enlightened education, I would be agnostic.
As a clinical psychology grad student (I had dropped my theology major due to its seeming irrelevance), I was powerfully drawn to a Jewish man. Two years later, we married. Yes, the dreaded intermarriage. But I converted first, on the slimmest basis, the most fragile of theological threads: perhaps physics allowed for the possibility of a creative energy in the universe that could be construed as "God." Maybe, just maybe, I could believe in that, an idea to which I surprisingly and desperately clung. And since my values, albeit secular humanistic, were generally of the "Judeo-Christian" variety, that worked, too. I attended a course on Judaism, then off I went to the mikvah.
Fast-forward 20 years and two kids later. My daughter seemed lost, searching, leading an experimental lifestyle, experiencing anxiety and confusion as her values vacillated. My son was suffering from serious depression after a career-ending sports injury, at first blaming God and then doubting that God existed at all. Both were struggling; neither was thriving. As a psychologist, I felt I should have been a super-parent. I had given them everything I had, but had ultimately failed at one of my life's most important tasks.
I experienced sadness and regret, humiliation and despair. The whole "psychologist, heal thyself" thing wasn't working. I missed God, or at least believing in God. I felt like Buridan's ass. Jean Buridan was a French priest whose name was long ago attached to a parable which predated him. In this parable, a donkey stands equidistant between two mounds of hay, neither of which rationally seems superior to the other; therefore, he moves in neither direction and subsequently starves to death.
Feeling helpless and hopeless, I tried therapy, choosing a kippah-sporting shrink, knowing that the yarmulke would be an ever-present catalyst to explore my spirituality. He challenged me. If I didn't see religion as accurate or relevant, did that mean that I didn't think anyone should be religious? Oh, no, I assured him, most of the best people I had known were religious, so the more, the merrier. All the while I was thinking to myself: what did it matter if they were operating under an illusion, a fictional representation of reality?
I met with our rabbi, and he recommended that I read Why Faith Matters by Rabbi David Wolpe. I fought with that book. Sometimes I would wrestle with a paragraph or even a single sentence for the better part of an hour, or feel so disturbed by the challenge to my worldview that I would set the book aside for a day, a week, or longer. Yet I kept going back. Part of me wanted to be convinced.
I felt that I had inadvertently leached my life of its mystery, magic and ultimate meaning.
There was also the picture painted of life without belief in God; Bertrand Russell’s essay "A Free Man's Worship" described his atheistic outlook: "The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death."
Sounds gray, no? I could relate. I felt that I had inadvertently leached my life of its mystery, magic and ultimate meaning.
Meanwhile, I read Lawrence Keleman's book Permission to Believe. The arguments there portrayed faith in God as an eminently rational proposition. The elegant lines of reasoning made it seem respectable to believe.
Still, I doubted. My therapist said faith or belief wouldn't be faith or belief if we could completely “know.”
Then a good friend suggested I read Rabbi Shmuel Waldman's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. I didn't buy everything, but some ideas appealed to me, such as the descriptions of the "argument from design" for God's existence, that the beauty, order, function, complexity and unity found in nature shouted out for the existence of an intelligent Creator. While not completely provable, the argument was compelling. What was the likelihood that random events could lead to such exquisite intricacy and infinite ingenuity?
Perhaps a cousin of the argument from design is the idea of anthropic coincidences, the sheer improbability of the requisite conditions for life developing on our planet, especially within such a “short” span of time, due to chance, i.e., without some active intervention. The probabilities, or should I say “improbabilities,” were staggering. This finally tipped the cognitive balance for me, perhaps because of its mathematical ring of truth.
Once the balance was tipped, one mound of hay seemed unfathomably rich, tasty, and nutritious, while the other seemed unfathomably bland, barren, bereft of value. And pragmatically speaking, standing between the two mounds was the same as going to the one that was profoundly lacking.
But intellectual obstacles to belief were only part of the picture; emotional obstacles remained. I would not be lured in again. I was wary, self-protective. On the other hand, I felt I had failed my children in some nebulous but immensely essential way. My heart was broken, my faith in myself was broken. I was broken.
Not knowing what else to do, I doggedly kept at it.
Enter my therapist again, asking questions, always asking questions. First: Was something any less real just because it was intangible? Psychologist to psychologist, that was not playing fair; we deal with ideas and feelings all the time. I had to capitulate: Not being able to see or touch something didn't make it any less real.
Second: Wasn't I asking the wrong question when I was trying to apply scientific criteria to God? "How" and "why," while not completely unrelated, are two different approaches.
Finally, my therapist questioned why I found it so hard to believe that what I wanted most in the world might actually exist. Why was my heart and soul's greatest desire so unlikely, so suspect?
And the context surrounding and permeating all those questions was the therapeutic relationship, one in which the “kipah-sporting shrink”, a member of the "kingdom of priests," never acted in an unpriestly manner.
So there I was on that cold February day, driving down that gray road in that gray world, when my perception altered. From the bland hillside, rich, fecund browns emerged, warmed by patches of mauve, streaks of ochre and russet. I saw burgundy and greens so dark they were almost black. Even the grays became luminous and variegated, evoking complexity and mystery, simplicity and wonder, the existence of something more.
In the ensuing months, I felt walls within me cracking and crumbling. I began having powerful dreams: of a shofar breaking down barriers, of being surrounded by amniotic fluid. Freud would've had a heyday, but he would have missed the religious interpretations. I felt my ego had finally been overcome, and I submitted to my greatest wish-fulfillment fantasy ever: believing that God exists.
Spiritual context changes everything. I was – am – sometimes filled with a peace and joy that transcends my life's circumstances. Initially, I experienced much regret regarding lost possibilities based on my choices, but not long ago, while praying, I had a profound sense that what I needed to be feeling, and surprisingly was able to, was gratitude. I have a loving husband and two amazing children, and a wealth of experiences to bring to God's service.
Aish.com has played a central role in my attempts to integrate Torah's wisdom into my life, opening worlds of thought and spirit.
Trust came so easily to me as a child; now I work at trusting God, and have found reason to hope again. Believing that God knows my breadths and depths, faults and failings – and manages to love me anyway – is incredible. That God can see the potential for nobility within me is encouraging. That God nurtures and guides me with a loving hand, and that I just need to be open and keep trying, is the essence of solace. Everything is richer, deeper, more meaningful.
My husband and I have gone from God not being a part of our conversation or consciousness to God being a presence and a lens; we have gone from being virtually non-observant for many years, to a patchy but growing observance. Aish.com has played a central role in my attempts to incorporate and integrate a Torah perspective and its inherent wisdom into my life, opening worlds of thought and spirit, experience and connection. I yearn to offer some of what I have recaptured to my children, but they are not receptive little sponges anymore. Still, I have hope. My life is a work in progress. I realize I need to wrestle with the pivotal issue of having a halachic conversion. Life remains difficult, but my perspective continues to change.
The world – it has color again.