Is there a God? As a child, I never heard anyone ask this question. We skipped over it, at home and in my Catholic school. The questions we jumped to were from the Baltimore Catechism: Who made us? (God made us.) Who is God? (God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence.) Why did God make us? (God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.) And so on.
These questions are excellent and their answers comforting, if you begin with the unshakable premise that God is there, and paying attention. But the premise wasn’t unshakable. Not for me. I think everyone is mystified by life — by what they see, and what they can’t see. We deal with these mysteries at first by adopting the beliefs we are given as children. For some, those beliefs serve us well, forever. For others, the questions and the answers don’t seem to fit, and we keep searching. There came a time when I started to wonder if God was anything like the all-knowing creator I’d learned about. Or if He was there at all.
In the decades that followed, I read dozens of books on religion, spirituality, science, evolution, creation, astronomy, atheism, agnosticism, life after death, reincarnation, heaven, hell, prayer, and the power of faith. I have studied large chunks of the Bible. I have had countless conversations, listening intently to the word of God as expressed by friends, family, and serene strangers who appeared at my door bearing pamphlets. And one day, I noticed that there didn’t seem to be anything left to say. For anyone. It had taken me most of my adult life, but I had heard all of the arguments, repeatedly. I had sifted, and analyzed, and pondered, and more than once tried to surrender myself to those glorious beliefs. Nothing would stick.
I eventually concluded that I would never have an answer. God was unknowable, which rendered all religions equally right and wrong. If there was a supreme being, we could not know Him. Further, the odds seemed great that anyone who ventured a theory was either distorting the truth or, more likely, missing the boat entirely. We were like ants crawling around on the sidewalk outside the New York Public Library, or the Louvre, or Wrigley Field, and trying to imagine what was going on inside. The truth was out of reach, and that’s all there was to it.
But I have a new perspective, one that may finally allow me to stop struggling with this question, “Is there a God?” The answer, I now believe, is yes. And no.
In order to explain how I arrived at this bewildering conclusion, it may be easier to shift the focus a bit and talk about other vaguely related issues. Ghosts, for example. For most of my life, I joined the vast majority of humanity in its struggle to know if there’s something after death. Does a part of us live on after our bodies die? Given the incredible number of eyewitness accounts of ghosts appearing and interacting with the living, it seems logical to ask if apparitions are real. Surely there must be an objective answer: Either there really are ghosts or there aren’t. Could there be any other possibility?
As a child, I believed in God, the saints, angels, and the devil. I accepted that we have souls and that the soul survives death and goes to heaven or hell. A ghost must have been related to the soul in some way that I didn’t understand. Maybe a ghost was the cartoon version of the soul, the way there were real-life and cartoon versions of Batman. Ghosts were real in the same way that Santa Claus and Disney characters were real. But what about those eyewitnesses? Many thousands of people have claimed to have seen, heard, and been otherwise affected by ghosts. I don’t know anyone who claims Donald Duck appeared to them and began hurling chairs across the room. Ghosts seemed to be in their own special category. At some point, though, I recognized that although there have been billions of people who have lived and died, I’ve never experienced any evidence of life after death. If spirits exist, shouldn’t we be bumping into them every time we turn around? I eventually decided that ghosts must not be real, and the people who claimed to see them were either hallucinating, mistaken, or lying. I could think of no other explanation.
But while I’ve never seen a ghost, I have dreamed about my parents, both of whom have been dead for more than a decade. I have heard their voices in my sleep, and sometimes when I’m awake. Calling my name — out loud, clear, and nearby. When that happens, am I hearing my parents? Are they actually communicating with me through my mind? Or are there memories, fluttering around in my brain, that occasionally surface? I have visual memories that do that. Why not auditory ones?
When I’ve listened to accounts of ghosts, I’ve often found myself wishing I could have been there to see it too, to verify whether it happened or not. But here’s what I now think. Just as someone standing right next to me wouldn’t hear my father’s voice when I did, I would not see the ghost, even if I were standing right next to someone who did. The ghost is real in that person’s mind. But from my point of view, there’s nothing there. Who’s right? We both are. It isn’t an experience we can share, like looking at a waterfall or eating pistachio ice cream. It’s a personal, internal experience that may or may not be connected to some external reality. A cat’s ears flick around at some high-pitched sound it hears. We hear nothing. Is the sound real? To the cat it’s real; to us, it isn’t.
I think God is like that. I’ve spoken to too many intelligent, thoughtful, grounded people who not only believe in God, but claim to have experienced Him on a deep and personal level. They are sure. They know. Yet here I am, standing right next to them, and for me, He isn’t there. Whose experience is true? I think both. Is there an objective reality? We can’t know. We’ve ventured out of the realm of waterfalls and ice cream and wandered into that part of existence that is untestable, uncontrollable, and incomprehensible. We are the ants. It would be dishonest for me to claim I have experienced God, just as it would be a lie for the believer to deny God’s existence. We each have our own truth, and all attempts at persuasion are pointless. That’s why we have to stop ridiculing, persecuting, and killing other people whose interpretation of God differs from our own. It accomplishes nothing that is good.