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Is God really there? Or does the search for the existence of a supernatural being, so pervasive in all cultures ever studied, represent a universal but groundless human longing for something outside ourselves to give meaning to a meaningless life and to take away the sting of death?
While the search for the divine has been somewhat crowded out in modern times by our busy and overstimulated lives, it is still one of the most universal of human strivings. C.S. Lewis describes this phenomenon in his own life in his wonderful book SURPRISED BY JOY, and it is this sense of intense longing, triggered in his life by something as simple as a few lines of poetry, that he identifies as “joy.” He describes the experience as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” I can recall clearly some of those moments in my own life, where this poignant sense of longing, falling somewhere between pleasure and grief, caught me by surprise and caused me to wonder from whence came such strong emotion, and how might such an experience be recovered.
As a boy of ten, I recall being transported by the experience of looking through a telescope that an amateur astronomer had placed on a high field at our farm, when I sensed the vastness of the universe and saw the craters on the moon and the magical diaphanous light of the Pleiades. At fifteen, I recall a Christmas Eve Where the descant on a particularly beautiful Christmas carol, rising sweet and true above the more familiar tune, left me with a sense of unexpected awe and a longing for something I could not name. Much later, as an atheist graduate student, I surprised myself by experiencing this same sense of grief, at the playing of the second movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (the Eroica). As the world grieved the death of Israeli athletes killed by terrorists at the Olympics in 1972, the Berlin Philharmonic played the powerful strains of this C-minor lament in the Olympic Stadium, mixing together nobility and tragedy, life and death. For a few moments I was lifted out of my materialist worldview into an indescribable spiritual dimension, an experience I found quite astonishing.
More recently, for a scientist who occasionally is given the remarkable privilege of discovering something not previously known by man, there is a special kind of joy associated with such flashes of insight. Having perceived a glimmer of scientific truth, I find at once both a sense of satisfaction and a longing to understand some even greater Truth. In such a moment, science becomes more than a process of discovery. It transports the scientist into an experience that defies a completely naturalistic explanation.
So what are we to make of these experiences? And what is this sensation of longing for something greater than ourselves? Is this only, and no more than, some combination of neurotransmitters landing on precisely the right receptors, setting off an electrical discharge deep in some part of the brain? Or is this an inkling of what lies beyond, a signpost placed deep within the human spirit pointing toward something much grander than ourselves?
The atheist view is that such longings are not to be trusted as indications of the supernatural, and that our translation of those sensations of awe into a belief in God represent nothing more than wishful thinking, inventing an answer because we want it to be true. This particular view reached its widest audience in the writings of Sigmund Freud, who argued that wishes for God stemmed from early childhood experiences. Writing in TOTEM AND TABOO, Freud said, “Psychoanalysis of individual human beings teaches us with quite special insistence that the God of each of them is formed in the likeness of his father, that his personal relationship of God depends on the relation to his father in the flesh, and oscillates and changes along with that relation, and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father.”
The problem with this wish-fulfillment argument is that it does not accord with the character of the God of the major religions of the earth. In his elegant recent book, THE QUESTION OF GOD, Armand Nicholi, a psychoanalytically trained Harvard professor, compares Freud’s view with that of C.S. Lewis. Lewis argued that such wish fulfillment would likely give rise to a very different kind of God than the one described in the Bible. If we are looking for benevolent coddling and indulgence, that’s not what we find there. Instead, as we begin to come to grips with the existence of the Moral Law and our obvious inability to live up to it, we realize that we are in deep trouble and are potentially eternally separated from the Author of that Law. Furthermore, does not a child as he or she grows up experience ambivalent feelings toward parents, including a desire to be free? So why should wish fulfillment lead to a desire for God, as opposed to a desire for there to be no God?
Finally, in simple logical terms, if one allows the possibility that God is something humans might wish for, does that rule out the possibility that God is real? Absolutely not. The fact that I have wished for a loving wife does not now make her imaginary. The fact that the farmer wished for rain does not make him question the reality of the subsequent downpour.
In fact, one can turn this wishful-thinking argument on its head. Why would such a universal and uniquely human hunger exist if it were not connected to some opportunity for fulfillment? Again, Lewis says it well: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Could it be that this longing for the sacred, a universal and puzzling aspect of human experience, may not be wish fulfillment but rather a pointer toward something beyond us? Why do we have a “God-shaped vacuum” in our hearts and minds unless it is meant to be filled?
In our modern materialistic world, it is easy to lose sight of that sense of longing. In her wonderful collection of essays, TEACHING A STONE TO TALK, Annie Dillard speaks about that growing void:
“Now we are no longer primitive. Now the whole world seems not holy. Ö We as a people have moved from pantheism to pan-atheism. ÖIt is difficult to undo our own damage and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it. We are lighting matches in vain under ever green tree. Did the wind used to cry and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has perished from among the lifeless things of the earth, and living things say very little to very few. Ö And yet it could be that wherever there is motion there is noise, as when a whale breaches and smacks the water, and wherever there is stillness there is the small, still voice, God’s speaking from the whirlwind, nature’s old song and dance, the show we drove from town. Ö What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us? What is the different between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?”