To Take God’s Hand
Believe, we are told, and be saved. Good. But saved from what? Believe on what? Is it enough to go through the formalities of belief, to say creeds, to feel the truth of things incompletely understood? Is it enough, in short, to lie to God and say that we believe, when we do not believe? “I believe — help my unbelief” — this we can say. I propose to build belief on unbelief. I will show how it is done.
Why unbelief? Reasons wash away; unbelief remains. All circumstances that can be created may, we must believe, be created; if in some circumstances we would believe, and in others we would not, then we do not believe except by superadded grace. If in the courts of God I would believe and in the thousandth year of my medical immortality I would not, then can both conditions find their place in the pleroma? The most atheistic world exists within the most theistic, somewhere, having been shown mercy, and being created. What argument, within it, can do more than refuse to open its eyes? The most wrong, the most unjust, the most hideously despicable moment, the moment that most perfectly disproves God, not even it disproves God.
What I believe is manifest in what I do. What is the sign of loving God? Not the worldly denial of the world; not the Manichaean struggle of good against evil; but simple love of neighbor. It is possible to serve without expecting further reward, being pleased at the knowledge of the world that is being brought into being; it is possible to renounce self without the certainty of attaining God, as though God were a possession. And it is my belief that from anyone so constituted as to do it, this is exactly what God finds sweet.
Suppose you had found yourself in a darkness with no body, but only a mind. Suppose you had time to contemplate, and recognize that eventually, something else may come along. You may one day have a neighbor, or many neighbors: and they may feel, like you, or merely be perceived, like toys. What will you do in that day? Will you presume they are toys, and treat them wantonly? Will you presume they are real, and have tea parties with them? Or will you pay attention to how they respond to you, to determine which they are? Once you recognize them for persons, like yourself — what treatment then?
Or if you were free to fashion a world for those neighbors, before they came along, what would you fashion? It may take you some time to be ready to do it. You may need to understand math and logic well enough to keep yourself self-consistent, to build anything at all. Yet in anticipation of the love you will bear towards them, you build a world to share with them. Indeed, you do this even now, within your mind; you build a world to share in communication. Do you know that even though you felt abandoned by God, there alone, you could still decide to do what we say God demands of us? For you can envision not only your little world, but a greater world still, within which it is but a room.
To believe in God in a world where God is unbelievable — that truly is the work. For the more complete the world, the less believable is God. Are the limits of our belief, then, the limits on God’s creation? For God for our sake would not create a world so great we cease to believe in Him. If we cannot believe in the face of nearly fourteen billion years of prehistory (and what is that in the face of forever?) then He cannot make as perfect a world as He otherwise could — for His children’s sake He must limit Himself.
We are the tendons of mathematical self-consistency. Our minds, and our world, are provinces of the whole mathematical object — or they were, before creation. The whole structure, in one decision, was brought into being by the breathing-in of divine breath. (This may be taken poetically.) There is nothing to rebel against, in principle: even while we rebel, that Breath sustains our being, makes our cells metabolize, lets us breathe. The rebellion itself is selected from among many mathematical structures, as one to which being may be given, with perfect knowledge. Evil is the harm that befalls mathematical structures within larger mathematical structures — if the beginning were a left side, and a good, then the ending were a right side, and an evil. A house divided against itself cannot stand — what did we think He meant?
So we understand, to whatever degree, the mathematics on which we operate, which was once a very limited degree, as operations on physical things in nature under what we thought were natural gods; a principle of fire, a principle of water; a principle of growth, a principle of staying-the-same. To the degree of our understanding, what is required of us, but to operate the system according to that degree? So now we have certain physical things under certain physical forces; and with time, we will have others; and some of us fall off to not caring about the fundamental things, concerning ourselves with appearances of things instead. The mind must come to the most complete understanding it can: which is the moment where its belief becomes unbelief. For now it sees how everything works; and now, for the first time, it is ready to believe.
Belief and unbelief go like the clapping of hands. The hands begin together; they come apart, or they cannot clap; and then comes the sound. Believing without admitting unbelief is like clapping without parting the hands. If I believe God dries my towels, do I believe in God or idolize evaporation? So more desperately than scientists, we plunge into causes, to wash our conception of God. Yet we know the entire consequence is of God, and we see God’s handiwork in it; even when we know the causes, just as we admire a painting even when we know the pigments: We admire it the more.
By the unbelieving mind we mean the mind that ascertains correctly its mathematical structure. We mean the mind that sees its connections to things preceding it, around it, within it. Such a mind can see, even if it does not know the details, that there exist connections that explain it: It is fully described by what is preceding, around and within. By the believing mind we mean the mind that ascertains correctly the tendons of Being in it and within the world, without which the mathematical structure would not be made apparent. We must therefore be both at once, or if not at once, in close succession — like the clapping of hands.
I am a particular mathematical construct. Given that any system has come so far as to include me, what will it include next? That is up to me. That is my gift to God. Any mathematician knows this feeling. I spend time working with some structure, and a beautiful pattern pops out. Where did it come from? It was always there, in mathematics, but I have discovered it, and it is lovely. My desire is to be a beautiful pattern when I am found. But what does that entail?
How can God demand that I love my neighbor, when God could give my neighbor his best good from the first? The point is that neighborhood, not that mere good; the point is that love within me that burns bright enough to reach a neighbor who cannot be reached. Then something better than best satisfaction will be brought into being. This is the New Jerusalem and the New Earth, dipped in the fires of refining.
There is a point, if you look at the raw mathematics of this physical universe, where pure selfless love expresses itself, together with the discipline and direction that is necessary for that love to do some good. This, for the Christian, is the person of the Christ. The keystone of creation, to which all things privately refer, the love that loves even unrequited. Love, of course, is identical to the will to creation; I love you, and want you to be complete.
The mind in unbelief, then, ascertains its mathematical construction, and brings it as an offering, saying, “if there were no God, how best could I serve my God anyway? Who is present in this mathematical structure with me, and how can I love them?” This is hard work. It is scholarship, exercise, practice, self-conquest. The only gift pure mathematics can offer is the gift of, once being aware that God could in principle create it, conducting itself as though God will create it, even knowing that God might not; of treating other people as neighbors, for instance, who might not seem entirely human. That is, when God’s roving pencil comes to my line in the book of equations, He finds — what is this? — His love already present in the fabric of mathematics. Delightful!
Then less like clapping hands, and more like walking legs, our belief and unbelief carry us over a territory prepared for us. For my belief is absolute: Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature may separate me from His love. But my unbelief is absolute, too: By His grace, I know that this world could have existed without Him. It just didn’t.
What nothing can disprove, nothing can prove, which rings out like a triumph over theism. But God is not an entity out in the world, subject to proof; God is the means by which all entities exist, or else (which we mean if we say “there is no God”) entities exist by some other means. The question is not whether God exists, if by God we mean the “base of being” — there is some base of being, be it infinite — but whether God is also a person, or persons. If so, like all other persons, like my grandpa and like my son, I’d like to sit at a table and dine together. The Christian impulse is neither more nor less than this.
Suppose for a moment there is no God, but that Jesus the man ministered (that his miracles were embellishments) and he was killed. Of this scenario the Christian does not say, Run! he is dead, who would live forever! The Christian says: I too will love this bitter love. I too will drink this cup. This is full blown love, perfected. If I will have no reward, what of it? If this is all I get, then fine! Still I will love my neighbor. Or, more precisely, only there can I love my neighbor. Only there can I have a neighbor at all.
Then suppose for a moment He Rose. Suppose the divine plan was something like this: To find in mathematics the most beautiful structure, the most perfect love, to embody it real and self-aware, to flow from it and through it into all eternity for all the imperfections in responding to it, a love which is never met with equal love — until, in the same mathematical structure, in the same radical love and radical unbelief, come joint-heirs, to love the same love, to love a Christ who loved and died and rose, and to Believe.