|Oh Me of Little Faith|
|Essays and Memoirs|
(Lehigh Valley Vanguard October 3, 2015)
Not long ago, my artist-friend Johanna and I were talking about why it is that some Christians believe only in the God of the Bible—the flood launcher, the sin avenger, Yahweh or Adonai or Jehovah or the God of Abraham, who watched without remorse, apparently wanting the Romans to nail Christ to the cross—when, in fact, many of the faithful don’t accept that version of the deity at all. Their idea of God is much more benign, Clara Barton-like, more Jesus-y than tyrannical. I knew that Johanna was raised a Christian and that later she rebelled. Anymore, I wasn’t sure how she defined God or even where he was in her life. Had he gone away? For good? Had he returned? With forgiveness? Just how Biblical of a God was he?
One year into the marriage, she recalls, "I was driving the two of us home from our jobs." Johanna has a page-boy haircut, the curled ends touching her dimpled cheeks. "I pulled up to our apartment house and said I planned to attend church on Sunday. He said he wouldn't permit it. I said, 'I was going.' He grabbed my right arm and gave it an Indian twist. He was furious and jumped out of the passenger seat, slammed the door, and I drove off. Obviously we were never going to resolve our differences." She moved back in with her parents, filed for divorce, and never saw him again.
Within a few months, she went to Paris to paint and recover. She got an au pair's job, studied French, took plein-air lessons, and read the existentialists. She roamed the city, walking by the outdoor cafés, along the rock-walled Seine, its motionless agitation calming, each step an unclasping of the bond between her and the man she loathed—hated herself for marrying. But then, sudden joy—fireworks, blast and shower. She felt giddy, like Joni Mitchell, "a freeman in Paris, unfettered and alive." Ding, dong! Her ex dropped out of her life like gravel falling through water to a sandy capture below.
"I remember waking up one morning," she says, "and hearing the church bells ring—I couldn't see the steeple but I had a tiny window up high in my attic bedroom that looked out to the sky—and I remember thinking, 'My gosh, I don't believe in God anymore. I feel free.' No one was controlling my life anymore." Had she become like the man she married? No, she was ecstatic, unburdened. Whoosh, both men were gone—into the blue carapace above.
Returning to Indianapolis, she graduated from Herron School of Art and Design with a degree in fine art. She snared a job as a cub reporter at a local newspaper, and there met a cameraman from ABC News. They dated for several months. It was happening again for her—carnal love demanding a purpose. "There was a lot of heavy sex between us," she remembers. "Fine with me. I was enjoying it. And it was the direct result of my not believing in God. I was really liberated." Soon, she says, "I wanted him to be more serious, even though he never said he loved me." She saw a counselor at the Methodist church, which she grew up in and where her family, especially her father, still worshipped. The pastor told her to tell the cameraman that she was serious; she wanted marriage. She told him her wish, and he ignored it.
Her life was souring: writing deadlines were worrisome; interviews for fine-art teaching positions brought no call-backs; more and more, her self-ground pigments lay unmixed on her desk, her easel closed.
One day, just two weeks after their last assignation, she was terribly depressed when the phone rang. It was him, the ABC cameraman. He told her that two weeks prior he had met a woman who looked like Julie Christie, from Doctor Zhivago. "'We're engaged to be married,' he told me." Johanna sniffs and her head bobbles left-right. "It was two weeks. Two weeks! He must have slept with her the day after he slept with me."
She remembers him silly with excitement, boastful. He wanted Johanna to know it would have been wrong to leave her hanging. He was being honest. On the phone she kept silent, inwardly collapsing. She'd fallen all the way—nearing thirty, hoping this man would be right for her. "In my deepest depression," she says, "I had to have someone to talk to, I had to have some hope of salvation. It never got to the point of suicide. But I thought, 'I'm so low. What am I going to do with the rest of my life? I'm totally lost.'"
"How did he help you?"
"He came to me," she says, "and I instantly felt less lonely."
In her Parisian freedom, Johanna may have cast God off but he hadn't gone anywhere. He was there—in the alleyway behind the theater, hand-warming by a barrel fire, waiting for the audition door to open, where, on cue, he rushes in, reenlists for the talent show, mounts the stage, and strolls to the mike. He's present, the God she believed in while growing up, a figure whom her father, the taciturn Methodist, embodied. For Johanna, God the father could never be gone, no matter how often she wished him away.
"When I asked him for help," she goes on, "God came. I was in trouble. I needed him. I was closest to God when I was in trouble and I needed him. It was only that one time in Paris when I was into all that existentialism that I stopped believing in him. But that didn't mean he'd left." (What does it mean, I wonder, to not believe in someone who is, nevertheless, still there—despite what Camus and Sartre say is not possible?) "Whatever God is," she says, "God never leaves."
And then, forking the apex of her salad, "Tom, haven't you ever asked God for help?"
"Asked for help?" I reply. "Yes, of course. But not from God."
My tone, I realize now, may sound dismissive, but it speaks what's true. My not God is there. Arrow-tipped, quiver-ready. As strong a no-presence as hers is present. Many a time I've bowed this denial, aimed and zinged it with impunity. And when I have, I admit, that spider-bit childhood fear wells up, that I better be careful: I could be pillared in stone for uttering "No God." Since it's never happened, I'm comfortably cocky about having my say. I've had nothing like Bob Dylan's turn when one of the Staple Singers asked him during the late 1970s—the jackal of song fell into his deepest post-marriage funk, post-"Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" when even Blood on the Tracks couldn't assuage the wound—whether he had ever asked God for help. No, he hadn't. Why not? Never occurred to him. That's no reason. You mean just like that, ask? Just like that, ask. So he did. And five months later, after intensive study at the Vineyard Church in Santa Monica, Bob was born again. Recorded three faith-attesting records, and eventually moved on, his fandom forever foggy about whether this was another masked and anonymous pose. But me? I haven't been Lot-frozen or taken the bait. I'm still all not God. A mere None.
Indeed, how would I know anything about God? Only if I knew. But I don't.
"But it was only that one time I wished God away," she says. "I wished him away. But just because I got rid of him in Paris didn't mean he was gone."
"I didn't know anyone had that kind of power, Johanna. To make what exists, not exist." (Doubt is a terribly imprecise word, an atheist friend of mine says. "If someone tells me there's angels in the room, I don't doubt they're in the room. I don't even need to look for them in the corner or on the ceiling. I know they aren't there.")
I continue. "I can't get to something that's neither visible nor felt, and which I've never known. That's where we differ. I hate being weird about this but Johanna, what if I said, 'Do you see the Rembrandt painting, there on the wall?'"—and I point to the wall above us where there's an ugly velveteen painting, donkeys with sombreros—"and you said, 'No, I don't.' And I said—what if I said—'but it's there, and you can't see it because you don't believe it's there."
"That's absurd," she says.
"Of course. So how do I say this? My nonbelief tells me not to believe in things that aren't there. And yet I understand that what people call faith is just this sort of recognition that it is there. I have none of that."
"Faith in God," she says, "is not faith in something that's not there. It doesn't matter what you can or can't see. He's there. He's a feeling. That's all that matters, that God's there—and the feeling shows up when you need him because he's there, he's never gone away." Her tone belies desperation. "Besides," she continues, "it's not a matter of what you should believe in. It's more a matter, for me, of hanging off a cliff."
(Johanna and I have been friends for decades; her welcoming God back happened before we met. She reminds me today that the drama of this early visitation remains with her like a ring on her finger. For her, seeking and finding the divine is a means to her greatest solace and pleasure—keeping faith that she will find what she needs when she needs it. Though she is not a Christian per se, when this pleasure is activated in her life she regards the calling-forth as spiritual. She is a plein-air painter whose serendipitous deity leads her, whether she summons an intervention or it just happens, to an artistic deliverance. For example, on a walk in a jungle, God will bring her to discover a clutch of orange-and-blue bird-of-paradise flowers, which she then must paint, in part, out of gratitude.)
In her surety, she seems still there—ever emotionally still there—hanging off a cliff. This image, a kind of last rites, rings in my ear a line from Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne"—And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him—a verse so poetically alive that it brings the not-there almost to light. I admit it. I feel it. But the thing I feel is the intoning power of song and statement, and nothing of God or Jesus or salvational religion flowing from it. I get the poetry, the paradox that it seems only poetry can pose. And I agree that the unsaved may crave such recognition, shocked by the cratering moment of death. We are all, all our lives, freefalling like Icarus in the Breughel painting, with the only certainty left that the star-kissed angel will swoop down and catch us.
We finish dinner, walk back to her place, pass the darkening houses where TVs flicker inside and dogs and boys play in the twilit yards, and I mull this idea. Can it be this simple: Tom, if you've never asked God for help, how would you know God wouldn't respond? I pose the question, no doubt, naturally, as a double negative. The power of language or the power of prevarication, I'm not sure. Regardless, I know the answer, don't I, because I've never asked? Had I needed him, I would have asked, right?
Adrift on the sea in a boat with a Bengal tiger on board, no food, no water, no beacon in sight, I'd be on my knees, begging for a ship or an island or a beach or God and the Sisters of Mercy to make mackerel leap into the boat, to flood me with bucketfuls of rain, to heart-attack me dead while I'm sleeping so I wouldn't have to awaken to one more dawn and do it myself. But I would never do this since I have never believed such prayers would be answered. If I never believe, then God will never exist.