Two A.M. Doubts about God

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English: This is the portrait of Mother Teresa

English: This is the portrait of Mother Teresa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Mother Teresa‘s diaries were made public, it surprised some people that she admitted that at times she doubted the existence of God. How could such a saintly woman have such doubts? When I have expressed my own doubts to others, some people react defensively or tell me I should repent and pray since doubting God’s existence is a sin. As well meaning as that response may be, it is wrong-headed.

First, it is difficult to believe that there are Christians who have never doubted the existence, or at least the goodness, of God at some point in their lives. Beyond the doubts that often come after tragedy, there are the doubts that invade at two a.m. in the darkness of night when trivial concerns of the day have dissolved and the ultimate questions come to mind. “Is there really a God? Everyone dies, everything changes. How can there be an eternal mind? If it is just mind, how can it exist at all? If God does not exist, there is no life after death and when I die I’ll be dead like Rover, all over, annihilated–no thoughts, no memories, no feelings, sheer, absolute nothingness.”

Although most people may not ask questions at that level of sophistication or have existential anxiety that intense, it would surprise me greatly if a large number of religious people had no doubts at all. If Mother Teresa had doubts, as good as she was, I am sure the average Christian has doubts.

Although atheism is foreign to Holy Scripture, it is clear in the Psalms that some of the poets had doubts concerning the goodness and faithfulness of God. Although these are resolved in most of these psalms by a confession of faith in God’s future deliverance, one psalm, Psalm 88, offers no hope at all. The end of life for the righteous and the wicked is the shadowy realm of Sheol, where the dead slowly fade away as people forget them, fading eternally without being wholly annihilated. In the Christian tradition, John the Baptist doubted that Jesus was the Messiah to the point that Jesus sent a message concerning His mighty acts to John via His apostles. The Apostle Thomas is the most famous example of doubt, and he ceases to doubt when he sees the resurrected Jesus in person.

In Christian mysticism, the withdrawal of God in the dark night of the soul (St. John of the Cross) may lead to a state in which God seems absent. Perhaps that is the state in which Mother Teresa found herself when she doubted the existence of God. This, according to St. John of the Cross, is a necessary though painful stage on the way toward union with God.

Existential anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing, as the atheist philosophers, John Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger recognized, Heidegger noted that human nature (Dasein) is “being toward death,” and to fail to recognize this obvious fact of life is to live in an inauthentic fashion (Sartre would say, “live in ‘bad faith'”). Perhaps Christians to deny any doubt are not living authentically, not allowing their faith to be put to the test. Such “faith” would never stand a major life crisis. Facing one’s potential annihilation head on is a necessary step toward living an authentic life, and for some people it may be an essential step in finding true faith. I have no problem with the advice to pray about doubts — if Christian claims about God are true, He will provide comfort during times of distress and doubt.

For intellectuals, studying the classic arguments for God’s existence may be helpful, especially for those who do not have a Humean or a Kantian bias against the arguments. These serve as “preambles to faith,” as Aquinas noted, but they also can help to restore faith, at least at an intellectual level. The emotional level arises through prayer, participation in the liturgy, and helping others and treating them with respect. One’s faith will most likely be stronger, rather than weaker, after a period of doubt. Those Christians who doubt the doubters should keep that in mind.

Death and Annihilation

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"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert....

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When I was a child, I broke Piaget’s rules of child development–I had a developed concept of death by age five–that of complete annihilation. Having a twin brother who died two hours after he was born complicated matters for me since I learned about death at a young age. When my dog, Fuzzy, was killed by a car, I learned first hand that death meant the loved being would not return. And then, while watching the Easter episode of “Davy and Goliath,” when Davy’s grandmother dies the day after she looks perfectly healthy when he’s playing in the attic with her and they’re playing catch in her front yard, devastated me. I could not see through death’s darkness to discover the light of resurrection.

Later I was taught the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body. Intellectually I believe it is true. But emotionally, at two a.m., lying on my left side, hearing my heart pound through the mattress, I wonder if my religion is totally false, whether God does not exist, and whether death really means annihilation, the blanking out of consciousness.

The ancient Epicureans believed in annihilation and the famous Epicurean poet, Lucretius, wrote, “Death is nothing to us,” since if a person is annihilated, he can no longer suffer–so what’s there to fear about death? When I have taught philosophy classes, I find that most students agree with Lucretius.

Few students agree with Miguel de Unamuno, the great Spanish writer, who in his book, The Tragic Sense of Life, considered the prospect of annihilation at death worse than images of suffering in Hell. Nor do they understand Milton’s Paradise Lost, when the demons are damned to hell–they say something to the effect, “Yeah, it’s bad that we’re in Hell, but at least we have our consciousness, our self-awareness.”

Most atheists claim that the prospect of annihilation is either a matter of indifference or of comfort. David Hume horrified Samuel Johnson by his lack of fear of annihilation. Bertrand Russell once said, “When I die, I shall rot,” and had no more problem with the prospect of annihilation that someone would with a minor inconvenience. Is my attitude due to a strange personality, or is there more to the fear of annihilation than meets the eye.

Rene Descartes famously said Cogito, ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am.” Although I do not agree with him that the human essence is consciousness (embodiment is an essential part of human personhood), there is something to be said for his focus on self-consciousness. Consciousness is a gift we take for granted. How wonderful it is to be aware of the beautiful world around us, to be aware of loved ones, to be aware of our bodies and our own thoughts! Can we realize what a wonderful gift that is? Losing one’s awareness totally and irretrievably, blanking out into nonbeing, is not frightening because of any pain I would feel, but because I would feel, think, and sense nothing at all–for all practical purposes, there would be no more me. That is why the promise of resurrection is so precious–it is a promise to restore us to the fullness of life, which includes our self-awareness–and more. But if death is the end, as St. Paul put it in I Corinthians 15, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” That is why I have always thought Hell was a gift of God’s mercy–He gives the unrepentant as much reality as they can have without annihilating them. I have no sympathy for the view of Edward Fudge and others who believe that Hell is total annihilation, for that would be an act of a cruel deity. The concept that I could be annihilated at death if the nonbelievers in an afterlife are correct frightens me, like it did Unamuno, almost infinitely more than the prospect of consciousness in Hell. We, like all creatures, have a natural desire to continue in being (philosophers as diverse as Aquinas and Spinoza recognized that fact). Death in the sense of total annihilation goes against that natural desire. This is why Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is one of the most frightening stories I have ever read–I won’t give away the ending–it’s worth reading. I pray for deeper faith, to go beyond, “Lord I believe, pardon my unbelief” to a faith that lives beyond doubt. May we all have such faith.

Haunted (Creative Nonfiction Essay)

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baby graves

Image by valkrye131 via Flickr

The essay below won the 2007 Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Contest of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. It originally appeared in the NC Writers’ Network Newsletter. I own the rights, so I am posting it below. I hope you find it meaningful.

Haunted

I am haunted—not by graveyard ghosts rising as white fog over desolate tombstones or by eerie voices heard at midnight from a bedroom window, but rather by my twin brother Jeffrey, who died the day we were born.

As a child, I knew that Jeffrey had died, yet the story remained a mystery to me. But recently I secured Jeffrey’s death certificate and learned that he had drowned in his own blood.

Department of Public Health, Certificate of Death, State of Tennessee, Division of Vital Statistics. Name: Jeffrey Potts. Date of Birth: December 25, 1961. Date of Death: December 25, 1961. Age: 2 hours. Death was caused by: Immediate cause—pulmonary hemorrhage, bilateral, severe, etiology unknown. Other significant conditions contributing to the death: erythroblastosis fetalis, minimal. Was autopsy performed? Yes.

I have no memory of the first time I heard about Jeffrey. Mama or Daddy may have told me, or I may have asked, having heard them speak his name—but I remember once at five, just before Easter, sitting on the tiled living room floor that had become slick and yellowed with overwaxing. I watch the old black and white TV as “Davy and Goliath,” a claymation series about a boy, Davy, and his dog, Goliath, begins. I find the brass rendition of “A Mighty Fortress is our God” stirring as the episode, called “Happy Easter,” starts with Davy visiting his old but vivacious grandmother who has black hair and wears horn-rimmed glasses. She and Davy are having a wonderful time in the attic, finding and playing with old toys. All seems well, idyllic as my own world, living with my parents and grandparents in the country, every nook of our house holding the promise of new adventure. But the next day, Davy returns home after a neighborhood baseball game and walks into sadness; his mother and sister are crying. Davy asks, “What’s wrong?” and his father answers, “Grandmother died this morning.”

I feel my stomach sink. I’m lying on the cold floor, my face inches from the screen to which I’m glued. Then as Davy’s father explains the concept of the resurrection, all I see is blackness. I run into the kitchen, sit on a chair beneath the bright florescent light and hold my head in my hands, sobbing, “When will I die?” My mother, peeling potatoes over the kitchen sink, doesn’t even look up. “Probably not for a long time,” she says.

Although I don’t often consciously think of Jeffrey, he seems to lurk just behind  my obsession with death. He is the ghost who whispers what might have been, who fills me with unexpected moments of grief and regret.

Fast forward twenty-one years to 1988. I’m in the office of a pastoral counselor with whom I meet for weekly sessions. We talk about my long-time fear/fascination with death, and I tell him about Jeffrey. When he asks if it ever bothered me that I had lost a brother, I say, “No.” Then he asks, “But did you ever wonder about losing a twin brother with whom you would have played, shared, grown up?” and I burst into tears.

Growing up, I didn’t think of my brother often—not once a day, not once a week, not even once a month. Usually, his ghost visited only when Mama mentioned him, though there were some rare instances when I wondered how much Jeffrey would have been like me, whether we would have had the same interests, whether I would have confided in him. Sometimes I imagined him looking down on me when I did wrong, like the time in third grade I lied to the teacher about staying outside past play period to watch two boys fighting. I had climbed near the top of monkey bars to watch them, cupping my hands over my eyes and squinting into the sunlight. The boys’ silhouettes leapt as though they were boxers exchanging blows. The bell rang for class, but I stayed outside before finally returning to class with other tardy students. The teacher asked which students had disobeyed the bell to watch the fight. I didn’t raise my hand. Several classmates yelled at once, “Michael Potts is lying.” I turned red, and for some reason thought about Jeffrey, felt him as a visceral presence.

Even today, when I catch myself lying or doing wrong, I think of him and if he’d be ashamed of me. Or if he’d be proud of my accomplishments: my Ph.D., my academic articles, my published poems. Is it a sense of loss, of  buried grief that rises, insisting to be acknowledged? But what kind of loss can I feel about someone I never knew?

Jeffrey Potts…died Monday at Rutherford Hospital shortly after birth. His twin brother, Michael, survives. Graveside services were held at the family cemetery near Smyrna….

Jeffrey’s remains were moved—twice. Once from the family cemetery, near the Stones River in Smyrna, Tennessee due to the construction of Percy Priest Dam to Mt. Juliet, thirty miles from home. Then family visits were rare, though I remember riding with my family one Sunday (I must have been seven or eight), the drive punctuated by the rolling hills of middle Tennessee which seemed to run forever by my car window. The motion was disorientating, making me sick to my stomach, and I was glad when we finally stopped. I don’t remember the grave itself, a small patch of grass and a curved headstone. But many years later, as an adult, I drove to the graveyard alone, looked for almost an hour before finding the tiny headstone. I wept openly. No one else was around—no person, no squirrel scurrying up and down trees—just a breeze which briefly interrupted the stifling July heat.

Mama wanted the grave closer to home, and the family all agreed. And even though I had moved out of state for graduate school, I still wanted to be able to visit when I returned to my parents’ home. They purchased a new gravestone, casket, paid the fee to move the remains. I wanted to be there for the reburial, but Mama and Daddy didn’t tell me, so I missed  it. Later that week when I phoned for details, Mama described the scene: how the old black casket was carried out of the grave and placed on the grass. Decayed, the lid had collapsed. A cemetery worker needed to scrape out tiny bits of bone amid the earth; what was poured into the new casket was mainly dirt. I remember thinking of God telling Adam, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

Jeffrey’s remains now lie in the “Babytown” section of our hometown cemetery. A small but attractive stone marks the grave. Whenever I visit, I clean off the excess dirt, pull grass where it has overgrown, say a short prayer, cross myself before I leave. Then I walk over to Granddaddy’s and Granny’s graves as well as to my Uncle Lytle’s and do the same. Looking across the Tennessee countryside—filled with Eastern Red Cedars, sugar maples, farmer’s fields full of alfalfa and fescue, good food for cows—I imagine such beauty lasting forever. But then the ghost of death, like a cold, unwelcome wind comes, and I must leave.

Jeffrey’s death, or rather the idea of Jeffrey—the sense of the other self, the doppelganger, the secret sharer, the person he might have become and how he could have influenced what I might have become—still haunts me, especially on Christmas Day, our birthday, or when I visit my parents. I take the short drive to the cemetery, stand on the cold ground, look down at his marker, say “Happy birthday.” I close my eyes, sense the missing space in myself where Jeffrey would have been, try to imagine it filled. But my mind remains blank, and I open my eyes to find nothing staring back but brown grass and cracked earth.

Sometimes, I’m troubled by a recurring dream—I’m walking behind the wooden garage that Daddy and my Great Uncle Bill built when I was ten. I squeeze my way between the black wall and the vine-covered fence until in darkness, I bend and touch something soft and squirming. Then I shoot awake, often in a sweat.

And recently, not long after receiving Jeffrey’s death certificate, I remembered rabbit hunting for the first time with my father; I must have been nine. We walk steadily out in a sun-blanketed field, shotguns slung over our shoulders. Suddenly, Daddy spies a single gray rabbit, nibbling at something in the distance. He stops, takes his shotgun, aims, and shoots. The large rabbit pops back and falls. When Daddy quickly, deftly skins it, I ask for the heart, carrying it off to study alone near the edge of the woods—its tight red muscle glistening as I squeeze and squeeze, trying to get it to pump again.