“Daddy,” my daughter said. “Is magic real?”
“You mean like when a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat?”
“That’s not magic,” I said, “That’s an illusion.”
“What’s an illusion?”
“Remember how I made that coin disappear?” I said, referring to the only feat of legerdemain I’m capable of.
“That was cheating!” Natalie said. “You hid the coin in your fingers.”
“But until I showed you how I did it, you thought it had disappeared. An illusion is tricking people into thinking they’re seeing something that isn’t real.”
“Is God a trick?” Natalie said.
Stunned, I tried formulating a good answer. “God and magic are two totally different things,” was the best I could come up with.
“Okay, Daddy,” my daughter said, not sounding entirely convinced. Then she skipped away, six years old and already a skeptic.
Sitting on the couch, I wondered why my daughter though God was a trick. I knew she already suspected the Tooth Fairy was bogus – same with the Easter Bunny – but as Natalie’s little brain is coming together she’s beginning to see the contradictions contained within the legends of childhood. Eventually she’ll realize it’s all nonsense. But will she eventually toss God into dustbin along with St. Nick, leprechauns, fairies and all the other fairy-tales of her childhood?
As I was pondering this, I remembered something that happened to me when I was a child. It was a hot summer morning and I was at Boy Scout camp in the Adirondacks; hauling a rucksack stuffed with food for ten people back to my campsite. Only twelve years old, I huffed and puffed in the humid heat, filling the air with curse words I’d just learned as the heavy rucksack’s straps bit into my shoulders. The day before someone had broken into my footlocker and stole all my money – which meant I couldn’t buy candy or soda at the commissary anymore. Worse, my bunkmate was a psychopath who liked immolating toads and salamanders with a flamethrower he’d fashioned out of a can of bug spray and a lighter. Watching those creatures shudder as the flames washed over them made me sick to my stomach. I hated camp. I hated the kids in my campsite. I wanted to go home.
Filled with anger, I shucked the heavy rucksack off my back and sat on a rock. My grandmother had died only few months earlier; my first real experience with death. In past summers she paid for me to go to a YMCA camp that I’d really enjoyed. There the counselors were loving, encouraging and most of all, they wanted us to have fun. Boy Scout camp, however, was like being in the army; run by men who were all about “toughening us up.” Overwhelmed, I put my head in my hands and started to cry – thinking of my grandmother, my stolen money and those reptiles writhing helplessly in the flames. On the cusp of adolescence, I was already thinking life was going to be anything but honest, brave, clean and reverent. After a while my sobs ceased and, when I finally took my hands away from my eyes, I discovered a beautiful buck with huge antlers standing above me.
I was too surprised to be frightened and, as the buck and I regarded each other, a queer sensation washed over me. Despite the fact deer were commonplace around camp, I found myself marveling how this particular animal gotten had gotten here. Not how it had snuck up on me or why it hadn’t run away but rather why was it here at all. What had once been familiar had become ‘infinitely strange” and, in that moment, the buck suddenly seemed like a rabbit pulled out of a magician’s hat. Like any child watching a magic show, I laughed with delight which, of course, made the buck run away – but I never forgot that moment in the forest.
Getting up from my couch, I walked over to the dining room window and watched my daughter playing in the backyard. As Natalie ran around chasing the dog, I remembered the first time I held her in my arms. Even though I’d been expecting her arrival for months, when I first looked into her eyes I was struck by the same feeling I had when I encountered that buck. How did this beautiful child get here? Now Natalie is six and headed for the first grade. Baby fat gone, she can now read, write, ride a bike, and is already boy crazy. She also possesses a ferocious intelligence. How many six-year old’s do you know asking if God’s a trick? But smart people will always doubt God’s existence. How could they not? The concept is chock full of contradictions – especially now. As the coronavirus steals more lives from us and we see videos of a man writhing to death under a policeman’s knee, the benevolent deity of our childhoods seems like a childish fantasy. If God is good, how can such things happen? There are people who’ll say it’s all part of God’s plan but, if terrible suffering is part of his grand design, then he is quite simply, a monster. Then again, many religious types are monstrous too. Aside from the sickos who’ve used God to steal people’s money and innocence, church pews are packed with bitter folks who, pathologically feeling inferior to others, cling to a the promise of an afterlife where the tables will be finally be turned and they’ll get to watch their supposed betters shudder in the flames. Nice huh?
If Natalie is as smart as I think she is, she’ll notice all those nasty contradictions and run from them. But will she throw the baby out with the bath water? After seeing her share of heartbreak and the evil men do, will she conclude God is a nothing but a childish dream that she must rub from her eyes? It could happen. There’s a couple of atheists rattling around who might tell her it’s all hocus pocus and alakazam. Like all children, my daughter’s innocent sense of wonder will eventually be overwritten by the struggle of life. Like her father, Natalie will probably go through periods of agnosticism and disbelief and there will be very little I can do about it. No religion, philosophy, book or guru can tell you about God. They have their uses, obviously but, in the end, God is something everyone has to figure out for themselves.
Forty years have passed since that day at summer camp and, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had more and more of those little experiences: when the sudden appearance of something beautiful fills me with wonder – what the old Greek’s called thaumazein. Wonder at the sheer existence of things. Deep in my bones I’ve been reminded, over and over again, that I am a created thing – that I didn’t will myself into existence. In seminary, I was taught nothing, no person, planet, black hole or atom can explain why it exists in and of itself. Everything in the universe is contingent or depends on something else for being here and, if you wind back the clock and examine the great chain of causality, you’ll eventually arrive at a point where there must have been a first cause – that which created something out of nothing. Since that “prime mover” has no cause it must simply exist in and of itself – uncreated and beyond time – and makes everything that is real, well, real. That “something” is what every major religion, despite all their differences, calls God.
But so what? All those philosophical gymnastics I’ve described in admittedly abridged detail mean very little to us struggling in the here and now. Even if you acknowledge (And that’s a big if for many) that there’s a God who got everything moving, you could be forgiven for thinking he just lit the fuse of creation and then walked away like a hands-off father or worse, a deadbeat dad refusing to acknowledge his paternity. Or is God so beyond us that he’s just an utterly unknowable “brute fact” – a wholly Other who, enthroned on the far shore of infinity, reigns with serenely sterile indifference while allowing us to shiver in the cold? Such a God, would, in point of fact, be cruel, leaving creation “something considerably worse than a nightmare.” So what is the point of us being here in the first place? “To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” while God basks in the admiration of his angels? Natalie will eventually ask questions like this. What shall I tell her?
On the way home from the grocery store yesterday, I was thinking of Natalie’s question when a rainbow suddenly apperared. Vibrant and glorious, I gawked as it hung regally over the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Created by a confluence of rain and light, I knew it was would disappear before I pulled into my driveway, I also knew it was completly unnecessary. Rainbows serve no functional purpose – we don’t need them – but their beauty surprises and delights us all the same. That bow in the sky reminded me, yet again, of the needlessness of my own existence. For if the Source of all is uncreated, timeless and totally sufficient in of itself then it needs nothing. Not majestic bucks in the forest, rainbows on a summer day or my little girl’s delightful smile. But they’re here anyway – they live and move and have their being. That tells us something. When you get something wonderful that’s unmerited, undeserved or even unasked for that is, quite simply, a gift. Theologians will tell you the “gift” of creation emanates from the overflow of God’s ecstatic joy in the delight of His Being and is for made for His pleasure. Sounds slightly narcissistic at first glance but, as we all know, giving someone a present usually makes us feel good – the happiness of the recipient gives us pleasure – so I’ll cut God some slack. That rainbow reminded me that beauty, in all of its needless gratuity, whispers that our lives are pure gift and that such a gift can only come from pure love. Love not only makes the world go round, it’s why it’s is here at all.
As I drove, I thought about how beauty also tells us that God is not some sterile and indifferent Other. He may be infinite but his very distance from us is actually a wonderful and necessary thing. For much of my life, I’ve been frustrated by the fact that I can never know everyone’s stories – that there were so many unknowns among people, so many differences, that I’d never be able to figure out what made them all tick. I now realize that, far from a curse, distance – mystery – is a blessing. If everyone was the same as me, if they weren’t different, nothing would surprise or delight me. I’d have nothing to look forward to. But the very fact people are other than me is what fuels my desire to write about them and that is a desire that will never be quenched. I now understand distance is part of God’s gift. It tells me the stories will never end. That there will always be more to see. That there’s more fun around the corner.
A wise person once said, “distance is the soul of beauty.” We can only appreciate beauty from afar. If we didn’t then everything would just be part of ourselves – monotonous and dull. Distance is what allows beauty to happen. And infinity, that distance between God and us, is the space where His gift creates everything that, in all its differences, is not Him. Infinite love creates infinite diversity. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Not some of it or part of it – all of it. Difference is good. But now, as we live in a society riven by differences – atomized into like-minded bubbles chattering about blue state versus red, rich versus poor, men versus women, black versus white, old versus young, insiders versus outsiders – differences, far from being good, now seem like a curse. Differences frighten us, so we try and control people and turn them into copies of ourselves, to bend them to our will. And whenever we seek to consume, hoard, possess, commoditize, or homogenize something beautiful instead of delighting in it, when we try to erase that distance, we rob it of its joy. That’s when differences becomes ugly and an excuse for every kind of violence. In such a world they’re can only be winners and losers, the conqueror and the conquered, the powerful and the powerless. Beauty is never the cause of violence but it suffers violence every day.
When I got home, as predicted, the rainbow had vanished. It was a nice little gift – something that brightened ny day. But what should be my response to that gift – the gift of creation? Well, gift giving is always a two way street. When you give a gift you’re hurt when you don’t receive a thank you. There are misguided ethical purists who’ll say gifts should be given with no expectation of gratitude but that’s just simply inhuman. Have you ever gotten a gift but, when you tried to thank the giver, he or she just brushed it off and said, “It was nothing.” Then their gift, bereft of reciprocity in its intent, was nothing but a ploy to make you feel indebted to the giver. Far from being a gift, it was a manipulative power play, a kind of coercion – a form of violence to make you feel small. Gifts and gratitude should always be exchanged with happy grace. Of course, sometimes getting a gift can be hard – especially when that gift is totally unexpected. Sometimes we’re embarrassed because we have nothing to give in return or feel guilty because we’ve never given the giver anything. And sometimes, especially when the gift is from someone we’re angry at, we ignore it – leaving the giver with his or her arms outstretched and the gift unwrapped. I’ve been guilty of that many times in my life. But then again, so have all of you – perhaps even recently
In April, as the coronavirus was taking tens of thousands of lives and forcing us to struggle with fear, grief, isolation, economic insecurity and death, springtime arrived. While people were dying alone in droves the flowers bloomed, trees reclaimed their leaves, birds sang and delicate butterflies began their dance on the warming breeze. But for many of us April was the “cruelest month” and, in our anguish and fright, we often ignored the beauty resurrecting around us. Dare I say, some of us even found it offensive? Sort of like when you’ve had a bad breakup and can’t stand the sight of lovers walking arm in arm? Around this time the comedian Jim Gaffigan delivered a bit entitled, Spring Arrives for Those in Lockdown on CBS’s Sunday Morning. “But, you know what?” Gaffigan said at the end of his spiel, “It’s still spring. It’s a time of renewal and rebirth, a promise of better things to come. Instead of being disappointed about staying at home right now, we should be thinking about the possibilities of the springs in the future. You know what? I can hear the baby birds singing, and I see the leaves growing, and I don’t know, I guess it gives me hope.” Then, with an unsure look he said, “Did that sound believable?”
Yes, Jim. It’s believable. Why? Because we will all eventually emerge from our winter of our discontent and the beautiful, in all its wanton extravagance, will still be there. That’s because the source of beauty is infinite and, therefore, can never be hurt. It is always patient and kind. It does not envy or boast. It is not proud, self-seeking, easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Beauty – infinite love – never fails. It is a not blaring trumpet or clanging cymbal but a whisper of gentle persuasion, always breathing stories into our ears. If you failed to notice one of those beautiful tales, don’t worry about having missed out. Beauty is merciful beyond measure. For in God “nothing is lost, and the substance of hope lies in the knowledge that God has given – and will give – again.”
My dearest Natalie, God is not a trick. We are the ones who conjure up the illusions. All those contradictions involving God you’ll hear about aren’t really about Him at all. They are about us. When finite beings try wrapping their heads around the Infinite, contradictions are bound to happen. In the end “God” is just a word, a symbol of how we perceive Him – the story we tell about ourselves. Small wonder human beings screw it up. But the only proper response we can make to this endless bounty – to beauty, to difference, to God’s gift – is to love one another. To say “thank you” we must honor and cherish the differences between us; to show mercy in turn and listen to one another’s stories – to let people just be. We must love one another as God has loved us. That’s not easy, but we have to try.
One day my love, you will overcome by sorrow and despair but, when you stop crying and take your hands away from your eyes, there will always be something beautiful to see. Never stop looking for rainbows and fireflies – for sunsets, music, poetry, art, and, perhaps one day, the smile on your own child’s face. Always look for the beautiful in people. Love their differences and always try to listen to their stories. Most of all, unlike your Dad, do not be afraid. For God holds all differences in harmony and peace; even the ultimate difference between us and Him – that we come to an end. We may not be able to grasp the infinite but the Infinite easily embraces our frailty and finitude in joy. Nothing is ever lost. So don’t worry about some kind of afterlife because there is no other life, just this one, and it is infinitely greater than we can possibly imagine. That means, Natalie, there will always be something new to see. There will always be more fun around the corner. There will always be time to play.
The party will never end.
Postscript: This essay was inspired by a wonderful book entitled The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth by David Bentley Hart. The author was quoted extensively and, if I’ve made any errors regarding his views, the fault is mine alone.