Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.”
Even as a high school student who experienced faith in God as an anchor in a very turbulent sea, I was very attracted to and affected by my non-believing classmates. I experienced from them a respect for my own beliefs, which they couldn’t at all understand, while I, in turn, was influenced and formed by the sincerity and resoluteness of their searching. This attraction and sense of connection to those seekers, who are often self-proclaimed agnostics and atheists and who refuse to settle for conformist religious practice and pat theological answers, remains with me to this day.
Faith, in its deepest sense, often has more in common with the relentless searching of the unbeliever than it does with the unquestioning and self-satisfied acquiescence of the social or cultural believer. As an adolescent, I felt a certainty in my faith that kept me from really understanding, despite my appreciation for them, the non-faith of my friends. At that time, my expectation was that as I matured in the faith my assuredness and realization of the truth would only grow. Yet, the actual experience has been quite different. Without ever totally losing faith, I have grown closer to those who cannot proclaim faith in God in the midst of the struggles and turbulence of life. It is from those who seem most certain in their particular beliefs that I feel the greatest distance.
When we think about the Paul of Scripture, we tend to picture him as the most certain and self-assured of the Apostles. Although Paul never met Jesus prior to his death, there is no more fervent believer in the Resurrected Jesus as the manifestation of God among us. And yet, Paul is able to recognize that those who create a statue to an unknown God are “very religious.” True faith always has about it a component of unknowing, of uncertainty, even of existential fear and trembling. Paul had come to faith in Jesus from an equally strong and unyielding faith in the Law. He, foremost among all the early disciples, realizes that salvation and justification come from abandoning the certainty that comes from obedience to the law. He particularly comes to recognize that any such certainty is illusion. Human life cannot be restricted or confined even by the Law. What the Law is able to teach us is our inability to keep it, to restrict the reality of God’s presence, love, and mercy toward us to anything we can do and control. The encounter with God, he comes to recognize, can only come through the mystery of the cross, through the suffering, ambiguity, and apparent meaninglessness of life.
The “faith” of my childhood and adolescence saved my life. In a time of more uncertainty and personal confusion than I could bear, there was something and someone beyond all that was overwhelming me that was my security. “O Lord, I am in straits. Be my surety.” (Isaiah 38: 14) As we are drawn to live more and more by faith, however, we are weaned of our “surety,” our certainties. As Paul tells us, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7) Our faith is less and less in the God that our needs and fears create, but rather more and more in the Mystery that permeates all of our lives and all of creation. We pass from faith based on fear to faith based on love to the degree that we allow ourselves to be drawn into the ambiguity, uncertainty, and even dread of our actual human lives.
I’m sure there was much of adolescent rebellion that motivated the agnosticism of my high school classmates. Yet, there perhaps was also a bit more courage and less fear than I was able to muster at the time. Perhaps this was the attraction for me. In our secular world today, there are many who have just been “conformed to the present age” (Romans 12:2). But there are also many who are, as some of the Athenians, “very religious.” Pope Francis calls on us who are believers to enter into a true and sincere “spirituality of encounter” with our world. While believers may have a hope and a joy to share with those who experience alienation and darkness, those who are searching in their unbelief may be, for us, sources of challenge and purification of our faith. They may be, for us, sources of revelation of a God who is “able to do more than we can ask for or imagine” (Eph. 3: 20).
“I want only with my whole self to reach the heart of obvious truths.” Thus Anna Kamienska near the end of the fractured, intense, diamond-like diaries that circle around and around the same obsessive concern: God. I know just what she means. The trouble, though, as her own life and mind illustrate, is that, just as there are simple and elegant equations that emerge only at the end of what seems like a maze of complicated mathematics, so there are truths that depend upon the very contortions they untangle. Every person has to earn the clarity of common sense, and every path to that one clearing is difficult, circuitous, and utterly, painfully individual.
Here’s an obvious truth: I am somewhat ambivalent about religion—and not simply the institutional manifestations, which even a saint could hate, but sometimes, too many times, all of it, the very meat of it, the whole goddamned shebang. Here’s another: I believe that the question of faith—which is ultimately separable from the question of “religion”—is the single most important question that any person asks in and of her life, and that every life is an answer to this question, whether she has addressed it consciously or not.
As for myself, I have found faith not to be a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound. As for my children, I would like them to be free of whatever particular kink there is in me that turns every spiritual impulse into anguish. Failing that, I would like them to be free to make of their anguish a means of peace, for themselves or others (or both), with art or action (or both). Failing that—and I suppose, ultimately, here in the ceaseless machinery of implacable matter, there is only failure—I would like them to be able to pray, keeping in mind the fact that, as St. Anthony of the Desert said, a true prayer is one that you do not understand.
Christian Wiman, “I Will Love You in the Summertime,” The American Scholar, Spring 2016