I just finished reading Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow. In the profound emptiness that resulted from finishing the novel, I find myself lost in a haze of theological and philosophical questions. But perhaps “lost” is not the proper word, because it implies a certain amount of fear, danger, or desire to be “found.” For the time being, I’m perfectly content to sit in the thick mist and think – it seems like the only appropriate thing to do.
Those who know me are aware that I’m prone to grossly over-dramatic statements; I have a bad habit of making grandiose declarations and portraying small occurrences in my life as profoundly moving moments. So, when I say that The Sparrow and Children of God have irrevocably changed my perception of religion and theology, it might seem that this, too, is simply another in a long line of melodramatic moments that I portray as being somehow profound. I suppose this could be possible, but considering how fast my mind is racing, and to what conclusions I’m coming to, I don’t think that’s likely.
I’ll be the first to admit that my own prejudices have fostered a deep mistrust of religion and its institutions; on a completely superficial level, I’m a gay democrat raised in secular homes by divorced parents. Statistics say that the chances of me attending church on a weekly basis are less than five percent. But on a deeper level, I’ve struggled with God and faith for many years. Resentful of the condemnation of my sexuality by most religious authorities, I turned my back on Christianity. Seeing the deceptive, manipulative, hand of Churches (specially, the efforts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) in forwarding hateful political messages, I condemned religious institutions. And as I began to invest myself further into the Grand Game of Politics, I found myself increasingly on opposite sides of religious institutions and evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity.
In high school, I was drawn to Buddhism. While I was far from practicing, I began to identify with the faith, and furthermore, to identify as a Buddhist. It was peaceful. It was calming. It wasn’t judgmental, and it seemed completely compatible with scientific thinking and hard facts. Logic was essential to my understanding of Buddhism, and I marveled at this Eastern religion that spoke directly to my heart and codified spiritual assumptions I’d long ago made for myself.
In retrospect, I have a feeling that this “conversion” was more a spiteful repudiation of Christianity than a search for missing faith. Everything I felt about Buddhism was true. It did speak to me, and it did mean more to me than any religion ever had before. But I never would have discovered how meaningful Buddhism made me feel if I had not sought a way to abandon the Christian label. In the United States, a mythological divide exists between “Christians” and “non-Christians.” Despite notions to the contrary, American culture is a Christian culture – that is to say, Christianity is the single-most prevalent religion and irrevocably shaped and guided the development of our society. It’s almost a surety that an American was raised, at the very least, in a place where Christianity is the norm, and that, while one may not attend church, one still believes in the Christian God. Having felt that Christianity was hostile to me, in return, I felt hostile to Christianity. And by telling my parents that I considered myself a “non-practicing Buddhist,” I was expressing my disgust and contempt for a religion that had never been accepting or welcoming to me.
I was an avowed atheist. Buddhism embraces those who have rejected God or been rejected by him. It encourages people to believe evidence, and hold science as truth. Naturally, this means that when atheists find no evidence of God, Buddhism welcomes this conclusion.
But a great deal changed this past year. I grew, and I thought. I listened and learned. I reexamined the reasons I had decided there was no God. It came down to one argument: The Problem of Evil. If God is all knowing and supremely benevolent, why does He allow genocide? Why does He allow millions of children to starve to death in Africa and Asia? I answered the question, but the conclusion I came to wasn’t “because there is evil, there is no God.” The conclusion I came to was, “if there is a God, He is no God I will worship.”
It took me a long, long, time to realize that my understanding of the Problem of Evil didn’t make me an atheist. In fact, on some level, it expressed a certain degree of theism.
This conclusion only became apparent when I finished reading The Sparrow. Beautifully written, elegantly presented, and profoundly moving, the novel challenged my beliefs in a way that I have no way to express in words. Uncertain where I stood theologically, but knowing something had shifted… something had changed… I no longer considered myself atheistic. When I finished Children of God, I felt empty. But that emptiness actually felt beautiful, and the character of Rukuei describes my notions of this emptiness wonderfully:
“I have learned that poetry requires a certain emptiness, as the sounding of a bell requires the space within it. The emptiness of my father’s early life provided the resonance for his songs. I have felt in my heart his restlessness, and lurking ambition. I have felt in my own body the violent exuberance, the almost sexual exultation of creation… I have learned that a soul’s emptiness can become a place where Truth will dwell – even if it is not made welcome, even when Truth is reviled and fought, doubted and misunderstood and resisted.”
So, as I sit here in a heavy fog, I wonder why these books have had such an impact on me. I honestly don’t believe I’ll ever know. But I’m okay with that. If I understood, I could not possibly be in the mental place I am right now.
But really, my sudden nervousness … the part of me that is slightly afraid of where my thoughts will take me, is written in the final chapter of the book, when Emilio Sandoz contemplates language.
“He was a linguist, after all, and it seemed entirely possible to him that religion and literature and art and music were all merely side effects of a brain structure that comes into the world ready to make language out of noise, sense out of chaos. Our capacity for imposing meaning, he thought, is programmed to unfold the way a butterfly’s wings unfold when it escapes the chrysalis, ready to fly. We are biologically driven to create meaning. And if that’s so, he asked himself, is the miracle diminished?”
As an amateur writer, I’ve always found language to be the most profound art humanity can create. As stated above, language is nothing but noise, but in that noise, there is meaning. Yes, the value is created by our minds, but that doesn’t make the meaning any less real. What if God is like language? Created by belief, manifest in us by sheer will of faith? Thoughts are in our head. Ideas are nothing but neurons firing in our brains. But our thoughts affect the physical; ideas change reality. Dreams shape the world. And dreams have shaped me.
My contemplations of these books are ongoing. The conclusions I’ve left here are largely based, ironically, not on the Bible, but on a novel by Mary Doria Russell. Perhaps it’s just a novel. But my thoughts regarding the book, and even faith, are drifting further and further toward the conclusion of D.W. Yarbrough in The Sparrow: maybe it’s only poetry. But if it is, it’s poetry to die for.