Describing the Ineffable

It happened again. I lost my daughter. Not physically (thank God), but conceptually. Earlier this week I was driving my fourth grade daughter to some after-school activity. We were having a  conversation about how  some folks seem pretty self-centered, and treat others cruelly. My daughter couldn’t understand why people would behave that way – she felt like it was obvious that you should be considerate of others and treat them the way you want to be treated.

YES! I cheered to myself All of those years of drilling the golden rule into her adorable little head are finally paying off.

But then I went and messed it all up.

“Yes sweetie” I said to her “Sometimes it’s actually really hard to treat other people kindly – particularly people you don’t like, or who have been mean to you. That’s when I find that it helps to reach out to God, because that Spirit can give you the strength to do hard things. I don’t know if that makes sense to you…”

There was silence from the back of the car, then a matter-of-fact “Nope, Mom, that makes no sense at all.”

Ah, I was back at square one with my atheist daughter.

The good news is that this conversation in no way diminishes how proud I am of her, as she navigates the disturbingly nasty and brutish years of tweendom.  But it did bring up an interesting question, one that was also posed to me recently by an old college friend:

How do you explain what it’s like to experience God’s presence to someone who has never had that experience?

I find this a particularly interesting question because, up until a few years ago, I really hadn’t ever had that experience either. As I’ve written in my story, growing up I really wasn’t spiritual at all, and lived in a home that had very strong ethical values but was pretty much secular.  I would have moments where I’d experience a profound sense of peace or awe inspired by great beauty in nature or music (Mozart’s Requiem still blows me away). But I never felt that there was some higher spirit that I could proactively connect to for guidance or strength. It was just me, alone in the universe.

Then something happened – a switch got flipped – and I felt something. A sense of presence. Something that, when I reached out to it, would soothe my troubled soul, calm my anxieties, fill my heart with light and warmth when I felt hopeless. Best of all – it didn’t require a prescription.

Because I started experiencing this presence while I had been reading and trying to understand who Jesus really was, it seemed only fair to give Jesus some credit for what I now experienced. So I got baptized, and now spend an inordinate amount of time helping out my church, which unfortunately has really gotten in the way of me posting regularly to this blog.

By this point, I’ve probably also now lost all of you secular readers out there who will chalk me up as another one of those religious freaks you kind of shy away from at parties. It’s OK, I really don’t blame you (although actually I’m really quite a fun person to hang out with at parties, so it would be your loss). But this way I feel is quite common. Lots of folks have this sense of divine presence – from Christian evangelicals to Buddhists to folks who are religiously unaffiliated but ‘spiritual’.

And then there are also lots of folks who think all of this spirituality stuff is a crock.

So how do we bridge that gap? I think the first step is by spending a lot less time judging the other side. For example, I don’t think that I am now a superior person just because I’ve found a spiritual side to my life and am actively religious. I was nice before this spiritual stuff happened, and I’m nice now (when I’m not cranky because I’ve been doing too much volunteer work for the church).

However, I do see a burden on the part of those who have faith to try explain what it is that they feel, and why it matters. And it seems to me that often the best way to do that is indirectly, through metaphorical, emotional language or other artistic means (art, music). After all – how do you communicate what it feels like to fall in love (for someone who never has)? How do you communicate what it feels like to have a child? Lose a parent? Have a heart attack?

The most effective way to communicate these things is through metaphor, emotional language or art that helps to evoke the feelings in others that we ourselves experience. Which actually is much of what the Bible does – it uses powerful stories and metaphorical language and poetic imagery to convey what people throughout history experienced of the Divine.  God is a still small voice, a burning bush, a cloud, a choir of angels. Well, except God isn’t literally any of these things – these are just symbols used to convey this experience of the Spirit.

So I guess in the meantime I’ll just keep trying to talk to my daughter about God and spirituality, hoping at some point that it’ll click for her. Or maybe it won’t, and that’s OK too. After all, she came back from participating in a Breakfast Run to feed the homeless this weekend, and couldn’t stop talking about how great it felt to help others and how she wanted to go again. Looks like she’s getting in touch with the Spirit after all. Just don’t tell her I said that.

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12 Responses to Describing the Ineffable

  1. Lizzy says:

    Great post Louise I really enjoyed this.

  2. Tyler Franklin says:

    I’m an atheist, an aggressive atheist, who has read your blog for a year and I just want to say: I think you must be the best example I’ve ever encountered in my life of an amazing parent who just… happens to be religious. She’s very lucky, I think. You sound like good people. Keep it up.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Tyler, you just made my day. I don’t know if you are a parent as well, but if you are you’ll know it’s brutally hard, and I regularly struggle with claims by folks like Richard Dawkins that raising your kids with religion is child abuse. I am glad to know that at least one atheist doesn’t think I’m abusing my kids (well, at least not in that way).

      😉

      • Anonymous says:

        Make that two atheists!

      • Tyler Franklin says:

        Haha, I can only imagine! I do agree with Dawkins that the majority of religious upbringing is rote indoctrination but you are the counterexample, the outlier. If one day I have a daughter who chooses to be religious or prefers mysticism to science, I will not mind so much as long as she is a good person first, like you. Secular humanism is only one god removed from Christian humanism, after all. Thanks again,
        Tyler

  3. David Ryan says:

    I will vouch for your being fun to hang out with at parties.

  4. fletcher12 says:

    Wonderful post, Louise — I’ve been missing your blog! I’m not sure how much Kierkegaard you’ve read, but the necessity of expressing spiritual truths indirectly is a major theme of his works. You might enjoy checking him out, if you haven’t had a chance yet.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hey Brian! Nice to hear from you. I read Kierkegaard’s

        The Sickness Unto Death

      and really enjoyed it but don’t remember that aspect of it so much – I just remember how he classified different people’s level of awareness of their spiritual condition, and there was one quote in it about the bourgeois that was really awesome. But I read it on my own, so not sure if I picked up on everything I should have. Let me know if there’s another one of his works you’d particularly recommend. I’m almost finished plowing through Tillich’s first volume of Systematic Theology which nearly killed me (loved parts of it but at other times had no idea what he was talking about), but I think more Kierkegaard might be a nice antidote.

      • fletcher12 says:

        I’d suggest you check out “Fear and Trembling” and — especially — “Concluding Unscientific Postcript.” I read the second of these in college and was blown away. It’s more “philosophical” in tone than most of Kierkegaard’s works — but if you’ve slogged through Tillich, you shouldn’t have any problem with it!

      • seeingfaith says:

        Awesome – thanks for the tip – will get it now…

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