Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are, to my mind, a healthy public counterpoint to the intolerant and self-certain stridency that increasingly characterizes Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. Of course, their miltantly atheistic books also challenge traditional, so-called "mainstream," believers.

If I were a believer and wanted to provide a response to Dawkins and Harris, I wouldn't roll out Francis Collins, Owen Gingerich or other theistic scientists who wear their faith on their sleeve. As a good lapsed Catholic, I would recommend Mary Gordon, Walker Percy, Sigrid Undset, Georges Bernanos, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O'Connor, Andre Dubus, Graham Greene, Shusaku Endo (Silence), and the many other believing writers who treat of matters of the spirit and who rank with the best artists of the modern age. Their God is seen through a glass darkly, and comes bearing gifts of doubt and ambiguity.

I haven't learned much about the spiritual quest by reading true believers or true disbelievers. Give me instead the theism or the atheism of the pilgrim who has found or lost her God by walking through the dark valley, who hardly dares to speak his name for fear that he will disappear at the sound of her voice. If I were going to have a God, I would want him (her? it?) to come in silence, to hide in shadows, and whisper his revelations in a voice too faint to be clearly heard.

It is appropriate, I think, to praise the creation, to make a joyful noise in thanksgiving for the sensate world. But praising the Creator is another thing altogether. When we make a big racket HIS behalf we are more than likely addressing an idol in our own image.

The essayist Pico Iyer says, "Silence is the tribute that we pay to holiness; we slip off words when we enter a scared place, just as we slip off shoes."