What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.–A.W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy
. . . there began to come moments when I could feel moving into my mind, like a physical presence, the conviction that all was quite absurd. It made no sense at all that anything should exist. Something like nausea, but deeper and frightening, would grow in my stomach and chest but also at the core of my spirit, progressing like vertigo until in desperation I must jump up or talk suddenly of trivial things to break the spell and regain balance. And since that time I am always aware that that feeling, that extreme awareness of the better claim of nothingness, lies just beyond the barriers of my busy mind and will intrude when I let it.–Eugene England, “Enduring” in Dialogues with Myself
In my last post, I invited readers to continue with me “the tragic quest” and promised in this post to tackle a simple subject: God. That was, of course, tongue in cheek. For if God were simple, then we could not describe the quest to know Him as tragic, which is Eugene England’s terminology that I have adopted. He defined what he meant by tragedy:
. . . it would seem that the central issue in tragedy is justice, specifically ultimate justice; the extreme anguish which tragedy confronts and forces us to confront derives, not from mere pain and loss, but pain and loss that touches our deepest concerns, those about the nature of the universe itself. And those concerns are by definition religious.
A Natural Pain and Loss
On September 11, 2003, my wife Angela packed a lunch for us and surprised me at work with a positive pregnancy test she had taken that morning. It was wonderful news, especially considering the horrific events that had taken place on that date two years earlier. We were very excited to be adding to our young family, which already included two daughters and a son. I had just returned to my schooling carrying a full-time course load and working toward a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.
Twelve weeks into that pregnancy, on a Sunday night in October, Angela noticed signs that something might be wrong with the pregnancy. She asked me to give her a priesthood blessing. As a LDS husband, it was excruciating to see the fear in her eyes and the look of deep pain and loss already stealing across her face. I laid my hands on her head and blessed her. I wanted to tell her everything would be fine — the baby would be fine — but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I sensed that this was out of my control.
The next morning, we went to the OB/GYN for an ultrasound. After waiting for what seemed forever in muted hope that all was right, an ultrasound tech led us to a treatment room and silently performed the imaging procedure. She said the doctor would need to speak with us.
Angela immediately sensed what the doctor would tell us. She began crying uncontrollably. I gave what comfort I could, but I was numb. The ultrasound tech returned and took us to the doctor’s office. While waiting there for several minutes, I looked at his diplomas hanging on the wall — evidence of his expertise and training in these matters. He came in and explained that miscarriages are just statistical anomalies that unfortunately happen in a percentage of pregnancies. He explained that based on the ultrasound measurements the baby had only progressed to about six weeks and that they had been unable to detect a heartbeat. I remember feeling at once comforted by his explanation and horrified by it. “These things just happen sometimes.”
Over the next several months, I did my best to be there for Angela in her grief. We talked a lot, most times late into the night after I got home from long days of work followed by night school. I listened as she shared her grief and growth through that process. I ate my own feelings of sadness and loss, trying to put on a strong face for her. My father has struggled throughout his life with bipolar disorder and bouts of deep depression, so I knew intellectually that shoving my feelings down inside wasn’t healthy, but I had responsibilities to provide by working hard and continuing my studies. I couldn’t allow emotions to shut me down.
I turned to writing, a favorite outlet. I wrote a piece of short fiction that I called “God Lets the Wheat Grow Up with the Tares.” The protagonist and narrator is a Mormon pre-teen girl whose father abandoned the family when she was young and who now lives with her mother, older brother and grandfather. At age 11 — not 8 — she finally forgives her father and allows her brother to baptize her “in the clean waters of the baptismal font in the new church building.” Her grandpa is a Jack-Mormon farmer who regrets selling a large portion of his land to developers and who harbors a hatred of God stemming from the death of his wife. Near the end of the story, he takes his granddaughter, on the evening after her baptism, to swim in the irrigation ditch. He asks her about her baptism, and in that muddy water, he performs his own bittersweet re-creation of the ordinance that he was barred from performing earlier that day.
The story contains an episode in which the grandpa rails against God. His daughter, Lucy, suggests that it was the Utah sun that got to her mother trying to present a “nicer” image of death for her own daughter. The grandfather explodes:
“It wasn’t the damned sun that got to her!” Grandpa said. “God took her from me, Lucy. Don’t fill your child’s head with things that just ain’t right. You and me both know that God don’t like me a bit. He did, he wouldn’t of brought those damned city folk out here to this part of the valley. I built me up a good farm here. But I was too proud, I suppose. Thought I did it all by myself, and I did! It was my arms that worked, my legs that walked, my muscles that pushed and toiled to bring that crop to harvest every year.”
“Dad!” Mom protested.
“What?” Grandpa asked. “‘He makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.’ Well, he ain’t never made it to fall on my crop long enough to make it plentiful no matter how just I tried to be. I had to dig them irrigation troughs in my fields. It was my arms that hung weary after weeks of digging. Hurt so bad I couldn’t sleep at night. And even then there were some years that there wasn’t enough snow in the mountains to make irrigating any good. But I built it up. This farm — I built it with my two hands.”
His anger continues to flow despite his daughter’s tears until Lucy, exhausted and troubled by his outburst, begs him to stop:
Mom was sobbing when he finished. “Please, Dad, don’t . . .”
“Don’t what?” he asked. “Tell the child like it is? Your mother didn’t deserve the cancer God gave her, Lucy. But he gave it to her anyway. He burned her for my sake, to get back at me. Well, he won’t break me, Lucy. He won’t!”
A Clearing of the Mind
I was deeply involved during this time in a private discussion group made up of Mormons and former Mormons. The group consisted of a Mormon philosopher and future Mormon Transhumanist Association founder, a Mormon Canadian public servant, an ex-Mormon atheist politico, an ex-Mormon evangelical Christian, a Mormon Wiccan, a couple young return Mormon missionaries with young families [raises hand], a Mormon Buddhist, a female Mormon who knew the founder of FAIR just as that organization was getting off the ground and who deeply studied Kabballah, and a serving Mormon bishop. Views were varied and conversations were always challenging. We had all moved from discussing Mormonism on the boards at BeliefNet to a private forum developed by one of the group’s members. In early 2004, we decided to gather in Salt Lake City for an in-person meet up. I was just kicking off my career and working my way through school, so I couldn’t afford the plane ticket, but this kind group of people acted together to cover my costs.
During the gathering, it was proposed that we allow two members of the group to undergo a Clearness Committee, a process used by Quakers to help a person gain clarity around a decision. Angela had been pleading with me to not just listen to her grief but to share mine with her, and I was stubbornly turning inward. I knew it would be healthy, healing, and ultimately strengthening to our relationship to open up to her, but I harbored a lot of fear, because the anger I had toward God was severe, and I didn’t want to affect her faith. She was a convert to Mormonism, and I felt a heavy burden not to damage her faith.
I completed a write up describing the problem, and at the meet up, I underwent a Clearness Committee. It was an intense experience. Although the members of the group were sensitive and careful in their questions and I already knew of their kindness and desire to be of help, their probing and my responses laid bare just how much I was struggling with questions of justice in the face of natural evil and how opposed I was to the idea of a sovereign God. What follows are some of their questions and my responses. They were recorded verbatim and I share them to give readers a sense of my mindset at the time. After a question asking me to identify what God felt like to me at the time — I indicated that God was like a Mormon bishop in my mind — the following questions were posed to me:
Q: What would you tell him [a church leader] about your baby?
A: I would tell him that for me, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what it means to have lost my baby: what it means in a religious sense. I feel like I’ve missed out on something infinitely precious. I feel like the relationship I might have had has been stolen from me — well, not necessarily stolen, but not available to me now. It hurts not to be able to have that relationship come to fruition.
Q: How would he [a church leader] react?
A: I think he would probably tell me that I could be with that child in the next life. But I think that would be callous; it skirts the issue of the pain I feel now. It’s only theoretical.
Q: What kind of reaction would not skirt the issue of the pain you feel now?
A: An answer that didn’t imply that everything is just going to be all right. An answer that addressed the pain and the sense of loss I feel. An answer that explored those things with me; one where I was able to feel that the person really cared, and realized that the pain and loss is real.
Q: You mentioned statistical anomaly. Is that how you feel about this? Do you blame anyone or think there’s any reason for it?
A: No; that’s something Angela and I discussed. We don’t believe in a God who would punish us or take something as precious as having children away as a result of something we did. We decided that seeking for a reason behind this would be futile. That feels right, but at the same time, the question of “Why?” is still there. Maybe it is just part of being mortal. For some reason, our bodies biologically get sick, reject pregnancies — it’s just part of being alive, perhaps. But that doesn’t feel like enough. There’s still the desire, the need to seek for a reason — if there’s not a reason for the pain…
Q: Did God kill your child?
A: No; I don’t believe that. I guess that’s one of the areas where this has been especially difficult for me. I don’t believe that. The God I want to believe in doesn’t do those sorts of things. He doesn’t give us bad experiences for the sake of bad experiences — or even give us bad experiences at all. Bad experiences are a result of being human in the world we live in. The doctor tried to comfort us the day we found out: “It’s just a statistical anomaly.” That lines up with my view of the world: there are statistical anomalies and it depends on how we deal with them. But then I wonder, “What’s the point of believing there’s a God? If everything is just a statistical anomaly, what’s the point?” But I realize that reaction may be part of the anger stage of grief. Angela said she went through something similar.
Q: Did God have the power to make this decision?
A: I want to say no. But that’s more because I don’t believe he makes those sorts of decisions. Whether he had the power to, I don’t know. But I don’t’ believe he makes those sorts of decisions for our lives.
Q: Did he have the power to stop it?
A: Maybe. Did he have the power to stop the suffering that Christ went through in Gethsemane? Christ seemed to think so; he asked for it.
Q: Would it be all right, if God were here, to be angry, even if he was not responsible, but because he couldn’t or wouldn’t stop it?
A: For me, I don’t think so. If I believe that he’s not responsible, I wouldn’t feel that it would be conducive to a relationship with him, which I desire, for me to be angry with him.
Q: Does someone or something need to be responsible for you to be angry?
A: No, I don’t think so, but my experience is that if you’re angry, you usually direct that at someone.
Q: Do you feel helpless that you feel anger but don’t know where to send it?
A: Yes, in a sense. I think I recognize that in life, when we’re angry, many times we direct our anger at people who don’t deserve it, people who aren’t responsible. But I feel like that’s immoral, to direct your anger at someone who doesn’t deserve it. So it would be immoral for me to direct anger towards God or anyone. Is anyone responsible for it? It’s just something that happens.
Q: Do you think you could be angry that there is no one responsible, that the universe is just that way, and still feel that life has meaning?
A: I think I struggle with that. If the universe is random, if it’s a “statistical anomaly,” what meaning does it have? I think I’m coming to believe more and more that the meaning it has is our relationships with others, and what we’re able to build there. But I feel angry that that can be taken from us without justification or reason.
Q: If God were here and it were acknowledged that it was just a statistical anomaly and there was nothing he could do, what would he say to you as you expressed your anger and/or grief?
A: I would hope he could explain to me what the implications of that are for existence. If all there is — is what we have with others, the relationships we build with others, and those can be taken from us — what point is there to being? What’s the big picture?
My paternal grandmother also experienced the loss of a child. Even when she was in her seventies and eighties, the pain of that loss was still with her. I remember her speaking of her still-born daughter. She never talked about her without sharing the idiomatic sentiment taken from Job 1:21, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” My grandma’s purpose in making that statement was an expression of her faith and trust in God. That despite the pain that she carried throughout her life over the loss of her only daughter, she still loved and worshipped God.
Job’s sentiment written poetically is similar:
20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped.
21 He said,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I shall return there.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the LORD.”
22 Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.
It would be many long years following the loss of our child before I would be able to say, “Blessed be the name of the LORD.”
The Better Claim of Nothingness . . .
At the end of my last post, I shared a poem that encapsulates my journey of knowing God. Nothingness is a recurring theme in that piece. When I first read Eugene England’s essay “Enduring” years ago, I recognized a kindred spirit. One willing to acknowledge the doubt, fear, and darkness he experienced in his life.
There were moments when I was younger, when doubt was nearly crippling. I remember one in particular. I was lying on my bed. It was afternoon. Probably a Sunday. Yes, very likely a Sunday. In my early teenage years, I wandered away from weekly church activity. My mom would try to get me out of bed, and I would feign sleep until she stopped nagging me and left for church. The questions I was asking myself that day made me sick to my stomach. What if there is nothing? No God? No purpose? Nothing.
Wanting and Desire
In the face of this better claim of nothingness many succumb to it. Many who like me have left the LDS Church or other institutional religions subscribe to the tenets of atheism. As the now famous Atheist Bus Campaign in London proclaimed, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
I’m reminded of a story a friend told me. He and his wife were preparing to leave the house for a social event and he had gone into their bedroom to put on his shoes. While there, my friend became lost in thought about God. His wife called to him several times from the front room, trying patiently to get his attention. Finally and exasperatedly she walked to the door of their bedroom and found him sitting on the foot of their bed without a single shoe on either foot. “You’re thinking about God, aren’t you?” she asked him. Jolted from his thoughts, he sheepishly told her that he was. She then asked him if he could stop that for long enough to get to the event on time.
Just get on with the business of life! Frankly, that answer does little more for me than the religious leader who I imagined would tell me in the face of our loss and pain that all would be right in the next life, but wouldn’t make the effort or take on the danger of getting into my messiness and just sit in the darkness with me. Of course, in the face of loss and suffering, we all must “get on with it” at times, else we succumb to the darkness. But looking beyond the here and now, what meaning is there to loss, to suffering, to life itself, if there is nothing, no ultimate resolution, justice, or Love?
Soothsaying? Wishful thinking? Infantile desires? These are the contrary claims. But we all feel the longing to understand, to see, to know. The questions is why is this the case?
 Eugene England, “Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest,” Dialogues with Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1984), 1. (emphasis mine)