“I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.”
“He is not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being.”
From St. Paul to Pope Francis, the Church has always insisted that God is present in the life of each person: even those who are not consciously aware of God, or who understand him incorrectly. We could not even search for God if he were not already present, in some way, with us and in our experiences.
The drama of Christian conversion makes it easy to stress the discontinuity between one’s former life, and the new life bestowed through faith and baptism. But grace and nature are not opposed to one another; so there is always a thread of continuity which links one’s old and new lives.
For many years after my own conversion from atheism, it was much easier to see the difference between my life “before” and “after.” After almost a decade, however, I see that the similarities – the points of continuity – are just as real, and significant, as the differences.
I can see how I was seeking God, in an unconscious way, even while I had no explicit desire or belief in him. It seems to me now, for instance, that I was seeking God – as an avowed atheist – through my intense interests in music; in politics and culture; and in the study of philosophy.
Between ages 10 and 18, my main commitment was to music. As a musician and listener, I searched for meaning and truth mainly through this artform. Music seemed to express something mysterious and limitless, some profound but ineffable truth about the world and our place in it.
I wanted to go deeper into whatever that truth was. I wanted to be part of it and identify myself with it as much as possible. That’s why, for many years, I assumed and hoped that my future would be in music: playing rock or jazz professionally, perhaps making experimental electronic soundscapes on the side.
Oddly enough, this all took place against a background of explicit atheism: a general disinterest in religion and the question of God, which grew into a quiet hostility. As strange as it seems now, I almost never related the concept of God to that transcendent, limitless beauty and profundity I found in music.
This is especially odd in light of the convictions I held about what art in general, and music in particular, could accomplish. Music was not just my overriding interest: I attached a transcendent, almost religious importance to it, based on my own experiences and the influence of certain artists.
Broadly speaking, I believed music could encompass and sum up the reality of the human condition; that it could reveal a reality beyond the ordinary constraints of that condition; and that it could give us some form of access to that reality. I ascribed an almost liturgical and sacramental value to it, in other words.
Perhaps it is not so odd, then, that I dismissed or ignored traditional religion: like many devotees of the arts, I already – in a certain sense – had “my religion.” My devotion was misplaced; but even now, I think my insights into the power of music were partly valid: more incomplete than wrong, in some respects.
Nonetheless, I eventually left the path of serious musicianship. This was partly due to a disillusionment with the culture and business of music; but it also stemmed from a positive conviction: that the truth and meaning I found in music were to be sought elsewhere, in what I hoped would be a clearer form.
This conviction was related to a philosophical, cultural, and (in a sense) “political” awakening which took place for me around age 18. It, too, is part of the story of my unconscious search for God: for while this realization was not religious in nature, it still brought me closer to the possibility of faith.
There was an awakening in my life, around age 18, which I would describe as a rejection of certain modern ideas about freedom and equality. In particular, I came to reject the view of equality and freedom as ends-in-themselves, their idealization as self-evident goods needing no higher purpose or justification.
It is hard to say just how I arrived at this rejection. It had a lot to do with incidents in my life, and the lives of friends and peers – events that highlighted our absurd and destructive uses of freedom, as well as the hollowness and vulgarity of the conception of freedom held up by popular culture.
I also came to see the idea of equality as a warrant for a “cult of mediocrity” in the contemporary West. Equality, I believed, had become an illegitimate substitute for authentic values: honor, sacrifice, tradition, order. I became fixated on these ideals, and saw the notion of equality as usurping their rightful place.
It is hard to say how much of this thinking was valid, and how much was simply the pretension of a teenager – an 18-year-old caught up in Nietzchean rhetoric and the power of certain cultural taboos. I have no doubt that it was a mix of good and bad, real insight and absurd posturing.
Most importantly, I regard this period – despite its excesses and stupidities: such as the wearing of paramilitary garb to college seminars, and a flirtation with the ideology of the “European New Right” – as part of my unconscious search for God.
Among other things, this cultural-political awakening spurred my choice to study philosophy, rather than music, in college. Amid my bogus posing and deluded pride, I was nonetheless seeking a higher conception of life’s meaning and purpose than I could find in popular culture or the subcultures of music.
I also believe it was necessary for certain modern “idols” to fall, in my mind, to clear the way for the prospect of faith. While I have tempered my critique of freedom and equality, I still believe they serve, too often, as totems to be worshipped – false gods of a sort – rather than ideals in the service of the good.
Some of the influences I imbibed were overtly evil, connected with occultism or totalitarian politics. Yet God brought some good even out of my worst intellectual influences: I began to think seriously about the nature of human existence, the limitations of scientific knowledge, and the value of ascetic disciplines.
I cannot look back on this time with admiration. But I cannot simply write it off, either. Some of the very things I would have to repent of, were used by Divine providence to bring me to faith and repentance.
As for the study of philosophy, in the typical academic sense of the word, I cannot say that it brought me directly to belief. I was not persuaded of God’s existence by Plato, Aristotle, or St. Thomas Aquinas. My conscience, will, and imagination were largely unprepared to give them a fair hearing.
There were glimpses of truth, to be sure: the study of mathematics, for instance, made me marvel at the intelligibility of the world, and reflect on the notion of a supreme intelligence behind all things. But my Nietzschean irrationalism always seemed to win out.
My purpose here is not to recount my conversion, so I will not try to explain how that irrationalism gave way to a more explicit openness to truth. But I do find it interesting to ask, in retrospect: How was I seeking God, in my studies, even while I looked down on faith and disavowed any interest in God?
Although I claimed to be uninterested in the “question of God,” I had an intense philosophical interest in certain existential questions about humanity – which are also, in the final estimation, religious questions. I was in fact quite interested in the question of God, though I lacked the conceptual structure to realize it.
Instead, I fixated on questions like these:
Is the idea of “social progress” – and really, all our great ideals – simply a fig-leaf over the ultimate tragedy of human existence? Is the human situation actually hopeless, despite whatever good we may accomplish on our way to death? Can anything really make up for the irrevocable evils of this world?
Can it even be said that human life is truly, objectively “good”? Or is that only our way of rationalizing the irrational choice to keep living at all costs? Indeed, should we even keep living? If so – why? Beyond some “instinctual” desire (which is not always necessarily present!), what actually justifies it?
And what of “good and evil”? Are they, at bottom, just names for purely arbitrary or utilitarian human preferences, which collide and clash throughout history with no more ultimate meaning than the cascade of debris in an avalanche? If so, why do we experience them in quite another way? If not, what are they?
God awakened my conscience, and prepared my will, through these perplexities. In my existential questioning, I sought God without realizing it – groping toward him in darkness, as St. Paul’s imagery in Acts suggests. I suspect the same is true for many people who find themselves beset by such difficulties.
The questions that drove me are universal, even if they are not always articulated. Likewise, the grace by which I could pose these questions – and desire real answers – is equally universal, though expressed in different ways. Our capacity for truth shows that God is with us, and for us, even despite ourselves.
So I do not get overly anxious, when I see news reports about a generation of young people supposedly abandoning religion. That phenomenon is real, and must be addressed. But I know, from experience, that God is closer to them than they realize. “He is not far from each one of us.”
Many people feel no connection to religion as they know it. Yet God’s grace is the hidden factor driving their deep questions; spurring many of their joys and hopes; bringing good from their griefs and anxieties. In this way, he orients and leads us – consciously or unconsciously – toward an encounter with the Truth.