I knelt in front of the minister, whom I’d sought out for this very purpose: to be anointed with oil and prayed over in order to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. By this I mean that I wanted to speak in tongues. I grew up very anti-charismatic; in the Church of Christ there were three things we definitely weren’t: charismatic, Catholic, or Calvinist. But the theology of my childhood faith seemed flat and sterile compared to those who were experiencing more than just heady assent to doctrine, who were getting some kind of taste of God that I had been denied. I don’t remember if this was before or after my Catholic phase, but it doesn’t matter. In that moment, I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I opened my mouth I could let fly with the language of angels. It was, if I can be forgiven the pun, right on the tip of my tongue. If I just gave things the slightest push, if I tried, maybe I could manifest the sign I was looking for.
In the end, it was that push that did me in. I knew that, on some level, I would be making it happen, that I would be having this experience predicated on the fact that I wanted to have this experience. I really think it was possible, but somehow I also knew it wasn’t going to be the thing that I was looking for, the thing that I now suspect doesn’t exist — not for people like me.
I wanted something that I couldn’t disbelieve, something so overwhelmingly real that it would reorient the rest of my life. Some so real it would make me real. I was, by this time, already starting to doubt my legitimacy as a Christian. I didn’t feel the gushy Jesus stuff other people felt. People would tell me things like “I can just see the power of God on you when you lead worship” but I knew in my heart it was a kind of performance, and one that would obtain whether I was leading worship or playing in a bar. I pour myself into the music that I play, even when I don’t like the music in question, because that’s what we do as musicians. I can couch that in Christianese — I used to joke that “it’s not worship unless you sweat” but I knew it was the music, and this made me feel fake.
The minister reassured me that sometimes it doesn’t happen right away, that later down the road, at some random moment, I might be ravished by the Holy Spirit — that the prayer and the anointing had done their work, and not to worry. I wasn’t worried, but I was pretty sure nothing was going to happen. Emily Dickinson famously refused to go forward during a revival at Holyoke, even though most of her peers were caught up in ecstatic frenzy. Simone Weil, for all practical purposes an atheist, was enamored of the Church but never joined because she felt she belonged outside, if only just. William James, in his famous Varieties of Religious Experience, seems smitten by mystics, recognizing some kind of validity to their experience, which he felt was denied him. Kathleen Norris quotes someone — Levertov, maybe, or Sexton? — who said “I love faith, but I have been denied the gift of faith.”
I recently had a brief exchange with Cheryl Ensom Dack over at Peter Walker’s blog. She too, has been looking for an encounter with God, though she narrates things differently than I do. And with no such encounter forthcoming, she’s moved on. She’s open to God if he decides to show up, but she’s not holding her breath. I’ve always wondered if Simone Weil’s title Waiting for God was an allusion to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which the title character never arrives, but I don’t know. Either way, I relate to these people, those of us begging for scraps at the existential banqueting table.
But that’s not quite right, either. It’s more like we’re watching other people eat sand, and rave about the gourmet dining, knowing that it’s not sand to them, and yet unable to undertake the act of surrender necessary to taste the prime rib ourselves. The wine and bread refuse to transubstantiate, and whether a priest says hoc est corpus meum or a parlor magician says “hocus pocus” it’s not going to change anything.
We’ve got it wrong, our friends say; we want to know so that we might believe but we must, as Augustine said, believe that we might know. We can’t have this experience because we won’t have this experience. We nod and we smile. We say “I know, I know,” and wave our hand dismissively. We might even agree. But we also know that we won’t because we can’t. We can’t will ourselves to believe just so that we might have a particular kind of experience and still believe the experience the way that others do. We’d always know we made it happen. We’d always know we surrendered to the particular conditions necessary to have a certain kind of experience and that’s all it would mean, all it would ever mean.
This is the deal we made, though we didn’t know we were making it. This is our Faustian bargain, but at the end there’s no devil anymore with whom we might negotiate: no backsies, no do-over, no mulligan.
We wanted to know something. Wanted to see something. We had some kind of insatiable curiosity about systems, about meaning, about language, about human thinking. Something to do with the “linguistic turn” and poststructuralism and Heisenberg and semantic structures and science fiction and religion and God knows what else and we don’t even remember when the turning point was, just this never-ending ratchet click, click, click, no turning back we already took the red pill the toothpaste is out of the tube the water is not turning into wine into blood and no, Goddammit you’re not going to speak in tongues because you’d just be making it up and you know it.
It feels, at times, a little like madness.
We’ll sometimes poke fun at the true believers because of their blindness but at the same time we covet what their blindness gives them. We see people raising their hands in worship, and not just for show but out of some depth of spirit, and we wonder what that’s like. We hear people choke up in the middle of a puerile but heartfelt prayer and we wonder what it would take to move us so completely. We hear people talk about their deep, personal relationship with God or Jesus and we think: really? What on earth would that be like? Not just to experience that — it’s not that simple — but to be the kind of person who can?
But we traded off. We chose something different. We can’t go back, and we wouldn’t anyway. We didn’t get cheated, not really. We got exactly what we were looking for. We all do.
Tell me all your thoughts on God.