What I Believe

She asked, in substance if not in these words, “What do you believe?” 

It may be easier to start with what I do not believe. 

I do not believe in believing, at least not the way most people define that term. For most people most of the time, “believe” is a synonym for “think” or perhaps “agree with.” As in, “I believe it will rain this afternoon.” Or perhaps, to say, “I believe in the Virgin Birth” is to some the religious equivalent of “I pledge allegiance to the flag.” As though believing were a matter of acquiescing to a creed, be it religious or political. If that is what it means to believe, then I do not believe in much of anything at all. 

But that is not what believing means to me. Rather, I think believing is a far deeper, non-logical, reflexive response to something outside my control, like falling love or withdrawing my fingers from a hot stove. Better yet, believing is the constriction that tightens my throat and the tears that flood my eyes when I hear the second movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and the trusting, unadorned voice of a boy soprano singing Adonai ro’i lo’ echsar (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”) above the roiling, angry chorus of male voices grumbling lama rag’shu goyim, lama rag’shu (“Why do the nations rage?”)Believing rises from the same place as the stunned silence to which I am reduced when I watch the rising sun set fire to the clouds at dawn above the lake as I take my morning walk. Believing is what happens when a fourteen-inch brown trout, just released from the hook, arches its muscular back, leaps free from my grasp, and returns to its own sovereign universe in a spray of watery gold and light. I do not choose to believe. Believing happens.

Once, when I was a Boy Scout, my troop took a trip to Cumberland Caverns, near McMinnville, TN. We were led through the cave by the guides, who ushered our group into a large chamber lit by bare electric light bulbs, deep in bowels of the earth. My troop was among the first to enter the chamber, and we were instructed to move all the way across and sit down on the floor along the far side of the room. I did as I was told, sitting next to the chamber wall, within arm’s reach of rocks so unimaginably old and massive that they must surely have been among the pillars that held up the world. Once we were settled, the guides told us they were going to turn out the lights.” We live in a world where there is almost always at least some light,” said one young man, wiser than his years would have suggested. “Very few of us experience what total darkness actually feels like. You’re about to find out.” And with that, he turned out the lights, and my world abruptly ended. 

To say that darkness fell on the chamber is like describing a Category 5 hurricane as a gentle breeze. Darkness opened its gigantic maw and consumed me like some hungering cosmic beast, swallowed me whole, sucked me down beneath the surface of some great demonic flood that obliterated everything I hoped for or understood or relied on. It was a darkness so complete as to engulf all creation and leave nothing left over, not even dreams. It was a darkness utterly indifferent to my existence. In the instant that it took that darkness to chase away the light and possess the chamber, I experienced what I can only describe as the dissolution of my personality. My friends, my scout leaders, the tour guides—and beyond them, my parents, my sister, my teachers in school, my church—my world were gone, vanished, obliterated in the ravening dark. I would say that I became completely confined within my own mind except that I was not sure that my mind any longer existed. I remember deciding to raise my hand to my face as a way of establishing that I still existed in the flesh, and then being startled to the core by the sudden, alien touch of my own fingers against my own nose. 

I remember feeling dizzy and disoriented, as though up and down had lost meaning as directional verities of the universe, as though I was tumbling, wildly pitching and yawing, through an endless, lightless void. I reached out reflexively, blindly, for something—anything—to arrest my fall. My hand struck that solid, immovable, unimaginably ancient rock wall, the foundation on which rested the weight of creation. 

Immediately everything changed. As suddenly as the vertiginous darkness had deprived my senses of orientation, so suddenly did the world right itself and cease its nauseating, rolling tumble. I knew where I was. More important, I knew who I was. I was a child of a family who lived on a street in a neighborhood and went to school and was a member of a scout troop on a tour of a cave. I knew up from down, right from left, good from evil. My hand touching the rock was the essential connection to the foundations of creation that gave my life meaning and purpose and self. 

I did not know it—and could not have said it—at the time, but in that moment, I learned what it means to believe. Believing is the reflexive reaching out to touch the Foundation of Things. It is not a decision one makes. It is not a set of ideas one either agrees to or rejects. It is not a body of doctrine one uses or a canon of stories one recounts to construct a worldview. It is not a choice between competing ideologies. All those things may come later, when the lights come back on, and the cave tour moves out of the chamber and back to the surface. In the darkness, though, none of them matter. 

“God is Three in One and One in Three.” “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” “Jesus is fully human and fully divine.” Born of a virgin. Raised from the dead. Savior of the world. For me, these and other such theological truth-claims are only metaphors for truth, and not the Truth in themselves. They are tiny lights by which I grope my way in the eternal darkness and give imaginative shape to mysteries I do not understand and cannot explain. Their value is not in themselves, but in the unseeable, unknowable, unsayable mystery that they, if only partially, illumine. I use them to give broken, halting language to what I do believe. If I lift them up for a time, it is only for the purpose of dispelling for a few more steps the gloom that forever hovers at the edges of their feeble light. Inevitably, though, they burn out or grow dim and must be abandoned and replaced. I do not believe them. In the end, believing is the involuntary response to the crisis of existence that makes all these metaphors possible, and without which none of those metaphors means anything at all. Believing is trust that somewhere in the darkling existential tumble of human life, there is a rock.

So, what do I believe? 

I believe in the rock in the darkness.