Longing for the Unreachable God

Longing for the Unreachable God November 17, 2012

I’ve wrestled for years with a Christian faith that focuses on personal salvation, on many levels, some of which I’m still excavating. First, the emphasis on individual salvation always seemed ironically selfish for a faith that seemed otherwise to be about putting yourself second to others. I also struggled with the idea that Christianity is about getting a certain set of beliefs right, articulating them before a group of peers through a statement of faith and then you were official. Is it really so rote? So didactic? So…human?

All my life, I’ve heard stories of people who felt utterly transformed by their faith proclamation, or at the moment of baptism, in the throngs of prayer or during some particularly stirring worship service. They spoke of these feelings for which I longed. I wanted the mountaintop experience, after which I would never be the same. I wanted to be turned inside-out by God, illuminated by the Holy Spirit with a fire that never subsided. I wanted to feel what all these other Christians claimed to be feeling.

I’ve been to literally thousands of worship services in my life. I’ve been back and forth through the Bible, taken communion more than a thousand times, was baptized, sang the songs, said the prayers, and yes, I’ve had moments when I felt as if God was so close I could nearly reach out and touch whatever it was that I sensed. But that inevitably faded, usually sooner rather than later. What I was left with was a longing, a tugging, a hunger for something I could never quite name. It sent me searching, out of the church and into the world. It drew me to impoverished schools in southern Colorado and to housing projects for people with AIDS, with whom I worked, shoulder to shoulder for years. It drew me into church leadership, guiding people in song, exploring new ways of worshipping and new expressions of realizing justice in, for and with the world. It drew from me volumes of writing that continue to pour forth daily, each word grasping for something I never quite capture. And no matter how much I pray, worship, serve, write or struggle, the longing is still there.

I have always envied the blissful Christians who seemed to luxuriate in a peace that passes understanding. They knew the God they looked for, and He sat with them at breakfast, joined them in the carpool and in the office. He was father, companion, friend and counselor. He was the partner that would never turn away from them.

And yet the harder I yearned for this, I more vaporous and elusive it became. It was like trying to capture a cloud in my hand, only to open it again and find nothing was there. Was this a cruel game? A bad joke? Was I just doing it wrong? Did they know something I didn’t? I had done all the things they had told me to do, believed all the things they told me to believe. So why this persistent longing? What in the world could ever make it go away?

That’s when I discovered thinkers like Rollins, Caputo, Derrida and Zizek who resonated with this fix in which I found myself. They helped me name it, if not ameliorate it. Pete Rollins called it “The Gap,” and actually warned against the so-called idolatry of religion or even our notions of God that lulled us into false senses of assurance and complacency. Richard Kearney asserts that this sort of spiritual hunger, this thing that stirs us from our comfort and drives us outward to learn and do more is, itself, and expression of God. Rollins puts his thumb on the problem of religion by pointing out we try to use God, prayer, worship or the whole of religion to fill that gap so that, finally, we can be at peace.

But what if the “Gap” itself is God? What if it’s already right there, within each of us, pulling at us, regardless of where we spend our Sunday mornings, how we pray, or even if we pray? What if, sometimes, institutional religion actually becomes the most insidious antidote to the persistent longing that otherwise stirs us?

I have considered this drive, the persistent hunger, the insatiable longing, as a tragic flaw of my own human condition, a failure of my lifelong pursuit of a stronger faith. But now, I’m coming to believe that the only real peace to be found is in accepting that, ironically, there is no peace. The hunger is its own gift, and not a sign of lack or deficit in the least. It is the still, small voice that stirs persistently, opening our eyes to something new, something more.

It is a restless existence, but coming to terms with that restlessness, accepting that this symphony has no resolution, brings with it a sort of acceptance that makes the fruits of such struggle that much sweeter.

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  • Right there with you.

  • Jenny Svetec

    I think the longer the treasure hunt, the more incredible the satisfaction in finding that treasure. The longing for God is what makes us alive, makes us human. Not an itch that can’t get scratched. A persistence which overrides our apathy and compels to reach higher deeper longer for more. Here is a link to a man who reached for more and unexpectedly found an experience he didn’t expect. I love those surprises along the journey. Hope you enjoy and thanks for honest articulation of this faithhunt we are all on! http://jaelspeg.blogspot.ca/

  • Cliff Cole

    Finding faith in the gap is akin to ‘looking at both sides now’ and finding answers in neither, but clues to understanding each.

  • I have heard this longing referred to as a “passion for the impossible” (possibly a quote from Derrida but maybe not). We live within this “already” that seems to be not quite enough, yet we long for the “not yet” that is impossible to “hold”. I think our longing is connected to Derrida’s notion of “to come” (arriver in French). We long for this yet to come that is more than what is, even if we don’t know what that “to come” might be. We desire this “to come” and we “name” it God, as a “place holder” for what we cannot completely know but long to draw near to.

  • I’ve never thought that personal peace was lifelong, or even that it would be desirable. Restlessness, even depression, are the compost from which creativity grows, and that also is God at work. I think.

  • Childish silliness…a willingness, or preference for hanging on to the imaginary, that which we’d like to be true…instead of focusing on what we can know in this life, that which is supported by empirical evidence.

    It’s adorable in children, be it Santa or the Easter bunny, but in adults, at best it’s awfully naive, most of the time delusional and unfortunately, on occasion it’s used intentionally to deceive and control

    We’d all be better off and happier without it.

    • I see you’ve posted over 400 comments. Curious what you hope to gain from seeking out and posting on a faith-based site, especially given that your comment strongly suggests you didn’t actually read the post.

      • Fair question…firstly I did read the entire post (more than once actually), I post on faith based sites primarily because I believe that the concept of “faith” and certainly the pursuit of faith based knowledge is overall a harmful one to individuals and societies. Secondly, I was a person “of faith” for more than 20 years and most recently have been an atheist for nearly 25 years, much like an ex-smoker I guess, I feel that there are things that need to be said and which, I hope, can be beneficial.

        • Empirical evidence is all very well when we refer to the physical world; but is your brain only physical? Are your emotions merely a set of physical reactions to various stimuli? How can you quantify emotion and feeling and belief??? There is much evidence to suggest that we really don’t have all the answers about the physical world–certainly scientific research is ongoing and our understanding of the nature of matter and time and space is greater than it was 10, 20, or 50 years ago…life without faith and belief would be extremely dull and tasteless…

          • Jerry,

            Let’s establish first of all, my life, sans faith and belief, is hardly dull and tasteless. Regarding your first question as to whether our brains are merely physical, yes, in fact, they are and our emotions are ..”merely a set of physical reactions to various stimuli..”.
            If you have any evidence to the contrary send me the references I’d like to take a look.

            Whether we have “all the answers” at any given time, is not in doubt..we don’t, nor will we ever have “all” the answers, but that in no way suggests that we should fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tales most appeal to us.

            There is nothing wrong, unscientific or unsatisfying about saying we simply don’t know yet. Doing so does not imply the need to invent something until we’ve had the opportunity to learn more.

        • Mary

          I understand you point of view of the fact that religion can be destructive, but I disagree that an individual’s pursuit of faith is harmful to themselves or society. In fact the individual pursuit of God and spirituality often leads to a heightened understanding of how all mankind is connected and how we should treat each other as brothers and sisters,
          I think that there needs to be a differenciation (sorry spelling) between destructive religious heirarchies and the individual pursuit of spirituality which often leads to very different results than organized religion does. Those who seek a personal experience of God tend to be more loving and accepting of others. I see the rigid dogma and authorative structure of religion as the problem, not the individual pursuit of God.
          I, of course, cannot prove to you that there is a God and I don’t intend to try. But as you compare it to the belief in Santa Claus. I would like to point out that actually the myth has a lot of good qualities to it. The story is based on a real historical character who started the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas. The stories encourage us to be more loving and giving. So is believing in a myth an entirely bad thing?
          I trust my own experiences of God and that is all I can say. My experience has lead me to be a more loving and accepting person. There is nothing destructive about that.

          • I see your point and I can agree, at least in part. I do not think that spirituality (however you define it) is necessarily harmful, in fact in can, as you pointed out, be a good thing…self-reflection, seeing yourself as part of all humanity, etc.

            You are also correct, that some religions or philosophies promote peace and respect more than others, however I would list Islam and Christianity as part of the decisively bad group, Judaism too, but too a lessor extent as it includes not just religion but culture and birthright.

            The idea of God or a supernatural being brings nothing to the table that I can see. If a person is going to be kind, compassionate and productive member of society, they will do so whether they are a Christian, Muslim or atheist, regardless of their beliefs. On the other hand, many religions open the door to justify hatred, killing, intolerance and push an antiquated set of morality on their followers. They set the stage for conflict and in general turn people in poor bedfellows.

            If you believe, for example, that an omnipotent real estate agent deeded to you a piece of land to occupy for all time, then on what basis can you compromise or relinquish that land without also compromising your faith? This is only one of many, many examples of how the concept of God adversely affects our thought process.

            A common “wish” among atheists is that more people would read their Bibles, as we feel that in the long run, it will make for more atheists than Christians.

            Please write more, it’s nice (and rare) to have a civilized discussion on the web.


          • Mary

            Thank you for your response. I do agree that it is rare to have a civilized discussion about this topic and I have been guilty of letting my emotions get out of control as well. I see it on both sides though.
            Both the religious and the atheists tend to attack each other without really taking the time to find out what the other side actually believes. Most of the people on this forum are not the kind of people you seem to be upset with. Christian has never written anything promoting violence or injustice in the name of religion. On the contrary he has been very vocal against it.
            I happen to agree with you about the horrible stuff in the bible. There are a lot of people who think I am an atheist when I point these things out. What is scary is that even though I read the bible, I was trained not to see those things at all. The rational that most of this is from the OT doesn’t really answer the question as to why a good god would command his followers to do bad things. Most Christians will deny that it even matters because of the “new covenant” but it does matter because those archaic attitudes still lead to injustice against others today.
            The “inerrant bible” camp will not even acknowledge these things and blame stuff like slavery on the atheists when in fact it was Christians who were responsible and the bible backed them up on it.
            I do find the whole mideast situation disturbing because of the religious element there is really no possibilty of compromise and peace any time soon. In fact it appears that some Christians would like to see an escalation in order to bring on Armagedon.
            After saying all this you may wonder why I still believe in God at all. I admit that all I have are subjective reasons. I do agree that in fact atheists for the most part are as moral as believers (in fact many times they are more moral when they defend others against religious abuse.) My reason for believing is simply that I feel God’s love in my heart and that I want to extend that love to others.

          • Mary,

            Good comments. I think the question of OT atrocities goes even deeper than simply OT vs. NT. After all it is the same God we are talking about in both places, the one who also, by the way, went out of His way to proclaim He was the Lord who “changed not” (Malachi 3:6).

            So do we have a split personality, psychotic being on our hands, or did He lie, or can we not trust the Bible.

            Secondly, here’s an interesting question. If I know for certain (or as close as I can get), that my wife hates our neighbors and I also know that has said on numerous times that if she had a gun she’d go shoot them. What happens if I buy her a gun for her birthday? Let’s say she does exactly what I thought she would do, she goes and kills the neighbor with her new gun.

            Am I not just as responsible as she is for the murder? Especially if I was absolutely convinced that she would carry out her threat? Yes, she is responsible because ultimately it was her decision, but don’t I share the blame by giving her the gun knowing how she would use it?

            Now comes God in Genesis, He creates man and then, in spite of the fact that God knows absolutely what man will do, He gives man free will, the ability to choose. Well man does exactly what God knew He would do, he sins. And God has even less of an excuse, because while I think I know my wife pretty well, God is omniscient, so he absolutely knew what man would choose.

            Then isn’t God also responsible for man’s willful disobedience? I mean if I must share blame with my wife, because I gave the the gun, doesn’t God also, logically, have to share the blame for the sins of his creation?

            If He does, then is He still God? God, according to scripture, is Holy and pure and no evil resides in Him. Maybe He isn’t what He’s cracked up to be, or maybe He isn’t there at all.

          • Mary

            I happen to agree with your observations about God as portrayed in the bible. Yes it does come down to the character of God, which most Christians prefer not to deal with.

            I personally see the bible as something that points to the Divine, rather than something that contains the Divine. I think it portrays man’s continuing struggle to understand something that is beyond our understanding. Along the way mankind has come to many wrong conclusions.

            For instance you see this clearly in the OT in the attempt to understand why bad things happen. All mythologies in the world have angry gods who punish mankind with natural disasters. The Christian God of wrath is partly based on characters like Zeus. Mankind has created trickster gods, who punish others capriciously for no particular reason. I think the Hebrew tradition came about as a way of introducing some sort of “fairness” to the equation, by portraying God as a righteous judge. But the “trickster” element still remains when you look at stories like Job. In it we have an immoral God who ruins Job’s life for no other reason but to win a bet with the devil.

            I get what you are saying but I think you confuse the God of the bible with God himself. I cannot prove this to you, but I believe God transcends our attempts to quantify him.

            I do not believe in God as a personal God, but as a spiritual force within all of “creation” . My belief is essentially mystical in nature.
            I am not sure if I have answered your questions but these are my thoughts on the subject.
            Peace 😉

          • Mary

            I also have a different take on the Adam and Eve story. I believe that mythologies are symbolic in nature. I have a keen interest in dreams which have the same elements as mythologies. In fact it is entirely possible that many mythologies have their origions as dreams which were seen as divine revelation. Because of this mythologies can be seen as something that is essentially psychological in nature.
            Here is my theory on what the story means:
            In “the beginning” Adam and Eve lived in a primordial state, one with nature and God. They lived in a perfect garden and got along with all the animals. There were no carnivores to threaten them and no evil. God himself walked in the garden with them.
            They were “innocent” but not in the way we define it now They were innocent in the same sense that animals are innocent, in that they don’t understand the concepts of right and wrong. So this stage represents animal consciousness in early mankind and also the innocence of a newborn child.
            The so-called “fall” instead of being a wrong step in the evolution of mankind was actually a step forward. The tree was not the “Tree of Evil”, but rather the “Tree of the KNOWLEDGE of Good and Evil” The snake, which can symbolize both danger and in some cultures WISDOM tempts Eve by saying that she will “be like God” in that she will know what good and evil is.
            This could symbolize mankind as coming out of a purely amoral state and developing a conscience. This once again can also be applied to the development of a child being taught right from wrong.
            One of the most telling parts of the story that tells me that it is symbolic is the fact that both Adam and Eve felt they needed to cover their nakedness from God. Being naked in a dream, unless it is sexual, usually respresents shame or something we are embarrassed about that we don’t want others to see. Obviously God would not be offended by their nakedness and since they were husband and wife there was no reason to hide from each other either.
            Life becomes much harder for mankind when they are forced to consider how their actions affect each other. Thus it feels like they are being cast out of “paradise.” and are separate from God.
            I have made this rather long but I want to point out that these stories can have value when placed in their proper context.
            I hope I haven’t bored you (lol).

  • It seems that the more we ‘want’ something the more illusive it becomes. Why should this be so? Perhaps because when we say we ‘want’ something we are declaring to God and the universe that we do not now have it…..when in fact it is staring us in the face the whole time…..(see 2 Peter 1:4 for example). Or, as the Buddhists might say: “You are that which you seek”.

  • ImRike

    I hope you’re not going to jump on me, too, since I’m an ex-catholic. I’ve been lurking for a few weeks and just thought I’d tell you that for me, that missing peace happened as soon as I was able to attach the “ex” to my religion.

    I do enjoy your blog since I can relate to your thinking – only I didn’t quite have your patience. I certainly hope you find what you’re looking for. Good luck!

    • i too found this peace as soon as i stopped trying to believe in something that just wasn’t there for me. the fear went away and my eyes, ears and heart opened up. i wanted there to be a “god” in heaven, but i simply never felt it. i was told that i was refusing to believe in god and that’s why i couldn’t. well, i feel and believe a connection to nature and everything in it… if others want to call it “god” based on habit, then i’ll allow it and not shame them for believing in such a way. just do me the courtesy in return, thanks. 🙂

  • St. John of the Cross describes the burning, unquenchable desire for God as a sign of spiritual health. The more you know God’s goodness and love, the more you desire to be closer to Him. It is a gift from Him, a seed that He has planted in you that will bear fruit in deeper union. Perhaps it is the outward signs of religion that you find insipid, because what your heart longs for is relationship. To know God and to be known by Him. To experience His love in a personal and transformative way. At its best, religious practice is an invitation to this kind of close and intimate relationship with the Most Holy Trinity. At its worst, religion is the vain pursuit of empty emotional experiences that leave the soul hungry and frustrated. May God stir this desire for deeper relationship and put you on the path to its fulfillment.