You are hereMy Elusive God: Thoughts on Doubt, Faith and Espresso
My Elusive God: Thoughts on Doubt, Faith and Espresso
by Virgil Vaduva
"If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe" - Søren Kierkegaard
A few days ago I was thinking about a world or time where all human beings would be certain about God, about knowledge of Him. Where we could call upon Him any time we wanted to, or perhaps go to a place where we could see Him whenever we needed to, or maybe turn to a TV channel that would somehow broadcast live images of God as evidence that He is always there for us to experience with our senses as needed. And then it occurred to me that this world would not be the place I would want to be.
There was this drink on the menu of a coffee shop I visited recently, called Americano. It sounded interesting, in a made-up sort of way, so I asked about it. It's just an espresso, but they add hot water to it. The barista said that it's for Americans that can't handle the bitterness of the European espresso so they dilute it with water. I laughed at the silly notion of diluting something as good as an espresso – the barista didn't find my humor appealing; he was an American. Maybe this is how God is for many of us (at least if we are honest about it): bitter, sometimes hard to swallow?
I never really thought of myself as one who lacked belief, but the truth is God has been elusive for me. I feel like He is either avoiding me or intentionally slipping away from me just when I think I got Him. Perhaps being inconsistent with hierophanies in my life is the reason for this. He's been inconsistent with me. And because of this perception, for a long time I've been creating this false dichotomy in my mind regarding doubt and belief. I guess we have been conditioned to think of doubt as the opposite of belief. And this is perhaps why this imaginary world of mine described above is so dangerous.
The problem with the concept of doubt starts with the definition. The word itself, doubt, is based in the Latin “dubito” and ultimately rooted in “duo,” meaning “two.” The German “zweifel” (doubt) is also rooted in “zwei” which also means “two.” The Greek “doiazo” (I doubt) communicates the same duality or uncertainty. Never does the word doubt communicate unbelief. Instead, the word "signifies primarily vacillation, perplexity, irresolution" as Eliade explains. It is a place of questioning, a willingness to acknowledge two sides, or two possibilities. So at its core, doubt appears to be not as much an expression of inadequacy as in fact it is an expression of humility.
Doubt as a philosophical methodology has been used even by Augustine. Si fallor, sum (If I doubt, I exist), said Augustine. The very act of thinking implies that doubt is inevitably connected to who we fundamentally are, connected with how and why we perceive God to be elusive, for example. To Søren Kierkegaard, faith unshaken by doubt is not authentic, rather just blind, automaton-like acknowledgment lacking intellectual and moral value. Kierkegaard saw faith as "the highest passion in a human being." And it is the vacillation that prompts passionate faith.
Many times I've tried to put myself in Abraham's shoes, wondering what I would do, how I would relate to God if I had the same encounters. I quickly realized that I would likely never do any of the things that God asked of Abraham. Attempt to kill my own son because a voice told me so? Please scratch that off the “Top Ten Ways to Prove Your Faith” list. But then something interesting occurred to me regarding Abraham. Abraham never really pursued God; it was God who approached Abraham as a result of who he was as a person, as a human being. It was a hierophany, a revealing of the sacred to a world that did not know it. This has always been the Biblical meta-narrative: in a primeval, profane world which lacks purpose, shape, light and life, an idealized model is offered by the Creator, a model that points to a sacred, perfect, purposeful living. The prototypical Adam, Abraham, David, Jesus, all surreptitiously subverting unbelief; they are offering us a model and a hope for something better. And all are seemingly using doubt as the narrative's vehicle to an encounter with the sacred; not just for themselves, but also for us, the outsiders and observers of the story.
It was their doubts, failures or even fears that propelled these faith models closer to God. Adam's fall leading him out into an unknown and dangerous world, Abraham's wife-swapping tales with Pharaoh and Abimelech, David murdering a man in order to steal his wife, Jesus asking that the cup be taken away from him. The tension created by these stories is inspiring and gives us a better understanding of faith as a journey, giving us motivation to try to understand, explore, pursue when possible, withdraw when doubting.
The story has never been about me having the right amount of faith, or the intellectual, objective understanding of God in order that I will go to a special place when I die; rather the story has always been about encountering an elusive God that more than often leaves me wanting more, asking more questions than offering answers, doubting not in order that I reject the encounter, but doubting so that another encounter is hoped for. For me, it has been this perception of God that has prompted me to explore how to become the kind of man that would perhaps motivate God to approach me, as he approached Abraham.
It is this very elusive nature of God that prompts doubt, and it is doubt that makes us talk to each other about God, write about Him, ask questions, discuss issues and seek out a better understanding of our lives and existence. Faith and doubt are inextricably linked; they cannot be set apart and they cannot exist without each other.
I would suggest that ultimately this story of my humanity is not really about quantitative faith, but rather qualitative doubt. I cannot imagine God would consider my desire to irresolutely understand Him to be offensive as modernists would claim, just as I cannot imagine that a finite human being can objectively grasp God in order to fully understand and explain Him. My wish is to want to know God just enough so I desire to learn more about Him; I want to understand Him just enough to ask more questions, to doubt and hope to be approached and experience that sacred Abrahamic encounter.
For me, God has always been elusive. From early on in life, when I remember trying to think of God and understand Him, I've tasted His elusiveness. It's bitter. It's sweet. Like an espresso. It makes you start asking questions about the type of roast, the beans, pondering how much sugar to add or leave out. It makes you want to try more, ask for a different roast, or maybe a double. And there are moments, real life moments, where you are tempted to add some hot water, make it an Americano so you can swallow it more easily. And if you are honest to yourself, to who you are, and to your faith, you would recognize that there are many Americano moments out there. And the barista without hesitation, will serve them to you, because that is what you are looking for, that is what you have been conditioned to do: pursue a life without doubt, when instead you should be looking for the sacred encounters with the people you pass on the street every day, and with the ever elusive, perplexing but consistently sacred God.