This I Believe, November 2013: Doug Green

“For once, then, something”: Reflections of a Judeo-Christian Agnostic

Douglas E. Green is a professor in the English Department.

On a spring faculty-staff retreat, about fifteen years ago, the late Dean Marie McNeff, who knew my complicated Judeo-Christian (specifically Jewish-Catholic) background, asked me what I believed.  I told her, “I’m an agnostic who prays.”

I thought I was being very clever, but in fact I was exhibiting a trait shared by a growing number of Americans. According to reports on a recent Pew poll,[1] agnostics and atheists—the “nones”—have become more and more common in the U.S.  And a lot of us non-believers pray.

But what does that mean?  In my case, the impulse to pray is culturally conditioned: Though both sides of my family were Jewish, I was raised a devout Catholic by my mother, who had converted to the faith, and went to Catholic schools until college.  As a child, when I stayed with my father’s parents, I followed my Orthodox Jewish grandfather around the living room of his Queens apartment as he prayed in his tefillin and prayer shawl. I carried a little white Hebrew-English prayer book my grandmother gave me that—marvel of marvels!—you had to read backwards. I droned—and butchered—transliterated Hebrew in imitation of my grandfather. My brothers and sister sometimes marched behind me—all of us moaning and bobbing.  Later, I became an altar boy right before the Latin mass gave way to vernacular English.  To this day, when I do something I regret, I mutter, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”  Oddly, my contrition feels more authentic in ritual Latin.

So I’ve never intuited from my impulse to pray, or even from prayers that came true, the existence of Another, a Higher Power.  My praying seems thoroughly conditioned by an upbringing in and between two compelling religious traditions; the occasional fulfillment of my prayers, mere coincidence.  But the deep, sincere faith I experienced in my youth and have witnessed all my life in my mother and others has also prevented me from denying the possibility of such a Power: I know firsthand the comfort such faith offers and the goodness that so often flows from it.

Unfortunately, the possibility of a higher power no longer seems comforting: if god exists, I’ve got issues with that deity.  It really boils down to the age-old problem of theodicy: How can god permit evil and the coincident suffering it causes, especially among the innocent?  Though I know there are many compelling answers to this question, I can’t help but withhold trust in such a being.  When I feel most hopeless, I don’t even want to acknowledge the possibility of such an Unfeeling Omnipotence.

Even to me, that response sounds petty and petulant, adolescent rather than mature.  And yet, because I’m a poet and love—actually believe in—literature, I have no compunction about praying.  Why?  Because there’s a kinship between prayer and poetry.

My spirit soars when I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, the 19th-century Anglo-Catholic cleric, and his ecstatic prayer of thanks—“Glory be to God for dappled things.”  I feel the ominous and terrifying awe of Yeats’s “Second Coming”: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” That poem speaks as clearly to our unfulfilled yearnings and anxiety about the unknown, as it did to the early 20th century’s.

And then there’s Dickinson’s mysterious meditation on loss and death:

My life closed twice before its close—

It yet remains to see

If Immortality unveil

A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive

As these that twice befell.

Parting is all we know of heaven,

And all we need of hell.

Those last two lines have become a cliché, but they’re really a paradox: we all know the hell of parting—from leave-taking to dying—and have had our fill of it, but in what senses is “parting…all we know of” heaven?  The lines glance at Shakespeare’s “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” but also offer death, quite conventionally in Christian terms, as the gateway to heaven.  Is Dickinson serious or ironic?  Would she, “to dumb Forgetfulness a prey, / This pleasing anxious being [have] resign’d”[2]?  The troubling subtleties beneath the surface of Dickinson’s last two lines belie their seeming ease—and hence capture a dis-ease with our short tenure on the world’s stage.

Whenever I read George Herbert’s “Love (III),” the last poem in The Temple, his 17th-century collection of religious meditations on the church (earthly, human, and eternal) I believe that ‘communion’ with others, with and through a Love that transcends our earthly understanding, is possible:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;

Love said, “You shall be he.”

“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.”

Love took my hand and smiling did reply,

“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.”

“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”

“My dear, then I will serve.”

“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”

So I did sit and eat.

These very human creations, these works of art, are what I believe in.  If there is Something Higher, I don’t think that it’s out there waiting to be petitioned—the answer to our prayers.  It resides in whatever prompts us to do better, to foster human and humane community, to strive toward beauty and truth and to find those qualities in each other.  If there’s a greater being or power, it resides in Wordsworth’s “intimations of immortality” or Frost’s rare, ephemeral vision of “something” at the bottom of a well: “Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.”

And that will have to do.  It will have to be enough.  For me, faith means accepting, and caring for, this smaller world—the earthy and earthly scope of our lives—and learning “what to make of a diminished thing.”[3]


[2] This passage is from Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy,” a very popular 18th-century poem that Dickinson would likely have known well.

[3] This is the last phrase of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird.”