I think I’m on some sort of special religious phone-missionaries’ hit list.
I don’t mean they want to kill me. I just think maybe they really, really want to convert me. Or else they think I’m close enough to the light to be worth some extra effort. I really don’t know. But I get many more calls from them than my friends do.
You might think I’m exaggerating. Suffice to say, I’ve been called often enough that now, right away, I give him or her a fair warning of what’s coming.
Which they invariably never heed.
Like the last call I got. I wanted to be polite to this nice, elderly lady. She launched in with the standard questions designed to get me agreeing, talking about the world crisis of poverty and war etc. Didn’t I think our leaders were failing to solve it? And couldn’t the underlying problem be our lack of spirituality?
I intervened as respectfully as I could. “You may as well hang up on me right now, ma’am. Because you’re going to hang up on me eventually.”
“Why do you say that?” I heard her strategy shifting slightly.
I explained. “I’ve been contacted by religious people many times before, and they all hang up on me eventually. Because yes, I can tell you I do think the world is in crisis, and I do take these problems very seriously. I take the question of God seriously, too. Unfortunately, my experience tells me that I actually take these topics more seriously than most religious callers like yourself do, and so you’re eventually going to get bored and irritated with me and hang up.”
Of course, any dedicated missionary would take such remarks as a challenge. I quickly realized I’d just inadvertently done the hockey play-off equivalent of calling the opposing team’s best fighter a wussy-pie.
“Oh, I take Our Lord very seriously, I assure you,” she responded.
She talked then, and I listened. She told me about her beliefs and how inspiring they were, and could be for me. It was obvious she’d said these same words many times before; perhaps already many times that evening.
My brain started to go to sleep. My mind reverted to thinking about errands I had to run, deadlines I had to meet.
At some point she asked me one of those rhetorical questions designed to get a quick, patent answer that makes you feel like you’re actively participating in the conversation. “Wouldn’t you like to save money on your phone bill?” “Well, obviously, it’s nice to save money, but–” “Exactly! That’s why you want to hear me rant for ten minutes more about our company’s extraordinary savings plan…”
The kindly woman asked, “Are you looking for a better way of life, sir?”
I paused. I tried to think of how to respond in a way that really expressed how I was feeling.
Finally, I answered. “Are you asking that question rhetorically, just waiting for the predictable reply before you continue speaking? Or do you honestly want to hear and consider what I have to say on this subject? Because first off, for us to really have a dialogue, you’re going to have to put your belief in God aside. Can you consider the possibility that maybe you are living in illusion and have lost your way in life? Can you do that?”
There was no chance at all, she assured me.
“This is the whole problem,” I replied. “You’ve called me up with the intention of getting me to deeply question myself, my life and my beliefs about existence and God, haven’t you? Yet you won’t do the same thing.”
She said she didn’t need to question; she knew God.
“So how can we truly dialogue, then?” I continued. “All that’s really going on here is you believe something, and regardless of what I say, you won’t consider for one second changing your mind. You’re not really listening to me with an open heart and mind. You’re just propagandizing me. I may as well be talking with a TV commercial. And why would you expect me to behave any differently than you?”
She quoted something about faith in face of questioning.
“You believe, do you not, that you’re a messenger for God’s word? Well is it possible God’s trying to speak to you, through me?”
“You’re not God!” she cried, calling the conversation “crazy”, and hanging up.
It amazes me. Many people will believe or not believe in God for decades, but few will persistently question their beliefs for even minutes.
And isn’t it a travesty that religions have coopted the entire dialogue about God in our culture? They dominate practically all the discussion in our media. Even “non-religiously spiritual” people use concepts constructed by religions, and most rationalists dismiss the topic altogether.
Yet maybe this question of God demands something more from us. Maybe God, like death or a glimpse into the infinite universe, is one of those ineffable notions the very purpose of which is to challenge our habitual patterns of thinking and catapult us into creative exploration of the unknown together.
We are, after all, discussing the greatest mysteries of existence: origins, the universe, life. And what could be more important than discovering what context, if any, everything exists within?
It’s unfortunate we rarely discuss it. And to reduce these discussions into mechanical, propagandistic dialogues seems almost, well, blasphemous.
Originally published in Focus, August 2006.