I’ve heard it said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Whether or not that expression is literally true, I take this to mean that, in the face of imminent death, everybody wants something to hold onto. Even those who have a philosophical aversion to the idea of God may catch themselves in a moment of crisis crying out for help to someone beyond themselves. Whether or not a person intellectually believes in such a Someone is mostly beside the point.
I know this has been true in my own experience. I’ve never been in a foxhole, but times of great danger and uncertainty have always elicited a prayer response. Regardless of my professed belief or non-belief in a deity, I’ve had many unexpected oh, God! moments.
Interestingly, some of the most powerful of these moments have come not in times of great threat, but rather in moments of deep beauty. While many crisis prayers have escaped my lips in times of danger and fear, at many other times I have been surprised by feelings of deep joy and gratitude. Not every oh, God! moment is one of despair. They also come in the form of an inexplicable need to say thank you to something or someone, even if I don’t know who that someone might be.
In my youth, I rejected the idea of a personal God. For years, I was an agnostic, and the only thing that held me back from active atheism was the fact that these unwilled oh, God! and thank you moments kept happening. I didn’t believe in God. I was actively critical of religion in general. But when push came to shove, my heart had a need for God.
Over time, a series of crisis moments brought my head into alignment with my heart. I had many crises and a series of peak experiences. I had dramatic ups and downs, each one slowly convincing me of the reality of God, and of my need for him.
As I have grown more mature in my faith, however, this pattern has presented a problem. Because I came to be in relationship with God through crises, it has sometimes been a challenge to feel myself in relationship with God in normal times. That is, if I’m not having an intense thank you moment or a frightening oh, God! moment, is my relationship with God still active? There have been many times that I have felt dull and out of touch with God, simply because life was normal, decent, and uneventful.
At this point in my journey, I feel challenged to embrace a relationship with God that goes beyond crisis. I am learning how to simply be with God, without demanding any special experiences. I suppose this is something like how human romance must develop over time. While the beginning of a relationship is often filled with intense emotions and big dreams, a successful marriage is built on an enduring commitment that holds firm through all the thrills and disappointments of life. Even when we don’t feel in love, we continue to act out of love. Emotional intensity fades, but the relationship grows deeper.
This is grown-up love: Endurance that acts in hope and submits itself to not-knowing. Commitment that requires neither constant affirmation nor threat. Love beyond the crisis.