The Beginning | I Pray To A God I Don't Believe In
The first time God spoke to me I didn’t believe He existed. Billy Graham once reported, “I know God exists—I talked to him this morning.” Theatrical posturing, I thought. Graham may have been talking to God, but was God talking back? I remembered psychologist Thomas Szasz’s comment: “If somebody talks to God, that’s praying. If God talks to them, that’s schizophrenia.”
I had been raised in a Christian home, but those beliefs did not survive Philosophy 101, where arguments for the existence of God were shot down like skeets.
Since that time, I had been what one of my professors, Philip Wheelwright, called himself: a “pious agnostic”—respectful of belief in a higher reality but, when it came right down to it, staying eye-level with the natural world, the world of experience as I then knew it.
It is said you do not have to believe in God in order to pray. That is what happened to me.
I had been divorced for many years. I always thought I would be happier married but, as the decades rolled on without Miss Right showing up, I began to think she never would.
Then one day, the phone rang.
It was Abigail Rosenthal. She was a professor at Brooklyn College, a school with an outstanding liberal arts curriculum. The new college president had decided to replace core courses that opened students to the whole world of learning with—telescope from wide vista to a keyhole view—a focus on the borough of Brooklyn, the one thing the students knew already, in fact knew better than their professors.
Rosenthal and a colleague in the history department were fighting the change.
They had succeeded in rallying most of the faculty, but the administration was driving a steamroller. She called the higher education organization I ran in Washington, D.C. Could we help? “Yes, that is what we do,” I said.
Our only hope was to take the issue to the public, and we did. The battle raged in the press through the spring and into the summer. Abigail and I talked almost daily, strategizing and getting the story out. None of the talk was personal, and we never met, yet I found myself thinking, “This is a very remarkable woman.”
In fact, I fell in love with her on the phone.
And we won the fight. In September, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a front-page story on the Brooklyn Connections fight with a full-page photo of Abigail and her colleague, along with a small, smiling photo of me on the inside.
A week later, I went to New York to give a talk about the struggle and, for the first time, we met in person. I brought her up to the front to field questions. She was funny and articulate and smart—and really cute! So cute, in fact, that I was overcome with shyness and, instead of lingering, made a quick get-away.
I feared I had missed my chance.
I had to get back to New York. In December, I made a point of going to the city “on business” and made sure we had dinner. We mainly talked about issues at the college, but I thought I might have struck a spark. Her diary entry the next day, she later told me, was “Dinner last night was disturbingly interesting.”
The pace of our phone calls quickened and grew more personal. But, other than hanging on her every word, I was not fessing up to my feelings. And she, of course, was playing her cards close—as much as her impetuosity permitted. Thinking to maintain her feminine elusiveness, she nevertheless warned, in a stream of modals, “If there may be or might or possibly could be something personal, at some point perhaps, between us, we should make sure it doesn’t interfere with our efforts for Brooklyn College.” My lips said, “Of course, the college comes first,” but my heart said, “She loves me!”
I was not just in love; I was completely overwhelmed.
I suppose it’s a well-known phenomenon. Poets have sung about it ever since poets learned to sing; yet I had never really believed in love, not romantic love. Being in love was a delusion, based on projection—even the poets call it a form of madness—the kind of thing you expect to outgrow as you get older. I was only looking for compatibility, even had a Myers-Briggs personality profile in mind.
Instead, I found myself so totally, deeply in love that it did seem like a form of madness. “If you knew how much I love you, you would think I was crazy,” I told her. I was a pretty buttoned-down, levelheaded guy, but on one occasion, I said “I feel as if I have always loved you.” I am not sure what that meant, but I know it is how I felt. I would have been in sad shape had Abigail not had similar feelings, but she too responded to what she called “the summons of love.”
Being in love was so strange to me that—what does an academic do?—
I read books, mainly relationship books, but also an interesting collection of love letters by famous writers over the ages. The contrast was striking. The relationship books reflected something like my earlier attitude. They warned about projection, talked about the ups and downs of relationships, cautioned you against your own feelings. The love letters were the opposite—sometimes sweetly so, sometimes tragically so, as when Edith Wharton writes desperately loving letters to a man not worthy of her. The love letters testified to the reality of love but also justified the warnings issued by psychologists.
Women are supposed to be the experts in love. What do they think it is? Ah, I thought, they read novels, love stories. One had been left in a place I was staying. It was the first book that really told me about love. Love is not a set of psychological triggers firing off wildly. In a sense, it’s not subjective at all, not a mere feeling. It is an ontological fact, a bond between two people that is deep within the structure of reality itself. That is what women, or at least some of them, know.
Being in love was not only a profound new experience, it shook my worldview.
My whole life took on a new meaning. No, that is not quite right. My life went from a collection of purposes to having a meaning. It went from black and white to Technicolor. No, more radical than that, it went from a two-dimensional universe to a three-dimensional—or, as it turned out, n-dimensional—universe. I felt surprise and joy and gratitude. I did not know whom to thank, but an extraordinary gift had come into my life.
One summer morning I felt an urge to express my thanks, to pray—to Whomever. I did not see any reason not to express what I genuinely felt. So I fell to my knees, as I had been taught as a child, and thanked “the Lord.”
I now believed in love, but not much else.
I did not know if I was praying to the God of Israel, to Jesus of Nazareth, or, for all I knew, to the Lord Krishna worshipped by Hindus. Or simply to a benign universe. I didn’t worry about that. I just poured out my heart in prayer.
A few weeks later, I felt this same urge and said another prayer of thanks, still addressed to a Lord I did not actually believe in. This time, to my surprise, I offered to be of service. To a God I didn’t believe existed. Inconsistent of course, but not insincere.
Toward the end of a long summer day, Abigail and I were sitting on a park bench along the Potomac, across from the Lincoln Memorial. She was writing in her journal and I was pondering the challenge of making a future together. Without thinking about it, much less expecting an answer, I prayed again, this time asking for guidance.
Immediately a visual image appeared, like a hologram, a few feet in front of me—a rising, sparkling, multi-colored fountain. It radiated vitality and promise, an answer to my prayer. But there was more.