I am posting this in a spirit of humility. I don’t want debate, but do invite comment. I don’t pretend to have special revelation. Far from it. Take what you will and leave the rest.
I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on my feed lately from atheist friends of mine. I say friends with all sincerity. These are people I have known for some time, with whom I share a love of books and learning, of science and science fiction. I respect their point of view, in part because it was my own for many years.
I was raised in a Calvinist tradition, if somewhat indifferently. I attended Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Lutheran churches while growing up and was exposed to Reformed Jewish tradition and culture through close friends. In the end I had totally rejected any religious teaching by the time I graduated from college and considered myself an avowed atheist. Even then, I had little patience with those who were aggressive in their atheism – “I’ll show you how wrong you are “. As long as religious people didn’t bother me, I wouldn’t bother them.
Perhaps I should have seen my own hubris in this. I read the Bible extensively, mainly the New Testament, but also Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. I told myself this was to refute the religious attempts to proselytize to me. Then I met my wife, a cradle Catholic, trained by Jesuits, with a deep understanding of both doctrine and the history of that doctrine. She never tried to convert me, never pressured me. We had long theological debates, usually late at night, but I never changed my thinking. She was a Catechist, attended Mass every week and insisted our children be at least exposed to the Catholic Church and undergo religious education. I agreed, smugly thinking of myself as the counterpoint to that indoctrination.
At this point, I should state that I am a trauma surgeon by training and profession. I have made a science of mayhem. I deal daily with people who are experiencing the worst day of their life. I see the awful things that people do to each other and must try to maintain objectivity, to do what is right for the patient whomever they may be. There is a moral burden on every surgeon. We do things to people in good faith, to try to help them, but our efforts sometimes go awry. Every complication, every death, is due to an active decision we made, a procedure or intervention we undertook. Our decisions have consequences, mostly for our patients, but also for ourselves. There is no escaping it, no evasion. We do things and our patients either do well or suffer the consequences of our hubris.
I don’t think very many people outside our profession understand this. Our colleagues, our loved ones get it, see the consequences, the guilt, the moral responsibility we bear for our actions. This is more acute for the surgeon than the Internist. Ask a surgeon what his first thought is when his patient has a complication and I guarantee it will be some variation of “What did I do wrong”.
Why am I harping on this? Here’s where it gets personal. I came to a time in my life when the moral burden of my actions overwhelmed me. I had done several risky operations, taken on patients that others had rejected and thought that I could succeed where others had failed or not even tried. It went badly. At the same time, I learned of the death of a mentor, someone who had made a major difference in my life long before I became a surgeon. I was devastated both by the loss and by the evidence that I was not as slick as I believed. I was driving home when the word of the death of my mentor came to me in a cell phone call. I was so shaken I had to pull over to the side of the road.
In my grief over the loss, over my failures with my patients, over my feelings of worthlessness, I believed that I had sacrificed my happiness, time with my family, and my very identity to this profession. And I had been shown that in the end it didn’t seem to matter. To my grief stricken, hypercritical self, it was more than I could bear.
I had suffered crises of faith in myself, crises of doubt, in the past but had always found a way to push through. Sometimes it was as simple as a good night’s sleep. Other times it was my wife who pulled me through with her quiet optimism, her reasoned questions and sometimes a vigorous “Snap out of it” whack to the back of my head. This time it was different. This was rock bottom. I felt lost, desperate, worthless, and totally inadequate. I couldn’t move, could hardly breath, didn’t think I could face another day of this torment. I pressed my head into my hands and wanted to die.
That’s when it happened. A completely transcendent experience. Not a flash of light, or a deep heavenly voice, just a feeling of peace and acceptance that washed through me like a wave or a shiver. And in that moment, a conviction formed in my mind, completely unbidden, that everything would be all right in the end. That there was a core inside me that was pure and untouched by this sadness and that it would remain no matter what else happened. I know, I know. It sounds like any number of other conversion experiences, easily dismissed as self-delusion or ego protection. Maybe. But that conviction hasn’t wavered. I began attending Mass with my wife and found the feeling strengthening. The very rituals and rote prayers I had belittled became touchstones for the conviction that everything would be all right. No matter how I had failed, how I had let myself and others down, there was still forgiveness, still hope.
We are frail creatures, driven by passion and selfishness. But we are also capable of great sacrifice, of flights of transcendent spirituality. We inflict unspeakable horrors on each other and yet write soaring works of literature and music. In each of us is a core of spirit, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. We are drawn to it. In every culture, every religious tradition, there is this core element, this yearning for spiritual fulfillment. I believe that this is not coincidence. It is the commonality in all religions, past and present. I am probably not a very good Catholic in that I believe there is truth in all religious traditions. I am less concerned with doctrine than I am with forgiveness. Less worried about damnation than reconciliation.
So when my atheist friends try to show how this core belief in some Divinity is self-delusion, not the proper way of thinking for a person of science, I must respectfully disagree. I also hope that they will never experience the utter despair and loss of faith that I did. I don’t wish that on anyone. I don’t believe in the Divine revelation of absolute truth. But I do believe that a core of divinity resides in us all and wishes to be reunited with its source in the end. When everything will be all right.
This originally appeared as a post on Bruce’s Facebook account.