Lessons on God from an Atheist

Leaves and Rain
Getty Images, Ulf Borjesson

By Meg Stapleton Smith

The essence of my teaching has always had much less to do with concrete facts about faith, and much more to do with developing an interpersonal relationship with God. My goal as a teacher is to create a foundation upon which my students’ images of God can be nurtured. Throughout this process, I have undoubtedly come to learn immensely from my students. As their images of God matured, mine deepened as well. Yet, in the beginning of the school year, I never would have anticipated that the most meaningful lesson I would receive on God would come from the one student who doubted God’s very existence.

George is a student of mine that struggles with loneliness and depression. The trials and tribulations of his personal life have led him to constantly grapple with the very reality of God.  In the beginning of the year he professed his identity as an atheist, but even more strongly asserted apathy towards the subject of God in general. His constant witty comments, demanding inquiries, and in-depth reasoning skills led him to be one of the most challenging students in my Theology class. Despite this, George was without a doubt one of my favorite students because of the way he was constantly calling me to greater ontological thought and explanation.

In mid-March, while on the school Kairos retreat, George pulled me aside and abruptly said, “I want to talk about God.” As we sat and chatted, George admitted, “I feel like there is a beauty that I am not seeing. I feel as if I am in a room and everyone is saying, ‘Why can’t you see it? Look, right there!’ and I am looking but can’t find it.”  All year in class, George’s thinking had been concrete and practical. He was a student that perseverated on grasping concepts and knowing tangible facts. It seemed to me that, albeit slowly, George was beginning to understand the expansive and limitless possibilities of how to name God, and who God could be for him. Perhaps this is what was so endlessly frustrating.

At the end of the school year I asked all of my students to fill out a survey to provide feedback on my class and my teaching. One of the questions that I posed was, “How did my class expand your image of God (if at all)?”  I am not certain what I was hoping to elicit from my students, especially because this question cannot be answered succinctly.  Yet, I was confident in their ability to respond to such a prompt after nine months of working together. One of the greatest and most stunning answers that I received came from George, reflecting on a song that allowed him to see God, perhaps even for the first time. As if writing in a stream of consciousness he stated:

 “This is the song….the one with the leaves brushing together. I don’t find perfection in seeing, but in the combination of the sounds – the rolling trumpet, the way the trumpet cries over the sound of the leaves rustling together like they are brushing together in the wind, like the trumpet IS the wind, and the piano carries on in the background of a perfectly calm storm, the rain droplets falling putting it all together, and the bass enters in and out of the harmonious melody like flashes of lightening, and then the piano grows louder and more pronounced midway through the song, and the wind and the rain act together in perfect synchronous harmony to not only my ears, but my soul, and this only lasts so long before the wind leaves…the piano fades, and all that’s left is the rustling leaves. This is perfection to me, and that’s God, right?”

His words left me utterly speechless. I forgot for a moment that George was my student, and I was his teacher.  His reflection reminded me of just how infinite God is. My eyes kept retracing the words “and this only lasts so long.” George truly had touched upon the reality and presence of God.  His ascent (and subsequent descent) to and from this reality struck me as an undeniable Augustinian moment.

“St Monica and St Augustine at Ostia,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

I believe that Confessions by Saint Augustine is written not merely as an autobiography, but as an extended prayer to God. Augustine is not only telling the tale of his own life, but also using his lived experience as a concrete example of how the soul can ascend to a unity that overcomes isolation and rests in the vastness and goodness of God. For Saint Augustine, God is the ultimate source of Being, Goodness, and Truth. In his Confessions, Augustine describes a very intense and intimate moment in which he encounters God, or ‘That Which Is” (Confessions, 139). Although he touches God’s invisible reality, transcending his own faculties, once he reaches God he retracts himself. Augustine believed that Grace allowed him to have this ephemeral experience, and he could not sustain it on the basis of his own will. It was this encounter that allowed him to see everyday experiences differently – recollecting the beauty that he understood in that intimately infinite moment.

All year George had struggled to name God, so much so that he fought God’s very existence. Our conversations and his writings revealed a progressive awakening to this ineffable and vivifying presence.  When we believe that something touches our soul, even if for just a moment, we tap into a well inside ourselves and find the Divine dwelling. Like Augustine, the ascent that George experienced was not sustained – touching the Ultimately Perfect, only for a moment.

On the last day of school, George came into my office to say goodbye. He handed me a letter and in it he wrote to me, “ I am still unsure about who God is, but I will always remember you telling me that God is as simple as smiling at wild geese flying.”  I paused for a moment to reflect on George’s growth throughout the course of the year. When Augustine touched God, the memory remained with him and allowed him to see what is most authentic in everyday life. He became persuaded that God’s “invisible reality is plainly to be understood through created things,” (Confessions, 138). Perhaps, then, ascent does not necessarily have to be working to get to the top of a divine mountain, but can be lived in our daily reality.  As in George’s case, sometimes we do this without even realizing it. We may never be sure who God is, but moments of ascent (even if but one) can allow Beauty to penetrate our daily existence. After all, it is best to draw out eternal truths from the simplest life experiences – whether it is in a student searching for God, the “perfect synchronous harmony” of a song, or wild geese flying.

Meg Stapleton Smith is a MAR candidate in Ethics at Yale Divinity School.