Ingrid Betancourt said something on the BBC the other day that made me stop and think. “When it comes to God, it’s the questions you ask that really matter.”
As I heard her, I instinctively knew she was right. In my case, it’s not whether he exists that’s important, but whether I’m prepared to admit I need him. Today, in my fifties, I can accept I do. Whether I call that need God, or hide it from myself by using some other term, is a matter of mere detail. At its core lies the realisation that there are times when God, or hope — or an assurance — is necessary.
But was that always the case?
Yes, except I wasn’t honest about it. In my twenties or thirties, I claimed to be an agnostic. On the one hand, I did not have the certainty to be an atheist; but, on the other, I would guard myself by observing all the superstitions I knew of.
But when most in need, expediency would overpower my declared agnosticism! On such occasions I would actually bargain with God. So, for example, to ensure the right results after a big exam, I would strike a deal: if you give me a first, I would say, I will give up X and Y. Then, to twist his hand, I would make my sacrifice first. Reassurance lay in my presumptuous confidence God would deliver. Silly as it may sound, renunciation was my tool to propitiate — or, do I mean bribe? — the power that determines all our futures.
Over the years, as I have come to understand myself, I have also realised what I was doing. I was either camouflaging a need for God — or hope or reassurance — or, worse, contradicting myself. If I were to say the confidence of youth explains my earlier refusal to fully believe, you would be right to riposte that advancing age has probably conditioned my present acceptance.
Whatever the explanation, I’m no longer cold or distant to our human need of belief. It’s as much a part of our make-up as hunger or desire. Indeed, I would go further and say I don’t know if God exists, but I do know we need him. So, if he is our creation he is undoubtedly the most invaluable one. For, to him we look when we know we cannot help ourselves.
But let me be more explicit.
I do not have a particular God I believe in. In fact, I believe in them all — which is another way of saying I believe in the power of God. And indeed, if I’m honest, I only turn to him when I need him. It’s like food; the lure is powerful when you’re hungry and very different when sated. Which is why, even now, I think of him as hope or reassurance rather than the Almighty. You can’t have failed to notice I use the words synonymously.
Perhaps this is why religion, rituals, priests and piety irritate me. They are like the ceremony and etiquette of an elaborate meal which often detracts from the food being served. When I’m hungry, I want to eat, and then, like any other selfish diner, I push back my chair and leave.
I suspect Ingrid Betancourt’s relationship with God — or a hope or reassurance — was essentially no different, only more desperate and more intense. And I assume that would also be true of many of you who are reading this column this Sunday morning. It’s just that her years of dreadful captivity forced upon her an understanding that comes to the rest of us only with the slow passage of time. (Betancourt was rescued this July, after six years in the captivity of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.)
Listening to her on the radio, I could feel the penny drop. Admittedly, there was no audible clunk but there was a sudden acceptance of a truth, the comfortable feeling that you have always suspected something to be true but never before recognised it.
Awareness — if that’s what it is — happens in strange, inexplicable ways. Now, is that God’s work or just coincidence?