“Derek? Who’s Derek?” begins a flyer I have in my files. “He isn’t a prophet or a god, just a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Community at Pitt. You see, we draw upon many sources in our search for truth. Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism. And most importantly You [sic]. After all, you determine your own faith.”
The flyer then explains that you don’t have to believe anything to be a member of this community, and concludes: “It’s a religious community for people who question. People who look for life’s meaning. People who think. People just like you and Derek.”
But maybe not a good community for people like you and Derek. The trouble with this kind of religion is that no one in the Unitarian-Universalist community expects you to join in order to move on to a committed Christianity or Judaism or Islam. The community isn’t really about searching at all, because real searching leads to finding. I don’t think I’m being unfair to the Unitarian-Universalists by saying that they are not really big on finding.
I am, I should admit, someone who reacts to declarations like the flyer’s with the Harpo Marx face, when he puffs out his cheeks, sticks out his tongue, and makes his eyes look buggy. The prospect of an earnest discussion of our religious journeys reminds me of Sartre’s play No Exit. I would rather talk about the latest Paris fashions or a neighbor’s colonoscopy. So you may want to read this with that reaction in mind.
But it does seem to me that willful open-endedness makes nonsense of all the flyer’s claims, especially its chipper claims to be searching and thinking. Eventually, perhaps, and often after many false starts and wrong turns, the true seeker will find something.
He may find that he does not believe anything. The something he finds will be nothing. Or he may find a faith that he does not determine himself, a faith that is given to man and to which he must conform his life and thought. He may find a faith whose main term is “Thus says the Lord.” But he will find something, and it won’t be his own version of “Derekism.”
If you don’t find something, you are not searching, and you are not thinking. As G. K. Chesterton said in the last chapter of his early book Heretics, “If there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty.”
Derek, Chesterton would have said, is not the ideal man the Unitarian-Universalist flyer assumes he is, because Derek isn’t getting anywhere. Man, Chesterton writes, is “an animal that makes dogmas”—a creature who, intellectually, gets somewhere.
As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human.
When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
In the searching/questioning/looking/determining-your-own-truth religion, the searcher never quite catches up with the Truth, though she runs surprisingly slowly for the man she knows truly wants her for his own. The Man Who Questions is not chasing Truth but running here and there as he feels inclined, and he is careful never to get anywhere in particular.
He is like the man afraid of commitment who is the staple of Hollywood movies starring cute perky actresses playing cute perky women baffled that their live-in boyfriends won’t marry them. In these movies, the guy either commits and gets the girl or doesn’t and loses her to someone who will. Even Hollywood understands that courtship ought to lead to marriage, that the search for a mate ought to end in a binding union. That is just as true, if not moreso, of the search for God.
Derek is not a man for Advent, though a kind of Advent is precisely what he needs. As in Advent the Christian prepares to celebrate the coming of the Lord, so in his search for God the seeker must prepare himself to find Him. For both, the same humility is required, the same purifying asceticism and discipline, the same openness to the truth that is to come, the same desire to see what is to be seen and to submit to the truth when the truth appears.
For the Christian, both Advent and the search for God end in a fact, something given us that we must take or leave, something we cannot change. They both bring us to a baby in a cradle, a baby who is the Son of God. The only question is, as the English poet John Betjeman put it in his poem “Christmas,” is it true?
And is it true,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
When you hear about that cradle, the only response is to follow the shepherds into the stable and worship, or at least to walk in and look and then, if you refuse to worship, walk out. I suspect the Dereks I’ve known would stay in the fields with the sheep sharing their journeys.
It is far better for the soul to be an atheist shaking your fist at the empty heavens than one of the “People who question. People who look for life’s meaning. People who think.” The atheist might find that the heavens are not empty after all, because he cares for what is not in them. The man who is looking up may see in the movement of the stars the work of the Creator.
But Derek will forever sit on the tattered couch in the Unitarian-Universalist center Questioning. Looking for life’s meaning. Thinking. And probably feeling content, though he sinks slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass—even when God was man in Palestine, and lives today in bread and wine, and is just waiting to be found.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” can be found in his Collected Poems and online here.