small sculpture of shepherd

God's Last Name

Bill Wiser

Posted Wednesday, July 08, 2009

“What is God’s last name?” asked the child.

“God has no last name,” his mother replied.

“But I have a last name? What is God’s last name and what is Jesus’ last name?”

This conversation was hardly unusual. Except that the three-year-old was dying of a brain tumor and he really wanted to know the answer.

Eighteen months after his tragic death I spent two weeks with the child’s family. I found myself up after midnight almost daily – listening to family members, poring over their diaries, and trying to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the cold reality of innocent death. How can the two co-exist within the same universe? Within the same human heart?

Now, thirty years later, books dealing with the “delusion of the God idea” are hitting the bestseller lists and staying there for weeks. At a recent forum at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, wrenching images of deformed newborns (suggesting the absence of intelligent design) set the stage for speakers urging the world to “wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief” and labeling religious education “brainwashing” and “child abuse”. One participant had authored a book in 1977 on cosmology in which he wrote, “Anything we can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”

That was the year the child died. My parents knew his parents, but the event didn’t really touch me at the time. Raised in a believing home, I fed during my college years on an exclusive diet of scientific journals. Books and articles written from a singular worldview subtly weaned me from my roots and nourished a host of tormenting questions. Apparent contradictions between the two worlds left me increasingly confused. Eventually everything distilled into a single question: How can a loving God preside over the death of innocent children?

For many at the La Jolla forum the answer is easy: There is no God. While hardly a new thought, the aggressive tone of many speakers and the popularity of atheistic literature today are indicative of a new level of polarization. Surely the increasingly principled and ideological stance of those publicly promoting the Christian faith has hardly encouraged open dialogue. Loud noise always seems to emanate from the extremes.

The turbulence of the debate serves to hide the currents of truth running deep below the surface. Acclaimed particle physicist John Polkinghorne recognized that both science and religion are rooted in “encounters with reality.”

I believe that miracles are actually, as John’s Gospel calls them, signs. They are windows into a deeper understanding of divine reality, where we see something more profoundly personal, more profoundly particular about the way God relates to the world than we might know otherwise. In other words, they are not conjuring tricks, not sorts of divine tours de force to astonish people and simply coerce belief. They reveal that God has deeper ways, a deeper consistency than the consistency of everyday life.

Approaching the world around us with the wondering mind of a child is key for those seeking the deeper consistencies of life. Rachel Carson, who popularized the exploration of the sea in the middle of the last century, wrote eloquently on the topic of fostering the innate sense of wonder in children:

What is the value of preserving and strengthening this sense of awe and wonder, this recognition of something beyond the boundaries of human existence?

Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night and spring after winter.

Jewish rabbi and thinker, Abraham Heschel, went still further when he wrote that awe “precedes faith, it is at the root of faith…. Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a marketplace for you.” In God in Search of Man, he continues:

A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God. Wisdom comes from awe rather than from shrewdness. It is evoked not in moments of calculation but in moments of being in rapport with the mystery of reality. The greatest insights happen to us in moments of awe.

Thirty years ago I knew nothing of these guiding lights. But as I agonized over the death of one child I remembered a phrase from my own childhood, “Seek and you shall find.” Desperate, I vowed to apply the scientific method of inquiry and stake my life on it: Either the evidence would show Jesus a fake or I would find God present even within the realm of random human suffering and senseless tragedy. By the end of my stay at the house, the evidence was beyond dispute. It was also beyond belief.

“O let yourself be found, and joy abound.” These old words reflect something of my encounter with the reality of God’s presence around the bedside of a dying child – a reality rooted in another encounter around another Child in an abandoned cattle shed two thousand years ago. And they hint at the nature of Him who earnestly searches for those willing to stake all in the venture for truth. For the child himself it was simple: “I know God’s last name,” he said, answering his own question in those last weeks. “It is Shepherd.”

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