A Dead Fly and My First Serious Encounter with Atheism
I was one of those over-thinky kids who looks for metaphors everywhere. I always thought that nature was a book waiting to be read if we could simply listen well enough to what it was trying to say.
But one afternoon when I was about six or seven, I was sitting at the kitchen table when a huge, flat housefly landed right next to my hand and died. Boom. The impact didn’t kill the thing, he just ran out of life smack at that moment--one second he was buzzing around, the next, he was belly up with all six legs in the air. The whole scene could have been part of a British comedy, it was so dark and severe.
While that experience wouldn’t create a spiritual crisis for a lot of people, it threw little-kid-me for a loop. Until that moment, the world had been pregnant with the presence of the goodness of God, and here was this stupid random fly knocking me off my game. The whole aesthetic of the thing, the ugliness and pointlessness of it, didn’t fit into the Divine romance that had infatuated me about planet earth.
“What does this MEAN?” I prayed. “Is the world really so random?”
I hadn’t read any existentialists at that age, of course, but here was the epistemological seed of Waiting for Godot or "The Metamorphosis." I was asking, “Is there really no grand narrative of the universe?”
This dead fly felt like a flash of hard, ugly, adult reality, a look behind the Matrix, or behind the Wizard's curtain in Oz. That dead fly meant that nothing meant anything after all.
As I roll that memory around in my mind today, I still take it seriously. Yeah, these were child thoughts, but they were also part of the fundamental decision we all have to make when trying to figure out how the beauty of the world connects with its apparent meaninglessness.
As the years have passed, sometimes I’ve felt close to God, and other times I’ve felt far from him. Sometimes I’ve been swept off my feet because nature reads like a prophecy that points straight in to the Holy of Holies. Other times I’ve watched NOVA specials and seen a band of wild dogs attacking a wounded animal and creation has felt cold, void, material, and indifferent-- saying nothing at all.
Wendell Berry once claimed that the Lord, ‘goes fishing every day in the Kentucky River. I see Him often,’ and these lines make me smile, because I, too, have often met with my Lord where waves smack against the sides of a metal fishing boat. But I have had dead times, too, where I felt like a naked ape wearing sunscreen, floating in a chunk of metal, and not sensing much of anything deep at all.
So while I can tell you what I have experienced in nature, and while I can tell you what I think its beauty means, I want you to know my limitations in that exercise. I have known spiritual ecstasy and I have known spiritual drought.
I can be honest with you about both, but The Holy Spirit must finish the work every poet begins. Eloquence accomplishes nothing apart from him.
(From Chapter 8)