God and Me

Diana Athill

I suppose a good many people who, like me, cannot accept the teachings of any organized religion, or even conceive of anything one could call ‘God’, have nevertheless occasionally experienced some flicker of what seems to be the numen. To me it happens very rarely, but I still have a clear memory of its first occurrence, some eighty years ago.

It was in an orchard through which I went every day, running back and forth between our house and my grandparents’. At one point an old and untidy tree beside the path had leaned over so that even a child had to duck or swerve to avoid its branches. It was not a tree that had ever interested me, because the apples it bore were cookers, too acid to be eaten raw, but one day, when I happened to duck instead of swerve, I found myself within it, surrounded by its gnarled branches all heavy with very large, smooth, intensely green apples, and they stopped me in my tracks. They were so beautiful, so powerfully still, so…I didn’t know what. Alive? I stood gazing at a group of three of them, a huge one and its two slightly smaller companions, shining serenely among their equally green leaves, and their stillness seemed almost to be humming. I began to feel that I was on the edge of something, that in a moment something was going to happen…and when it didn’t there was a vague sensation that it was my fault: that if I had been able to go as still as those apples, whatever was humming in them would have sounded in my head. The moment passed quickly, I ran on, not—as far as I can remember—bothered by it. But what happened in my head was that those apples continued to be in it, even into my eighty-ninth year.

They, and from time to infrequent time other similar experiences, led me to fancy that had I been born at the right time and place I might conceivably have accepted a really primitive form of religion: belief not in a One and Only God, but in many little localized gods, gods of trees, rivers and so on, dryads, naiads, satyrs—I might even have enjoyed believing in them. They would not have offended reason by claiming the absolute and exclusive power with which we burden our One and Only Gods. Or, to be more serious, Buddhism might be the answer—it does not bother with a god and seeks, as I understand it, the achievement of stillness. But I have never been able to take the elaborate imagery through which one form of it expresses itself and I am too self-indulgent for its central disciplines. But at bottom what those experiences have suggested to me is not any specific answer, but a feeling that however little one may believe in any of the gods, big ones or little ones, awe should be respected, because it is so undeniable that a reason for being awestruck does exist: the thing that hummed in those apples—life.

The more one thinks about it, the more astounding it is that here and there in the universe, out of the whirl of particles came forms of life, some of which developed into beings complex enough to be aware of themselves, even to try to understand themselves and their relationship with their environment. It is astounding beyond our ability to be astounded, hence our attempt to tame it into systems which, because we ourselves have invented them, are within our grasp. Once—and this, like the apples, was a key moment—I was on the river at Oxford, with a man I’d met that evening and would meet only once again, because he was about to leave Oxford for good. It was an exquisitely moonlit summer night, we had taken out a punt and were talking, as one tends to talk in one’s early twenties, about what we did and didn’t believe. I said something about the puzzle of what had begun it all, because ‘after all, there must have been a beginning’, and he said, ‘Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s just that the human mind is incapable of imagining anything that doesn’t begin.’ I don’t think anything said to me has ever pleased me more than that dizzying little remark. It was as though he had pushed open a door and given me a tiny peep through it into the Unexplainable, and it was thrilling. And ever since then I have been content to listen to and love the humming of life in everything without minding at all that I don’t understand it.

So often people say, ‘Without God what would be the point of life? How could one go on without believing that it has a meaning?’ It does not seem to occur to them that any ‘point’ granted them by their god has been provided by the human imagination, and cannot therefore be trustworthy, however comforting. Of course, it does not have to give them what seems to be good reason to blow up skyscrapers full of people or to send in the bombers to countries they happen to disapprove of—a ‘point’ imagined by someone gentle and generous will be different from one imagined by a fanatic or a fool—but it is observable that in spite of the omnipotence which is usually claimed for a god, he always seems to be concerned only with human beings on this particular planet, and often with only some of those human beings, not all of them. And yet we know—we ourselves, astounding phenomena that we are, have laboriously discovered—that Earth is no more than a grain of sand in the immensity of what surrounds it, and that like any other of the worlds whirling through space it will continue to harbour life only if it continues in exactly the right relationship with its sun. Although we have developed into this tiny planet’s dominant form of life (indeed have overdone it, probably to the planet’s detriment, but that is another story)… Well, fleas have-developed the ability to live and prosper on the bodies of animals, including us, but it doesn’t occur to us that they are therefore capable of understanding, or trying to understand, the workings of the human mind; and we in relation to the universe are infinitely more trivial than fleas are in relation to us. It seems to me odd that while on the one hand this is common knowledge, on the other hand a great many people choose to believe and find comfort in the minuscule myths provided by their religions. Whistling in the dark: that is what it is.

And so, of course, is finding comfort in the awe-inspiring unexplainability of life. To me, it just happens to be the tune which sounds least silly.

God and Me
God and Me