As professional clergy, we tend to think robotically and uncritically about our faith. In some ways, atheists speak like biblical prophets; they challenge us to ask and demand we articulate what we ought to believe in in clear terms. I enjoy reading books and articles written by atheists. Whereas many theistic people like myself are willing to take a leap of faith, I have found atheists also take a leap of faith—they assume there is no God, nor is there an objective meaning or purpose to the universe. They assume we are living in the realm of the absurd and that we must live heroically and accept the fact that life has no intrinsic meaning (Camus, Sartre).
As a young teenager learning about Jewish philosophy, I wanted to answer my agnostic friends’ questions and convince them why they ought to believe in God. But I have learned over the decades that most folks are not merely interested in having a theological debate; they are searching for an spiritually deep and relevant answer.
Questions about God’s Reality or Presence are real and existential in nature for those who have suffered through the coronavirus. Glib theological answers will not satisfy a searching soul. People are looking for something more. The great 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber recalls that shortly before World War I, a young man came to see after he had experienced a morning of mystical ecstasy. Buber was friendly and attentive; he answered his youthful visitor. However, in human communication, sometimes it is not always the question that is expressed that matters, but rather it is the silent question that a person cannot express, or does not know how to articulate.
For this reason, Buber realized that he was not entirely “present” to the young man in spirit, who died in battle shortly after. When he heard about the news, Buber felt dissatisfied with how he interacted with the man, who came to him for spiritual guidance.[i] Buber learned that being emotionally present to someone seeking guidance is what he failed to do. The presence of a concerned and listening heart—not discursive philosophical repartee, is what the young man really needed. Buber’s realization soon led to the formulation of his most significant spiritual work, “I and Thou.”
For ministers of all faiths, the story about Martin Buber offers a valuable lesson about the power of listening. Not every question people ask about God is necessarily intellectual in nature. When people feel as though they have reached the end of their earthly journey, they need an answer that is pastoral and healing in spirit.
There is a charming Sufi tale that illustrates this point. “Once there was a man whose marriage was in trouble sought his advice, the Sufi Master said, “You must learn to listen to your wife.” The man took this advice to heart and returned after a month to say he had learned to listen to every word his wife was saying.
Said the Master with a smile, “Now go home and listen to every word she isn’t saying.”
In the art of communication, we must learn to listen to the unarticulated need and question.
[i] Martin Buber and Maurice Friedman (ed.), Martin Buber and the Human Sciences (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 8.