God does not cease to exist just because we do not think about him.
Ruth Burrows, in a recent book, points this out by presenting us with the following image: “A baby in its mother’s womb is in a relationship with her but is unaware of it and does not respond to the mother’s intense love and desire to give herself to the child. The relationship with God on the human side can remain as minimal as that of the baby.”
This image, a baby in its mother’s womb though unaware of the mother, is a rich mine-field for prayer and reflection, especially in our time when our everyday consciousness tends to border on agnosticism. The image is rich.
The first thing it tells us is that an atheistic consciousness does not negate the existence of God, even if our age seems to think so. The reality of God does not depend upon our conscious awareness of it. God does not cease to exist simply because we cease to think about him. God’s reality is not threatened by our lack of awareness. Sadly, our culture often equates lack of awareness with lack of existence. We are tremendously impoverished by that notion.
More positively, this image can help us better understand something else, namely, the Christian doctrine of creation. Most of the time, almost all of us misunderstand this doctrine. We believe that God created us (past tense) and that we now somehow have life and existence independent of God, tantamount to a toy that has been created by some craftsman. But that notion, common though it is, is false. The dogma of creation asks us to believe that God is actively creating us right now and is sustaining us in being right now. There is no past tense as regards creation. If God, even for a second, ceased creating and sustaining us, we would cease to be. We have no reality independent of God, no more than a baby in the womb is independent of its mother. The baby may not be aware of the mother but the mother’s reality is what is massive, life giving, and life sustaining. That is also true in our relationship to God.
The great mystics and philosophers have always tried to teach that to us. I remember an encounter I once had with the great Belgian Dominican, Jan Walgrave. We had been talking about Etienne Gilson and his notion of existence when he, Walgrave, asked me this question: “Do you ever sit on a park bench, look at a tree, wonder about its existence, and ask yourself: “Why is there something instead of nothing?'”
I answered honestly: “No. Sometimes I wonder about things and sometimes I ask that question for other reasons, but, in all honesty, I don’t think I have ever been so moved just looking at a tree that I asked myself why things existed as opposed to not existing.”
His reply to me was gentle, but clear: “Then you aren’t a true philosopher. You can study philosophy and it can help you, but you, yourself, are not a philosopher. A real philosopher will always ask that question. A real philosopher is unable to look at a tree and not ask why it is there. To see a tree, or anything else, is to see a dance … and there can be no dance without a dancer dancing it. Everything that you see posits the question: `Why is there something instead of nothing?’ Every day, when I sit on a park bench, I ask myself: ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ At a deep level, nothing explains itself and nothing sustains itself. Gilson understood this and this is too the Christian doctrine of creation. God is actively making the world and it doesn’t exist independent of that. Hence to see the world is to somehow see the reality beneath it, God”.
His concept is more philosophical than Burrows’ image but it is essentially the same. We are the baby and God is the mother gestating us. Our lack of conscious awareness of that fact in no way diminishes its reality or its importance. God does not cease to exist because we cease to think about him. An atheistic or agnostic consciousness does not kill God, as Nietzsche thought, it simply impoverishes our self-understanding.
The task of prayer is precisely to make us more consciously aware of that relationship of creation, providence, and love that exists between God and ourselves, prior to our consciously knowing it. God is gestating us, whether we know it or not. To pray is to learn that and to pray even more deeply is to learn, as Burrows puts it, the intense love and desire of that Mother, God, to give herself to us.