An Excerpt from Vic Sizemore’s essay, “An Atheist and a Saint”
For the believer, according to Westphal, ambivalence begins with the awakening to the ontological poverty of the believing soul. The realization is expressed in phrases such as this one from a Baptist invitational hymn I sang countless times as a boy: Thou art the potter, I am the clay. From our earliest years in Sunday School we are taught to say, “He must increase, I must decrease,” a mantra which only brings our attitudes into plumb with the already-established reality of our nothingness before God. Stickers are popping up in car windows around town that say NOT I, BUT CHRIST–the website advertised below the message without intended irony was at first http://www.falwell.com, and has since changed to http://www.trbc.com. A perfect example of this very ambivalence.
I, the believing soul, am drawn to God, to the All, but at the same time I am repulsed because of what it means about the nature of my own existence: when faced with the Ultimate, non-contingent reality, I experience what Westphal calls a deficiency of being, a realization that my very existence is small and worthless by comparison. At the same time, God holds out to me the only chance at giving my small, weak existence any real meaning. Could I be anything but ambivalent? Like someone standing on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Westphal writes, or a toddler standing before a huge dog, I am simultaneously drawn in and repelled.
John Milton’s Paradise Lost, as has often been noted, is a good example of this kind of believer’s ambivalence. Milton, a Protestant who opposing King of England, could not help feeling sympathy for his rag-tag band of fallen angels as they stood in defiance of the Dictator of all creation–for whose ways Milton had ostensibly set out to write a defense.
In the unbeliever ambivalence is experienced in the other direction, as a longing for something beyond material existence: for love that is truly love and not simply evolutionary impulses designed to propagate the species; for life to make some kind of sense; for existence to have real meaning. It is what Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” calls an “appetite for the absolute and for unity.” The absence of an Ultimate Other leaves a longing in the unbelieving soul–St. Augustine’s restless heart and Adrienne Rich’s lament about being an ice-fast rowboat gazing out at winter’s red light, with its own small gift for burning.