I. Approaching the Event Horizon: My Story
My faith died during Holy Week in 1992, while in my second year of the Ph.D. program at Princeton Theological Seminary. By “died,” I mean that I not only lost it, but was so entirely lost that there wasn’t even a glimmer of a heartbeat. No amount of shaking, poking, tearful pleading, or angry shouting stirred it in the slightest. My faith remained dead for six long months. In the seventh month faith returned, only it wasn’t the same faith I had before. It had been transformed in its absence into something stronger, better. If you’re interested in why my faith died, and how it returned, and what it might mean for you, I invite you to take a journey with me back to Princeton, through Holy Week, and into the heart of a Black Hole that Jesus set inside me.
I’m speaking in metaphors, of course. The Black Hole I’m speaking of isn’t in outer space. Yet it is no less real. And while Jesus did not literally put a Black Hole inside me, you could say I followed him into one that he himself entered. When I eventually came out, I was changed.
Before that 1992 Holy Week, my faith had been wavering mightily for about a month. You may not guess that seminary would a place where people’s faith wavers, let alone dies. I didn’t think so, either, until it happened. But I am far from alone in my experience. Many have gone before me, and many have since. Of course, you need not go to seminary to experience a crisis or death of faith. Perhaps some of you can hear a little of your own story in mine.
The origins of my experience can be traced back to three crises that suddenly converged with tremendous power. The first was my experience of pain and suffering – not my own, but that of others. Princeton, New Jersey is an affluent, bucolic community, yet it is just ten minutes from Trenton, New Jersey, where you can find some of the worst ghettos in the nation. I stumbled into one of these ghettos quite by accident one day as I was looking for the train station. It was hardly the first time I’d been exposed to extreme poverty, but this time the experience hit me harder than it ever had before. Seeing the squalor and despair as I drove through, I became particularly troubled by the fact that I was attending Princeton Seminary largely because of the family I was born into – a middle class family of school teachers living in an affluent suburb of Seattle with one of the best school systems in the state. I was white. I was male. My parents were happily married and supportive, not only of each other but of their children. In terms of social advantages, I had won what Warren Buffet would later call the “ovarian lottery.” Those living in the Trenton ghettos had never experienced a fraction of the advantages I had. Yet for no fault of their own, many of them were consigned to a life of poverty and despair.
Aggravating my concerns was the fact that I had become a father in the last year. Because my daughter had also won the “ovarian lottery,” I knew she would experience similar advantages I had (except for the disadvantage of having a father with such a bad hair cut!). Yet children born just ten minutes away would experience few if any of her advantages. Children born ten thousand miles away would experience fewer still. I thought, “How could a loving God create a world where inequality and injustice like this is rampant?” If the folks in Trenton are “loved beyond their wildest imagination” like the rest of us, why doesn’t God show it?
The second crisis causing my faith to waver was the direct result of my academic study of the Bible at Princeton. At the time I was deep into study of Israel’s history and the Hebrew prophets. Over and over, the Hebrew prophets witnessed and spoke out against the same kind of inequality and injustice I was seeing. And while they were speaking out against it, many also spoke of a day when the world would experience no more injustice. The hungry would be fed, the oppressed and outcast would be lifted, and those in bondage would be set free. Yet none of this ever transpired to the level they promised it would. Israel itself would experience defeat and denigration throughout its history, leading up to and including the Holocaust of the last century.
The third crisis I experienced wouldn’t have been a crisis on its own, but brought the two others together in such a way that they rapidly multiplied the energy. News reports had been steadily streaming of scientific discoveries that showed that the Universe is far bigger, containing far more stars and galaxies, than we had ever imagined. Suddenly I began to wonder: “Is God real? Could we be all alone in our struggles?” Or if God is real, does God really have conscious awareness of us? Or is God as far away in some distant galaxy sipping Mai Tai’s on the beach blissfully ignorant of our struggles?” I began to wonder if religion might simply be a giant hoax we willingly embrace to avoid staring into the terror of our aloneness and the meaninglessness of life. It felt like I was skirting around the edge of a giant Black Hole.
II. Approaching the Event Horizon: Black Holes
Little was known about actual Black Holes in outer space in 1992. We know more about them today. Black Holes are extremely dense masses that exert so much gravitational pull that they not only bend light, but can trap anything that comes close to it, including light itself, which is why they are black. Black Holes are formed when giant stars thousands of times bigger than our sun run out of fuel and collapse. The collapse creates two things: first, it creates a small, super dense core that is so dense it rapidly consumes the star material around it. This rapid intake creates so much heat, friction, and magnetism that the star explodes in something called a hyper-nova. A hyper-nova is like a super-nova except many orders of magnitude greater. What’s particularly distinct about hyper-novas is that the Black Holes at the center of them are so powerful that they suck much of the exploded material back into them. The more material they suck in, the greater their gravitational force, which sucks even more material. The Black Hole grows from something relatively small into something as large as our entire solar system – or larger!
In effect, a Black Hole is like a giant, circular waterfall. Far away from the “waterfall,” the gravitational pull is weak enough that objects can escape its sucking action like kayakers paddling hard against the flow of a waterfall. Yet as you approach a Black Hole, you eventually pass a point where the “current” of that “waterfall” is running so strongly that not even the strongest force can escape it. This point is known as the Event Horizon. Nothing inside the Event Horizon escapes – not even rays of light racing by at 186,000 miles a second. Black Holes have been described as giant Roach Motels: Once you check in, you can never check out! So should you ever find yourself in the vicinity of a Black Hole, the key is to stay away from the Event Horizon. Past that point, there is no turning back. Even if you’re Jesus.
III. Approaching the Event Horizon: Jesus
When Jesus was just thirty-three years old, he stood upon the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem with a crowd that may have numbered in the hundreds if not thousands, singing and proclaiming, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven! Glory in the highest heaven!” The scene was so glorious that it is remembered even now on Palm Sunday with throngs of believers waving palms and parades of singing children from around the world. Yet what is often overlooked amidst all the festivities is that on that original Palm Sunday the peak of the Mount of Olives served as a kind of Event Horizon of a giant Black Hole. Once crossed, there was no going back. And what lay ahead was the darkness of a seemingly infinite Abyss.
What gives us our first clue of the presence of this figurative Event Horizon is the fact that certain people in the crowd surrounding Jesus – according to Matthew’s version of the story – are shouting “Hosanna!” Hosanna in Hebrew literally means, “Please save!”
The next thing we know, Jesus is weeping. His tears are not tears of joy, but sorrow. While some may be shouting “Peace in heaven,” Jesus laments that the people of Jerusalem have no idea of what makes for peace on Earth. The coming disaster looms larger, at least in Jesus’ perception.
Descending to the bottom of the Mount, Jesus enters Jerusalem. Here, he pays a visit to its holiest place: the great Temple first built by King Solomon nearly a thousand years earlier. His visit ends badly. In frustration, Jesus overturns the Temple’s market tables, exclaiming that the holy Temple has become a “den of robbers.” From this point on, says Luke, the “chief priests, the scribes and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him.” The gravitational pull begins to multiply many times over. By the end of the week, the holiest meal in the Jewish faith, the Passover Seder, would become Jesus’ last meal. Jesus would be praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, “If it be your will, take this cup from me. If not, your will be done, not mine.” And on Friday Jerusalem would witness the brutal torture and crucifixion of the One who had come to save it. With the death of Jesus, everything he had worked so hard for would seem to collapse utterly in upon itself. The disciples would scatter and hide. Every reason for faith would be crushed, their faith being as dead as their master.
IV. Into the Black Hole: My Story
While I had been wrestling for weeks with my own faith before Holy Week in 1992, I wasn’t particularly worried. Like any person of faith, I had experienced challenges and doubts before. There had even been a couple times when I felt rocked to my foundations. But I had never completely lost my faith. Like an asteroid veering close to a Black Hole’s Event Horizon but not crossing it, I could always sense faith solidly within me and recover my bearings. In fact, when people told me in the past that they had completely lost their faith, I had quietly concluded that they must never have had faith to begin with. True faith is impossible to lose, isn’t it?
Yet in the middle of Holy Week, I remember a single moment where I seemed to cross an invisible line – a point of no return. It happened as I wrestled with the fact that Christians were busily preparing for Easter Sunday, purchasing chocolate bunnies, dying Easter eggs, and making brunch reservations, seemingly without so much as a single thought of the horrifying events that transpired between Palm Sunday and Easter. Many of these same Christians seemed perfectly content to ignore the pain and suffering of the world. They simply weren’t concerned. They piously proclaimed that Jesus had conquered sin and death, and that the answer to all the world’s problems was simply to believe in Jesus. Yet lots of people in the Trenton ghetto believed in Jesus. Where was his victory for them?
Slowly, I could hear a dark and menacing thought arise from deep within me: “This whole religion thing is a sham. A hoax! If you pull back the curtain, you’ll find that God’s no more real than the Wizard of Oz. The only reason religion exists is to keep the terror of our aloneness at bay just enough to keep from falling into the abyss.”
“Well,” I thought to myself, “If a pious fiction is all that keeps us from the Harsh Reality of the Universe, and Christianity is just going to keep us from solving the problems of the world with empty claims like ‘Just believe in Jesus,’ then I want no part in it.”
It wasn’t long after I made that “Confession of Un-Faith” that I could feel something change within me. I had crossed an internal line. My faith was falling down an abyss greater than I had ever experienced. At first, I wasn’t too worried. I had always pulled out before, right? But something was different about this. I kept falling and falling. Instead of slowing down or reversing, my free fall seemed to pick up speed. Finally I hit a place I had never been before. It was a place where all belief, and all faith, was not only crushed, but killed.
Over the coming days and weeks, I would experience nothing but a blank numbness when I looked out at the world. All day long I heard and talked about God, the Bible, theology, at seminary, yet I felt absolutely no love for any of it. In fact, I felt angry and resentful.
I kept expecting the weight to lift and feeling to return, but it didn’t. Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned slowly into months. I began to look out at life as an atheist, only not a happy atheist but one who felt he had been duped his whole life and had made tremendous sacrifices and had inherited nothing but the wind.
For some reason, I kept going to church each week. I’m not exactly sure why. It had nothing to do with trying to revive my faith. If anything, I was trying to ensure that faith would never return again. Being in worship helped me remember why people were attracted to God so that I could actively block off any route to those feelings within me. The minister would invite the congregation into prayer and I would defiantly keep my head raised, eyes wide open, glaring at everyone around me with a strange mixture of sarcasm, disdain and pity. “These unfortunate suckers,” I would think. “They’re all praying into thin air.”
V. Into the Black Hole: In Outer Space
Scientists tell us that once any material enters the heart of a Black Hole, it is crushed down so completely that even the protons, neutrons and electrons of atoms are smashed together. They say that an object the size of the earth would be compacted into the size of a golf ball. Only no putter’s going to move it!
We also know that when a Black Hole is first formed, it sucks in so much material from the hyper-nova that not even its voracious appetite can keep up with its consumption. In effect, the Black Hole “chokes,” emitting a stream of particles known as a Gamma Burst that travels at nearly the speed of light for millions of miles in either direction. You could call it a “birth cry” of sorts.
In 2004, NASA sent up a special space telescope just to watch for Gamma Bursts in the universe. The data it began sending back shook the world of astronomy to its foundations. It was detecting the “birth cry” of a new Black Hole nearly every day and has been ever since. Given the small spectrum of the sky it monitors, this suggests that there are hundreds of billions of black holes throughout the universe! This is pretty amazing since as late as the 1960s scientists were still wondering if they existed at all. (Einstein’s General Law of Relativity predicted them.)
These Gamma-ray Bursts last anywhere between 10 milliseconds to several minutes, emitting more energy than our sun will emit over its entire expected 10 billion year lifespan. Its energy is second only to the Big Bang itself, in fact. The force of these bursts is so violent that a kind of “Black Hole wind” is generated. The “wind” is so powerful it disperses enormous amounts of material so far from the Black Hole that it escapes the Event Horizon. Instead of being sucked back in, therefore, it simply goes into orbit around the Black Hole like the planets and asteroids orbiting our sun.
The gravity around these globs of dispersed dust and gas begins to gather them together. Stars ignite. Planets form and go into orbit around the stars. Millions, even billions of stars and planets form into solar systems, each of which orbits the Black Hole. Recently, scientists have clocked the closest stars around what’s known as a Super Massive Black Hole reaching velocities of millions of miles an hour. Further out, stars and solar systems orbit more slowly … like our own solar system.
Yes, our solar system orbits a Super Massive Black Hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy! Its mass is over 4 million times the mass of our sun. Scientists now believe that a Super Massive Black Hole lies at the heart of every galaxy. In fact, they believe that Super Massive Black Holes are critical to the formation of galaxies.
In other words, if it weren’t for the Black Hole in the center of our galaxy, we would not be here. Ultimately a Black Hole is a source of life, not death. It may consume and crush everything that crosses its Event Horizon, but it is also creates – and anchors – everything beyond it, like our galaxy! Who would have guessed that an Infinite Abyss could become such a wondrous bearer and sustainer of life?
VI. Black Hole Faith
Personally, I made this same discovery well before astronomers did. At least my Black Hole experience pointed me strongly in this direction. I am here today as a person of faith – and my faith has only grown stronger and deeper since my Black Hole experience of 1992. What happened?
The funny thing about Black Holes in outer space is that at their core all the laws of physics are cancelled. Black Holes drive scientists crazy because they have no real clue about what goes on inside them. Does time stop entirely? Does a Black Hole open out into a different universe on the other side? Does a Black Hole create a portal in space and time? It’s anybody’s guess.
In my experience, a similar state of affairs happens in spiritual Black Holes. All the known laws of theology are cancelled. Everything we think we know about God, ourselves, and life itself operates in ways we don’t expect. I can’t tell you for sure why my faith returned from the dead after six long months. But one thing I can say for sure is that God was faithful – more faithful to me than I was to God. Another thing I can say is that the faith I had before my experience is still dead. What I received back was a new faith; a stronger, more mysterious and more wondrous faith.
The primary difference between my old faith and my new faith is that it feels far more anchored in God than it did before. This anchorage comes from a strange source. You see, when this new faith arose within me, it seems to have come with a baby Black Hole attached! That’s the best way I can describe it. What it feels like is a piece of emotional darkness about the size of a softball that resides in my abdomen. Like a real Black Hole, it strives to suck everything around it into a dark abyss. Only instead of sucking in matter, my Baby Black Hole sucks in every new thought or belief I have. What that feels like is intense doubt and skepticism. This Black Hole questions everything I believe or assume. A whole lot of these beliefs and assumptions get sucked in and are never seen or heard from again. But a certain amount of them seem to pass right through unharmed, or are transformed into something entirely new. These become part of my life.
At first I was freaked out that a piece of my Black Hole experience was still within me. I wanted to get rid of it entirely. But over time I began to see the value of it, and have even grown to love it. To this day I consider it one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given. It’s a gift now because I am unafraid of doubts – even significant ones. Doubt is the gravity that energizes the Black Hole. In the face of crushing doubt, false beliefs are obliterated. Yet beliefs that have substance survive or are transformed into something new. You’ve heard of “trial by fire?” This is “trial by Black Hole!”
I still find the inequalities and injustices of the world as deeply disturbed as before, but I see more clearly than ever that it is not God’s behavior that’s troubling but our own. God has not abandoned those in need. We have. In fact, if we would not turn away from the poor, the denigrated and the vulnerable of society and pay more compassionate attention to them, seeing them as whole people rather than mere shadows, what we would find is that God is far more involved in the heart of their struggles than we ever realize. We might actually ask ourselves, “Why are we so absent when God is so involved?”
VII. Black Holes, Jesus and Lent
A few people have asked me over the course of this series how studying God’s Universe could have anything to do with Jesus and Lent. I wonder how God’s Universe could be anything but connected. In the case of Black Holes, Jesus not only passed through an Event Horizon himself, but willingly travelled to the heart of the Abyss. In so doing, he drew in everyone who loved and served him into their own Black Hole experience. Yet as we know, the laws of both theology and physics seem to have been transcended within the Black Hole that swallowed Jesus. The tomb couldn’t contain Jesus. And the disciple’s initial despair did not determine their faith or the fate.
We’re still scratching our heads over how it all happened! But we see what’s been created as a result: a faith that is joyful, life-bearing, and transforming, that has created entire constellations and galaxies of believers and faith communities … all of whom continue to orbit around a Cross. The Psalms observe that “the heavens proclaim the glory of God.” A faith that follows Jesus from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, and from there to Good Friday is a faith that can grasp the significance of what Easter is all about. The kind of faith that passes through the Black Hole of doubt and despair and survives is the kind of faith that fulfills Jesus’ prayer that God’s Kingdom will be realized on earth as it is in the heavens.
Wow, just wow! This is a great testimony that speaks a language that all can understand. I will be recommending it to my atheist friends, not to convert them to our faith, but to assure them that doubt serves us all regardless of what language we use to name what we find.
For what it is worth, here is the audio of my recent sermon about doubt in which I briefly tell my own journey to the edge. I refer to it as an abyss, I suppose it was my own black hole. I, however, only needed to stare into it to confirm it’s power. http://yourlisten.com/channel/content/16962182/What_if_it_Is_OK_to_Doubt?
Thanks, I read the whole piece. It reminds me of this joke:
If you graduate from seminary believing in God, you weren’t paying attention.
>I still find the inequalities and injustices of the world as deeply disturbed as before, but I see more clearly than ever that it is not God’s behavior that’s troubling but our own.
How? If God had any choice in how he set up creation, it seems impossible he could not have set it up to include less cruelty. In fact, we know he could have because cruelty is not distributed equally. Due to God’s choices, some people, such as infants with birth defects, suffer far more than others. At minimum, God plays favorites. This seems unavoidable.
Further, new diseases crop up regularly. Earlier generations lived without these additional plagues. If God could do without them for centuries, why not a little longer? If they were necessary for God, then he is weak or constrained.
>God has not abandoned those in need. We have.
This is not even a nice try. Animals suffered horrendously for eons before humans existed, so humans can not be blamed for all that. Statements like this are unworthy of a seminarian trying to defend his faith.
The author explains very well why he lost his faith, but says nothing about why he regained it. But human nature suggests several possibilities:
1. Most of his friends were in seminary. Social pressure is very effective.
2. His foray into atheism was an experiment that didn’t feel good after a while. Perhaps he went away from atheism sorrowful, for he had had great possessions in faith.
This is humanism’s great project, to replace what faith had done for us so that we can live fulfilling lives without doing business with a God who treats the least among us so badly.
God either can’t or won’t reduce suffering futher. He is either weak or evil. There are no other options. I can’t love my neighbor and worship a God who abuses them at the same time. Since I’m forced to choose, I’m a 2nd Great Commandment guy.
I’m open to God, and I am still looking. I just haven’t found one worth worshiping. From what this guy wrote, he hasn’t either. He simply reverted back to his faith, without saying how he resolved its problems.
Same thing, but funny 🙂
Pastor Elnes, Thank You for sharing your dark days. As one who has experienced those and still does I know how hard it is to think about let alone share those feelings. Again, Thank You. Have a Blessed Easter, JRB
I think this is a great post, but I would counter your argument about Princeton being just affluent. I am a current MDiv student at PTS and I still hear that story from students today.
It is not the whole story. Students of color from Princeton schools are less likely to go to college than white students. Their families are more likely to be in Section 8 housing too. Families are being exploited in Princeton by corrupt landlords. Immigrants often live in cramped quarters within Princeton.
Sometimes I feel that people are more concerned about other communities than their own. If you ever come back to Princeton, contact me and lets walk around Princeton to see past the affluent side. I am honest about this offer.
Hi Greg, thanks for your thoughtful response. You make an excellent point, of course, and more people should know of that dynamic not only in Princeton but in any number of affluent communities. I myself grew up as part of a distinctly middle-class family in an affluent community (my parents taught in their schools when I was young). While we were not poor, I relate quite immediately to that feeling like you’re “not one of them.” I also know something of the prejudice people have toward people who live in wealthy communities – i.e., they assume you’re wealthy too and therefore have “no problems.” Funny, even though their assumption was wrong about my family’s wealth, I had far fewer problems than most of the wealthy kids I knew. I wouldn’t have traded my life for theirs for anything!
In any case, regarding Princeton specifically: During my eight years at Princeton Seminary I did indeed become familiar with that side of Princeton which few people knew of, partly because of my background which made me a bit more aware of the dynamic. During my time there I became friends with an African-American man who lived in one of Princeton’s Section 8 neighborhoods. As I recall, we became friends not too long after the experience I write of above. 🙂
Also I will let you know the next time I am in Omaha because we go there every so often because my fiance is from a hour east of there. I would love to get coffee sometime with you.
Also thank you for your response!
You’re on! I’d love to have coffee with you.
This is something I still struggle with. Thanks for sharing.
Wow – This post and its replies have moved me deeply to posit a comment so strongly that I can scarcely pull myself away to get my work done. Indeed, the gravitational pull is hard to escape. I want to thank you Eric for your honesty and clarity in expressing this. And Zeus your comments are equally illuminating. Thank you.
Ian – I will go listen to your tale as well. I just want to say – that having a forum who’s current flows so deep has been a long held prayer and countless hours of meditation have been spent envisioning what that might truly look like.
Combining live broadcasts with blogging – maintaining a focus during discussions, allows us all to interact and to dive as deep as we wish in search of those precious pearls of Wisdom. And wisdom is not something that exists in stasis waiting only to be discovered – it comes to us through personal experience – and as Eric and Ian have shared – it is an inescapable part of our journey.
And as Zeus so aptly points out – “This amazing transformation of the deepest darkness to the brightest light is talked about in the mystic traditions– Christian mysticism, Sufism, Sikhism, mystic Zen, Kabbalah. In Kabbalah they say, “Your garbage is your gift”. That which is blackest has the potential to make the most light. We are there now historically as a human race.”
This time of Passover and Easter is trying to tell us something. Passover is saying: Don’t passover the story too quickly – dive deep. Look inward – Look to the Now. See how we have all been slaves, must all pass through what seems like unassailable deserts. Easter: Open up – let your feelings reign – allow yourself to look into the darkness – all will take this journey into death. Look to the Now – make this life count. It is hard, but this too shall pass. We have all been betrayed by our own human race.
These are “our” stories. – Blessings of Love and Light to you All.
Thank you, Eric, for your transparency and vulnerability. My own gargantuan black hole experience was also in 1992! AND I seem to have others along the way – not as huge, but just as significant. Not sure that I have the b.h. in my gut as you claim, but I cycle in and around the Event Horizon frequently. Thanks for these deep theological words of inspiration.