An Atheist in Awe

Apparently Oprah Winfrey has caused some flap amongst atheists in the wake of her recent interview with famed swimmer Diana Nyad. On Sunday's "Super Soul Sunday," Oprah questioned Diana about her religious beliefs. 


The issue, as far as it is an issue, centers on exchange between the two. Nyad asserts herself an atheism, but that she is a person who is deeply in awe.
Nyad: I can stand at the beach's edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist...go on down the line, and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity...all the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt...
Oprah: Yeah
Nyad: ...and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity. And as we return to...
Oprah: Well, I don't call you an atheist then! I think if you believe in awe...and the wonder...and the mystery...that is what God is
Critics have been quick to take aim at both personalities. Nyad is critiqued for a rather milquetoast and wishy-washy stance on accepting the beliefs of others; Oprah takes heat because, it is assumed, she is so benighted as to be unable to conceive an atheist standing in a state of awe.

In 1979, an interviewer commented to Karl Rahner, "I have never had an experience of God."

Rahner's response is interesting. He writes:
I don't believe you; I just don't accept that. You have had, perhaps, no experience of God under this precise code-word God but you have had or have now an experience of God - and I am convinced that this is true of every person...
This inner experience of God is naturally (and necessarily) very difficult to describe. What love is, what fidelity is, what longing is, what immediate responsibility is - are all things that are difficult to express and to think about. We start stuttering, and what we say sounds odd, provisional, difficult. But that doesn't prove that a person has not had experiences of fidelity, responsibility, joy, truth, love, and so on. And so it is with experience God. (Karl Rahner in Dialogue, 211)
 I have a sympathy for Oprah's position insofar as I believe the experience of awe, astonishment awakening us to the sheer givenness of creation, throws the thinker off balance. A feeling of the infinitude of the cosmos coupled with shock that I stand here, now, to behold it. Awe at the givenness and fragility of all creation: this, for Oprah and for Rahner, raise the question of God.

To be sure, this does not arrive at the Trinity or Jesus or the Shroud of Turin or Infant of Prague. This awe, however, does stir a question: Why something rather than nothing, why anything at all? The awe we experience of creation...as a gift, perhaps?...makes us mindful that it might not just be there after all. The experience of awe draws us out of ourselves and makes us mindful of the whole of creation - so vast and so fragile - and this sense of awe, an awe that brings tears to the eyes or strikes us silence, is the awe that falls over us, forces us to kneel or to bow, and to listen to see if the great silence of the creation may speak to us, may reveal itself to us, not as coldly indifferent to us and our questions but, rather, as a source of love.


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