A doctor once suggested that I use hypnosis to gain access to a self-critical inner voice that has plagued me since childhood. She said that the issues that had led me to seek treatment were unlikely to respond to conventional talk therapy. While the prospect of a cure appealed to me, I worried that any attempt to hypnotize me would be met by opposition from my rational mind. Over time, I came to agree with the therapist’s prognosis and accepted her offer. As our first session approached, my skepticism gave way to excitement: the reflexive disapproval that had sapped my self-esteem for so long might finally be silenced. Yet from the moment the therapist began to talk, my mind clung to its bearings in the physical world—cars passing outside, a door closing in the hallway, an itch on my foot. After several tries, she gave up. I wasn’t proud of my resistance and still wonder what effect a successful treatment might have had on the thoughts that continue to get in the way of my happiness.

“If the grace of God miraculously operates,” William James writes in Varieties of Religious Experience, “it probably operates through the subliminal door.” The same qualities that led me to try hypnosis but kept me from surrendering to it also seem to govern my response to religious influence, in particular my ability to have faith in someone or something intangible. I pray regularly, but without any clear sense of whom I am addressing or whether I am being heard. My prayers help me, but I’m also guilty of using them as a hedge against the possible consequences of not praying—lightning strikes, health crises, my plane going down the next time I fly. (Perhaps this kind of superstitious thinking underlies all religious belief.) As for the existence of God, I can’t bring myself to discount it, though I find arguments in favor of atheism incontrovertible. It’s this contradictory nature of my faith, unfounded but unshakeable, that makes me want to figure out more precisely what I believe and draw comfort from it.

I identify my faith primarily through the process of elimination—I can’t imagine living without it, so I must have it. But just as I can’t commit unequivocally to atheism, I also can’t conceive of an abiding, life-ordering faith, particularly in a deity such as Christ, who despite (or because of) my Christian upbringing is only perceptible to me in representations on stained glass windows and New Testament book covers. I don’t feel Christ directing or protecting me, nor do I have a realistic relationship with him such as devout Christians claim to have. The idea of nature as a source of spiritual power appeals to me, but nature only inspires me with its beauty, not the transcendent qualities that Emerson or Spinoza claim for it. (“All thrills and no work” is how C.S. Lewis dismisses religions that find God in nature.) So if the faith that I possess is not derived from or directed at nature or Christ or any other deity, then what or whom do I have faith in? Who is my “God as we understand him,” as Alcoholics Anonymous calls its higher power so as to encourage nonbelievers into its fold?

Continued in Confrontation 119, Spring 2016.