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Jeffrey Wald’s philosophy professor has an epiphany.
The professor was stumped and had been for a long, long time. He sat in his office, his oversized corduroy jacket appearing to wear him rather than the other way around. He was old, and now walked with a slight yet perpetual limp. But his mind was strong – strong as ever!
As he sat and pondered, he intermittently ran his long fingers through his thin hair like a rake through a patchy lawn. Before him, just to the left, sat an enormous stack of papers, coffee-stained, sun-foxed, crispy as parchment. On all the pages – three thousand or more – was the same tiny handwriting, almost illegible, but perfectly perpendicular. And on the topmost page, in bigger letters, the words Proofs For The Existence Of God. But directly in front of Professor Anselm William James sat a single blank page.
It had started as a proposal to God Quarterly, a small Midwestern journal of religion and philosophy. The proposal was simple to express: Professor James was to write a five thousand word essay expounding a new proof for the existence of God. He was thrilled when the journal accepted his proposal. There was just one difficulty: when he sat down to write the essay, his mind went blank.
No problem, he’d thought at first: he’d jump-start his creativity by explicating some of the extant proofs for God’s existence that he had been exploring in his manuscript. He began reading Aquinas’s Five Ways (his specialty)… But still nothing. Then Anselm’s ‘That Which Nothing Greater Can Be Thought’… Still nothing. Pascal’s Wager – not quite an argument for the existence of God, but he liked its creativity; and boy could he use some of that creativity. But still nothing! Whenever he switched from his lined pages, on which he wrote his notes from the extant proofs, to the unlined, plain computer paper he was going to use to write his own proof on, he became utterly stumped. Perhaps ten thousand times he had brought the tip of his pen (he always wrote with a blue pen) within a millimeter of the plain paper. But alas! He never wrote so much as a single dot.
‘No worries’, he’d told himself time and again, ‘It will come. Surely the inspiration will come. Meanwhile, I’ll keep plodding along.’ And that’s just what he did. For thirty-seven years. He’d tracked down, scrutinized, memorized, anthologized, and analyzed every single proof for the existence of God that existed. This began with the earliest – the Proof From Man’s Religious Nature – prehistoric cave art of suns and moons and stick-figure depictions of gods in the sky revealing the deities behind the religious impulse. It ended with the most recent, Mark Zuckerberg’s Proof from the Metaverse Blob. (A critic might be forgiven for being a bit suspicious of the last one: rather than proving the existence of God, it may only prove the existence of Mark Zuckerberg – although for Zuck, that may amount to one and the same thing.)
The old editor-in-chief of God Quarterly had been very patient. But now there was a new pilot at the helm, Dr Randy Chakrabarti from Creighton, a young guy who wore jeans, toms, and a Patagonia T-shirt under his blazer, and like a creditor, or the hound of heaven Himself, he had come a knockin’. He’d given Professor James until the end of the semester to submit his article or he was revoking its acceptance.
Autumn mountain foliage, Virginia © ForestWander 2011 Creative Commons
And now it was mid-November. The professor was under the gun, and he still hadn’t written a word. In fact, he’d wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, and clutch at his pained chest, which felt like God Himself was sitting on it. He’d make himself a pot of coffee and sit in the cracked leather chair in his study, listening to the grandfather tick tock away the hours. But far from midnight inspiration, he only ever received caffeine-induced headaches and acid indigestion from the gallons of coffee he drank per day.
For several months, he’d taken proactive measures. He’d unplugged the phone in his work office, even though he hadn’t received a call on it in over three years. He’d locked himself in his office (but to be fair, he couldn’t recall the last time he’d had a visitor, either from a student or a colleague). And, most drastically of all, he had drawn the blinds (like most philosophers, he was prone to daydreaming or stargazing out of windows). But still he’d written nothing. He’d bite the end of his blue pen, run his hand through his sparse hair, cough loudly as if attempting to dislodge a hairball, and even from time to time jab his right finger in the air. Exclaiming a lightbulb moment? Hardly. More likely he was jabbing a fly away.
In desperation, he’d stand and pace his office. Three steps. Wall. Turn. Three steps. Shelf. ‘Ah, what’s this here? Aquinas’s Summa Theologica in Latin.’ He’d pick it up and start reading – but then briskly put it down, muttering to himself, “No, no, I’ve been through that a thousand times. Five Ways. Always those blasted Five Ways – as if the fat monk defined the entire universe in a handful of arguments. Perhaps he had! But there must be a sixth. There just must be!”
Turn. Three steps. Desk. Turn. Three steps. Another shelf. ‘Ah, what’s here? Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker.’ He’d pick it up. “Not exactly a proof of God’s existence! But perhaps there’s something to respond to. Maybe it’ll give my creative juices a spark.” He’d read a little out-loud: “This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved.” At that he’d slam the book closed (although it was a cheap paperback copy and thus it lacked the force of a hardcover slam) and mutter to himself, “What rubbish. What pure, imbecilic nonsense!” But then he’d grow slightly ashamed, realizing that Dawkins had at least put pen to paper. And maybe he was right. His own lack of output perhaps demonstrated that the mystery was dead; that all had been solved. He’d look over at his manuscript then, walk to it, leaf through it, sometimes even bend down and smell it (and it did indeed have a distinctive scent). Then he’d sit again before his blank sheet of computer paper, pick up his blue pen, and try to write. But within minutes he’d think, ‘Oh what’s the use! Perhaps old Solomon was right, there’s nothing new under the sun, not even arguments for the existence of God! I should have given up long ago.’
So it went on, day after day, as his deadline steadily approached. Then suddenly one day there came a knock, knock, knocking on his door.
Professor James, who had tired himself out from pacing, had been napping, his head resting on his desk. He jerked awake and rushed to the door. The thought of a distraction more exciting than a mid-afternoon nap thrilled him.
He opened the door and found a petite young woman, brown hair pulled back in French braids, wearing glasses and a backpack. It was Elizabeth Forrest, a student in the ‘Faith and Doubt’ course he taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays: “Come in, come in,” he said, as he beckoned Ms Forrest into his office.
The overwhelming sensation of roasted coffee beans flooded her nostrils: it appeared to be coming from the professor’s jacket. She walked to the lone guest chair and stared at it. Half a dozen books and about three hundred student papers waiting to be graded already sat there.
“Oh, excuse me. Excuse me. Here, let me take those away. Have a seat. Have a seat. There, there, you go. Now you can sit… So, what brings you here, Ms Forrest?”
She sat down and stared shyly at the floor. “Well, um, I wanted to talk to you about class, professor.”
“Oh yes. Faith and Doubt. I’ve been teaching that course for a long, long time. It’s one of my favorites. Used to be that we’d get a good bit of vigorous debate going. In the Eighties and Nineties. But now… I don’t know what it is. Kids these days – I mean, I mean, students. Maybe all those stupid video games and YouTubing, but barely anyone grasps a simple Modus Tollens nowadays.” The professor stared at a spot on the wall above Ms Forrest’s head, lost in thought.
“Ah, well, umm …” she responded.
“Oh, oh, I don’t mean you, Ms Forrest. You’re a very capable student. The best I’ve had in years! But you didn’t come here to listen to me blabber about the good old days… Umm, why exactly did you come, Ms Forrest?” The professor looked directly at the young woman, but his praise did not assuage her shyness. She continued to stare at the floor as she spoke. “Yes, I’ve found the course very, um, interesting … But there’s something I wanted to ask you about. I mean, I don’t wish to disparage you or anything. You’re a very fine teacher and all. It’s just that – how to put it – I’ve begun to have doubts.”
“Oh, is that it?” said the professor, raking his scalp. “That does happen from time to time. The course is called ‘Faith and Doubt’, after all. But usually, it is the atheists who begin to have doubts on this course – the proofs for so far exceeding those against that any reasonably-minded atheist can’t help but have doubts. And you seem to grasp those arguments exceedingly well.”
The professor looked again at the wall, appearing deep in thought, perhaps considering how best to counsel his student. But Ms Forrest quickly responded, “No, no, not that kind of doubt. I’m beginning to doubt the project itself.”
“I’m afraid I’m not following. What do you mean?”
Make like a theological tree, and be leaves
Maple leaf © Joydip Dutt 2018 Creative Commons
Her voice rose a notch in tone as she continued. “I mean, I doubt whether we should be even trying to prove God’s existence, as if God were the answer to some calculus equation.”
“ Hmmm? Go on please.” The professor leaned back in his chair, studying the young woman’s face.
“Something just doesn’t seem right about it. Like it trivializes God or something. I can’t quite put my finger on it. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. You see, yesterday, after class, I went walking in the woods – you know, the ones just outside campus. And I was thinking about class, and our discussion of Aquinas’s Five Ways. And I got to the Second Way: God as First Cause, and I tried to puzzle it out. To think it through. For my sister, you see. Emma. She doesn’t believe. Never really has, I don’t think. She describes it almost as if she can’t believe. Quite frankly, she talks as if God Himself has removed the grace to believe from her – which would of course paradoxically imply a God doing the acting. But that’s neither here nor there. I so desperately want her to believe.
“I’ve never really struggled with belief myself. It’s sort of just always been there, a part of me. A childlike belief, yes; but one that’s grown from a pilot light into a forest fire. So I wanted to convince my sister, you see, prove to her once and for all that God exists – so that she might not simply know He’s there, but that He loves her. But the more I thought about God as First Cause, the more my own mind felt like it was stuck in circles, not getting anywhere. So I prayed – something like, ‘God, show me how to prove your existence to Emma. Please.’ And precisely then I heard a rustling and I looked up. I have a habit of staring down, you see, especially when I’m walking and thinking. But I looked up and I saw the forest. Really saw it. Birch and aspen, maples and oaks. Most of the leaves were on the ground. I didn’t realize it, but I’d been kicking them as I walked. But a few leaves still hung on, brilliant yellows and reds and oranges. They spun and twisted in the breeze, the sunlight creating a remarkable glow. And I just felt it. Felt Him. And I knew. Knew that if, if…” She jumped off her chair, ran to the window, and pulled open the blinds. A cascade of light entered as she finished: “I just knew that if this” – she pointed at the trees just outside the window – “couldn’t make a person believe… well, then, probably nothing could. At least no rational argument could.”
Professor James rose from his seat and stepped toward the window. He stood next to Ms Forrest, staring at a spot about thirty yards away. There, a lone maple leaf hung on a branch, twisting in the breeze. It was brilliantly red and dappled in yellow, and it reflected the light with stunning luminosity. Then a gust came and lifted it, and tore it from its branch. It rose, then dropped, spun, flipped. It seemed to dance. It was remarkably free and unencumbered, and yet, mysteriously, seemed led by an invisible hand. And then with one last flip, it landed, very softly, atop a pile of freshly fallen leaves. The professor gasped. Then he turned and wrapped Ms Forrest in a great hug – as big a hug as a skinny old man can give – and exclaimed, “You’ve done it! My dear, thank God, you’ve done it. Brilliant! Simply brilliant!” He opened his office door, and was gone in an instant.
Ms Forrest stood there, puzzled for a moment. Then she saw movement out of the window: it was Professor James running into a pile of leaves! He bent down, grabbed the topmost leaf, a perfect red and dappled yellow maple specimen, and held it aloft, staring at it in rapture and wonder. Then he pocketed it and was off.
* * *
Later that night the professor’s wife was astonished to see him picking up the dead twigs and branches that had fallen in their yard over the course of the summer. She’d been at her husband to finish the yard work before the first snow fall, but he was always distracted. That blasted proof! But not tonight. He was on a mission. She watched him make a teepee of sticks atop an enormous stack of papers, coffee-stained, sun-foxed, crispy as parchment. Then she watched as he brought out his lighter (he smoked a pipe from time to time), smiled, whispered the word “Farewell”, struck the lighter, and lit the topmost page. The first couple of pages licked and flicked, but then soon rolled up into a consuming fire. Soon, the stack was fully ablaze, then the twigs and branches. ‘I ignited the lighter, which lit the paper, which burned the wood… but… but, who made the hand that struck the lighter?’ Prof James thought, and smiled. ‘Bother, it doesn’t matter anymore,’ he further thought as he patted the pocket on his corduroy jacket.
Several weeks later, just before Christmas break, Dr Randy Chakrabarti, wearing jeans, toms, and a Patagonia T-shirt under his blazer, received a manila envelope in the mail. The return address listed Dr Anselm James, 1010 Wonder Way, as the sender. ‘Finally!’ he thought, ‘That old nit has sent me his blasted article.’ But when he turned the opened envelope upside-down to dump its contents onto his desk, a sole red and yellow leaf descended, swooping, and dancing, to land gently, as if placed by the hand of God Himself, on Chakrabarti’s manuscript, titled New Proofs For The Existence of God.
© Jeffrey Wald 2022
Jeffrey Wald is an attorney living and writing in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St Paul.