Peter Schjeldahl is an art critic who has been writing for The New Yorker since 1988. In 2019 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Some weeks later, in one of the first pieces he wrote following the diagnosis, he describes his cancer as “rampant.” Almost flippantly, he adds, “No surprise. I’ve smoked since I was sixteen.”
The article contains the kind of reflections you might expect from someone who’s come face-to-face with their mortality in the later years of their life. Appreciation of loved ones and of being loved. Regret for things he’s done or neglected to do. He’s still haunted by a friend’s suicide that happened decades ago, and you can feel his anguish as he wonders about the “what ifs,” the possibilities of what might have been – what if he could have intervened?
He wrestles with other questions too, some he had long ignored—or effectively held at a great distance—but which seem to press in with renewed vigor now that death has come knocking. In one place he writes, “‘I believe in God’ is a false statement for me because it is voiced by my ego, which is compulsively skeptical. But the rest of me tends otherwise. Staying on an ‘as if’ basis with ‘God,’ for short, hugely improves my life.”
When he was younger Schjeldahl was an avowed atheist. But he claims that growing older has softened him, warming him a bit to the possibility of God. Still, “God” is in scare quotes, left undefined, generalized, possible but unknown.
Haunted by a Possibility
Maybe this is what it is to be haunted. Schjeldahl is admittedly not religious, but the idea of God, the possibility of God, remains for him as not just a “what if?”, but an “as if.” No longer denied, yet still held perhaps further away than even arm’s length. As a reader, I wonder why this is the case. The author is cagey about his answer, saying about his rather tentative belief, “it hugely improves my life.” How, one wonders? On this point, he’s even more elusive. “Disbelieving is toilsome,” he says. “It can be a pleasure for adolescent brains with energy to spare, but hanging on to it later saps and rigidifies.”
To allow oneself to be haunted by the possibility of God is, it seems, less laborious than to maintain a thoroughgoing disbelief.
Philosopher James K. A. Smith (who put me on to Schjeldahl’s piece) notably describes the hauntedness and even ambiguity of belief in our present age when he highlights a brief moment from the life of Steve Jobs. Well-known as one of the founders of Apple, Jobs was undoubtedly influential in creating the device upon which this piece was written.
Smith cites Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, who recounted:
One sunny afternoon, when he wasn’t feeling well, Jobs sat in the garden behind his house and reflected on death… “I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God,” he said. “For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.”
Spiritual but Not Religious
In this regard, Jobs is well within the majority. While growing numbers of people are disaffiliating with traditional or institutional versions of religion, lack of belief is not growing. To be spiritual but not religious is becoming more and more common. According to a study by the Fetzer Institute, only about 11% of people claim to be neither spiritual nor religious. The rest are somewhere on the spectrum of slightly spiritual or religious to very much so.
Isaacson’s account of Jobs’ reflecting on death in his backyard garden continues:
He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds out of a desire to believe in an afterlife. “I like to think that something survives after you die,” he said. “It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.”
He fell silent for a very long time. “But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch,” he said. “Click! And you’re gone.”
Then he paused again and smiled slightly. “Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.”
If there is anyone who represents the enlightened view that religion is at best unnecessary and at worst, silly, one might think a technological innovator like Jobs would be near the top of the list. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, here he is, reflecting back to us that even he was haunted by the specter of “God” and the eternality of the soul.
Questions beyond the limits
Philosophers, scientists, anthropologists, and many other experts have noted that the claims of science are limited when it comes to a variety of subjects. Some questions simply extend beyond the purview of science: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What happens when we die? Where did we come from?
That’s not to say that science doesn’t propose some answers to those questions. But science is nevertheless limited in what can be claimed in response to them. This is because science is committed to metaphysics that claims reality is entirely physical. Claims about the beginning of all things then, from a scientific perspective, will always be limited to theoretical physics. So we pursue it via other avenues, such as philosophically like the Greeks did, or religiously like Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and others have for millennia.
Metaphysics also asks questions like “do we have souls?” and “if there is such as thing as a soul, what kind of thing is it?” It’s questions like these that function to demarcate some of the boundaries of science, such that when we begin to explore them, we are crossing an unforeseen boundary and dipping our toes into the world of religion.
Daring to consider religion
Facing the fact that we’re all going to die often raises questions similar to those above: What happens after we die? Is there such a thing as an afterlife? Does the way we conduct our life have consequences for an afterlife? Do we live on as disembodied souls (and does our body matter)?
Here we return to the reflectiveness of Schjeldahl and Jobs. Their questions are common. Many of us ask them from time to time. We’re all haunted by these questions. They press in at key moments in life.
The thought “we’re all gonna die” can act as a kind of wake-up call, inspiring questions like those asked by Jobs and Schjeldahl, and it indicates how persistently we are haunted by the possibility that there might be something more, something unseen, something enchanted, something beyond.
Could there be other indications haunting us about the possibility of something more? We love movies and stories and images that present alternative realities. Filled with magic, powerful beings, and mystical conflicts embedded in the storied lore of the fantasy world, these stories generate dramas and suspense that pull us in time and time again.
What if our love of enchanted stories persists because we miss a reality like this, causing us to wonder if there might not be more than we can see, something transcendent…maybe even God? What if we were created for such a reality as this?
Maybe you’re a doubter, an agnostic. Like Schjeldahl or Jobs, you’re skeptical of religious claims. And sometimes, you’re proud of it—the famous atheist Friedrich Nietzsche thought it brave to disbelieve, throwing off the so-called comforts of religion in the face of cold, hard reality.
Yet, perhaps sometimes, when you’re alone, awoken in the middle of the night by who knows what, you’re confronted by the fact that sometimes you doubt your doubts. Maybe there is a transcendent reality.
Maybe there is life after death. What would it mean if it were true?