A few months ago, as I was settling down in an airplane for a long flight, I found myself unable to escape overhearing a very animated discussion in the row just behind me. There were two persons involved—a young man who loudly identified himself as a Jew by birth but an atheist by choice, and an older man whose religious identity was not named. The topic of discussion was Christianity, and at one point, interrupting the older man who had attempted to say something about some respect being owed to tradition, the young Jewish atheist said:
“If I were a Christian, or belonged to any religion, I would really go insane. I just wouldn’t be able to take it—the repetition, I mean, the monotony, the same thing over and over. Honestly, doing the same thing again and again would really drive me insane.”
When I heard these words, I almost leapt from my seat. Instead, I squirmed uncomfortably; an answer was burning on my tongue—but out of politeness or cowardice, I said nothing.
Perhaps because I had failed to defend Christianity, what this young man had said to attack it stayed with me long afterwards. His dread of repetition and monotony was something easy to understand. It is a sort of spiritual claustrophobia, a frustrated fear of being stuck in a rut and unable to get out, of being trapped in a monotonously unsatisfactory world and dying of boredom in it. This fear may come when a soul has become too accustomed to its daily routine—even its spiritual routine—and begins to feel confined by its own repetitious habits—seeing the same circle of faces every single day, the same pattern of getting up and going through the motions of the day and returning to bed. If the soul does not have a notion of something greater and deeper and wider than itself, something ever ancient and ever new, then it will erratically reach out in a desperate search for relief from the repetition of life, with an escapist thirst for novelties and alternate realities.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it!” When we begin to feel confined by the patterns of our lives, when our world begins to feel too small, it is not because it is shrinking, but because our heads our swelling. The monotony of daily chores unbearably chafe and even daily pleasures become tedious as long as we have notions that the world revolves around us—as long as we hold ideas that are quite literally self-centered. We need not break out of our little world but only out of our little selves into the wide world, to look up and see what we really are: infinitely small creatures caught up in the tide of God’s merciful love. Then we can not only bear the monotony of life but rejoice in it. For as Chesterton wrote:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon.”
If I had only had the courage to speak up to the atheist on the airplane, I would have asked him: might your mother drive you mad with monotony if she said “I love you” every day? Will you have to be put in a straightjacket if forced to look on yet another sunset? Summer vacation has a habit of coming again and again. So do birthdays, so do meals, so does your heartbeat, God willing. You’ve happily endured such repetition since the day you were born. So you may thank God for a little monotony in your life, but you’ll have to find some other excuse to run from religion.
That, perhaps, is what I should have said. But ultimately, I think prayers, not arguments, are needed in the endless Christian vs. atheist debate, because their frustration with things like repetition is a symptom of, not a reason for, their rejection of God. As Francis Thompson wrote in The Hound of Heaven: “Naught contentest thee, who content’st not Me.”