I had a hard time sleeping the other night. It started around midnight, long after my wife and all the animals had gone to sleep. Indeed, I had drifted off at 8:30 or so. We are early to bed and early to rise, although I steal several hours in the dead of most nights to read, the purest of solitary pleasures.
So I awoke, and lay abed for a spell trying to drift away. It was quiet. I puzzled over legal problems in some of my cases. When they were sorted and left to percolate, I tossed and turned again. I wasn’t troubled; no, I was excited. I couldn’t stop thinking about several of the books I’ve been reading in recent weeks, and how eager I was to begin another.
At 12:45, I turned the light on. My wife did not stir. Neither did the cars. All else was quiet, my mind once again drawn to an impossible thought, a question that has been haunting me now for decades, but which I can rarely mutter the courage to utter aloud: Is the Kingdom of God at hand?
I portray myself as a pagan, a godless sort wandering through the years with no particular destination in mind, and no place in the wider world of spirit to call home. But is that entirely candid? I cannot help but wonder, year after year in arguments forever waged in the silence of my mind, whether there is more to the world that we can sense. I want there to be more. But I do not trust my desire.
So I’ve been reading books about the historical Jesus. I have an annotated bibliography of historical Jesus research on the bookshelf next to my desk. I am working through several works by current scholars, and I am sketching out a broader reading plan. A copy of Thomas Chubb’s “The True Gospel of Jesus Christ Asserted,” written in 1737, arrived the other day. The scholars mark his work as a turning point in modern times.
How did a young Jewish manual laborer come to loom so large that his birth divides the millennia into eras? This is a mystery to me. And it is a fact about which I have scoffed, ridiculing those who find consolation in old tales implausibly told.
I am hesitant to write candidly about this interest of mine. In recent years, several prosecutors against whom I have litigated have become friends. They pray for me, they say. One sends books; another recommends G.K. Chesterton. We sometimes talk about things unrelated to our avocations as lawyers but about our true vocation as men alive to the world’s possibilities. They see God’s hand at work in the world, but I am blind.
Last night, I opened a recent work on Jesus’s parables, and it is as if blinders fell from my eyes. I saw no vision of the divine, and I heard no voice. I am not Saul on the road to Damascus. Unlike Joshua, my hip is unbroken after a night of wrestling. But yet the author’s rendering of the parables as means of illustrating Jesus’s conviction that the Kingdom of God is at hand did not fall on ears made entirely of stone. Are there truths there, just beyond the words?
A good friend professes shock when I tell him what I am reading. Jesus? He had his fill at the hands of the nuns. I tell him I, too, thought I’d had my fill, although those who fed me were Protestant. But then I tell him a truth I had not expected to utter. There is more to the life of this enigmatic preacher than I had realized. Is this a sign of something akin to belief, and if so, belief in what, exactly? I am puzzled and as alive as I was when as a child I first read with wonder and hope about a man I have long since forsaken. What, I wonder, will help my unbelief?
Norm Pattis is a criminal defense lawyer and civil rights attorney in Bethany.