"I haven't been to church for a few years. My parents put me through the early stuff but then seemed to lose interest. Anyway, as I got older two things began to bother me about religion, and God, and I can remember one summer day I went down to the creek behind that big can company a few miles from my house. If you move to just the right spot, you can't see anything but bushes and the creek itself, and it feels like being in the country. It was sunny and hot and I stopped dead still and said out loud that I didn't believe any of it and then waited for something to happen. Nothing did, of course. I've thought about it a lot since. The funny thing is that almost every single person I really like—Sean, Laurel, Mr. Regis—is religious."
Helen opened her eyes and looked at him in concern. "What were the two things?"
"They're not really separate…" He paused. Helen closed her eyes again and strained to listen. Dante began speaking, slowly and carefully.
"The first thing is about science. Part of it is really obvious: that science never mentions God. But that's easy to explain. As soon as science allows itself to say that things are this way or that way because it's the way God made them or wants them to be, the whole enterprise collapses—because you could say that about anything. So science doesn't allow God to have any part in its explanations. Now maybe this is just a kind of artificial constraint to help us keep learning about the world, but that still brings me to something that I think is more serious." He looked off at the horizon.
"In school we have biology, chemistry, and physics. There's more to science than that, of course, but these three subjects are enough to make the point, and I don't think it's a coincidence, by the way, that they are mostly taught in this order. Biology is about living things, and think how we study them. We break them up into separate systems, like breathing and circulation, and then into organs and then into cells and then into parts of cells, and so on. At some point, you see, biology becomes chemistry, and in the same way chemistry ultimately becomes physics. Now, I'm not saying that these aren't different subjects. If you want to say something interesting about a living thing as a living thing, you use the language of biology; the language of chemistry operates at the wrong level, and the language of physics even more so. But I am saying that there are no seams as you pass between these levels. Everything is part of one big network, even if that network has to take a shock every now and then when new things are discovered."
"I see…so far. But where's the problem with God?"
"Okay." He took a shallow breath and exhaled a question: "Why doesn't your sister believe in Santa Claus anymore?"
Helen smiled at the memory of a tiny girl's indignation. "Because a kid told her."
"But why did she believe the kid? Especially when she would really rather have continued to believe in Santa Claus."
"Because you reach a point when it just doesn't make sense anymore."
"Exactly. There are just too many places where believing breaks contact with the rest of our network of learning and experiences. That's the problem with God. There's this all-encompassing, seamless network of science that never mentions God and never makes contact with it. I don't know what to make of that. I don't know who does. Do you?"
"Tell me the second thing first, the other thing that bothered you."
"That's much easier to explain. Helen, I see you and I hear you. More importantly, when you speak, I know that the words and ideas are coming from your mind, your person, not mine. I have a direct sense of your being and otherness. But I have listened as hard as I can for a long time. I listened hard that day by the creek behind the can company. I'm still listening, with my whole mind. And I don't hear anything. And it's not as if I'm afraid to hear God—it would make life so much easier if I did. I know a story where one of the characters says, 'God is always silent, always.' Why should that be? I know that some people say it's God's way of giving us freedom, but you know that your mother exists, and you're still free to ignore her wishes—even if you don't."
He fell silent and lay back on the sand, staring up into the sky. Their shoulders and arms touched.
Helen spoke gently. "I can't help you much with either of those things, Dante. About science, from what you described, all I can say is this: since it's doing everything it can to miss God, maybe you shouldn't be too surprised that it does. About the other thing, I can't answer you at all, except very indirectly."
Helen paused, gathering her thoughts. Dante lay beside her at first merely waiting, and then suddenly aware that she was struggling with something precious inside herself.
Helen took Dante's left hand in her own and pressed it to her heart. She covered their clasped hands with her other palm, to press down yet more firmly. She began to speak. Dante closed his eyes, to allow her a kind of privacy in this moment. But he could feel the rhythm of her breath, and he could hear the catch in her voice, and he knew that she was crying. The tears ran from the corners of her eyes, across her temples, and dripped onto the towel, finally to be absorbed into the sand.
"Dante, for eleven years I had a wonderful father. I have a mother I love dearly, who adores me. I have a sister I adore, who loves me dearly. And here I am, lying at the edge of a continent, in this magnificent sunshine, listening to this vast ocean, surrounded by all of these silly, sweet birds. Here I am, lying at the edge of a continent—with you. My life has been blessed. Even if some huge wave came up right now to drown me, my life would still have been blessed. And that means that someone, or something, must exist to have made this blessing."
He was quiet for a few seconds, simply feeling the life next to his. When he spoke, his own voice caught.
"Helen…if that wave ever did come…you know that I would give everything in me that you should never be hurt."
"I know. That's just what I meant, Dante. Do you see?"