Through Painted Deserts

Donald Miller ponders the big questions of life in Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road:

Rarely do I question the mystery of it all. We are atoms connected to create big, awkward, intelligent animals, animals complex in construction, equipped with minds, hearts, and the like. Spinning secretly around us is an intricate system of interconnected physical laws, completely dependent upon one another for effectiveness. And we rae in the middle of it: actors on Shakespeare’s state, madmen on Nietzche’s streets, accidents in Sagan’s universe, children in God’s creation.

And I suppose part of my wanting to leave Houston is to attempt an understanding of this mystery. My life, this gift I have been given, has been wasted, thus far, attempting to answer the meaningless questions. Recently I have come to believe there are more important questions than the how questions: How do I get money, how do I get laid, how do I become happy, how do I have fun? On one of our trips to central Texas, I stood at the top of a desert hill and looked up into the endlessness of the heavens, deep into the inky blackness of the cosmos, those billion stars seeming to fall through the void from nowhere to nowhere. I stood there for twenty minutes, and as it had a few times that year, my mind fell across the question why?

The question terrified me at first. I had only recently begun questioning my faith in God, a kind of commercial, American version of spirituality. I had questions because of the silliness of its presuppositions. The rising question of why had been manifesting for some time, and had previously only been answered by Western Christianity’s propositions of behavior modification. What is beauty? I would ask. Here are the five keys to a successful marriage, I would be given as an answer. It was as if nobody was listening to the question being groaned by all of creation, groaned through the pinings of our sexual tensions, our broken biochemistry, the blending of light and smog to make our glorious sunsets. I began to believe the Christian faith was a religious system invented within the human story rather than a series of true ideas that explained the story. Christianity was a pawn for politicians, a moral system to control our broken natures. The religion did seem to stem from something beautiful, for sure, but it had been dumbed down and Westernized. If it was a religious system that explained the human story, its adherents had lost the grandness of its explanation in exchange for its validation of their how lifestyles, to such a degree that the why questions seemed to be drowning in the drool of Pavlov’s dogs. And it wasn’t just the church that was drowning; it was all of humanity or, at least, all of the West. Our skyscrapers and sports teams, our malls and our master-planned neighborhoods, our idiot politics, our sultry media promising ecstasy with every use of a specific dishwashing detergent. What does all of this mean? Are we animals nesting? Are we rats in one giant cage, none of us able to think outside our instinct? And does my faith live within these instincts, always getting me to my happiness, or is it larger, explaining the why of life, the how a shallow afterthought?

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