Not too far from where I live is the old home place of the American hero, Helen Keller. When she was two years old, the extroverted little girl contracted a disease that took away both her sight and her hearing. Soon, her ability to communicate anything other her most basic desires was lost. She was left in near total mental isolation, scarcely able to communicate or even perceive most of the world around her. Hers must have been a terror-filled existence.
Brilliant but alone in her darkness, Helen and her family struggled with her frustration and confusion. Eventually, they hired Annie Sullivan as a tutor for Helen, and after considerable struggle, Anne achieved a breakthrough with little Helen. She taught her alphabetical language.
Helen’s first understood word, W-A-T-E-R, was uttered at an outdoor pump that is still at the Keller house in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
Keller’s world exploded when her language opened up, and her life began to soar. She would eventually become an activist for a number of causes and claimed as friends some of the world’s leading personalities. By the time she died in 1968, this deaf and blind girl from North Alabama was known by everybody in America.
Keller was a believer in God, whom she claimed to be aware of deep in her soul even before she could say who He is. In a letter to a friend, Keller explains that she had always known God, even before she had any way to describe Him. No one had taught her about God. She did not even know that the Bible existed. Her awareness of God was not the product of socialization, nor did she discover evidences through her senses. Rather, deep in her soul, Keller was simply born aware of the presence of God.
She explained: “They took away what should have been my eyes. They took away what should have been my ears. They took away what should have been my tongue. But I had talked with God when I was young. He would not let them take away my soul—possessing that, I still possess the whole.”
Americans now live secular lives where the enchantment of a world filled with the presence of God has been replaced by a flat, mechanistic materialism that leaves little room for belief. Indeed, it’s fascinating to consider that 500 years ago unbelief in God took real effort and was almost unthinkable. Today, it is belief in God that requires work—even for Christians. If you had drifted along the cultural currents of sixteenth century Europe, they would have led you to a sense of God’s presence, to some sort of religion, and to a metaphysical view of time and space. But the cultural currents of the West in 2017 hardly lead to any sense of the sacred or divine at all. Rather they lead to … where? Nowhere in particular. Materialism, by definition, has no metaphysic. It has no telos—no purpose or destiny. Therefore, it has no ethic. Today’s currents lead away from higher meanings, deeper truths, or anything we might call real spirituality. In today’s cultural current, the only surviving ethic is that of grabbing as much pleasure as you can before the ride is over. In the twenty-first century, you have to swim upstream to have faith in God.
As Charles Taylor observes in his magisterial work, A Secular Age, even the most secular Westerners cannot seem to let go of the haunted sense that there is something beyond us. Like Keller, even atheists live as though there is something more than mere matter. It’s not quite a God-shaped hole, but there is a nagging sense among Americans that materialism cannot be true. So, even while American Progressivism (home of Western materialism) pushes Christianity out to the margins, it continues to argue for metaphysical principles—maybe with more volume than before. After all, yelling is all you have left when you’ve pushed Truth out the door. So Progressives argue that there are no timeless ethics; then march in flaming indignation when they think their ethics have been violated. They insist that there is no room for God in the public square; then push their political and social agendas with such divine vengeance as to make the pope himself blush. Progressives speak passionately of justice, beauty, right and wrong—even though materialism absolutely renders these terms meaningless.
Because God is here, whether we acknowledge Him or not. And impressed on the heart of every human are the fingerprints of God.
Knowledge of God is indeed cultivated by socialization, but it is not dependent upon it. Abandoned as babies on a deserted island, raised by wolves and deprived of any cultural heritage, we humans would stillbelieve in God. And we would organize that belief into a religion. We would know God. It’s just an anthropological fact. We are, after all, made in His image.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the church in the West today is persuading (yes, persuading) a secular world that its impulses towards justice, aesthetics, ethics, and spirituality are actually the ongoing works of a living God upon our hearts. Helen Keller knew Him before she knew Him. We do, too.
The ghost in our hearts is the Holy Ghost. And the haunting is divine. In our secular age the witness of Christ faces stiff resistance. But His fingerprints are all over us. And so ours is the task of teaching the blind to see and the deaf to hear.