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Home | Episode #74
All the Way Home
June 3, 2021 | Student Producer:

Lily Yates
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All the Way Home
Junior Thomas Sanbeg explores his spirituality through the metaphor of nature. (11 minutes)

Uh, to begin here I’d like to acknowledge, up-front, that my story revolves around one

of the most highly contentious topics of the, well... last 2,021 years. That is—it deals with

matters of faith, particularly Christianity, and my own journey with it. However, as merely a part to the whole of

humanity—at that, a 21-year-old part to the whole—I do not intend to make claims about the

reality or unreality of religion. Rather, I only wish to share my own experience with it—an

experience that may or may not contribute to yours. I am not prescribing moral advice and

instead may be striving to draw us out of our own moral convictions? To look at them critically,

and question how certain we can be of what is... uncertain. I have no intention of telling you

what to do when you leave this place of uncertainty, but merely wish to bring you along to it. If

you’ll allow me:

This journey begins in Colorado Springs, Colorado—the place of my birth. About an

hour south of Denver, my family lived on a few acres within the “Black Forest,” a forest that

doesn’t actually refer to a forest, but an unincorporated area. Though, at the age of seven, it

seemed about as real as any forest. Its arching pine trees were tall enough to block the view in

any given direction, providing a sense of seclusion, but slender enough to grant the passage of an

adolescent. Many of my childhood afternoons were spent delving into these woods, venturing

out in a different direction until I reached an area that had hitherto been unexplored. It was here,

in this place, that I made a home. It was in the unknown, that I found a love for getting lost.

At the age of eight, following a job offer in the Pacific Northwest, my family decided to

up and out and head to the state of Washington. I still remember us pulling out of our driveway

for the last time, in our old Chevrolet Tahoe, the sky glistening blue as twilight descended—the

kind of blue that you only ever find ‘mile-high’.

My family’s westward expansion landed us in the suburbs outside of Seattle—quite the

shift from the Black Forest of Colorado Springs. Though mountains were still a drive away, the

ones closest to us culminated at a mere 4000 feet, and it would take some time for me to acquaint

myself with them.

But, however gradually, I began to reintroduce myself to the outdoors—though this

version was very different from the one I’d known in Colorado. Instead of evenly distributed

Pines with nothing but needles on the ground between, the forest floors of Washington were

matted down with overgrowth, making for a landscape that even a now 17-year-old struggled to

navigate. The forests of Washington came to reflect the discord of my own coming of age, my

parents having filed for a divorce and myself drifting from what friends I’d had. With no sky in

sight, the forest canopy bearing down upon me, I started to question if there was a way out.

Trampling through this kind of growth, it’s no wonder that I found the desert floor of Southern

California so appealing.

I still remember the first time I glimpsed Californian Desert. It was during my freshman

year of college, when I began to venture east from San Diego. It wasn’t until March of that year,

though, that I crested the last ridgeline of the Peninsular Mountains to see the desert expand

before me. I was ecstatic, for there was no getting lost here, where the only thing limiting your

sightline was the curvature of the Earth. It was as though, through my time in Washington, I’d

lost myself out of a desire to be lost—I’d always been inclined to ask questions, but I was tired

of waiting for their answers. The same disposition that Colorado had so carefully cultivated in

me—the propensity towards uncertainty—was gone. Hence, my turning to the clarity provided

by the desert... and religion.

When talking to a classmate about what it was I found so captivating about the desert, I

explained, “There’s something so beautiful in the desolation; when there’s nothing, we’re

reminded that there is still Something... when we hit rock-bottom, the only way to turn is up.”

And so I did, from the unobstructed view of the desert floor, I turned to the sky to put my faith in

the Man above. Within my first week at USD, I'd been brought to Mass by a friend, but it wasn’t

until the start of my sophomore year that I really committed to the Catholic faith. I found the

intellectual tradition of the faith fascinating, and the conversations I had with my roommate

reflected this, helping us both grow in our understanding of our faith. I think the thing that both

of us failed to realize, though, was that no matter how much you try to rationalize a faith, you

can’t reason your way into believing anything; we are not rational creatures, but emotional ones.

As such, my first crisis of faith was heavily intuition-based. I didn’t know why I felt the

way I did, but I knew that I felt... a way. And it wasn’t good. Having been drawn to

Philosophy through my stint with faith, I found myself in an Ethics course by the spring semester

of my sophomore year. It was in this course that I was first exposed to the work of Frederich

Nietzsche... I laugh because Nietzsche is one of the most infamous critics of religion, and I think

it’s probably a cliche to say that he “turned me into an atheist”. And it was just a matter of time,

until what that truly meant would set in.

As I headed back home to Washington at the onset of the pandemic, I was right back in

the thick of the brush, both physically in space, as I returned to the outdoors of the Pacific

Northwest, and intellectually, no sky nor heaven above to inspire the answers to my questions.

In fact, it seemed that—shut off as I was from this light—I no longer even needed to ask

questions; I had it all figured out, and the answer was that there is no answer. Existence is

absurd.

It was from this place that I approached a class this past fall, a class on Nietzsche and

Nihilism, or the belief in no intrinsic value. Through this class, I actually came to quite like the

idea of an existence without God, pushing myself to smile in the face of all the freedom that

comes of a life without God. Even if I’d accepted that the world may never be so orderly, I felt

that I’d at least returned to this one.

But, as a theology class made clear this past Intersession, the question of whether or not

atheism truly had brought me back to this world remained. It seemed that, just as religion

provided me with answers to my questions, so too did atheism; a negating answer is, nonetheless,

an answer. That there is no answer, or that “Existence is absurd,” is able to explain a sequence

of events in the same way an appeal to “God’s plan” can, both hinging on their diagnoses of our

metaphysical existence, and both dependent upon conclusions that come from a place far beyond

our physical existence on Earth. In other words, I came to realize that believing in no God is just

as much a faith as believing in a God. Dr. Monge’s class, the “Problems of God,” revealed to me

the problems of believing in no God. Atheism had landed me right back in the Heavens, a place

of faith, frowning down on the world below me—the world that I had yet to return to.

This presented a conundrum of sorts; if I don’t deny the existence of God, does that mean

I believe in God? To reinstate our metaphor of place, if I don’t remain in Washington, where the

heavens do not exist—shrouded as they are by the dense growth of the forest—does that mean I

return to the desert, where all anyone can see is the sky above? Not necessarily, for somewhere

in between, there exists Colorado, where the sky can be glimpsed between the trees overhead,

but the horizon lingers out of sight from within the Black Forest; though the heavens can inspire

awe and wonder, they refrain from providing any kind of navigational compass for us here, on

Earth.

This position is known as agnosticism, which maintains that it cannot be known whether

or not God exists. This may seem like a ‘cop-out’ of sorts; am I really not going to take a stance

on the issue at hand: does God exist, or does God not exist? I won’t say—not because I don’t

have a desire to know the truth, but because I think that continuing to expect an answer to this

question would be missing the point. The fact remains that, regardless of how much I wish to

know, the truth of the matter is beyond us—so why would I even pretend to have an answer to it.

Instead of clinging to the certainty of an answer, I learned to sit comfortably with the

uncertainty of a question. When I think back on what drove me to religion, to atheism, in the

first place, it was this seeking of answers—answers that I was adamant were out there. But, if I

consider what I could have avoided had I not been so certain of anything, had I been content to

let my questions linger, I would never have surrendered what my home had instilled in me—not

just my home in Colorado, but my home on this Earth.

A life on this planet is a fascinating thing; we are thrown into existence, without any kind

of choice in the matter. As such, we are bound to ask questions like, “Am I here for a reason?”

We are bound to ask questions, that do not get answers. We were all born to wander; to love

getting lost—the same disposition that my childhood in the Black Forest of Colorado had

inspired in me.

Gary Paul Nabhan, on a trip to the Grand Canyon, realized “how much time adults spend

scanning the landscape for picturesque panoramas and scenic overlooks... while the kids were

on their hands and knees, engaged with what was immediately before them”. When I was a

child, running through the backwoods of Colorado, I didn’t care about the questions that weren’t

available to me; I was preoccupied with navigating the forest that was present to me, I was, quote

“engaged with what was immediately” before me. The world around me, the people around me,

filled me with such wonder, that I didn’t have a need to wonder at the existence of God. And

this, I conjecture, is what made that blue sky of Colorado so special; as close to the heavens as I

was, I was still so far away. There was a distance between what was ‘out-there’, and what was

here; and I didn’t have any kind of a desire to close the distance between.

Rebecca Solnit writes, “the color of that distance is the color of an emotion... the color

of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never

go, for the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric

distance between you and the” horizon. Heaven is not so alluring because it's the land where

promises come true, but because the certainty it provides is so far from us. This is to say that

uncertainty colors our own existence; the distance between a question, and its answer, is what

makes the space in between so beautiful. I’ve come to embrace this expanse, respecting the

distance between here and there. And through my welcoming of our experience on Earth, I’ve

seen color flow back into my world; I’ve caught a glimmer of that same blue, that you only ever

find... mile-high.