For Every Idle Word

Even in our speech we are always accountable to God


Atheism Faith

When I was a kid in the 1950s, a uniformed policeman with white gloves would direct the flow of traffic at busy intersections. Not any more. Now computerized robots do it better. Despite the advances of artificial intelligence by 2001, we humans still had to program unique routines into each traffic signal.

For 28 years I was a City of San Diego resident electrical engineer for north city construction sites, ranging from fire stations and pumping facilities to street lighting for new housing tracts. I traveled 24,000 miles a year inspecting jobs-in-progress for errors and omissions, and conducted operation tests before approving contract payments.

Tom, one of my city technicians, would arrive early for the scheduled turn-on of a modified or new traffic signal. That was when he gave our robot-in-a-box the instructions for its signal phasing routine. A glance inside that man-sized, gray cabinet revealed its brain lobes flashing red and yellow: LEDs peeping from metal modules arrayed on trays.

He’d studied a year at MIT, dropped out to spend three years at a Catholic seminary, decided against that vocation, then married and had a son. After graduating college, I spent ten years on a penniless pilgrimage following Christ in a self-directed ministry. I became a postulant of the Trappists, a Catholic religious order, but decided not to join. We both had had a religious calling and seemed destined to meet. 

Occasionally we’d experience a pause in the signal testing protocol, maybe from a grounding fault or a malfunctioning signal head. Awaiting the contractor’s repair, he and I would launch into discussions about religion. We didn’t talk about the San Diego Padres or the looming pension issue. We’d have debates about God, and that could get, well, challenging.

“You turned atheist. Why?” I asked, surprised on learning he was a former seminarian.

“How can a loving Creator permit all the misery, pain and suffering of poor, innocent children?” His hands punctuated the air with the fervor of a wanna-be street preacher.

“To allow crippling birth defects past the womb, to wink at overpopulation in a world of limited resources where hungry children daily die from starvation — that doesn’t sound like a caring God to me. I could go on and on, about the Roman Catholic Church discouraging contraception, divorce, euthanasia, abortion, and homosexuality, but offering little practical advice to reverse the overcrowding of this Petri dish called Earth.”

“What about the Christian beatitudes?” I said.

“Don’t fight and kill your enemies, embrace and forgive them. What absolute nonsense. We’d all be anti-Semitic Nazis right now if Germany hadn’t been flattened, along with its advanced jet fighter planes, V2 rockets, and its secret atomic bomb.”

“And you don’t believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of the Living God?” I asked.

“I don’t believe Jesus had a miraculous virgin birth. It’s an oft-repeated myth since prehistoric times, going way back to that Hindu god, Krishna, who supposedly conceived himself. Christ was one of many great teachers, but not actually God the Son. Adults who imagine he’s actually God are like gullible seven-year-olds who believe in Santa Claus.”

Tom relished portraying the romanticism of a virgin birth as a mythological construct. Author Joseph Campbell had written about various cultures with similar mythologies, but failed to recognize Christ as the incarnate realization of them all. Tom was parroting him.

We were both educated in the pragmatics of engineering and all the hands-on physical sciences, so I wasn’t surprised by a Doubting Thomas. The idealism of religion was too impractical for both of us. I had wrestled with those same doubts until an acute nervous breakdown forced me to make a leap of faith. I had reached the edge of sensible reality. It was either suicide or a leap across that widening abyss between pragmatism and idealism. Remain the selfish primate that I am or become the selfless human being that I should be.

“I guess you figure life is a programmed matrix locked on autopilot without any room for sentiment?” I said, as I annotated blueprints.

“Exactly. Creatures are born, sicken, and die with actuarial probabilities. Famine, war, pestilence, and floods have predictable cycles. Solar eclipses awe the primitives but not us moderns. In 79 AD, Mt. Vesuvius erupted — for a while there, every 100 years — and life shed no tears when its hot volcanic ash entombed 30,000 homo sapiens in Pompeii.”

“So if life is an automated network of intra-cycling events, then who or what superior intelligence designed, constructed and programmed it? Isn’t that what you’re doing right now for this robot? And if your only son died in a car accident at this very intersection you programmed, wouldn’t you, as his father, feel anguish and sorrow over his death?”

I never did get to hear his response about God as life’s Intelligent Designer having the same sentiments as a loving father. The construction crew foreman interrupted us.

Two weeks later, Tom considered me ready and able to weather some blasphemy: “If the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, then Jesus, the Son of God, being one with the Father in the Holy Spirit, committed incest with his own mother.”

Tom studied my face for a startled reaction. I gave none except to step back from him. “Just wanted to get clear of the lightning bolt when it struck,” I said, as he chuckled.

He’d smashed every theological taboo I could imagine, and his impious description had a twisted logic to it. His carnal description of Trinitarian relations distorted mystical theology, desecrating Christ’s supernatural conception. The same words theologians use to favorably portray communion of the Holy Trinity he had rearranged to a profanity.

Maybe that’s why Orthodox Jews have a steadfast obsession for avoiding an utterance of God’s name. They practice vigilance in thought as well as speech, believing they are always accountable to God, Who can and will judge men for every idle word (Matt. 12:36).

Disturbed by what Tom said but acting undismayed, I managed to disallow him any satisfaction. On arriving home, I found myself deliberating about the limitations of language. As when playwrights use the subtext of a poignant pause in stage dialogue, instead of a thousand frail and fallible words.

Tom’s irreverent words afflicted me with doubts about God. I had to still my mind of its frivolous chatter. That required contemplative prayer. Rapt in speechless awe, I caught a glimpse of the Infinite. Life offers us rare moments of that beatific vision, but when the veil gets drawn aside, any idle word disfigures it. After decades of experience in contemplative prayer, I felt comforted by God’s spine-tingling intimacy and affection, giving me assurance of His continual presence.

The Eastern philosopher Rumi wrote, “However much we describe and explain love, when we fall in love, we are ashamed of our words.” Tom showed not a bit of shame in voicing those sacrilegious words of his, because he hadn’t yet fallen in love with God.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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