WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, I imagined that God looked like Dick Tracy, my favorite comic-strip character. I saw the Almighty in a snap-brim hat and trench coat, carrying a snub-nosed .38 that blasted large holes in evildoers with names like Prune Face. I don’t remember if it was my parents or my beloved granny who first told me about God, but I understood him to be an all-powerful, all-knowing Super Dad who was invisible but always present and who loved us dearly but was not opposed to cleaning our clocks when we didn’t mind the rules. That’s as far as it went with God and me in my pre-school days.
By the time I was in college, God’s existence had become an existential question, “existential” being a word I’d learned from a friend in philosophy class at the University of Texas. My friend, who claimed to be an atheist, was smart, hip, and well read, and I’d seen him with the girl whose spectacularly tight sweater I’d admired all semester, lying on the grass in front of Garrison Hall, reading aloud from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. While I wasn’t ready to declare myself an atheist, I agreed with him that it was cool to question God’s existence. Of course, a few months later I was on my knees, asking God to alleviate some crisis or other that had momentarily darkened my path, a habit I’ve followed to this day.
My epochal showdown with God happened in the fall of 1996, when my oldest son,