Page 5, 9th September 1966

9th September 1966
Page 5
Page 5, 9th September 1966 — Belief and Unbelief

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Belief and Unbelief


IT is plain that most of those who do not believe in God think of him as a stranger, a social fiction, the projection of obscure emotions. or even as a mythical "Big Daddy" When they speak of God, they speak of something to which they feel no personal bond. It is different with those who believe in God. In the conversation of nonbelievers, God is an "it"; among those believers who truly know him (not all who have belief on their lips have belief in their intelligence and heart), God is a "you". One speaks differently of a person, than one does of a thing, Further, one speaks differently to a person than merely of him. It is in prayer that one comes to know God best. To those who do not believe, of course, prayer is an absurdity. But it is not so clear whether prayer is an absurdity because one does not believe in God, or whether one does not believe in God because one does not pray. Belief and prayer are inextricable.

To come to recognise God is to become aware of standing in a conscience presence; it is to stand in silent, wordless communication; and, this is prayer. To come to believe is to begin to pray. Not to believe is to stand outside a conversation. Both believer and nonbeliever live in a world of silence; neither one hears "voices," neither one sees God. Naked belief and critical unbelief are materially alike; in both. the human person stands in a cold, arid silence, unable to detect God with senses or imagination or feelings. Both may suffer the anguish of isolation and cosmic abandonment; contrariwise, both may also indulge in the daily forgetfulness which banishes loneliness. Many believers in some moods experience the angst of Continental intellectuals, and in other moods experience the pragmatic contentment of some American intellectuals. Prayer is not a question of moods. ' One prays by intelligence. The experiences of first and second awareness. of insight, of reflective judgment and decision, of the unlimited drive to understand, lead one to pray, and guide one's prayer. By such experiences, and these alone, we recognise that we are persons and not merely objects, that experience is at least partly intelligible, that our unlimited drive to understand can discredit idols and fantasies. In such experiences, the whole dynamic structure of philosophical religious belief is anticipated. Driven by such experiences, one prays.

IT is an almost daily experience to meet persons who ask questions about the meaning of religion, but who could not possibly understand what one would like to say. Hence, one comes to think that human life is a matter of circles, or of levels. Those on some levels, in some circles, are simply incapable of belief. Their interests are wrongly directed. Their grasp of their own identity is wrongly placed. No use to speak to them of God.

But the tables are, of course, just as easily turned: men convinced that to speak of God is to speak of a mythical Big Daddy, a useless and harmful waste of breath, cannot understand those who expend energy for religious purposes. Such interests seem misdirected. Believers' grasp of their own identity seems wrongly placed. No use to speak to them of the requirements of mature human life. Let it stand, then, that God is equally hidden from believer and from nonbeliever. Believer and nonbeliever disagree on what it is to be a man.

COMMONLY, two reasons are given to explain why religious persons believe in God: they desire emotional security; they desire rational order. Religion is believed to originate in the feeling of emotional dependence, or in the eros of the necessary and the absolute. Yet neither of these reasons—which are not reasons at all, but only motives—is the reason for belief. For belief is rooted in the drive to understand. And understanding is neither emotional nor rational, neither emotive nor cognitive, in the sense in which these words are generally used in Anglo-American philosophy. A belief anchored in the hidden God does not bring emotional comfort, particularly in an intel lectual climate that regards such belief as illusory. One's nonbelieving peers imply rather regularly that one is being dishonest, or at best lacks nerve.

It is true, moreover, that God is silent; the moments of aridity and darkness are long; one does not see him in whom one believes. If belief brings "peace" or "emotional security", such peace is of a peculiar kind; and sometimes one would like to have some.

OLD-FASHIONED textbooks often counsel the awakening of a sceptic to reality by kicking him on the shins. Yet this technique is useful; not so much because it brings about the raw confrontation of toes and shins, but because it gives a start to the sceptic's awareness.

It calls on him to retaliate; therefore to make a decision; therefore to come to terms with his understanding and critical assessment of what is happening; and therefore to begin a new policy of heeding sensory stimuli as intimations of realities that are not to be ignored, but understood. Sense-knowledge is not the most real nor the most certain of human experiences, but it is the most immediately provocative.

AFORMAL argument for the existence of God is not of much use in the life of one who is trying to decide between belief and unbelief. For what is at stake is one's recognition of one's own identity, and there are many layers of point of view, inquiry, and new horizon to come through before one can understand the formal argument. Even so, to believe in God is not to accept the conclusion of a deduction. It is to accept the evidence that one discovers in one's own knowing and doing, indicating the presence of a God who remains unseen and even unconceptualised. It is, above all, to enter into a conversation with that God, not through words so much as through the direction of one's attention.

Thus, talk of the "intelligible" and "the real" and "source", while indispensable as scaffolding, is not at the heart of the matter. Only if each one who inquires appropriates the way in which such words arc being used, and laces it into his experience, does the inquiry get beyond the scaffolding and the poor words that serve as its signs. Only if those who share the inquiry carry with them their experience, and steadily reflect upon that experience, are they aware that what is at stake is not skill in verbal gymnastics. but fidelity to understanding and, through understanding, to experience.

THE terrifying thing about the discovery of God is that one comes to see that he has been there all the time. He is not dead; we have been dead. Even believers who neglect him, mumbling routinely through their prayers, will one day come upon this terror. To meet God face to face—quietly, wordlessly, wholly attentive—is no comforting experience. Moreover, the way in which this sense of the holy, of awe, of dependence, is described in books is partly misleading.

For the uninitiated will think of the brute awe of standing before the Grand Canyon, or high in the cold Alps, or of the emotional dependence of the immature boy upon his mother or the dependence of his superego upon his father.

But the encounter with God—with the living God and no counterfeit—is a chastising experience. For it is accomplished not in the context of warm self-satisfying illusion, but in the nakedness of the self's critical drive to understand. In that light, one's inadequacies are only too plain. Standing in that light, nonetheless, one has the dignity of attempting to be faithful to oneself. One offers God one's ardent efforts to he honest. God is hidden, the self is naked and impecunious, but in this scorching light it is good to live.

NO argument against belief, however, is so cogent as the argument from the power of evil in the world. The fact of evil is overpoweringly present: Auschwitz and Belsen, the girl of thirteen struck by an auto, the boy of eleven whose face is corrupted by cancer, eighty children burned to death in a

school, the thousands of the world's poor who starve to death each week.

The believer insists that God is good and that God is omnipotent and omniscient. God knows what will happen, and he can act to prevent it. An earthly father may be frantic to save his boy's life; the heavenly father seems to do nothing; the boy dies in great pain. It seems obvious that God is either not good or not omnipotent; obvious that he cannot be both. If God is evil, or if there is no God, the prob

Lem disappears. If God is evil, the believer has no argument with the nonbeliever; both are free to despise God. If there is no God, man takes his chances with a blind fortune. The issue only arises, then, because the believer insists that there is a God and that he is good. But the evils so manifest in human life tempt the believer to think there can be no such God; and the nonbeliever has already accepted that conclusion.

THE evils of human life are swelled by the irrational choices of men. The crimes of Hitler generate a misery, a bitterness, and a cynicism that affect millions of persons in one generation, and others in future generations as well. A father's careless treatment of his child may continue to echo in the lives of his grandchildren. A teacher's omissions or biases may colour the minds of his students all their lives.

The world in which we live is, thus, a world of probability, risk, striving, and failure. That it is a reasonably good world is attested by all those who are content to confine their hopes within its horizons. Many nonbelievers appear to find it a good and an attractive world. Many give allegiance to intelligence, friendship, love, communication, art, beauty. They claim to do so despite man's impenetrable fate. But their very choice of values is, to those who believe in God, a confirmation of the power of intelligence and love in this world. Those who trust intelligence and love appear to exemplify what is good, noble, admirable in man. And in this way atheistic humanism becomes a motive for belief. For fidelity to understand ing, friendship, creativity the values carved out of nihilism—seem to believers to be the attraction exerted on men's hearts by him who is the source of man's drive to understand. To say that God is good, therefore, is to say that he is the source of honesty, friendship, creativity—of those instincts and dispositions that follow upon fidelity to understanding. To say that there are evils in the world is to state a matter of fact. To say that God is omnipotent and could have prevented those evils if he wished is to state a truism. To say that God is not good, because he did not prevent the evil that happened to a relative, a friend, or oneself is to say more than the facts allow. For if God has drawn the suffering ones to himself, their fundamental good, is he evil? To cease believing in God because evils have happened is to have refused to move on to the true God, after having exposed a counterfeit. For to believe in the true God is not to anticipate a change in the probabilities of the historical order, such that one's own historical interests, needs, and desires are fulfilled. Man's good is not whatever he happens to commend, desire, approve, or need, but a life faithful to understanding. When aspirations which understanding recommends are in conflict, those most basic in the light of the drive to understand are to be preferred. "Though he will slay me, yet will I love him," Job confessed, bearing witness in the midst of evil to the basic meaning of good that applies, in different ways, both to God and to man.

FINALLY, one of the greatest obstacles to belief in God is the complacency of believers. It is not the adulterers, the takers of bribes, the licentious, whose conduct induces disbelief. It is the righteous, the solid citizens, the people of good reputation in the community.

Such believers show few signs of ever having encountered the terrifying God; nor do they appear to live in that cold night of belief in which he is most truly found. Their god seems to be an idol, the idol of habit, routine, sentiment, and self-congratulation. By their words and actions, they treat God as a vague guarantor of the good order which makes them secure. He is the projection of that superego which keeps them conscientious when no one is looking. In his name, they dare to preach mere law and order, rather than also the freedom and inquiry through which the living God is found. Their god is the dead god of the middle classes.

ADD to this the activism of the clergy: "When in doubt, build"—building, ever building, and collecting funds. Catholicism, one is often told in conversation, seems to be an efficient shell without spirit; its churches seem to be stone boxes more like supermarts than homes of the human spirit; its moral code seems more Jansenist than evangelical. American Catholicism, Gabriel Marcel once remarked, seems to act like a sect jealous of its own interests, reputation, and cohesiveness.

BELIEVERS, clergy and lay, seem in the main and from the outside to be more pragmatic than the pragmatists would have them, more self-centred than the utilitarians depend upon, more conformist than the relativist requires, more secular than the secular idealist. They love their families. A kind of national kindliness, and friendliness, and informality, still thrive in many places. There are, no doubt, many unknown and hidden persons who eat the daily bread of naked faith, who have suffered much, and still trust the living God.

But the vast, efficient weight of organised religion hangs on the shoulders of sensitive Catholics who try to maintain the belief of their fathers, and burdens them with sadness.

WHAT difference is there, then, between a man who refuses to name God or to "believe" in him, even though he is scrupulously faithful to understanding, cherishes friendships, values creativity—and a man who through the same fidelity, experience of friendship, and hunger to create does give a name to God and does believe that he exists?

Both men live a life similar in nearly every respect. Secular saint and religious saint alike strive to diminish the amount of suffering in the world; neither one sees God. One says Yes to understanding, love, creativity, but No to God. The other thinks that the first Yes implies the second. It is easy to see how some men will choose one of these ways, and others the other. In the present darkness which is our life on earth, it is of basic importance that as many men as possible say the first Yes. Since, in any case, God remains hidden and inconceivable, perhaps the illation to the second Yes, made in words, is not required. Many of those who do not make that illation are no doubt more dear to God, and of his mind, than those who have his name frequently upon their lips. In the service of the hidden God, there is a band of hidden servants, inside and outside the ranks of organised religion. For organised religion is the outer social form, the institutional structure, the requirement of man's flesh and blood. Not all whose names are written on its rolls appear to believe in the living God. Not all who serve that God are on its rolls. Better to belong to the hidden brotherhood, better to serve the living God, than merely to go through the outer forms. Nevertheless, agnosticism is not an acceptable alternative to one who has already known the Church; so long as there are men of flesh and blood, historical men, there will have to be slow, blundering, imperfect religious institutions; and

it is, ironically, largely through their offices that the prophetic spirit exposing their inadequacy is kept alive.

The purpose of religious institutions is not to glorify themselves. but to criticise themselves, and to denounce the idols they constantly erect in the place of the living and the hidden God.

It is because the churches of the West became inhabited with idols that the sharp nose of Nietzsche detected the odour of God's death.

It is the dishonesties of believers, and the Stupid idols they worship, which make unbelief not only plausible but even compelling among those faithful to understanding in our generation. And it is rather in the ranks of such faithful ones, inside or outside the churches, that an honest man would wish to stand, than among the placid faces of the virtuous.

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