Of Gold And God

October 23, 2006

In God Knows Why faith Is Thriving, Dineesh D’Souza addresses those who are obsessed with others who profess belief in God. The authors of The God Delusion, refer to belief in God as a ‘virus of the mind.’ D’Souza writes:

In the secular account, “You are the descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach 3 1/2 billion years ago. You are a mere grab bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You came from nothing and are going nowhere.”

In the Christian view, by contrast, “You are the special creation of a good and all-powerful God. You are the climax of His creation. Not only is your kind unique, but you are unique among your kind. Your Creator loves you so much and so intensely desires your companionship and affection that He gave the life of His only son that you might spend eternity with him.”

Now imagine two groups of people — let’s call them the Secular Tribe and the Religious Tribe — who subscribe to one of these two views. Which of the two is more likely to survive, prosper and multiply? The religious tribe is made up of people who have an animating sense of purpose. The secular tribe is made up of people who are not sure why they exist at all. The religious tribe is composed of individuals who view their every thought and action as consequential. The secular tribe is made up of matter that cannot explain why it is able to think at all.

Let’s examine the effects the idea of God has had on society- and conversely, let’s look at the effects of a society where God plays no meaningful role. D’Souza notes:

Across the globe, religious faith is thriving and religious people are having more children. By contrast, atheist conventions only draw a handful of embittered souls, and the atheist lifestyle seems to produce listless tribes that cannot even reproduce themselves.

Russia is one of the most atheist countries in the world, and there abortions outnumber live births 2 to 1. Russia’s birth rate has fallen so low that the nation is now losing 700,000 people a year. Japan, perhaps the most secular country in Asia, is also on a kind of population diet: its 130 million people are expected to drop to around 100 million in the next few decades. And then there is Europe. The most secular continent on the globe is decadent in the literal sense that its population is rapidly shrinking. Lacking the strong Christian identity that produced its greatness, atheist Europe seems to be a civilization on its way out. We have met Nietzsche’s “last man” and his name is Sven.

Our own cultural biases towards non belief are the result of the secularist notions. Freedom from religion is preferable to freedom of religion. Secularists will argue and point to an unforgiving and oppressive God- exactly the kind of God that no longer exists in the Judeo-Christian ethic (it bears noting that the Islamic fundamentalist idea of Allah is exactly like the kind of religion to which secularists are so opposed- violent, malevolent and oppressive. That said, there are few is any progressive secularists that will confront that reality). It is precisely because the Judeo-Christian belief system is so unlike what the secularists believe, that religion is thriving. They cannot ‘argue’ a believer out of his or her faith, so they resort a legal system that accommodates their biases against religion.

It is clear that in any discussion of faith vs non-belief, the vast majority of us have to be talked out of our belief in God. Our instinctive beliefs point to a deity, however we define that deity or spirituality.

In other words, belief is God appears to be a more natural state of affairs than non belief. Notwithstanding the inevitable (and shallow) arguments that belief in God is for weak people, and other such arguments, ad nauseum, the fact remains that while we may all argue over exactly what He/She/It is, the ‘numbers’ tell the story. It is reasonable to believe each of us is born with that inherent belief structure.

In their attempt to talk believers out of their faith (an almost religious obsession for many), non believers will argue about injustice and inequity, about the dark side of religion and a thousand and one other such notions (as if secularism has provided anything other than an even greater amount of darkness). They want to engage believers, in an attempt to shake the faith of believers. There is the decidedly illusory notion that secularists feel that they are on even standing when discussing faith. They are not. In fact, a secularist arguing against faith is like a botanist insisting to a zoologist that their fields of study are the same.

There is no point in arguing, no point in defending belief in God. It may make us feel good, as if we are assuming the role a hero, but in truth, as noble an endeavor as defending faith may be, in the end, it is like trying to describe a painting to a blind person- or, as the Chinese say, “A frog in a well cannot be talked to about the ocean.”

Some people will be forever comfortable in their wells. They are safe in the well and they retain control in their well. It is for them best to argue and debate the size and shape of the walls that contain them.

Believers look into the skies at night, and they know. Believers see a sunrise or sunset, and they know. Believers know that they don’t know everything or have the answers to all the questions. Believers also know that it doesn’t matter.

When a believer hears the ocean, he or she hears the same sound that God heard at creation. Whether it is that rhythmic soft sound, as water laps the shore or the mighty roar of the waves crashing in on each others, the believer understands he or she is hearing the sounds of the Creation event. Believers are instinctively drawn to those sounds, to reflect and ponder a mighty greatness. Whether it is the ocean, mountains or any other manifestation of nature, believers listen- and know.

The non believer engages the believer precisely because he knows that his questions can never be answered. The non believer is safe that way- he never has to worry about having to defend his position- it isn’t as if God is likely to announce himself and put to rest the inquisition of the non believer. In his own mind, the non believer is safe from being held accountable or responsible- not so much from his actions, but rather, his inactions. To the non believer, life has no special purpose or meaning. There is no sense of obligation- non believers does not understand that his or her life is another necessary chapter to the Creation story, a chapter and legacy that can reach and influence those that come after they are gone.

Believers cannot explain that mystery.

In the end of course, we must allow for God to do His work and we must focus on our own.

We must do what we can to be better. We must focus on our relationships with our fellow man. We must bring them close and when need be, push them away. We must focus on the balance that effects and defines us. From Ecclesiastes:

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun.

A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

a time to kill and a time to heal … A time to weep and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn and a time to dance …A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to lose and a time to seek; a time to rend and a time to sew;

a time to keep silent and a time to speak; a time to love and a time to hate;

a time for war and a time for peace.

These words are as true today as the day they were written. They are logical and they reflect truths we all know.

There are days believers feel lost and alone. There are days that believers are angry- so angry that they will curse God. Even at that point, they still have to talked out of belief in God.

Those days, are part of the landscape of the spiritual journey we all take. Believers have weathered them before and will face them again. Every believer confronts those kind of days (see The Anchoress, here) and as bitter and weighty as those travails get, believers would not, in the end, trade those burdens for a moment of non belief.

In the course of time and long after we are gone, others will withstand and suffer the same agonies.

There are days that all believers struggle with belief, injustice and evil. ‘Oh Lord, why hast Thou abandoned me,’ is universally understood- and felt. Those days require faith, not lack of faith.

Non believers would argue that belief in God is a kind of crutch- and it is in that argument that we can see that they do not understand the meaning of ‘faith in God.’ In fact, real faith is assuming a burden, obligations that would otherwise be ignored. The Jewish notion is particularly illustrative- it is one of assuming ‘the yoke of Heaven.’

With real faith there is no respite from those obligations. In fact, the obligations and ‘ascent’ are unrelenting. There is a never ending field that must be plowed so that who follow the believer will find spiritual nourishment and meaning. There are no vacations from the obligations believers assume.

Those believers who struggle with those beliefs at one time or another, are the real people of faith. To struggle with faith is as much a part of faith as anything else. We wrote in Mundane Sanctity that

In our humaness, we are clothed with finite attire- we cannot divine the mind of God. When we demand absolutely certain truth, we are attempting to play God. We may believe that there are absolute truths, but in fact, we are bound by our understanding at the moment. Scientific truths alter as our understanding alters.

If we presume we can understand the ‘absolute truth’ about God, we are destined to fail in our desire to know God and to accept God as God. The ‘absolute truth’ about God changes as we come to understand ourselves, our world and even others.

That ‘absolute truth’ can never be corralled or understood because only God is ‘absolute.’ As humans, we are the opposite of absolute. We can be ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ we can be ‘more’ or ‘less.’ For us to exist as God’s creations, we must know joy and we must know suffering. We need to succeed and we also need to fail. We are meant to be less than perfect, because it is through our imperfections that we find ourselves and our potential.

God treasures our spiritual achievements. He treasures our failures along the way even more, because in facing and overcoming our failures, we have shown that we are indeed worthy of the humanity He bestowed upon us. We are not meant to become perfect in our struggle and search for meaning and faith- we are meant to overcome the limitations, imperfections and obstacles along the way.

Relating to God is about relating to that most human side of ourselves.

The Lonely Man of Faith (please read the link to Crosscurrents), by JB Soloveitchik is one of the most moving and profound essays on faith we have ever read. He discusses both the ‘Majestic Man’ and the ‘Man of Faith’- and how both are ‘fulfilling the word of God.’ The impact of Soloveitchik’s words still resonate deeply. The following is from an essay on that book:

Still, both worlds, Soloveitchik says, are willed by God. It is therefore our destiny —and more importantly, our responsibility to recognize our loneliness, to recognize the distance between the two worlds. Only when we recognize our inability to create and secure our own home can we recognize and proclaim faith in God’’s unique redeeming power. The real crisis then is not our loneliness but our failure to recognize it.

The truth is that there is no one truth (that is, there is no single spiritual journey (“The loneliness of the man of faith is an integral part of his destiny from which he can never be completely liberated “), anymore than there is one kind of love. That should not preclude anyone from seeking God. It is also true that God manifests himself in ways and in the language that we understand- each of us.

There are many sunken treasure ships that litter the ocean floors, that have never been located. Not finding a sunken Spanish galleon laden with gold, doesn’t mean that ship doesn’t exist.

The treasure of faith is to be found in good men of all faiths. If the path or the sound of the ocean is clear and unmuffled, follow it. If it isn’t seek out the path, over a lifetime, if necessary. Not finding the path does not mean that path doesn’t exist, either.

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9 Responses to “Of Gold And God”

  1. The Anchoress Says:

    This is lovely, Siggy. And monumental.

  2. expat Says:

    I second the Anchoress.

    From the other side of the big pond, I also sense that the current interest in disparaging religion is linked to telling Europeans that they don’t have to take Americans seriously. Today’s Spiegel interviews Gerhard Schroeder and excerpts from his new book. Schroeder again seems to think that Bush hears messages from God that direct his policy. To him, this is a violation of secularism. But he doesn’t mention his own concept of valid decision making–perhaps reading the latest polls and finding that pulling the rug from under an ally at an election ralley will get you re-elected. I can remember when he ditched wife#3 and married again that he said rather nonchalantly that he seemed to need a new wife for each stage of his life. If this is an example of the secularist regard for vows, promises, and institutions, then give me a praying Bush any day.

    Of course, Schroeder is personally ignorant of religious aspects of American society. He is only parrotting the current spin and spinning further the parallels between Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. I doubt that he realizes that some of the Christian hot button moral issues like abortion and stem cell research are more tightly regulated in Germany than in the US. He probably is aware that American Christians would have made a lot of noise about his friends at VW who used company funds to bring in South American prostitutes to amuse trade union bosses and win their support. I guess he is happy that this little affair was able to slip so quickly back under the radar screen. By attaching a Christian fundamentalist label to any issue, you don’t have to address that issue; it is being raised by an Untermensch.

  3. MaxedOutMama Says:

    Very, very few people write of what is real to me as you do.

  4. Jimmy J. Says:

    “The truth is that there is no one truth (that is, there is no single spiritual journey (”The loneliness of the man of faith is an integral part of his destiny from which he can never be completely liberated “), anymore than there is one kind of love. That should not preclude anyone from seeking God. It is also true that God manifests himself in ways and in the language that we understand- each of us.”

    I have only one thing to say, “AMEN!”

  5. Royotto Says:

    Life is not meaningless to the secular tribe. In fact, life on this earth is what matters most. Unlike the religious tribe, who will mindlessly vote for anyone who wears his religion on his sleeve, no matter how disastrous his policies are, the members of the secular tribe are concerned about what kind of place we will leave to future generations. Will we leave them an overpopulated, polluted Earth which is dominated by the greed of big business and has little regard for the individual, or will we leave them an Earth which is better than the one we were given? To the religious tribe, it really doesn’t matter, as long as they can spend eternity floating around in some kind of imagined paradise.

    You overlooked the most obvious explanation for why most people believe in God. Most are brainwashed and told what to believe at an early age by parents, organized religion, etc. before they have the opportunity to make up their own minds.

  6. expat Says:

    Royotto,

    Brainwashed? Do you think the human brain is fully formed and functional at birth? Societies pass on their values and information to children via a body of stories that reflect their collective wisdom. As they mature, these children learn to reinterpret and question the stories to accomodate their increasing experience of life. Some, of course, may stop this process of inquiry, but then again I hear a lot of boomers who have never questioned the slogans they learned to love in protest marches when they were 20. Have you ever had to tell a 5 year old about the death of his beloved grandmother? It is not easy to package all the thoughts and experiences of a lifetime about life’s meaning into a package suitable for a child. You start somewhere and then try to support the child as he grows.

    Siggy,
    Sorry for the ranting about Schroeder. The man drives me nuts.

  7. cold pizza Says:

    It is also irrational to believe in coherent thought. Chemical transference between neurons and electrical spikes taking place in a five-pound spongy mass resulting in the height and depth and breadth of emotion, logic, art, music? Inconceivable! It’s also irrational to believe in an infinite and expanding (?) universe that once existed as a singularity, and before the singularity there was…. what? Logic dictates that the state of nonexistence should have continued ad infinitum.

    Sure, the brain gives us Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Donne, Hitler, Mozart, Manson, Mohammed and Jesus. Bush and Kerry.

    I’m free to deny the existence of Spain—it’s only a conspiracy of cartographers anyway. I’ve never been there and you can’t prove to me that Spain exists. For all we know, this is some twisted VR experience and we are subject to the illusions that surround us until that big “Game Over” light flashes and we return to another level of conscious existence. You cannot prove the Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t exist.

    Some people are only susceptible to what their physical senses allow them to experience, filtered through that spongy thing in their heads. And if you believe the eternal hereafter consists of harp lessons and flamewars, then you really haven’t devoted any serious searching or study time.

    It’s not about proof. It’s about faith. Not the Bible-thumping, as-seen-on-TV, mouthing the words “Ah Buh-Leeve!” but the genuine feeling deep in your soul that there’s more to the universe than mere physical existence, that there’s an underlying level of existence that we’re incapable of completely comprehending, there’s a desire for light and knowledge and goodness that transcends the flesh. It’s giving thanks for the gift of life, the ability to appreciate and to grow, and the recognition that there’s more going on behind the scenes than we can be aware of, at this moment. -cp

  8. Melissa Says:

    Siggie,

    Amazing post. It must be on the minds of a lot of people. You’re in my Blog Roll. I need to get over here more. Thank you.


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