by Chris Canniff
This letter was originally written as a final paper in the course TH290: The Problem of Belief in Modernity (fall 2012) taught by Fr. Michael Himes, professor of theology. The assignment was to write a letter, as if to a friend, responding to the many claims made by the various atheist authors whose works were read throughout the course.
You raise such interesting and varied points in your articulation of the problem you have with believing in God. I think a broad and encompassing answer can be found which will cause you to rethink each of your objections. You shall come to see that what I have to say speaks in some way to each point, and what you will certainly realize is this common thread running throughout all of my responses – love.
Firstly, you say that religion is simply irrelevant to the lives of people in today’s world. This claim stupefies me. How could the question of God ever be irrelevant in the lives of people of any generation, of any age in human history? For when I speak of God, I am speaking of ultimate reality; I am speaking of ultimate Mystery. I certainly do not mean by the word God a supreme being. God is neither first nor best among all beings because God transcends the category of beings. The fact that that which we call God is not merely one thing (albeit the best) among many, but rather that Mystery which undergirds all that exists makes God of inextricable relevance to anyone who does exist, i.e. all people, for God is the ground of our contingent being. I cannot deny that people in our times have certainly lost a taste for God, but God still remains relevant. People have lost their taste for God and, therefore, fail to understand the relevance of God because they misunderstand what is meant by the word. I want to tell you quite plainly that I am speaking of Mystery as I explained above; God is that which, by definition, we do not comprehend.
You also say that science makes impossible God’s direct and intimate involvement in human lives. What you fail to see, however, is that a qualitative difference exists between scientific knowledge and theological knowledge. Scientific knowledge explains the workings of objects and events that can be empirically and measurably observed. Theological knowledge, being rooted in philosophy, seeks after ultimate causes. The question of God lies entirely outside that scientific purview and is instead within the bounds of the philosophical. In the Christian tradition, we are told that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Love cannot be known empirically; it cannot be measured and quantified, but surely you would not contend that love, therefore, does not exist.
Further, you claim that religion and its adherence to a belief in God destroys, oppresses, and belittles people. This is not so when Christianity is properly understood and properly lived. What I mean to say is that religion, of its nature, is not as you describe. The Christian call to love, to effectively will the good of the other is at the heart of the “do’s and don’ts” with which you take issue. Freedom is not sapped, rather people are invited to partake in the ultimate Mystery that is God by loving others, by very actively and very concretely choosing to aim toward bringing about the good of the other as other, perhaps even forgetting one’s own self in the process. The so-called “do’s and don’ts” flow from desiring the other’s good, and of course one always retains the freedom not to do this. And so religion does not belittle people, treating them like children; rather, it is calling upon them to immerse themselves in Mystery. Immersion in Mystery is the essence of belief.
You also think that mature people deal with life on their own and that religious people hide behind God for comfort, but the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament to which Christians ascribe show a God who has a disruptive quality. Your Freudian understanding of religion being a mere feel-good experience is not so; even the Christian epistles of the New Testament tell us that “we have not here an abiding city, but we seek one that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). Although there is surely always hope, we are still faced with the reality that our earthly existence is woven of exigency.
Your last set of claims – that all this talk of religion and God distracts from helping others and being good – is unfounded because God’s existence is what allows us and compels us to love others. Nietzsche is brilliant for his honesty, for he acknowledged that without God there are no grounds for self-effacing love; moreover, he thought that was a very good thing because he saw this unique kind of love (and all other Christian virtues that emanate from it) as slavish. Modern non-believers, such as yourself, want to have it both ways. You want God out of the picture, but you still want to argue a select segment of the moral law which flows from no other source but God. Rather than distracting from doing good, religious faith is what motivates people toward doing good. It is, in fact, a gift from God for us to be able to give ourselves away in love.
I will not “get over” my belief in God, as you say, because without God, without ultimate reality and Mystery, how could I know what it truly means to be? He infinitely empties himself for each that we might experience for ourselves that self-emptying, that giving of the self. God once created me and now holds me in being. In him lies my existence and the meaning which begot it.
Your dear friend,