Three Questions I Have About the Existence of God

I am at the Abbey of Gethsemeni as I write this: home of Thomas Merton, and one of the great mystical and ecumenical centers of the world. The Abbey has a plain, simple beauty about it, and is transfixed in a perpetual silence – a silence so deep it feels like a physical substance. I am taking this time to rest and reflect, to process the past year and prepare myself for the new, and to open myself up to the presence of God.

As I meditate and pray in this beautiful, quiet place, I come to confront all over again that I have questions: questions about who and what God is; questions, more specifically, about the Christian God, and questions about the nature of faith itself.

This is not new. For as long as I have known faith, I have known doubt, and after many years of struggle I have come to accept that my doubt and skepticism are inseperable from my experience of faith. I have come to accept that, paradoxically, if I kill the doubt, I kill my faith as well.

Some mornings, I wake up, read my Bible, and it makes perfect, brilliant sense. For reasons I cannot explain – I am never going to claim that faith is 100% rational – I believe. I see the world of faith as I see the distant peeks of Appalachian mountains on an unusually clear day: brilliant and undeniable. Other days, though, I pick up the exact same Bible, and think to myself, “this is bullshit.” I feel, on those days, more like an agnostic with Judeo Christian leanings.

While this used to cause me angst, it doesn’t anymore. I’ve grown accostumed to the dissonant chords my faith sometimes plays. As I sit here in the tranquil Trappist library, looking out over the quiet gardens of the Abbey, I thought I would share three of my current questions about God.

1. What if The Story Is Wrong?

This question is, perhaps, the most obvious, and the one that plagues the most people about Christian faith. How do we know the Church and the Gospels reflect the historical person of Christ? Who was he? And how, through all the thousands of layers of myth and conviction and fundamentalism and piety and mysticism, do I know whether the version of Christ that has been handed down to me is the correct one? Some nights I lay awake and wonder if he was really just a revolutionary rabble rouser with some extraordinary ideas.

Regardless of this question, though, I find myself gravitationally pulled to the story that I have been given: that God – the Ground of Being, the Creator of the cosmos and whatever lies beyond – embraced logical impossibility and became man, flesh and blood, wedding together into one the infinite and the finite. Out of a love through which the total sum of human love is but an imperfect metaphor, God gives his life for the world,  allowing us to experience the same death and rebirth. I find that story divine, transformative, and I believe it, even when I have questions about its origins.

2. Is the Search for God a Form of Suffering?

A story I’ve been told about the Buddha haunts me: people would come to the Buddha asking, “is there a God.” The Buddha would not answer. Later, his disciples would ask, “why did you not answer them?” The Buddha would respond, “I teach the root of suffering and freedom from suffering. I have nothing to say to the existence of God.” To him, the anguish with which people asked the question was proof that the search for God was another form of suffering.

What if the pursuit of God, and all that comes with God – eternal life, heaven, hell, life after death, the future of the world and the soul – is missing the point? What if that is simply another source of suffering? What if the real point is that the world is a mystery, and that our one task is to lean into the mystery, moment by moment? What if our one and only sacrament is the present moment, the eternal now, where we choose to experience the fullness and mystery of existence? Questions about God tend to lead to enormous pain, but a radical openness to the world as we experience it, moment by moment, creates peace. What if the whole concept of God is missing the point?

3. Is Religion A Highly Developed Coping Mechanism?

Through history, we have externalized just about all of our experiences: depression, anxiety, and other mental illness as demons; inspiration as muses; drought and catastrophe as the wrath of the gods or god.

Sometimes, I find myself wondering if we have evolved an incredible capacity for story to explain the mystery of the cosmos because we are not well equipped to handle life without this mystification of the world. What if, without this self-generated propensity towards religion and category and story, our large, self-conscious brains would be crushed beneath the horrible vastness of an incomprehensible universe? What if grief and despair and self-consciousness all require faith and story and belief, because the agony would simply be too great without them?

Out of all the questions I have, this one is the most horrifying to me: it opens to me a Lovecraftian vista of human suffering in a universe inherently terrifying and inhospitable. It leaves me with an empty view of man, with no divine spark, no image of an eternal creator. It leaves me, in the words of the The Dhammapada, “A painted puppet, a poor toy / of jointed parts ready to collapse, / A diseased and suffering thing / With a head full of false imaginings.”

On days when depression strikes me, this world seems more and more likely, and out of retaliation to the pain it causes me I flee back to the warmth of belief.

~~~

In her book Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber describes ministering to someone in a hospital, who tells her, “I don’t believe in God.” Before she can stop herself, Nadia blurts out, “Damn, I wish I could pull that off.”

I know the feeling. Despite these questions, I am still a Christian. I still come back to belief. I still love Jesus. Perhaps it is cowardice, blindness, or courage, or all of the above. I’ve stopped trying to give an explanation for it – I’ve never liked the strident arrogance of apologetics anyway – and I just let it be what it is. If there is one thing my faith teaches, it is humility. What a terrifying, painful thing humility is, for it must be applied to my faith itself.

This dissonance of doubt and belief strikes me as the very heart of the religious experience. It is, to me, what makes it so beautiful, so worthwhile, so stunning. In this age of fundamentalism, humble faith infused with doubt might be the remedy. Faith without doubt is an impossible ideal; we are but human, and perfection will never be ours. When we hold ourselves to the impossible expectation of a doubtless faith, we create tortured and twisted lives, and it may be out of this torture that all the horror of fundamentalism arises.

Paradoxically, when we let ourselves doubt, faith becomes less desperate and  more seamless, more full of grace, more compassionate. It becomes more like Christ himself.

 

12 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I’m struggling with my faith in a serious way right now; it’s harder and harder not to slide into agnosticism.

    I’ve experienced much of Christianity for over four decades in various denominations and traditions, and always held a strong faith and commitment to the church and Christ. Yet now, it’s become a daily struggle to believe. Pray for me, if you will. I pray and read and cry… but the continuing silence is deafening.

  2. The answers you seek exist, and are satisfying. Be mindful of the path; not the destination. Keep moving at your own pace, and you will arrive. God would not have placed the question in your mind if He (or She) did not intend you to search for answers.

    A word of warning: to continue traveling the path, you may need to leave Christianity (as most people understand it today.)

    A worldview is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of our experiences. Think of a worldview as a hypothesis, or a theory. Some are more complete than others, and have fewer inconsistencies. The worldview that is true is the one that inspires you to naturally behave as Jesus did. If you have to try, then you haven’t yet reached the end of the path.

    Take joy in the journey, and trust God to bring you to the destination.

  3. Doubt and faith need each other. It’s faith and certainty that are opposites. I relate to your journey and appreciate how you’ve beautifully told a piece of it.

    We are all beggars looking for bread, aren’t we, brother?

    Peace to you.
    Xo
    Lisa

  4. Real faith is not pretty, cozy, shiny, neat or unbreakable. When our faith starts to feel like it’s in “good shape”, that’s the time to get real and go back to believing again.
    Thanks for believing the way you do, Stephen, and for your generosity to share it with us.

  5. Great post, thanks for your honesty and willingness to share. The Abbey’s a beautiful place (I’m headed there in a couple weeks, can’t wait!). I especially love the line

    “If there is one thing my faith teaches, it is humility. What a terrifying, painful thing humility is, for it must be applied to my faith itself.”

    It is humility which makes our faith genuine. As a matter of fact, it’s exactly the lack of this virtue that drives the types of polemics that we’ve come to despise in fundamentalism. The truth is, doubt is a natural corollary to faith because at best our knowledge of God is like “seeing in a mirror dimly”. Faith, then, is doggedly related to hope. In the words of St. Paul “hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

    I have a feeling that even the apostle Paul had moments of serious doubt, and I find a lot of comfort in the idea. I wanted to be the first one to drop some awesome Blaise Pascal quote but I see that John Falkner beat me to it (well played John, well played). Nonetheless, Pascal was a serious student of Faith and his reflections have served generations of the faithful since his time. He once wrote that “the heart has its reasons which Reason does not know”. This observation, I believe, can only be understood at the intersection of faith, doubt, and the hope of God’s love. Keep the Faith my friend. I expect that our current sufferings cannot compare with the glory that will one day be revealed.

    1. Thank you do much for reading, and taking the time to respond. I too love Pascal’s “the heart has its reasons which Reason does not know.” That quote has helped to keep my faith alive for so long.

      I hope you have a refreshing time at the Abbey. There is no other place like it. Thank you for dropping by and adding to the conversation.

  6. I think a lot of us Christian people have thoughts and questions similar to what you mentioned. The problem is traditional religion does not allow us to openly question things without us being looked down upon or our faith seriously questioned.

    1. Amen. The problem is traditional religion. I agree. People need a personal relationship with God. That’s the reason God sent his Son into the World that “whosoever” believeth on him shall not perish but have eternal life. There is a difference in traditional religion and a personal relationship.

  7. Some great questions. The honesty of your doubt is both challenging and inspiring. I struggle with all 3, but for me #3 is the most profound. So often the temptation of religious belief is to give in to utilitarianism. People and things become means to the end of personal self-actualization. Thus, we engage in social justice or religious practices entirely with a self-centeredness. I think the radical counter-claim to this is, as you said, faith in a God that defies logic. A God that incarnates, a God of kenosis who not only lives with us, but as us. A God who not only shapes our history but shares it. This is a God who can only ever be believed in faith – for he defies logic and thus certainty. And if your God is learned in the absurdity of cruciformity, there seems no better worship than the humility of doubt modeled by the God who himself doubted (My God, My God why have you forsaken me!).

    A very thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing the beauty of your doubt.

  8. What if the story is wrong, then as pascals wager says you will have lived live in the best possible way.
    What if God is real and has made himself known through the bible and Jesus. If through his resurection Jesus has shown that he has paid for our sins, defeated death etc etc
    Religion is a coping mechanism, but in a world of cripples Christianity gives one a crutch to lean on.
    Doubt is fine, so long as one listens to the answers. As people have been questioning Christianity for 2000 years there are already answers to every question available to us.

    1. Pascals wager also have major issues when you add the other world religions to the mix. Once they are added Pascals wager simply falls to pieces due to the inability to apply the same logic when confronted with multiple choices all claiming to be correct.

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