Monday, March 07, 2011

From Faith to Atheism

What do you do when God does not do what you know he should do?  What do you do when what you have believed about God turns out not to be true?  Most Christian believers, if they are sincere and thoughtful, go through a Job-like experience at least once in their life: an experience in which life, logic, emotion, friends, and any manner of other circumstances, thoughts and feelings work to convince us that everything we had believed about God is false. We even begin to question God’s existence.  
In modernity, such a Job-like crisis is looked upon as a coming of age, as a triumph of reason over superstition.  Atheism is the widely proposed means to resolve this crisis.  Walk into any major bookseller and you will soon find (prominently featured) books explaining why atheism is the only reasonable or compassionate or courageous solution to a crisis of faith.  And for those who do not have quite the fortitude for atheism proper, its decaffeinated variety, agnosticism, works just as well.
However, there is another path out of a crises of faith.  It is the path that Job himself took.  It is the path of humility, or often, the path of humiliation leading to humility.  When everything you have believed about God turns out to be untrue, instead of assuming that God does not exist, perhaps the wiser route, the humbler route, is to accept that God is not limited nor defined by what you have believed.
This humble response to a crisis of faith is much more painful for most of us than simply denying God’s existence.  It is much easier to say “I have been deceived.  Nothing is there” than to say, “I have not seen clearly. I have not listened carefully. I have conceived of God according to my own expectations.”  
There is a huge difference between being created in God’s image and creating God in your own image.  In God’s image, we can sense that He is there, we can even know Him.  However in that process of knowing God, we often create images of God in our minds: categories, reasonings, conceptions, ways we are convinced God is and isn’t. We write books and preach sermons based on these conceptions.  Some of these conceptions and syllogisms are helpful, for a while: in a particular culture, at a specific stage of development, or to overcome a particular doubt.  But God is in no way limited by our conceptions and categories of Him.  God is under no obligation to relate to his creation the way we think He  should, no matter how theologically trained we are--no matter how long and faithfully we have served the church.
A seven-year old may have a genuine relationship with God, but whatever conceptions of God that seven-year old has in his mind, and which may indeed be appropriate for a seven-year old, will have to change as he grows.  God as conceived of by a seven-year old is the ridiculous god of superstition leading a twenty-year old to atheism.  And God as conceived of by a confident--if not cocky--seminary graduate will certainly be the god who does not exist for the burnt out, middle-aged pastor.  And God as conceived in times of prosperity, may turn out to be the cruel god who could not possibly exist for the Holocaust survivor.
After God appears to Job in the whirlwind, Jobs says to Him, “I had heard of you with the hearing of my ears, but now my eyes see you.”  God doesn’t change, but our ability to spiritually hear, see, conceive and eventually let go of our conceptions, changes as we grow.  But if we make idols of our conceptions, they become our gods enticing us to conclude that any god that doesn’t conform to our conceptions doesn’t exist.


Jake said...

I am not quite following you here. Does not the Church make more than a few positive affirmations about God? Starting with "God is Love" (and those who do not love do not know Him). When the holocaust survivor comes to the conclusion that any definition of love can not contain within it the holocaust, is he really making an idol of his "conception" - are you really willing to go that far? God does not justify himself, and so neither does Love. If this survivor comes to know with his heart that Love was not there, who are we to question this? I certainly makes more sense than theodicy - or implying that the survivorr has not made anheartfeltt attempt to struggle with God and thus made an "idol" of his "conceptions"

Seems to me if you do these things, then you make the distance between man and God to far and in a sense make Jesus Christ coming and being a part of this world for not (thus I question how an "alien" love could be love at all - Christ and the Trinity are Persons, and relate to us in a personal way - thus we are able to say "our Father" as opposed to "our alien"). For man to know Love he has to know it, and that brings along the reasoning "conceptual" mind as well (unless we want to argue that man is not man unless he has denied his conceptualizing mind in some Buddhist twist).

I am not trying to argue that we don't make idols (of our conceptions and expectations about God and everything else) - what I am trying to say is that Love can not be an idealized "negative" only. If we can only approach God with humility, then that means God can be approached.

I am very very reluctant to question the hearts of those who experienced evil in such a way as holocaust survivors and simply assert that they are denying God based on a "prosperity" idol. I don't know what their hearts have seen but it is more than that (based simply on the stories - their witness).

Man is not a "blank slate". Our natural inclinations, our knowledge of good and evil, the character of our life (and what life brings to us) has to MEAN something, somehow, and it ultimately has to be redeemable. For those who have despaired of this for many reasons, I would be careful of imputing them as being simply the village atheists. In truth they have come to something far darker and disturbing: That God is not in fact the God of Love, or that His Love can not really correlate to anything we are capable of loving - and thus we are left unloved. This is not what I believe, but then I have never met the Evil One in anyway like a holocaust survivor has...

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Christopher,
I said "And God as conceived in times of prosperity, may turn out to be the cruel god who could not possibly exist for the Holocaust survivor." (note the "may." I am merely saying that it is possible, it is certainly not the only reason why a survivor of terrible suffering would cease to believe in God.)
Now how one conceives of God as Love may change through life. One who has experienced only a happy family life, with food on the table and money in the bank probably does not include in his or her conception of God as Love the possibilities of terrible personal suffering that someone like the biblical Job would.
Reconciling love and suffering, that's another matter. All I can say is that it has been done: not by theologians and philosophers (Job knew no theodicy), but by those who have suffered and found God. Corrie ten Boon comes to mind immediately, but I would particularly recommend to you Roman Baraga's "Exploring the Inner Universe" for an example of a man who surveyed Communist Romanian death camps with a deeper relationship with God. I am not (nor does he) saying that God caused or delighted in such suffering, but I am saying that it is possible for someone to experience such suffering and still conceive of the God of Love.
That I who have never experienced such things find it impossible to have such a conception is not surprising. I am merely taking the word of those who have.
Of course many who went through such experiences lost faith in any god or God. I don't know why. I suggested one possible reason.