Friday, October 30, 2009

In Defense of God: Faith in an Age of Unbelief

This provocative cover story in Time magazine on April 8, 1966, paraphrasing 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, reported on the death-of-God movement then prevalent in certain liberal seminaries and which reflected the growing secularization of Western society. From slightly different perspectives, in the decades leading up to the 1960's, Christians and Jews alike were directly confronting a basic theological problem of modern man – the reality of God – a concept with which people of all faiths continue to struggle. For many Christians, the basic premise of their faith – that of a personal God who created the world and sustains it with love – was being attacked by an increasingly secular society. For many Jews, the concept of a loving God was impossible to fathom in the face of Auschwitz. Nietzsche contended that the self-centeredness of man had killed God, a thesis that has tantalized believers and non-believers ever since; the very notion compels us to reflect on the meaning of existence. “If you want to have a well-attended lecture,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “discuss God and faith.”

God’s existence has been questioned more recently in the best-selling books God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (Allen & Unwin 2007), and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2006), and in Bill Maher’s documentary, Religulous. Hitchens, an avowed atheist, recently participated in a debate in Christianity Today with Reformed pastor Douglas Wilson, a senior fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. Although I care little for Hitchens and do not share Wilson’s brand of evangelical Christianity, their debate – concerning whether religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is good for the world – was intriguing, if in large part frustrating, as neither man addressed directly the essence of the conflict.

I do not claim knowledge of one true way, nor do I believe that any one religion has a claim to ultimate truth. I was raised as a Christian in a mainline Protestant denomination – the son of a Lutheran minister, I was baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. Although I struggle with many aspects of traditional Christian doctrine, I continue to feel an invisible pull in the direction of my Lutheran roots. I do not quite understand Born Again Christians, who seem to require a sudden, inexplicable conversion experience to be a legitimately “saved” member of the tribe, and I have little tolerance for fundamentalists of any variety. My children were raised in the faith tradition of their mother – as Reform Jews – a movement within liberal Judaism which I greatly admire, with its emphasis on social justice and ethical action, and openness to theological questioning and spiritual exploration. I believe that God is revealed in infinite ways, befitting a people as diverse as humanity.

I respect those who disavow any belief in a deity, but I confess to a bias in favor of God; I struggle at times, perhaps unfairly, with the sincerity of those who insist that God does not exist. Intellectually and conceptually, I understand why some people do not accept God’s existence; in an age of skepticism, denial of God is rational. In the traditional sense, there is no firm proof that God exists – certainly nothing that can be proven in a court of law or to the satisfaction of a panel of scientists. Yet I maintain a deep and abiding belief in God. It is not something I can easily explain, for it is connected to my faith in God, a God of understanding, forgiveness and compassion, whose omniscient spirit is everlasting and ever present. Though I do not believe that God actively intervenes in this world, when my heart is open, I can feel God’s spirit. I have no proof of this fact. The non-religious may contend that my beliefs are merely psychological manifestations of child-like desires, a remnant of my youthful indoctrinations. Hitchens and company may suggest that my belief in God is but an infantile fantasy, but I am convinced that God is actively present in my life and the life of this world.

My faith is of a modern variety. I accept all scientific advances and explanations for the manner in which the universe functions. I accept that human beings evolved over millions of years out of less developed species; that a Big Bang or similar celestial occurrence physically formed the universe; and that we each have unique DNA. I am amused by people who point to our advancement in scientific knowledge as proof that God does not exist, that religion has no place in modern life. I do not understand those who believe, because of the infallibility of religious institutions and the historical evil some humans have perpetrated in the name of religion – that God, therefore, is a figment of our imagination. Too many people simplistically conclude that, if God truly existed, there would be no evil, no suffering in this world. But that conclusion is premised on the notion of God as master puppeteer, with control over all aspects of our lives and fates. If God had the power to change the course of human events, I too would have trouble with a God that allowed slavery and genocide, torture and war. With the miracle of life, we have been granted the gift of free will; how we live our life, how we treat others, what choices we make in life, is up to us. I believe that a part of God dies with each act of human cruelty; God cannot prevent human suffering, but rather suffers along with us.

There is a scene in Night, Elie Wiesel’s powerful memoir as a teenager in a Nazi concentration camp, in which he recounts the hanging of a young boy at Auschwitz, a vision for which he has been haunted ever since. Wiesel watched as the SS placed a noose around the boy’s neck, then kicked the chair from beneath his feet. “For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. . . . Behind me, I heard [a] man asking, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is he? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.”

That God is within all of us, that we are all children of God, is what makes sense to me. The quest for God is in the depth of our experience. As Jesus told his Apostles, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” This anonymous presence of God is manifested in the account of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:41, in which Jesus explains metaphorically that, in denying food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, in not welcoming the stranger, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

I am neither a theologian nor a scientist; I cannot engage in biblical exegesis, or wax philosophical about the history of the world’s religions, provide intricate psychological explanations, or site to medical and scientific experiments. But when I walk among the stars; when I stare at the moon on a warm summer evening; when I acknowledge the beautiful life presence of my two daughters, I experience God’s presence. When I observe the joy in a young child's heart over the embrace of a grandparent; when I watch the trees sway back and forth on a breezy fall day, and feel the moistness of the ocean at my feet; when I experience all of these things, and the multitude of ordinary everyday events, I see, first-hand, evidence of God’s existence.

Secularization and science have made it difficult to speak of and about God in a rational, convincing manner. Science is masterful at explaining what happens and how. Science has yet to explain why. The ultimate question for us all as human beings is, or should be, why are we here? For what purpose? Is there any meaning in life? What happens when we die? For atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, the answer is nothing – you live, you die, you cease to exist. Make the most of your life while here on earth – your legacy is what you leave behind. But there is no higher calling from which to draw sustenance, no true purpose to life. Hitchens and Maher may be rational, highly intelligent men, but I find their conclusions deeply empty and, ultimately, irrational. If we are nothing but an evolving mass of molecular biology with no higher purpose, if we have no spiritual essence, then why do we have a sense of morality, of right and wrong, of compassion and caring? Why do we struggle against hatreds, prejudices, and violent dispositions? Why are we here in the first place, and where are we headed?

Theologian Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School asked in 1965, “Is it the loss of the experience of God, the loss of the existence of God in Christianity, or the lack of adequate language to express God today?” Perhaps it is all of those things. As described by the late Episcopal theologian John Macquarrie, “Faith in God is more than an intellectual belief. It is a total attitude of the self.” I understand what Macquarrie meant, though it does not translate well into a mode of scientific analysis.

Advances in science and our knowledge of the workings of the universe have required that religions adjust their thinking on the relationship between scripture, history, symbolism, and fact. Those who continue to insist on a literal interpretation of scripture cannot reasonably reconcile their biblical perspectives with modern day knowledge; for them, faith and reason will forever be at odds. For the more progressive branches of Christianity, and all but the most ultra-orthodox branches of Judaism, faith in God has survived scientific attack through the realization that, in the words of Harvard theologian Krister Stendahl, the Bible is “poetry-plus, rather than science-minus.”

Modern science has vastly expanded our knowledge of the universe such that we now can trace its origins to billions of light years ago. Yet despite the ever expanding human capacity for knowledge, superior technology and analytical skills, science has yet to disprove divine creation or find definitive answers. Even the most skeptical scientist must acknowledge the possibility of God; many of the most accomplished of scientists have never doubted God’s existence. For me, the evidence of God’s presence is all around us; proof that God does not exist has yet to be offered.

Faith will always require an irrational leap in the dark. There may well be no true faith without some measure of doubt; perhaps this is the ultimate gift of God.


  1. Mark,

    It used to be said that science was the search for God. How strange that at a time when science has provided enough evidence to convince anyone with a baseline of common sense that there is a god, that many scientists now distance themselves from that goal.

    The study of cell biology has shown the impossibility of randomness and chance creating life. Biochemist Michael Behe’s study of the cell’s bacterial flagellum, demonstrates the complexity of even the simplest life: “The bacterial flagellum – two gears forward and reverse, water-cooled, proton motive force. It has a stator, it has a rotor, it has a U-joint, it has a drive shaft, it has a propeller.” Science would have you believe that in a primordial mud puddle of inert, lifeless material and gases, individual parts were haphazardly created and by chance were pushed together in just the right order and then, once assembled – accidentally but flawlessly – this machine was, what? shocked to life by an electrical charge?

    This makes as much sense as believing that in billions of years, chance would have formed bumpers and dashboards and pistons and, fearing the eventual birth of Ralph Nader, seatbelts and airbags, and fit them all together to await a B-movie lightning bolt that would infuse life into its gas starved engine.

    Scientists would have you believe this, but think you dull to believe that a creator put together this complex organism. But that is only the half of it, because this simple life is endowed with a complex DNA code that, again, was either the product of chance or a programmer. In analyzing the very building blocks of life, scientists use man-made computers capable of 360 trillion operations per second, while wanting us to believe that the greatest computer code of all, operating in the human mind and capable of 10 quadrillion instructions per second, was the product of a witches brew of minerals and gases.

    Scientists can be an egotistical bunch; unlocking ancient mysteries can rightly make you feel special, but it also can make you blind to your limitations. Understanding God and His purpose is about as likely as an ant watching Firing Line and coming to an appropriate appreciation for William F. Buckley, Jr. Put another way, imagine that you want to teach your dog to trot upstairs and retrieve your slippers; an achievable task if you break it down into parts and reward him each small step of the way. Now imagine teaching your dog the same trick, but by never leaving your chair – using only your words to explain your desire. No matter how slow you talk or how patient you are the only achievable result will be a pissed-off dog.

    We are that dog, or maybe just the ant, but we have common sense and it has kept us advancing as a species for thousands of years and prevented our extinction.


  2. While the cell proves the existence of God beyond all reasonable doubt, it doesn’t help in explaining how the soup of life came to be in the first place. Scientists are at least humble enough to admit they don’t know how the universe began. Their Big Bang theory doesn’t even address that, beginning as it does in mid-bang, sometime before the universe was a full second old. The scientists have plenty to say about the “BOOM” stage but are mum regarding what happened during “KA–.” Although the Big Bang theory was originally viewed skeptically by scientists (including Einstein) when it was first proposed, it has since become the accepted wisdom. Considering that the likely inspiration for the Big Bang theory was the Bible, scientists would do well to return to the original source to fill in that pre-boom moment. The Big Bang theory was originally known as the “Hypothesis of the Primeval Atom” when it was first proposed by George Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest. Lemaître’s theory, which he described as “the Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation,” and the Genesis account match up quite well, once old-world prose and scientific jargon are translated into modern English. The inclusion of God into the equation turns a silly theory – something out of nothing – into a plausible scenario. Much like anything out of a parent’s mouth can make perfect sense with the simple inclusion of, “Because I said so, that’s why!”

    To respect another’s dismissal of God despite the evidence to the contrary seems overly generous, like respecting the jury’s decision that let loose the murderous fiend, O.J. But if more evidence is needed, the capstone surely is this: Of all the life forms on this planet, only one has the capacity for self-sacrifice. A mother zebra may put up a good fight in defense of her young, but there will come a time, without fail, when she will save herself and leave her offspring to die a cruel lonely death. It is a necessary program to preserve the species, but that same trait in man would soon doom the race to self-destruction. Man’s DNA was infused with a higher purpose than simple perpetuation of the species. This is not something we evolved into because it is counter-intuitive. Why, logically, should a firefighter enter an inferno to save someone they have never met? Why would a cop rush toward the gunshots? Why would a soldier hold his fire when a terrorist aims his rifle through the legs of a child?

    Respect of other’s foolish beliefs is unproductive; better to declare them mistaken and hope that the weight of the evidence, past and to come, will one day be too much to ignore and they will, at last, acknowledge that there is a God – in all likelihood a Republican – and we can then listen to our better angels who tell us that, “Well, duh, dumbass,” is not the appropriate rejoinder.

    In the meantime, scientists and archaeologists will continue their pursuit of knowledge. Some will admit to what they are really doing, while others will put on airs and dismiss the very thought as some type of primitive idol worship. But the truth remains that with each mystery solved, they are one step closer to understanding God, whether they like it or not.

    Rich R.

  3. Rich,

    I think you put it best when you said, "unlocking ancient mysteries can rightly make you feel special, but it also can make you blind to your limitations." Failing to recognize the mystery of life and our purpose for being here is one of the limitations that many scientists and others who claim to be non-believers share. Yet I respect those who claim a disbelief in a higher power because, as human beings we are incapable of fully comprehending God and, just as I try to respect the sincere religious beliefs of others, I try to respect the sincere unbelief of others. Moreover, I am no more confident that science can prove God's existence (though I do like your cell argument), than I am of its ability to disprove God's existence. In the end, I still believe that it comes down to being open to the beauty and majesty of life and the universe we inhabit and to open one's eyes to all that surrounds us; it is only then that I believe one can truly understand the compatability between God and science, recognizing our limitations in adequately explaining the meaning and power of faith.