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.