Tragedies like the Newtown shootings and the devastation from Hurricane Sandy test people's faith in God. When God fails to intervene in human suffering, the acceptance of a loving deity who cares for his children arouses fresh doubts. For centuries, God's failure to perform has been blamed on worshippers. Sin, temptation, human frailty, the seduction of evil -- a whole range of faults belong to us rather than God. Even in an age that is much less strict in matters of religion, "What did I do wrong?" is a thought that lurks in the mind when bad things happen.
What if we erase the slate and look clearly at the situation. Something terrible happens, people suffer, they implore God for help, but no help comes. If such a thing occurred when a house caught fire and the fire trucks never came, naturally the blame would fall on those who are assigned to rescue us. Is it fair to apply the same standard to a God who fails to show up?
The atheist position on this question is both simple and certain. God doesn't show up because he doesn't exist. But the rest of us are likely to feel mixed emotions. When you look at yourself and ask where you stand on the God issue, you are almost certainly in one of the following situations:
Unbelief: You don't accept that God is real, and your unbelief is expressed by living as if God makes no difference.
Faith: You hope that God is real, and your hope is expressed as faith.
Knowledge: You have no doubt that God is real, and therefore you live as if God is always present.
When someone becomes a spiritual seeker, they want to move from unbelief to knowledge. The path is by no means clear, however. Yet without actual knowledge of God, no one can settle a basic question like "Should God be relied upon to heal suffering or divert disasters?" Short of true knowledge, you either shrug God off for being useless in the everyday world or you take on faith that his infinite wisdom reaches beyond our limited perspective -- in other words, suffering fits into the divine plan.
Let's say that you recognize yourself in one of these three states of unbelief, faith and knowledge. It's quite all right if they are jumbled and you have passing moments of each. What feels like a muddle could actually be a path. Unbelief can lead to faith and faith to true knowledge. This holds true for many other things in life, only we don't use religious terms for it. When you learn to ride a bike, or roller-skate, or how to be in love, uncertainty dominates at first, then you begin to believe that you're getting somewhere, and finally you know that you are there.
It's ironic that the band of militant atheists who have attracted so much public attention, like Richard Dawkins, bases its unbelief on evolution. In reality they don't believe that spirituality can evolve. They are stuck on one note -- religion is a primitive throwback -- which makes no sense on any level. The history of civilization is paralleled by the evolution of religious thought. Thomas Aquinas and the Buddha weren't exactly sitting around a fire chipping at arrow heads, but militant atheists make their unbelief look like "progress."
If there is a path to God, we are asking the big questions while in a muddled state; with clarity, these questions may have credible answers. Certainly a secular age isn't going to back pedal and return to dogmatic faith. At the same time, spiritual experiences are natural and universal; they have always existed and still do, which means that God is available, if he exists. (For the moment I'll use the conventional "he," although the deity has no gender and shouldn't been seen in the image of a human being).
God is hidden somewhere, as a presence, in all three situations, whether as a negative (the deity you are fleeing from when you walk away from organized religion) or as a positive (a higher reality that you aspire to). Being faintly present isn't the same as being truly important, much less the most important thing in existence. If it was possible to make God real again, I think everyone would agree to try. In the next series of posts, I'd like to trace how unbelief can lead to God. This isn't a way to validate organized religion or to defend the God of any particular religion. What we'll be interested in is discovering what makes God real, living and true.
To be continued...