11/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Crisis as a Test of Faith

An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question: Fears about the economy. Anger on the campaign trail. Which concerns you most? How should we respond?

Two crises are overlapping right now, one economic, the other political. The absence of leadership magnifies the threat of recessions. Most religious people approach crises as a test of faith. The setup is modeled on various scriptures. There is David (God tests if a king will give in to lust and betray a friend) Job (God tests a righteous man to see if he will remain righteous), Peter (God tests if a disciple will betray his master), and Jesus himself (God tests if his son will make the ultimate sacrifice). There are many others, of course, beginning with Adam and Eve. These tests clearly follow a pattern:

-- God sets up the test for a reason.
-- You have to figure out the reason.
-- Once you do, passing the test will determine if God loves you or not.
-- You know you've passed the test by how well your life turns out.

The problem with this pattern is that every aspect of it is an illusion. A God of love wouldn't set up horrible calamities in the first place, not to mention that no one has ever had the slightest shred of proof that God's intentions can be read. Figuring out what the test means makes no sense if the crisis was never intentional to begin with. Maybe an economic bubble bursts because that's how bubbles end. Once you emerge from a crisis you feel better, but that doesn't mean God loves you again. Atheists feel better, too. Finally, you can never know that you passed a test, because there's always another crisis around the corner. Does God bring that one because you did so well on the first or because you did so badly?

The truth is that people find it hard to live with the stress of a severe crisis, and this stress is deepened by not knowing what the future will bring. To protect ourselves from panic in the face of the unknown, it's easy to fall back on a higher power who has his (or her) reasons for doing these terrible things but who in the end can be placated once we offer enough obedience, prayers, repentance, and better behavior. To the religious mind, all these things come naturally, but they are probably just social conditioning. In the absence of organized religion and its complicated notions of sin, how would a crisis feel? It would make you feel shaken and insecure, which leads to fear, and fear is often defended against with anger. For millions of people, simply the prospect of change arouses fear and anger. Crises make this tendency worse, because a crisis forces change, and no one reacts well to being forced.

One shouldn't worry about these emotional eruptions. Worry is unproductive. One should do what grownups are meant to do: reassure the child-like part of the self that feels weak and afraid. Standing up and telling others not to be weak and afraid offers a tiny bit of help (Pres. Bush's reassurances in this direction are essentially pointless, for good reason). More good is done by offering credible solutions. At this point, with the Republicans arousing unbridled anger by accusing Obama of consorting with terrorists, recriminations against them do little good. The dark side of human nature can be triggered; that's a psychological fact. The same is true of the economic crisis; people typically give in to runaway fear before they come to the point of confronting it. (The fear generated by 9/11 still has yet to be confronted.)

Ultimately, the restoration of calm will send fear and anger back into their hiding places. Assuming that we have legitimate elections and market stability in the near future, most people will stop being triggered by stress. On the fringes the extremists will continue to provoke our national demons. But it feels as if Sen. Obama, a naturally cautious, deliberate adult, gives little quarter to fear and anger. He will serve as a counter-example to Pres. Bush, whose entire career in office has been fueled by both. A leader who doesn't stoke rage and anxiety will be novel and most welcome. Human nature won't change, but it can be quelled.

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