How is it we come to believe in God?

A Letter to the People of God: On Intimacy with the Creator
July 22, 2008
God disputes the virtues of sex with a whore
July 26, 2008

“The way to God lies through deep darkness in which all knowledge and all created wisdom and all pleasure and prudence and all human hope and human joy are defeated and annulled by the overwhelming purity of the light and presence of God.”

—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (1962)

It is both comfortable and dangerous to make a statement about how God should be found. It is comfortable because it offers us a means of knowing God if we do not already; it is at the same time dangerous because there is no singular way for every human creature to know God.

Which is it? Can we know God through a series of practices, rituals that bend our being toward Him? Or is not a matter of simple steps, but rather a development of trust and faith in what will be, regardless of our own designs?

Though there are many ways to fully comprehend God, there are two ways which unfailingly mark the repeated histories of human generations. The first is retrospective analysis. By knowing what has happened—both decisions made and events that transpired—we reform our belief system accordingly. The second method of coming to know and believe in God is forespective analysis. We look to the future and make decisions based partially on what we know, but also on we don’t know, trusting that those things that will unfold will be for our and the greater good.

Retrospective analysis is perhaps more common, and certainly is easier, than its counterpart. We may look back on the genocides of Hitler and Stalin and say, despite the decisions of many people to turn away from mass murder and persecution, the Holocaust occurred. By this judgment, knowing innately that murder is not only inhumane but morally abhorrent, we can come to the conclusion that God does not and cannot exist. How is it possible that decisions were made by humans, valuing their own life and its potential, that destroyed the lives of other human beings? If God existed, he would have upheld the right of life and precluded the abominations of genocide.

In the same way, we look back on certain events and determine for ourselves that God must exist, for near-miracles occurred that helped or saved us. A fitting example would be the daring rescue of South American political hostage Ingrid Betancourt. Though the odds were against both the rescuers and Ms. Betancourt, she was rescued and brought back to friendly territory to resume her life. Such a life-giving series of events might be considered the answer to a prayer. In many cases, such aid moves one toward a life of faith and belief in God.

But while looking into the past offers us all of the details we might need to lay out an argument for and against the existence of God, looking into the future is much more problematic. We might surmise the what will happen, based on a pattern of previous events or on human experience, but we can never know for certain. Can we predict that Barak Obama will be the next American president? Polls indicate that he has a sizable lead in popularity over John McCain, but circumstances could change at any time. Some daring Democrats are convinced that Obama will win, already working on reform campaigns that they will begin after Obama’s inauguration. They have a firm belief that Obama will win.

At the same time, and on a more fatalistic note, we can look into the future and claim to see our own demise. I have had friends whose lives were in shambles; their parents had abandoned them, their friends had all but disappeared; they struggled with drugs; and they diagnosed with cancer. So many negatives often point toward one thing: a firm belief that death is near and, perhaps more significantly in the moment, pain will continue and probably increase. What is the best way to end that pain? Stop it now. Commit suicide.

But the traction of supposition based in the here and now is tenuous. We know from human history that oddities can occur, that the unthinkable is thought and performed, and that all manner of exceptions to the rule come to be true. If we base our belief in God, then, on how we determine life will go, either for better or for worse, we rest only on our understanding, our current knowledge, and our limited experience. More to the point, we rest on a complete ignorance of future events.

Yet this does not keep us from forming our beliefs based on what we see in the future and what has been in the past. I cannot count the number of times I have heard, “God has abandoned me, why should I give Him any attention?” Their cases are heart-wrenching oftentimes, and have, once in a while, made me wonder about God’s intentions myself. Perhaps people are within their right to stifle belief.

I always remind myself, however, that the foundation for belief cannot be found in the tracts of time, either what was or what will be. The very existence of God is timeless, unbound by our own preoccupations with moments, memories, and history. Furthermore, God is not individual as we are individual; He does not act in the interest of one person over another, or instead of another. To do so would presume He is bound by time, limited knowledge, and limited materials. If these were true, our so-called God would certainly have to make exception, let things slide, turn a blind eye, and help one person before another. He would constantly be needing to make judgments about what conditions are dire and which are merely trifles. In the end, he would end up favoring certain human beings over others.

But God, as we have come to Him (forgive the pronoun, it’s just a place holder) is beyond all of this. If God created the world, then everything that is a part of it is also a part of him and under His control. Furthermore, if we, too, are God’s creation, then everything that is a part of us is also under his control. I have said it before, but I say it again: the Creator can be subject to the limitations of His creation or He could not possibly have created it. There is no way, therefore, that God defers to time, or to space, or tangible ideas. That is our domain.

I will admit that this argument carries a heavy flaw. If we accept that God created the world and human creates, and everything a part of both, then we have already announced a faith in God. The issue, of course, is whether that faith exists or not. The problem then turns to an understanding of who created what when and why, and how that came to be. It’s an ageless problem, to be sure.

Let me, however, offer a different approach to solving the riddle of creation than many scientists and theologians have attempted. If we need to know that God created all in order to believe further that God exists and functions, despite how the past, present, and future unfold, then we are demanding proof. But that proof needs to be scientific and tactile. It must be felt, seen, known, and understood. In short, we are demanding evidence from God Himself that He exists, content to sit in indecision and uncertain faith until the day these are provided.

Yes, as I have already pointed out, it is always possible that God could come to us with a clear and firm understanding of how things began. We may indeed be satisfied, and assure Him that we will henceforth be sure to believe in Him, whatever that means. But needing to understand how we were made is a bit like a table asking a carpenter how he possibly managed to put the legs on. The table will certainly be sure not believe the carpenter exists until it knows full well the process by which it came to be.

Naturally, the carpenter could care less what the table thinks, so long as it functions as a table. But the quirky thing about humans is there intellect and free will. We can question and understand (to a point) what functions in the world around us, why it does, and what use it may be to us. But tell me: if the table could understand how to build itself, isn’t trying to displace the carpenter? If we know how and why all things came to be, wouldn’t we try to display the Creator by acting in His place?

Still not a good enough reason to believe, I assure you. But let me put it another way. If the entirety of our faith in God comes down to what happened at the beginning, aren’t we subjecting ourselves again to time? If we are to attempt belief in a Creator that is not subject to time, shouldn’t we think outside those limitations?

But if we cannot search for the beginning to ease our minds, what can we search for? It comes back to the many beliefs of the eastern religious traditions, as well as to the gnostic gospels—that in God, the alpha and the omega, there is no here and there, before and after, now and then. If God is in everything, he is as completely in the present as He is in the past, and as He will be in the future. What is God now? How does our Creator manifest Himself in this moment in your life?

I might continue on with arguments and counter-arguments, attempting to predict what you might say or think and how to diffuse the inevitable confusion that ensues. But where we look for evidence and assurance that can be touched, that is certain to the senses, we have failed to look very hard at all. God cannot exist in these things, anymore than a table exists in the tools that made it or the workshops where it was built. The table came to be because of the carpenter; but the reasons of the builder are his reasons. They may never be known by the table, and yet the table still functions as a table.

Do we always need to know why? Be daring: have a little faith.

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