IS BELIEF IN GOD SUPPOSED TO EXPLAIN THINGS?

Recently, the eminent astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, revealed as if for the first time that believing in God serves no useful purpose. His reason for saying so was that appealing to science is a better way of explaining things than appealing to God is.

As a religious believer, I know I am supposed to quake at pronouncements like this from people who know a lot more facts than I do about the universe. And then defend the faith with every theological resource I can either find or make up. If faith can’t illumine the how and the why of things, Hawking teases, why bother with it at all?

Here are two reasons why.

First, faith is a matter of trusting in spite of explanations more than it is a believing on the basis of them.

It is true that every religion has its tales to tell about the origins and operations of things, and that the best of them offer captivating images of how an unseen ordering is at the heart of the whole process. As explanations, however, most of them require a sacrifice of the intellect that thoughtful people cannot make.

What myths do best is not to tell us the meaning of things, but rather to express our yearning for it. They are not about what is and why, but rather what is worthy of our highest hopes and striving. They do not picture what is out there so much as they express what is deepest within us, affixed to our wishes, moral sense, and sighs too deep for words.

And second, science is a matter of describing how things happen within the universe more than it is an explaining of the universe itself.

It is true that talking about what might be going on out there — literally, “cosmology” — is exciting. When the talk turns to explanations, however — to “cosmogony” — things become murkier. The explanations are as many, varied, and insusceptible to proof as myths are.

What cosmology does best is not to tell us where it all came from, but to express our yearning for grounding in it. It is not about what happened back then, but about what and whom we should trust to make things happen next. They do not picture origins so much as destinies, ours more than the cosmos’, and God’s more than both.

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A MEDITATION ON MULTIVERSES

Then, there was Light. And the Bang, and the Expanding. But what happened before the “Then?”

For some time now, physicists have been telling their story of the universe all the way back to a bare one ten million, trillion, trillion, trillionth of a second from the beginning. They call the gap from there to the beginning the “Planck era.” Impressive.

But even more so is new data that makes possible more reasonable speculations about what happened during the Planck era itself. For me, the most breathtaking of these speculations is the suggestion that “in the beginning” there came into being more than just our own universe.

It is as if that single (?) primordial event (explosion?) sent the space, time, causalities, and substances it threw off into many different dimensions at the same (moment?). The result was a multitude of universes, possibly an infinite number of them, layered in different space/time configurations.

Clearly, language has come close to the end of its tether in these current attempts at describing the origins of things. If by “universe” we already mean all there is, can it make any sense to apply the word to more than one “All”?

Perhaps it can. All the experts now seem willing to try.

Actually, once I talked myself into believing that I know what “infinite” can mean, the multiverse hypothesis didn’t seem all that daunting. I came upon it first while reading the 1709 essay on God’s righteousness and justice (Theodicy) by the philosopher Leibniz, the famous Dr. Pangloss of Voltaire’s Candide.

Leibniz conjectured that our universe is one of an infinity of possible universes held resplendently in the divine mind before it was removed from the realm of abstract possibility and made the only actual universe. All the others remain only possible universes that God elected not to make actual. They continue to exist in God’s mind, but nowhere else.

If Leibniz were alive today, I think he might revise his original theory. Now, he might say, the Actualizer of our own universe is actualizing every possible universe also. And further, in all of those other universes there just might be beings with the same curiosity and wonder about theirs that we have about our own.

What end might all of these universes, and not just one of them, serve? Perhaps the infinite expansion of glorifying the infiniteness of their Creator.

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ONE OFTEN OVERLOOKED FACT ABOUT RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND WHY IT IS SO IMPORTANT FOR FAITH

What makes it hard for serious religious dialogue to get anywhere is that people who engage in it often take two things for granted that they shouldn’t. The first is that the only way to understand core religious beliefs is as assertions of fact about a higher order of being than ours. The second is that theirs is the only religion whose core beliefs are true.

With regard to the first, core religious beliefs do look very much like claims to truth about ultimate reality. Among other things, they purport to describe important intersections between this world and a greater one, e.g., the creation of the universe in six days; the bliss of Enlightenment; Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem; the final battle between the forces of darkness and light, etc.

The problem is that no one religion makes even this limited list of core beliefs its own. Each agrees with some and denies the truth of others on it, without giving earnest seekers a clear empirical path toward determining the truth of any of them.

And because it does this, each religion inevitably draws its followers into irresolvable wrangles with other religions’ followers about whose beliefs express final truths and whose do not. There is no way out of this morass as long as a religion equates a transforming personal faith with asserting the “right” things about ultimate reality.

There is a way out, however. It begins with the realization that every religion systematically overlooks an important fact not only about its own beliefs, but about every other religion’s beliefs as well.

The fact is this: while thoughtful followers may assent outwardly to their religion’s core beliefs, they are always interpreting and re-interpreting inwardly just what those beliefs will and will not mean for them personally. In other words, they don’t take the “official” versions of a religion’s core beliefs at face value.

One reason they do not is that they know just how fluid and changeable the understanding of core religious beliefs can be. Even the understanding of those beliefs as final declarations about reality.

Understood this way, core religious beliefs merely get in the way of diligent seeking, together, for truth. What doesn’t get in the way is understanding them as expressions of longing, hope, and a commitment to love one another, no matter what.

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WHEN RELIGION BECOMES UNHEALTHY FOR THE SOUL

 For some people, religion isn’t something that can become unhealthy. It’s something that is unhealthy, all the time. Freud’s classic statement on the subject was that religion is a “universal obsessional neurosis.” Many mental health professionals still agree with him.

To me, this perspective is something of a caricature, but one which nevertheless contains important truths. There is in fact a lot that is unhealthy about religious beliefs and practices, as well as with the inner life that they seek to shape.

Religious beliefs are unhealthy — in the sense that they are no longer good for us — when we ask no questions about and brook no criticism of them. The beliefs may be true in themselves, but being close-minded about them is injurious to genuine growth in faith.

More than remaining just unhealthy influences, religious beliefs become downright malignant when they are gathered into a belief-system whose principal tenet is that no other belief-system, religious or otherwise, has any truth in it at all. Those who do this kind of gathering are not only obsessional; they are delusional.

The process is subtle but diabolically effective. It begins with a noble affirmation, such as “The Buddha experienced enlightenment about all things spiritual.” Then, the affirmation becomes “Only the Buddha is the truly Enlightened One.” The Buddha himself would have agreed with the first statement, but not the second.

Religious practices become unhealthy — in the sense that they lead both our feelings and our actions astray — when we engage in them for no reason other than we have been told to do so by religious leaders whose authority we do not question.

They become malignant when they take a form deliberately designed to inflict suffering in the service of the religion itself. Some examples: securing conformity to devotional and moral rules by threats of excommunication and damnation; propagating the religion by forced conversion of conquered people; slaughtering those deemed to be infidels.

The inner life that is produced by unhealthy religious beliefs and practices pales by comparison with a truly authentic spirituality. The signs of its unhealthiness are hard to miss: slavish conformity; defensiveness; anxiety masked by false confidence; guilt; shame; joylessness. It’s hard to be around spiritually unhealthy people for very long and have much regard for the religion that has made them so.

Faith-seekers deserve so much more from religion.

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SCIENCE, FAITH, AND THE “GOD OF THE GAPS”

Not long ago, scientists were claiming to be on the verge of unlocking the mysteries of the universe and everything in it, human life included. All of the gaps in our present knowledge were about to be closed, and with them the shrinking space within which faith struggles to expand our horizons and our hopes.

It puzzles me why people of faith continue to stumble over this particular challenge. Some try desperately to shout down scientific announcements with reiterations of dogmas that no thoughtful religious person could possibly take seriously in the first place. An example? How about the dogma that the age of our world is measured in thousands rather than billions of years?

Not every person of faith becomes combative in the face of scientific challenges. Some simply crumple with anxiety that the scientists might be right, and give up asking hard questions at all. My favorite hard question is still: Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?

Others give up both the hard questions and the science, and rest content with the kinds of assurances that only tribal mythologies can offer. If our god is better than your god, who cares whether there is a God better than both of them?

The kind of faith for which I continue to seek is a faith open to explore in wonder the fullness of everything observable, thinkable, and imaginable. At the heart of it will be — I am still working on this — a certain kind of trust.

What I have in mind here is an abiding confidence that when the explorations are on the right track, what will come ever more gloriously into view is all-encompassing and transforming Goodness of Being. And that will make all of the seeking and the questioning worthwhile and worth celebrating.

Happily, this generation of scientists is far less certain that their predecessors were about closing out God by closing up gaps in our knowledge. The gaps that have recently opened up are simply too wide for that. Hundreds of billions of galaxies along with our own, with futures yet to be determined. Dark matter. Dark energy. Parallel universes. Unknown laws.

And perhaps the widest gap of all: between neuronal firing in our brains and the thoughts we have about them. Who, and Whose, are we anyway, that we can be mindful of such things?

 

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WHEN BELIEFS GET IN THE WAY OF FAITH

Of all the controversies roiling religious communities today, one of the most vexing is over the role of beliefs in the life of faith.

Many believers are holding onto traditional teachings as the only way they know to take a stand against relativists and pluralists everywhere. Others insist that non-negotiable beliefs are the principal source of divisiveness in the world, and weaken the credibility of all belief-systems, religious or not.

Adding to this unhelpful debate among religious believers is the substitution of labels for careful thinking. Self-proclaimed “conservatives” gloat that their own fellowships, unquestioningly loyal to their scriptures, creeds, and moral codes, can only prosper while those of the “liberals,” who believe anything they want, can only decline.

In turn, liberals fulminate against the oppressiveness of tradition as such and, substituting relevance and activism for sound theology, summarily dismiss conservatives as narrow-minded, mean-spirited enemies of authentic faith.

Beliefs do and should matter to any religious community. They are really, really important. But not so important as to undermine respecting and caring for the people who hold them, even and especially when others’ beliefs are seriously at odds with one’s own.

When beliefs become more important than the believers who hold them, at least three things tend to get lost sight of with respect to the beliefs themselves.

The first is that the most carefully considered and passionately held religious beliefs are only partial views of the sacred realities to which they point. A big reason why this is so is: us. We believe what we want to believe more often than we believe what we know we ought to believe.

The second is that what any religious community considers the vital center of its beliefs means different things at different times to the different people who share its common history. In every religion there are many traditions. One thing this means is that there are many ways to be a believer on any religion’s own terms.

And the third is that for personal faith to thrive, faith communities must respect both the God-given right of people to ask probing questions about core beliefs and the fact that there is a vital center of belief to be discovered on the far side of all genuine questioning and doubting.

From religious communities whose members see these things clearly, hardly anyone could wish to disaffiliate.

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CAN TRUE RELIGION EVER BE BASED ON FEAR?

Very young children believe that rules for living originate from an unseen order of things, and that they hover over us threateningly, with no let-up. Violators of them can expect severe punishments which bear little discernable relationship to the nature of the violations themselves.

Later on, children typically look upon rules as either created or negotiated by people like themselves. Punishments for breaking them should be appropriate to the intention of and the harm caused by the particular violation. Kids grow up!

Would that it were so with the religions which seek to serve them. Even today, a great deal of what passes for religion amounts to little more than coercing peoples’ assent by scaring them to death.

The scare tactics take this form: Unless you do/don’t do … then something very, very bad will happen to you. Just what this “something” is becomes a major part of the teachings of every religion. Here are a few images of “It”:

  • Experiencing poverty, disease, infirmity, failure, and hopelessness in this life;
  • Being re-born at a lower rung on the social or even biological hierarchy;
  • Burning in the flames of hell forever;
  • Dissolving into the Nothingness from which we have come.

One way to look at these notions is as attempts to clarify the “unseen order” of the very young child’s world-view. The best indicator that this is so is their lack of clarity about how general punishments like these are warranted in every case of individual wrongdoing in widely different circumstances.

Consider an illustration from my own religious tradition, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The whole populations of these two cities, the story goes, were destroyed by fire because some of the men in Sodom committed homosexual acts. The offenses allegedly committed in Gomorrah are not defined at all.

Homosexuality aside, did the wives and children of these men deserve this fate? Little children might think so. But when grown-ups do, it is appropriate to call their thinking not child-like, but downright childish.

Human development theorists generally agree that doing and not doing things for the sake of avoiding punishment represents only the first step in the process of moral growth. Religious leaders should know, too, that the fear of the Ultimate is not the basis of wisdom. It is only a first step in a developing understanding what wisdom most truly is.

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WHEN IN DOUBT, DOUBT MORE

A common perception about religious believers is that they think they have an edge over people who try to face life’s challenges without faith and on their own. There are at least two realities about faith that this perception ignores.

One is that even the most conscientious believers have questions and doubts about their faith from time to time. The other is that people with faith and people without it share a common yearning for a transforming relationship with an ultimate source of being, power, value, and meaning

And so, neither believers nor non-believers who are struggling with confusion, uncertainty, and doubt need criticism or rejection for asking hard questions about what they have been taught to believe and do. What they do need is encouragement to pursue truth, no matter where the pursuit may lead them.

It is painful to be in the throes of radical questioning and doubting in matters of faith. What makes the pain worse is being exhorted to let go of the questioning and doubting, trust what religious authorities teach about God, the world, and human destiny, and leave it at that.

In centuries past, exhortation was an important instrument for keeping members of religious communities mindful of how different they were from the unsaved. The approach succeeded because the premise on which it rested, the supremacy of the religious community/institution over its individual members, was taken for granted — if not always enthusiastically — by almost everyone.

This premise can no longer be taken for granted by anyone who believes that individual conscience is deserving of respect, even when it turns negative toward the realm of the sacred. The more plausible premise is that we should pay homage to a belief about the sacred only in the light of personal experience and reasoned judgment.

There is one important role that exhortation does play in the nurturing of religious feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and actions. It is to discourage our minds’ becoming malleable to any and every Transcendence-affirming and Transcendence-denying belief tossed to and fro on the winds of an uncritically relativistic and pluralistic culture.

Even in this process, however, reproof-oriented exhortations are not likely to work nearly as well as can (1) good listening, (2) questions offered in an inquiring rather than judgmental spirit, and (3) strong encouragement of honest seeking. Taking faith on faith does not make for mature faith.

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UNBELIEF: THE LOGICAL AND THE EMOTIONAL SIDES

Philosophers like to put the issue this way: it is irrational to believe that (a) God is all-powerful, (b) God is unconditionally good, and (c) Undeserved suffering exists in the world. You can build a credible faith on any two of these propositions, but not on all three.

For religious believers, the unsound proposition is (c). Some understand suffering to be unreal, something like an illusion. Others acknowledge it but question whether any of it is truly undeserved.

Most non-believers claim both (a) and (b) to be the real problems, precisely the beliefs which are so crucial for believers.

Is there any way out of this impasse, logically? I think so. For God to be God, God surely must be unconditionally good. But for God to have a part in the world at all, there has to be a limiting of God’s power. God can’t have all the power there is if other beings are not to have power, too.

And the power of those other beings includes the power to do things that a Supremely Perfect Being might not do or want done.

Well, there you have it, unbelievers. So why are you still arguing about religion?

Because logic doesn’t really get to the heart of genuine unbelief — or of belief either, for that matter. The issue of whether to believe or not believe is much deeper than logic can ever access all by itself.

Let’s set abstract philosophical statements about God to the side for a moment. The God of faith has to be talked about much more personally. For instance, by statements like this: If we believe in God with all our heart, God will give us what we really need in life.

The God of this statement is not just a Powerful and Perfect Being. The God of this statement is a Promise-Making Being. People lose faith in this kind of a God not on the basis of logical considerations, but on the basis of soaring expectations and searing disappointments.

Unbelief comes when our deepest yearnings go unfulfilled, after we have been told that we have every right to expect them to be brought to pass. This is really why, I think, people give up on God.

But the yearnings still remain, most especially for the power to believe that God still will not give up on us.

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THE DIVINE AND THE HUMAN SOURCES OF RELIGIOUS SCRIPTURES

A common teaching of at least three religious traditions is that their scriptures were written down under direct, divine inspiration.

The important word here is “direct.” Its primary purpose is to minimize the role of the human scribe(s) in the process. “Minimize,” however, does not mean “eliminate.”

There is a lot of confusion about this in each tradition. What each says, in its own language(s), is that God or a ministering angel spoke the original words, then human beings — Moses, the Prophets, Jesus, Muhammad — said them to others, and finally their followers put them into written form.

This is a more subtle understanding than the one many people today latch onto, to wit: God wrote it; I believe it; that settles it.”

In my own tradition, the latching-onto has been greatly facilitated by the King James Bible’s misreading of a New Testament passage, 2 Timothy 3:16 — All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. A more accurate rendering is Every inspired scripture is profitable for…

Either way, the ensuing misreading is of two sorts. The first consists of taking “scripture” as referring to the Old and New Testaments as a whole. The second consists of ascribing their sources to God and God alone.

The writer of 2 Timothy cannot possibly have meant either. With respect to the first misreading, what he had in mind were primarily the “sacred writings” known to his letter’s recipients from their childhood (3:15): materials that would only later become the Jewish canon.

He surely had Christian materials available to him also, e.g., some early letters of Paul. But at least three of the four Gospels, along with the letters attributed to Peter and John, and the books of Hebrews and Revelation did not exist yet.

As for the second misreading, first century Christians, as did their Jewish predecessors, exhibited a remarkable sensitivity to the fallible human element in the formation of their respective messages. They were far less preoccupied than their successors became with getting into place a single body of writings whose source they could claim to be God alone.

Their point was something like this: There are a lot of humanly crafted scriptures (=writings) out there. And which of them are inspired and which are not is a decision that human beings must make.

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