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 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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This past week a reader began her e-mail to me with this question, added a story to go with it, and gave me permission to share both.

I’ll begin with the story: Cindy and Jack (not their real names) grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same parish school, and were married by the priest who baptized both of them as infants. But their marriage didn’t work, and they divorced three years later.

Now, they are feeling doubly condemned by their church, first for the divorce and second for wanting to re-marry in the church, to new partners. The first condemnation added little to Cindy’s and Jack’s own self-condemnations for marrying long before they were “ready.” But the second, in Cindy’s words, plunged them into a spiritual despair from which they are seeing no way out.

And now, the question. Under the laws of their church, Cindy and Jack’s divorce had already made them unworthy to receive communion, and would also consign their re-marriages to the status of illegitimacy — to “living in sin” Unless…

Unless they were willing to seek an annulment of their first marriage. Annulment would accomplish two purposes: (1) it would declare their first marriage invalid and therefore never-existent as a marriage, and (2) it would express the forgiveness of their church for the sin of ending it.

For Cindy and Jack, the possibility of receiving only this kind forgiveness made their despair even worse. Why? Because it would require them to deny the very existence of a relationship that they knew would hold sacred value for them all the rest of their lives, even though they had found themselves unable fulfill its sacred obligations.

Cindy expressed her anguish this way: Our love was real, our vows were genuine, and our weakness destroyed both. But it’s not as if we never married at all. We did marry, in every sense of the word.

My anguish for this couple is a little different. It includes an intellectual reaction to the idea that bringing to an end by divorce what was never a marriage to start with is somehow a sinful act. This is an idea that on many levels just doesn’t make sense.

But my anguish goes much deeper than this. I anguish over Cindy and Jack’s missing out on God’s love because of church laws that claim precedence over it.

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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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Sometimes, disappointments reach a point beyond the power of faith to explain or rectify. Recently, a friend of mine put it this way: I was brought up believing in a God I could always count on, no matter what. But when I needed him most, he wasn’t there for me. I won’t reach out anymore.

The sadness and anger to which his words gave voice still resonate in me. They won’t let me go because I think there is more to them than my friend is at present willing to share.

What I would like to know more about are the other people in my friend’s life who mattered greatly to him and disappointed him. I don’t think God was the first. I think God is more like the last in a series. The last straw, perhaps.

Sometimes, God’s seeming non-responsiveness in a particular crisis is all that it takes to turn naïve belief into cynical doubt, expectation into rage, and hope into despair. The real tragedy begins when the doubt, the rage, and the despair become all but irreversible.

One thing I know about my friend’s giving up on God is that the process began long before the final crisis. It began with the formation of what might be best called a wishful spirituality. My friend’s beliefs express wishes more than they do judgments based on perception and logic.

Maybe someday he will open up a little more about what he believes “counting on God” really involves. I have a hunch that it involves clinging to a very childlike image of God. This God is not so much a “very present help” in times of trouble as he is the Guarantor of a life free from troubles at all.

One thing I do know about my friend is that he has not as yet allowed the logic of his disappointment and anger to have free reign. He still holds too much against God to believe that there is no God for him to be disappointed and angry with.

I’m hoping that somehow he and many others will come to see more clearly the naivete of believing that pain and loss should play no part in any God-sustained universe. And the even greater naivete of believing that we can better cope with both if God is out of the equation rather than in.

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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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To most of the civilized world, the severity of American society’s antagonism toward criminal offenders is astonishing. It suggests an “eye for an eye” moral code which higher order ethical thinking rejected long ago.

And it calls into question our notion that rehabilitation is the primary goal of our criminal justice system. Yes, this notion may be impossibly idealistic in the cases of truly hardened criminals. Against these, society rightly puts its own need for protection first.

But are all convicted criminals deserving of being locked up and the keys thrown away? Or of being looked upon as persons incapable of change? Spiritual leaders throughout history have not thought so.

Many in our society, however, continue to believe so. Ever since the Nixon administration, we have been in a “War on Crime.” And ever since the Reagan administration, an additional “War on Drugs.” In both, we have largely replaced the goal of rehabilitation with the goal of locking up as many wrongdoers as we can — suspected as well as convicted — and for as long as we can.

And so, with only 5% of the world’s population, we now boast of having 25% of the world’s incarcerated criminals. The numbers are largely the result of legislative and judicial acts which in themselves are morally reprehensible.

Consider, for example, the imposition of sentences two to three times longer than in peer countries for the same crimes. Or mandatory sentencing guidelines that have resulted in longer jail sentences for drug possession than for rape and murder. Or letting white offenders sail and everybody else sink.

Making matters even worse is that sometimes, all it takes for law enforcers to ruin peoples’ lives is just to arrest them. Never mind accusations withdrawn and charges dropped. These count for little in a culture which, captivated by images of warfare, is all too ready to turn fellow human beings into enemies and then demonize them.

One of the most important discoveries of a maturing faith is that there is a spiritual center in every human being. And that within that center there is a Power to change for the better which is always available to those who seek it.

From this perspective, the keys on which our society should properly depend are not to prison cells but to transformed lives, in prisons and out of them.

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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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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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Basically, the answer to this question is yes. The cluster of Protestant denominations which once professed to constitute the Christian mainstream in this country can no longer do so credibly.

Less than 20% the U.S. population now belongs to them.

More than half of the congregations in these denominations — e.g.: American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian USA, Reformed, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist — have fewer than 100 members.

And their average age continues to increase. Where there is any membership growth at all, it falls well short of the growth rate in the surrounding populations.

There are several reasons why all this has happened. Unfortunately, congregational and denominational leaders began reflecting on them too late.

First, mainstream Protestantism has remained for too long predominantly Anglo-American, upper-middle class aspiring, and more preoccupied with supporting a highly educated clergy than a spiritually grounded one;

Second, its theologies have not addressed adequately the yearnings and needs of people seeking a credible faith that is more conservative than liberal, but not fundamentalist;

Third, its commitment to Christian unity on a global scale has rarely risen above the promotion of denominational mergers by institution-minded bureaucrats; and

Fourth, its denominations themselves have become obstacles to, rather than supports for, people coming to faith by way of deep questioning and reflecting, and faith-communities becoming mission-engaged on the basis of their own assessments of human need.

Is it any wonder, then, that thoughtful Protestant Christians are looking for different streams in which to swim? Like the mega-church movements? Cyber-churches? Or that many have simply gotten out of the water altogether?

The real problem with Protestant denominations has always been their confusing the mainstream of spiritual growth — seeking the embrace of what is truly holy — with seeking the prosperity and influence of the denominations themselves.

Perched high atop the shorelines of a now barely trickling mainstream, the headquarters of these organizations are places in which there is a great deal of tinkering going on, along with an occasional major re-structuring. But there is very little envisioning of any meaningful future for the denominations they seek to serve.

For the faith that is presently entombed in them to live, it may be necessary as well as inevitable for them to die. Would that be a bad thing? Surely not for God, and perhaps not for the world either.


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Many mental health professionals are now questioning the effectiveness of anti-depressant medications. Their skepticism is warranted by a good bit of evidence.

The evidence I have in mind concludes that mildly to moderately depressed people do about as well on placebos (pills that look like medications but are not) as they do on the real thing. Only the most severely depressed are being helped much by anti-depressants.

I am hopeful that this discovery will lead medical practitioners to work differently with their less severely depressed patients, in specific, by talking with them more and medicating them less. I am not hopeful that insurance companies will allow them to do it.

One thing I do think the research cries out for, whether by intention or not, is a re-thinking of “placebo effects” and what they imply for understanding the psyche.

Here’s why. As is well known, establishing the effectiveness of any new medication requires creating two kinds of groups among persons suffering a particular disorder. Members of one group are given the medication being tested, and members of the other group are given a placebo. No one in either group is supposed to know which he or she has received.

If all goes well, a definitive explanation can be given for why people “on” the medication do not improve: the medication does not work. But left unanswered is the question of why many people receiving the placebo improve.

One answer to this question is common sense-oriented: People get over depression best by working it out rather than taking medication for it.

How do they “work it out?” By eating well, getting enough exercise, reaching out to caring family members and friends, and allowing enough time for sleep. That’s hard to do when you are depressed, but staying depressed is even harder.

Another answer to the question about placebo effect is unembarrassedly faith-oriented. People who take anything for their depression, and get better, get better because they believe that what they take works. Pill + belief = recovery.

Might the belief be curative in itself? Many people think so. I am not so sure. It looks to me as if our culture has made of taking pills something very much like earlier cultures made of seeing and touching sacred objects, the bones of a saint, for example.

Perhaps we are still in an Age of Belief after all.

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