Saturday, November 17, 2007

And your point is?

I often struggle with doubt. I think we all do, or at least, I hope I'm not the only one who sometimes lies awake thinking "Do I possibly just have everything completely wrong?" Part of it's a lack of self-confidence, a leftover sense from my childhood that I know nothing and should just follow the instructions given to me by others.

The biggest part, though, is that I love and respect my husband so much, yet he has completely different views. That has to affect me. I can't just disregard those with opposite opinions as either uninformed, or uncaring, or uninterested. I have to face the fact that my intelligent, worldly, educated, thoughtful husband has just come to an entirely different conclusion about the existence of God and our purpose in life.

He's asked me before how we can possibly be sure God is out there. My answer, "You just have to believe," is pretty much a non-answer to anyone who isn't already a believer. I've jumped through some pretty outlandish hoops to come up with some justification for him but I've always gone away empty-handed. An old adage comforts me: "For those who believe, no proof is necessary; for those who do not, no proof is sufficient." I've come to accept that I, personally, will not be bringing my husband to Christ by the persuasive power of my intellect or my ability to debate theological issues. I wouldn't really want that anyway. If he did enter the Church based on my arguments, I'd be worried for the rest of our lives that he'd encounter someone even MORE persuasive and follow their lead.

No. I want my husband to believe, and for that, Christ has to reveal Himself.

Yet I'm left with these lingering doubts and challenging questions for which I have no answer. What is the point of religion, if it doesn't DO anything? True, there have been miracles, but we're never guaranteed one. So we can pray and maybe our prayers get answered and maybe they don't. Thus the atheist says, "Why pray?" If the only benefit to prayer is a personal one, then it seems to be a pretty selfish exercise. And wouldn't your time be better spent either preparing for problems, learning concrete skills to deal with them, or proactively changing the world for the better? What really brought down the Soviet Union? The millions of rosaries Mary asked us to pray? Or an increase in communications technology which empowered the Soviet people to take charge of their government?

What about helping the poor? I've always cringed inwardly whenever I see a movie or read a book about the missionaries in foreign lands who get asked, "Why are you here, so far from home, doing this for us?" and then answer, "Jesus commands us to."

*headdesk* That's hardly the way to show God's love to the world. Dawkins has rightly criticized the Christians of this world for citing fear of hell as their motivation for doing good. Surely people are not so incredibly self-absorbed that the only way to get them to be nice is to threaten them with an eternity of pain? And if that's true, what does that say about our belief that we're created in God's image?

Most fundamentally, though, the criticism I have no answer for is the one that cuts the deepest. It has been people of faith, in the name of God, who have committed some of the worst atrocities and acts of hate against their fellow man. The faithful person can accurately cry, "But they have perverted God's message, not fulfilled it!" And even Hitchens acknowledges that atheists have done evil acts too, but the core question is this: if believing in God does not make someone a good person, then what use is religion?

My favorite priest gave an outstanding homily a few weeks ago and cited some disturbing statistics. Only 20% of Catholics tithe. And the average percentage of income given to the church is 1%. Obviously, these numbers don't translate literally. If only 20% of people are tithing, they're giving more than 1% of THEIR incomes, but you get the picture. Our mother Church gets 1%, the US government probably gets 30%, and the remaining 69% goes toward making ourselves as comfortable as possible.

Why is this? Why would the largest, most organized religion in the world have such selfish followers? I know personally a half dozen people who are truly good Catholics. They help the poor, they attend daily Mass, they follow the precepts of the Church, they are humble, generous, loving, peaceful, good people.

Is this God working in them? Or is this just how they are? Because for every person I name, there's someone else who goes to Mass and calls themselves Catholic who lives as selfishly and carelessly as any non-believer.

If there's no difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, what exactly does following Christ achieve?

When these doubts threaten to overwhelm me, I turn them over to God. Because I know in my heart He is real. He made us, He loves us, He sent His son to save us. For me, the point is to love Him back. Period. But I also think that being a Christian HAS to change you. It has to make you rethink your natural impulses and reevaluate your worldview. No society in this world is set up to care for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. The free market system and natural selection emphasize strength, intelligence, aggressiveness and foresight. None of this meshes with Jesus and the gentle, generous, simple, humble, trusting way He preached. We Christians should be visible as outsiders wherever we go, and not just for wearing crosses. We should be focusing on exactly the things society disdains, pursuing those avenues society considers worthless, protecting the people society would rather do without.

We should be transformed in Christ. Our faith should be a light that shines so brightly in our lives that no one can ask what good religion does this world. It should be abundantly obvious.

If it isn't, we're missing the whole point.

Picture credit. (Props to my husband for expanding my musical repertoire. Our son loves this album almost as much as the soundtrack to Aladdin.)

4 comments:

Jennifer F. said...

Fascinating post! As a former atheist, this one is right up alley. Pardon me while I ramble for a moment...

What is the point of religion, if it doesn't DO anything?

The way I see it, if the purpose of life is to know, love, and serve God, religion provides us with a path to know him better and understand better what he wants us to do. E.g. when I got to the point that I kind of believed in God, I still had no idea what he was like, how to "contact" him, or what I was supposed to be doing with my life. That's where religion came in.

So we can pray and maybe our prayers get answered and maybe they don't. Thus the atheist says, "Why pray?"

You've got to read this great post called Prayer: Putting on the mind of Christ. A commenter just directed me to it and I think it's wonderful. Here's an excerpt: "If prayer becomes a way of life and a habit in our lives, then we begin to see things differently. The Holy Spirit helps us to see things as God sees them. So, then, when specific things arise for which we would like to pray, we begin to see them as God sees them. Since God is love, we can say that we begin to see these things through the lens of love. One definition of love is to want what’s best for the other. So, when we begin to take certain things to prayer and consider what we should ask for specifically, we are trying to see what’s best for whoever is involved."

And wouldn't your time be better spent either preparing for problems, learning concrete skills to deal with them, or proactively changing the world for the better?

Presumably, the more we pray the more we're in tune with God's will for our lives, so he'll direct us to where he needs us most. I really believe this. Before I started praying I think I had a good heart, but I was sort of meandering around, not sure what I should be doing with my life. Through prayer, I really feel that I am adding SO much more to the world by letting God use me as he sees fit.

I see a movie or read a book about the missionaries in foreign lands who get asked, "Why are you here, so far from home, doing this for us?" and then answer, "Jesus commands us to."...Dawkins has rightly criticized the Christians of this world for citing fear of hell as their motivation for doing good.

I actually just sat down here to write a post about this, because I recently got accused of this (and I used to accuse Christians of it myself). I think that some Christians are misunderstood when they say that. Yes, they're doing it because they believe that it's what God wants and they don't want to go to hell, but surely there is a great amount of love behind their actions, otherwise they wouldn't be living in squalor to help their fellow human beings.

It has been people of faith, in the name of God, who have committed some of the worst atrocities and acts of hate against their fellow man...if believing in God does not make someone a good person, then what use is religion?

It seems to me that this one goes back to free will and our fallen natures. The only way God could stop people from doing any kind of bad thing, whether it's killing people in God's name or stealing or gossiping or being greedy or whatever, would be to take away our free will.

The way I see it, the Catholic Church tells us how we can find God and live the way he wants us to live. We are free to do with that information what we'd like. The people who really internalize its teachings and live the faith tend to be some of the best human beings on the planet. Of course, it's perfectly possible that a person could pervert the message of the Church for evil purposes, just like they could do anything else evil. God only works through us if we let him. Just labeling yourself a "Catholic" or a "Christian" doesn't do anything it all. To truly be a Christian involves a conversion of heart. And I will say that people who have truly turned their hearts over to God have something going on that I've never seen in any other group of people, ever.


So sorry for rambling, this is just a topic near and dear to my heart. If it gives you any encouragement, my husband was a non-practicing Christian and I was a committed atheist when we started dating. Also, you may like this post where my commenter Steve G. talked about his wife's conversion from being agnostic. I found it really inspiring.

Zina said...

Aha! You and I struggle with the same things. I doubt when I am depressed which then furthers my depression. But here are some thoughts that should give you some consolation.

How many universes and dimensions do scientists believe exist? Why should our brains which consist of simple matter be able to fully comprehend all space, time and universes... and yes, the existence of a one and only God? Seems like an impossible task if you ask me. Scientists and people who say they are scientists can be just as irrational as combative religious people. Hitchens, Dawkins and Pullman all seem to suffer from horrible hatred. They don't seek compromise. They only seek things on their terms. And they all relish in the fame and notoriety that their views give them. They are not the smartest people in the world, and there are many smarter people who do believe in God.

Religion does much good. Look at the inspiration it gives to our vocations (those who gave us Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II) who sacrifice their lives for good of others. Look at what Christ does for the imprisoned who seek redemption and a changed life behind bars and beyond.

All organizations can be used for the purposes of evil. Communism is not a religion and yet led to more killing than even the infamous Holocaust.

Tienne said...

Jen,

Thanks for the lengthy comment! I always love your posts on this issue; you have great insights.

I definitely agree that the point of prayer is not to get what you want, but rather to conform your mind to Christ's will. Some atheists criticize that, too, asserting that there's no difference between praying to a god and meditating to cultivate a humble and accepting heart.

At the core, though, I think these arguments go nowhere precisely because we can only see the human side of religion. We can't (until we die) see heaven and the myriad supernatural forces that are part and parcel of a life of faith. I have this issue with my husband, to my perpetual irritation. If I have a fault, he attributes it to my faith. If I embody a virtue, he credits my own character. How can I prove otherwise when it's all in his perception?

And I will say that people who have truly turned their hearts over to God have something going on that I've never seen in any other group of people, ever.

Really? More posts about this please! I try to point out the good of religion and religious people whenever I can, but it's rare for me to find something. Like I said, though, it's mostly a matter of perception.

Tienne said...

Zina,

Have you read any of Hitchens' criticisms of Mother Theresa? They're unreal...I never imagined anyone could find something bad to say about her but he has plenty! I agree with you, though, that the most vocal of the atheists seem to really get off on their fame. I think it was Dawkins who actually said that he considers the idea of an omnipresent Creator-God completely horrible; he doesn't want to be constantly supervised or have to "owe" anything to some being for nothing more than a simple act of creation a few millenia ago. After reading that I thought to myself, Okay...Maybe he's just one of the 3% of humankind who doesn't find COMFORT in the idea of a loving, ever present God. To each His own, eh?

You know some of the struggles I've had in this regard. I can understand the pitiful cycle of depression and doubt, too. When I'm at my most confused, I don't want to do anything, even though prayer and reading can HELP my faith.

Your point about organizations being used for evil is a really good one. In fact, it's the main point Sam Harris tries to make. If we weren't slaves to organized religion, we'd have the ability to think for ourselves and would be better able (especially in situations like the Holocaust) to discern right from wrong and act according to our own consciences.

I think his whole purpose (and he has stated so in his book and his famous email conversation with Andrew Sullivan) is to challenge people's allegiance to organizations in general. Fundamentalism in any form, whether political, religious or philosophical, is the enemy of truth and freedom; it is the mother of hate and repression.

I think I need to really sit down with some of Ratzinger's writings because I have the feeling he addresses this very topic, ie faith and reason. I wish there were Cliff's Notes for Papal Writings or something...