By John Rieping | Published 5 Oct. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
DEAR JOHN: I guess I would most accurately be described as agnostic. I want to believe, though, which makes me skeptical right off the bat, because I have to be even more discriminating…
I've had times where I really thought I believed, like powerful epiphanies I just *knew* were the real thing. Now, I don't even know.
It's like, when I believe enough to let it influence my actions, I can't get rid of the nagging feeling I'm wrong and giving into something that isn't the truth so that I can stop feeling so lonely. But then, when I decide it's all bull and feel like there's nothing out there, and we just *want* to believe it to assuage our existential angst, I have the nagging feeling I'm risking something really serious (Pascal's wager comes to mind).
I wonder if existential angst isn't an inevitable result of our brains having evolved to make us fit for a world that, for humans at least, seems so different from the one we now occupy. Because civilization changed things drastically and rapidly, and survival in the traditional sense is less of a concern, affording us way more time to, well, think. And religion has flourished due to our discomfort at the prospect of being alone in the unknown.
Or maybe the idea of a deity/religion really does come close to the truth, and so is the cause of and solution to that angst. -- P.C.H.
DEAR P.C.H.: If spirituality depended upon civilization to flourish, I think history would be much different. But beliefs in the supernatural have existed long before humans even had the ability to write of them. They continue today. According to the CIA World Factbook, only about 2.01 percent of the world's population was atheist as of 2010.
It seems safe to say that humanity tends to be religious, whether our spiritual beliefs are communal or independent. However you aren't asking about such beliefs in general. You're questioning whether they are true or just embraced for consolation.
The latter concern is easily refuted. There have been countless persons of faith who have held fast to spiritual beliefs despite persecution, sacrifices, and their own doubts -- even to the point of dying for them as martyrs.
Consider the missionary Catholic nun Mother Teresa (1910-1997), a 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner known for her religious congregation's "wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor." For nearly 50 years before her death, she reportedly felt no satisfaction in her beliefs. In 1959-60, she wrote to her spiritual director, "In my soul, I feel just the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing." Yet, despite persistent feelings of "interior darkness," she continued to believe in God, and died peacefully.
Why? Because her convictions weren't based upon her feelings or any relief that came from them. She was convinced they were true despite how she sometimes felt.
How do people develop such confidence? Trust.
We often trust the testimony of the natural world, persons in it now and in the past, our own experience and more. Though sometimes unreliable, these can also help us glimpse beyond what is material to a deeper meaning and a spiritual dimension. We can realize there is a divine creator.
Can we grasp divinity fully? No. But we don't have to have complete understanding to recognize and pursue truth any more than I have to know nuclear physics to believe atomic bombs exist.
Rev. Maximilian Kolbe, a martyr in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, once commented, "'A mystery of faith': in some this expression arouses love and gratitude, but it discourages others; and for still others it becomes a stumbling block. These last declare: 'I believe only what my reason is capable of grasping.' To begin with, we might call attention to the obvious absurdity involved in such an affirmation; for if we ourselves experience something, we no longer need to rely on others to believe it. Furthermore, do these gentlemen really hold as true only what they themselves have investigated?"
As the U.K. author and journalist G.K. Chesterton noted, "Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." ("Orthodoxy")
So fear not. Healthy religious faith is not a crutch. It is a ladder.
God, “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” (Bishop Augustine of Hippo, Africa)