Sunday, June 20, 2010

Can an Atheist “Choose”
to Believe in God?
Shane Hayes

In a June 16th comment to my posting Empirical Theism: A Thought Experiment P. Coyle said:

“Hmmmm. Can one actually ‘choose’ to believe in God? Speaking for myself, I would find it quite difficult to wake up tomorrow, sit up on the bed, and think to myself, ‘I guess I'll try believing in God today and see how it works out.

“What do you think, Shane? To what extent can a person ‘choose’ to believe in God?”

My reply

Missionary efforts for the last two thousand years have all been based on the proposition that a person can choose to believe in God. Their notable success indicates that the proposition is true. There were a handful of Christians when Jesus died. Three-thousand were converted on Pentecost. Many times that number have been converted to atheism by the books and lectures of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, and Stenger. The New Atheists wouldn’t argue so vigorously if people could not change their minds on the question of God’s existence. And I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t think so.

A Key to Inward Change

Perhaps the real thrust of your question is: Can a sophisticated widely read atheist in this era choose to believe in God? My answer is an emphatic yes -- but with a qualifier appended: If he wants to. In my essay Is God’s Existence Improbable? I said:

“In our talks about the existence of God my atheist friends nearly always say something to this effect: ‘My feelings have nothing to do with this. Yours clearly do, and you admit it. But mine don’t. I just weigh the evidence and seek the truth.’

“Among several important things I can’t prove but am convinced of is this: In deciding whether or not to believe in God, no one, on either side of the issue, is completely objective. Nor should one be, since the arguments are weighty on both sides, and neither proves its case. Evidence and logic leave us dangling. In forming an opinion on what is unknowable, personal considerations become relevant, even determinative.”

The Role of Desire in Belief

On the question of God’s existence most people end up believing what they want to believe. There is much weighing of evidence and pondering of argument, but these don’t produce a conclusive yes or no. So a subtle – often complex – form of personal preference carries the day. I am a Pure Theist (and a Christian) because I want to be, and you are an atheist because you want to be. Until the wanting changes neither of us is likely to budge. But if the wanting did change, we could change too.

I don’t mean we can push a mental button and transmute in an instant. It might take months or years of intense grappling with evidence, argument, and our inner life. But evidence and argument depend so much on the light in which we view them, and that is so determined by our psyches (which is what I mean by our inner life), that an atheist can, ultimately, choose to believe in God if he wants to.

A theist, too, can go the other way. Every year a great many convert to the opposite view. The New Atheists pull them toward No God. Writers like me in our way – and organized religions in theirs -- try to pull them toward God. Self-determination in such matters is the rule, not the exception.

Three Factors that Make Choosing Possible

To illustrate the difficulty of the change, its possibility, and an essential element in it, let me cite an incident from the New Testament. A father pleading with Jesus to heal his ailing son said, “… if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus echoed his doubting phrase, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.” (Emphasis added.) Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Jesus healed the child.

The dramatic episode highlights three principles: (1) The starting point is a desire to believe; the father wanted to think help was there; (2) Belief can be mingled with unbelief; (3) Conscious effort may be needed to acquire faith.

The incident is not presented here as an argument for Christianity, but to show the elements of transition from atheism to Pure Theism. The man in the story needed help. An atheist who contemplates a change of mind (and heart) may – or may not – do so because he feels a need for strength beyond what human resources provide. Someone said, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” I have found that to be so. Those who feel weak are probably more open to faith than those who feel strong. But this doesn’t mean the strong are right and the weak are wrong.

Humility and Truth

In an earlier posting How the Improbable God Probably Works I laid out my God hypothesis. It ended with these two paragraphs:

The ancient mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing said: “By love he may be gotten and holden, but by thought, never.” John said, “God is love.” The atheist Bertrand Russell said, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,” to justify his unbelief. Believing requires not only an act of faith but an act of humility. The prouder we are of our intellect, of its superiority to lesser minds, and of the dazzling science it produced, the harder it is to humble ourselves and believe. Yet the Designer of the Universe arranged it so that he, his ultimate truth, and life’s shining Sequel can be found only by the humble and believing.

We cannot accept his love unless we acknowledge his existence. We can brush aside the outstretched hand. He will neither compel faith, nor make it unnecessary. On those terms, we can take him or leave him. Receive his embrace or turn away. Our decision is our fate. [End of quoted paragraphs.]

The Bold Crossing

A skeptic who acknowledges there may be a God, and would like to connect with Him if it’s possible, must take a bold step. He must move from abstract thought to a new kind of consciousness that is both outreaching and receptive. In Empirical Theism: A Thought Experiment I describe a bridge from the mental to the spiritual, and try to walk the reader across it, as I crossed it decades ago. It shows how an atheist who wants to, can begin moving toward belief in God and a relationship with Him.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Empirical Theism:
A Thought Experiment
Shane Hayes

What I propose is not a new theology. It is a sliver of existing theologies that one never sees separated from them and standing alone. Pure Theism is that sliver, in its limpid crystalline essence.

The door from atheism to theism opened for me when I read this stunning affirmation by William James:

“We and God have business with each other, and in opening ourselves to His influence our deepest destiny is fulfilled.”

We and God… The plain-stated linkage is intriguing. Have business with each other… The unpiousness, the urbanity, the practicality, the suggestion of profitable commerce, an interchange that does not require me to abase myself before starting. Nothing clerical or preachy in this appeal. In opening ourselves to His influence… How easy to visualize! Just stop shutting him out; open myself. Well, there’s no doubt I’ve been closed to him. Influence has a less intimidating sound than compulsion or command, and is more comprehensible than grace. Our deepest destiny is fulfilled… That is what atheism utterly lacks – a stirring destiny. Our future is so short and opaque. However much speed we gather in life, it ends with a crash into the wall of death. They cart our wreckage away, and it’s over.

Where New Faith Begins

That powerful sentence by William James, not a verse of scripture, was the embryo of my Pure Theism. I read 507 pages into The Varieties of Religious Experience before I came to it. That book, so charged with the vision, insight, and erudition of a great scientific and philosophical mind, convinced me that believing in God is intellectually respectable. The sentence that lodged in my brain like a mustard seed and, after much repetition, finally took root, is worth repeating:

“We and God have business with each other, and in opening ourselves to His influence our deepest destiny is fulfilled.”

Call it the James Affirmation. Memorize it. Carry it with you. Gaze at the world for minutes every day through that illuminating lens. Experiment with its insight. Sit still and quiet. Let your breathing become deep and regular. Shut out the myriad distractions and concerns. Suspend your skepticism -- relax your white-knuckled grip on it. Repeat the affirmation silently or aloud. Meditate on each of its four elements, one by one.

We and God. Those three words brim with the essence of theistic faith. Creature and Creator in a state of mutual awareness. Mutual acknowledgement. Ahh, but you say, I acknowledge only a remote possibility. That’s enough, I reply. That’s enough for now.

Have business with each other. Think of it. A transaction between God and man. Between God and you. You can do something for him, and he can do something for you. Not just one transaction, though it begins with that. A working relationship will develop if you let it. A daily interchange. But if there is a God, you ask, what can I do for him? He’s infinite, he needs nothing. You can believe in him, I reply. Does he need that? No. But you need it, so he wants it for you, because you’re incomplete without it. He wants you to be complete. Without him you can’t be. And you can’t have him if you deny he exists.

And in opening ourselves to His influence. How would I open myself, even if I wanted to? you ask. Einstein arrived at his greatest scientific insights not by lab experiments but by what he called “thought experiments.” He would imagine what might happen if a certain set of facts came together in a certain way. Often the facts were quite abstract and impossible to duplicate in the material world; for example, a bucket of water rotating in outer space. How would its contents react, given certain gravitational or non-gravitational hypotheses?

A Thought Experiment

Let’s emulate the great scientist and do a thought experiment. For the sake of it, and for the moment, imagine that a cosmic intelligence exists. Savor the idea that the supreme benevolent reality is conscious of you, has not rejected you (though you’ve rejected him), and is eager to connect. He might be there, and he might care, is your first hypothesis. Wade into the depths of that glistening possibility. Yield yourself to its enveloping warmth. Experience its buoyancy.

He might be there, and he might care… about you, deeply. If that were true, nothing would be the same. Everything would be new. Meditate on the majesty of that thought, and expose your consciousness to its meaning and consequence. Allow yourself to be touched and stirred by the invisible hand that called you out of nothingness -- and wants you never to descend into nothingness again. Be passive, receptive, welcoming. Open.

Our deepest destiny is fulfilled. What do you think of as your destiny? Love. Gratifying friendship. Success in your work, profession, or art. Recognition. Fame. Affluence, even wealth. A splendid place to live. Handsome progeny who achieve distinction. Then a long serene travel-filled and fascinating retirement. Finally a stately well-attended memorial service, with eloquent eulogies by the tearful many who loved you and lament your passing. Then a grave, a vault in a mausoleum… or a scattering of your dust on some picturesque land- or seascape. An honorable destiny, to be sure. It may satisfy your imagination. It does not satisfy God’s.

Immortal, he designed you to share his immortality. Timeless, he will bring you beyond time and death to a realm where nothing decays, nothing tarnishes, nothing dies. Great hearted, he will expand your heart, and help you love people, his world, yourself, and him in a way that will make you stronger and more joyful than you’ve ever been. He will not deliver you from life’s toils, ills, frustrations, losses, and tragedies. But he will help you bear them, get through them, look past them.


You will see things differently when you feel that he, a Spirit, has made you part spirit, and that the spirit part of you is indestructible. The bond of love that grows between you and him will be indestructible too. Breath will cease, but love will endure. And in the silent promise of that love is hid your deepest destiny. He will start leading you to its fulfillment – a slow illuminating process – as soon as you ask him to, as soon as you let him. Open yourself. At least a little. Now.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Only Way Out of Atheism
(Pure Theism)
Shane Hayes

[My article Why People Become Atheists, which appears below, ended with this paragraph: “These objections to religion are heartfelt. We can’t dismiss them lightly. Even weightier arguments can be made. And there are strong counterarguments to vindicate belief. I will not give them here. Instead I’ll propose an alternative to all organized religion – yet one that organized religion should not object to. But if atheists don’t want to hear it, why bother?”]

The Downside of Atheism: Renouncing Hope

Because however heartfelt the aversion to religion is in many atheists, there is an occasional doubt. The sense that God may exist in spite of all their arguments and denunciations. Still more embarrassingly there is in many a recurring wish that he did exist, because, well… he wasn’t all bad. Atheism delivers us from restraints, inhibitions, and irritations. It does not deliver us from the frailties and vulnerabilities of the human condition. We are weak and mortal in a brutal universe. Whether there is a God or not, we need one. Without him we’ll perish – and most of us don’t want to.

Moreover we have a subliminal hunger that is felt if seldom recognized – a craving for something ineffably beautiful and good that we can seize and hold and never lose. We want to be happier than anything or anyone ever makes us. The Dream, in all its splendor, never comes true. Or at least never stays true. We must soon learn to love the dream without the splendor. Honeymoon becomes marriage. We must lower expectations and be content with the irksome and mundane, with small love moments, not the enveloping rapture we once tasted, or divorce will follow.

Art, romance, success, wealth, erotic adventure, fame for a few – all can be thrilling, but the thrill fades, the glories fade, we fade, and all will be taken from us, or we from it. The only possible satisfaction of our thirst for unfading love, bliss, and glory is God. So for every atheist who occasionally doubts the infallibility of his denials, and feels the tug of the transcendent, I propose… Pure Theism.

One Step Out of Atheism

Look anew at the question of God’s existence completely apart from the Bible, Judeo-Christian theology, and the theology of any organized religion. The doctrines and scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Muslims need have no bearing on the elemental question of whether a personal and loving God exists. If he does, we can conceive of him apart from all established theologies and scriptures. We can commune and build a relationship with him directly -- without intervention of a rabbi, priest, minister, or imam.

Though I have embraced an organized religion, I was a pure theist for years. For me it was the only way out of atheism. I began with the most simplified and essential concept of a supernatural being: One who created the universe, loves what he made, and follows with benevolent concern the fate of every human life. Not the God of Abraham, not the Trinitarian God we Christians believe in, not Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. That would have been too much for me – and I had said no to it again and again. Just God, a Supreme Being who cares about his human creatures and wants a relationship with them. The distance between No God and Just God, Pure Theism, is immeasurable. I was there for two years after atheism, before Christianity became possible for me.

Grasp the Essence

Pure Theism is a life-altering option that should be considered by anyone who cannot accept the images and stories of God – or onerous rules of conduct – that are embedded in established religions. I could not have emerged from atheism directly into any formal religion, so I don’t advocate that. Nor do I insist on Christianity as the destination for everyone who comes out of atheism. Organized religion is an option but not a requirement for a new believer.

Pure Theism can be the start of a journey, as it was for me – or a harbor where you cast anchor and build a home. Whether you move on or stay, you will not be cosmically alone, as you were before. When the divine penetrates the human, present and future are transformed. You see the world, yourself, and your destiny with a changed eye. You are freed from atheism’s demand that you suppress hope in its most luminous forms. Death, though still grim, is transitional. Life, though still hard, has a transcendent source of wisdom and strength – and a shining sequel.

[To be continued.]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why People Become Atheists
Shane Hayes

Would atheists regard it as heresy if I were to allege that most of them, like Christians and other theists, occasionally have doubts? The atheistic doubt, of course, is a suspicion that despite all their well-crafted arguments – and the science that undergirds them – God may exist. Some deny that such puerile thoughts ever cross their mind, but others admit they do. The Doubting Thomas is not just a Christian phenomenon; skeptics waver too.

In fact the same wide range of gradations -- from unshakable faith, to strong faith, to fragile faith, to wobbly faith – marks both the atheist and the theist communities. At different times in our lives we may find ourselves at different places on that spectrum. The unshakable may be shaken; the wobbly may become strong. And every year each camp boasts converts from the other.

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Since I was once a convert to atheism, and later in my life a convert from atheism, I know something about conversion and the complex of factors, intellectual and emotional, that bring it about. One advantage atheism has in making converts is that it asks them to assent to an extremely simple proposition: There is no God. The Catholic, the Protestant, and the Jew, by contrast, must convince the prospective convert not only that God exists, but that a hundred – nay, a thousand – things about him and his interactions with mankind are true.

The Protestant Bible contains 66 books (39 OT, 27 NT); the Catholic Bible contains 73. The prevailing Christian view is that all those books are not only sacred but trustworthy – error free -- in every line. Add to this the numerous theological “confessions,” one for every Protestant sect, the 700-page Catechism of the Catholic Church, Torah and the Talmud for Orthodox Judaism. You can see why it’s easier to exit a formal religion than it is enter one. “It’s all rubbish” is a much easier sell than “it’s all true, you must believe it, and you must live by it.”

Biblical Cruelty Provokes Atheism

For many the complexity of an established religion is not the major problem. They point to one or two dogmas, behavioral rules, or Biblical events, and those are enough to make them recoil from the sect. I am astonished at how often people give scriptural reasons for their atheism. The Christian doctrine of eternal damnation to a fiery hell, for grave sin (or because of predestination), terrified many when they were believers. Better to abolish God entirely than live in fear of being immolated by his wrath. Atheism offers escape from that horrific aspect of the Christian worldview. Better no God, some decide, than one who might torment me for eternity.

Some see the God of the Old Testament as unpardonably cruel and obsessed with being worshipped. What kind of God, they say, would demand that Abraham be willing to slaughter his own son with a knife to prove his devotion? But he didn’t really demand that, I point out; he relented at the end. He demanded that Abraham be willing, they insist; that was monstrously egocentric.

Slaughter at Jericho

Others point to atrocities that the God of Abraham ordered and did not relent from. When he gave his chosen people the Promised Land it was filled not only with milk and honey but with inhabited towns and cities. The residents were living normal lives; working for a living, raising and loving their families. We are not told they were wicked like Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet when Joshua had his army march around the walled city of Jericho, just before the walls collapsed, he said to his people: “Shout; for the Lord has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction….”

The trumpet sounded, the people shouted, the wall fell. “Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword…. And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the Lord.”

New Testament Harshness

Atheists can go on, citing dozens of atrocities like these from the Old Testament and the New. Some rival fundamentalists in their knowledge and memory of selected scriptures. But where, you ask, did God do something brutally cruel in the New Testament? I know a Catholic woman who never left the faith but could not forgive God for requiring that his Son be crucified, though Jesus implored, “Let this cup [of torment] pass from me.” How could a caring Father turn a deaf ear to that plea? He must have loved his Son much less than she loved hers. My pointing out that Father and Son were one, and that the sacrificial death redeemed us all, did not avail. She would never have consigned her son to the cross. (Since I was that son I smiled indulgently at the heresy.)

Tedious Demands and Impossible Standards

Yet barbaric cruelty, ordered or sanctioned by the deity, is not always the main indictment. For many the numerous demands and constraints of religious teaching are enough to make God unpalatable. What a killjoy, they protest. He takes all the fun out of life. Who needs him? Who needs this nonsense about dietary laws and keeping holy the Sabbath -- dragging yourself out of bed every Sunday morning, even if Saturday’s fun kept you up till three? Sitting through services so boring you couldn’t stay awake even if you weren’t sleep-deprived?

Who can live by the impossible standards Christ preached? All this stuff about loving vicious enemies; turning the other cheek when someone hurts you, blessing those who curse you, lending with no expectation of repayment, going the extra mile for people who oppress you, forgiving a nasty relative 490 times (“seventy times seven”), feeling guilty of adultery if you cast a lustful glance at a woman, and defiled if you bed one out of wedlock.

Then the Church adds that you’re in mortal sin if you use a condom with your wife. It’s all so unnatural and extreme, they say, I’d be a neurotic if I tried to practice it. And I’d be psychotic if I feared that a sin or two would cast me into “outer darkness” where there’s “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Talk about fire and brimstone – it’s not for me. I not only don’t believe, I don’t want to believe!

An Alternative to Organized Religion?

These objections to religion are heartfelt. We can’t dismiss them lightly. Even weightier arguments can be made. And there are strong counterarguments to vindicate belief. I will not give them here. Instead I’ll propose an alternative to all organized religion -- yet one that organized religion should not object to. But if atheists don’t want to hear it, why bother?

[My next posting Pure Theism: Ponder It is a continuation of this piece.]

Friday, May 21, 2010

“New Atheist” Challenge,
Believer Response
Shane Hayes

My friend is deeply versed in the New Atheist literature that is so in vogue among intellectuals. He states categorically: “There is no evidence -- zero evidence -- that God exists or that he created the universe.” For a moment I’m nonplussed. My mind draws a blank. I have loads of arguments, but… evidence? What does he want, footprints? Are there no clues?

Then the lawyer in me reflects: What is evidence? The Oxford English dictionary gives this definition: “evidence: 2. An indication, a sign... 3. Facts or testimony in support of a conclusion, statement, or belief… b. something serving as proof.” Evidence need not be proof. In the matters we’re examining, I see no evidence on either side that rises to the level of proof. But “facts in support of a conclusion or belief…” That we have.

A World of Evidence

To those who say there’s no evidence of a Creator-God I reply: The universe itself is evidence. Abundant and in many ways highly convincing evidence. It is a vast complex of facts that can be seen as supporting the belief that a Cosmic Mind exists. The appearance of inventive thought is everywhere in our universe, from the laws and patterns that govern the galaxies to the composition of matter.

If matter were simply a blob of undifferentiated clay, as it appears to the eye, it would be easier to suppose it just happened. But matter is composed of molecules, and molecules are composed of atoms. Even atoms are not simple -- they resemble a small solar system. The planetary model describes electrons “orbiting” a nucleus at the center, composed of positively charged particles called protons and electrically neutral particles called neutrons.

And there are subatomic particles: muons, pions, hyperons, mesons, baryons, and tachyons, to name a few. And then there are quarks. They come in six varieties, known as flavors: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom. A proton is made of two up quarks and one down quark. Among the intrinsic properties of quarks are electric charge, color charge, spin, and mass.

The Miracle of Matter – and Mind

When I got to the level of quarks it hit me: The astoundingly complex structure of matter – which only brilliant scientists could discover and comprehend – is evidence of a Mind whose ingenuity far exceeds the human, One whose intellective fingerprints are all over the world. Maybe “a blob of glup” just happened. But the elegant architecture of the invisibly fine – of the atomic and subatomic realm -- is no accident. Natural selection does not explain it. There’s no Darwinian challenge to it. It’s simply there, and has been for fourteen billion years, since the dust settled after the Big Bang. One can’t help contemplate it with a wild surmise.

Our own species is the most prodigious and inscrutable facet of the entire cosmos. Human consciousness and its phenomenal achievements – scientific, philosophic, and cultural – are evidence (“signs, indications”) of a Cosmic Intellect whose creative exploits went beyond matter, with its micro wonders, to create the even more dazzling phenomenon of life; and beyond that to create consciousness; and beyond that to create a species of primate with peak specimens like Aristotle, Shakespeare, Newton, Michelangelo, Bach, and Einstein.

Unproven, Not Disproven

“No!” you shout. “That’s the old Argument from Design, resurrected in the lab of particle physics and dressed in the robes of genius. 200 years ago Paley argued that a watch requires a watchmaker. Now Hayes says, A genius is a Work of Genius. We’ve put all that behind us.” No, we haven’t. At most we’ve conceded that it’s not proof. It doesn’t compel belief. But we can’t deny it the status of evidence. Evidence of a highly probative kind.

The evidence is ambiguous. It may be variously interpreted. But it is evidence of something exceedingly hard to explain. We can disagree on what that something is: a cryptic force of nature, or a Cosmic Consciousness that stands apart from the awesome world it produced. A reasonable case can be made for either position. Let me sum up my take on the evidence with two questions I often ask:

Which View Is More Credible?

Did the Big Bang ultimately produce Plato, or did a cause more like Plato produce him? Did cosmic dust evolve into a great mind, or did a Great Mind produce the cosmos?

Viewed in that light I think the case for God is stronger than the case against. But since neither theist nor atheist has proof on this crucial issue, uncertainty is our fate. We can’t know. We can only believe – in God or in No God. We who choose God can legitimately cite the universe – at the macro and micro level -- as evidence.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Do Billions Who Never Heard of God
Prove There Is None?
Shane Hayes

On 5/14/10 P. Coyle commented on my posting entitled How the Improbable God Probably Works, which appears below. I quote here part of what he asserted, rather eloquently, and then reply to it.

His Challenge


“You may care, and you may reach out to unbelievers, but you are not God. Reaching out always seems to require human agency…. [Mr. Coyle gives a list the vast multitudes who were not reached by Saint Paul’s missionary journeys, including over 100 million in China and on the Indian subcontinent. He also cites the “600 human generations… before the ancient Hebrews decided there was only one god, and that they were his chosen people.” He continues:]

“The number of people to whom the Christian God failed to reach out runs into the tens of billions. Why? I have my theory -- there was no God to do the reaching out. What's your theory? Why did the Christian God, who supposedly cares so profoundly that people believe that he exists, never bother to make known to so many the possibility of his existence?”

My response

P. C.,

Though I am a Christian I am not a Christian apologist. Many can defend Christianity better than I, so I generally speak here as a Pure Theist (to be defined in essays soon to be posted). My reflections on the Christian God may be unorthodox, but I’ll make a few as I argue the simpler case for a caring personal God

You're right, God usually works through human agents.  But he sometimes stirs the heart directly. Though even Christians admit that the Argument from Universal Belief is not conclusive, its premise is relevant here: “It is generally true that every people or tribe of men has had some kind of belief in a supreme being.” (Catholic Encyclopedia) Even you, P. C., might concede that the impulse to worship something greater than oneself has been widespread since the dawn of history and probably before. If the God of my hypothesis has implanted such a need and urge in humankind, he would allow for its expression in forms appropriate to the knowledge, opportunity, and mental capacity of each of his creatures.

A Pagan Aboriginal

If a tenth-century Australian aboriginal never heard of Christ or Yahweh, her kneeling down, extending her arms skyward in grateful wonder, and worshipping the sun would, for her, be as pleasing to my pure-theistic God (and I believe to the Judeo-Christian God) as attendance at a solemn high Mass.

If she stayed awake for long weary hours cradling her sick child, administering a potion of boiled roots believed to be medicinal, and intoning primitive incantations to the sun on his behalf, divine wisdom would see her as having fulfilled Christ’s two great commandments – to love God and love people – as admirably as Jairus, who implored Jesus directly on his daughter’s behalf.

The caring God of my hypothesis is not indifferent to any human creature of any era. Nor does he demand of the most afflicted and isolated, any more than their poor capacities and constricted circumstances allow them to do, be, or believe.

Blameless Ignorance

In judging moral culpability Church teaching contains the concept of “vincible and invincible ignorance” (ignorance that’s our own fault and ignorance that we can’t help). My tenth-century aboriginal was invincibly ignorant of everything proclaimed in the New Testament and therefore blameless for not believing in Jesus and his Gospel. She felt innate promptings to acknowledge a being of superhuman power, somehow related to her life, and responded by worshipping the sun. Her mate may have resisted those same promptings, and been unwilling to bestir himself, or sacrifice any comfort, to succor the suffering child.

A kind and omniscient God could apply the two great commandments to them, in their era and cultural milieu, as wisely and justly as he could apply them to me when, at age twenty, after fourteen years of Christian education, I renounced all I had once believed and became an atheist.

The All-Embracing Arms

God thus conceived could have existed through all the ages of the Earth, in the vast expanse of global cultures you point to, and had loving interactions with each of those nameless billions who groped toward him in their darkness. Though their literal concept of God was wrong, the earnestness of their effort to worship and connect was right.

Homage to a golden calf, by one who knew no better, might have been seen by a compassionate God as a metaphor for worshipping Him. And refusal to act on the worship impulse, by one who valued nothing beyond himself, might have been, in that time and culture, a metaphor for atheism. Was the One who inspired the Book of Genesis, whose Son called himself “the Lamb of God,” incapable of seeing truth in a metaphor?

This same large-hearted, all-seeing God could have planned and implemented an Incarnation, a Crucifixion, and a Resurrection, without excluding any who lived before or after them, from the ultimate beatitude of his love, unless they chose to exclude themselves. And those who exclude themselves, as I did, will feel persistent invitations – some silent, some quite audible – to return. He doesn’t give up on us lightly. Every time we glance at him he beckons.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Thoughtful Challenges from Readers

In a May 9th comment Autumnal Harvest quoted me as saying: "That challenging fusion of belief with uncertainty is what makes faith a virtue." Then he asked: “Why is this a virtue? Normally holding a belief and acting on that belief, when there's insufficient evidence for it, is considered an error in judgment, not a virtue.”

In an April 28th comment P. Coyle said: “Here is a theological possibility for you to consider: What if the reason we don't know how God created the universe is not that we're too dumb to understand it, but because God does not want us to know? Would that not be consistent with your position, as the "believing agnostic," that we cannot know whether God exists? Doesn't your theology imply that, if we cannot know whether God exists, surely that must be because God doesn't want people to know that he exists?”

Both are thoughtful challenges. The following essay, which I wrote and posted before the questions were asked, explains why I see faith as a virtue and why I think God doesn't want people to know (be able to verify with certainty) that he exists.

How the Improbable God
Probably Works
A World View and a God Hypothesis

Shane Hayes

Here’s a world view in a thousand words – and it took me only fifty years to compose it. I offer it as a hypothesis – my effort to explain how God must think and act if we are to reconcile his existence with the world, and human life, as we find them. In part they are speculations about the mind, the values, and – to use a crude term for want of a better one – the personality of God. (If he is a person, must he not have a personality – “the complex of characteristics that distinguishes an individual”?) Assume each part is true till you get to the end. Then, when you view it whole, decide if it might possibly account for what we see and what may be behind it. For me it does.

The Personality of God

There is a cosmic intelligence, an all-powerful personal God who created the universe. The Big Bang, evolution, and natural selection may have been his modus operandi. His mind is infinite, and his methods are very subtle. A sense of humor is one of the finest aspects of human intelligence, so we should not suppose our creator is without one. Irony, and a predilection for the incongruous, the unexpected, the mysterious, and the imponderable are manifest in all his works.

He has made some of the greatest truths about his world – from the roundness of the earth, and the stillness of the sun, to his own invisible existence -- appear improbable. He reveals himself, but always under a cloak of ambiguity that lets us explain him away, if we want to. He does this not maliciously, but with a benevolent purpose that has something to do with freedom and what might be called soul making. His “heart” is as vast and limitless as his mind.

Man is the creature in whom he takes the greatest interest, because man is the most Godlike creature – the most able to reflect on his condition, and alter it by using his mind and his power of choice. Man is the only creature capable of knowing God and forming a relationship with him. The only creature with a sense of humor.

The Values of God

God loves all of his creation, especially man, and he has made man more capable of love than any other creature. He can love not only himself, his mate, and their offspring (as other mammals do), but a wide circle of other human beings – potentially all of them. And God made it possible for man to love him. He has made love crucial to a healthy human psyche. We are happiest when we love God and other people, but we are free not to.

Such choices are the essence of morality, and God constructed the universe around them. Despite the vast sweep of its galaxies, it is essentially a moral universe – designed to provide moral challenge and opportunity, to require moral striving, and to produce in every life a measurable degree of moral success and failure, which are of keen interest to God.

Our happiness is important, but must often be deferred. God is eternal – he takes the long view, and requires that we learn to. The long view includes both life, which is brief, and its Sequel, which is endless. Though the Sequel is infinitely larger than life, it’s as invisible as God, therefore easy to forget or not believe in.

Deceptive Appearances, Hidden Truths

God has filled his universe with ironies. The principal irony is that often things are not what they seem. Learning to deal with that is a great moral challenge. We must learn to “see” the invisible, to “hear” the inaudible, to grasp what we can’t touch, and to believe what we can’t prove. The most important reality is God, but he’s hidden from us. Deliberately, maddeningly, and distressingly hidden. The shining Sequel to life -- its fulfillment, point, and purpose -- is so out of sight as to be generally out of mind, even for those who expect it.

God has made it possible for man to know a great many things with certainty. We know obvious things by simple observation. Much that is hidden can be learned by study, experiment, and the exercise of reason. At its best, reason is so amazing that we’re tempted to think it’s the only human faculty that can lead us to truth. In fact, it can lead us to only certain kinds of truth: practical, theoretic, scientific. But the ultimate truth – interpersonal and mystical -- is quite beyond its reach. We can reason to the possibility of God, but he has strewn other possibilities in our path, so that certainty about his existence and our origin cannot be had.

Unprovable, but not Unreachable

Dealing with this uncertainty is another moral challenge. God has made himself not only hidden but unprovable. The only way to connect with him is by believing what we can’t know. Those are his terms and we must accept them or reject him. When reason brings us to God’s threshold (he is one possibility among several), other faculties must carry us across, and if we disdain them we’ll never reach him. They may work in this sequence. Hope says, “I wish there were a God; I want there to be a God; I hope there is a God.” Love says, “I find the idea of God wonderfully appealing; I love the idea of God; I love the possibility of God.” Then faith says, “I extend my hand into the darkness; I believe in God” -- and the divine connection is made!

Humility and Truth

The ancient mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing said: “By love he may be gotten and holden, but by thought, never.” John said, “God is love.” The atheist Bertrand Russell said, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,” to justify his unbelief. Believing requires not only an act of faith but an act of humility. The prouder we are of our intellect, of its superiority to lesser minds, and of the dazzling science it produced, the harder it is to humble ourselves and believe. Yet the Designer of the Universe arranged it so that he, his ultimate truth, and life’s shining Sequel can be found only by the humble and believing.

We cannot accept his love unless we acknowledge his existence.  We can brush aside the outstretched hand.  He will neither compel faith, nor make it unnecessary. On those terms, we can take him or leave him. Receive his embrace or turn away.  Our decision is our fate.