An opinion article in the NYT times entitled “Can We Learn to Believe in God?” by Agnes Collard takes a surface dive into the infamous Pascal Wager.[i]”
Childhood morality and imagery of heaven and hell underlie this equation. The means and the ends of faith do not fall neatly into this theoretical trap. To seek God (or seek to learn to believe in God) is to accept an invitation to explore faith. The article takes a look at “aspirational faith” and draws a parallel to other areas of aspirational goals. It hints at if you aspire to believe you will come to believe. In essence we often take leaps of faith pursuing the selves we want to become. Aspiring followed by action often is a model for success.
The path to becoming a lawyer, for example, requires many steps and skills be acquired prior to being an actual lawyer. Hopefully apprenticeship and the means of becoming a lawyer give one a sense of good measure that actually being a lawyer and what “type” of lawyer at the end of the pursuit. Pursuing a law degree is a huge gamble of faith. Investment of several years of study, expensive tuition, and a highly competitive and political post-bar market, assuming you are able to pass the bar, is certainly a concrete gamble. If you are not enjoying the “means” of the journey your predisposition for being a lawyer should be questioned, or at least the education you are being provided. The means are as important, if not more important than the end. If you get your law degree by mail order, evade detection, achieve practice and wealth, at the end of the day despite the shingle and the outward vestments of success you are still only a pretender. Inside your victory is hollow.
Faith follows a similar and more abstract path. Like law schools, there are countless religious institutions that can provide you their unique understanding of divine laws and provide various religious dictates and customs that may or may not bring you any closer to true faith. Like law school you can studiously study these texts, laws, and institutions and weigh them with prudence against natural laws, history, internal consistency within the religious system, rationale human experience, and ultimately how well does any set of beliefs guide people to act and live in a manner that stands up to a divinely imagined (or interpreted) litmus test? This is perhaps a bit of a challenge as well and probably best explored with a spiritual adviser. Choose wisely.
Whatever your faith, humility and openness to questioning and testing your beliefs and actions is vital. Despite the humorous depiction above, within each religion of the three monotheistic religions are clearly people acting contrary to God’s law under the banner of faith creating much suffering and damage in God’s name. There are many “false prophets” claiming ownership of “the way” for purely human motives and perhaps even more than a few genuinely passionate religous believers who simply may have got it wrong – with firm belief that they are divinely inspired. At the end of the day you are responsible for what you do in this world in real time and, if God exist, in God’s time! Responsibility cannot be laid off on blindly following a charismatic leader (religiously or politically!). Pascals wager does not factor in false prophets and evil committed in God’s name.
There is perhaps another disturbing caveat. Similar to being accepted to a law school, obtaining faith is not something you can achieve on your own. God alone through grace can give you faith regardless of your efforts or in spite of your lack of effort! Without God’s grace and gift of faith your efforts are reduced to being a philosophical journey – not necessarily a bad journey, but not imbued with the divinely inspired grace of God.
To further aggravate our human grasp of faith, we may face a seemingly insurmountable obstacle of profound disbelief accentuated by personal suffering and lack of any intuitive or direct consolation from God. Other’s in our sphere maybe alive with faith and prayer, beaming with an internal light, while our spirituality is akin to the metaphysical “dark night.” No formal letter of acceptance comes in the mail. This can easily create an existential spiritual crisis (perhaps even several times over).
My opinion is a genuine desire to seek God and pursuing opportunities to understand and find personal evidence of God will not go unanswered. However, answering the call to find God based on what is “good” for you as opposed to what is spiritually and divinely designed is perhaps not the best starting point. What’s in it for me is probably contrary to a desire to transcend the human experience. There are many paths for exploration. (It is time for me, for example, to find a retreat to retrench soon. Spiritual retreats can be very moving and helpful).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a rich description of man’s calling to faith (Profession of Faith) and the historical barriers believers and non-believers must face.[ii] The profession of faith encapsulates what believer’s hold to be true – but must be a dizzying document for the non-Catholic. I have included a reference to Catholic Church doctrine on theological constructs as I am only a wayfayer on my own journey without the authority to define faith as crystallized by 2000 years of Christine traditions.
Faith is a life long journey. It is a never-ending study of the written word, examination of the living word (how do our actions or the actions of our religion hold up to a spiritual litmus test), and what does belief mean to me for everyday living and decisions.
When I encounter an entrenched atheist how can I explain the unexplainable? I do not and cannot explain or prove the existence of God the same as the atheist cannot disprove the same. I can share my journey and experiences in belief, in periods of non-belief, in struggles, and in times of consolation. I can validate the mystical nature of my Judaism roots and the radical transformation of the living word provided by Jesus Christ. I can acknowledge the failures of men and the failures of men of the cloth and grieve human suffering. I can seek out common ground on shared moral beliefs. I can offer the journey of seeking God and is never-ending and always being refined both intellectually and within my heart. I can even share trivial coincidences that I take as divinely inspired guidance despite knowing others will see them as mere con-incidence. I can write and express my readings. Share my thoughts. Most importantly I must strive to live according to my faith without dictating my faith to others.
Their path is their own! At the end of the day, whether our spiritual pursuits leads to experiencing divine inspiration or not, it may bring us a little closer to being able to answer the following question:
When I am grounded in my spiritual beliefs I am closer to knowing the answer to this question. When I am adrift, which has been sadly often in my life, I am easily consumed by activities and distractions that take away from living a truly “Holy Life.” Glad there already is a St. Joseph – this Joseph has too many earthly affections to rise to the calling of the priestly or saintly cast!
If you have unquestioning faith and never have experienced the dark night – I am envious of your strength and gift of faith. If you have no faith and/or cannot even fathom how or why to aspire for faith – I have no judgement or condemnation of your circumstance. I pray for the mystery of God’s grace to unify us all, professed believers and atheist, to support us to act now in concert with divine his grace for the good of all humanity. The problem of evil is still present and need be combated by believers and atheist alike. Let us start with our own hearts and attentions. Aspire to transcend oneself today! It is a worthwhile journey.