An honest and ethical man has after 60 years of life, and much experience remained steadfast that there is no God. His conclusions are based on a well-rounded education, including post-graduate psychoanalytic education, reasoned philosophical and scientific influences, and six decades of lived experience. He is not ignorant of knowledge regarding the faith of his youth (Catholicism) or about the faith of others. He has studied Catholicism and Judaism more than most believers. He has due to his profession been present and intimate with priestly types who seek out professional counseling when spiritual manna alone was not enough.
He has searched for God. Incidentally, while flying on a plane, he was seated next to a large case that resembled a giant musical instrument case. On further inquiry, he discovered the seat next to him was occupied by the Holy Statue of Fatima (also known as the Mary Statue). The religious relic was accompanied by a caretaker as it traveled the United States for the faithful to see. Many swear it has healing powers. That coincidence did not result in an epiphany of Belief. He has not found God by accident or by searching. Nor has God granted him the Grace to allow him to know God.
If pinned down to articulate his metaphysical opinion, he would probably say he was a friendly atheist, or perhaps a pro-god atheist. If discussing this with a fervent believer, he might even offer up an Agnostic position, avoiding threatening the foundation of Belief held by his audience. Like religious believers, not all Athiest are the same and fit under one umbrella. Check out the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Agnosticism and Atheism.[i] You will find atheist old and new, friendly and militant, divided into roughly the same factions as any religious faith has within its congregation.
However, he is not just an Athiest. He is my elder brother. He has mentored me in education, in human relationships, philosophy, and life. We have enjoyed life together on many occasions. We have also shared suffering, misery, and death of loved ones. We have applied the God test over the decades to many of our personal lived experiences and world events.
It always came down to the word faith. I have faith, and he does not. He is no less a man than I and perhaps in the eyes of God, more generous and holy in action and thoughts. If we were to visit a foreign land together where our faith or lack of faith was unknown, people would not be able to distinguish between us our good intentions for others and principles regarding social justice issues. We are cut from the same tree. We are both social workers. He went the route of clinical orientation and therapy, where I went the hybrid route of social determinants and mental health wellness. We also share some of the same fault lines within our character that has caused us both more than a small degree of trouble. And yet, I have faith, and he has none.
Faith, in my view, can be given to you without your willingness. An all-powerful God could easily bludgeon you across the head until you got it (my case) or reveal himself in more subtle ways. Having a spiritual experience is consoling and sustains faith. Receiving spiritual consolations is, however, for most people, an invisible or transient experience quickly discounted as coincidence, subjective experience, or spiritual imagination in overdrive.
Why has an all-powerful God not given faith to my brother? Biblically many turn their eyes and ears from hearing God or God’s message. I do not believe this to be the case for him or many others in the atheist camp.
He is a serious man who has given much thought to metaphysical realities and who lives a life dedicated to the betterment of humanity. I mentioned earlier we both share the same fault lines, so I am not putting him up on a pedestal. We are not undiscovered saints, just regular people meaning well.
This man a day ago or two ago texted me a response to one of my posts. He said, “I wish I had your soulful outlook and faith, but I don’t think that will ever come.” He does not need to challenge my faith or criticize my Religion[ii]. This was just what it was, a general reflection on our polar outlook on the existence of God. His view is sort of a Kantian philosophy that religion is “basically resolvable into ethics, that everything else that preoccupy religious people – liturgy, sacraments, prayer, preaching, pious practices, etc.–is all finally about making us morally upright people.” His non-belief and my belief stand as a testimony against the very identity of the other. Without open dialogue, this can be very tragic. Is this what Christ meant when he said he will turn brother against brother?
We both have reached a stalemate. Not one of animosity or a brotherly intellectual battle, just an acceptance that all roads have been traversed, and neither of us can move the other on this issue regarding the existence of God.
The Morning Line?
My return text was a parable of sorts that his actions and behaviors would speak for themselves here on earth. After that, we both would meet roughly the same judgment when our day comes. Spiritual handicappers in the afterlife, perhaps even deceased relatives of ours, might be studying a daily racing form on how we will both finish the race, giving us morning lines and odds, give or take a few spiritual points. If there were bookmakers in Heaven, how would they set my morning line?
The day after this communication, my morning reading was called Experiential Knowing.[iii] Richard Rohr states, “Mysticism is when God’s presence becomes experiential and undoubted for a person.” Mystics don’t say “I believe,” they say, “I know” with quiet confidence and Humility. Whereas most believers say “I believe” as they were taught to say in their respective faiths and strive to live up to the expectations of what their faith teaches. He refers to this as a “Creedal Belief.” Creedal Belief gives us guideposts until we achieve a deeper level of understanding that is personal and experiential.
Survey 100 faith-based believers and ask them if they know and have experienced God in their lives? Or take a short cut and visit Pew Research Surveys.[iv] I was pleasantly surprised that in one study, 74% of Americans say they talk to a higher power, and 28% say God talks back to them! This study looks at what Americans mean when they say they believe in God. The study does not provide me with a percentage of people who would define themselves as believers (believe and follow a creed) versus Mystics (have experiential and personal experiences that they know without a doubt that God exists).
My estimate is if asked privately and confidentially, most believers would fall under the creedal belief side. To doubt is a human experience. The apostles showed their doubt and lack of understanding despite having witnessed miracles and spiritual consolations beyond our imagination. In my opinion, genuine everyday believers have aspirational hope and faith. They have had enough given to them to by historical precedence and spiritual traditions to lay a foundation for Belief.
Not everybody gets that foundation. War, famine, poverty, trauma, suffering, disease, natural disasters, accidents, and other tragedies may destroy or strengthen the potential for Belief. Where and when you are born will shape your spiritual orientation. What you experience in life may bring that spiritual orientation to its fullest potential or extinguish it into non-existence. There is no equity or fairness applied here. Nor is self-determination, a primary driver who gets faith or spiritual consolation and who does not. And yet, faith lives in the hearts of many.
I am no theologian and am not fit to speak for Catholic theology or any other faith. I know there is a God today, but I am not a mystic! My faith is too flimsy, and my discipline too weak. A gentle breeze can move my Spirit into desolation and set me adrift in fear and desperation. I need regular spiritual maintenance.
Prayer, reading, meditation, and fellowship provide me a guidepost for reflection and an anchor to being able to meet the responsibilities that come with suffering, success, joy, sadness, hatred, failure, or any other human experience. Every situation is grounded in spiritual responsibility outside my self-interest.
My generation and my brothers have only witnessed roughly 3% of the years that have passed since Jesus Christ was here on earth. We are missing witnessing directly 97% of the years that have passed since Christ was here on earth. That 3% gets very small if we go back in time to Judaic traditions and beyond. We both have minimal information first hand and volumes of conflicting information second hand passed down generation after generation. Our sense of existence when mapped out against a spiritual timeline going forward or backward into eternity gives one a sense of the impossibility of truly knowing anything.
Catholicism provided me my central paradigm. I am also a spiritual thief and willing to learn from the faith of spiritual cousins in Christianity, more distant cousins in Judaism and Buddhism, and fellow human beings with other belief systems or atheists and agnostics shy of heresy! What do I mean by that? Religious institutions and people can sharpen my faith by how they deal with suffering, hardship, and success. We will know what is right by the results they produce.
Catholicism and some of its cousins, for example, have lost their way as evidenced by the child sexual abuse scandal and enmeshment in political issues that reflect poorly on the faith. Historically religions have been used to wage war, persecute people of other faith, or denigrate and discriminate against people. My current Pope is trying to rectify some of the serious errors and mistakes of the past. This works for me, in addition to fulfilling my callings in life as they keep evolving and changing.
Let me tell you what I told my brother yesterday in response. I told him the story of two decades ago when kids had just spray-painted graffiti on my fence many years ago in New York City. I was at that time in the right spiritual place. I kept a large can of green paint in the shed and welcomed new graffiti as it came with an opportunity to paint that portion of the fence. I was not at all vested in catching or worrying about the fence being spray-painted again by an emerging artist. My Cuban neighbor came out and stopped by. He was incensed and livid. In a Cuban accident, he yelled with expletives, “they should be a church on every xxx corner, not for me, but those little xxx kids.” I received his support with a smile but advised him, Andre, we were once kids too, and I am sure we crossed a line somewhere. He absorbed my calmness, and we resumed a peaceful day. I painted as he talked.
The idea presented by Andre the Cuban was those kids needed a church. He did not need a church, in his opinion. This struck me twenty-years later enough to raise it in light of my brother’s lack of faith. Perhaps, God gives faith to those who God has determined to need faith to handle their situations or to promote a higher purpose of God’s divine will. Andre does not need a church to know not to spray-paint my fence! He may benefit from a church or other spiritual consolations for other life challenges – but he knows to destroy another person’s property for social status amongst a peer group is wrong without a church on his shoulder. Neither one of us did a thing to help the kids who were vandalizing people’s property—a missed opportunity to turn a negative into a positive all these years later.
The atheist around the corner may be living God’s will without knowing God by a name – a name prescribed by the various world religions who mostly genuinely believe their scripture or tradition to be the most accurate path to the divine life.
I can say “I know God Exist,” or I believe in such and such Creed. I cannot tell an Athiest, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or another religious believer that I know my faith, and my Creed is the only way for them to achieve a holy life. I simply do not know to a person God’s divine plan or divine destiny; I can only know my own experience.
Moral of the story?
- Many paths: It is a mystery as to what is the best path to a holy life. I suspect there are many paths, and some of us do not need a religious guidepost. The non-religious among us may serve a purpose that we who are adorned with the garments of religiosity or spirituality cannot fulfill. Divine Providence and Divine Mystery leave us all in the dark.
- Judgment day: Every day, we are judged by ourselves, our fellow man, and an eternal benchmark against the history of humankind. The Athiest and the Believer leave the morning gate at the same time. The spiritual oddsmakers assign weights and probabilities to each one when they should cross the line based on their circumstances and abilities. It is the greatest horse race of all-time. Much is given, much is expected. Neither the Athiest or the Believer can judge each other’s performance relative to the other. The Oddsmaker does not tell them today what to expect, where to finish, what pace to run, or if this is their last race. Run today as if it was your last race. Run according to your abilities and potential. Every split second is clocked and measured. It is not what you are labeled as belonging to, but how you perform your calling that matters at the end of the day. What matters is the good you do today – tomorrows will take care of themselves.
- Mystery: The moral of this story is that very few of us can claim to be true mystics. If we are in the faithful camp, we cannot claim we have earned that faith through self-will and action. We cannot even explain why we have faith and why others do not or have an equal or greater allegiance to another faith. If we are truly blessed to be able to say consistently, and with the conviction that we know God exists by personal experience and revelation, we have truly been blessed through no fault of our own. Perhaps, by God’s humor, we have only been called as God said, let me reveal some to this one, or he will destroy a lot of things in my house!
- Living God’s word: We can undoubtedly offer people an explanation of our Creed of beliefs. If they are attracted to how we are living and how genuine we are, we may be able to share our faith. This assumes our faith is producing people living holy lives, as evidenced by our actions and behaviors. Whether we are believers or mystics, it still comes down to what we do and not what we say.
- Humility: We cannot assume or declare moral, religious, or spiritual supremacy. Perhaps it is God’s will that my brother lives his life within an existential framework practicing humanist love for humanity free of religiosity. That paradigm may have enabled him to reach specific people through God’s will.
- Love: My Catholic faith does not separate me from the Athiest or other religious faiths. In almost all issues, we will have common ground on what is the ideal moral and ethical action in most circumstances. The areas of divergence and conflict are where I will and am challenged. I am called to practice Humility while still be able to state what “I Believe.” Liberation theology is an example of where religious beliefs can bring me into conflict with the current social and political order of western culture and unchecked capitalism. The ideals of the dignity of life issues in light of scientific advances and medical options available that can alleviate unnecessary suffering or end life prematurely create animosity and confusion. I love those who hold different interpretations of what is the right thing to do, especially when presented with choosing between two terrible choices, both of which will bring pain and suffering.
- Legal law versus spiritual laws: One question that pesters me, is should my faith determine the law of the land, or should my faith attract believers to follow my Creed when societal values differ from my spiritually discerned values? I must walk patiently and, with wisdom, indeed discerned. With human history teaching me how quickly religious institutions and nation-states can persecute thousands by genocide, alienation, and other acts of our evil, I am cautious about advocating my interpretation or that of my faith needs to be the law of the land. I would much rather people desire what I have then be told to do what my faith says.
My Sunday readings today touched on the paraclete, or the Advocate, or the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit or Advocate helps us discern “true from false” and “good from the bad.” Catholicism Catechism says that “From the beginning until the fullness of time, the joint mission of the Father’s word and Spirit remains hidden, but is at work.”
For Two Thousand Years, the Holy Spirit hidden in the background doing God’s work. Athiest maybe holier than religious types if they are taping into consistently choosing “true from false” and “good from the bad.”
The 28% of Americans who reported they hear answers back from God, if you interviewed them, I could tell you most of them did not hear a clear auditory command or see a burning bush. More likely, they experienced a gentle whisper or an epiphany of thought that may mirror the same revelation atheist experiences when deciphering right from wrong in certain situations; only the latter has no direct knowledge of the “Holy Spirit” at work.
For us believers, do we believe the Holy Spirit is only working with the faithful? Of course not. The logic, education, and set of moral principles that an Athiest uses to stand up for human rights or bash a corrupted religious institution may be inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Athiest may not see or have gratitude for the gifts of oratory, a clever pen, or other talents that they possess as coming from any special dispensation cultivated within him, but God just maybe slowly at work. It is not that he is ungrateful, it is simply that he cannot be grateful for what he cannot see. His gratitude is more likely expressed directly to the people around him – and that should happen anyway!
My brother may not know God. Neither the Paschal Mystery or Pascal’s wager bring him any closer to God. He and many like him can be painted as an Archetype Athiest. One who is blameless for being an Athiest and mostly living a meaningful and loving secular life.
Perhaps he has been given a special dispensation by the God of my understanding. He is blind to a spiritual awareness of a defined God and free of the religious binds and toxicity that exist in many of our religious institutions. He is at once outside the church or synagogue and yet unknowingly within it. He is guided by a human conscience to do what is right – and he ascribes these principles originating from education and the power of human development, which is undoubtedly part of what makes him able to identify right from wrong.
Unknown to him is a gentle whisper, sometimes heard and heeded, sometimes unheard or ignored, just like the faithful. He has a harder road than the believer for each action, and the decision appears to be uniquely his own. He also must carry the weight of no afterlife, and the knowledge that all there is in life is what he has now. As the clock winds down on him, every moment becomes more precious. There may be no tomorrows or an afterlife.
Many a believer, despite knowing there is a God, will have the same existential crisis as their time nears an end. Only the rare mystics face death with solemnity and confidence in the eternal.
In my God’s tent, the God of my imagination, there is room for many special dispensations. Some will receive them here on earth and others only after.
How many artists died in poverty before their artwork was valued? How many saints or now revered spiritual writers were once deemed heretical before being acknowledged as owning some spiritual truths.
There is a place for good men outside the church to hold the church accountable indeed and to be there for those in need who cannot, for one reason or another, turn to God.
I see God and humanity in my brother. He is a good man and has lived a truly human life with great joys and great sorrows. He sees the good in people as well and can see past people’s limitations too. I hope he and other archetype Athiest can see goodness and principles in me and in the majority of people that share my faith. Neither he nor I can claim a higher spiritual or moral ground.
If I am right about God existing through my 3% lense, I am confident that same God has a broad tent that will include Mystics, Believers, Agnostics, and yes, Athiest.
This is not faith, but Grace. By the Grace of God, may our errors and human folly be overlooked and our genuine strivings to do good be captured in the odds maker’s books. If there is a God, I honestly cannot say my brother’s odds are any better or worse than mine.
We have two brothers and parents that have already come to know the answer. They aren’t sharing it yet with us. May Grace be with them, with my brother, and each of you that have managed to read this post on brotherly love and spiritual divisions.
Is it God talking to me when the day after my brother makes that comment about the belief that my guided meditation is on mysticism versus creedal belief and the Sunday mass sermon focused on the Holy Spirit? Was it God talking to my brother when the Lady of Fatima was sat next to him on a plane? The faithful among us say of course while the atheist among us are unmoved. Yet we coexist pursuing a moral world, living with suffering, and promoting compassion and love.
Artist Paul Gaugin was very much unappreciated in his day as are many artists, theologians, Catholics, and even Athiest today. He died in poverty and obscurity. Some say the following painting captures the artist expressing his own suffering and isolation, a self-portrait as opposed to the suffering Christ. It is a shame that we value people more when they lay horizontal in the grave than when they are vertical and alive with us.
How is his spirituality captured in this painting? How is our spirituality (for believers) and morality (for Athiest) captured on the canvass that represents our life?
[ii] We both have ample opportunity to criticize the Religion of our youth. Religion, though, we both firmly agree, is prone to the errors of men. No religious organization is exempt from minute mistakes and severe grave actions that can only be called evil or, at the very least, not representative of any divine will.
[iii] Yes, And….Daily Meditations by Richard Rohr, page 42.