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Why believe in God? And why are some answers so unbearably thin?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 08, 2015

I just spent a very enjoyable couple of hours reading a collection of essays from religious artists answering the question of why they believe in God. By religious “artists”, I mean religious persons who are involved in the arts—creative writing, the visual arts, and music. The collection began as a symposium sponsored by Image, which is perhaps the leading journal for artists of faith. The editors turned the symposium into a short book in 2014: Why Believe in God?

There were fifteen participants, all men and women who regard some serious connection with God to be important in their lives, but from many different (and often confused) religious traditions. That was to be expected. Image, while founded and run by the Catholic Gregory Wolfe, is deliberately open to a broad interplay of faith and human creativity (see Thomas Van’s Image Journal: Reconciling Faith and Imagination). As might be expected in a written symposium, most of the participants are writers—either novelists or poets or both, though a few do more analytical writing—but one is a film maker and another a musician. All of the essays are brief and poignant, elegantly and creatively written.

As such, they were a pleasure to read, helping the reader to get inside the spiritual perceptions of highly talented, creative and decidedly “right-brained” people, sharing their sense of the Divine, and marveling at the multi-faceted ways in which God touches the human soul—particularly when a sound and stable religious commitment has not been instilled from birth. But this is not a review or a recommendation. It is rather a discussion of what I found dramatically missing in these accounts, because I want to raise the question of why.

In Relationship with God

Most of the respondents seem to be formally Christian, including some Catholics, though some are formally Jewish. As such they have at least theoretical access to very rich accounts of a personal God who enters into a highly specific sort of relationship with His people and with each person. Christians in particular accept God’s self-revelation as three distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet without exception, each writer speaks of God in a relatively impersonal sense, in the sense of an inchoate presence, force, movement, or connection. Specificity, including the specificity of a highly developed relationship with God, is either deeply muted or conspicuously absent across the board.

Now I can see a perfectly legitimate inner reality at work here. One cannot produce faith in God as the conclusion of an argument. Ultimately, at least as mature adults, we believe in God at least in part because we sense His ineffable presence in our very depths. I grant that this is difficult to pin down. But if someone were to ask me (a scion of the left-brained tribe) why I believe in God, I would very definitely mention more than my deep sense of God’s presence. I would speak about many things that shape my understanding of that presence, many things that, when I examine them rationally and with as little prejudice as possible, come very close to coercing my belief if I am honest with myself.

I would also describe both the incomparable inner unity of the Catholic faith over 2,000 years and the way in which Catholic doctrines (such as Original Sin, free will, the natural goodness of Creation, Divine Providence, grace and morality) make sense of the world as we experience it. I would call attention to the unequalled sublimity of Christian moral teaching, and the incomparable holiness produced by Catholic teaching and the sacraments in the lives of the saints. In all, I would enumerate so many legitimate motives of credibility that it would be as hard for me to fail to believe as it would be for an Englishman who had never crossed the ocean (in Newman’s fine example) to fail to accept the wide range of evidence for the existence of America.

And then I would talk about how, each time I have seriously and prayerfully looked further into any of these motives of credibility, I have found myself more distinctly aware of Who God Is, who I am, and of a growing personal relationship with the three revealed Persons in God, with my Father, His Son my Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit—the Love between the Father and the Son—Who inspires everything good in me.

I certainly recognize that the strengths, weaknesses and simple differences in human personalities ensure that each person comes to God by a somewhat different path. Combine this with the amazingly wide variety of ways in which God manifests Himself and it would seem that, barring resistance, each person is destined for a marriage made in Heaven. If we have reflected, like Newman, on the faculty of conscience, we find both a powerful argument for and a powerful intimation of the existence of God. If we have reflected, like Augustine, on the meaning of creation, we find another path that leads to the same conclusion.

And if we consider the claims of Christian revelation—attested by so many signs and wonders that cannot be explained without Divine agency—we are drawn inexorably down yet another path, a uniquely rich and supernatural path, that leads to the selfsame conclusion. Or it is not a conclusion percisely, but a rich tapestry of knowing and loving which, while never complete, can be studied, expressed, and lived, all the while piling up reason upon reason, experience upon experience, motive upon motive for an ever-strengthening faith.

Cultural Damping?

So why does every contributor to this particular symposium, where religious faith is most welcome, speak of God only in relatively darkened terms—again, as a presence, a force, an answer, a consolation, a feeling, a connectedness to the wonder of being? All of these things are true. But why do fifteen different contributors, many at least deeply influenced by Christianity, end up describing their faith not merely through a glass darkly, but through a glass which transmits almost no light at all?

Let me put it another way. Each of these responses is individual, evocative and fascinating. As personal stories they are all interesting and thought-provoking. But they are also terribly thin. None went any farther than perceiving God as a kind of presence which they could not deny—no matter how much they tried. And please note my use of the term “which” rather than “whom”. There was a sense of God here, but very little sense of relationship. I found no significant understanding of personhood in God.

Here are five symptomatic phrases drawn almost at random from five of the essays in the collection: “I need so I believe.” “My faith is based in [the] sense of being sustained.” “I share with the atheist and the agnostic a sense of a God who is hidden… It seems to me not inappropriate that I take my inner atheist with me to church every Sunday. This is my prayer: Dear God, I believe in you. Please strengthen my disbelief.” “As an adult, I have occasionally tried to talk myself out of my Christianity on the grounds that it makes no sense…. Nothing could convince me I can be cleansed. Yet somehow the small fiery core has refused to yield.” And the least vague: “There is One who has all knowledge. I’ve met him/her more than once. That One helps me. I thank that One.”

This is the norm. Similar quotes could have been drawn from all the other writers. In this or that case, this tentative skimming of the surface might be unremarkable. But considered collectively, one is tempted to respond to these statements of belief with something very like unbelief: Really? Is that all you’ve got?

Note that I have deliberately omitted the names of the writers of each of the preceding quotations. A person’s own experience is, after all, his or her own experience. Descriptions of why a person believes, be they ever so thin, remain valid descriptions of why (and perhaps how) the person believes. My comments are not intended as criticism, but as observation. But when I can make the same observation about fifteen out of fifteen respondents in a symposium, it suggests that there is a uniformity here that overshadows the diversity.

Conclusion

As I have hinted, this may have something to do with a left-brained reader confronting a string of right-brained writers. Intuition is not to be dismissed, and perhaps we are all, in the end, merely half-brained. But the uniformity troubles me. I begin to suspect this uniformity lies not so much in a common faith as in cultural conditioning. Perhaps even religious practitioners of the arts today have been carefully taught that it is acceptable for persons in their group to refer to their spiritual sensibilities, but unacceptable to insist that their faith rests on anything more than sensibilities.

If so, this is a depressingly predictable limitation. Indeed, to permit oneself to expand beyond this limitation would be far more dangerous than a discussion of feelings. It would become a significant witness against the faithlessness of others. One can see that accepting the limitation is better than adopting a culturally-enforced atheism. But might not this uniform response be shaped by the same pressures?

Is it possible that those who aspire to literary and artistic recognition in the West subconsciously recognize the taboo against expressing anything more than a purely subjective, immensely private, and artificially flattened faith? It seems we must recall the advice of St. Peter: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:14-15).

We may suppose, of course, that all respondents were pressed to be brief. But then why use all of a limited space to write about feelings and experiences, as if there is nothing else to be said? Moreover, if necessary even a single sentence can provide a deeper account of faith.

How about the briefest possible report of what is at once the richest historical event and the greatest scandal known to man? For my part, if pressed to explain very briefly why I believe in God, I would write only this: Jesus Christ, whom we crucified, has risen as He said.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 13, 2015 12:45 PM ET USA

    This extreme non-denominationalism is very likely culturally conditioned; there is a false sense of "safety" in it with a false sense of "intellectual honesty." Although real life-changing conversions might be in the brewing: with later additions of worship, and then of Charity. "I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom." It'd be informative to get the same authors to write about their faith in God 5 and 10 years later

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jan. 11, 2015 8:58 AM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, Good article & commentary; the end is the only answer. For many, many people including Catholics Christ Jesus is not a real person-right here & now. Either the Lord God revealed in & through Christ is real or not. Beginning with the "evidence" of the Gospels, either scripture is true or it is not. The only conclusion is Jesus is who He claimed to be & He is as real today as 2000+ years ago. If believed (and that is the real question: Do we truly believe?), this changes everything.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 09, 2015 10:56 PM ET USA

    I noticed something definitely strange about this article,something that is not even mentioned but has been a hallmark of protestant & Catholic evangelization over the centuries. Just "what" happened to Hell? What happened to "the Blood of Christ" that saves us from Hell? A moral conscience(although not necessarily an informed one)is hard-wired into every human being. Hell is where we go by default if we die after the age of reason without a saving knowledge of Christ.Does the book mention Hell?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 09, 2015 11:10 AM ET USA

    "I begin to suspect this uniformity lies not so much in a common faith as in cultural conditioning." One might take your discussion a step further. We tolerate and further we "celebrate" these individual sensibilities- this diversity- and there is little more disconcerting today than a concise (and profound) profession like yours. We've bought into this "conditioning" and sadly, we've divorced "a deeper account of faith" from our understanding of charity. Look to Simon at Caesarea Philippi.