Faith is best, but it’s still rational to believe in God

By TIM KALICH,

At Georgetown University, all students, regardless of their major, are required to take a smattering of liberal arts courses. The academic regimen is designed to enhance the students’ critical-thinking and writing skills and ensure that they are intellectually well-rounded.

To fulfill the freshman theology requirement, students have two choices: “Introduction to Biblical Literature” or “The Problem of God.”

They were the same two choices I faced when I enrolled at that Catholic university in Washington, D.C., 42 years ago.

I signed up for the biblical literature course, so what I heard about “The Problem of God” was secondhand. At the time, it appeared to me that a lot of my classmates didn’t realize God was a problem until they took the course.

As with the school’s enrollment (now majority non-Catholic), the course and those teaching it have changed over the years to include other faith traditions. The central questions, though, the class confronts — Does God exist? Why am I here? Is there really life after death? — are still at the heart of the course’s inquiry, now 50 years since it was first developed.

In describing the course in the most recent issue of the school’s magazine, the Rev. Otto Henz, a Jesuit priest and longtime instructor, said, “We’re not doing catechism here, nor is it a tour of a religious museum — ‘Isn’t that charming!’ and so forth. The course is a sophisticated intellectual inquiry and analysis, with a very specific existential challenge. We are engaging in fundamental human questions that need some sort of answer, however tentative.”

It is so much easier to have a simple faith — to not question what you picked up as a child from your parents and your preachers and other religious teachers. But for many people the questions inevitably come, if not forced on them by an intentional decision to deeply explore one’s faith, then through the random experiences of life.

If God exists and is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-merciful, why does he sit back and allow bad things to happen to good people? Why does he tolerate so much suffering — starvation, genocide, the worst kinds of depravity inflicted on vulnerable children and adults — to exist in some parts of the world, while other parts are spared? Why are some prayers answered and others not? If there is only one true faith, as most religions contend, and that is the only path to eternal life, what happens to those who were either never exposed to it or raised in a different religious tradition?

Most religions try to answer these questions. Often these answers provide some solace, but they’re not always completely satisfactory. There’s usually some nagging doubt as to whether what we are being told is real.

The problem with God is that not only are his ways inscrutable but his existence is not provable. Certainly, we have thousands of years of religious tradition and teachings, and billions of believers. Still it is hard to know with absolute certainty whether God created mankind or whether mankind created God to fulfill its deep need to find purpose in this life and hope for something afterward.

 

For more than 20 years, Dr. Rusty Douglas, pastor of Greenwood’s First Presbyterian Church, has been concluding every funeral he conducts with a mention of Karl Barth, a leading Protestant theologian of the 20th century.

“Barth said that every time someone entered a Christian sanctuary they had one question in the back of their mind,” Douglas will say. “The question was, ‘Is it true? Is it true all this talk about the love of God, and the forgivenesss of sins and resurrection to eternal life? Is it true?’ ”

Then Douglas, looking out at the assembled mourners, will say, “I came here today to tell you it is in fact true! You can take it to the bank. We have not heard the last of (insert name of deceased) because we have not heard the last of her Lord!”

I’ve heard Douglas say this many times, and each time I find reassuring the confidence of his proclamation that death is not the final word.

I also fall back on the argument of a 17th century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, to which I was first exposed in one of those liberal arts courses I was required to take in college. It suits a mind that strives to impose logic on the illogical.

Pascal said that, try as we might, neither the existence nor the non-existence of God can be proved by human reason. Thus, the best we can do is “wager” on God’s existence by rationally weighing the possible consequences of how we place that bet.

If we live our life as though God exists and we’re wrong, Pascal said, we have lost nothing but possibly some fleeting pleasures. But if we live as if God doesn’t exist and we’re wrong, we have lost an eternity in heaven.

Given those possible outcomes between losing nothing and losing everything, it would be foolish to bet against God. Put that way, he doesn’t seem to be such a problem.

Contact Tim Kalich, editor and publisher of the Greenwood Commonwealth,

at 662-581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

 

 

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