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Monday, December 17, 2018

The Existence of God

My fellow friar here at Holy Cross, Fr. John Ostdiek, 96 years old, is very disturbed by the loss of so many young Catholics to the Church. He says 40% of young people "raised Catholic" no longer consider themselves Catholic.

Then there is the disillusionment caused by clergy abuse scandals. The Church seems to be falling apart.

These realities are in the back of my mind as I prayed the psalms this morning. A question lurks back there: am I doing something that no longer makes sense? Am I just soothing my spirit with illusions?

Then I recall a remark of a professor during my brief stay at the Harvard Divinity School: "Someone should do a study of atheism in Hindu culture." He was commenting on the stereotype that millions of people in India are devout practitioners of the Hindu religion, and speculating that the stereotype is not true.

These days I am reading the prophet Jeremiah. He writes as though everyone in Israel is against him. They are all happily marrying, giving in marriage, singing, dancing, and not paying the slightest attention to God. In the words of one of the psalms, "God does not care, he never sees."

"Proofs" for the existence of God

There seems to be a consensus that Thomas Aquinas's five proofs for the existence of God are no longer convincing. I couldn't name the five anyway. Here is mine.

Science has developed a consensus that the universe as we know it began with a "big bang" 13.8 billion years ago. I know of no scientist who discusses what or who caused that event. They argue that such a question is beyond the reach of scientific investigation. That may be true, but science also refuses to accept that events are without causes. Something or someone caused that bang. The question is: what is that Something or Someone like?

Billions of people down through history have created stories to answer that question, so we have world religions. The sociologist asks: what is the cause of such a persistent human behavior? Emile Durkheim said it is that people realize that there is something beyond their individual realities, so they posit a god, without realizing that the something they call a god is really just the group, the society. Sigmund Freud said that people live yearning to return to the womb, and religion satisfied that yearning--we should just grow up. Karl Marx said that the dominant classes invented stories to keep the subordinate classes under control, and religion is the most effective such story. Religion is an opiate to keep suffering poor people from thinking.

Billions of people down through history have lived as though there is no god, which has caused no end of distress among religious people. We observe that people get religion when everything else in their lives falls apart. What does that say? Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked the question: what are we going to do when science and technology solve all our human problems? We won't need God any more. Bonhoeffer didn't know. But science and technology do not seem on the verge of doing what he feared. His formulation of the problem seems naive.

And religion goes on. Atheism goes on. Prophets arise and no one pays attention, just like in Jeremiah's day. The Israelites paid no attention until Assyria and Babylon came in and destroyed their world. Our prophets these days are saying that no one is paying attention, and the things we have done and continue to do to our environment are going to come back and bite us.

Meanwhile, some of us continue to be convinced that the Someone who started the universe as we know it loves, and is delighted when we love in return. We Christians have a story of how that Someone intervened in our history, a story we accepted from the Jewish people, and which we have taken in new directions. The story has resulted in both good and evil down through history--one friend of mine thinks religion has been the source of most of the evils in our world. I think he overlooks the good that religious people do, but he has a point--our fellow religionists have caused a lot of suffering.

Religion has been for me a source of delight and a motive for living. I am not alone, but I may be in the minority, perhaps a tiny minority. But there are people around me, all over the world, in all kinds of cultures and languages and political systems, who see the world the way I do, and that reinforces my way of seeing the world. To use Peter Berger's metaphor, we create a "sacred canopy," a structure of meaning that envelops our world. We create it, but just because we create it does not mean it is an illusion. Maybe the Creator snuck into our hearts the seeds of that canopy.

That's my explanation for why I believe in the God I live by and for.