By Greg Erlandson
"I do believe, help my unbelief!"
This statement by the distraught father in the Gospel of Mark (see 9:24) is a cry of the heart that encapsulates the struggle that many believers -- going back to the fortunate contemporaries of Jesus himself -- know intimately.
The nifty apologetic, the cataloging of proofs, the ready quip and the pious affirmation that comprise the case for the existence of God in so many discussions, tend to be far less reassuring in the middle of a soul's long night. Why God has given us this freedom to choose him (this freedom to be confused, it sometimes seems) is less explainable when we are wrestling with questions and doubts.
God has made faith, well, a matter of faith. It is an act of trust and commitment, and it involves, ultimately, the kind of surrender that goes against our grain.
Like a person afraid of drowning who thrashes and grasps so violently that his very terror guarantees his death, moments of crisis call for an act of will and a trust that our body seems to resist at an almost cellular basis.
I find myself drawn to people who have gone out to the deep or, like Jacob, wrestled with the angel. I recently read about an 11-year-old boy who apparently is having a successful after-school career as a preacher. I wish him all the best, but I prefer my preachers to have had a few more years and a few more dark nights. I want the smiling face of wisdom, but I want that face etched with evidence that this peace has been wrung from the thorns and brambles of real life. I think that is why so many of us are drawn to the face of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, which was a living record of how hard won her joy truly was.
On retreat last year I heard a moving quote by Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek, who described the moment in a communist prison camp when he finally understood the surrender that must precede the certainty of true faith. "It meant losing the last hidden doubt, the ultimate fear that God will not be there to bear you up," he said, comparing the moment to a child finally letting go of the side of the pool and finding that "the water truly holds him up."
All of which is a prelude to what I find darkly fascinating: the growing willingness of many to speak with certainty about the lack of God. Indeed, a recent column by Peter Steinfels in The New York Times suggests that entire countries -- in Scandinavia, for example -- give God very little thought.
While casual atheism -- the thoughtlessness of those sleepwalking through the mystery of life -- is most common, serious and self-conscious atheism is thriving and getting more militant.
It isn't just the new atheistic apologetics being written, but the constant references in interviews or articles as writers and poets and celebrities of all sorts freely boast of their unbelief and subtly (sometimes not so subtly) disparage those who still need the crutch of God. Bill Maher epitomizes this viewpoint in his merciless skewering of religion, most recently in his film "Religulous."
I find the aggressive certainty of folks like Maher on these matters ironic, since they often relish putting down the certainty they attribute to Christians. I know there are atheists who have wrestled with their unbelief, but we seem to be experiencing a kind of atheism-lite marketing campaign in which we throw away our crutch, free up our Sundays to do the crossword puzzle, and face the chill isolation of a pitiless universe with a kind of "can do" attitude that one expects from a greeting card.
I don't know what Nietzsche would have made of such intellectually scrawny followers, but I find these testimonials to be almost piously materialistic. Their faith has been transferred from God to science. Immortality is still longed for, but now in pill form. And they have settled for a chirpy "who cares?" to the question of why.
Greg Erlandson is the president and publisher of OSV.
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