RonRolheiser,OMI

Can We Prove that God Exists?

A A A

I wrote my doctoral thesis on the value of various philosophical arguments that try to prove the existence of God. Can there be such a proof? Brilliant philosophers, from Anselm, through Aquinas, through Descartes, through contemporary intellectuals like Charles Hartshorne, submit that the existence of God can be proven through rational argument. Except, except, a lot depends upon what exactly we mean by the word “prove”. How do we prove something?

There’s a legend about St. Christopher that’s pertinent here: Christopher was a man gifted in every way, except faith. He was physically strong, powerful, goodhearted, mellow, and well liked. He was also generous, using his physical strength to help others, but he found it hard to believe in God, even though he wanted to. For him, the physical was what was real and everything else seemed unreal. And so, as the legend goes, he lived his life in a certain honest agnosticism, unable to really believe in anything beyond what he could physically see, feel, and touch.

However, this did not prevent him from using his gifts, especially his physical strength, to serve others. This was his refuge, generosity and service. He became a ferryboat operator, spending his life helping to carry people across a dangerous river. One night, as the legend goes, during a storm, the ferryboat capsized and Christopher dove into the dark waters to rescue a young child. Carrying that child to the shore, he looked into its face and saw there the face of Christ. After that, he believed for he had seen the face of Christ.

For all its piety, this legend contains a profound lesson. It changes the perspective on the question of how one tries to “prove” God’s existence. Our attempt to prove God’s existence has to be practical, existential, and incarnate rather than mainly intellectual. How do we move from believing only in the physical, from believing only in the reality of what we can see, feel, touch, taste, and smell, to believing in the existence of deeper, spiritual realities?

There’s lesson in the Christopher story: Live as honestly and respectfully as you can and use your gifts to help others. God will appear. God is not found at the conclusion of a philosophical syllogism but as the result of a certain way of living. Moreover, faith is not so much a question of feeling as of selfless service.

There’s a further lesson in the biblical account of the apostle, Thomas, and his doubt about the resurrection of Jesus. Remember his protest: “Unless I can (physically) place my finger in the wounds of his hands and stick my finger into the wound of his side, I will not believe.” Note that Jesus offers no resistance or rebuke in the face of Thomas’ skepticism. Instead, he takes Thomas at his word: “Come and (physically) place your finger in the wounds of my hand and the wound in my side; see for yourself that I am real and not a ghost.”

That’s the open challenge for us: “Come and see for yourselves that God is real and not a ghost!” That challenge, however, is not so much an intellectual one as a moral one, a challenge to be honest and generous.

Skepticism and agnosticism, even atheism, are not a problem as long as one is honest, non-rationalizing, non-lying, ready to efface oneself before reality as it appears, and generous in giving his or her life away in service. If these conditions are met, God, the author and source of all reality, eventually becomes sufficiently real, even to those who need physical proof. The stories of Christopher and Thomas teach us this and assure us that God is neither angered nor threatened by an honest agnosticism.

Faith is never certainty. Neither is it a sure feeling that God exists. Conversely, unbelief is not to be confused with the absence of the felt assurance that God exists. For everyone, there will be dark nights of the soul, silences of God, cold lonely seasons, skeptical times when God’s reality cannot be consciously grasped or recognized. The history of faith, as witnessed by the life of Jesus and the lives of the saints, shows us that God often seems dead and, at those times, the reality of the empirical world can so overpower us that nothing seems real except what we can see and feel right now, not least our own pain.

Whenever this happens, like Christopher and Thomas, we need to become honest agnostics who use our goodness and God-given strengths to help carry others across the burdensome rivers of life. God does not ask us to have a faith that is certain, but a service that is generous and sustained. We have the assurance that should we faithfully help carry others, we will one day find ourselves before the reality of God who will gently say to us: “See for yourself, that I am real, and not a ghost.”

Can we prove that God exists? In theory, no; in life, yes.

Bruised and Wounded – Understanding Suicide

A A A

Some things need to be said and said and said again until they don’t need to be said anymore. Margaret Atwood wrote that. I quote it here because each year I write a column on suicide and mostly say the same thing each time because certain things need to be said repeatedly about suicide until we have a better understanding of it.

What needs to be said again and again?

  1. First, that suicide is a disease, something that in most cases takes a person out of life against his or her will, the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack.
  2.  Second, that we, the loved ones who remain, should not spend undue time and energy second-guessing as to how we might have failed that person, what we should have noticed, and what we might still have done to prevent the suicide. Suicide is an illness and, as with a purely physical disease, we can love someone and still not be able to save him or her from death. God also loved this person and shared our helplessness in trying to help him or her.
  3. We need a better understanding of mental health. The fact is that not everyone has the internal circuits to allow them the sustained capacity for steadiness and buoyancy. One’s mental health is parallel to one’s physical health, fragile, and not fully within one’s control. Moreover just as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, stroke, heart attacks, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and multiple sclerosis, can cause debilitation and death; so too can mental diseases wreak havoc, also causing every kind of debilitation and sometimes death by suicide.
  4. The potential role that biochemistry plays in suicide needs more exploration. If some suicidal depressions are treatable by drugs, clearly then some suicides are caused by biochemical deficiencies, as are many other diseases that kill us.
  5. Almost invariably, the person who dies by suicide is a very sensitive human being. Suicide is rarely done in arrogance, as an act of contempt. There are of course examples of persons who are too proud to endure normal human contingency and kill themselves out of arrogance, but that’s a very different kind of suicide, not the kind that most of us have seen in a loved one. Generally, our experience with the loved ones that we have lost to suicide was that these persons were anything but arrogant. Rather, they were too bruised to touch and were wounded in some deep way that we could not comprehend or help heal. Indeed, often times when sufficient time has passed after their deaths, in retrospect, we get some sense of their wound and their suicide then no longer seems as surprising. There’s a clear distinction between being too bruised to continue to touch life and being too proud to continue to take one’s place within it. Only the latter makes a moral statement, insults the flowers, and challenges the mercy of God.
  6. Suicide is often the desperate plea of a soul in pain. The soul can make claims that go against the body and suicide is often that. 
  7. We need to forgive ourselves if we feel angry with our loved ones who end their lives in this way. Don’t feel guilty about feeling angry; that’s a natural, understandable response when a loved one dies by suicide.
  8. We need to work at redeeming the memory of our loved ones who die by suicide. The manner of their death may not become a prism through which we now see their lives, as if this manner of death colors everything about them. Don’t take down photos of them and speak of them and their deaths in hushed terms any more than if they had died by cancer or a heart attack. It’s hard to lose loved ones to suicide, but we should not also lose the truth and warmth of their mystery and their memory.
  9. Finally, we shouldn’t worry about how God meets our loved one on the other side. God’s love, unlike ours, can go through locked doors, descend into hell, and breathe out peace where we cannot. Most people who die by suicide awake on the other side to find Christ standing inside their locked doors, inside the center of their chaos, gently saying, “Peace be with you!” God’s understanding and compassion infinitely surpass our own. Our lost loved ones are in safer hands than ours. If we, limited as we are, can already reach through this tragedy with some understanding and love, we can rest secure that, given the width and depth of God’s love, the one who dies through suicide meets, on the other side, a compassion that’s deeper than our own and an understanding that surpasses ours.

Julian of Norwich says, in the end all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will be well. I shall be, even after suicide. God can, and does, go through locked doors and, once there, breathes out peace inside a tortured, huddled heart.

Why Stay in the Church?

A A A

Several weeks ago after giving a lecture at a religious conference, the first question from the audience was this one: How can you continue to stay in a church that played such a pivotal part in setting up and maintaining residential schools for the indigenous people of Canada? How can you stay in a church that did that?

The question is legitimate and important. Both in its history and in its present, the church has enough sin to legitimize the question. The list of sins done in the name of the church is long: the Inquisition, its support for slavery, its role in colonialism, its link to racism, its role in thwarting women’s rights, and its endless historical and present compromises with white supremacy, big money, and political power. Its critics are sometimes excessive and unbalanced, but, for the most part, the church is guilty as charged.

However, this guilt isn’t unique to the church. The same charges might be leveled against any of the countries in which we live. How can we stay in a country that has a history of racism, slavery, colonialism, genocide of some of its indigenous peoples, radical inequality between its rich and its poor, one that is callous to desperate refugees on its borders, and one within which millions of people hate each other? Isn’t it being rather selective morally to say that I am ashamed to be a Catholic (or a Christian) when the nations we live in share the same history and the same sins?

Still, since the church is supposed to be leaven for a society and not just a mirror of it, the question is valid. Why stay in the church? There are good apologetic answers on this, but, at the end of the day, for each of us, the answer has to be a personal one. Why do I stay in the church?

First, because the church is my mother tongue. It gave me the faith, taught me about God, gave me God’s word, taught me to pray, gave me the sacraments, showed me what virtue looks like, and put me in contact with some living saints. Moreover, despite all its shortcomings, it was for me authentic enough, altruistic enough, and pure enough to have the moral authority to ask me to entrust my soul to it, a trust I’ve not given any other communal entity. I’m very comfortable worshipping with other religions and sharing soul with non-believers, but in the church in which I was raised, I recognize home, my mother tongue.

Second, the church’s history is not univocal. I recognize its sins and openly acknowledge them, but that’s far from its full reality. The church is also the church of martyrs, of saints, of infinite generosity, and of millions of women and men with big, noble hearts who are my moral exemplars.  I stand in the darkness of its sins; but I also stand in the light of its grace, of all the good things it has done in history.

Finally, and most important, I stay in the church because the church is all we’ve got! There’s no other place to go. I identify with the ambivalent feeling that rushed through Peter when, just after hearing Jesus say something which had everyone else walk away from him, Peter was asked, “do you want to walk away too?” and he (speaking for all the disciples) replied: “We’d like to, but we have no place else to go. Besides we recognize that, despite everything, you still have the words of everlasting life.”

In essence, Peter is saying, “Jesus, we don’t get you, and what we get we often don’t like. But we know we’re better off not getting it with you than going any place else. Dark moments notwithstanding, you’re all we’ve got!”

The church is all we’ve got! Where else can we go?  Behind the expression, I am spiritual, but not religious (however sincerely uttered) lies either an invincible failure or a culpable reluctance to deal with the necessity of religious community, to deal with what Dorothy Day called “the asceticism of church life”. To say, I cannot or will not deal with an impure religious community is an escape, a self-serving exit, which at the end of the day is not very helpful, not least for the person saying it. Why? Because for compassion to be effective it needs to be collective, given the truth that what we dream alone remains a dream but what we dream with others can become a reality. I cannot see anything outside the church that can save this world.

There is no pure church anywhere for us to join, just as there is no pure country anywhere for us in which to live. This church, for all its checkered history and compromised present, is all we have. We need to own its faults since they are our faults. Its history is our history; its sin, our sin; and its family, our family – the only lasting family we’ve got.