American novelist, James T. Farrell, once wrote: “I’d like to see God. I’d like to tell him a few things! I’d like to say, ‘God why do you create men and make them suffer and fight in vain, and live brief unhappy lives like pigs, and make them die disgustingly and rot?
“God, why do beautiful girls you create become whores, and grow old and toothless, and die, and have their bodies rot so that they are a stench to human nostrils?
“God, why do you permit thousands and millions of your creatures, made in your image and likeness, to live like crowded dogs in slums and tenements, while an exploiting few profit from the sweat of their toil, produce nothing, and live in kingly mansions?
“God, why do you permit people to starve, hunger, die from syphilis, cancer, consumption? God why do you not raise one little finger to save us from all the sufferings on this human planet?
“That’s what I would say to God, that’s exactly what I would say to him if I could find him. But God’s a wise guy. He stays in hiding.” (Studs Lonigan, Page 360)
It’s not easy to believe in God. Faith is never certitude and the evidence for God’s existence is ambiguous. It is ambiguous because life is. The world is full of beauty, virtue, love, selflessness, artistic achievement, humor and celebration. It is, at the same time, full too of evil, moral and physical – selfishness, murder, rape, exploitation, insensitivity, stupidity, and death-producing phenomena, parasites, cancer, and natural disasters which inflict death, pain, disease, and destruction randomly and senselessly.
One can look at the world, as countless believers have always done, and conclude from the presence of beauty and love that there exists an all-loving and all-beautiful God who created this all out of love. One can also look at the world, as many sincere atheists (e.g. Gordon Sinclair, Albert Camus, Richard Rubenstein, Simone de Beauvoir) have, and conclude from the presence of suffering and evil that no God exists or, if one does, s/he is either malicious, quixotic or incompetent. Millions of persons have trouble believing in God, or being at peace with their belief, because they see an inconsistency between faith in an all-good God and the presence of suffering and evil in the world. As Albert Camus once put it: “If there is a God, then he is the eternal bystander with his back turned on a suffering world.”
What underlies these criticisms which often come from very sincere persons? What underlies them is a confusion, however sincere, between faith and understanding. Simply put, whenever we try to think God we get into trouble. Why? Because mind, imagination, and thought cannot be stretched far enough to adequately understand God. For this reason, when we do try to figure out how there can be a God and how everything can still be imagined consistently, we end up with the unfounded conclusion that God does not exist.
Let me illustrate with just one example of what happens when we try to image God’s existence.
The very immensity of our universe defies imagination: There are perhaps hundreds of millions of galaxies with billions of light years separating them. On each of these planets within these galaxies there are hundreds of trillions of phenomena happening every second (and through billions of years). Can we really believe that somewhere there is a person and a heart so supreme and omniscient that it created all of this and that, right now, it knows minutely and intimately every detail and happening and that it is passionately concerned with every one of these happenings? To expatiate further with just one small example: our planet earth. This is just one of millions of planets.
Yet, just on it, during every second there are hundreds of persons being born, hundreds of persons are being conceived, hundreds are dying, millions are sinning, millions are doing virtuous acts, millions are suffering, millions are celebrating, millions are hoping, millions are praying, many are despairing…and all of this has been happening for hundreds of thousands of years. Can we really imagine that a God exists who intimately knows all of this, in every detail, cares passionately about each individual and every detail, and is, somehow, Lord over all of this so that “no sparrow falls from the sky or hair from a human head” without God knowing and caring deeply? Can we really imagine this?
The answer quite simply is that we can’t. Our minds and imaginations simply won’t stretch that far. But that is the precise point. The biggest religious mistake we can make is to try to imagine God. God is infinite, our minds are finite. It makes for a bad equation. When we make God fit the categories of what we can think and imagine we end up in trouble. When God asked Moses to take his shoes off before the burning bush, God was asking for space – space within which to be God. Our belief in God can only be strong if we respect the mystery that is God and not try to figure out God or make God fit into the limits of our own imaginations.
When we do this, and it is the perennial temptation, when we try to make God consistent with our imaginations, then God ceases being God, ceases being worth believing in, and we soon stop believing.