Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 8, 2000
We breathe the air of agnosticism
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
Imagine lying in bed one night and finding yourself flooded with warm feelings of faith. In that graced moment you truly feel the reality of God. There are no doubts in your mind on this night; you know that God exists as surely as you know that you exist. Your faith feels sure.
Now, imagine a different scenario: You wake up some night overwhelmed by chaos, by feelings of emptiness, doubt. Try as you might, you can no longer imagine the existence of God or convince yourself that you believe. You try to imagine God's existence, feel God's reality, but you draw a blank and your heart fills with the sense that all you've believed in is nothing but wishful thinking, Alice-in-Wonderland.
Your heart tells you that the heavens are empty and you stare holes into the darkness, but all that stares back seems to be darkness, nothingness, emptiness.
Does this mean that on the one night your faith is strong and on the other that it is weak? Is faith a matter of being able to imagine or somehow feel that God exists? Not necessarily. Perhaps all this means is that on the one night you had a strong imagination and on the other a weak one.
Faith is not the same thing as being able to imagine God's existence or even of being able to feel God affectively. The mind is mostly unequal to the task of imagining God's existence and the heart is often just as inept at giving us any feeling of God's existence. However God doesn't cease to exist for that reason, nor is faith dead just because the imagination and heart run dry. God exists independent of our perceptions and faith is something much deeper than imagination and feeling.
It is important to understand this because we live in a culture that, for the most part, can no longer imagine God's existence and generally thinks that this means both that it has lost its faith and that God doesn't exist.
This notion is everywhere present: Who among us doesn't have a spouse, a brother, a sister, a child, a dear friend, a colleague, a neighbour, or an acquaintance who is not, consciously or unconsciously, convinced that God doesn't exist because he or she can no longer conjure up God at the level of imagination and feeling?
I suspect that this is also true to a certain extent for each of us personally. We live lives of quiet agnosticism. Our faith can often feel like practical doubt. Our everyday consciousness contains little or no real awareness of God. We tend to be atheistic in our imaginations and in our feelings, even as we still profess faith, say the creed, go to church, and perhaps even minister while there. We have icons in our churches but not in our hearts.
This is not meant sarcastically, but sympathetically. The reason that we don't have icons in our hearts is not because we are materialists, pagans, but because we live and move and breathe in a cultural software that no longer gives us the tools to create those icons. Our present mental software is not much equipped to help us imagine or feel God's existence. The natural air we breathe today is agnostic.
But it's a false agnosticism; false in that it identifies faith with imagination and God's reality with our awareness of his existence. The algebra here is simple: We don't sense God much in our ordinary awareness and so we don't much believe in him either. As a result, our culture identifies faith, however subtly, with wishful thinking, naivete, piety, lack of courage to face the truth, immaturity, narrowness and fundamentalism. None of the sophisticated intellectual and cultural software available to us has God as one of its icons.
So where does that leave us? Is our culture asking too many hard questions and traditional faith is not equal to the task? Are we too intellectually and otherwise advanced, as some of our own children think, to believe in God?
William Blake once said that if a fool were to persist in his folly he would find wisdom. That's true here: Our problem is not that we're asking too many questions, but that we're asking too few; it's not that we've grown too intelligent, but rather that we still haven't stretched our minds far enough; it's not that we've finally fearlessly faced the truth, it's more that we lack the courage to look beyond the particular horizon that our age has canonized; and it's not that we have grown too enlightened to believe in God, but rather that an infantile and adolescent grandiosity has given us the impression that we ourselves are the centre of the universe. Folly to be sure.
But we haven't persisted far enough in that folly. Wisdom could be ours, would we but go further.