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The deepest, the only theme of human history, compared to which all others are of subordinate importance, is the conflict of skepticism with faith. Wolfgang von Goethe
One year, in the small cul-de-sac where my family lived in Illinois, three husbands in the four houses around us had heart attacks while still in their forties.
This was Illinois, where the state bird is sausage.
There were two immediate consequences. One was that my wife wanted to know the details of our life insurance policy. The other was that everybody wanted to know what lies on the other side when the heart stops beating. Questions about God and heaven and meaning and death ceased to be academic.
And it struck me, in that year, how deeply both faith and doubt are part of my life. We often think of them as opposites. Many books argue for one or the other. But while in some respects they are enemies, in other ways they are surprisingly alike: both are concerned with ultimate issues; both pop up unasked for at unexpected moments; both are necessary.
I must have truth. Therefore I doubt. If I did not doubt, I'd be just another one of those suckers P. T. Barnum was so grateful get born once a minute; I'd fall for every carnival sideshow delusion that comes along. And I scorn delusion.
I must have hope. Therefore I believe. If I did not believe, I would cave in to despair. And I dread despair.
In addition to believing and doubting, there is choosing. I must decide which road I will follow. I must place my bet.
Why I Believe
If you were to ask me why I believe in God, I suppose I would tell you a story about a baby. She was not the beginning of my faith in God, but she was a new chapter of it. I did not know that when a baby came into my world she would bring God with her.
When we found out baby number one was on the way, Nancy and I went through a Lamaze class together. To spare the moms-to-be anxiety, the instructors did not use the word pain. They spoke of discomfort, as in "When the baby is born, you may experience some discomfort."
On our second anniversary, Nancy began what would be twelve hours of labor. (All of our kids arrived on notable occasions, none more so than Johnny. He popped into the world on February 2, prompting the doctor to tell us that if he saw his shadow, he would go back inside and Nancy would have six more weeks of pregnancy.)
Laura's body was unusually positioned inside Nancy (the phrase the nurses used was "sunny-side up") so that the hardest part of her head was pressing against Nancy's spine. Each contraction was excruciating. The worst moment came after eleven hours and several doses of Pitocin to heighten the contractions. The doctor, with a single hand, wrenched the baby 180 degrees around inside my wife's body. Nancy let out a scream I will never forget. I knew I had to say something. "Honey-are you experiencing some discomfort?"
They finally had to use a vacuum cleaner with a special attachment to get the baby out. (The Lamaze people had warned us this procedure might make the cranium look pointed, but it would only be temporary.)
Suddenly the pain was over, and we held this little conehead in our arms and were totally unprepared for the world we had entered. Nancy, who had never been particularly attracted to anybody else's children, held the baby and looked around the room like a mother tigress. "I would kill for this baby."
I pointed out that I thought most mothers would say that they would die for their children.
"Die? Why would I want to die? If I died for her, then I couldn't be with her. I'd kill for her." And she looked around the room, clearly hoping someone would give her the chance to show she wasn't bluffing.
I took the baby from her and was overwhelmed by the wonder and mystery of the presence of a human person. Not just the mechanics of her body-though they were amazing. Not just my sudden love for this being-though it was a flood tide. What overwhelmed me was being in the presence of a new soul.
"I can't believe that there is a live, flesh-and-blood, immortal being in this room who didn't used to exist. She will grow up-and we'll watch her. She'll become a woman. And then one day she'll grow old. This red hair will turn to gray and then to white; this same skin that is so pink and smooth right now will be mottled and wrinkled, and she'll be an old lady sitting in a rocking chair-and it will be this same person," I said to Nancy.
"Yes," she said. "And I'd kill for the old lady too."
We propped that tiny body with towels and blankets in the car seat of my old VW Super Beetle to take her home. I drove like I was transporting nitroglycerin. I crawled along the freeway in the slow lane, hazard lights flashing, doing twenty-five miles per hour, ticking off motorists from Northridge to Pasadena. How do you travel carefully enough to protect a new soul?
When I held Laura, I found myself incapable of believing that she was an accident. I found myself incapable of believing that the universe was a random chaotic machine that did not care whether I loved her or hated her. I don't mean that I had a group of arguments for her having a soul and I believed those arguments. I don't mean this conviction is always present in my mind with equal force. It's not.
I mean the conviction welled up inside me and I could not get away from it. I could not look at Laura and believe otherwise. I could not hold her without saying thank you to Someone for her. I could not think of her future without praying for Someone more powerful and wiser than me to watch over her. When she arrived, she brought along with her a world that was meant to be a home for persons. A God-breathed world.
Every child is a testimony to God's desire that the world go on. Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor who doubts sometimes, has written that the reason so many babies keep being born is that God loves stories.
Why I Doubt
On the other hand, if you were to ask me why I doubt, I suppose I would tell you a story about a baby as well. A couple whom I have known for a long time had a beautiful little daughter. She was the kind of child who was so beautiful that people would stop them on the street to comment on her beauty. They were the kind of parents you would hope every child might have.
They had a pool in their backyard.
One summer day it was so nice outside that the mom set up the playpen in the backyard so that her daughter could enjoy the day. The phone rang, and her daughter was in the playpen, so she went in to answer the phone. Her daughter tugged on the wall of that playpen, and the hinge that held the side up gave way. It didn't have to. God could have stopped it. God could have reached down from heaven and straightened it out and kept that playpen up. He didn't. The hinge gave way, and the side came down, and the baby crawled out, and heaven was silent.
When that mom came outside, she saw the beautiful little body of her beloved daughter at the bottom of that pool. It was the beginning of a pain that no words could name. She would have died if doing so could have changed that one moment. But she could not. She would have to live. The memory of how old her daughter would be would have to haunt her every birthday and every Christmas and on the day she would have graduated from high school. That mom would live with the emptiness, the guilt, the blame, and the aloneness.
When that little baby left this world, she left behind a world that was God-silent.
Dostoyevsky, who was a believer, wrote that the "death of a single infant calls into question the existence of God." But of course death has not restricted itself to just one infant. Elie Wiesel tells of his first night in a concentration camp and seeing a wagonload of babies driven up. They were unloaded and thrown into a ditch of fire. "Never shall I forget ... the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.... Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."
This is our world. I don't know all the right responses to resolve these issues, but I know some of the wrong ones.
Wanting to Believe
When people of faith are not willing to sit quietly sometimes and let doubt make its case, bad things can happen.
Sometimes people of faith can be glib. Sometimes they respond with bad answers.
Sometimes preachers add enormous pain by telling people they have brought suffering on themselves by sinning. Sometimes they tell people they have not been delivered because they do not have enough faith.
Sometimes people want to believe but find they can't.
I think of a man who prayed for his alcoholic father for twenty years-but his father never changed.
I think of a woman who prayed for a mentally ill sister who committed suicide.
I think of a brilliant young girl who was neglected by her mom, abandoned by her dad, and molested by her uncle. She was an atheist at age eleven and then through a group of friends became a Christian. But she was tormented with sexual addictions all through her teenage years. She began to be troubled by the thought that some people were condemned to hell just because they belonged to a different religion. She kept asking God to help her; she kept asking for answers, but nothing seemed to change.
I think of a letter I received recently:
How can I believe a Jewish friend who is devoted to God and hears him better than I do will go to hell and I will go to heaven even though I'm not as good as he is, just because I am a Christian and he is not? Will the real God and creator of the universe stand up?
The God I used to believe in was very easy to hear and follow. Now I'm in the dark, and he feels like a stranger. I'm praying but am getting nervous that he won't answer because I now have so little faith ... not even the size of a grain of mustard seed.
Philosopher André Comte-Sponville writes poignantly about the beauty of humility: "Humility may be the most religious of virtues. How one longs to kneel down in churches!" But he said he could not bring himself to do this because he would have to believe that God created him, and human beings seem to him too wretched to permit that possibility. "To believe in God would be a sin of pride."
Wanting to Doubt
Sometimes people want not to believe. A number of recent bestsellers by professional doubters are part of what is being called the New Atheism, a kind of reverse evangelism. They are written by people who are quite certain that God does not exist, and in some cases they are mad at him for not existing. Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett wrote Breaking the Spell to argue that religious faith has been protected by the idea that it is holy or sacred. He says a little critical thinking that would reveal it to be nonsensical would "break the spell."
Noted author Sam Harris writes that the only difference between believing in Jesus and thinking that you are Jesus is the number of people involved in each category. "We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there are no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common, we call them 'religious.' Otherwise, they are likely to be called 'mad, psychotic, or delusional.' While religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are."
British journalist Christopher Hitchens has written God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The title pretty much tells where the book heads.
Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins says in The God Delusion: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction. Jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak, a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal ..." He gets hostile after that.
The current popularity of such books may have been sparked, chronologically at least, by Daniel Brown's The Da Vinci Code. With this book Brown sought to undermine almost all the historical basis for orthodox Christianity, although what gets presented as history in The Da Vinci Code is hotly contested by scholars of all stripes. (A historian friend of mine said, perhaps a little unkindly, that The Da Vinci Code is the only book after which you've read it, you're dumber than you were before you started.)
Ever since what was modestly called the Enlightenment, people have been predicting the demise of faith in God. I want to listen to doubters and not just argue with them, partly because deep down I have doubts enough of my own, and partly because when I'm just trying to win arguments, I turn into Dan Ackroyd debating Jane Curtain in an old Saturday Night Live sketch: "Jane, you ignorant ..." Nobody wants to be around me then. Not even me.
I do not like books by believers or doubters that make it sound like the question of God is simple, that anyone with half a brain will agree with them, that people in the other camp are foolish and evil. I have read and known too many people who don't believe in God who are better and wiser than me. But I do not think the professional doubters will make faith go away. The predictors keep dying, and faith keeps spreading.
Doubt and Faith in Every Soul
Because old Mother Nature is a dysfunctional parent who keeps sending us mixed messages, we need both faith and doubt. The birth of every infant whispers of a God who loves stories; the death of every infant calls his existence into question. Writer Michael Novak says that doubt is not so much a dividing line that separates people into different camps as it is a razor's edge that runs through every soul. Many believers tend to think doubters are given over to meaninglessness, moral confusion, and despair. Many doubters assume believers are nonthinking, dogmatic, judgmental moralizers. But the reality is, we all have believing and doubting inside us. For "we all have the same contradictory information to work with."
Perhaps great believers and great doubters are more like each other than either group is like the great mass of relatively disinterested middle-grounders. Both are preoccupied with understanding the nature of the universe. Both agree that this is, after all, the great question. Most doubters know the discomfort of uncertainty. An agnostic writer for Wired magazine reviewed the works of the New Atheists and wrote of his envy of their certainty, his attraction to declaring himself an atheist rather than simply an agnostic. In the end, though, he could not join their ranks, because, he said, "I might be wrong." Another prominent scientist writes, "I have wavered between the comfortable certainty of atheism and the gnawing doubts of agnosticism my entire life."
But most believers know uncertainty as well. Billy Graham, an old man near ninety, when asked if he believes that after he dies he will hear God say to him, "Well done, good and faithful servant," pauses and says after a surprising inner struggle, "I hope so." Martin Luther, the champion of justification by faith, was approached for help by an elderly woman troubled by doubt. "Tell me," he asked her, "when you recite the creeds-do you believe them?" "Yes, most certainly." "Then go in peace," the reformer said. "You believe more and better than I do." Elie Wiesel, when asked to describe his faith, uses the adjective wounded. "My tradition teaches that no heart is as whole as a broken heart, and I would say that no faith is as solid as a wounded faith." I believe. And I doubt. The razor's edge runs through me as well.
Sometimes I get frustrated and feel that if I were only smarter I could figure the whole God-issue out beyond doubts. I feel as if I'm back in school taking a math test with the really hard question about one train leaving Cleveland going twenty-five miles an hour and one leaving Pittsburgh doing thirty and when do they pass each other, and that the proof about God has to be out there if I just had more time or could find the right book. I'm tempted to think that doubt is merely a problem of intellect. But making the right choices about faith-like making good choices for life in general-does not seem to rest primarily on IQ. Smart people mess up as easily as the rest of us.
Excerpted from Faith and Doubt by John Ortberg
Copyright © 2008 by John Ortberg. Excerpted by permission.
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