Between talking to my child and reading about a friends’ child, left me wondering whether it’s enough to believe in God without God also believing in you.
For many decades, I’ve counted among my friends a married couple made up of two of the nicest, most decent people in the world. It’s been decades since we lived in the same place, so we’ve kept up through Christmas cards, emails, and social media. From the outside looking in, their life has been lovely — he’s been a good earner, she’s been a stay-at-home Mom; theirs is a truly happy marriage of equals; and they have two beautiful children, both of whom did well in school and went on to successful post-graduate careers. It is a picture anyone would envy.
And yet, things aren’t always what they seem. Their daughter shared what was, for me, a very surprising message that I caught up with through social media: This beautiful child had been assaulted at a party in high school, leaving her feeling worthless and self-destructive. She suffered inside for many years before she found her way through to happiness again.
What surprised me was what the young woman said about her relationship with God as it related to her becoming emotionally whole again. To appreciate what I’m going to say, you have to understand that my perspective is that of a person who was an atheist who has gradually worked her way to being a deist. I don’t have a specific image of “God,” nor do I have a doctrinal tilt, although culturally and genetically, I’m Jewish. I simply believe that our world, from earth to the outer reaches of the universe, is too mysterious, magical, and well-organized to be some grand cosmic accident.
My friends’ daughter, however, grew up in a religious home and has always believed in God. What left her so terribly adrift was her sense that God didn’t believe in her. He existed, yes, but in much the way I, a deist by dint of rather hard work, imagine this mysterious, ineffable deity exists — as something infinitely far away that has the same awareness of us as we do of the ants in our garden. It was only when this young woman became involved in a very specific youth Christian movement that she was able to understand the Christian concept of God’s specific love for her. And for her, that brought healing.
I’m not questioning what my friends’ daughter needed and found to be whole again. I raise it here because it made me wonder about the nature of faith and people’s relationship to their God.
Coincidentally, just yesterday I was talking to one of my Little Bookworms who is a rather strident atheist. It was funny to hear from him the same points I once advanced when I was his age, back in high school and have now mostly abandoned. According to Little Bookworm — and he knows this is true, because he’s seen YouTube videos advancing this claim — the only reason people believe in God is because they fear death.
I agreed with him that the ultimate mystery that is death is probably a good reason for people to believe that there is more out there than we can discover with our five senses. No, he said, that’s just foolishness. There is no God and fearing death is a bad reason to pretend there is. Well, I guess when you’re young and healthy, fearing death isn’t high on the list of motivators. That certainly changes with age.
Trying a different tack, I pointed out two things: My first point was that humans, at all times, in all places have constructed religious beliefs, which indicates we’re hard-wired for them. Was it possible, I asked, that a creator hard-wired us to recognize the creator’s existence? No, he was pretty sure that wasn’t the case.
I went for my final argument, which is that studies fairly consistently show that people who believe in God, at least the Judeo-Christian God, are happier than atheists. Humans, I suggested, do best when they feel that life has meaning and that they’re not just animals spinning their wheels for some indeterminate reason. The great virtue of our Judeo-Christian tradition means that each human life has value.
Little Bookworm wasn’t convinced and I’m pretty sure I didn’t do the best job of convincing him. At the end, I fell back on my old stand-by, which is that, whether or not one believes in God, the Judeo-Christian precepts for life have proven to be incredibly successful when it comes to developing functional societies and enabling humans to rub along together without constantly killing each other. (If I could have, I would have made him watch Dennis Prager’s wonderful series on the Ten Commandments.)
It occurred to me, though, after reading about my friends’ daughter, that I may have missed a more important argument than just the fact that human life has value. What my friends’ daughter needed to learn to recover her lost sense of self wasn’t just that her life had value in the abstract, but that her life specifically had value to God. If the God in whom she believes values her, she can certainly — indeed, she must — value herself. Anything less is a rejection of what God is. Otherwise, she’s just like me, believing herself to be as meaningless as an ant in God’s garden.
Most of the time, I’m content to be an ant in God’s garden. I find meaning in raising my children, exercising my intellect, valuing the many blessings in my life, appreciating the beautiful mysteries of the world, and trying not to make the world a worse place. (For me, making the world a better place is mostly too big an order; but not making it worse — that I can handle.)
Certainly, this is a less challenging view of a deity than one that demands attention run two ways — not just from me to Him, but from Him to me. I don’t say that just because my conduct wouldn’t always live up to godly scrutiny. It’s also less challenging because I don’t have to try to make sense of why terrible things happen in God’s garden. If there is a loving deity, why Auschwitz? Why ISIS? Why North Korea? It’s easier to think that a Being made the garden and all its life, and then wandered away to take care of other matters.
Still, the downside of my “watchmaker” approach (God created the universe, wound it up, and then sat back) is that each of us is ultimately alone in the universe. My friends’ daughter may have to struggle with the mysteries of Auschwitz and ISIS, but at least she knows that she matters.
Photo Credit: Milky Way Bulge, from the Hubble Telescope, January, 11, 2018.