Daniel J. Ritter, Ph.D., is a retired Air Force officer, a retired school teacher, a one-time foreign service officer and a part-time local politician.
Used by permission of the author.
Lost within a constantly shifting boundary between knowledge and faith, the author proposes a flexibility which accommodates reverence in the evolving God of our ancestors and humility before the Power which we infer lies behind Him whom we reverence.
Is it heredity, is it fate, is it the school of hard knocks? Somewhere along the road of life one develops a predisposition to believe or to doubt. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his monumental work Summa Theologia, offered five proofs for the existence, not the nature but the existence, of God: Proof from Efficient Causality, Proof from Contingency, Proof from Grades of Perfection, Proof from Order. These proofs, even in the face of science, can not be dismissed. They are persuasive but they require the "right" disposition. If one is not vigilant, if one does not close one’s ears to the siren’s song, doubt may creep into the mind and heart unannounced. Then the struggle begins. In a strange way it is we, the doubters, who most avidly seek God. The faithful never doubted and the cynical are not looking.
The problem for many of the doubters is the nature of the God in whom we are asked to believe and in the multitudinous ancillary amplifications, i.e, an anthropomorphic god, a biblical god, a vengeful god, a jealous god, a multi-headed god. In this essay I am not going to reject our current perception but I am going to propose an alternative perspective. I am going to affirm my faith in a Supreme Being and acknowledge my total ignorance, my necessary and biologically evident ignorance, as to His nature and purpose. I am also going to propose that regardless of whether God exists in a metaphysical sense, He--or an imaginary construct--exists in a human and real sense. We have found Him in ourselves, in the faith of others, and from the beginning.
Before man sharpened his first flint-stone or stoked his first fire, he sought his first meal and hid from his first enemy. In his weakness, as hunter or prey, he may have commended himself to some greater power. Afterwards, with a full stomach, he may have slept and awakened in the dead of night to contemplate the magnificent star-spangled void above him. A great orb in the east rose to illuminate his little space, whether an oasis, mountain glen or broad savanna and, as it rose, it renewed the life around him. Such overwhelming grandeur must signify something and he, endowed with the capacity to contemplate the heavens and to reap nature’s bounty, must have a part to play. Thus man emerged in the light of time accompanied by emanations. He endowed these emanations with benevolent or malevolent intent and he named them. In his imagination he created a shadow world of gods and goddesses, fairies and goblins. Through poetry and song, through myth and ritual, man sought to manipulate this spirit world.
It was extremely important to do it right. The gods were not lenient. They were a quarrelsome and arbitrary lot. So many prayers or sacrifices went unanswered or worse brought calamity. As the generations passed from bare sustenance to meager surplus, a class of men emerged who were particularly adapt at manipulation of the spirit world. Over time, these men brought all the disparate imaginings of the people into one semi-coherent story, they formalized the ritual and they interposed themselves between the spirits and the common man. With the advent of religions, these men became priests. This is hypothetical anthropology; but, since every culture has its spirits and its priests, it is within the realm of probability. Whether metaphysical forces have any causal relationship to this anthropological hypothesis, and subsequent developments, is a question of faith rather than probabilities.
There can be as many perceptions of the supernatural world as there are human beings. Nevertheless, there seem to be some broad perceptual categories: monotheistic or pantheistic, anthropomorphic, organic, animistic or astronomic, moral, amoral or immoral, benevolent, arbitrary or malevolent, ethnocentric or universal. And sometimes all of the above in great multiplicity. For example, Will Durant cites an official Babylonian census of the 9th century B.C. which enumerated 65,000 gods. (Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, p. 234) Some were just household gods, many were imprisoned in the bodies of animals, mountains, rivers or maybe a single palm tree. Others protected particular towns and villages. Then there were the great gods: Shamash the sun god, Nannar the moon god, Baal the earth god. These then morphed into Ishtar and Marduk. The soul, or the individual spark of life, leapt across all boundaries, manifesting itself in ghosts and goblins, flora and fauna. The Egyptians and Indo-Aryans worshipped a similar menagerie of divine spirits. From the Himalayas to the Andes, from the Baltic Sea to the Indian Ocean, man was surrounded by spirits good and bad. In his imagination he identified these gods and spirits with the accidents of nature and fate. Thus at childbirth he prayed to the household gods, at planting to the god of rain, in war to the god of his village, in death to the spirits of his ancestors, in moments of beauty and reverie, he sensed the company of the gods.
Given the universality of man’s primary needs, these primitive pantheons were universally similar; but, with time, each culture endowed its gods with peculiar characteristics, engaged them in different myths and enlisted them in the realization of their particular needs and aspirations. The various tribes marched to war behind their various gods and, in victory, imposed their gods upon the defeated. Thus on the one hand the number of gods increased with the number of tribes and on the other decreased with the victory of one tribe over others. History and theology marched arm in arm. Many ancient gods, and ancient cultures, died in military defeat. Cyrus of Persia may have been the first to adopt an imperial policy regarding religion. The Greeks and Romans would be equally tolerant of local gods and local customs. In exchange for toleration, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans expected subjugated people to respect the imperial gods. Then, as now, tolerance may have correlated more with an absence of fervor than with a broader more universal perception of God.
In many cultures the Sun was the uncaused cause. Iknothan sought to reorient Egyptian worship in accordance with this austere perception. His idealism was rewarded with military defeat and a short reign. In Babylon a real or imagined Zarathustra proclaimed the supreme moral force of Ahura Mazda, Such a supreme moral force, however, could not meet more immediate needs such as rain, or victory, or good health. Meanwhile, a tribe wandered out of Babylon with a different god. The God of Abraham was supreme but he was also human and he took a special interest in Abraham. Abraham could talk to Him, he could bargain with Him, he could even catch glimpses of Him. Faithful Jews, Christians and Moslems worship this God, or evolved versions thereof, to this day.
As harsh as daily life might be, and it was invariably harsh for all but a very few, it was lightened for the Israelites by the conviction that they were part of some divine plan and that there was one divinity, their God, in charge of it all. Among all the creatures and things of the earth, man was qualitatively and obviously very different. Since man is purpose oriented, since the stimuli we receive invariably elicit some response, existence itself, so it would seem, must have some purpose. With his innate self-absorption, man assumed that he himself was the purpose of all creation. For the Israelites, the primary purpose was the fulfillment of Yahweh’s covenant to raise Israel above all the nations of the world. For Christians, the primary purpose would be redemption and reunion with God in an afterlife.
For thousands of years, these hopes have been sustained by the world’s three monotheistic religions. In fact, they carried the faithful, through revelation and ritual, beyond hope to conviction. Men knew God and knew His purpose. Nothing but the limits of man’s imagination and, of course, mutual animosity, challenged the various metaphysical perceptions. Questions concerning free will, predestination, transubstantiation, grace, the dual nature of Jesus, the Trinity, aroused armies of scholars wielding Biblical citations. In the last few centuries of the Age of Faith, armies inspired by biblical injunctions to kill the heretic, (see Deut. 13: 1-9), marched across Europe to impose this or that expansion of the basic premise. We blame these religious wars upon intolerance, but they were also symptomatic of the gradual loss of papal prestige, a shift in the scope of temporal power and, or course, the early Renaissance.
Then, into the mix of sectarian confusion, Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, et. al., introduced a few fundamentally destabilizing concepts. Science did not offer a different world-view, but it challenged the religious view. Rather than assuming God, accepting scripture and deducing therefrom, science asked questions—not necessarily at random—and sought evidence. Over the last five-hundred years science has found universes far beyond our imagination, it has broken the framework of the Judeo creation myth and traced the evolution of life out of some primordial muck. Suggesting, therefore, that man’s ephemeral presence on this bit of spatial debris is neither consequential nor important. Some of us have ignored this evidence and clung to faith; others, on the basis of the evidence, have renounced God; yet most of us have become schizophrenics. That is, we hang onto our ancestral faith and we celebrate the advance of science. We do not want to admit to ourselves and especially to our children that there is no Santa Claus. So we prevaricate. My purpose here is to escape this lubberland. I propose a flexible approach. One that accommodates reverence for the God of our ancestors—a shadow which we have cast upon the sky--and humility before the Power which we infer lies beyond that which we can not see—the magnificence behind the shadow.
I begin by giving unto science that which belongs to science and unto faith that which belongs to faith. If there is evidence and the evidence tips hypothesis toward fact, give the benefit of doubt to science. Acknowledging, nevertheless, that the scientific method itself is dependent upon faith in the amenability of evidence to scientific inquiry and supposition. If there is evidence and the evidence tips toward faith, give the benefit of doubt to faith. William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience, while not denying scientific evidence, validates the integrity of the religious experience on the basis of the most extreme manifestations of such encounters. He is not distracted by suspicions of neurosis, psychosis or malnutrition but focuses on the fruits of the religious experience. If St. Paul’s epiphany on the road to Damascus bore good fruit, then St. Paul within the confines of his own being was in the presence of God. In the course of time there have been many such God possessed men and women, and these moments of divine communion have been real within the context of the individual experience. Unlike scientific experiments, these experiences can not be replicated. They accumulate, however, and give testimony to the presence of God in the hearts and minds of men and women. This understanding of God, which has accumulated through man, I call the God of Man.
Between scientific experimentation and personal revelation there is a great void. In this void there is room for a power beyond our cognizance. Science, as it penetrates the unknown, seems to raise more questions than it answers. Although science refutes many biblical and/or theological details, it can not replace the overall vision with anything approaching the fullness and satisfaction of the ancient faith. Only faith, a human construct, conforms to the mind of man. At the most basic level, human appetites impose some direction toward fulfillment upon our mental processes. Thus, we are hard-wired for expectancy. This may be the ultimate scientific proof of the validity of faith within, not necessarily without, the human context. However, let us be careful here, let us not construct castles in the air. A power or a God may infuse this vast unknown; but, beyond suspicion we can not go.
Language itself is a barrier. We have all seen thunderstorms. They attack the senses from all directions and in many ways; they have natural effects far beyond our perception and they defy description. Our words do not encompass the overwhelming enormity and impact of a thunderstorm. Much less can our words encompass the overwhelming enormity and impact of a supreme, unique, universal and unknown power. Nevertheless, in so far as we perceive the effects of such power, we can infer—within the limitations of language—some of its necessary attributes. For this purpose I quote John Henry, Cardinal, Newman. "…I speak then of the God of the theist and of the Christian: a God who is numerically One, Who is Personal; the Author, Sustainer and Finisher of all things, the Life of Law and Order, the Moral Governor; One Who is Supreme and Sole; like Himself, unlike all things besides Himself which are all but His creatures; distinct from, independent of them all; One Who is self-existing, absolutely infinite, Who has ever been and ever will be, to Whom nothing is past or future, Who is all perfection, and the fullness and archetype of every possible excellence. The Truth itself, Wisdom, Love, Holiness; One Who is all powerful, All-knowing, Omnipresent, Incomprehensible." (See "A grammar of Assent", Image Books, 1955; p. 95) Significantly, I think, the citation ends with "incomprehensible". Upon such an inference, minus much biblical baggage, I accept Pascal’s wager but at even odds.
Blas Pascal, an illustrious French mathematician and philosopher, was a believer; and, in "Provincial Letters", he argued persuasively in defense of his faith against the onslaught of the Enlightenment. However, for those who could not be persuaded either on the basis of revelation, scripture or logic he offered an irresistible wager: either God exists and eternity awaits us or God does not exist and this is the only life we will ever know. Do you want to bet and what odds do you want? If you choose God and you win, your gain is immeasurable; and, if you choose God and you lose, what do you lose? Well, it depends on how serious was your bet and how sincere your faith. If your faith was sincere, any privation whether ultimately rewarded or not, even martyrdom, might be borne in joy. If your faith was not so robust, yet you restrained your natural impulses and raised your bet at every opportunity, you deprived yourself of a life of debauchery and immorality. If you do not choose God, you may win and enjoy a life of wine, women and song without remorse; but, if you lose, your loss is immeasurable. Thus the odds on a bet for faith are, according to Pascal, irresistibly favorable. Whether God on Judgement Day would welcome such a punter is, of course, outside the scope of the wager.
This concern is also outside the scope of my wager. I am betting even odds. The odds are even because I do not expect to be rewarded, if I win, with eternal life. (I don’t reject a divine purpose, I just don’t expect it to involve me personally.) Aside from the purely physical difficulties which come to mind regarding Heaven and Hell, aside from the theological difficulties implicit in Hell, I have enormous difficulty imagining what I would do and who I would be. As a good Moslem, and male chauvinist, I might enjoy a harem—if I am reincarnated before wisdom moderates imagination; but, as a Christian, I can not see myself playing the harp endlessly or simply absorbing the effulgence of God’s presence. How old will I be, how smart, how will I look, will everybody look the same, will I eat well or even eat, will all my friends and family be with me, what will we do? Admittedly, these questions reflect a very limited spiritual aptitude; but they also suggest that whether or not there is some spiritual existence after death, it will have absolutely nothing to do with life as we know it here and now.
Having reduced my perception of God and his purpose to the bare essence without any theosophical definition and having renounced any expectation of an eternal reward with any connection to my current mode of existence, is my affirmation of a supreme being and a supreme purpose meaningful? Does it recapture the "fullness and satisfaction of the ancient faith"? No, it does not. It is tentative, it lacks passion and it is lonely. At best it is way-station, a place between inanity and possibility. It is, however, reinforced by reverence for my ancestral faith. Furthermore, in so far as our tranquility and self-esteem require some connection to a divine purpose, this bare essence affirmation plus reverence does preserve some pragmatic advantages.
Religious pragmatism may not be inspirational but it has a long and useful history. The Code of Hamurrabi, carved upon a diorite cylinder sometime between 2123 and 2081 B.C., shows Hamurrabi receiving the laws from Shamash, the Babylonian sun god. Moses, so the Old Testament says, received his laws direct from Yahweh. It is unclear how much was engraved upon the tablets and how much was simply dictated to him; but, in any event, all the laws, all the ritual and the various sacrificial offerings, all the directions for the construction of the Tabernacle and the fabrication of the vestments and adornments originated with Yahweh. All this has been further sanctified by time and amplified by so-called oral law transmitted through generations of rabbis and elders. Just as there are traces of the Code of Hamurrabi in Leviticus, etc., there are traces of Leviticus in current civil and criminal law. The founding fathers of our republic were for the most part God-fearing men, or at least Masons,. They assumed a divine benevolence and purpose. In short, our commitment to charity, our respect for the law, our sensual restraint, our social contract come to us across the generations, imbued and fortified by the faith of our fathers.
This allusion to the past brings me to the bridge from vague affirmation to reverence for a faith which we have built concept by concept over milenia. The God we have known is our God, we have created Him. He is alive and He is in our image, His purpose is our purpose. (I use the masculine singular pronoun out of respect for convention. My conception of God would best be captured by the pronoun "it". Although fashionable among the cultural arbiters of our time, such a genderless pronoun would, however, be unnecessarily offensive to the great majority.) Whether the God we have created relates in any way to the God that Cardinal Newman infers, or whether Newman’s inference is itself insubstantial, is unknown to us. Our God, in His numerous manifestations mentioned above, is our greatest achievement. To deny such a god would be to deny the essence of who we are. Our task then is to consolidate this achievement and to continue to build upon it.
Let us recapitulate. We have confounded the God of our ancestors with an unknown power way beyond the reach of our imagination. In other words, we have approached God on two separate paths—one toward the God we know and one toward the God we do not know. We have affirmed our reverence for the God of our ancestors and opened our hearts and minds to the possibility of a supreme being way beyond our reach. Crossing the bridge towards reverence, we must recognize how far we are going and how far we are not going. The God I reverence, I do not say proclaim or affirm, conforms to a Catholic perception of divinity. The God you reverence may conform to a Methodist perception or He may well be the God of Judaism, the God of Islam or a pantheon of Hindu gods. The important point, the one that unites us all, is that we reverence the God of our forefathers, our cultural construct of God and we acknowledge that a god beyond these cultural constructs lies beyond the reach of any of us.
Is the god I reverence overly encumbered by Catholic dogma? Catholic dogma is not as dogmatic as we may think. The God of my old Baltimore catechism ruled Heaven, Hell, Limbo and Purgatory. According to Sr. Marie Estelle, only good Catholics—with the possible exception of good people who had heard absolutely nothing about Jesus—went to Heaven. God had a merit system based on good works and indulgences. He had very strong views regarding right and wrong behavior. He had incarnated Himself in Jesus to redeem mankind and he had perpetuated His presence through the Holy Spirit to guide His Church. Although less so than Protestant churches, the Church took a fairly literal view of the Old Testament. I could go on but this is enough to suggest the extent to which the Catholic Church, often misperceived as the most authoritarian of Christian churches, has evolved over the last 60 years. Today one hears almost nothing of Hell, Purgatory and Limbo. The Church expects all people of good will, through the grace of God, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church still defines and denounces sin but it does so far less definitively and less rigorously. Within the Church, between the schools of theology and the laity, there is a broad range of views. For example, John L. McKenzie,S.J., sees the Old Testament as a mythological hypothesis, deductively determined based upon the state of knowledge two or three thousand years ago.
Paradoxically, this most hierarchical of churches nurtures vigorous theological debate. At the same time it proclaims the inviolability of its doctrine. A quotation from Karl Rahner, S.J., an observer at Vatican II and an influential theologian, may help to unravel the paradox. "In these (new mission fields and changing social structures) and other respects even the Church’s unchanging dogma can have a history and can change in spite of its immutability. It cannot change backward, it cannot be abolished. But it can change forward in the direction of the fullness of its meaning and unity with the one faith in its totality and its authentic grounds." (See The Christian of the Future, at Religion-online.org) Fr. Rahner suggests recent amplifications and clarifications regarding the doctrine of papal infallibility as an example of such change. The point, for me, is that the Church can and does adapt. It is not locked to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Yet, through the pope and church councils, it retains an anchor to windward. This anchor bothers some but consoles many more.
In previous paragraphs I suggested the evolutionary nature of Church doctrine. Such evolution does not change the fundamental features of the Catholic faith. Jesus remains the primary focus of our worship. Through His death we have been redeemed. Only a priest can change simple bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Through communion we become the body of Christ and through His Church, His instruments on earth. The Holy Spirit guards the Church from error in that which defines doctrine concerning faith and morals. Reverence for the Virgin Mary imbues the church with maternal love. Regardless of our sins, Mary will hear our prayers and intercede for us. The faithful will enjoy life everlasting.
Right here, for me, is a stumbling stone. Belief in life everlasting lurks behind all the other beliefs. It is the quid pro quo of faith. Without this hope, so say some, what is the point? The point is the difference between nihilism and optimism. Faith in a supreme being and in a supreme purpose, although vague, is not without hope. Reverence for the name of Jesus, for His mother Mary and for the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church unites one with the past and the future in the hope of some ultimate fulfillment. Is this enough to sustain a spiritual life in the Church? I think so. I can contemplate the beauty through which man expresses his faith. I can receive communion and unite with the body of Jesus on earth. Prayer is more problematic. It fulfills a deep need in times of crisis and distress. However, the assumption that the supreme power of which we have spoken, as distinct from our cultural construct, has an immediate interest in each of us personally, that He is prepared to tweak the divine plan upon our supplication, is an assumption I can not make. The best that I can do is celebrate, and seek to harmonize with, the manifest glory of God.
What are the options? One could pursue a spiritual life outside of any organized church; but, given that my spiritual commitment is based on reverence for a specific religious heritage, such lonliness would be unsustainable. One could transfer one’s allegiance to science and deposit one’s faith in "progress"; but that would impose faithful adherence to the dictates of science, such as the doctrine of natural selection. Moral restraint could only be introduced outside of science and outside the fortress of the ancient faith. Thus the third option, faith in the perfectibility of man, the wellspring of such ideologies as fascism and communism. No, I prefer to stumble along within the framework of my religious heritage—a heritage that goes back to the dawn of man.
One final thought. The God we revere has not been the same over time nor is He the same now from place to place. The God whom the Christians of sixteenth century Spain worshipped is not exactly the same as the God that the Christians of second century Egypt worshipped. The God of the Jews of today is not exactly the same as the God of modern Moslems. Thus the God of our fathers differs as do our fathers. However, we are equally ignorant concerning the God who lies behind that which we can not see, the One who lies outside of our myths and rituals. Perceiving as we do the same natural phenomena, we could all probably infer the same or similar attributes as does Cardinal Newman and ascribe them to this God that our imaginations can not encompass. Might it be, in the fullness of time, we will all revere the same God and that He, whom we perceive so dimly, will turn out to be the shadow of Him who lies beyond our reach. Probably too marvelous to be true. But possible.