On another forum, someone posted this challenge: “Why do you believe in God? … Go ahead. Tell us all why you believe in a God.” I am not sure if this individual was seeking a serious answer but I have decided to write one. What better time than New Year’s Day to review the basis for one’s life commitment?
My belief in God – or perhaps better said, my relationship with God – has gone through many stages and much growth throughout my life and thus the answer to this question is not as simple as it might seem.
The best analogy I can give, though it is inevitably inadequate, would be if someone were to ask you why you loved a particular person in your life (parent, spouse, child). How could you possibly answer? You might try begin by listing the things they had done for you, their fine traits, the experiences you shared – but the response would always fall short of the lived reality of loving them.
The reader might protest at this point that I wasn’t asked why I loved but why I believed. While one who has not had this experience may well assume that belief in God can be summed up by a simple intellectual argument, it cannot be that for me. To me it is a living thing, a relationship. It requires the assent of my intellect but that is only the beginning.
I will come back to this assent in a moment. But first I think it is important to acknowledge that the limited human mind cannot begin to comprehend a God so immensely powerful as to create the universe. Such a God would be unknowable to my mind if He did not want to be known.
That being said, if I believe in Him, if I have come to know Him even a little bit, it is because He has wanted it to be so. It is only through the synergy of my limited human efforts and His revelation of His unknowable self that I can believe. It is not something I can do on my own, unless I just make up stories – something I have never been willing to do.
Now, back to the story of my own belief. When I was a young child, I believed because I was taught religious beliefs by my parents and teachers. I had the faith of a child. There was nothing wrong with that because I was a child. I experienced some profound moments in this faith but it was not enough to sustain me as I got older and began asking deeper questions about life.
“What is the meaning of life?” That was the primary one that hit me as an adolescent, some 45 years ago. “Is there really a God?” followed close behind.
Referring to the “assent” of my mind means that whatever conclusion I drew had to be something that passed the test of intellectual scrutiny. In other words, I wasn’t going to accept something as true simply because it had been taught to me or because it relieved my existential anxiety.
I had to accept God as an intellectually valid possibility – if not probability. While that didn’t make His existence true, it gave me a starting place – to either reject the notion of God or to explore more deeply His possibility.
My high school and early college education gave me a good foundation in the science of genetics and evolutionary theory and, unlike some, I did not find this disruptive to the possibility of God. Probably more difficult for me was comprehending Being on that level – Being that I could not see, Being so vastly beyond my understanding.
If such Being was, how could I know if it did or did not exist? I had no problem with God using evolution to create. The question that nagged me more was whether evolution could bring about the universe in its complexity without there being a God.
This latter, godless scenario, seemed to have two basic holes in it with which I struggled. First was the question of what matter was and from what it originated. Whether the universe Big Banged (or any other theory), how could anything come to be out of nothing? Or how could matter always exist if existing in time? (Yet my mind also wrestled with a similar difficulty in terms of God: how could any Being be eternal?) Both questions have to, in some sense, be accepted as unfathomable to the human mind.
The second “hole” in the godless scenario, for my then 20 year old mind, was the question of consciousness. I found it nearly impossible to conceive of matter, regardless of how it mutated and naturally selected, endowing itself with consciousness. It seemed to me that there needed to be a Source of consciousness that was Itself conscious. This led my mind to its assent to the probability of a God, a Being of higher consciousness, the Source of consciousness.
In the 40 years since I had those thoughts, I have, of course, learned a lot more about the brain and its development and might offer some argument to my younger self. I might ask the question: is consciousness anything more than a highly developed brain, with its frontal lobes and other fancy parts that enable it to think higher thoughts? Evolution could perhaps develop that, given enough time.
However, my 40 years since have also exposed me to a lot of other knowledge and experience that suggests quite strongly to me the probability that human consciousness and its experiences are not solely bound to functioning brain cells.
If consciousness and human “experience” do transcend the biological function of the brain, this would bolster the argument for the God possibility. If we are more than our physical selves, where else could our “spiritual” consciousness come from but from a higher Consciousness?
I’m back. I had to take a little break. I realize that this discussion may not be convincing to anyone but me – but the question was why I believe. I cannot answer why anyone else believes or tell anyone why they should believe.
But as I alluded to earlier, this intellectual assent was really only the beginning. To accept the possibility or probability of a God is not a life-changing experience. Okay, so there may be one. This is really barely a step beyond agnosticism in that it doesn’t claim any particular God nor does it establish any meaningful relationship.
As some of my long-time readers may recall, it was at this stage in my life, this stage of assent, that I prayed into the seeming nothingness, “God, if you exist, help me to know you.”
On the one hand, this was a totally logical thing to do. If there is a God and I want to know Him but cannot do so of my own powers, I should ask to know Him. See if anything happens.
On the other hand, it may seem to be a totally irrational act. If God is the creator of all of the universe – all of the people on earth and possibly intelligent life on other planets in other galaxies – how could my little prayer possibly be heard or make a difference?
That is one of the many obstacles that I have had to work my way through on this believing journey. Though it still feels intuitively “wrong” to me, I have accepted that vastness, i.e. infinity of Being, works both ways: taking in both the majestic grandeur of the billions of stars and the tiniest of subatomic particles. I cannot be too small for God.
This next stage of believing would take an entire book – or more – to try to summarize. And then I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to tell it well.
A simple answer, though surely unsatisfying to the unbeliever, is that God responded to that prayer and has helped me to know Him.
I have been blessed to know some of the most loving and wonderful people who have helped me see God in human form. Of course, I believe that only Christ was truly God in human form. But some of His followers have imitated Him very well.
People have come into my life when I desperately needed them and loved me in ways that I could not have possibly deserved. I have come across websites and books that I was not looking for that have led me to know God at deeper and deeper levels.
“Websites?” you scoff. Well, yes. I was rather surprised by it myself. It is not that I think that God zooms down from the sky and manipulates the Internet. But I have seen how thoughts have come into my mind, I have done a search looking for one thing, stumbled upon another – and had my life changed.
It is really not a great deal different than taking a stroll and, much to one’s surprise, taking up conversation with a stranger over some incidental thing and finding that they have much to say to your benefit. Only very few people do that sort of thing any more.
I believe because I have experienced God answering my prayers. Often nonbelievers (and sometimes we believers too) can be skeptical of this. “Probably just a coincidence.” Yet I have found that the most astounding examples of this, the most rapidly answered prayers, were the ones that were most for my good and perhaps the least desired by me.
For example, in more recent years, I prayed that God would help me see my sinfulness. It was something that I thought I should have a better look at but I cannot say that I was anxious for a result. Wham, bang! There it was – and it surprised the heck out of me. I had thought I was a pretty good person.
There is wisdom to that saying, “Be careful what you pray for.” 🙂 In actuality, I am quite glad for the prayer and the response because I am learning so much. I am learning about my faults and seeing how much more work I have to do to move toward my soul’s desire – union with God.
So, as useless as this is as an argument, I must say that the primary reason I believe in God is because I know Him, I experience Him – and have for decades. Or, as the song lyrics by Don Gibson say, “My God is real for I can feel him in my soul.” (The Blind Boys of Alabama do an extraordinarily soulful version of this song.)
I acknowledge the possibility that I could be wrong. I might come to the end and find that there is no God and that I have lived a massive delusion my whole life long.
Should that be the case, I will have passed my existence believing that I was unconditionally loved, forgiven and healed. I will have lived my life with a spirit of hope and generosity, striving to love others in the same way that I believed I was loved. And I will have experienced and shared a boundless joy that emerged from some mysterious place within me that could never be explained.
I can think of no better way to live. So be it.
Very helpful, Mary. It is a mystery how this came right at a time when I needed to hear a balanced discussion of faith. Your story, which mirrors my own in many ways, is presented clearly and with just the right amount of details. I am blessed to have the opportunity to read your writings. They are encouraging. I always feel stronger, and plan to reread. Prayers and Thanksgiving from here,
“It is a mystery how this came right at a time…” And it is this Mystery that I have come to believe is the loving plan of God. Once or twice or three times, it’s a coincidence. When it keeps happening throughout my life, not just the weaving of a single melody for me, but the creation of an entire symphony that I witness in the crowds around me, I am struck with awe. For every bit of divine orchestration that I witness in the course of my life, there are doubtless infinite strands of music and color blending together in other lives and times and places – and I never even know of these. How great and glorious is He.