Faith is validated by hope, not certainty

January 15, 2009 

Q: I was raised in a Roman Catholic household, went to a Catholic high school and college, and took electives in theology above and beyond the required one course per year. I was pretty involved personally in being a person of faith.

Then, one day, my physics professor, a nun with a doctorate, said to me, casually: "Why are we the One True Church if there are 2 billion Chinese who are Buddhists or something else? It seems ridiculous that these people don't have a knowledge of the word of God as much as we do!"

For some reason, her comment was like striking the fault or crack on a rock, and my belief in a personal God completely fell apart. I haven't been able to get it back for 40 years. I stopped practicing as a Catholic. I dated guys from MIT, as my college was also in Boston, and they just confirmed my suspicion that there is no God. Most were atheists.

Despite my change of heart on faith, I do have a deep fear of what will happen after I die if I don't live a moral life. For my entire life I have done a lot to help others as a volunteer and with money, and I chose a relatively low-paying helping profession.

While I no longer believe in the existence of God, I do pray on rare occasions. If I'm walking by my local parish church, I go in and kneel down to pray for deceased family members. I do this only out of a hope that there is something there -- some kind of God. I suspect that I also do it out of a need for self-comfort.

Since I have serious doubts about the existence of a God who actually knows about me as a person, I feel it's stupid to waste time going to church, praying, or being involved in spiritual practices. Furthermore, I feel that if there is a God after all, and if He is loving, He will understand and accept why I don't practice any religion or pray. He will realize that I'm doing what I think I must, and what I think is best.

I do have faith in this: If, despite my lack of faith and prayer, there is a God, I will be reunited with Him anyway one day because I did live a life in which I attempted to be kind, fair and decent to others as best I could. OK, that's it. -- M., via Wow! Don't you have any questions about recipes for Advent or Lent?

OK, let's start examining the journey to faith not by examining the answers you expect to get but by examining the questions that you have.

I like the nun's question, however heretical it is to Catholic theology. However, I'm confused by your reaction to her comment. If she is right, God still exists. What falls is not God but only the highly exclusivist theological claim (not even held by all Catholics) that only Catholicism is true.

You could still have a faith in a God who shares some of the truth with all faiths (my view). But for some reason what fell for you was the whole architecture of your faith. Personally I blame it on dating those MIT guys! I'm serious.

Some people lose faith because they look for a proof for faith that is like a proof for a mathematical theory. They want something validated by reason alone. Faith is validated by hope alone. Of course, it is true that some of the teachings of faith are validated by hope and reason. Thou shalt not murder or steal, etc., are rationally true, as well as being articles of faith.

You've discovered this yourself when you drop into a church occasionally to pray: You do so "out of a hope that there is something there -- some kind of God" and "out of a need for self-comfort." That's why we all do it. We do it to act on our hope, to express our hope, to act out our hope.

We are making truth claims when we pray, but they are not mathematical truth claims. They are claims about the meaning of life and the possibility that death is not the end of us. This would be, as atheists claim, just pathetic self-delusion about the ultimate truth of human finitude unless there actually is something waiting for us beyond the grave -- something so fine and loving and comforting and hopeful and just and forgiving that it will embrace us and those we have loved for all eternity.

In those days, I will look for you, and for that nun who taught you physics and gave you just a little detour to the truth.

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