James Martin, S.J.: ‘Does God exist?’ and other FAQs about faith and religion
This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.
When I asked a Jesuit friend who has worked for decades with high school students what are the most Frequently Asked Question (FAQs) asked by young people about faith, he said, “Who cares?” And I said, “What?” He laughed and said, “Oh, sorry, I’m not saying that to you! I’m saying that for many young people faith and religion are irrelevant. So the main question is not about some issue about Catholicism, but the whole idea.”
Many young people don’t think about God and don’t pay attention to religion. And when they do pay attention it’s to say how terrible religious people are: narrow-minded, misogynistic, homophobic and so on. So for this essay I spoke with friends who work with young people, and young people themselves, to get the hardest questions. I have come up with seven, some asked by people who aren’t sure about faith, some by those not sure about religion and others who are believers but struggling how to believe and how to belong to a church. Here they are.
1. Who cares? Why care about faith? Why care about God?
The other day I was on vacation with some Jesuit friends and I was walking on the beach. There I was, in a beautiful setting and feeling really happy. Suddenly I started to wonder: Is that all there is? From time to time, we all feel a persistent longing, a need for something more. Part of that we might chalk up to greed, as in, “I want to have even more than I have now.” But it’s also deeper. It’s a longing to know what the point of it all is.
I spoke with friends who work with young people, and young people themselves, to get the hardest questions.
That longing is something that even your disbelieving, agnostic or atheist friends may admit to feeling. They wonder from time to time, to quote an old 1960s song: “Is that all there is?” Or, “What’s the meaning of life?”
Why do even atheists and agnostics feel this? Where does that longing come from?
The best answer is from St. Augustine, who said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.” That longing, that desire for more, that quest for completion, is our desire for God. And this, crucially, is also one way that God calls us. That’s one thing that I find helpful to ask people: Did you ever think that the desire to know more, to understand more, to be more, to live more fully, is a longing for God?
How else would God call to us other than to place that longing within us? A few years ago on the wall of a retreat house I saw a plaque that said, “That which you seek is seeking you.” So one answer to the first question: Who cares?” is “You do, if you’re honest with yourself.” And God cares too, because the desire you feel for completion, for satisfaction, for fulfillment, is your desire for God, and your desire for God is, again, God’s desire for you.
2. Does God exist?
If we’re going to talk about FAQs we have to talk about the F-est of the Qs: Does God exist? Of course there is no completely satisfactory answer, no airtight proof for the existence of God. Saints, theologians and other thinkers have wrestled with this question for years. If there were an airtight proof, everyone would believe.
Let me share how I answer that question when I’m asked. If a person is open to philosophizing or theologizing, I often pose the question that stopped me in my tracks during my philosophy studies: Why is there something rather than nothing at all? That usually makes people think. Then you can ask, à la Aristotle: Didn’t something have to start all this? Even if you believe in the Big Bang,, when unimaginably dense matter exploded into the universe, you have to ask: Where did that unimaginably dense matter come from? The human mind, which naturally understands cause and effect, is often teased into active thought by that question. There has to be, to paraphrase Aristotle, an “uncaused cause.”
Then I might try some St. Thomas Aquinas, who is borrowing from Aristotle, with his “argument from design.” If you were walking on the beach and found a wristwatch, you would assume that someone made it. Just so, if you look at the complexity of the universe, you assume a maker. Now you could say that the world and the universe are all the result of random probabilities, but if you see a seagull soaring over the ocean, as I did the other day, to me, it points to some sort of creative intent.
Most people aren’t convinced by philosophical arguments. So I try to start somewhere else: their experience.
But most people aren’t convinced by philosophical arguments. So I try to start somewhere else: their experience.
I start by asking if they’ve ever had an experience that seemed to come from outside of themselves. Something that surprised them with a deep emotion or wonder or awe. And most people, if the question is asked in an inviting way, say yes. One young man, an actor, told me that he had an experience of feeling that he was in the right place, the right life and the right profession, as the sun shone down on him one day in London. He said, again as people often do, that it was coming from outside himself. So I said, “You’ve wondered about God. Did you ever stop to think that this was God’s way of reaching out to you?”
That began his journey to faith.
For me, then, one helpful way to answer this question is to help the person see where God has already encountered them. Evangelization, then, is often less about bringing God to other people, which is certainly necessary at times, but more about helping people see where God already is in their lives.
3. Why do I need religion at all?
At this point someone might say, “Well, O.K., so maybe I believe in God. But can’t I be happy without religion? I mean, what’s the point? Who needs all those rules? I can get support from all sorts of places outside of religion. So who needs it?”
The answer is yes, you can be happy without religion. I’m sure you know many people who might believe in God, but have zero interest in going to any sort of church service, much less be baptized.
So why do you need religion? Here I would like to distinguish between faith and religion. Faith is belief in God. Religion is believing in God as part of a community, with other people—believing together, worshiping together and journeying together.
Now a lot of people prefer that it just be “God and me.” And there is a certain appeal to that. It’s important to have a personal relationship with God and to explore that in depth. That’s what a lot of Jesuit spirituality is about: how to experience a one-on-one relationship with God.
A lot of people prefer that it just be “God and me.” And there is a certain appeal to that.
But there’s a problem: As social animals we naturally want to be with other people, even if it’s difficult. That’s one reason that Jesus called a group of disciples together: not only for his own friendship but because he knew that the disciples would need one other.
Even if you look at something as simple as concerts or sporting events, you can see that we’re drawn to be together. It’s great to listen to music on your own, but isn’t it different when you’re at a concert with friends? It’s nice to celebrate your birthday by yourself, but isn’t it nicer with friends and family? We’re social animals. I mean here you are at World Youth Day! You could have stayed home, right, and just watched it streaming, right? So “God and me” denies the reality of community.
To paraphrase the American priest Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, religion helps you to connect but also to “correct.” Or rather be corrected. Because if it’s just you and God then there is no one to challenge you. Let’s say, for example, you’ve decided that it’s O.K. just to ignore poor people. You figure, as one character says in E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End, “The poor are the poor. One is sorry for them, but there it is.” And that’s the end of that.
Religion will help correct you in that. You have a whole tradition that pushes up against that. Not only of Jesus explicitly telling us to help the poor in the Gospels (Matthew 25 most bluntly) but also the tradition of Catholic social teaching and, more broadly, the Christian legacy of social justice. Or, before that, the Jewish tradition of caring for the widow and the orphan. Put more positively, religion helps you to understand more about God. Because God isn’t just at work in you: God is at work in the community, as we Catholics say, the people of God.
To paraphrase the American priest Isaac Hecker, religion helps you to connect but also to “correct.”
Here’s another way to look at the need for community. I have led several pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and we visit all the sites where Jesus was born, lived, preached, healed, died and rose from the dead. It’s amazing—life-changing really—to see places that Jesus himself saw. And at the end of each day, we have what we call “faith sharing,” where I ask people to describe something meaningful, interesting or significant that has happened to them in the day. And the amazing thing is that people’s reactions vary widely.One person will find sunrise on the Sea of Galilee a deeply moving experience; another might say, “Meh.” And here you see how the Spirit is at work in different ways.
The Holy Spirit meets people where they are, and different things touch different people. But if it’s just you and God and you’re not in a community, then you miss out on all those different ways! You miss out on connecting with the faith lives of others and you miss out on seeing God in unfamiliar ways, and, therefore, you miss out on connecting with God in new ways.
So the community, also known as religion, helps to correct us and connect us. More basically, without religion you’re missing something fundamental about God himself, or Godself, who is, you could say, a community. The Trinity is a community of love, each relating to one another. So without community you’re not really encountering God.
4. Aren’t all religions the same?
So maybe you say: “O.K., I guess it makes sense to join a community, but why would I want to join yours? Aren’t they all the same anyway? Does it matter what I believe?”
And here, as much as I am all in favor of interfaith relations and ecumenism, I would say that it does matter. Let’s start with Christianity.
What’s the difference? Well, to begin with, unlike other world religions, Christians have a specific idea of God. We see God as a personal God. It is a God who takes an interest in what we call “salvation history.” In St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, a four-week retreat where we meditate on the life of Christ, Ignatius invites us to start at the beginning of Jesus’ life. The very beginning: he asks us to imagine the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—looking down on the earth and seeing everyone’s needs. Ignatius asks us to imagine the Trinity looking at some people being born, others dying, others being sick, others well, people laughing and crying, but people, overall, in need of help. And the Trinity decides to send the Second Person, Jesus Christ, to join us.
Unlike other world religions, Christians have a specific idea of God. We see God as a personal God.
When you visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, you have to enter through a rather strange opening. Originally, the entrance was huge, so large that people could ride horses into it. Then because of subsequent invasions, in order to make it more difficult to enter, the doorway was blocked off, and today it’s only about four feet high, and you have to crouch or kneel to enter. So the name of the entrance is the Door of Humility.
Now that door is usually seen as relating to our humility, but I also think of God’s humility, choosing to become human, choosing to become one of us, so much did God love us. This then, is not some apathetic, distant God.
So now we finally come to Jesus, because in the end, the Christian religion is not a series of rules and regulations, or philosophical or theological propositions, and certainly not about an argument with another religion about which one is better. No, it’s about a person: Jesus. It’s important to have rules and regulations—any human organization needs them to exist. Have any of you ever lived in a house off campus without rules? Even World Youth Day has some rules. More importantly, we need a moral code to live by. But, in the end, our faith is not about a series of laws, it’s about an encounter with a person: Jesus Christ. We are invited to come to know him, to let him know us and to follow him. Not just worship him, by the way, which he never says. More basically, to follow him.
5. Who is Jesus?
What most people say is: “Well, okay, I admire Jesus as a human being. Being so charitable and all that. But I have a hard time with him being the Son of God and all that. In other words, what does it mean for him to be fully human and fully divine? How does that work?”
The first time I was in the Holy Land, to research for a book, one of my goals was to see one special place. When I was a Jesuit novice I had read about a place called the Bay of Parables, where Jesus got into a boat on the shoreline, pushed out into the Sea of Galilee and preached to the crowd. Then he compares the reception of the good news to different kinds of soil. Some people are like rocky soil, where things can’t take root, others like soil with thorns, where the lure of wealth chokes things off, and some are like fertile soil, where things take root.
Something about that passage used to confuse me: Why does he get into a boat? Why does he actually go farther away from the crowd? A few years after the novitiate, I was on vacation with some Jesuits, and we were at a house that was near a little harbor, and I could hear all the people talking from the boats, about a mile away from where we were staying. I remarked on this and one of my companions said, “Oh yes, well sound travels over water easily. That’s why Jesus preached those parables from the boat.” I thought that was fascinating. It reminded me that sometimes the things you don’t “get” about the Gospels often have a real-life explanation.
Who is Jesus? So many answers: He is a carpenter from Nazareth. He is the Son of God. He is a man who got tired, ate and drank and wept.
On our pilgrimage, after some mishaps and misadventures, we found the Bay of Parables. It was just outside Capernaum, where Jesus is described as preaching the parables. As I stood there, here’s what I saw all around me: huge rocks, thorn bushes and fertile ground. Just like in the parable. And it dawned on me that when Jesus was preaching this parable, he wasn’t speaking about rocks in general, or thorn bushes in general, but about these things right here, right in front of the people. We sometimes think of the Son of God as being divinely inspired by the Father, and he was. But he also drew on his human experience. Standing by the Bay of Parables helped me to understand him as fully human and fully divine.
Outside of Nazareth, about a 90-minute walk, is a town called Sepphoris. Now, Nazareth was tiny: 200 to 400 people. Sepphoris, by contrast, was a huge town of about 30,000 people, which at the time of Jesus’s boyhood and young adulthood was being rebuilt by King Herod. It had an amphitheater that seated 4,000 people, a royal court, banks, stores that sold mosaics. You can visit the ruins today and see all those things, and you can tell it was a wealthy town. And if you think of Jesus walking from wealthy Sepphoris to poor Nazareth, returning to Mary and Joseph, living very simply, it’s easy to imagine him wondering about income disparities, and why the poor have it so hard. And who knows if the things he saw in Sepphoris about the wealthy didn’t make it into one of his parables? Or if the woman looking for her lost coin isn’t his mother? We tend to think of Jesus as fully divine, which he is, but we forget how his fully human experiences contributed to who he was.
Who is Jesus? So many answers: He is a carpenter from Nazareth. He is the Son of God. He is a man who got tired, ate and drank and wept. He healed the sick. He raised people from the dead. He got frustrated and angry. He is the Second Person of the Trinity, our Savior and Messiah, the Risen One, but he is also our brother, friend and companion. Pedro Arrupe, the former superior general of the Society of Jesus, was once asked, “Who is Jesus for you?” And he said, “For me, Jesus is everything!” Until people start to understand his humanity, it’s hard to understand his divinity. So usually I start with the human nature of Jesus, and as people come to know him they, in a sense, trust him. And trust in what he does and in who he says he is, which is the Son of God. In the end though, fully human and fully divine is a mystery, an F.A.Q. if there ever was one, but one well worth pondering, for a lifetime.
6. Why Be a Catholic?
So maybe you say: “Okay, I can accept that Jesus was divine and I believe in the idea that the Christian religion has a lot to offer. Why the Catholic Church? How can I want to be a part of the church with all those sex abuse scandals? And the fact that women can’t be ordained, what about that? Other Christian churches do that. Worst of all, the way you treat L.G.B.T.Q. people. Aren’t they supposed to be ‘disordered’?”
These objections—not philosophical or theological questions—are the main reasons that most people shy away from the Catholic church. And let’s be blunt: the visceral reactions to sex abuse scandals, homophobia, misogyny aren’t about being anti-Catholic; they are about being a thinking and feeling person. Who wouldn’t be offended by those things? As Pope Benedict XVI said in 2010, the greatest threat to the church, or what he called its greatest persecution, was from “sin inside the church.” Ten years earlier, in 2000, during the Jubilee Year, St. John Paul II asked for forgiveness from God for a whole host of sins: antisemitism, as well as sins committed against Christians of other faiths, women, the poor and so on.
So why belong? Well, let’s start with why you would stay if you’re already Catholic.
Beyond these scandals are other things that drive people away: hypocritical bishops and priests who live what they perceive as lavish lifestyles, out-of-touch statements on sex, women, L.G.B.T. people, and so on. And then something else we have to admit: priests, sisters, brothers, lay leaders, bishops, Catholic leaders of every type who are, to use an underused word, mean. A lot of young people want nothing to do with the Catholic Church, even if they believe in God, love Jesus and see the need for religion.
So why belong? Well, let’s start with why you would stay if you’re already Catholic. For me, baptism is a really important part of this. And at your baptism, God called you into the church by name. Even in the face of these scandals, you’re called to stay. It’s something like your family. Your family isn’t perfect, maybe dysfunctional, maybe really messed up. But it’s still your family and you love it. Or maybe it’s like your country. If you don’t like whoever the president or prime minister or even king is, that doesn’t mean you pack up and leave. Plus, the church needs you right now, to help it change and grow. How can you leave if God has called you into the church? Finally, if you’re Catholic and believe in religion, to paraphrase Peter, “Where else would we go?” The search for a religious community without sin is a search without end. So one reason to stay: God asks you to.
Why join if you’re not baptized? Well, you can just ask the tens of thousands of people who do join every year, and who know that it’s a sinful place, but also know it’s the place where you still encounter Jesus Christ in the Mass, still experience the Holy Spirit through the sacraments and still come to know who God is through the community. But people join for many reasons: for the unbroken line of tradition back to the apostles, for the great theological treasures of the church, for the spiritualities of the religious orders, for Catholic social teaching, for its work with the poor and many other personal reasons. For in the midst of sinners you meet saints, both living and dead, and encounter their stories.
Why join if you’re not baptized? Well, you can just ask the tens of thousands of people who do join every year.
The Rev. Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest and sociologist once said, “We’ve done our best to push people out, and they keep staying. Why?” His answer: the stories. To begin with the stories of the saints and the blesseds, who, as one of the Mass prefaces says, “by their way of life offer us an example, by communion with them, give us companionship, by their intercession sure support.” As the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said, the saints show us what it means to be Christian in this particular way. But we join not only for the stories of the saints, but those of our fellow Catholics, one another, in whom we encounter God and who lead us to God. In coming to know other people, in their totality, as part of what Pope Francis calls the “culture of encounter,” seeing them face to face and hearing their stories, which you’re doing here at World Youth Day, we come to know God better. That’s part of what our church is.
And you can see that best from the inside. One of the most beautiful homilies I’ve ever heard was from Pope Benedict during his visit to the United States in 2008. During his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, he used the image of stained glass to help us understand that:
From the outside, those windows are dark, heavy, even dreary. But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive; reflecting the light passing through them, they reveal all their splendor. Many writers—here in America we can think of Nathaniel Hawthorne—have used the image of stained glass to illustrate the mystery of the Church herself. It is only from the inside, from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit. It follows that we, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion, are called to draw all people into this mystery of light.
7. How do I pray?
Most of us are familiar with the Jesuit ideal of “finding God in all things.” And I think most of us are pretty comfortable with the idea of encountering God in the Eucharist and through the sacraments of course, but also relationships, family, school, work, nature, music, art and so on. But here I’m talking about quiet one-on-one time with God. For some people encountering God, or letting God encounter them in prayer is much harder.
The first thing to know is that everyone can pray. How can I know that? Because we all have within us the desire for prayer, placed in us, once again, by God. You have a desire for union with God. How do I know that? Well, unless you’re doing this for extra credit for some theology class, you all wanted to be at World Youth Day, and you probably want to be here out of a desire for some sort of union, or relationship with God, or Jesus, which is also the goal of prayer. So the main reason for prayer is that God is calling you to it.
One of the key insights about prayer is that there is no one right way to do it. Whatever gets you closer to God is the “right” prayer for you. Some people like Ignatian contemplation, where you imagine yourself in a Gospel scene or speaking with God or with Jesus. Some like lectio divina, where you ask certain questions of a Bible text and meditate on it. Some like the examination of conscience, where you review the day to see where God is. But those are sometimes too “content heavy” for some people. So some people like more abstract prayer, like centering prayer. Some like eucharistic adoration. Some like rote prayers like the Rosary. The best way to pray is whatever brings you closer to God. And that varies from person to person.
But let’s get to a FAQ within this FAQ. One of the hardest things for people to understand about prayer is: What is supposed to happen?”
The most effective invitation to belief, to faith, to religion, to Christianity, to the Catholic Church is not an answer to a question, but a person: Jesus Christ.
When I was a Jesuit novice, other Jesuits would say things like, “Oh, God felt so close in prayer.” Or “I felt God inviting me to look at this.” Or, “God said this to me in prayer.” And I said: “What are you talking about? Am I supposed to hear voices? See visions?” When people talk about having a relationship with God, what are they talking about? Briefly let me go over a few things that can happen when you pray.
First, nothing. A lot of times it feels like nothing is happening in prayer. You’re distracted or you fall asleep or your mind wanders or there’s just…nothing. At least on the surface. Now, any time spent in the presence of the divine is transformative. But sometimes things seem dry. And that’s natural.
But other times something does happen. Let’s say you’re anxious about something in your life and the Gospel passage for that day is Jesus stilling the storm at sea. What can happen when you close your eyes? Well, first you can get an insight. You realize, say, that even though the disciples were worried, Jesus was in the boat with them. And you start to think about how God is with you now, in ways you’ve overlooked. It’s an insight. Now, pay attention: this is one way that God has of communicating with you. When people talk about “hearing God” in prayer, this is one way they experience that.
Or you might experience an emotion: You’re sad, because you feel God isn’t in your boat with you. This may be an invitation from God to be honest with God about those feelings. Maybe you have a desire: to lead a more trusting life or to follow Jesus even in the storms. Or you might have a memory of a time when you were afraid and God was with you. Or you might have a feeling, of calm. Or you might even have a few words or phrases that come to mind—not hearing them audibly but like you were remembering the lyrics to a song. All these things—insights, emotions, desires, memories, feelings, words and phrase—are ways that any spiritual director might tell you about, ways that God communicates with us in our prayer. It can happen during adoration, or saying the Rosary, or while doing Ignatian contemplation, or when being quiet after Mass, or doing centering prayer or just walking in nature. All these ways are how God “speaks” in prayer.
These are the FAQs I’ve heard most frequently. I hope they help you and maybe help as you speak with your friends. But remember the most effective invitation to belief, to faith, to religion, to Christianity, to the Catholic Church and even to prayer is not an answer to a question, but a person: Jesus Christ. And one way that works today is by people seeing Jesus Christ in you! Your very life is a tool for evangelization. “Preach the Gospel always,” as St. Francis of Assisi said, “Use words when necessary.” Be Christ for your friends, your family and for the world.