A Little Unbelief...: ...is not always a bad thing

There has been no shortage of books lately denouncing religion, including Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusionand Christopher Hitchens’sGod is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (how’s that for a temperate title?). Yet none of them rises to the level of vituperation shown by H. L. Mencken, a “despiser of religion” in the early 20th century, who wrote: “I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind—that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking. I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.”

For many of us, a knee-jerk reaction to such attacks is to rush to the defense of the beleaguered institution of religion. But before we do, perhaps we could take a detour and consider the valuable service disbelief can render.

The Dangers of Certainty

I suppose it is a systemic hazard of religion to engender a spirit of absolute certitude in many believers. There have always been those who claim to have complete certainty about what is on God’s mind. The rabbis of the Jewish tradition cautioned against this certitude by asserting that prophecy was lost to Israel after the destruction of the Temple “with the exception of children and idiots.” Still, the voices of religious certainty continue to be shrill and vexing even in our day. We hear words of certainty about the “will of God” preached in mosques all around the world and on the lips of suicide bombers. When these words come from afar they frighten us, but they should be no less disconcerting when uttered within our midst. Have we become inured to hearing such sentiments espoused close to home? It may be the media preachers claiming that God sent the World Trade Center attacks or Hurricane Katrina. It may be Pastor John Hagee saying that God intended the Holocaust for one purpose or another. This past year a religious party member of Israel’s Knesset asserted that God had sent an earthquake, which mildly disturbed the country, as a punishment for the attorney general’s having granted gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt children. If faith involves such certainty about the will and purposes of God, perhaps a dose of atheism would do us all some good.

A candidate for national office in the recent U.S. election once described certain government actions—including the pursuit of the war in Iraq—as divine will. What a tragic devolution from the majestic pronouncements of Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address! In that speech Lincoln acknowledged religious uncertainty as he reminded his hearers that even as the North and South continued in their terrible conflict, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” Indeed, Lincoln had the spiritual heroism to begin his peroration with the clause, “Yet, if God wills….” This is a level of spiritual humility in tragically short supply among today’s theo-political seers. From the religious certainty of so many who would be our leaders, atheism seems almost a welcome alternative.

Demands of True Faith

I do not believe in a God whose will or motives are crystal clear to me. And as a person of faith, I find myself deeply suspicious of those who claim such insight. My faith carries within it a healthy dose of skepticism. Paul Tillich cautioned in Dynamics of Faith that “literalism deprives God of his ultimacy and, religiously speaking, of his majesty. It draws him down to the level of that which is not ultimate, the finite…. Faith, if it takes its symbols literally, becomes idolatrous! It calls something ultimate which is less than ultimate. Faith, conscious of the symbolic character of its symbols, gives God the honor which is due him.” This same perspective was expressed by Abraham Joshua Heschel in Man Is Not Alone (we can safely add “will of God” to what he says of God): “God cannot be distilled to a well-defined idea. All concepts fade when applied to His essence. To the pious man knowledge of God is not a thought within his grasp….” Or perhaps Martin Buber put it most succinctly: people “draw caricatures and write ‘God’ underneath.” Perhaps all three are telling us that in the face of the symbolic literalism of the “well-defined idea” or the caricature, true faith demands of us a certain measure of pious atheism.

There is one more face of atheism that I can embrace wholeheartedly. It is embodied in a story about the revered leader of European Jewish Orthodoxy at the beginning of the 20th century, Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radun, popularly known as the Chofetz Chaim. It was his wont to teach that there was a purpose for everything in God’s creation. Once one of his students challenged him, “What can be the purpose of atheism?” The Chafetz Chayim replied, “so that when you see a person who is in need, you shouldn’t pass them by, believing that God will take care of them.” In other words, act as if there were no God: take care of them yourself. That is an atheism that is life-affirming. Would that the religious world were populated by more atheists like that.

Of course there are religious alternatives to either the false certainty of so many or the atheism of total rejection, which is why I can give “two cheers for atheism,” but cannot bring myself to offer up that third cheer.

Biblical Doubts

I believe a healthy measure of skepticism was encoded in biblical faith. We can hear it in the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Even as he inaugurated the use of that place on which had been lavished so much effort and wealth, even as he established his “House of the Lord” as the center of Israelite worship, he asked: “But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their utmost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this house I have built!” (1 Kgs 8:27). Solomon, to whom Scripture ascribes exceeding wisdom, understood the dialectical movement of seeking God in the Temple he had built and yet understanding that no finite edifice could contain God. No doubt we can acknowledge that our intellectual edifices are no more capable of containing the fullness of the Infinite One.

Such a dialectical sensitivity seems to have been present from the time of the canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures. We have records of rabbinical debates about the inclusion of the Book of Esther or the Song of Songs, but no record of objection to the inclusion of the Book of Job. Yet that book raises the most profound issues of faith. Job is described as a perfectly righteous person, but all kinds of horrible things happen to him. His friends come to comfort him by repeating the accepted religious formula of that time, one that is enunciated earlier in Scripture itself: “Now you know bad things happen when you have behaved badly. Why not tell us what it is you have done? You will feel a lot better.” But Job continues to assert his absolute innocence, and we readers know that Job has done absolutely nothing wrong. So we are entitled to be as confused as he is about why these terrible things have happened to him.

When God appears to Job and his friends “out of the whirlwind,” God does not even address the friends, who are, after all, attempting to defend God’s justice in the terms of the ideology of the moment. God speaks directly to Job, who had been challenging God and doubting the working of God’s ways. God essentially tells Job: “Your friends are wrong. They ‘add ignorance to confusion.’” God goes on to say, in effect, “Don’t think you can explain Me. Don’t imagine that you can understand Me. Don’t try to reduce my actions to some simple formula. I am just too much for your limited understanding.” In its own revolutionary way, the Book of Job contradicts earlier teachings in the Bible that sought to explain God in terms of simple cause-and-effect relations. It is those old formulas that the Book of Job dismisses, leaving us with a God whom we worship but know we will never comprehend.

Spiritual Humility

Jewish tradition also enshrines this faithful skepticism in its liturgy. Every Jewish service ends with a doxology called the Kaddish. Customarily thought of as a mourners’ prayer, it never refers to death at all; rather it is devoted exclusively to extolling God. Yet in the midst of its effusive exaltation, we find embedded the idea that God is not easy to grasp. At the brink of the service’s completion, as worshipers prepare to walk out the door, the liturgy reminds us that God is “beyond all the praises, songs and adorations that we are able to utter in this world,” reminding us not to leave the service feeling smug, as if we had said everything about God that could be said. We can only approximate God and acknowledge the paucity of our effort.

This is a most challenging kind of faith: to live with a God we cannot fully understand, whose actions we explain at our own peril. This God is at the center of our lives. This may be a rockier path to walk than that of either simplistic absolutism or of atheism, but it is the faith of honest men and women, a faith defined by spiritual humility. We can hope such a path leads to the destination promised in the Book of Psalms: “This is the Gate of the Lord, the righteous do enter it.”

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11 years 10 months ago
This is a most thoughtful article which illustrates how much we Catholics can learn from Jews in dialogue. America is to be commended for publishing it, and I hope we will hear more from Rabbi Polish! Dr. Eugene J. Fisher
11 years 10 months ago
Thank you for this article; it is one of the most sensible things I have read in a long time.
11 years 10 months ago
As a part-time faculty member teaching Theology, I immediately decided to let my students avail of this article which would ultimately help drive home some of the points that I make semester after semester. We can only be guided by Scripture and the wisdom of our tradition but ultimately how our faith plays out for us is entirely within our own power to shape. I beg my young students who already declare themselves agnostics and atheists to, just the same, keep their hearts open for and their minds receptive to possibilities of divine influences in their lives at a much later time. God has his own timetable and agenda which no human mind and heart can fully comprehend. However, closed minds and hard hearts may pose a greater challenge to God. I speak figuratively as nothing is impossible with God. Thank you, Rabbi Daniel Polish, for an exquisitely well-written article.
James Lindsay
11 years 10 months ago
Allow me to offer the third cheer for atheism in response to Rabbi Polish's only finding two reasons to cheer for them. Ethical atheists advance their position against religion out of love for their fellows. Since God is Love, they could be said to be acting from divine prompting. I would say the joke is on them, but that would be wrong. The joke is on those who would condemn them mistakenly. The message is, God cares for what we do and what is in our hearts, not what we profess.
Mary Fisher
11 years 10 months ago
While I accept and admire this article, I cannot help but wish Rabbi Polish had distinguished between a DIFFICULTY and a DOUBT, which is tantamount to DISBELIEF. "A thousand difficulties do not make a doubt," I learned long ago. Long ago, too, I learned to deplore Milton's stated purpose in writing PARADISE LOST: "to justify the ways of God to man"--as though any of us could do that! A three-year-old can understand and explain quantum physics better than any of us can claim to understand God. And now, in my twilight years, I rejoice that I need God and the Divine unconditional love just because I am too weak, fractured,broken to even approach God. I will never understand God--all I can do is ask for loving mercy and compassion.
Lori Amann-Chetcuti
11 years 10 months ago
Excellent article. I wish some of my local Catholic clergy had read it before some the their elections issues homilies.
11 years 10 months ago
Thanks for this thoughtful and open-minded article. As an atheist who is always looking to find avenues to honest discussion with believers, this piece gives me a touch of hope. I plugged this article on my heathen blog here: http://blocraison.blogspot.com/2009/01/act-as-if-there-is-no-god.html
11 years 10 months ago
Rabbi - Your calmly considered cautionary essay is a welcome respite from those who profess more certainty about everything than I normally have about anything. There is a subtle underlying current in both your, and other commentors' words that imply some/many 'atheists' may have just as 'closed' minds as the people you are cautioning. However, we are all 'atheists', about some gods or another. You and I are both atheists, I believe, when it comes to the gods of the Greeks, or Romans, or Norse or Japanese supernatural beings that were worshiped for milennia. In fact, out of all of humanities many tens of thousands of gods, both of us are 'atheists' on just about all of them; I'm thinking we are only separated by just one more. I don't call myself an 'atheist'; whether it comes to not having a reason (due to lack of any evidence) to believe in Zeus, or Thor, or Yahweh, or Jesus..... defining people solely by what they have no reason to believe in is a little misleading. Putting a label on you for not believing in Zeus is not useful; nor is it to have it done to me. Perhaps Katherine Hepburn said it most succinctly; from memory, she said: "If there is a god and I try to live a good life, than fine. If there is no god and I try to lead a good life, then fine." Cheers.
Bruce Snowden
11 years 10 months ago
There's a lot in "A Little Unbelief" by Rabbi Daniel Polish that I agree with. "I do believe Lord, help my unbelief!" the Gospel says. Faith in God is a dark light that can cast shadows of fright on the jagged walls of the tunnel of life. But fortunately Faith is a light nonetheless. Faith's dark light is God's way of making himself a bit tangible, a little reachable, or as St. Paul says, Faith is "evidence" of things not seen. It's also true as Rabbi Polish insightfully asserts, that, "our intellectual edifices are not capable of containing the fullness of the Infinite One." The unfathonable reality of God is so contrary to human sense-perception of things as we know them to be, that when we come in contact with Infinity all we can do is squint! When one "squints" things get distorted, or at best imperfectly perceived. When God is imperfectly perceived ignorance results. In its most aggressive expression ignorance engenders Atheism, especially in its modern pernicious and unintelligent form. It can also engender a kind of spiritual incredulity, a "How can this be?" approach to the Godhead and like Zachariah one ends us dummer than dumb, unable to defend the Faith within. Many get trapped therein. Some like Mary, however, can ask "How can it be?" advantageously and end up singing, "He has done great things for me and holy is his Name!" Humility is the key. Yes,indeed, Faith in God can be its own reward, in that, like a muscle, when Faith is exercised it becomes stronger! As belief in God strengthens, not even the shadows produced by its dark light against life's jagged walls can weaken it. Indeed, like a mushroom, Faith seems to flourish well in darkness, a reality that must be experienced to appreciate. Many know this. But as the good Rabbi Polish points out, people tend to talk too loosely about the "will of God." What is that? We trust as did Abraham on Mt. Moria and as Jesus did on the Cross, that the will of the "Unknowable One" was done through them, for all Believers. If the will of God was not accomplished through Abraham and Jesus, we're really messed up! But if it was accomplished, my God, what an exciting Mystery you are! In all of this I have more than a little belief with many, yet so often do we tend to stumble over the rocky surface of ????, saying, "Lord, yes, I do believe; help my unbelief!" Thank you, Rabbi Polish, for an excellent article on how to Believe!
Bruce Snowden
11 years 10 months ago
Dear Online Editor, Once again my posted sumbmission left my name behind. Don't know why this keeps happening, but because a name is required for consideration of a submission I send this along. Thank you! Bruce Snowden
11 years 10 months ago
Given the state of relations between Catholics and Jews and the enthusiastic reception Rabbi Polish's essay has received, I hesitated before finally deciding, as a Catholic, to respond. Daniel Polish has submitted, more than anything else, an eloquent representation of his Jewish faith which of course is different than that of Catholics. Whereas for Rabbi Polish God cannot be drawn down "to the level of that which is not ultimate, the finite" without falling into idolatry, Catholics believe that God himself has presented himself as finite, with the totality of human limitations, in Jesus Christ, a Jew. The Rabbi immediately follows cautioning against a faith that calls 'something ultimate which is less than ultimate'; of taking a symbol literally. Given his previous assertion, he seems to be suggesting that Jesus Christ is a symbol of the ultimate, not the incarnation of God, and not to be considered God. Then the Rabbi alludes to Solomon's dilemma as to whether God could really dwell on earth, to which Catholics respond affirmatively, and Jews, with respect to Jesus, negatively. For the Rabbi, "God cannot be distilled to a well-defined idea. All concepts fade when applied to His essence. " This one is tricky for in a sense it is true. Even though Catholics believe God has become incarnate in Jesus and that they receive Him in the Holy Eucharist, He cannot be adequately reduced to any concept. Yet he can be known, and that is what the Holy Eucharist is all about. When Catholics receive the Eucharist in a state of grace, we believe we receive God's presence and the kind of peace and sanctification that only God can confer. In justification for his type of Jewish faith Rabbi Polish rightly questions how some can attrribute the attacks on the WTC or the genocide of Jews to God. Additionally he points to the absurdity of the US Civil War, where 2 sides who professed belief in the same God (and indeed mostly a Christian faith) believed they were carrying out God's will and prayed for success. The same can be said of the current wars or of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many from all sides claim to be acting in accordance to God's will. Of course, God's will is interpreted differently by Islam, Judaism and Christianity and even within each. Yet only Christians believe that revenge is prohibited; that one must pray for one's enemies. Only Christians believe that Jesus made explicit the main aspects of God's (his) will: love of God above all;love of the other as one's self; receiving Jesus is the only door to eternal life with God; God has a preferential option for the poor, the most vulnerable, the marginalized; purity of heart trumps external cleansiness, etc. Even so, Christians were drawn into Civil War in the United States. Yet, given Christ's teachings, how could both sides legitimately argue they were following the will of God? Can a Christian genuinely contend that regarding another a slave or a non person, or that resolving a problem between Christians by killing each other is the will of God? Of course not, it contradicts Christ's teachings. Discord between Christians continues however. Now we argue regarding the divinity of Jesus as fact vs. some less than ultimate symbol; or about how self-defense and loving the other as one's self are compatible; or whether the Catholic Church is the earthly manifestation of the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman pontiff the succesor of Peter; or whether Peter was appointed by Jesus to head the Church, etc. Some may argue that God has left us in the dark about all this; that it's preposterous that there are right and wrong answers to all of these questions, let alone certitude. Like Rabbi Polish and "the rabbis of the Jewish tradition" they may caution us " ... against this certitude by asserting that prophecy was lost to Israel ...with the exception of children and idiots.” What is true for Israel is not automatically true for Catholics for, unlike the Jewish people, we cert
11 years 9 months ago
I would hope that every theologian, bishop, homilist, and RCIA instructor would read this article and take it completely to heart. If there is any fundamental thing we should understand about God, before we teach about Him/Her, it is that God is above all a Mystery that we can never adequately understand or express in human terms. The limited simply cannot grasp the unlimted -- no matter how hard we try, even under the inspiration of the Spirit. Our knowledge of God is limited. We cannot utlimately explain God or God's ways. "Mystery" is the key word when we deal with the infinite. We do not have all the answers at all -- otherwise, we would not need faith. Since our scriptures and dogmas are expressed in human words, they are not distinct from the changeable conceptions of a given epoch (see Mysterium Ecclessiae, 1976.) In this article Daniel Polish puts it well: the book of Job leaves us with a God we worship but know we will never understand.
11 years 9 months ago
Andy Gilligan - If by chance you are a Catholic, do you not believe that God became man; and the infinite, finite? Do you not believe we have a mandate from Christ to give testimony of this fact?
11 years 9 months ago
In this day and age we should all know that we should believe half of what we see, and even less of what we here. Nothing is ever as simple as what is presented. And knowing this, the first question to ever come out of our mouths is, "Why?" This is the trap that people fall into. They never ask and follow blindly. This is possibly how we end up with suicide bombers, crusades, and rampant ignorance that only serves to oppress and suppress nations. Why should God burn down your village and not mine? Why should God slay my enemy and not my people? Should God do it simply because we pray for it? No. That would make God hypocritical and that cannot be as God is a perfect being. And as for stepping back from religion and being doubtful of the Scriptures, sermons, and selected few who lead the faiths, I believe it is necessary. The story of Job for example. Are we to really believe that the Angels and Beezlebub had Job swallowed by a fish, or simply find the meaning in the parable that we should not pray and act for ourselves, but pray and act for others; our lives are connected and we should raise up those around us. Faith is not a science that can be comprehended through hypotheses and theorems. And therefore cannot be treated as such. Nothing is certain, nothing is exact, nothing is concrete.
11 years 8 months ago
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