Two A.M. Doubts about God

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English: This is the portrait of Mother Teresa

English: This is the portrait of Mother Teresa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Mother Teresa‘s diaries were made public, it surprised some people that she admitted that at times she doubted the existence of God. How could such a saintly woman have such doubts? When I have expressed my own doubts to others, some people react defensively or tell me I should repent and pray since doubting God’s existence is a sin. As well meaning as that response may be, it is wrong-headed.

First, it is difficult to believe that there are Christians who have never doubted the existence, or at least the goodness, of God at some point in their lives. Beyond the doubts that often come after tragedy, there are the doubts that invade at two a.m. in the darkness of night when trivial concerns of the day have dissolved and the ultimate questions come to mind. “Is there really a God? Everyone dies, everything changes. How can there be an eternal mind? If it is just mind, how can it exist at all? If God does not exist, there is no life after death and when I die I’ll be dead like Rover, all over, annihilated–no thoughts, no memories, no feelings, sheer, absolute nothingness.”

Although most people may not ask questions at that level of sophistication or have existential anxiety that intense, it would surprise me greatly if a large number of religious people had no doubts at all. If Mother Teresa had doubts, as good as she was, I am sure the average Christian has doubts.

Although atheism is foreign to Holy Scripture, it is clear in the Psalms that some of the poets had doubts concerning the goodness and faithfulness of God. Although these are resolved in most of these psalms by a confession of faith in God’s future deliverance, one psalm, Psalm 88, offers no hope at all. The end of life for the righteous and the wicked is the shadowy realm of Sheol, where the dead slowly fade away as people forget them, fading eternally without being wholly annihilated. In the Christian tradition, John the Baptist doubted that Jesus was the Messiah to the point that Jesus sent a message concerning His mighty acts to John via His apostles. The Apostle Thomas is the most famous example of doubt, and he ceases to doubt when he sees the resurrected Jesus in person.

In Christian mysticism, the withdrawal of God in the dark night of the soul (St. John of the Cross) may lead to a state in which God seems absent. Perhaps that is the state in which Mother Teresa found herself when she doubted the existence of God. This, according to St. John of the Cross, is a necessary though painful stage on the way toward union with God.

Existential anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing, as the atheist philosophers, John Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger recognized, Heidegger noted that human nature (Dasein) is “being toward death,” and to fail to recognize this obvious fact of life is to live in an inauthentic fashion (Sartre would say, “live in ‘bad faith'”). Perhaps Christians to deny any doubt are not living authentically, not allowing their faith to be put to the test. Such “faith” would never stand a major life crisis. Facing one’s potential annihilation head on is a necessary step toward living an authentic life, and for some people it may be an essential step in finding true faith. I have no problem with the advice to pray about doubts — if Christian claims about God are true, He will provide comfort during times of distress and doubt.

For intellectuals, studying the classic arguments for God’s existence may be helpful, especially for those who do not have a Humean or a Kantian bias against the arguments. These serve as “preambles to faith,” as Aquinas noted, but they also can help to restore faith, at least at an intellectual level. The emotional level arises through prayer, participation in the liturgy, and helping others and treating them with respect. One’s faith will most likely be stronger, rather than weaker, after a period of doubt. Those Christians who doubt the doubters should keep that in mind.

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Existential Emptiness and Drug Abuse

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Miguel de Unamuno

Image via Wikipedia

One reason the so-called “War on Drugs” will not work is that it applies the criminal justice system to solve a problem that is not primarily a criminal justice matter. The crisis of drug use in the United States is not a crisis of criminality, but a crisis of emptiness. The U. S. was founded on an individualistic creed. As long as individualism was stemmed by families, neighborhoods, churches, and other community organizations, people were able to move outside themselves, love their families, make friends, and have a core set of values that gave meaning to their lives. With traditional religion, which was community-oriented, on the decline in favor of irreligion, or at best, a poorly defined individualistic “spirituality,” the core set of values that gave meaning to the lives of millions of people are no longer accepted. Beliefs in a God to whom people are responsible, a community of faith focused on worshipping that God and reaching out to neighbors, and a life after death that implies our lives do not end in utter annihilation, are fast fading. The United States strives to become more like secular Europe every day. Other institutions, such as the family, have broken down in many places, with little hope for recovery. This leads to neighborhoods of strangers and a world in which people are wedded to their computer screens and rarely get out to actually visit and talk to people.

The result is an existential crisis. People who cannot reach outside themselves either turn to their own selfish desires or are so lonely and empty that they turn to drugs to hide the pain. With no meaning in life and no hope for an afterlife, people seek cheap thrills–and what better cheap thrill than to stay at home getting the high of one’s life. Then the drug’s effect fades, the pain returns, and a person says, “I will seek it yet again.” People pretend to enjoy life , pretend to be happy, but these claims are sometimes belied by the massive abuse of alcohol, marijuana, and hard drugs–why depend on these false gods if one is truly happy. Now I think marijuana should be legal, not because I support people using it for recreation only (instead of medicinal use) but because it is a waste of time to criminalize a drug that is no more harmful than alcohol. Yet I would not want a society of individuals high on pot. Pot is an escape. Alcohol can be an escape. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, DMT, ketamine–all these drugs and many more mask the despair of contemporary man. Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus were right to note this despair, but their atheism led them to support an individual’s pursuit of one’s own freely chosen goal as the ultimate meaning for that person’s life–there is no objective meaning. But if there is no objective meaning, why not escape life by using drugs? Material things offer only a temporary comfort. Relationships, unanchored in community, are relationships of convenience. Religion is rejected outright, or else some neo-Gnostic version of self-fulfillment is tried. All that is left are shells of people, like the woman in Miguel de Unamuno‘s book, Tragic Sense of Life, who raises her hands off her face when she is sitting on a park bench, revealing that she has no face at all. This is the horror of the lonely, empty American seeking one thrill after another and finally trying to maintain a chemical high.

The only way to solve the drug problem is at its source. Community should be restored, transcendent values encouraged, and people encouraged to seek more than their own selfish wants and reach outside themselves to their families, their neighbors, and their God. If we keep on using traditional law enforcement and the legal system to put out the fire of drugs, all that will result is small patches that the fire can easily jump. Hopefully communities will do what they can to restore stable families, encourage friendships, and support religion, if for no other reason than to fill the emptiness of people with the transcendent, something wholly other, something ultimately outside their own narrow self-interest, something that is Love Itself.