The Dilemma of Faith in a Secular Age
Despite the number of Christian fellowships that daily set up their tables on Sproul and the churches that dot the outskirts of campus, our university is a secular one. Charles Taylor’s tome, A Secular Age asserts that our entire age is secular, not because we have rejected religion outright (the active, growing fellowships and churches would demonstrate otherwise), but rather our age is secular because belief in the divine is only one option out of many options that we can choose from.
Likewise, ours is an age in which believers and non-believers alike struggle with doubt about whether our beliefs are indeed the right ones. In a recent New York Times article, the philosopher William Irwin, himself an agnostic, wrote, “Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all — if not the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then a God of some kind.”
In his commentary on Charles Taylor’s book, James K.A. Smith writes, “even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. . . We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting.” We often assume that our society consists primarily of those who fall in either the camp of religious fundamentalists or the “New Atheists,” but Smith asserts that most of us occupy a middle ground where we feel pressured by both the contestability of our religious claims on one hand and by our longings for transcendence on the other.
The prominent American poet Mary Oliver has frequently written about this sense of being caught between belief and unbelief. Poems that speak to this tension are prominent in her latest collection of poetry, Felicity. In “I Wake Close to Morning” she writes:
Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon.
Do you think she had to ask,
“Is this the place?”
The poem is structured like an apologetic that attempts to justify the hiddenness of God by pointing out that maybe he isn’t hidden at all. Her reference to “God’s identity papers” suggests that she has certain New Atheist authors in mind—the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Samuel Harris—who assert that because there is no strong evidence for God’s existence, atheism is the only rational position to hold. Rather than using rational arguments, though, the poet appeals to a sense of how obvious God’s existence is. The speaker wakes and sees a sunrise and the drastic transformation of night into day. Upon beholding the scene, the speaker wonders how anyone could question God’s existence when this beautiful scene is proof enough that he exists. She mocks the human desire to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that God exists by comparing it to impersonally “asking to see God’s identity papers.” The speaker tires of these inane questions that humans ask of God, emphasizing that we should instead be filled with a sense of awe in the face of his Creation. It seems that to ask “Does God exist?” is utterly beside the point.
In another poem from the same collection, though, the speaker finds herself questioning this earlier belief that she held. In “The Wildest Storm” the speaker self-consciously realizes that in the face of a powerful storm, she has tried to enchant it by imagining it is a “great sky beast.” This realization gestures back to her earlier assertion that God’s existence is obvious, casting doubt on her confidence of his existence. The reader wonders whether her confidence was founded upon her desire to “enchant” the world by attributing the beauty of the sunrise to something outside of the natural world, namely, to God.
In doing so, Oliver’s poetry occupies a middle-ground wherein God’s existence is given, while, at the same time, she wonders whether that givenness is just a dream or something she has invented to explain for her own existence, God’s silence echoing in her ears. There would seem to be some kind of cognitive dissonance here—how can she believe that God exists while simultaneously believing that she has simply fabricated him? Yet, this state of being in-between is where many of us find ourselves. We have longings for transcendence manifested through our desire for eternal significance, our insatiable hunger for beauty, and our existential questions about the nature of man. Yet our daily sensory experiences tell us that the only things which are real are those we can see and touch or prove scientifically.
Though we are constantly pressured and pulled by these simultaneous forces, we shouldn’t be content to leave the question of God’s existence unanswered or untouched. Rather, our longings for transcendence should move us toward purposeful investigation of the question. Nathaniel Hawthorne said of his friend Herman Melville, “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.” Melville took it as an imperative that he could not stand between belief and unbelief but spent his life trying to figure out which was the better response to reality. Indeed, it takes honesty and courage to leave the middle-ground and to decide where you will fall on this question.
Interestingly, despite the fact that this dilemma of being “in-between” is a modern one, Christianity has the resources to uniquely address us right where we are. Timothy Keller writes about how “Jesus modeled a view of doubt more nuanced than those of either modern skeptics or modern believers.” When Jesus confronted “doubting Thomas,” he “challenged him not to acquiesce in doubt (believe!) and yet responded to his request for more evidence.”
In another passage, Jesus met a man whose dilemma of faith seems particularly modern. When Jesus questioned the man about his beliefs, the man said, “I believe!” but immediately confessed that he was really in the middle-ground, saying, “help my unbelief!” Jesus did not rebuke him or walk away, demanding complete faith. Rather, Jesus heard this man’s confession of his own doubleness and blessed him and healed his son.
A good place, then, for spiritual seekers to start seeking, might be with Jesus. Do an honest investigation of who he was, what he claimed and what his impact has been on history. Jesus was not threatened by this man’s unbelief, and he is likewise not threatened by us when we are stuck between belief and unbelief.
1 Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2007. Print.
2 Irwin, William. “God Is a Question, Not an Answer.” Opinionator. New York Times, 26 Mar. 2016. Web.
3 Smith, James K. A. How (not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Print.
4 Oliver, Mary. Felicity. Vol. 1. N.p.: Penguin, 2015. Print.
5 Madden, J. “Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. n.p., 25 July 2000. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.
6 Keller, T. The Reason for God: Dutton, 2008. Print.
Micaela is a senior savoring her last semester at Cal, grateful for how God has answered her own unbelief through his world and his people.
agnostic, apologetics, atheism, beauty, Charles Taylor, Christopher Hitchens, faith, Herman Melville, James KA Smith, literature, Mary Oliver, Nathaniel Hawthorne, nature, New Atheism, poetry, Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris, science, secularism, timothy keller, William Irwin