Thursday, June 25, 2015

Finding Your Calm

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For many of us in the western world, a glut of obstacles impedes the search for God. In my view, they include indulgent prosperity, religious illiteracy, damaging sex, secularism and “busyness.”

(As I’ve mentioned before in these blogs, secularism is not necessarily a bad thing. It does, however, fail to provide the social support for belief that was present in earlier ages.)

Of all these obstacles – and there are undoubtedly many more I haven’t included – busyness is perhaps the most pernicious in its subtlety. In our culture, busyness may seem inevitable, even normal. However, it impedes the search for God on at least two levels: it leaves us with little time to pursue belief, and it robs us of the calm and thoughtfulness necessary to do so. 

Why Are You Afraid?

James Martin, S.J., in his book, “Jesus, A Pilgrimage,” uses the gospel story of the calming of the storm to illustrate the problem. As you may recall the story, Jesus and his disciples embark on a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a violent storm erupts and the disciples fear for their lives.

According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus “was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’

Jesus calms the sea and asks his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Then, besides counseling against fear, Martin writes, Jesus offers what is desperately needed today: calm.

“The more I listen to people,” writes Martin, a long-time spiritual counselor, “the more I hear them speak about their lives using the same words: overworked, overbooked, overwhelmed, stressed-out, crazy-busy, nuts, insane.

‘I have no time for my family. I have no time to pray. I barely have time to think.’” One of the problems, he writes, is that “… our culture has impressed upon us the equation that the busier you are, the more important you are.”

James Martin, SJ
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Handling Busyness

There are practical ways of handling busyness, of course, and the most obvious is doing an activity inventory followed by a culling of schedules. What is really necessary or helpful for my life? What is most important? (It’s obvious that when we say we “have no time” for God and religion, it actually means that it’s not important for us. If that’s the case, we should admit that to ourselves.) If an activity isn’t necessary or important, shouldn’t we consider not doing it?

We may do a lot of things out of a sense of obligation, responding to requests by bosses, colleagues, family members and friends. But do you have to make these people happy at the expense of your calm? I don’t think so.

Apart from the practical, there are “spiritual” implications to busyness.

A popular American magazine had a recent article on finding your calm, and quoted a successful businesswoman.

“When I wake up,” she said, “I don’t look first at my smart phone. Instead, I take a minute to breathe deeply, be grateful and set my intention for the day.”

More Is Needed

Good idea to give yourself enough time in a busy day to be thoughtful, but for people searching for God, something more is needed, in my opinion, and that’s prayer.

We’ve covered this subject several times in these blogs, and I understand that people who are searching for God may have grave doubts about God’s existence, let alone whether God is interested in us or our prayers. So what’s new? Don’t you ever speak to your spouse, boss, employee, friend or kids when you doubt that they’re interested or listening?

Last year, I was doing what many husbands do a lot: waiting for my wife while she shops. I was sitting in what I call a “husband chair” in the dress section of an upscale department store in another city watching a young clerk greeting and helping customers. It was shortly after the store’s opening in the morning and I was thinking about how hard it must be to be for a clerk to smile, greet people and accommodate them when you may not have had enough sleep, have a bit of a hangover or are just not in the mood.

I noticed that this particular clerk was helpful and pleasant without being pushy. When she was free, I asked her how she does it.

The answer, in short, was that she does it just by doing it. Although she may feel “bummed” at the start of her shift, after a short time actually dealing with people, it usually came naturally. She liked people, she said, and after exchanges with them, she was usually eager to help.

Just Do It

That “Just Do It” idea, made famous by Nike, works in the pursuit of faith as well. Have doubts? Express them to God. Feel ridiculous? Some of the most important things we do in life, like falling in love with the most unlikely person, are ridiculous. Feel that you’re being anti-intellectual or anti-science? How much of your daily life – including your interactions with loved ones – are based on intellectualism or science?

Faith is a relationship, with God and others, and you have to pursue and nourish relationships.

Busyness, and lack of calm, is an obstacle in the search for God, but the pursuit itself brings calm, and all its other rewards make the pursuit worth it.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Good Old-fashioned Hate

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Years ago, a colleague at The Des Moines Register related what happened when he was covering members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS, who were protesting something or other at the state capitol in Des Moines.

I don’t recall the issue involved, but the signs and speeches of Westboro members against people whom they were protesting were vicious.

Among the Westboro protesters, as I recall, was a boy of about 10 years old, son of one of the church’s leaders. When my colleague asked him if he thought protesting in such a way didn’t show disrespect toward others, the boy simply said, “F*** you!” 

Westboro, which appears to seek out publicity like a heat-seeking missile seeks a target, recently picketed the funeral of Beau Biden, son of vice president Joe Biden, in Delaware. According to the confusing information on Westboro’s web site – whose address is – the protest was against the vice president for “training Beau Biden to worship and serve Joe’s favorite idols: American military, perverse Catholic monstrosity, and political office/trappings.”

Like I said, it’s confusing, but Westboro is surely the church most people love to hate, and most Baptists are probably embarrassed by them. But it’s merely the most noxious of many fundamentalist groups.

In my view, there’s a big problem with fundamentalism itself, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish. And for me, it’s the flight from reality. Ok, so plenty of critics would say that all religion is that, but I don’t agree. The ability to make distinctions, after all, is fundamental to human intelligence.

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And that’s precisely my problem with fundamentalism. It flees from distinctions, hoping that it can maintain a simplified, uncomplicated world that exists only in its communal mind.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines fundamentalism.

“The term … is most often characterized by a markedly strict literalism as applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining in-group and out-group distinctions, leading to an emphasis on purity and the desire to return to a previous ideal from which it is believed that members have begun to stray."

Tomas Halik, the Czech psychologist and theologian whom I quote often in these blogs, views fundamentalism as “a disorder of a faith that tries to entrench itself within the shadows of the past against the disturbing complexity of life.

“Those who wish to seek the living God…,” he writes, “must have the courage to learn to swim in deep water, not in the shallows. God is in the depths; He is not to be found in the shallows.”

To me, fundamentalism also signals an unwillingness to accept the uncertainty that must accompany faith. Believers must “walk by faith, not by sight,” and faith means the willingness to tolerate uncertainty. The absence of this tolerance, seems to me, allows you to be smug, judgmental and rigid in what you believe and what you expect from others. And it demands conformity.

“When faith leads to conformism,” wrote Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin in a 2013 speech entitled, A Post-Catholic Ireland? “it has betrayed the very nature of faith. Conformism falsely feels that it has attained certainty. Faith is always a leap into the unknown and a challenge to go beyond our own limits and beyond our own certainties and the distorted understanding that comes from them.”

If God is the ultimate author of life – even though we may not understand the details of his/her authorship - you have to believe that human intelligence has some purpose, that humans are required to think through the meaning of life as a way of seeking God. Fundamentalism snubs thoughtfulness in deference to dogmatism and intolerance.

To criticize dogmatism is not to say that there’s no need for dogma. Dogma is simply a matter of formulating what you believe and how to express it. In the case of Christianity, it’s a matter mostly of determining what Jesus intended and organizing that in some intelligible manner.

“Dogmatism” is something else. It’s a denial of the need for growth in understanding those beliefs and the need to interpret them anew for each generation.

Although I’m not keen on fundamentalism, there are some things I admire about fundamentalists, including their single-mindedness and the courage of their convictions. In the face of widespread indifference toward God and religion, people seeking God and many believers could use a little more of those qualities.

“Faith,” to return to Halik, “is the possibility of re-interpreting what seemed so cut and dried from ‘the world’s’ point of view. …It means the courage to … persevere on the path of unselfishness, nonviolence, and generous love, even if it means defying this world’s logic, power, and usual style.”



Thursday, June 11, 2015

Who’s In and Who’s Not?

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My admiration for Pope Francis is no secret to readers of this blog. So what’s his greatest contribution to the modern world? In my opinion, it’s his oft-quoted conviction that God is not just the God of Catholics, or even of Christians, but the God of EVERYONE.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a sea-change for religious leaders, especially Catholics. The focus of the church has been on “members,” who are considered to be “the Body of Christ,” a “Sacred People,” “a Chosen Race” – concepts that come from the Bible but have been used to justify exclusivity.

Consequently, the vast majority of the church’s time and energy has been spent on members:  masses, services and sacraments, schools, visiting members in hospitals, preparing and delivering homilies. Very little time and energy has been spent reaching out to the “unchurched,” the indifferent, the marginalized, the unbelievers, all of whom were the focus of Jesus’ efforts. In public and private prayer, we mostly pray for ourselves and people like us.

Except for its formidable social justice work, the Catholic Church, to which I belong, has been especially inward-looking. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, but today it may be partly due to the perception that reaching out to outsiders may be seen as proselytizing, which has become taboo.

Proselytizing means inducing someone to convert to your faith, which in the long run, is not effective in helping people in their search for God because it usually doesn’t result in deep roots of faith. Religion these days is a big turnoff for many people, who are asking basic questions about why they need God and religion.

But besides the taboo against proselytizing, other factors may be at work.

Formerly, newspapers had Saturday “religion pages,” many of which were devoted to advertising by various churches. Seldom, if ever, among dozens of such ads by Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches, did an ad by a Catholic church appear.

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I never had a conversation with a church leader about this, but I always imagined it was because Catholics didn’t want “just anybody” in our churches, and by appearing among the ads for all the other churches, we would be giving the impression that the Catholic Church was “just another church.”

I doubt that this attitude is what Jesus had in mind.

Believers can’t be timid about helping answer people’s questions about their perceived lack of need for God and religion and most of all, in helping them find God by leading conscientious, joyful lives themselves. I subscribe to the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always and if necessary, use words.”  

I try to avoid biblical references in these blogs because even in English translations, the Bible seems to many people to be written in a foreign language. But with a little effort, people who are searching for God can find in the Bible a wealth of wisdom and inspiration.

The Christian Bible appears to be ambiguous on the subject of who’s in and who’s out, just as it is on other matters. But when there are such apparent contradictions, I always assume that we simply haven’t sufficiently understood them, and I think that’s the case here.

In some passages in the Gospel of John, for instance, Jesus appears to limit his interest to “special” people. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me,” he is quoted as saying in the Gospel of John. This, of course, could mean, that no matter what you are – Christian, Jew, Buddhist or non-believer – you can find God by following what Jesus taught.

After all, Jesus also said in the same gospel, “In my Father’s house are many rooms,” and when talking about his role as the “good shepherd,” said, “…I have other sheep that are not of this fold.”

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, according to The Message Catholic/Ecumenical Edition, writes: “…I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized – whoever.”

Sounds a lot like what Pope Francis wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel.”

“The salvation which God has wrought and the Church joyfully proclaims is for everyone. …To those who feel far from God and the Church, to all those who are fearful or indifferent, I would like to say this: the Lord, with great respect and love, is also calling you to be a part of his people.”



Thursday, June 4, 2015

Who is Seeking Whom?

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Most of us grew up as Christians or Jews. We went to Mass, Sunday school or Hebrew School. We heard fantastic stories about Moses and Abraham, Peter, Paul and Jesus. At least in our early years, many of us wanted to “be like them,” to always love God and others.

Then we grew up, and all of those stories and our reaction to them seemed childish. We learned that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were bogus. Surely God is, too.

We may have also noticed that many adults don’t take religion seriously, so why should we? We may have learned in college that the world and all that is in it resulted from random natural selection, not from a seven-day creation spree by an invisible God. And we may have concluded that reason and faith are incompatible.

So what about now? Is our indifference or hostility to faith due to an intellectual commitment to the truth or to some vague notion that those beliefs, experiences and aspirations of childhood are childish? Or is it simply due to apathy and fecklessness, a satisfaction with our lives as they are, or the common notion that God is no longer needed?

I’ve recently finished reading the book, “Living with a Wild God: A Non-Believer’s Search for The Truth about Everything,” by Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s sort of an autobiography by a muckraking journalist who has a doctorate in cellular immunology but who, instead of pursuing a career in science, has had a life of research, advocacy and activism.

She is, perhaps, best known for her 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” It chronicles her three-month experiment in trying to get by on minimum wage as a hotel maid, nursing-home aide, waitress and Wal-Mart clerk.   

In “Living with a Wild God,” Ehrenreich writes of her early struggles with belief and her coming down on the side of non-belief. She thought of herself and still describes herself as an atheist. In fact, she went through a period of believing that nothing exists outside herself (solipsism).

Still, she had a kind of repeated “altered state of consciousness” as a youth, which she has trouble describing. Later, she would refer to it as “the Presence” or “emergent quality.” She doesn’t believe it was a manifestation of God, however.

“Since we have long since outgrown the easy answer – God – along with theism of any kind, we have to look for our who within what actually exists,” she writes.

She makes no rational arguments against belief, it should be noted. Like many commentators on religion, she simply begs the question, saying that we’ve “outgrown” God.

Barbara Ehrenreich
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Although Ehrenreich rejects the “God of Religion,” she doesn’t reject the “Wholly Other revealed in mystical experiences,” though she can’t describe it. Although she has a scientific background, she’s ambivalent toward science itself. And she mostly ignores the intellectual giants who for centuries have given good reasons for belief.

The mind’s work, she writes, is “…to condense all the chaos and mystery of the world into a palpable Other or Others, not necessarily because we love it, and certainly not out of any intention to ‘worship it.’”

An obviously intelligent and astute observer of life, Ehrenreich writes all around God and seems to have a vague feeling that there’s more to reality than what we can test and measure. She intuits that someone or something exists outside the world as we know it, but she just can’t put her finger on it.

She can’t bring herself to accept the God of Judeo-Christianity, but she seems close.     

Whatever that “presence” is, she writes, “…I have the impression, growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that it may be seeking us out.”

Ehrenreich had little experience with organized religion growing up and the experiences she did have were negative. As mentioned, most of us have a different experience, learning about Christianity or Judaism at a young age and eventually having to choose to accept or reject it, or we simply drifted away from it.

Even if we’re indifferent about that faith today, our sense of fairness and determination to do good undoubtedly comes from that source. And though we may not want to admit it to others or ourselves, we may have maintained a longing for God we haven’t been able to shake.

Though maintaining a healthy skepticism, we should ignore the juvenile notion that faith is juvenile and trudge on in our search for God, being open to our earliest instincts and the obvious ways in which God may be calling us. Ehrenreich and millions like her who haven’t yet been able to accept that call still seem to feel his/her presence, from which none of us can hide.

O where can I go from your spirit,
Or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there.
If I lie in the grave, you are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn
Or dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
Even there your hand would lead me;
Your right hand would hold me fast.   

-Psalm 139 (Catholic Bibles)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why We Follow Trends

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(This is my 100th weekly blog. Thank you to my readers – those who read them regularly and those who look at them occasionally. I hope they’re helpful in the search for God. A special thanks to those who have provided feedback. If you have comments or suggestions, please use the blog to provide them or e-mail me at With the publication of last week’s blog, I’ve had 15,043 page views or about 152 page views per week, a number which has changed very little in the past year or so. It’s far from “viral,” but I’ll take it gratefully.) 

Years ago, when my wife’s 18-year-old niece was visiting from Colombia, we went to a basketball game at the high school my children attended. The niece was sitting on the bleachers with us and suddenly during half-time, she got up and walked across the middle of the basketball floor to talk to somebody on the other side.

I was struck by how unusual that behavior was compared to that of most American high school kids, who out of sheer embarrassment, would never do such a thing. If the high school girls, especially, went to the restroom or to buy something from the concession stand, they always did so in a group, trying to be inconspicuous, seldom going anywhere without their friends.

The need to be accepted, to belong – and to be seen as belonging – is, perhaps, never as strong as during our teen years. Following trends is, I believe, another way of expressing this need, and teens are especially sensitive to it.

Adults are not immune, of course. After being teased by my wife and daughter about my skirt-like, wide-legged jeans, I finally bought a pair of the narrow-legged version, and feel "cooler" as a result.

We all know that trends are superficial, ultimately meaningless criteria for behavior, but we follow them anyway. We want the latest Apple watch, the latest style of shoes, home d├ęcor and cars and we want others to know that we have them.

Last week, I wrote about a new Pew Research Center study that, not-surprisingly, showed that fewer Americans call themselves Christian and that more of us identify as atheist and agnostic.

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It’s worth remembering that polls are both informative and normative. They reflect what we think and believe and they influence what we think and believe. Part of the dissatisfaction with religion expressed in the Pew study can surely be ascribed to previous trends the Pew and other studies have shown.

This is not to say that people who answered the poll’s questions are insincere, but many people – both faithful believers and and non-believers – want to think and believe what others think and believe.

The fact that 70 percent of Americans call themselves Christian doesn’t mean you should do so, nor should you be dissatisfied with religion because of the decrease. And this in no way is meant to disparage polls. They help us know what people are thinking, and that’s a good thing.

But why is following trends so important to humans?

Stanford Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo, about whom I’ve written before in this blog, is famous for having conducted experiments in which subjects took roles of prisoner and prison guard that resulted in the book, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.” This is what I found on Zimbardo’s web site.

“Informative conformity often occurs in situations in which there is high uncertainty and ambiguity. …The actions of others inform us of the customs and accepted practices in a situation. Others inform us of what is right to do, how to behave in new situations.

“In addition to conforming to the group norms due to lack of knowledge, we also conform when we want to be liked by the group…. Though we may disagree secretly with the group opinion, we may verbally adopt the group stance so that we seem like a team player rather than a deviant.”

Dr. Gregory Berns, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Atlanta's Emory University, on ABC’s Primetime had another take on conformity. He used the example of the great number of Germans who followed Adolf Hitler down the path to death and destruction and the conformist behavior it exhibited.

Berns did brain experiments showing that subjects’ brains scrambled messages – "people actually believed what others told them they were seeing, not what they saw with their own eyes. What that suggests is that what people tell you – if enough people are telling you – can actually get mixed in with what your own eyes are telling you."

I believe conformity also offers an evolutionary advantage, as it does for many animals whose survival depends on acceptance by and membership in a group.

Many may see belonging to a religion as the ultimate conformity in today’s society. To me, clinging to God and religion despite doubts is looking more and more non-conformist. Following a trend may be OK in choosing jeans or cars but not for bigger, broader questions, such as whether God exists, whether he/she has interest in me and whether religion can help in the search for God.



Thursday, May 21, 2015

Trends Tell Only Part of the Story

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Prominent in recent news reports is the not-surprising disclosure that the U.S. is less Christian, and that fewer Americans choose to be a part of any religion.

It’s not surprising because the country has been trending that way for years. Anyway, a new study by the Pew Research Center, which surveyed more than 35,000 people, found that 70 percent of Americans say they are Christian. That compares with 78 percent in 2007. And, the number of people calling themselves atheist and agnostic has nearly doubled in the last seven years.

“The decrease of religious feeling seems especially pronounced among young adults, but also includes people of all ages, ethnicities, incomes and educational backgrounds,” according to a recent National Public Radio report.

The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., says the survey shows a majority of the nation still identifies as religious. But he tells NPR's Scott Simon that organized religion is losing credibility with many.

“I see two trends,” he said. “Both of them, I think, have been going on for a long time. One of them is the increasing trend towards secularism in Western culture that really began after World War II in Europe, and it's taken America a long time to catch up with this.

This trend is about how we in the western world have changed rather than whether religion is, or is not, doing its job. Most of us are prosperous, better educated, and more susceptible to the media and their nearly irresistible influence. It makes it hard to feel any dependence on God, and increases our indifference toward religion.

The second trend, however, “has to do with the church itself,” says Hall, “and the church's declining credibility as a place for people to pursue their spiritual questions.”

Many people, Hall believes, are still hung up on the perceived conflict between science and religion, though both “are at some point both about big questions of origin and wonder.

“And I think, for me, I've always felt that it's important for religious people to have the same kind of philosophical stance they use in their religious life as they do in the rest of their life. And a lot of times I think religion — religions — ask people to sort of turn off the scientific part of their lives and just go and kind of think about God kind of pre-scientifically.”

One of the constants in these blogs is the notion that there is no basic conflict between faith and science. They are two ways of knowing. That’s something on which religious and non-religious people should agree.

Gary Hall
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Secondly, as Hall suggests, churches have to talk about God and faith “in a grown-up way.” As I’ve written in these blogs before, that doesn’t mean we ignore Jesus’ urging to “be like little children” in pursuing faith. He means to be humble, open and trusting. But churches shouldn’t talk down to people, insist on using obsolete language and ignore the real ethical and moral dilemmas – like  doubt, sexuality, the environment, violence – that people face in their daily lives.

People want to know how religion can help them deal with these questions, and churches should respond with the best their traditions have to offer without watering them down or dressing them up. And at a time when their ranks are dwindling, the clergy needs to do much more than they do now.

Being a religious leader can’t be a comfortable life. Leaders can’t feel themselves apart from and above the masses. They have to find new ways, including use of social media, to reach out to everyone, confident that religion has something important to say.

And what does religion have to say that’s important? For starters, that God exists, despite our natural inclination to doubt; that God is with us and cares for us; that being religious is part of our nature; that the centuries of believers before us are examples of how faith makes a difference in people’s lives; that the message of religion transcends trends.

In his new book, The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks tells the stories of nine people, most of them well-known, who were unselfish in pursuing goals that benefit others. Brooks holds them up as models for citizens of our age.

Guess what? Five of them practiced a religion and three others were heavily influenced by religion early in their lives. The religious background of the ninth isn’t clear.

I have no reason to doubt the Pew numbers on religious observance. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s no surprise to readers of this blog that I’m a great admirer of Pope Francis, who I believe to be among the best possible models for a religious person and church leader.

He’s among examples of religion increasing in quality if not in quantity.

Plenty of critics are eager to paint religious people as hypocritical, violent, prudish and judgmental. But it’s clear to me that religious people have had a tremendously positive influence on humankind and will continue to do so in the future. Contrary to what John Lennon sang in “Imagine,” the world would be a sorry place without religion.

Next week’s blog: Why it’s hard to buck trends.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Wonder, Awe, and Doubt

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Every year at this time I’m astonished again at the beauty of creation. You would think that at my age, all the wonder and awe would have disappeared. But to me, every spring is a miracle.

I walk around my neighborhood viewing carpets of green that were a cheerless brown a few weeks ago. Trees and shrubs are exuberant in showing off their blooms and new leaves. Tulips and morning glories rise in splendor. The sun warms everything, including human hearts.

“How could there not be a God?” I ask myself.

I know, however, that people who don’t believe in God may have similar experiences in “intuiting” God’s non-existence. Where is he/she? Isn’t it strange that in all these centuries God has not revealed him/herself (assuming that you dismiss the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the witness of thousands of generations of people of faith)? Isn’t it just wishful thinking combined with humans’ inexhaustible capacity for self-deceit that leads us to believe in God?

The sensation I get from observing the beauty and usefulness of the world, and that God must have in some way authored it for humans’ sake, is certainly not scientific. But neither is the intuition of the non-believer. I can’t use science to support my belief in God nor can others use science to support the contrary position.

So where does that leave us?

First, we must acknowledge that the scientific method isn’t the only way of knowing. Art, music and reflection on the natural world are also ways of knowing. In my view, so is the human instinct that makes us want to believe in God – the proclivity toward faith, which is also a way of knowing.

A few years ago some social scientists were saying the human brain is “hardwired” for faith in God. Now some scientists say no such thing exists; others that it does exist, providing an evolutionary advantage for survival.

These are mere speculations, of course, perhaps with a smattering of scientific research behind them. Traditional Christian theology says that faith is a gift from God, which seems hard to align with the doctrine that God wants everyone “to be saved.” Doesn’t he/she withhold this gift from some?

Traditional Christian theology holds that God offers the gift to everyone, but not necessarily in the same way. As I mentioned in a recent blog, the Christian gospel makes it clear that there are degrees as well as varieties of faith, even when faith isn’t called by that name.

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“For those who do not believe in God,” says Daniel Gallagher, paraphrasing Pope Francis, “their task is to obey their consciences. Even those who do not believe … “sin” whenever they go against their consciences. Everyone, without exclusion, is held to the obligation of listening to and obeying their consciences….”

Traditional theology also teaches that we must form our consciences well. That requires an openness to God and to traditional as well as modern views on ethics and doctrine. We in contemporary society may think we’ve recently discovered ethics, but the vast majority of moral dilemmas are centuries old and require application of the same moral principles, though the circumstances surrounding the issues may be new.

So faith comes in a variety of forms, and people have different ideas about what faith means. The various views have much in common, however, especially for believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For most Jews and Christians, faith is both new and old.

In a commentary on a speech the pope made in Brazil last year, Gallagher writes, “Faith is a journey; it is a history. God did not reveal himself by dictating abstract truths but by acting in human history. The response of faith, in turn, is historical, meaning that it must be renewed and refreshed again and again.”

Pope Francis also suggests, says Gallagher, that faith is not genuine unless it is tinged with a trace of doubt.

“The great leaders of God’s people, like Moses, always left room for doubt,” he quotes the pope as saying. “We must always leave room for the Lord and not for our own certainties. We must be humble. Every true discernment includes an element of uncertainty….”

The pope believes “we must be willing to ‘enter into a process’ if we wish to undertake the journey of faith,” Gallagher writes. “God reveals himself within and through time and is present in the unfolding of events. Faith requires patience and a willingness to wait.”

Finally, Gallagher notes the “…importance of the community for receiving, keeping, and handing on the faith,” which is the obvious way God reaches out to us. For people searching for God, the history of that community – its customs, literature, music and liturgy – can be crucial in finding him/her.