A Response to Skeptics
Old Testament Message
As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?
When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday.
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance. — Psalm 43:1-5
New Testament Message
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh. By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God. — Hebrews 11:1-5
And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples followed him. And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.
But Jesus, said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. — Mark 6:1-5
Not just once or twice, but continually in our Old Testament lesson skeptics challenge the psalmist, "Where is thy God?" He (or she) makes them no answer. Instead, as a matter of faith, he addresses the God who is nowhere to be found. Theologians call this aspect of God Deus Absconditus, the Hidden God.
The psalmist addresses Deus Absconditus in tones of sorrow and confusion, apparently believing that his faithfulness will eventually earn him God's presence. Modern believers often pass off experiences like this as a temporary condition, The Dark Night of the Soul, described by St. John of the Cross. But for some, the night never ends, and they become skeptics.
Modern skeptics challenge believers, in tones of anger and fear. Anger, because if God exists, then God has cruelly abandoned us, leaving us to our own worst impulses, and to the all manner of misfortune in an indifferent universe. Fear, because if God were to appear, He might take the ruling of our world away from us. Instead of, "Where is thy God?" modern skeptics say, "There are no gods." They believe that we run our own world, to the extent that it does not run us, and that, as Camus proved in The Myth of Sisyphus, existence (without God) is pointless and absurd.
"If God exists," one friend asked me, "then why the charade? Why not show us openly that He exists, and tell us openly what He wants of us?" Clearly the theophany at Sinai, in which God spoke to Moses and all Israel assembled at the foot of the mountain, will not suffice for my friend. He wants God to appear to everyone, not just a chosen few, and not just once or twice, but continually.
But if God did that, this would be God's Universe, and not the Universe He gave to us. We would be living in Our Father's house, without having had the chance to make our own way in the world, and in so doing, to become our adult selves. That is to say, we are forced to have free will, whether we want it or not, by God's seeming absence. (As Issac Bachevis Singer put it, "We have to believe in Free Will — we have no choice.")
We are left with only the occasional appearance to remind us that we only feel that we are entirely alone. Even God, in the person of Jesus, knew that feeling, speaking the words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" as He was dying on the cross. For God so loved the world that, in the person of Jesus, He let us humans act out our anger on Him.
For we are angry that so much of life is so hard. It is out of that anger and its accompanying despair that some of us challenge, "There are no gods." That there is no evolutionary value whatsoever in the enjoyment of a sunset, makes no impression on someone who cannot enjoy anything because of some trauma or affective disorder. That we can perceive awsome beauty in so much of the Universe makes no impression on those who have been oppressed by a false, distorted, demonic mental image of God, whether it is of their own or someone else's invention.
And yet, most of us do have the the ability — the gift — to perceive order and beauty in so many things: ripples on the surface of a pond, water as it freezes into ice, flowers, soap bubbles.
Now imagine that, spiritually speaking, you are a soap bubble — a thin, transparent, shiny film. Imagine that the air in which you float is the breath of God, and that the air inside you, that inflates (inspires) you into a soap bubble instead of a drop of soapy water, is also the breath of God. If you explore beyond yourself, or inside yourself, you encounter God. The only way to turn away from God (to become evil), is to confine your attention to stay absurdly on your own surface, going neither beyond yourself nor into your own depths. You'll only succeed in going around in circles, and your experiences will be superficial, but you can postpone the Divine encounter until your bubble bursts.
The physical Universe is like a soap bubble, too. If we refuse to look deeply within it to see God's imanence in His creation, or beyond it to see God's transcendence of His creation, then we see only the surface of existence, and ignore its heights and depths. Of course it seems empty, for we focus our spirit only on the container and ignore the messages it contains.
So how do we look? We must be open to surprise, willing to see all things anew. We must trust. Or to put it another way, we must loosen up and give in to our natural inclination to have faith. Not faith in miracles or miracle workers, but faith in extraordinary nature of ordinary things. This can leave us vulnerable to seeing patterns where there are none, but we can use our reason to check things out later. First, we just need to let go.
For, as in our Gospel lesson, God generally chooses not to overwhelm us against our will. God, in order that we have free will, generally chooses to be powerless in the face of our willful doubt. At least on the surface of things. Which means that in order to find, seek. In order to seek, be ready for surprise. "There are no gods," is the negative restatement of the positive, "I have yet to encounter anything I would recognize as a god." This last statement is tautologically true for skeptics. But then, "what I would recognize" is a statement of expectation, which is limited by one's imagination, which means that one may be looking for something limited and unsurprising. Which means that one may be looking for something other than God, and being either relieved or bitter (or both) at not finding it.
Well, that was convoluted. Just be ready for surprise. God has you surrounded, inside and out, and at your beginning and your end.
Of course, you are neither at the beginning nor the end of your life's journey, but in somewhere in the middle, or you wouldn't be reading this message. You might try being intentionally in the middle — in the here and now. So many of us live in constant remembrance of the past and constant expectation of the future, with our thoughts jumping constantly between them, that we seldom live in just the present moment. Focusing your attention on nothing but the present moment is a mental health giving part of most meditative disciplines. If you try it, you may find that you have never been and will never be truly abandoned.
Now may God make his countenance to shine upon you, and keep you forever in his grace.