Faith and Faithlessness

As a fan of all types of puzzles, I enjoy seeing both jigsaw puzzle pieces and words fall into place. The separate becomes connected and the random suddenly makes sense. I tend to follow the same steps when reading, looking for patterns that tie disparate topics together.

As such, when I recently read two disturbing articles within a few pages of each other in my morning paper, I viewed them as a pair rather than individually. The first relayed a distressing tale of women who, after testing for genes associated with a highly increased cancer risk, chose to have mastectomies and hysterectomies as a preventative measure. Increased data recently revealed that their risk was much lower than they had been told. It was too late to undo the emotional or physical pain they underwent and those whose decisions included having no more children had no way to reverse events.

The second article spoke of the growing estrangement from organized religion among the young. It featured families for whom Christmas always meant attending church and how they are coping when adult children wish to join their parents for the holidays, but not attend services with them.

What is the connection?

I do not know if they still do so, but insurance policies used to have an exclusion for “acts of God.” Perhaps they have renamed that clause, but the idea was that certain freak weather occurrences can neither be predicted nor prevented. As a populace becomes less religious and even agnostic or atheistic, the idea of an “act of God” necessarily becomes incomprehensible and even unacceptable.

As someone who does believe in God, I would like to point out that I, along with many others, see “acts of God” all the time in a positive sense. Every baby conceived and every baby born is an act of God. Every time I open my eyes and see, use my ears to hear, or walk on my feet, I recognize an act of God. Yes, a monsoon in Oklahoma would be an unusual and unexpected—and painful—act of God, but when doctors have given up hope for a patient who then has a complete recovery that too is an unusual and unexpected—and joyous—act of God.

In other words, while faith does demand that we put forth effort and run our lives in accord with sense and knowledge, in the final analysis having faith means recognizing that God has the final say. I must work diligently, but I cannot guarantee economic success. I must devote great effort to raising my children, but I cannot guarantee they grow up physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy. I need to take care of my body, but I cannot guarantee that I will be healthy.

As God moves out of the picture, as the second article I referenced reveals, people come under great pressure regarding what happens in their lives. If there are no “acts of God” the thinking easily follows that someone—either oneself or others—is accountable for all of one’s problems. Everything, from the straws we use in our drinks to mapping our genes to the most minute decisions of our lives demand intense concentration, for we are responsible for everything. Needing to be all-powerful and all-knowing, or conversely, a victim of circumstances with little or no ability to direct one’s own fate is exhausting and depressing.

Here is an example. Most people today will affirm that having as many children as God gives you can be overwhelming. But they are less likely to recognize that it can also be an overwhelming burden to decide everything about children on one’s own; how many children, at what stage of life, under what circumstances, with or without a spouse, at what financial and emotional cost for procedures, how to respond to the results of (often flawed) prenatal testing, etc., etc., etc. Believing in God and having guidance from a competent faith leader provides a framework for making those decisions rather than needing to rely solely on one’s own feelings and thoughts or on current trends. The action taken may even be the same, but acknowledging a spiritual aspect provides greater elucidation of the decision being considered as well as a recognition that we can only do the best we can with the tools that we have; we are not going to be omniscient. Taking God out of the picture doesn’t make the decisions easier. The same is true in other areas of our lives. Rising levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness that we are seeing today suggest that the secular path society is following has troubling side effects.

Yes, religious leaders and institutions of faith can and have failed. These failures can range from criminal activities to those of human frailty and foolishness. It is crushing to feel betrayed by one’s faith or those who represent it. Yet, today, we act as if the failures are universal, ignoring the positive, the life-enhancing, and the successes of faith and faith communities. Perhaps Bing Crosby portraying a priest in movies such as The Bells of St. Mary or Spencer Tracy’s depiction of (real-life) Father Flanagan in Boys’ Town showed only a positive side of faith, but focusing only on the failures presents just as much, or more, of an unrealistic and false picture.

Having God in one’s life – both when times are good and when they aren’t -has provided direction, strength, and comfort to millions through the ages. As the unfortunate women in the first article I read discovered, science and technology aren’t flawless and the blood of millions murdered under atheist regimes refutes the idea that getting rid of God leads to a happier and kinder world.

I am not urging those without faith to fake it. And there are those who have studied, struggled, and concluded that God doesn’t exist. Yet there are also too many who pat themselves on the back for being enlightened and scientific in rejecting God and the faith of their ancestors, but who too often are instead spiritually ignorant and uneducated. Sometimes they have, unfortunately, met charlatans or incompetent representatives of religion. However, if they went for physical or psychological counseling and met someone incompetent or deeply flawed, they would look further rather than decide that the entire fields of medicine or counseling are irreparably tarnished by the malefactor.

Rejecting faith in response to societal encouragement for doing so, as happens today on college campuses and in many corners of society, isn’t an independent and courageous action, but simply “going with the flow.” As someone who lives a fuller and happier life because of my faith, I feel a deep sadness for those who are unaware of what they are missing by ignoring this dimension of life and worry about a world where fundamental principles bestowed by Judaism and Christianity are rejected.

(This Musing originally appeared in 2019)

This Musing is dedicated in memory of Refael Fahimi, age 63, Netanel Maskalchi, age 36 and Refael Meir Maskalchi, age 12, a grandfather, son-in-law and grandson who were all killed by a rocket on October 7, 2023.

And with prayers for the safe and prompt release of the remaining hostages, among them Elyakim Libman, age 23, who was working as a security guard at the music festival held on October 7, 2023. He turned down the opportunity to hide in order to provide aid to a badly injured woman.

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14 thoughts on “Faith and Faithlessness”

  1. As always, your shared thoughts are appreciated. I cannot imagine what my life would be without my faith. I have a pretty good turn-off switch when things get crazy around me. I was told by an unbelieving father I would just get married and have 6 children…not go to college. I did go to a 2-year college and managed to move out when I was 19 years old and stay out, get married and have a son. When I move out at 19 years old is when I became my father’s favorite child for a short time. My siblings struggle. My younger sister has a bumper sticker “I believe in life before death.” My brother is quieter and not quite so outspoken. The tougher things get, the more I praise God and problems work out somehow. I believe there are brilliant people in my path who consider Christianity and Judaism as a crutch. That’s too bad because an ounce of prevention (reading the Bible is worth a pound of cure).

    1. Ruth, so many families have members going in different directions. Bless you for for overcoming obstacles in your path.

  2. A belated Happy Hanukkah, Susan. As usual an insightful take on the two pieces you read recently. Interesting that the woman who had bilateral mastectomies to preclude the chance of breast cancer may have placed more faith in humans whose frailties include shaky prognostications rather than trusting in the providence of our God. Blessings.

    1. Kristin, I am not judging the women in that family. For all I know, they acted with the guidance of their pastor or priest. I was struck more by how, as a society, we are moving in a direction of demanding complete control which is, of course, impossible. There is a fine line between being responsible and proactive and between destroying ourselves in the process of trying to do more than we actually can.

  3. I always love reading your thoughts, Miss Susan. My return to faith traditions in adult life has restored the joy of childhood years. Being involved in my faith community is a blessing. Happy New Year.

  4. Just a comment here on faith. About 50 years ago I had something happen that I viewed as “providential.” We were driving in a snowstorm going N. on I-15 headed for Billings. We were traveling along in kind of a “pack” when my car started slowing down on it’s own. I swung under the freeway at an off ramp, popped my hood and got our to find my carburetor encased in a big ball of ice. This is the only time in my life I’ve had this happen. We waited for it to thaw from the engine heat, then got back up on the freeway. 10 or 15 miles on up the road we came across a horrible multi-car accident and cars off the road and all over. It was then that I recognized that this was the “Pack” of cars we had been traveling with. Had the carburetor not iced up very likely we’d have been involved. This was a primary motivator in drawing nearer to our heavenly father. I see things happen regularly. One Sunday morning several years ago I was on my way to help a friend finish a high ceiling. On the way there I felt impressed to Praise the Lord, so I was thanking Him for his protection and care. I even got into conversation with my guardian angel whom I believed was riding along with me. As I approached a stoplight I stopped, only to have the car behind me pass me on the shoulder and stop in somebody’s front yard. Then I looked in my rear-view mirror to see this old Ford pickup sliding sideways on the wet pavement right toward me. I could see fear written all over the faces of the occupants, then it stopped, just inches behind me. Right there I told my Lord that He didn’t need to demonstrate his protection so graphically, but “thank You, for being there and protecting me. Once we start looking for them, we’ll realize that there are no coincidences. God is in control all the time. These little stories need to be shared with our friends and family – they help build faith and trust in an all powerful God. Thank you for letting me share.

    1. Steve, thank you for sharing those stories. I can see how they would be powerful moments in your life. For a believer, it was a miracle. For a non-believer it was luck or karma or something like that. I think it is emotionally healthy to be able to thank God for situations like you faced.

  5. Wow! Great speech. I’m a part time musician (Baptist) and just played two services for the local Unitarian Universalist church which was short handed during the holidays. They need to hear this.

    1. I’d love to know what aspect of it you want to share, Arthur. Sounds like you had a wonderful Christmas.

  6. I am not God nor am I a messiah. I believe in God. Is Jesus the messiah? I just don’t know. I prefer to listen to you, Rabbi Lapin and others I also like to listen to pastor Hagee. I’m a gentile and if I’m perfectly honest couldnt live a even remotely Jewish life. Simply wasn’t raised that way. Should I then reject Judaism? No. I’m a firm believer in the Judaism and Christianity. I believe that both make a world a better place. I reject Athens. So will that mean I need to reject Christianity? The answer for me is no. For me I will reject Athens and embrace Judaic and Christian principles. I will probably never be a perfect Jew or Christian but going forward I will definitely be doing a better job. I believe God is both merciful and just.

    1. Kenneth Martindale

      Dear Susan,
      If you are not already familiar with his work you might find Jordan Peterson’s series of talks on the Bible interesting . These are available on Youtube.

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