As a fan of all types of puzzles, I enjoy seeing both jigsaw puzzle pieces and words fall into place. The separate become 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 in regard to 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 mental or psychological counseling and met someone incompetent or deeply flawed, they would look further rather than decide that the entire fields of counseling or medicine 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.