An Excerpt from “Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters”
by Robert Wennberg
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
Often the best response to doubt and a sense of God’s absence is Christian service, reaching out to others in their need, and doing so consciously in the name of Christ. If in the midst of our struggles we are given the choice of miraculously going back in time to spend a week with C. S. Lewis or even with the great Thomas Aquinas, confronting and responding to faith’s intellectual challenges, or spending a week with Mother Teresa, ministering to the poorest of the poor in the name of Christ on the streets of Calcutta, choose to be with Mother Teresa. The choice would be a hard one, admittedly, but I think it would be the right one. This same point is made by the novelist Flannery O’Connor, who tells how Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet priest, responded to a request by fellow poet Robert Bridges to tell him how he might, amidst his struggles, come to believe.1 Bridges no doubt expected an extended philosophical and theological response, of which Hopkins, of course, was quite capable. But that was not what Bridges received. Rather, Hopkins responded with just two words: “Give alms.” Certainly an intriguing reply. It is in charity, Hopkins suggests, that God is to be found and our spirits revived.
Jesus himself seems to suggest that knowing is connected to doing. “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God” (John 7:17 NIV). The Christian faith is, after all, not just a set of doctrines to be believed, but a way of life to be entered into, and this way of life involves charity and love. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “Don’t get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.”2 Indeed, thinking about our faith is important, but acting on our faith is equally important, perhaps even more so during those dark nights in our journey of faith. Crucially, to serve others sacrificially, as one would at the side of Mother Teresa, is to bring one’s life into conformity with the character of the God of love that Christians see in Jesus. Just as one might find God in prayer and worship, so one might find God when serving others in the name of the One who is eternal love. It is not only that we would be serving others, but that we would be doing so, in our imaginary case, with one whose life was a beautiful “demonstration of God,” to use a phrase Mother Teresa herself coined in calling Christians to be models of God’s love and compassion in this world. We may want a logical demonstration of God’s existence, but perhaps even better is a living demonstration of God in the lives of those who love God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and their neighbor as themselves. So we not only serve others, but we serve others with others who with heartfelt concern do so in Christ’s name. This may be as good a response to doubt as we can find, seeing God alive and active, working through us and through our fellow laborers.
It might be objected that choosing a week with Mother Teresa over a week with C. S. Lewis is a curious decision, granting as we now know that what is being recommended, service in the name of Christ, did not work for Mother Teresa. Indeed, Mother Teresa herself experienced a prolonged dark night of the soul and agonized over a sense of God’s absence, “no longer feeling Jesus’ presence,” despite her sacrificial service. All this, apparently, to the end of her days. But Mother Teresa’s circumstances may be rather special, as we shall see in a later reflection. Despite the darkness, it was when serving the poor that Mother Teresa felt closest to God and had a sense of his presence. “Yet deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness. When outside—in the work—or meeting people— there is a presence—of somebody living very close — in very me. — I don’t know what this is — but very often even every day—that love in me for God grows more real. — I find myself telling Jesus unconsciously most strange tokens of love.”
A colleague of mine, a professional philosopher who has written and taught in the area of Christian apologetics and is therefore well acquainted with the intellectual give-and-take over the question of God’s existence and the truth of the Christian faith, tells of an encounter with severe doubt that he experienced during his college years. In his junior year, this philosophy major was unable to find any arguments for God’s existence that in his judgment could withstand critical scrutiny. He was also convinced that the only way he could have a justified confidence in God’s reality was to possess at least one such argument, and ideally several. A fully satisfactory argument would be a formal piece of reasoning that had strong premises leading by logical steps to the inescapable conclusion that God exists. But no such argument was forthcoming. The arguments examined simply did not satisfy him. Consequently he was engulfed by deep, depressing doubt. What was at the center of his Christian faith, the very existence of God, was now called into question. Moreover, in the history of philosophy, as he had come to see, the world’s best minds had been unable to reach agreement on this issue, unable to resolve matters with arguments found compelling by all. Indeed, the debate continues to this day. Is there a God or isn’t there? No definitive answer was forthcoming from the philosophical community, only continued debate and disagreement. How could he, mere philosophical neophyte that he was, expect to come to a determination in this matter? Of course, it’s not necessary to have an argument that satisfies everyone — always an impossibility — so long as it satisfies you. But he couldn’t find such an argument, and even if he did, it would be held suspect because, as he knew, there would be intelligent persons, philosophers past and philosophers present, who were not convinced.
One may question, however, whether the test of a belief should be its endorsement by the philosophical community. If that were so, one would be hard pressed to find any belief of significance that passed muster. Free will, moral agency, truth, knowledge, an external world, other minds, a continuing self, the trustworthiness of sensory experience, and much more have come under skeptical attack and are the object of continuing philosophical debate. The question of God’s existence fares no worse than all the other topics that have been discussed and debated among philosophers over the centuries. These debates and disagreements concern some of the most basic and common sense beliefs that people hold, beliefs they never would have thought to question. It is also the case, we should keep in mind, that some of the finest minds (philosophers and others) have been convinced by arguments for the existence of God, arguments propounded with a great deal of technical skill and sophistication. My colleague subsequently did come to see that the arguments were better than he had thought, but he also came to see that they were less important than he had thought, less central to his own confidence in God’s reality, a confidence that was fully justified apart from those arguments.
What is of special interest for our purposes is that my good friend’s faith was revived not by discovering a sound, possibly bulletproof argument for God’s existence but by something quite different — participation in a missions trip to Mexico during spring break. On that trip he was involved with several hundred other students in Christian service, evangelism, and worship. This had a profound effect on him. He simply put it this way: “through these experiences I had a strong sense of God’s presence and activity.”4 Doubt was dispelled and a confident faith restored. He perceived while serving others that God was working through him and through those with whom he served. But, of course, for that to happen he first had to place himself in God’s service, as he did by participating in that missions trip. In other words, he had to “give alms,” and he did.
This suggested response finds support in that great epistle of love, First John: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:7, 8, 12 RSV). There is a deep, intimate connection between love, on the one hand, and abiding in and knowing God, on the other. The key is “loving one another.” To be sure, John has in mind the love we are to have for the brethren, fellow believers. I may, however, be forgiven for extending the object of our love to all human beings, to all for whom Christ died, believers and others. And John is quick to tell us that this love is not merely sentimentality or warm feelings unaccompanied by loving action. It is a more substantial love than that, as he tells us. “But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth” (3:17, 18 RSV). It is love embodied and acted out, the giving of oneself, not feelings without action, that unites us to God. It is caring and compassionate love that reaches out to others in their need. It is love in its fullest, richest sense. It is with this love that God abides in us and we abide in God. However, First John is not a paean of praise to love in the abstract, as if love is God and we have no God but love. Love is not our God. Rather, our God is love, and the God of love is the same God who created us, loved us before we loved him, and sent his Son to be “the expiation for our sins” (4:10 RSV). Therefore, we are admonished, “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (4:11 RSV). This is the context that renders theologically sensible the claim that to abide in love is to abide in God.
It is more likely, I am suggesting, that God will be found in the course of serving others in the name of Christ than in the course of constructing, even if successfully, good arguments for the existence of God, which is by no means a fruitless activity. In reaching out to others in love, we ourselves are drawn into the orbit of God’s love. We begin to see the world’s need in the same way a compassionate God sees that need.We bring our will into harmony with God’s will. We provide occasion for God to be active in and through us, and we witness God’s activity in and through the lives of those with whom we serve and labor. Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, put matters in very stark terms: “For God goes out to meet him who seeks Him with love and by love, and hides Himself from him who searches for Him with the cold and loveless reason. God wills that the heart should have rest, but not the head, reversing the order of the physical life in which the head sleeps and rests at times while the heart wakes and works unceasingly.”5 Of course, we can love God with our minds, as Jesus himself reminds us (Matt. 22:37), and even our feeble intellectual efforts at constructing arguments for God’s existence (some no doubt more robust than others) may be expressive of a heart reaching out to God and can be an act of love. There is no need to deny that. And yet a sophisticated philosophical exercise, highly technical and analytical when done well, and not unprofitable for some purposes, may not be all that the heart needs. Something more is needed. So give alms. Yes, spend that week with Mother Teresa. Go on that missions trip.
1 Flannery O’Connor, “The Habit of Being” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), pp. 476-77.
2 O’Connor, “The Habit of Being,” p. 477.
3 Mother Teresa: “Come Be My Light; The PrivateWritings of the ‘Saint of Calcutta,’” edited with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 211.
4 James Taylor, “Introducing Apologetics” (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 10.
5 Miguel de Unamuno, “Tragic Sense of Life” (New York: Dover, 1954),
Robert N. Wennberg, “Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters” © 2009 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.