Obstacles to Faith in the Modern World

My writing and thoughts often carry me to the “edges” – to the edge of unbelief and to the edge of the depths of belief. My instinct for these places is an instinct for the obstacles to faith. Why do some believe and others not? And what is the exact nature of belief and unbelief?

There is a form of belief familiar to everyone. It is simply the manner in which we see the world. We are not particularly aware of any effort required in this exercise. We open our eyes, look, and see what we see. This perception, however, can also be clouded by many things. For some, every simple perception of the world comes colored with a mist of fear and anxiety. Things are not only what they are seen to be, but are also seen to be threats. If you have never had this experience you are blessed.

I recall my first experience of a major city – New York in 1971. I was working as a street musician along with a friend. The city was amazing – a constant feast for the eyes and senses. I had seen nothing like it. A week or so after arriving, we were mugged at knife point. What we lost financially was insignificant. What I lost was the city I had first encountered. In its place was a hostile, dangerous environment in which every face was a potential enemy, every alley way a hiding place for the next disaster. We went home.

Of course this “perception” of the world is simply the fog of psychology. But it is worth remembering how important that fog can be in how we see.

There is a way of seeing that many would describe as “seeing things as they are.” We assume that how we see things is objective, real, accurate, normal, etc. All of these take for granted an agreement concerning our perceptions. It would also be readily accepted that inner dispositions and culturally agreed ideas might distort these perceptions. The racially-divided society of my Southern childhood contained a large array of false but generally accepted (by whites) distortions of the world. Those who began speaking about equality in the 1960’s sounded, at first, like people from another planet. It is little wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr., described his vision of a world in which race was not issue in terms of a “promised land.”

These questions of perception are crucial to an understanding of faith and overcoming obstacles. Faith is a means of perception. It is an “organ” of seeing and hearing. It is the “evidence of things not seen,” or, “the seeing of unseeable things.” “To see the unseeable” is of a piece with “to know the Unknowable.” The things of God are not obvious or clear to a darkened heart.

Our modern version of things “as they are,” is simply things understood in a “secular” manner. For the most obvious thing to modern man is that his world is a great neutral zone. God (if there is a God) can choose to make Himself present in the world, but there is nothing about the world that is inherently connected to God. The world is just the world. He lives in a fog of unbelief. Many times I have heard non-believers (or various kinds of believers) express their desire for God to reveal Himself in a clear and unmistakable manner – an angel would do nicely.

With such an assumption underlying everything that appears, it is little wonder that the vision given by faith is a stumbling block. To perceive the world as sacrament and wonder contradicts our culture’s commonly held view. Everything “is what it is,” and asserting anything else about it is seen as metaphor, allegory, symbolism or “mysticism.”

When someone says that they “believe” in God, I’m not always sure what they mean. It is entirely possible (and even often the case) that they mean something quite different than what I would mean by the same statement. There is the acceptance of God as a theoretical construct, a mental assent, even a trusting mental assent to the existence of a higher being who loves, creates and provides for creation. That trusting assent may have a significant amount of content: the “God of the Bible,” or the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” etc. In many cases (even most), however, trusting assent to the existence of such a God does not alter the shape or nature of creation itself: it remains the same neutral, secular world. This is the situation I have described as a “two-storey universe.”

There are many versions of such a God – from the so-called literalist version of the fundamentalists, to the gentle, politically-correct God of modern liberalism. Some struggle with the name of this God, wondering whether “He” should be replaced by “He/She” or other English neologisms (in one graduate school I attended, certain professors would only accept papers written in conformity with a neologistic orthodoxy – and that was over 30 years ago).

But the content of the “superior being” in the two-storey universe is relatively beside the point. Such a God, regardless of content, is not the God and Father of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ: it is a lightly Christianized version of the ancient sky gods. And in the cultural perception of  modern, secularized nature, it is an endangered species. Few attacks on the Christian faith sound as silly as those of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Their inaccuracies and caricatures are rivaled only by the rants of the adherents whose god they despise.

But Christians would do well to listen to their critique – for the god they don’t believe in was taught them by someone or the culture at large. To say, “I believe in the god described by Dawkins, only my reasons are very good,” is actually inadequate. What Dawkins, Hitchens and company reveal is an obstacle to faith. If the universe itself is the one they perceive – if it is truly inert, self-existing, self-referential and spiritually neutral, then the case against the God taught and made known in Jesus Christ is strong indeed. Positing a sky-god above and outside such a world is perhaps interesting, but it is not persuasive and, more to the point, not Christianity. David Bentley Hart has this to say about the Christian God:

To speak of “God” properly—in a way, that is, consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Bahá’í, much of antique paganism, and so forth— is to speak of the one infinite ground of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.

God so understood is neither some particular thing posed over against the created universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a being, at least not in the way that a tree, a clock, or a god is; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are. He is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom all things live and move and have their being. He may be said to be “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of finite things, but also may be called “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity underlying all things.

To speak of “gods,” by contrast, is to speak only of a higher or more powerful or more splendid dimension of immanent reality. Any gods who might be out there do not transcend nature but belong to it. Their theogonies can be recounted— how they arose out of the primal night, or were born of other, more titanic progenitors, and so on —and in many cases their eventual demises foreseen. Each of them is a distinct being rather than “being itself,” and it is they who are dependent upon the universe for their existence rather than the reverse. Of such gods there may be an endless diversity, while of God there can be only one. Or, better, God is not merely one—not merely singular or unique—but is oneness as such, the sole act of being by which any finite thing exists and by which all things exist together.  From “God, Gods and Fairies,” First Things, June/July 2013

The God described by the Fathers is “Beyond all being.” He is “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same.” How do we perceive such a God?

The first and most important answer for Christians is that Jesus Christ is none other than the Word of the Father, the Logos of the Ground of Being, and that He has become man. In the words of St. John’s Gospel: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (literally, “He has exegeted Him”). 

As Fr. Thomas Hopko has said on numerous occasions: “You cannot know God…but you have to know Him to know that.”

This utterly transcendent, yet truly incarnate God, also makes Himself known in the primary means of the sacraments and the life of the “community of union” (to use the phrase of St. Irenaeus). The God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known can only be known because He reveals Himself – He makes Himself known. He is not an object among objects, nor is He an idea among ideas.

The sacramental life should not be seen as discrete moments of grace dispensed by the Church, but rather as revelations of Divine Reality, gifts of the very Life of God, given to us in the means He has appointed. And the means is not arbitrary – it is itself revelatory of the relationship between the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known and His creation. What we perceive by faith in the Eucharist is also a revelation about bread – all bread. For the incarnate Christ is the Lord of creation who is gathering all things into Himself.

The highly psychologized notion of “relationship” touted within much of modern Christianity is a deviation from what is established within the Scriptures and the historical life of the community of faith. It is a novelty – all too well-suited to an overly psychologized culture. In a world driven by the warring identities of 6 billion false-selves, one more relationship is simply not salvific. The false self does not have authentic relationship.

It should be obvious that we cannot perceive the true God in the manner of perception that dominates our cultural life. Faith is a means of perception that requires a change in the agent of perception. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The beginning of faith is a movement (which is always inherently a change) both away from our present perception and towards the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known. It is always a movement towards authentic being.

This movement towards God is initiated in us by grace, by the power of God that draws us, that encourages us, that nurtures our longing for true existence. Dimitru Staniloae describes our response:

At the beginning this is only the simple will to believe and not to do something. So inevitably the first effort of our will in view of the good, can have only this object: to believe. As far as we are concerned, we can’t begin anywhere else, by some change for the good in our life, except to believe. And the one who wants to believe, arrives at the point where he can….

So before starting out on the.way of purification, it is necessary for man to strengthen his faith received at Baptism, by will, but since faith is a relationship of mind to God, it can’t be strengthened except by my beginning to think more often of Him, not in a theoretical way, as of a philosophical subject for study, but of Him on whom I depend for everything and Who can help me in my insufficiencies. But the thought of God is made real, or maintained by a short and frequent remembrance of Him, made with piety, with the feeling that we depend on Him. Such a thought concentrates our thoughts on God or on Jesus Christ, on what He has done for us, as the basis for the trust that He will help us now too (in Orthodox Spirituality, Kindle 2228-2233).

This brings us back to the edges – where this article began. Although God is truly the Ground of Being, the only foundation of existence, our habit of perception acts as an obstacle for true perception. Our sight has to be drawn to the edges (even those immediately before us) where we see hints, even hints of hints, that there is a Reality that lies outside, within and beneath all that we see. That smallest perception sometimes comes with its own attendant joy, for it is Joy itself and Wonder. It is communion and union. It is purity of heart and love.

I was recently struck by this statement of the Elder Tadej of Serbia:

There are some that say that they are atheists, but there is no such thing as an atheist…. No such thing. Even the devil believes and trembles (cf. James 2:19), but he refuses to do good. There is no such thing as a person who does not believe in God, and there is no rational being on earth that does not long after life with all his heart. We will give anything to live eternally, and we all long after perfect love, love that never changes but lasts forever. God is life, He is love, peace, and joy. There are those who oppose Him, but they can do nothing to hurt Him. It is we who complicate our own lives with our negative thoughts  (Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, 1626-1630 Kindle Edition).

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