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Why I Still Believe

I CARRY ON

By Larry A. Carstens | May 2007
Larry A. Carstens, who is listed in the 2005-2006 edition of  Who's Who Among American Teachers, teaches English in a public high school and community college in the Los Angeles area.

It has now been a few months since my mother died from cancer. Besides the grief over her loss, the emotional desolation, and the sense that the world contains less beauty, less laughter, and less love than when she was alive, the way her death has affected me most deeply has been in regard to my faith in God. As a cradle Catholic who has been a devout and church-going believer for all of my 41 years, I don’t recall having been attacked by doubts in God’s existence as much as I have been in the time since my mother passed away. I have a good friend who recovered from terminal cancer in 1993 and is still alive today. I fervently hoped that the herbal medicine he used, in combination with prayer and a positive attitude, would save my mother from death at 74, and allow her to live into her 80s or 90s. But it did not.

I attribute the doubts that have besieged me to the influence of the demonic, and, perhaps, my own emotions temporarily holding sway over reason. But even as my heart feels as if God were not there, my head continues to find its way back to Him. I cannot escape the conviction that He lives and is the ultimate Truth of the universe, even if some of the most intelligent and ethical people I know do not believe in Him. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis, a former atheist, has the elder devil say: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” This passage has come home to me with great frequency in these trying times.

Recently, I told my father, who has been an atheist since before I was born, and still is, that I have seen religion and religious people through the eyes of disbelief. I have asked myself what if all religion were a grand lie, a massive deception that has been passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years? What if all the people who were praying, sacrificing, and attending Mass were wasting their time? What if there were no afterlife and this life all there is? After all, we believe that plants and animals are completely finished at death; what if it were true for us as well? Such a large number of things seem random and “unattended,” from my mother’s passing and the suffering of children to the animals killed on the highways.

And what of You, Lord Jesus Christ? I must confess that I have actively avoided thinking about You since my mother’s death. What if You were just another good but deluded man who had visions and touched many people, but were ultimately abandoned by the Father? Or worse still, served a Father who was merely a figment of Your imagination? When I put these questions down “on paper,” they seem to lose their power and force, yet they are vicious in moments of anguish and desolation.

As my belief in You stumbles and falters, the powerful words of C.S. Lewis on the subject (in Mere Christianity) prop it back up. These words first formed solid belief into my mind over 20 years ago: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level of a man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God — or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

In moments of doubt, like St. Peter on the water, I start to sink. I wonder if You were a deluded madman shrouded in the mists of history. But I promise You that I will be hot or cold: I will either discard any belief in You entirely or continue to follow You as my Lord and God. I will not fall into the logical inconsistency about You found in Mormonism, Islam, and Hinduism, and so deftly countered by C.S. Lewis.

Hot or cold: but can I really be cold? When I see the stars, and the grandness of the universe, when I contemplate the perfection evident in the design of the human eye (or the “fearful symmetry” of the “tyger” in William Blake’s poem), the perfect distance from the sun at which the earth glides along, and the effects of Judeo-Christian revelation upon human history, it is hard for me to assert that there is no Author of the grand book that is all around me. As for the effects on history, I know many anti-religious historians (Gibbon, et al.) only see the scandals and persecutions, but I see all the positive things it has wrought: For example, the preservation of learning after the collapse of the Roman Empire, including the first universities and the roots of the scientific revolution; the conversion of tribal pagans of Europe in the pre-Christian dark ages and the child-sacrificing Aztecs of Mexico; the literacy of most people today and the feeding of most people today, largely due to scientific achievements which have the Church and medieval scholasticism at their roots. “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree…,” wrote Albert Einstein, “It is no mere chance that our older universities have developed from clerical schools.”

Then there are all the martyrs who died for their belief in God: From SS Stephen and Sebastian to SS Thomas Becket and Thomas More, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and all the brave and caring missionaries who died for the Faith among the Indians, in Africa and Asia — even to this day. Could their sacrifices have been in vain?

Yet I must still ask the question that plagues any doubter: If God exists, why doesn’t He say so in an obvious and inescapable way? Someone once pointed out that we see the effects of the sun by observing sunlight, not by trying to look at the sun directly. In the same way, we can see the existence of God by the effects of His rule, and the behavior of those who place Him at the center of their lives, and, for that matter, the behavior of those who reject and discard belief in Him. Where is the non-believing Mother Teresa, the anti-religious George Washington, for example? It seems that we are at our best when we dedicate ourselves to God, and at our worst when we reject Him. Of course, people like my father are an exception to this principle, but I have to ask what a nation would look like if his belief that there is no God were “in charge.” One need look no further than the Communist and fascist regimes of the 20th century. Sure, atheists like Trotsky and Che Guevara were sincere men who really wanted to help their people, but the hard truth is that they both helped to install and prop up some of the most oppressive, anti-religious, and bloody regimes the world has ever seen. Why is it that every revolution that includes a rejection of Judeo-Christian religion ends up in brutal dictatorship? Perhaps George Washington was on to something when he wrote that “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on the minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” (I rather like Washington’s caveat about “the influence of refined education on the minds of peculiar structure” — it describes my father so well!)

Everything seems clearer and more logical if God exists. If I lapse in my faith in Him, I find there are too many things that do not make sense. It is like trying to force myself not to see physical reality, when I know that I have eyes and they work. For that reason, my temporary sojourns of disbelief cannot last. I am like a drunkard who, after visiting the “bar” of doubt and disbelief, is returned, time and again — and, at times, against his will — to his own “home”: the house of religious faith. C.S. Lewis once wrote (mindful, perhaps of Nietzsche) that the disbeliever cannot end the existence of God by proclaiming it any more than a lunatic can put out the sun’s light by scrawling the word “darkness” on the wall of his cell. Reason, that faculty which John Donne once described as God’s “viceroy in me,” does not permit me to persist in denying that God is, even when emotions would.

Perhaps it’s not so much a lack of faith in God, but a lack of faith in myself. God exists; He bled and died out of love for us. The question is: Do I still love Him? Can I retain my faith in Him, despite how He took my mother, long before I was ready to lose her? I hope so. Whether I like it or not, He is Lord over all lives, including mine and my mother’s; and He is my only hope for happiness, both in this life and afterward. He gave my mother life, and He had every right to take it away. I tell myself that, but struggle to really believe it.

As for my mother, I just miss her. I will never stop loving her. I only hope I will be able to love her in person once again after my own death. At times I think of her and feel as if I wouldn’t mind if it were soon. It becomes easy to identify with the startling statement of St. Paul: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). But God has given me a wife and children, and for their sake I carry on. The Apostle does immediately add: “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” I suppose it was telling that I knew the first part of that quote by heart, but had to look up the second part. I pray that for as long as I remain in the flesh, I will not lose my faith: not for God’s sake — He can get along just perfectly without me — but for my own. The philosopher Albert Camus once described the truth as something “elusive, ever to be won anew.” Had he believed, he might have said the same for faith. Tomorrow is another working day: perhaps another cross to bear. In the interim, I repeat with St. Ambrose: In te, Domine, speravi: non confundar in aeternum — “In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust, let me never be put to confusion” (Ps. 30; Vulgate).

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