The Will to Believe

How do we deal with the doubts we experience each day?

As a religion major in college, I was taught how to look at the world in a very academic way.  This meant having a strong grasp of the historical contexts surrounding experiences of God and the literary devices used to tell about these experiences.  It meant questioning the plausibility and accuracy of religious texts against similar sources.  We were taught to assume nothing, and to deconstruct everything.

In one sense, this can be very helpful: understanding the historical context, author, audience, and genre of a religious source heightens one’s understanding of the truth about both God and humanity.  In another sense, however, the deconstruction of religion can be the start of a slippery slope of doubt that, without proper reconstruction, leads to one’s inevitable loss of faith.

What does one do upon learning that the first five books of the Bible are allegorical stories similar to the stories found in other cultures of the Ancient Near East; that there is no historical proof of anything in the Bible until David, including evidence against the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt; and that Paul most likely didn’t write half of the epistles attributed to him?  For some, information like this pulled the rug out from under their faith: “If X isn’t true, something I’ve always believed, then how could Y and Z possibly be true?”

As a Catholic, the majority of these things were not troubling.  We do not read the bible as a literal, inerrant text, and so finding out that everything probably didn’t happen exactly as it was written was a non-issue for me; it’s a text written by humans, inspired by God, and so I accept the truth it reveals without needing to read it as empirical fact.

That being said, I left my undergraduate experience with many more doubts than I had before I started.  Maybe ‘God’ is a human construct created by misinformed people to explain scientific phenomenon that they didn’t understand.  Maybe our experience of miracles is simply a series of coincidence enhanced with meaning through our own confirmation bias.  Maybe our perception of God can be attributed to chemical imbalances, natural phenomenon, and blind faith. These questions began creeping into the back of my head, and I began to question every aspect of my faith. Why do I believe in something that cannot explain and cannot prove?

I began answering this question a little more critically after my powerful prayer experience at the Benedictine monastery, Mount Savior.  In my time before the eucharist, I asked myself this question, and asked that I be guided in prayer to an answer. Here are a few things I came up with:

  • I often feel an overwhelming with joy during the celebration of the eucharist, personal and communal prayer, and volunteer work.
  • My heart seeks peace and justice, humility and sacrifice, and a universal brotherhood/sisterhood that I believe is in line with my perception of the Christian God.
  • While I often doubt the existence of God, I find it very difficult to conceive of a world without an intelligent creator.  Maybe it is simply my socialization from a young age that leaves my mind rigid, but the thought seems unfathomable to me.
  • I hope that there is a God in a fundamentally different way than I hope for other things.

Through this prayer, I realized that I had strong experiential evidence and a strong desire to believe.  What was in my heart showed me clearly that God had given me the gift of Faith long ago; it was my head that was in the way.  My inability to prove my faith to others, the fear of being made a fool for irrational beliefs, kept me from accepting what I knew at the core of who I was.  I had been given the gift, but did not have the will to accept it.

It may sound weird, and certainly in a different context it sounds psychotic, but what I’ve done since is simply will myself to believe.  I’ve had to give up the useless necessity for proof, and take a chance at following what I find to be meaningful.  I’ve had to actively tell the intellectual side of me to take a risk and just believe.  Sure, I may be wrong, but what good is it to let that fear get in the way of what I feel to be right?

I still doubt many things. I imagine I always will. For now, I have to remind myself of the powerful experiences of God I’ve had over the years, willing myself to be open enough for God to grow in me. It’s certainly not easy, but my experience has been that it is entirely worth it.

2 Comments on “The Will to Believe

  1. What a beautiful and brave reflection to share, Casey! Your comment about “the powerful experiences of God” resonated with me.

    Perhaps it is the gift of time, ie I have lived many more years and been blessed to observe the lives of my own children and other young people your age, that has brought me to a slightly different place. As a result, I have found that those ” powerful experiences” are so numerous and so compelling that it’s not a matter of me “willing” myself to believe. Instead, when I have doubts, it is not God whom I doubt but myself. I know the weakness, the obtuseness (is that a word?), the lack are all purely mine…not His. If I cannot grasp it…cannot prove it…it is not because it is not true or does not exist but, instead, because the grasping and proving are beyond my limited means. In the end, we serve Him as He would have us serve; our job is to be faithful, not successful. Success belongs to Him.

    I think of all that was written about God’s existence by such a great mind as St. Thomas Acquinas and I relate best to his reflection on his scholarship, “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value”. It is of no little value to the rest of us but, in the end, those “powerful experiences” make our own musings pale.

    So this is a long way of saying that I applaud your faithfulness and I am confident that it will not be unrewarded.

    Barbara Goss

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