You’re in the middle of your final chemotherapy infusion, contending with this battering ‘poison with a purpose’ that weakens and reduces you. It’s moments like this that disturb you to the core. At this point in your treatments, theoretically, you should be full of bright hopes and happy plans; instead, your heart’s a captive of dark prospects and grim forebodings. All you can muster for faith, while intellectually honest, is faint and frail. It’s cold comfort that leaves you empty, dissatisfied and afraid.
In such trying moments you find yourself clinging to a minimalist view of God and goodness based on reason and science. Even now, you’re not quite an atheist. You believe, at least, that you, along with everything else that populates the universe, are part of something infinitely greater than yourself, part of a divine order existing before everything else began that will continue without end.
It’s a reasonable hypothesis, your fallback position in times when trusting in anything more doesn’t seem possible. As far as a deity goes, you wonder whether we all might really be on our own, each of us having to make our way through life as best we can with little evidence for believing there’s anything beyond this existence to provide enduring meaning, hope and peace. This rational, skeptical, minimalist view of the sacred you call your ‘secular faith,’ your go-to position for times when it feels impossible to believe anything more.
And yet, in this opaque moment when the holy seems all but absent in my life, your heart echos the complaint that the poet John Donne made to God in his prayer, “Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,/ But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.” John Donne, The Major Works, (Oxford, England, Oxford University Press), p. 178.
There is something in you — in all of us, you believe — that longs for more than science and reason can possibly deliver. Some will call the object of our desire ‘God,’ others might simply name it ‘Mystery.’ But whatever the name, for you at a time like this, such grand faith seems close to being preposterous.
Belief in a God who relates personally to us requires a leap of faith beyond rationality, a faith based on revelation. The philosopher Blaise Pascal tried to make something reasonable of the choice to believe in revelation by posing his famous wager. He urged us to bet that an immanent, intimate God and a blessed afterlife do indeed exist. If the proposition turns out to be true in reality, then we have gained happiness; if it proves to be false, then we have lost nothing! But this reason-driven betting on a benevolent God ends in being little more than a dishonest act of personal self-interest. It demeans us that our minds can provide no more assurance than this cold calculation. And it dishonors God — should there exist such a God who loves us so — that we could regard such kindness and mercy so meanly.
In the end, science and philosophy can only deliver what Martin Luther called the Deus Absconditus, the ‘hidden God’ whose attributes we cannot see and whose remoteness leaves us feeling abandoned. This ‘reasonable God’ will never satisfy our innate desire for an abiding presence in our lives who cares about us, who has a personal stake in our well-being. At this moment, however, when you’re feeling weak and defeated, a God who acts with a sense of purpose and love toward you seems altogether remote and inaccessible. This next level of faith demands what the philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard spoke of as a great leap taken in fear and trembling and ending in infinite resignation. And who has the courage for the likes of that at times like this? Not you, perhaps; not now, at least.
Such a faith requires the conviction that God is more than simply a remote presence “out there;” that the divine is already “right here,” around us, within us, awaiting our recognition. As Jesus put it, “The Kingdom of God, [that is, what God wants for you and for all the world] is among/within you.” (Luke 17;21) How ironic when what you feel within you just now are the vile effects of flooding your body and soul with a toxin designed to heal!
When you do turn to revelation, you readily find there the many promises of God’s intimate presence spread across the Hebrew and Christian scriptures:
Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, . . . for I will not leave you . . . ” (Genesis 28:15)
Bless the Lord, O my soul,/who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,/who satisfies you with good as long as you live/so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103: 4a,5)
O Lord, you have searched me and known me./You know when I sit down and when I rise up;/you discern my thoughts from far away./You search out my path and my lying down,/and are acquainted with all my ways./Where can I go from your spirit/Or where can I flee from your presence?/If I ascend to heaven, you are there;/if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there./If I take the wings of the morning/and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,/even there your hand shall lead me,/and your right hand shall hold me fast./If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,/and the light around me become night,”/even the darkness is not dark to you;/the night is as bright as the day,/for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139: 1-3, 7-12)
For it was you who formed my inward parts;/you knit me together in my mother’s womb./I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:13-14a)
I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. (Isaiah 41:1-2, 4)
Can a woman forget her nursing child,/or show no compassion for the child of her womb?/Even these may forget,/yet I will not forget you./See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:15-16a)
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. (Jeremiah 1:5a)
Even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid. (Luke 12:7a)
The glory that you have given me, [Father]. I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:22-23)
[I pray, Father,] that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:26b)
We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. [Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37, 39b)
Truly to believe what scripture promises is to take a bounding leap beyond secular faith into what can only be called ‘faith revealed as merciful love.’ But how can you manage such a loyalty amidst such discouragement when God seems so far away and beyond you? Your faith, it seems, remains a sometime thing; doubt and certainty continue the fight for top billing in your heart. You wonder if even a prayer of regret to an unprovable God who exists beyond all reason will be of any consequence for your uncertain self just now. Or, could it be that a loving, merciful God who mysteriously is most imperceptible to you right now, remains steadfastly close by, rejoicing in your prayer and blessing you in your weariness?