Every faith-promoting story is also a faith-destroying story. I don’t mean just stories that are passed off as faith promoting but that are more about something else (like over-controlling parents) or stories that turn out to have been embellished. I mean all of them. A faith-promoting story has a conflict to it–someone is stuck in some difficult situation–and that conflict is resolved miraculously. The level of drama involved in the miracle varies a lot, of course. Some miracles are definitely showier than others. Some are quieter, perhaps boiling down to the person realizing that what they thought was a conflict actually wasn’t when they approached it a different way. The reason that faith-promoting stories are also faith-destroying is that for any particular conflict a person faces in such a story, multitudes of other people have faced the same conflict and have not gotten the same miraculous resolution. (It’s the fact that most people don’t get the miracle that makes it a miracle; if it were commonplace, it wouldn’t be miraculous.) This raises the obvious question of why the miracle comes to the one person and not to the others. And there typically isn’t a good answer to this question. God can seem awfully fickle when doling out miracles.
I can’t believe in a God who intervenes in everyday life. I feel like I’m giving God the benefit of the doubt here. It’s not just that people with the same conflict don’t get the miraculous help reported in faith-promoting stories, it’s that people facing way worse conflicts don’t get miraculous help. It is far more comforting for me to think that there is no divine intervention at all than that it is focused on such small–often relatively trivial–matters while ignoring gigantic atrocities.
I’m not usually one who appreciates much poetry, but I love the closing stanza of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” because it expresses so well how I feel like the world really is.
for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
To me, this feels like a bracing dose of cold reality that’s a great antidote to all the faith-promoting stories that the Church is awash in. The world might seem good at some moments, but the reality is that we have been left to our own devices, and we typically end up doing nothing better than finding new ways to hurt each other. God isn’t going to intervene to find our lost keys, as he certainly doesn’t seem to be intervening to stop human trafficking or torture or child abuse. There’s just us, humanity, blundering into each other, harming one another intentionally or ignorantly, perpetuating long-past vendettas or fearful of each other because of our worries about our own vulnerabilities or attacking each other for reasons we’re not even conscious of.
I don’t always feel quite this hopeless. Even though I can’t believe in a God who intervenes in human affairs, I have high hopes for there being a God and an afterlife. There are relationships I want to continue. And there are beautiful things that I want to continue appreciating. Faith-promoting stories don’t help me with that hope, though. To me, they just portray an arbitrary and capricious God. Instead of listening to them, I return again and again to this poem, turning its words over and over in my head. I feel like it helps center me on the reality that I can see, that I experience, before I reach out to consider other, better things that I might hope for.