The fragility of faith

Or, how can a thinking person still believe in God?

The fragility of faith
Illustration by Mark Smith

What good is God? That’s a question SCU’s Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education explored as part of its 2013–14 Bannan Institute, a yearlong thematic program addressing matters of significance within the Jesuit, Catholic intellectual tradition. In an age when religion is associated as much with violence as benevolence, when propositions of faith are often framed as oppositional to modern science, and one-fifth of all Americans self-identify as “none of the above” with regard to religion, the question is one of the most significant of our time.

To begin, let me make a confession. The question that is part of the title of this essay is a real one for me. I have been asking it since I was 8 years old: How can a thinking person still believe in God? It’s an important academic question that grounds a good deal of my own research. But for me, it’s also a deeply personal question that often entails certain pain. With my life, with my commitments, with my vows as a Jesuit, I hope always to offer a confident, positive response to the question. As you can imagine, I have a lot invested in it.

At the same time, it is not a question on which I can promise or claim easy certainty. In the year 2015, it is an especially hard question. But I think in any age it’s a hard question. At least for me and for many people I trust, faith is a deeply fragile reality. It deals with mystery so deep that it is difficult to talk about it in bright lines. In that respect (its fragility) faith is very much like life. We move forward (sometimes in hope, sometimes in fear or hurt or anger) increasingly aware of our vulnerabilities, our doubts, our personal failures, and, of course, our mortality. There are joys too—very real joys—but in some mysterious sense those joys are often linked to what makes us fragile.

This essay is on “how can a thinking person still believe in God” rather than “why a thinking person should believe in God.” It’s not my intention here to try to convince the skeptic or refute the unbeliever. To my mind, that would be a futile and presumptuous, if not outright toxic, exercise. Faith must always be a free response to an invitation that is deeply felt and received. Attempts to convince a person to believe in God or to argue a person into belief frequently disrespect that person’s freedom so gravely that it becomes more difficult for him or her to entertain the possibility of faith.

They are also moments of a tremendous freedom, when the question comes in the starkest terms: “OK, then, where are you? What is it you stand for?”

Rather, I propose to identify some necessary conditions for a thinking person to believe in God. We speak a good deal these days of the importance of sustainability, the capacity to endure. A healthy ecosystem has certain requirements for its long-term well-being. If these conditions are not satisfied, the ecosystem will die from a thousand different causes. So it is with faith. Like the environment (and again, like life itself), faith is quite fragile and requires certain sustenance if it is going to thrive.

Let me simply offer three practical suggestions for its sustainability. First, imagine bigger. Second, befriend intelligent believers. Third, take a risk.


In 2010, the syndicated talk-show host Michael Krasny published a book titled Spiritual Envy. “When I write of spiritual envy,” he says, “I mean envy of the consolation of faith.” Krasny grew up a pious Jew but came to question the dogmatic claims of his faith. Still, he cannot completely discount them. He self-identifies as an agnostic, but as I read him, I feel I have more in common with him than not. That doesn’t exactly make me an agnostic, but it suggests there may be ways of being a believer (even of the Catholic variety) that have softer margins than we usually imagine.

When we listen sensitively to thinkers such as these, we realize how much common ground there is between people who believe in God and people who don’t. Even the pope has been remarkably validating of the goodness of atheists, and in his Christmas 2013 address he invited them to join believers in their desire for peace, “a desire that widens the heart.” But if there can be deep common ground between the atheist and the believer, we need to ask why “God” is such a fault line. Why is language about God so problematic, even so polarizing? Let me suggest one major problem is that we use the word in so many different ways. A major mistake that underlies so much public debate is the false presumption that people are using the word God the same way.

When it comes to speaking of God, no words have ever been trustworthy. Traditional theology, for instance, has long maintained that whatever we say about God must also be unsaid. God is like a father or mother but also quite certainly notlike a father or mother. At the beginning of his Confessions, St. Augustine asks: “What are you, my God?” The question leads to a long and highly rhetorical speech that exploits many contradictions: “[You are, Augustine says], most hidden yet intimately present, infinitely beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive …” The passage is a tour de force that shows Augustine’s own mastery of language. But then he gets to the end and asks rather simply: “After saying all that, what have we actually said? What does anyone who speaks of you really say, God?”

At times in my own journey I have worried that religious expression is, in some ultimate sense, empty. Those can be dark and uncomfortable moments for anyone, let alone for a priest with the duties of preaching. In those dark and uncomfortable moments the line between belief and unbelief can seem thin. But they are also moments of a tremendous freedom, when the question comes in the starkest terms: “OK, then, where are you? What is it you stand for?”

When I say, “I believe in God,” I am making a much bigger claim than simply positing God’s existence (whatever that may mean). Rather, I am saying something like this: “I put my trust in a reality that cannot be grasped or contained or controlled. I put my trust in a reality distinct from any entity or whole set of entities we know as ‘the world’ but that somehow interacts with the world the way being itself interacts with the world, that somehow is exceedingly close to the world in ways that I choose to describe as ultimately good or benevolent or loving. And in ways that are very real and important, my relationship to this reality orients me toward the world with hope.” But we need always to imagine bigger.


I have often wondered what direction my life would have taken had I not gone to a Jesuit high school. I was a kid with a lot of questions. Where would I be on matters of faith without people of intelligent faith around me: people who thought deeply about things and were not afraid to ask difficult questions? I came to learn not only that my questions would be honored but that they could be shared. I came to learn that being a believer does not stifle critical thought—and that faith and reason, science and religion are never enemies. I also came to be exposed to an intellectual tradition that does not close questions but offers a framework to think about them. And although we often do not arrive at perfect answers, we know we can pose significant questions with confidence. Questions like, “Why are we here?”

In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Jobs recounts the story of his classmate in school taunting him when she found out he was adopted. His real parents, she said, didn’t want him. Jobs said that was like lightning bolts going off in his head. So he ran to his parents, who sat him down and said, “No, you don’t understand. We specifically picked you out.” And the belief that he was wanted, that he was loved, made all the difference.

I came to learn that being a believer does not stifle critical thought—and that faith and reason, science and religion are never enemies.

It strikes me that much of the purpose (or meaning) of the Bible is to reassure us the way his adopted parents reassured the young Jobs. Only in more recent history have many people read the book of Genesis as a quasi-scientific account of the way the world came to be. Intelligent believers throughout history have rather taken it as an attempt to answer a different kind of question: “Why are we here?” And intelligent believers have understood the drama of Genesis to respond: “Because you are wanted, intended. Your life is a freely given gift rather than an accident or the result of some necessity. You didn’t have to be here, but you are. Enjoy it. And solely by virtue of the fact that you are here, you are good, irreplaceable, and have certain inalienable rights.” Certainly this answer to the question “Why are we here?” can be a difficult thing to believe. It can seem too good to be true. Intelligent believers may struggle with it—I do. There are worthy alternative stories that may emphasize the randomness of why we are here. So choose which story to put your faith in. Decide which story gives you life.

For those coming from the Christian tradition, another question—“Who is Jesus?”—has enormous consequences. I am not sure most people recognize the significance of Jesus on the topic of how a thinking person can believe in God. Many friends have shared with me that they love Jesus’ teachings, his ability to cross religious and cultural boundaries, and so on. But to say that Jesus is the Son of God or that he is God is harder to believe. And when my friends ask why do we have to believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God, I confess a lot of sympathy, because I wonder the same myself. Isn’t it much easier to believe that he is a great spiritual teacher, an extraordinary moral exemplar whom we are called to imitate? Isn’t that enough? And maybe it is. But let me suggest what would be lost if we left it at that.

If you approach the classic Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus with the presupposition that the meaning of “God” (whether or not we believe in God) is relatively clear and known, then I may agree: The claim may just be silly. But if you approach it from a position of uncertainty or openness about what “God” actually means, then claims about the divinity of Christ can be a radically disruptive, even dangerous proposition. Because what do we know about Jesus? He doesn’t just teach and tell those wonderful stories; ultimately he dies in a horrific fashion as a victim of complicated political-religious dynamics of the first century. And while Christians assert that he rose from the dead, if you take seriously that Jesus really did die and was even a rather terrible failure (for everything we may like about him), and if you claim (as Christians have long done) that “Jesus is Son of God,” then doesn’t “God” mean something quite different from what we normally think it to mean? And all those things we usually attribute to God—omnipotence, omniscience, and more—what do they really mean if we take seriously that somehow God is identified in the flesh with someone who suffered a horrific death? Or, as St. Augustine said in the passage I mentioned earlier, “What does anyone who speaks of you really say, God?”

After all, both believers and nonbelievers have a tendency to think about God as an entity that floats, as Christian Wiman wrote in My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, “over the chaos of pain and particles in which we’re mired.” We can think of Jesus, again as Wiman wrote, as “some shiny, sinless superhero.” But if we entertain the possibility that God may have been incarnate in some definitive way in this person, Jesus, then our concept of God can no longer offer us some kind of easy release. It brings us closer to the heart of reality.

And that could mean something like this: God is to be found not only in what is easily recognizable as beautiful—the sunrise on Half Dome, the powerful experience of romantic love or love of one’s children, the perception of some blinding truth or promise. God is also to be found even in crucified beauty. When, in circumstances that seem utterly tragic and even unredeemable, people find themselves exercising a quality of compassion or moral courage or just a steadfast presence of which they had previously been unaware, somehow God is especially found there—not as some extrinsic object that one comes across but as an event or quality or dynamism one is participating in. You find yourself, almost suddenly, within the very reality of God.

And it’s only in company with intelligent believers that I am able even to think these things … or continue to believe them. It is in company with intelligent believers seeking understanding that I come to know a God who is so, so different from the one atheists so frequently deny.


I used to think that believing in God would bring a great sense of security. I no longer think that. I used to think that God was a kind of divine safety net. I no longer think that. In fact, I believe the opposite. Faith invites us to take a risk.

But I would like to end by pointing to a different kind of risk entirely, which is more of a social or even political risk. We live in a time when there is considerable disagreement, doubt, and anxiety regarding the place of faith in the public sphere. In the Feb. 24, 2014, issue of the Jesuit-run America Magazine, a fairly conservative commentator, Russell Ronald Reno, argued that there is a trend in American society to marginalize religious influence or at least contain it in houses of worship. From a very different ideological position, Barack Obama has argued something similar. Before he was elected president, Obama gave a gutsy if controversial speech on religion and politics in which he challenged the conservative claim that liberals have abandoned religion. At the same time, he conceded that members of his own party have, for the most part, taken the bait. Let me quote then-Senator Obama from his speech at Call to Renewal’s Building a Covenant for a New America conference on June 28, 2006:

“At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone … At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word Christian describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.”

To speak of “God” outside the walls of a church requires great prudence, care, and—yes—risk. What that may mean for a university such as Santa Clara in 2015 is a particularly important question. Like many American universities founded in the 19th century, Santa Clara was established to advance the ideals of liberal education within a distinct religious framework. Academic culture has since become increasingly secular, and for the most part that has brought significant gains. At its best, it allows us a common space to speak and interact using a nonsectarian language and to accomplish many things for a common good.

But secular discourse can also have a flattening effect if it censors groups and individuals from speaking their deepest convictions in the manner appropriate to them. There is often an expectation that serious public discussion remain within what legal scholar Steven Smith recently called “an ‘iron cage,’ in which life is lived and discourse is conducted according to the stern constraints of secular rationalism.” In this paradigm God has no place in the university.

I do hope that a university such as Santa Clara would continue to be a place where that “iron cage” may be left unlocked, where we have the freedom to live and act according to our deepest convictions, using whatever form of expression is right. But that can only work if members of an academic community are willing to learn not just to tolerate religious and philosophical differences but really to learn what those differences are, to cultivate a more textured ability to understand and talk about these differences and disagree with a commitment to mutual understanding. I like to think that Santa Clara is a university confident enough of its own religious identity as to be capable of cherishing difference. We do not do that without particular tensions (sometimes grave tensions), and when we speak of religious values in their own distinctiveness we will often run the risk of misunderstanding and offending each other.

I began by stating that faith is a deeply fragile reality. Faith is fragile, because we humans are fragile. Believing in God does not take that away but becomes the context for exploring the mystery of our rather surprising existence. At times that existence is filled with joy, at times with pain, but always it is the source of wonder. Not everyone needs to refer to God in order to wonder. But for those who do, belief can provide a provisional grammar for wondering together at ever deeper levels. For that grammar to remain at all useful, however, one must be willing always to imagine bigger, to befriend intelligent believers, and to take a risk.

This essay is adapted from the Louis I. Bannan, S.J., Memorial Lecture delivered by Michael C. McCarthy in 2014. 

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