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Five Reflections on Reasons for Faith

November 2008

In a contemporary society that no longer has social expectations that people must belong to a religious faith, believing and belonging become matters of choice. For many people, Sunday mornings are no longer traditional church-going mornings, but are better known for sleeping in and reading the Sunday newspaper or going out for coffee or brunch or taking a bike ride or going to a gym.

But in a Sunday morning church service, one still finds a wide mixture of people, drawn to church for tradition, for music, to find religious education for their children, for an avenue to explore ideas and work on social justice issues, or to connect with others in a supportive community.

But why should anyone pursue religious faith? This essay provides five reflections on motivations for religious faith, focusing, not on theological reasons, but on the very everyday role of religion in personal development and in the larger society.

I. The Church of the Eternal Coffee Cup

I once heard a comedian on the comedy channel say "I grew up Methodist. We are the denomination founded on the belief that in order to get into heaven you must bring a covered dish."

In fact, I often refer to my church, a UCC Congregational church, as "the church of the eternal coffee cup" because of the coffee hour after church that is, for many, as important as the service itself, and because of the many potluck suppers, youth group dinners and other food-related social events, often requiring that you "bring a covered dish" and always providing plentiful cups of coffee.

At any of these events, I may sit with people I've known for several years, many who have children around the same age as my daughter and talk about children, or work, or church events. I might start talking to someone I don't know very well, and find out what interests we have in common. Or I may sit with a group of women who are a generation older than me, and trade stories about places we have traveled, children or grandchildren, local schools and neighborhoods.

The people you meet in church are not better or worse, as a group, than those in other social groups or community groups you might join. You may meet some people who are truly outstanding, who are very committed to leading their lives with integrity and generosity. You may also meet people who are struggling with life and perhaps were drawn to the church to find something they are missing. And unfortunately, you may also meet people who use religion to create a message that is negative, or who use the church to compete for small bits of power or prestige. Any group that you might join has people with a wide range of personalities; the church is no different.

But the church may be unique as a community group because people are kept together by a tradition that is larger than each member's personal goals and by a history that is older than the life span of any of the members, from youngest to oldest.

II. Why Noah's Ark?

When I was a young teenager, I was invited by friends from another town to visit a Wednesday-evening service at their church. That evening, the minister taught a lesson from the gospel of John. The story was one of the really wonderful stories from the gospels, and the minister was an excellent teacher, explaining line by line what the story said and what the significance was.

I loved the experience, and started attending a youth group at a similar church in my own town. Soon I was attending church regularly there, learning a lot about religion. Also, a few years later, I spent a few years attending another church in my town that had a large and active community of teens and young adults. Both of these churches had a mix of Bible study and social activities that gave me a wonderful sense of belonging, while at the same time letting me learn about something that interested me very much.

However, over time, I noticed that for every beautiful passage from the Gospels, Psalms or in the Old Testament books of prophets and history, there were many other passages that seemed harsh and heavily-focused on judgment and punishment. Even the well-known story of Noah and the ark is a good example. Culture has celebrated the story of Noah's Ark as a popular children's story, with a long tradition of beautiful hand-made wooden arks and wooden animals for children to play with and of beautifully-illustrated books and songs about the animals coming two-by-two. But the actual story is about God angrily sending a flood to punish the world, saving only those few people and animals who were gathered on the ark.

For a long time, I ignored this concern, choosing to focus on the stories and passages that I liked, and not thinking very much about those I didn't. But eventually I decided to think about what was concerning me.

First, I spent a few weeks reading the Bible from beginning to end, reading quickly to get an overall feeling of the flow of the book. Reading it this way gave me a new perspective. Genesis starts with the creation story, a story that, with variations, is common across virtually all cultures and is central to our understanding of God. After the creation story, the narrative is essentially about people striving to understand who God is, and striving to develop a social, moral and ethical code to guide their lives. This narrative stretches from the stories of Abraham and his descendants to Moses and to a long history of prophets and kings of Israel. The earliest understandings of faith and justice feel primitive and often carry a harsh tone. But as the story continues, themes of mercy begin to emerge. Themes of understanding other people beyond one's own group begin to appear. Justice is presented in a new context. Peace is presented as an ideal. The general flow is toward a more mature, less primitive understanding of God.

Meanwhile, I learned that many ancient cultures have a flood story similar to the Noah's Ark story. Virtually every culture also has a creation story, as well as other stories that overlap the biblical tradition. These similarities across cultures show that people share the same desire to make sense of the world through a faith and belief system, and struggle with the same questions.

One of the foundations of my belief system today is the idea that people's expressions of faith, though imperfect, fulfill this natural desire. The experiences of participating in a church, from the architecture that draws your eyes upward, to the music and art, to the teaching and exploring of ideas, is part of the natural desire to search for meaning.

III. Sorrow and Renewal

By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. - Psalm 137.

When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them." The Lord has done great things for us and we are filled with joy. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seeds to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves. - Psalm 126.

"SING to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the earth." - Psalm 96.

When I was getting ready to move, I was cleaning the basement and found a set of journals. Some quotes from the Psalms were written in my entry for New Year's Eve, at the end of a year when I had faced a lot of difficult challenges and was looking forward to a better year. Like the time of the journals, there had been lots of trials sent my way during the recent year. These included a divorce, a death in the family, problems with a declining neighborhood and dysfunctional schools, as well as minor medical crises, lost contracts, and many house-related problems.

I threw away the journals after I reread them and after I typed a few excerpts into my computer. There were too many things in the journals that I really didn't need to remember. I threw away many other things that week, keeping small bits for memories and letting the rest go. A box of old calendars, including a scribbled-on and cut-up UNICEF calendar from 1966, was discarded, but only after I cut out and framed four of the calendar pictures. A set of dishes from my ex-husband's mother were given to a formerly homeless woman who is setting up a new apartment. Many other items were put out on the sidewalk, and most were gone by morning, eagerly taken by people who were driving around searching for extra furniture or for items they could sell in flea markets. By the time I was done cleaning, the basement and the whole house started to look emptier, lighter, with a feeling of release.

The story of Babylonian captivity and return isn't the only story of loss and new life in the Old Testament. In the book of Job, God allows the devil to impose various trials on Job - illnesses, death of loved ones, painful suffering. In the book, the tests served a purpose, though no one can ever quite remember or explain what that purpose was. But in the end, Job emerged stronger, his faith tested, and much good fortune came to him. Remarriage, a new family, new land and livestock. It is really no one's favorite book until it happens to you.

The quotes about the captivity and return raise the hope of a new life after a time of trouble. And the quotes don't necessarily promise anything specific - a specific promised land or promised life - but offer the hope of joy and new life.

IV. Dreams and Mathematics

"How do we know we aren't really just dollhouse people?" my daughter asked me one afternoon, when she was three or four years old, while playing with her dollhouse. She had a plastic dollhouse with a set of plastic people and their many accessories of furniture, farm animals and pets. The dollhouse people would have lovely adventures, guided by her hands and stories, driving the tractor, getting a new cow or sheep, going apple picking, going to visit friends.

This question was a great question, of course, because people have wondered that for centuries. Sometimes the facts of our lives suggest a divine guiding hand. Sometimes a dream that you have is so breathtakingly true that it feels like something from God, even if you know the dream could have been just random, or could have flowed from an insight or thought that you didn't realize you had. Sometimes the events of your life fit together so amazingly, are so symmetrical, that it looks like someone planned them. I once joked to a friend, a woman who is a college professor of religion, that I suspected God of sending plot elements into my life for a novel that he wants me to write.

I enjoy finding patterns that make sense of things. I like thinking about what events are statistically likely, or about what biological factors may influence behavior. I like understanding the mathematical patterns that underlie nature or art or music or psychology. When I dream, I dream about things happening in my life and get insights from these dreams that help the facts fit together in more coherent patterns. I even dream about math, with patterns of numbers or geometric shapes floating about, and have even dreamed through a long math problem I might have worked on during the day, the steps falling neatly in place in the dream. If I lived several generations ago, I might have dreamed about angels or saints, but instead, I dream psychology and math. In whatever context, I am drawn to the idea that there are patterns that influence and shape events, and that, sometimes, things fit together neatly.

Some people find comfort in the idea that a designer/creator knows our lives and cares what happens. Other people, finding it hard to believe that a designer/creator would actively oversee the many terrible things that happen in the world, find more sense in the view that life's events are the outcome of a mixture of random chances and the choices made by human beings. The former group adopts faith as at least one way of understanding the world; the latter group of people is more likely to turn to the sciences and social sciences to understand how and why things happen as they do. But many people believe that you can use both science and faith to understand the world.

People debate about which point of view is more valid. But I would just say that human minds are very creative, and there has been a long history - through dreams and novels, horoscopes and fortune telling, folk stories and theologies, social science and science - of searching for and creating meaning from the intricate patterns of life's events.

V. Randomness and Creation

A few years ago, when I first started to learn the JavaScript programming language, I experimented with the "random" function in JavaScript. One of the practice programs that I wrote was a random poetry generator. I wrote a list of about 15-20 words and used JavaScript to randomly select words from the list and string them together to create random "poems." The words that I put in the list were poetic-sounding words, like moon, blue, mist and love, and, not surprisingly, the resulting random poems often had some very poetic lines and phrases. If I were to also program a selection process that would select only the phrases that are grammatically correct, the poems would be even better.

Many religious people struggle with the idea that life could have evolved from random genetic variations and mutations. They struggle with the concept of evolution, with the Big Bang, and even with evidence of the vast size and age of the universe. The objection is to the thought that random events could explain the origins of the universe, of earth and of life, possibly leaving no room for God. The recent concept of intelligent design concedes that God may have used evolution as the technique for setting life forms in place, but suggests that there are unexplainable gaps in the sequence of evolution that can't be explained by science, and therefore point to the existence of a creator.

But as science resolves those gaps in evolutionary patterns, the intelligent design theory no longer has that argument. Computer models can demonstrate that starting with simple life forms, minor variations and natural selection can give rise, over many millennia, to structures as complex as life on earth today. The random poetry generator, like the computer-modeled evolutionary process, illustrates the idea that, given the right ingredients and selection process, it is possible for a random process to produce something complex.

Given this possibility, it is a new task of religion to look at the amazing complexity of life and the vastness of the universe, understand the science and mathematics behind the intricate designs, and find ways to see the genius and creativity of a designer/creator who set the process in motion and to draw inspiration from this genius and creativity for our own lives. If random chance is as plausible an explanation for our lives as intentional creation, then faith in a contemporary society needs to emphasize the value of still choosing to believe.

November 2008