Q. Are there people who, for whatever reasons, simply cannot take the leap of faith? I have taken a yearlong Bible study course I loved; I have attended churches. I neither believe nor disbelieve in God, but agnosticism is not satisfying. Atheism is, for me, absurd since it asserts what we cannot know, namely that God does not exist. I no longer attend church because I just do not feel what the faithful feel. Yet some of the “faithful” have told me that if I do not believe that I will be eternally damned. I do not accept that judgment either. So, back to my question: Are some people congenitally incapable of receiving faith?
— From M, via email
A. Yes, I think some people are not set up to be religious. For some, this is because they believe religion is irrational and morally corrupt. I spend a lot of time in this column responding to people like them. These are the people who do not really understand the good stories in the news. Others want to believe but they can’t. I do not spend enough time responding to people like you. They are the ones who do not really understand the bad stories in the news.
My best advice to you is to learn the word “yet.” Do not say, “I cannot take the leap of faith.” Rather say, “I cannot take the leap of faith ... yet.” You are clearly not through with God yet, and God is not through with you yet. Be patient and do not force the issue. The search for faith before you have leapt into it is very much like the search for love before you have fallen into it. I have officiated at the weddings of many brides and grooms who have waited and waited for years to find a soul mate to love. They doubted it would ever happen and then suddenly, without warning, it did. Faith is about patience more than belief. Remember that you are struggling with the greatest mysteries of human existence. Are we more than just material beings or do we also have souls? Is goodness rewarded and evil punished? Are we alone in the cosmos? It is not possible to resolve these mysteries at one’s whim. I have often quoted the letter of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a young poet:
“I would like to beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Sometimes, however, patience is not enough. Some of us need grace — a special and unmerited touch by God — in order to make the leap of faith. God cannot touch us through grace unless we are ready to be touched. This was the meaning of God’s words through the prophet Isaiah: “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)
You will know when you have arrived at faith not when you believe things you cannot believe now but when you see things you cannot see now. My favorite modern man of faith, C.S. Lewis, put it this way, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
I believe that you are closer to faith than you know and the reason for my confidence in you is the excellence and honesty and depth of your questions. It reminds me of a story from the Hasidic tradition in Judaism where rabbis are called rebbes:
“The Hasidic rebbe, Simcha Bunim, once went on a walk with his disciples. Along the way, he and his entourage encountered a group of Jews who were engaged in casual conversation. The rebbe said to his disciples: ‘Do you see those Jews over there? They’re dead.’ The disciples were confused. Finally, one of them spoke up: ‘What do you mean, dead? They look perfectly alive to me.’
“ ‘They are dead,’ the rebbe said, ‘because they have stopped asking questions and searching for the right answers.’ The Hasidim walked on, pondering his statement. Finally, one of the bolder disciples approached the rebbe and asked: ‘Then how do I know that I am not dead?’ The rebbe turned to him and answered: ‘Because you asked.’ ”
Keep asking. Someday, with God’s grace, you will live your way into the answer.