Does God really exist?

Posted: Friday, September 14, 2007

These days, it's no surprise to hear that someone doubted the existence of God - unless that someone happened to be Mother Teresa. Long before 2002, the year she was beatified by Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa was revered as a living "saint of the gutters." But when excerpts from the book Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta surfaced, so did her doubts about God. People soon took notice, for though her saintly service was proverbial, few knew of the decades of doubt she suffered.

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But why all the fuss about religious doubt? Militant atheists, eager to discredit all religious faith in favor of their own beliefs, have accused Mother Teresa of sacrificing reason (Sam Harris), of duplicity (Daniel C. Dennett), or simply of being a fraud (Christopher Hitchens). They claim her doubts were her wake-up call, and instead of coming clean with the world she chose to hit the snooze button and live the bulk of her life as a hypocrite. Better, they say, had she shown integrity by dismissing her faith as "misplaced ecstacy."

I think these avowed atheists were too quick to pounce on Mother Teresa's doubt, as if the presence of her doubt proved the absence of her faith. They are apparently unaware that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Faith without doubt is like courage without fear - excellent subjects for polite conversation around the coffee table, but useless for living wisely in a world filled with risk.

Certainty, it seems, breeds fanatics among the irreligious as well as among the religious. The true atheist - as opposed to the mere agnostic - is certain that faith in God is irrelevant at best, and dangerous at worst. Like all fanatics, atheists exhibit an unhealthy degree of certainty about their own beliefs, and a corresponding degree of intolerance for beliefs other than their own. The path of certainty has no U-turns for confession and repentance, and therefore leads to an impoverished view of mercy as well as a harsh view of justice.

Certainty is a child of the mind, while faith is a child of the heart. It may be foolish to doubt that 2+2=4, but it is natural to experience doubt about someone you deeply love, since love makes us more vulnerable than curiosity ever could. The mind mistakenly believes that truth can be put in writing, while the heart seeks the truth of right relationships. The mind wants to rest in certainty; the heart wants to be transformed by love.

Because faith comes from the heart, faith is first and foremost a verb, a step, an act of the will toward one's beloved. And unless faith is regularly watered by tears of doubt, it quickly hardens into a rigid set of beliefs. Although Mother Teresa's heart was tormented by doubts, it never seemed to harden. In a conversation just a year before her death, she told Prince Michael of Greece, "The other day I dreamed that I was at the gates of heaven. And St. Peter said, 'Go back to Earth. There are no slums up here.'"

"Faith," said Elton Trueblood "is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation." Though I do have my doubts, I'm not in any danger of being confused with a saint, since I am far more reserved about expressing trust in God than was Mother Teresa. Hearing of her doubts should not threaten anyone's faith, but hearing of her faithfulness should remind us that even doubters can be called to serve. Maybe only doubters can.

• Jesse Perry is the pastor at Northern Light United Church.

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