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Challenge My Beliefs?

Philosophy instructor Richard Reilly talks to students about questioning God.

Far more often than I’d like – for I live and teach in a conservative religious community – students express the notion that it is wrong for me to question God. “Who are we to question God?” they ask. This puzzles me. Strictly speaking, it seems to me that in all my years of teaching I have never once questioned God in the classroom, and this for a very good reason: he or she (the divinity, that is) has not been in the classroom for me to question, at least not in a form that I can talk to! Not that I would likely question the Supreme Being were he or she to appear. Probably, I’d be too busy grovelling with everyone else. Now I have, I’ll admit, poked fun at God in the classroom. But he’s a big guy; I’m sure he can deal with it, and truthfully, I mean no disrespect when I do it. I’m sure the Greatest Conceivable Being must at least have a sense of humor – for laughter is pure joy, as Spinoza said. God must therefore be infinitely amused and have a pretty thick skin as well. In fact the only time I ever directly question God is when I’m alone with myself, in silence, typically late at night when I can’t sleep and I’ve got too many troubles weighing upon me. Then I will sometimes question God and ask: so what’s this all about? What do you expect from me now? Could you help me out a little bit? I’d really like to get some sleep.

So I wonder what students can mean when they say we shouldn’t question God, and even more do I wonder why. After all, in the literature of the world, it is not so often the philosophers who question God, but rather the characters in the scriptures of the world’s religions. Consider Abraham, in the Bible, who questions God several times (in Genesis 18:23- 32). The latter, you may recall, had stopped by Abraham’s place for dinner on the way to Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham seems to have doubts about what God intends to do there (namely, kill every living inhabitant) and challenges him about it. Indeed, not only does he question God, he apparently changes God’s mind. God is convinced, it seems, by Abraham’s questioning that if there are even a few innocent people left in the city, God should not destroy them. Perhaps, of course, this is what God had planned all along; if he is really omniscient, he must have known Abraham would question him and change his mind. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Abraham questions God and does not seem to get in any trouble for it.

And then, of course, there is Job. I have found that my Christian students are fond of pointing out that Job never loses faith; that, they say, is why he was rewarded in the end. Perhaps so, but Job not only questions God but challenges him to come down for a trial. Does Job get punished for it? On the contrary, he gets rewarded, and his friends, who had insisted that Job should not question the almighty, are punished. God says clearly to them: you have not said the truth about me, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:7)

So what’s this business about not questioning God?

The thing is, it’s not God – never God – that I’m questioning in the classroom, nor usually are the philosophers we study. What we are questioning, rather, are the beliefs we’ve been taught about God. As I’ve already said: God is not there to be questioned, at least not in a form from which we can expect a reply – but students are. What, then, can a student really mean in saying “you should not question God” other than: “you should not question my God,” or “you should not question my beliefs about God.” This fills me with amazement. Why shouldn’t I question your beliefs about God?, (I want to ask). Do you mean to tell me that you are infallible, incapable of making a mistake about God? Are you saying that you know God better than all the millions of people in the world who disagree with you, including the rest of us in the classroom who may be just as sincere in our faiths as you are in yours, but who experience God in ways differently than you do? Or perhaps you think you have some special connection with God? Are you a prophet, then, or a Messiah? Does God really speak through you? If not, if you are a mere mortal human like the rest of us, and your knowledge of God comes from the mouths or writings of other human beings who are just as fallible, then how can you insist that we not ask questions? How can you be sure that there is no more to be learned about God and that those of us who ask questions – not from arrogance, not from a perverse desire for disputation, but from a sincere desire to know and understand the Truth – are fools?

And then there are the students who think that, although perhaps it is not wrong to ask questions about God, there is no point in it. Why, for example, should we try to prove the existence of God? Why engage in these senseless debates about the nature of God’s attributes or the problem of evil, about the afterlife, miracles, and religious experience? Isn’t it all just a matter of faith, and no more? If believing in God makes a person happy, makes his or her life better, should not that be what matters? And anyway, don’t we each have the right to believe whatever we want?

Yes, you do have that right, of course, and I would not want to take it from you. It’s one of the things that makes America great. And I agree with you as well that, in the end, God’s existence cannot be proven or disproved. Yet I deny the suggestion that one should not think about such things. I even dare to suggest that this attitude, this rejection of reason, of the necessity of careful thought about matters of religion, is perhaps immoral and based on a fundamental delusion about the nature of human beings.

No man is an island, John Donne pointed out, yet we often act as if it were so, and this defense of faith, of the right of the individual to believe without question whatever he or she wants, seems to presuppose it. Yes, it’s true that faith makes many people happy – or at least that they have an emotional attachment to their belief – but perhaps we ought to consider more than just that. For people of faith must still live in the world; perhaps they speak with God alone in their hearts, but with people they must speak and act in public. This is to say that their beliefs about God do not affect only them. Beliefs have consequences. A belief that has no impact on life, if such a belief exists, is probably not meaningfully held. What we believe about ourselves and the world and people around us influences how we feel and how we behave, how we treat and talk to others, how we judge things, how we vote. What we believe, in other words, has an impact not just on who we are, but on who others are as well. We are less like islands and more like pieces in a puzzle, in which the shape of one piece determines the shape of the next. We have friends, family, children. We exist in relation to them, they to us. In defining ourselves, we define those around us as well.

And yet we speak and act as if we were isolated beings, alone and unaccountable to anyone but ourselves. Yes, it is true that in some ways we are alone, and perhaps each of us must make that leap of faith – or not – by ourselves. The decision is up to you. Yet I insist that if we are going to live together in society, you ought to explain to me why you believe what you do, as will I to you. If you are going to vote for leaders who will enforce your view of the world, who will pass your laws and impose your morality on me and those for whom I care, I think I have a right to know what can be said for your views and why I should listen to your laws or accept your judgment. I must further admit that I take offense to your suggestion that you need not do so, or indeed, that you do not have to because it is the word of God, or the Bible, that it is your belief as a Christian. What makes you think you speak for all Christians? I’m a Christian too, but I don’t believe what you believe. Oftentimes it seems to me that your beliefs are frighteningly un-Christian. I’m sure you feel the same of mine. In America, people say whatever they want and attribute it to Jesus. It is the highest offense for you to suggest that you are somehow ‘in with God’ and that I am not.

But what are we to do then? I fear the retreat into faith because of what it might lead to: holy war. If you will not try to justify your ways to me, nor I to you, what recourse do we have, in the end, but the use of power? How long will it be, I wonder, until frustration with the failure of politics to transform the world as you like leads to violence, to God telling your people to kill mine, to a crusade, an inquisition? How long until I’m thrown in jail for not hearing the God who speaks to you?

How long should I wait, I wonder, before coming after you? When will it be too late?

I don’t want that. I hope you don’t either. So let’s talk about this. Let’s engage in dialogue. Tell me what you believe and how you know it’s true. I’ll do the same. Let’s put our guns away and spar with pens, not swords. We might both learn something. And maybe we’ll discover that we’re not as far apart as we thought.

© Dr Richard Reilly 2003

Richard Reilly has a PhD in philosophy from Rice University and teaches at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas.

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