Beliefnet
Blogalogue

Dear Heather,
I really enjoy the way you conduct a path through our disagreements. You are tough, but open to differences. As we have agreed from the first, to achieve real disagreement is a long-term task; it takes a lot of brandies sipped slowly together (so to speak) to get past the misunderstandings that masquerade as disagreements, in order to find the deep place where the two parties (amicably) part ways.
Some atheists do invent a heroic image of themselves, but maybe that generation has passed. Bertrand Russell compared himself to Prometheus, Camus to Sisyphus, and Dylan Thomas raged, raged against the night. If I may say so, even you find distasteful the believing peasant’s use of “amulets.” Note, though, that there are village atheists, too. What do they have, those who are unlearned, to rebuke their belief in magic and superstition? I have noticed – have you? – that the more secular our universities have become over the last few decades, the larger have become the sections of bookstores devoted to witchcraft, Ouija boards, astrology, and pet rocks. Christian believers are told that such things are sinful, idol-worship, the deification of silly human fetishes.
You say (and I agree) that the world is awash with meaning.


That suggests that you do understand what Plato and Aristotle meant when they concluded that, on balance, the world suffused with the presence of God is a good world, despite the flaws and tragedies that cross the paths of each of us. One does not have to be a Jew or a Christian to conclude from experience that, on balance, truth is stronger than the lie, goodness is more powerful than evil, the beautiful wins out over the ugly, and life is better than (say) suicide.
Jews and Christians do thank and praise God for so many good things. Am I right in saying that atheists have no one to thank, even when the impulse to do so hurtles toward their lips?
In addition, those who try to draw closer to God, and deeper in his friendship, speak to him often during the day, as often as possible. Such prayer may be silent prayer, even wordless, and it is achieved simply by being aware of his presence, accepting his will (even if it is crucifixion), and making oneself disposable to show mercy and gentleness to the needy and the vulnerable. “True religion,” says Deuteronomy, is to care for the widow and the orphan.
Which brings me to your question about true religion and false. The first of the Ten Commandments of Moses teach us that Jehovah, the God of Israel (and all humanity) is the true God, and no one should dare to put false gods in his place. Certainly there are false gods. Certainly there are false religions. Down through history, many different tests have been proposed for discerning the difference. It has long been a passion among Christians and Jews to discern who are the true Christians or Jews, and who are the counterfeits.
For practical reasons, as “articles of civil peace,” we may each refrain from publicly declaring the religions of our neighbors false. We may show each respect. But by not joining with those others in their faith we declare in personal practice that theirs are not true faiths – or, at least, not entirely true. We may well see in some of them large chunks of the truth about God and humans, as we ourselves see it. To see some truth in the faiths of others, and some counterfeit expressions of our own, is not to be relativists, but simply fair-minded and self-critical persons.
When Jacques Maritain, the partly Jewish French philosopher (and one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948), finally saw the evidence that convinced him he must become a Catholic, if he was to be faithful to the evidence of his own mind, he felt revulsion, and he spoke strongly: “Not on that dunghill!”
I doubt if there is a single Catholic in the world who does not see much in the Church that he or she does not feel upset about. As James Joyce said, Catholicism is “Here comes everybody!” We are in many ways a disreputable crew, not unlike Chaucer’s motley, bawdy, sinful pilgrims. We surely make the mercy of God evident.
Christians insist upon a total difference between amulets, which are imagined to work like a kind of magic (a false god), and holy objects, which remind us of the presence and the promises of God. Israel is truly a holy land, where God appeared (unseen) to Moses, and the Son of God trod the soil of Galilee, and even sat in the Temple in Jerusalem. There are many plain, ordinary things that are also numinous and sacred, and reminders of the transcendent. These are not magical, just holy.
Magic amulets, etc., are idols put in the place of the true God, and are to be despised. The Catholic Church blesses and promotes many objects intended to remind humble people (and learned people) of the presence of God, and the eruptions of the holy into daily life. Most often, these signs (sacramentals we call them: holy water, rosaries, images of Jesus and the saints) remind us of the most essential of all prayers, those of Mary at the Annunciation and of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Be it done to me according to Thy will.” Their purpose is not to produce magical results, but to prepare us for whatever God demands of us. He will surely keep the laws of nature intact, while yet in his Mercy he may allow perfectly natural circumstances to issue in surprising contingent outcomes. The blind may come to see again, the deaf to hear. These things happen.
George Washington always attributed to God’s providence the escape of his army from Long Island in August, 1776, through the contingency of a thick yellow fog that rolled in and kept his escape invisible to the British for an extra five hours after daylight. But it takes no miracle for Long Island to be shrouded in fog for many long hours. The laws of nature may not have been violated, but the timing of that particular contingency could not have been happier for the American side. Without violating any laws of nature, there is plenty of room for Providence to work his will through the interstices of multiple, crisscrossing lines of contingency and secondary causes.
I do not find it irrational to hold that one has truly experienced acts of Providence (as Washington claimed all Americans had during the War of Independence), while holding simultaneously that the Author of Nature and Nature’s Laws violates none of his own laws. There is plenty of contingency in the way secondary causes affect each other to permit the Divine Artist a great deal of artistic liberty, while still staying faithful to his own truth.
As distinct from Muslims, we Jews and Christians think of God as Truth, and as the inner Light of the law, not as naked and arbitrary and unlawlike Will.
So my question to you, dear friend, is this: When you experience a world “awash in meanings,” do you not sometimes wonder whether these meanings actually do emanate from a single source of intelligence and energy, which comes at you from all quarters, and all angles, and even from within yourself? Bombarded by meanings, do you not sometimes… wonder?
Maybe not. As Friedrich Hayek once said sadly of himself, he understood that many people even in Austria lacked an ear for music, even though they appreciated the love others had for it. Similarly, he expressed sorrow that he himself lacked an ear for religion. But he did not disrespect those who did hear its silent music.

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