Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Faith and a Time of Agnosticism”

Originally Published on
Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Why does our generation struggle with faith?

Martin Heidegger once gave this answer: “We are too late for the gods and too early for Being.”

What does he mean by that? First, quite simply that less and less people today have faith in the old way. The gods are receding, as any look around the Western world will tell you. But Heidegger has something else in mind too, namely, the reason the gods are receding is that we don’t have the same fears our ancestors once had. Belief in God, he feels, is predicated on a certain fear and astonishment. Former generations, much more than we, felt their vulnerability, mortality, and helplessness in the face of energies and forces beyond them. Because of that, they looked for a power outside of themselves, God, to help them. Fear, among other things, made them believe in God.

And they, of necessity, feared many things: plagues that could come at a whim and wipe out whole populations, illnesses for which there was no cure, natural disasters against which there was no defence, hunger as an ever-present threat, and even the normal process of childbirth as potentially ending a woman’s life. There were no antibiotics or sophisticated medications or procedures to prolong life, no vaccinations, none of the things we have that make us less vulnerable to whim, nature, disease. Beyond this, they also lived with the fears that came from superstition, from lack of knowledge and of science. There were dark powers, they believed, that could curse you, bring bad luck, kill you. Many things were to be feared. This kind of vulnerability helps induce faith.

More positively, though, this vulnerability brought with it the capacity to be astonished. Before a universe that holds so many mysteries – thunder, lightning, the stars, the changing seasons, the process of conception, and the simple inexplicable fact that the sun rises and sets every day – there is cause for healthy astonishment, for holy fear, and there is the constant reminder of our littleness and the fact that life cannot be taken for granted.

Today, of course, we have few of these fears. We have faith in medicine, rationality, science, and in what we, humanity, can do for ourselves. As for astonishment before the power of nature? The weather channel has demythologized that.

Much of this, in fact, is good in terms of God and faith. Fear is not a good motive for religion, but rather the antithesis of true religion (whose task it is to cast out fear). Mature faith must take its roots in love and gratitude, not fear. Thus, freedom from false fear holds a rich potential for a maturer faith and religion.

Nonetheless, for now at least, we don’t seem to be actualizing that potential. There is less and less conscious faith. Ordinary consciousness, at least in the Western world, is agnostic and even atheistic. We don’t seem to feel a need for God and, consequently, the transcendent is slowly receding. We’re too late for the gods.

Moreover, as Heidegger adds, we’re also “too early for Being.” What does this add?

For Heidegger, we’ve lost many of our old fears and superstitions, but aren’t necessarily more mature and understanding because of it. We’ve moved beyond the old sense of helplessness, vulnerability, and mortality, without recognizing the new helplessness, vulnerability, and mortal danger within which we live. Like a child, sauntering along a dangerous ledge but blissfully unaware that he or she is one slip away from serious injury or death, so too are we in our new-found sense of confidence and fearlessness: We think ourselves invulnerable, but are only one doctor’s visit, chest pains, or a terrorist attack away from a fearful reminder of our own vulnerability. We aren’t immortal after all.

But this is not our real helplessness. Fearing for our physical health and safety is not the kind of vulnerability that today opens up a place for God in our lives. The scary ledge we walk along and are in constant danger of falling off has to do with the heart and its illnesses and deaths. More than our bodies, our souls are menaced today: We’re all one slip away from a broken heart, a broken family, a broken marriage, a broken life, the loss of a loved one, a betrayal in love, the bitterness of an old friend, the jealousy of a colleague, a coldness of heart within, an anger which won’t let go, a wound too deep for forgiveness, and a family, community, church, and world that cannot reconcile. Self-sufficiency is always an illusion, most especially today.

We need God as much as did our ancestors. We just don’t know it as clearly. Nothing has changed. We still stand in radical insecurity before energies and powers beyond us, storms of the heart, no less frightening than the storms of nature. We’re no less helpless, vulnerable, mortal, or fearful than the people of old and need God as much as they did, only for different reasons.