A migrant worker is toiling in a soybean field when he comes across a large metal box, mostly covered in dirt. He looks around before digging the box out and opening it. He’s stunned to find cash – hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He covers it up and next day, sells everything he has and goes to the field’s owner with an offer to buy the field.
This is a contemporary version of a Gospel parable in which Jesus is trying to make a point to his listeners. He verbalizes the point earlier in the same gospel of Mathew, saying that “where your treasure is, there your heart also will be,” meaning that faith requires commitment. Ultimately, total commitment.
I thought about this parable when reading a recent article in the New York Times by Scott Hershovitz, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan. The article’s title is “How to Pray to a God you Don’t Believe In.”
“The world is awful at the moment,” he writes. “Millions have died of Covid-19. Authoritarianism is on the rise, abroad and at home. And now there’s war, with all the death, destruction and dislocation that entails.
Seeking Refuge in Religion
“In dark times, many people seek refuge in religion. They hold fast to their faith. But darkness also drives many people away from God.”
He then reveals that his son, Rex, who is studying for his bar mitzvah – the Jewish initiation ceremony of a boy who has reached the age of 13 – also has declared his disbelief in God.
“If God was real, he wouldn’t let all those people die,” Rex told his dad. “God is supposed to care about us. That doesn’t seem like something you’d let happen if you cared — and could stop it.”
Father and son are both tripped up by “the problem of evil,” the term traditionally used for the question of “why God allows bad things to happen to good people.” A common answer is that God has chosen to allow free will, not to force people to believe or love him/her. That answer, to me, makes sense.
Knows in Advance?
“But I don’t buy it,” Hershovitz writes. “Why can’t God create only those people who would use their free will well? Why can’t he wave Paul Farmer (an American medical anthropologist and physician who provides medical care to impoverished people) through and keep Vladimir Putin out? He knows in advance how each of them will act — if he’s really omniscient.”
You can’t help having empathy with Hershovitz, and I am not judging him. There’s no doubt that God seems to keep his/her distance from our problems, allowing us to do the most awful things to each other and allowing natural disasters that often take hundreds of lives and cause untold suffering.
But think about a world in which God did what Hershovitz suggests. We would be automatons, machines designed to automatically follow the rules, responding to predetermined instructions. Who would dare defy such a God? It’s true that we would be relieved of burden of belief, but love of God and others would be far from free, and free consent is part of the definition of love.
Failing to say ‘Yes’
Many of us would like to leave all the responsibility for the world to God, failing to say “yes” to God’s invitation to believe and love, and tackle the jobs God expects us to do – such as eliminating the causes of wars and strife and struggling to eliminate inequality, injustice and lack of compassion.
Faith is not principally a matter of following rituals, like Bar Mitzvahs and Christian Confirmation, but committing ourselves to loving God and others. But to survive, commitment requires nourishment.
How often do we read or view what confirms and bolsters our faith or attend meetings or courses that do so? How often do we read the Bible, pray and attend church or synagogue? How often do we go out of our way to help others?
Commitment implies the determination to “put our shoulders to the plow and never look back.” We can do that and still maintain an openness to new ideas.
Praying to a God in whom we don’t believe makes no sense.