A Crisis of Faith
By Will Baker
I had a discussion recently with an old friend who is experiencing a crisis of faith. Up until quite recently this fellow was a deeply religious person. In speaking with him I have come to understand that his personal crisis involves, not only his belief structure as it relates to his God, but maybe also his very understanding of what right and wrong is.
It seems that the catalyst that precipitated this situation was the death of his wife, and the actions of those around him in response to it. As I said, I have known him for some time. He has always impressed me as a person with focus, dedication and drive. During our conversation it occurred to me that perhaps he is an example of a person whose greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Let me explain. He is a very goal oriented individual. He was a standout in high school, and as a result he was offered two academic scholarships. He finished his undergraduate work near the top of his class, married and went to law school. Up until recently he was employed at a prestigious law firm, and during his time there his wife and he raised three children in an atmosphere of support and love.
This fellow lived, in his own words, a "blessed life." Through hard work and superior intellect he achieved every goal that he set for himself. And then his wife was diagnosed with cancer, became seriously ill, and abruptly passed away leaving him alone with his children. "Has God abandoned me," he asked. And when his children asked him why their mother died, he tells me he had no answer for them. He has since quit his job, sold his house, and is moving his diminished family to another state. Thankfully he has the necessary financial resources available to facilitate this "distance cure" without subjecting his children to undue hardships. But he is hurt and confused. He feels betrayed by God. He met every goal that he set for himself. And in doing so he came to believe that he was the master of his destiny. I believe that when his wife died, he began to feel that his whole life was made invalid by the event. All of his hopes and dreams, he feels, were taken away from him in that moment. Yet had he failed to reach some of his goals, if he had failed to meet some of life's challenges, perhaps his belief structure would not now be in tatters. I wonder if his goal-oriented focus and subsequent success were his own worst enemies.
You can imagine the difficulty that I had with this conversation. For here was a man, a good friend, who was telling me that, based on the empirical evidence that he believes his recent experience has supplied, he was faced with two possibilities: God does not exist at all, or his wife and family would have been spared this awful fate, or He does exist but is mean or capricious. I was tempted to quote the philosopher Descartes: "If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith." But I did not do so. However I did say that it seems to me that many have tried to prove the existence of God, yet in doing so they have lost their faith. I told him that I believe that it does not matter whether God exists. What matters, is whether he exists for "you and me."
He indicated that the behavior of his co-workers, in response to his wifes death, created weirdness in his life. Evidently, the people around him chose to avoid discussing the subject with him, and in doing so may have denied him the ability to properly grieve. This is not meant, as an indictment of those folks, who I am sure are decent and caring people. But their actions make me think about the importance of extending a hand to those in need of comfort and support. However, had they done so there is no guarantee that my friend would not still be in crisis.
As my friend and I spoke, our discussion meandered a bit, and we found ourselves talking about "old times." And it was clear that in doing so, he was provided with some comfort. But I was concerned because when I tried to discuss the future with him, it seemed as if he was almost unable to visualize it. He is a very generous person, and in the past has given freely of himself, volunteering his time, energy and financial resources to the community in which he lives. Yet when we discussed these things he sounded bitter, as if he felt betrayed because the good that he had done did not prevent his wife from dying. He was almost implying that some bargain had been broken.
I wished him well, and we promised to stay in touch, but I am afraid that, other than ensuring that he knew that I loved him and that I was "there for him," our conversation did little to relieve him of the pain that he was feeling. But it certainly made me think about how bad things do happen to good people, and of the dangers of maintaining a limited perspective with respect to the goals that we set for ourselves.
I believe that life is not about setting and achieving goals, no matter how lofty they may be or how positive the outcomes achieved. I believe that life is about a journey of continuous change, about what occurs between the goals, and how we conduct ourselves along the way. And life is certainly not fair. Even though most of us know this intuitively, the challenge is to conduct ourselves appropriately when the inevitable disappointments of life present themselves. This is not an easy thing. Although beauty and potential surrounds us, our realities are rife with disappointment and betrayal. It seems to me that the trick to life is to somehow transform these situations into moments of redemption.