A few years ago, my wife and I attended the hilarious Broadway hit The Book of Mormon. The plot goes like this: two Mormon missionaries sent out from Salt Lake City, USA, to Uganda find themselves in a community riddled with HIV/AIDS, polluted water, gender oppression, and a militia leader raping and enslaving women. The missionaries are total novices who lose the plot and screw up the Mormon message so badly that, when the Mormon elders visit, the missionaries are excommunicated. The elders are shocked at the syncretism of the recently converted African Mormons and kick them out of the Church, destroying their hopes of moving to Salt Lake City, their promised land. The converts are shattered by this rejection. But through their grief the Ugandans realise that, despite their rejection by the official Mormon church, their home has changed and they no longer need to emigrate to Salt Lake City. The spread of HIV/AIDS has stopped, they have clean water, the girls are in school and the militia leader is now a peaceful Mormon family man (keeping his wives).
Here is the power of transcendent belief. Even if it is a corrupted Mormon placebo, it worked.
There are not too many cynical musicals lampooning religion that you leave inspired by hope, yet that’s exactly what my wife and I experienced.
Religion has also played a role in the World Bank’s audacious goal to eliminate absolute poverty by the year 2030. Previous president Dr Jim Yong Kim knew that technocratic plans, however smart, cannot deliver development outcomes without alignment with religious faiths. Holy men and religious institutions are still the main cultural force and spiritual glue in many societies, and people will only be committed to change if they see these development goals framed in the language of their faith. The result is a remarkable document written about the moral and spiritual imperative called “Our Common Understanding”. It sets out a shared moral consensus between all the great faiths to respond to the many in the world living in degrading conditions. The religious leaders pledge to lead a compelling vision to end extreme poverty by the year 2030.
Faith is clearly experiencing a resurgence, from courses offered in medical schools to the World Bank to the arts. I know that if I had a church with all the Christians who still believe, but no longer attend church, it would be the biggest megachurch in the nation by a country mile. But just because they no longer attend church does not mean that all these disparate people and groups are not committed to pursuing spiritual meaning.
Spiritual meaning is how people find solace in times of tragedy. I cannot explain why people suffer from natural disasters or innocent children endure terrible disabilities. I have read the various explanations of where evil comes from, and I worry that too many of these answers seek to exonerate God—from “people do not have enough faith” to “God has a deeper plan and purpose.” I believe that God, in creating us, made us in His image, but He did not merely duplicate Himself. So I understand that humans have a different, independent existence; we are not just replicas of God. When that freedom results in selfishness, racism, sexism and militarism, God cannot be blamed for the choices we make.
But, although understanding is important for meaning, and meaning matters most to me, I have no answer to the puzzle. Even without comprehensive answers I find I still believe. Call it foolishness or dishonesty, but I know that without this trust I would find myself less equipped to respond to the human suffering, whether caused by war and famine or cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis, that has occupied my professional life at World Vision.
Spiritual knowing is not the same as scientific knowledge. Spirituality takes mystery seriously. Even an atheist like John Dewey wanted religion taught in schools because he recognised this form of knowing. We know that the religious impulse is deeply rooted in human nature: from thousands of years ago there is evidence of rituals and symbols we used to give us meaning.
With the advent of the alphabet about 5000 BC, profound questions about meaning and purpose could be shared. The ancient Greeks called it philosophy, but it was still religious discourse. Of course, the advent of the printing press in the 1530s spread the Bible and spurred the Protestant Reformation, but it also gave rise to science. Different ideas could be spread and tested and analysed.
The Reformation God was separate from His creation, so you could experiment on nature without blasphemously experimenting on God. This aided science but, objectifying nature, it snapped a religious link with nature’s mystery and rendered many rituals questionable, like the Hopi Indian’s rising before dawn each day to pray the sun up. This story may be apocryphal but, as I heard it, when an anthropologist suggested they try an experiment and sleep in for just one morning, they refused. When asked why, they said, “And what—plunge the whole world into total darkness for the sake of your stupid experiment?” And at a deeper-meaning level they were right. The meaning and rhythm of their lives, culture and community would have been shattered.
Likewise, we in the West are all still struggling with this loss of purpose. The Protestant Reformation in a sense ushered in the first scientific religion, with assertions about the inerrant word of God and scriptural truth in geology and history and science. Inevitably it led to critical methods being applied to the Bible as much as to non-sacred literature to test authorship and influences, which, for many, undermined its authority.
I still believe the religious knowing in the stories of the Bible. I believe that creation is good, not bad. That it was not born in violence, as some religious traditions have it. It is a gift. Beauty and awe nourish me and this permits me to live with joy and vitality. I do not resent or fear Galileo’s discovery that the sun did not revolve around the earth, highlighting our smallness and the insignificance of our planet. The religious fear of this discovery was, simply: If we are not central then how are we the apex of God’s creation?
I actually like the mystery that our minor, off-Broadway galaxy alone contains more than 100 billion stars, many with their attendant planets. Add to that maybe 100 billion other observable galaxies and, boy, are we small and insignificant! But it is still the planet that I happen to love, live on and need to find meaning in. I am comfortable with the unfolding scientific insights into the universe’s beginning. But I still confess faith in a Source of being or Creator.
Faith is important in science. It took many years to empirically demonstrate Einstein’s mathematically elegant theory of relativity. But many of our theories today are beyond our power of observation and proof, with many scientists saying we have to accept that empirical verification—the scientific method—must be abandoned. We have to just trust the theoretical formula. After all, how do you test multiple universes or string theory? But we are already allowing these theories to underpin our thinking without assuming proof. In the same way, we can allow faith to undergird us without demanding proof of God’s existence. After all, there is still mystery in this world.
Tim Costello heads up World Vision Australia. This article is extracted, with permission, from his 2017 book, Faith: Embracing Life in All its Uncertainty, Hardie Grant Books.