[This post was intended originally to become the first chapter of a book-length conversation responding to questions I hear people, especially younger people, asking or implying. I don’t know how or even whether I’ll continue in that direction.]
“There is a god!” exclaims the person who has just experienced a moment of satisfaction or relief triggered by an event perceived as good and right but not truly expected. After a seemingly endless search, a job has come at last. A villain has been thwarted and made to suffer consequences. Indeed, a payback for someone else’s wrongdoing (often labeled popularly as “karma”) may be the most frequent trigger for this exclamation which, to be sure, is not actual faith or even a serious affirmation of the existence of a deity, but merely the voicing of delight in some unexpected but welcome rightness or good fortune in a world where so much goes wrong for people without power while the powerful seem to get away with the cruelties of their greed and privilege and even to be rewarded for them.
“Is there a God?” is a question of no concern or very little concern in biblical faith and thinking. Believing that there is a God, that God does in fact exist, differs so much from faith in God that there may seem to be no connection between the two. But here I urge caution.
In my youth, I read a book titled Our Faith written by the theologian Emil Brunner for his sons. Brunner begins the first chapter with this question, “Is There a God?” but his answer might surprise many people. In what may seem little more than a wave of his hand, he dismisses the people asking this question as idlers or as skeptics voicing mere intellectual curiosity about how anyone might craft an answer. I know where he was coming from. It can sound as though the questioner were implying, What do you have to say, believer, that might provide casual interest or, failing that, cynical laughter? Come, amuse me with your answer.
But there is another possibility. People do not always lead off with their real questions but guard against exposing their deeper and more painful concerns. Sometimes – just maybe sometimes – the real but unspoken, perhaps even unconscious, question is, rather, “Is there a God for me?”
Is there any God for me? Am I just an accident in a world with no Creator? Does my life have any meaning or purpose? Does it matter how I live if there is no answer to why I live beyond the biological facts of my birth and, so far, continued personal existence? Am I responsible for anything, and am I accountable to anyone beyond myself? Do my choices really matter, or is all human life merely a balance between pleasure and pain (with the former overbalanced for a few and the latter for many)? Is hope an empty word or just a lofty term for delusional optimism? Are we alone in the universe? Who is to say what is just or unjust, right or wrong, helpful or destructive?
I have known people for whom the question was not of God’s existence but of God’s attitude toward them. Not, “Does God exist?” but, “Does God hate me?” This deeply painful question is quite likely to trouble people whose conditions of existence are regarded as shameful, deficient, abnormal, or even sinful by their society, their parents and their parents’ churches, and their peers. Am I the child “of a lesser god” or of no god at all? These may be people wondering why they have to be who they are and what cruelty made them different in ways they did not choose, no matter what is said about their supposed choices by people who condemn them. But doubt about there being a God “for me” can come to anyone at any time in life.
My first draft of a response to the question, “Is there a God?” grew long and complex. Here I stop, at least for now, with an imperative for myself and other people of faith who care how they represent to others the God in whom they believe. Respect the questioner! I may hear only what the person’s mouth says and catch the tone of indifference, amusement, cynicism, scorn, or presumed superiority. God hears what the heart says.
How to respond is a different question, and I’m sure I cannot spell out an answer for all situations. The answer seems to me unlikely to be an argument, a well-formed and carefully-worded defense of the faith, for if the question really is deeper and more personal than it sounds, the answer must be personal and relational, too. The person covering vulnerability with cynicism or indifference will need to sense vulnerability in my response, in me, before, maybe, opening up. Besides, the goal is not to convince the mind that, yes, there is a God. As I said at the outset, that question is unbiblical and of little concern for faith. An unloved child does not need to know that there is, indeed, such a thing as love in the world but needs to know, feel (experience!), and believe (however cautiously), that there is love for her/him/them as a person.
Is there a God? Who cares? Is there a God for me, for us, and for this seemingly god-forsaken world? Let our answer start with and emerge from respect for the questioner.