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People Want To Believe in God

Believing in God – or not believing – is not always as straightforward as we might think. Often, it has lingering ambiguous elements. For intellectuals, scientists, and philosophers, for example, the mind may see God (the God of supernatural theism, for example) as irrational, immature, and as “not fitting in to my world view.” At the same time, however, the spirit yearns for God, for the warmth of a deeper meaning in life. In the throes of the yearning, believing in God can be an ambiguous matter not easily reconciled. Looking back to a earlier era, let us recall the ongoing struggle to believe in God.

Nietzsche claims: “God is dead.” The religious beliefs of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) are a prime example of this ambiguity. In 1882, in his parable of a madman running into a marketplace, Nietzsche proclaims God is dead. Unsurprisingly, there is an uproar in response to this claim. Suddenly, everything that has given human beings a sense of balance and order has vanished. Around this time, attitudes in the West were changing making belief in God more difficult in some circles. Meanwhile, Nietzsche’s madman insists that the death of God would spawn a more evolved phase of human life.

In 1883, Nietzsche wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra in which he announced the birth of a new Superman who would replace God. This new enlightened man would declare war on traditional Christian values and would usher in a re-charged humanity which would have none of the flimsy Christian virtues that kept people weak and needy.

However, there was another side to Nietzsche. Indeed, there was a deep sensitivity in his spirit. In many ways, he was a lonely, isolated man, tender-hearted through and through–very different from his Superman.

As we see evidenced in Thus Spake Zarathustra, in the depths of his heart Nietzsche wanted desperately to believe in God. In some of the poetic verse of Zarathustra, we sense the yearning of his spirit.

Dostoevsky, too, longs to believe. Similar to Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), the noted Russian writer, highlights this same “death of God” theme in his popular novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880). However, in a letter to a friend (1854) Dostoevsky expresses the inner conflict in his own spirit on matters of faith and belief:

I look upon myself as a child of the age, a child of unbelief and doubt; it is probably, nay, I know for certain, that I shall remain so to my dying day. I have been tortured with longing to believe–am so, indeed, even now; and the yearning grows stronger the more cogent the intellectual difficulties that stand in the way.

In Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, the protagonist, struggles with God’s inability to provide ultimate meaning for the tragedy of human suffering. In this novel, as in this era of human history, the God of supernatural theism, the God thought to be an actual being, up in the sky, orchestrating events here on earth, is left lacking. Still, in and through the
human suffering that invariably intrudes in our lives, people want to believe.

Even in Auschwitz, the echoes of belief sound out. There is a story that one day in Auschwitz, some Jews, overcome with the ongoing tragedy and God’s apparent continued absence, decided to put God on trial. They charged God with cruelty and betrayal. They could find no excuses for God, no consolations in the usual answers to the problem of evil. They found God guilty and, therein, worthy of death. As the story goes, the Rabbi pronounced the verdict. Then he looked up and said that the trial was over; it was time for the evening prayer.

Amidst all the human suffering, all of the incongruities and ambiguities of human life – amidst it all, a flicker of hope and yearning burns in the human soul. Out of the depths of the yearning – with the ebb and flow of meaning and meaninglessness – we want to believe.

For me and for countless human beings, there is something in us that wants to believe. At our best, we want to believe in a presence, a power, a reality that are transcendent of us. As deeply sentient creatures, we cannot long endure emptiness and desolation. We do not want to feel alienated from the world. The life impulse in us always inspires us to fill any vacuum of meaning with fresh symbols of love and hope that sustain life.

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired United Church of Christ minister.  He had long term pastorates in San Diego County and in Miami Lakes, Florida.  His service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the late sixties spurred his commitment to social-justice ministries and to a spirit of ecumenism as a local church pastor.  He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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