Benedetto Croce had it right. There are some, he said, who put morality high, so high, a position that makes for reverence from far away and non-observance from close-by.
To try to face this fundamental weakness of our age head-on, we have to put three concepts in proper relationship with each other: God, Evil, and our Responsibilities.
God is not comprehensible. To com-prehend means to wrap around. No matter how hard we try, God will escape all our efforts to comprehend Him. This is the fundamental proposition of mysticism. (I use Him as an expression of traditional reverence; I can be equally comfortable with It or Her.)
All the rest is an elaboration of this one proposition. This is a humbling observation: All serious conversation among human beings, in recorded history, and certainly beyond recorded history, is centered around this one proposition.
While mysticism is content with living in the mystery of life, three mental activities, with profoundly different methodologies, attempt to chip away at that proposition: religion, philosophy, and science. There is no inherent conflict among these mental disciplines. In fact, when they agree on fundamentals, their journey is a marvel to behold. And the intellectual world is at peace in harmony.
Perhaps harmony has never existed, and certainly it has never existed for long. When these three intellectual activities disagree, they clash vehemently. Most clashes, it seems to me, occur along a divide that can be crudely put as God and Evil.
This topic covers an area way beyond my center of interests and concern. Yet, I need to address it before I can get to my work. Let me do away with an important preliminary. I do not by any means assume that all those who believe in God do good works—or, conversely, that those who do not believe in God commit evil acts. There is no determinism there, and I doubt there is any reliable degree of probability governing the case either. Life is more complicated than that.
And the issue is immensely complicated by the various combinations and permutations of two other factors: Are believers followers of a “true” religion? And cutting the issues even thinner, is theirs a faithful or corrupt interpretation of the true religion?
Complications exist because they have to exist. Every case is an individual case. And it needs to be judged individually.
My interest in these discussions is limited to a couple of observations: First, if God does not exist, why talk so much about Him? Second, whether He does or does not exist, why be concerned so much with the afterlife? I believe that if we acquire clarity on these two points, we will automatically clear the way for a solid observance of morality.
About the existence of God
Religion has traditionally attempted to throw some light over the mystery of life. The first advancement, a brave and most soothing statement of religion, is that God is. Religion affirms the reality of God.
Since no good deed goes unpunished, immediately hell breaks loose, because religion cannot offer certainty for this belief.
Then and there a certain type of rationalist/scientist, unbelievably joined by some theologians, intervenes in the interstices and demands “scientific” proof of the existence of God.
This doubting person, who is liable to reduce everything to matter, is unaware that in the process he destroys the distinctiveness of energy, let alone spirit. Since he does not receive any scientific proof, he goes overboard and denies the very existence of God.
Here is one of the latest cases. Britain's most eminent scientist, Stephen Hawking, has said that there is “nothing” beyond the moment when the brain flickers for the final time.
This belief is put to rest with a simple query: Dr. Hawking, where is the evidence?
And then there is the impertinent question: What about yours and us?
Put a bit more extensively, the conversation between atheists or agnostics and religious people is a non-starter. Both of these belief systems look at the same entity, namely life: One affirms that God does not exist, while the other maintains that God does exist. Due to the symmetric nature of these propositions, if the conversation remains locked within these limits there is not and never will there be any intellectual resolution of the dichotomy.
To break out of this vicious circle we need a third entity. This entity is the human being. Hence the conversation has to start and end with an explicit and forceful admission that whatever declaration I make is true or not true for me—and me alone. It is I and I alone who bears the responsibility to assert truth and deny falsity.
Is this intellectual relativism? Not at all. Because the final arbiter of the truthfulness of my words is that third major intellectual effort that stands between science and religion: philosophy. It is the burden of philosophy to adjudicate issues of truthfulness and falsity.
The intellectual crisis of today, in other words, is neither a crisis of science nor of religion; it is a crisis of philosophy.
Waiting for philosophy to awake from its exhaustion, this is what can be said.
Starting from the basic mystery of life and going beyond the mere assertion of the existence of God, religion takes another giant step forward. Religion explains: God will forever remain a mystery, because God asks human beings to engage with Him in faith. This is a humbling, but realistic proposition. This is what it is. We enter into relationship with God in faith.
Faith, as a theological virtue, is not a creation of man’s effort but a gift from God. A gift available to everyone, every time, everywhere. (A secular faith, faith without God, for me is a lukewarm thing: at worst, it is an oxymoron; at best, it is a synonym for belief.) The gift of faith is available for the asking. And it is there that free will comes into play: we must ask for this gift.
Faith is not contradicted by reason. Religion maintains that God is. Philosophy maintains that Being is. All the rest is existence. The avalanche of reason states Being Becomes Existence—which, fully unpacked, means that everything exists in relation to Being, in relation to God.
Religion builds a richer reality from these stark statements. God is truth; God is goodness; God is beauty. Or, synthetically, God is love.
Love is freedom. Yes, love is freedom, because to love is to be in the spirit: with St. Thomas, one can even say, to love is to be at the peak of power.
It is out of this conclusion that we can try to understand not only the presence of God, but also the presence of evil in our lives. Evil is a denial of goodness. Ultimately, evil is a denial of life.
The presence of evil
Interestingly, believers and nonbelievers are joined at the hip through our joint belief in the existence of evil.
There is pain and evil in the world. Nonbelievers use this reality to convince themselves and others that God does not exist, that God cannot possibly be so cruel as to tolerate pain and evil.
As a believer, I have many answers, but they are all shrouded in mystery. Does God permit evil to avoid a greater evil? Does God permit evil eventually to create a greater good? We do not know.
We do not know what God’s response to evil is. We can imagine it, but we do not know for sure. For me, God always is with the victim. God always suffers with the victim.
These answers cannot possibly satisfy nonbelievers.
Allow me to present a different view of this issue. For me, the most satisfying answer is this. God permits pain and evil to let us exercise our highest expression of moral freedom. God wants us to investigate the causes of pain and evil so that WE can route them out of existence.
It is certainly horrible to witness someone, young or old, amidst the devastation caused by cancer. To attack God is not what God wants us to do. The position is especially inconsistent for those who do not believe in God.
To attack God is what the powers-to-be want us to do. They want to divide us, believers vs. nonbelievers, and conquer us all. They want us to divert our attention from their responsibilities.
That is where morality, true morality steps in. Have we investigated the provenance of all carcinogens, all the causes of cancer, and, when we have found them, have we invested all our energies in removing those causes? Put in vernacular: Don’t be a cry-baby; get up and do something about it!
And there we have the panoply of tasks facing us every day of our lives.
What are our rights, what are our responsibilities? That is the center of my interests and concern.
Before I can expand on that, I need to set aside another related issue: the question of the afterlife.
About the afterlife
The case for the existence of God is intimately related to the case for the afterlife. The case is easy for a believer. I can be sure that the afterlife exists because I believe in the existence of God. The two entities are theologically inextricably related to each other.
For a nonbeliever, the case is much more complicated. The easiest way out is to deny the existence of the afterlife.
My suggestion is this: Remain skeptic; do not get involved with intellectual struggles about the afterlife.
I personally believe God will reward or punish us in the afterlife, the eternal life. I do believe in this reward and punishment system, because otherwise I have to believe that God is either a fool or a buffoon; but the afterlife is not at the center of my concerns.
Indeed, let me share a secret. If there is nothing in the afterlife, I will not care a bit: ha, duh, puff, etc. and so forth. This you might call “Carmine’s wager”.
In the meantime, I am going to delight in the thought that there is an afterlife.
About the God of life
Since there is not—and there cannot theologically be—an objective proof of the existence of God, the acceptance of the presence of God is and must remain an intensely personal affair.
To say the least, the experience of the presence of God must remain an intensely personal affair because, skirting the issue of collective guilt, God does not judge communities of believers or unbelievers; God judges only individual human beings.
On days in which I am especially boastful, I dream of constructing experiments à la Elijah to prove the existence of God: give me 200 hard drunkards, let 100 of them have an intense experience of God, they will be cured of their affliction while those who are not exposed to the presence of God will continue to waddle in their affliction. But then I realize that any such experiment will have only temporary effects. And that is because the agnostic and the atheist have assumed upon themselves the permanent function of not letting the faithful fall into complaisance.
God knows the heart.
We have to fight evil, we have to uproot the causes of evil, not because God will punish us in the afterlife, the eternal life. We have to fight evil, we have to uproot the causes of evil, because life is so objectively constructed that the exercise of evil is punished in this life. We have to fight evil for our personal benefit as well as for the benefit of the perpetrators of evil themselves. Love your enemies because they might give up on pursuing you, and you shall be free. In positive terms, we have to nurture each other for our mutual benefit.
Some old truths come out of these realizations: the murderer is tortured every day of his life; the adulterer lives in constant fear of being discovered; the thief lives in constant admission to himself that he was incapable of satisfying his needs by his own efforts.
These are undeniable truths. They are undeniable even though some perpetrators of evil become so callous as to deny the existence of their sufferance. Callousness is evidence enough to prove the suppression of one’s own inner life. Is there bigger punishment than this?
Some new truths also emerge. The suicide bomber is subjected to an immediate and utter punishment. He is automatically deprived of the joy of life.
And therein lies the power of religion. Any true religion will help us search for God in ourselves, in this life. More profoundly important, any true religion will help us find God in The Other.
Here lies the explosive mission of true religion. It enriches life in countless ways. Not only this life, but the life that lies beyond this as well. Just like the anonymous Carmelite author I can say: I no longer believe, for I see and experience. I see and experience this moment in my life with the saints, and the angels, and the Madonna. On a really lucky day, I experience the presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in me. I have to confess, once I started feeling the presence of God the Father; but it was too unsettling. I put a stop to it right then and there.
How to describe it succinctly? The life of the spirit for me is not something left in reserve for when I am dead. For me it is right here and now while I am alive.
Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.
Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at http://me-a-new-economic-atlas-and-you.blogspot.com/