I recall being urged by my mother to eat the vegetables on my plate. I had my favorites, though not many, and have somehow managed to survive to this point in my life. There is a very practical side to eating. Despite the fact that it can give great pleasure, it has a direct connection to our health. Remembering this as an adult is not always easy. Strangely, religious belief seems to be as important to our health and well-being as a good diet. But it bears some thought.
A recent article in a British magazine looks at the book, Why We Need Religion, by the author, Stephen Asma (Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago). The book puts forward a serious, scientific case for the health and sanity benefits of religious believing. Not that the author believes in God: rather, he believes in religion. Of course, as bothersome as that might be to believers, he does not argue against the content of faith, but simply remains agnostic.
Fascinatingly, he even finds a place for religiously-inspired anger. The article states:
Not only does it take some courage to begin a book by confessing a change of heart (if not mind) as Asma does, but it takes more, for example, to emphasise with the religiously violent. “People who dismiss religious-fuelled rage as intrinsically evil or primitive,” he writes, “have usually never faced real enemies.”
Of course, the observation (with careful scientific analysis) that human beings seem, somehow, naturally suited to religion in its various aspects does not argue for its truth. Indeed, the author of the book concentrates his attention primarily on Christianity and Buddhism.
C.S. Lewis in one of his essays makes an argument for the existence of God from the human proclivity for religion. He noted that if you landed on a planet whose inhabitants had a strong attraction for something (say water or the such-like), it would be highly unlikely to discover that such a thing did not exist on their planet. This is not a compelling argument for God’s existence, other than to say that it is consistent with His existence.
This approach, however, demonstrates a fundamental break in modern conceptions – the space between our thoughts and our bodies. There have been any number of philosophers, from Descartes to Kant who essentially reduced our reality to something within our heads. The “good” ceased to be anything “out there” and simply became “what is pleasing to me.” Many, drawn by the allure of various science fiction schemes, cannot imagine why hard reality should be preferred to virtual reality. The digital life is becoming normal life.
Such an estrangement frequently makes people forget where and how they live. We forget that farms grow our food and that the earth produces our minerals. We forget that people get their hands dirty and toil over these necessities. Life in the city (which is often life in the mind) seems superior, more sophisticated, and to be preferred. In that world, God lives as an idea among ideas, and is perhaps not welcome.
The author of Why We Need Religion wrote:
“I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation, but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously. I’m not naïve. I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But it is a response that will not go and that should not go away if it provides genuine relief for anxiety and anguish.”
For me, this is as absurd as saying, “My son needed sunlight so I took him outside,” only to conclude that it was nothing but a comforting superstition. The truth is that, in a world with no God, the life or death of his son would mean nothing more than the life or death of the bacteria in his son’s body. And, of course, for many moderns, the life of a child within the womb is little more than inconvenient bacterium. The author fails to see that his son’s existence has become a balm against his private anxiety and anguish – with no value of his own.
The great Christian tradition, as evidenced in the works of the early Church fathers, understood that our existence was a gift, the gift of the One who alone truly exists (“the Author of our being and our God”). Equally, He is the Good; He is the Truth; He is Beauty. Such things are not defined in themselves and then referred to God. Rather, it is seen that, apart from God, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty would have no meaning (nor existence). We long for and desire these things because we inherently long for and desire God Himself.
And here is the crucial point: we begin with God as Being, Truth, Goodness, Beauty. The words and concepts only have meaning when grounded in such a way. We do not take our own minds to be the center of all things – we are relative and contingent. It is why atheism seemed so perverse to the ancients. To deny the existence of God was to deny these things as well. The identity of God could be debated (“by what name shall we call Him”). However, the notion of a self-existing universe was beyond consideration. There was enough logical consistency to hold such an idea at bay.
The perversity of our time is that we insist on using the language of theology (Being, Truth, Goodness, Beauty) while imagining that such terms need no divine referent. As such, we both exalt that which should be relative while diminishing that which should be absolute. That someone might not know God (agnosticism) is a world removed from this question. However, without God, we fail to escape the traps erected by our own minds and transcendence disappears in the mists of the imagination.
Human beings have an ability to perceive truth, goodness, and beauty, and, arguably, are drawn to them, sometimes at the expense of all else. The notion of such things existing as abstractions is, itself, an abstraction and an invention of modern philosophies. It is part of an alienation of the human being from all that is obvious, including what it is to be human. The unique claim of Christianity is that Goodness, Truth, and Beauty became flesh and dwelt among us as the God/Man, Jesus Christ. We say that if you come to know these things in the world around you, and reflected within yourself, you will recognize them as well in Him.