By Derick Cranston
A couple who goes to our church recently asked me to meet with their grandson who is struggling with his belief in God. He experienced the death of a loved one and is somewhat disillusioned about the existence of a God who loves him.
Pondering what I could say to him, I was reminded of St. Augustine, who at first did not believe in God but eventually became a great theologian and saint. He once said, “I believe in order to understand.” At first, this statement can seem a little confusing. How can a belief lead to understanding? I mean, if I believe e-mail is an efficient way to send documents and photos, does this also mean that I understand the intricate and technical aspects of how software applications and the Internet works? Hardly.
A belief springs from the soil of participation and involvement. We usually do not believe something is true until we have experienced it for ourselves. In the example above, I did not come to that particular belief until I had verified it through my own experiences of sending and receiving numerous e-mails. My belief is based upon actual experiences I have had. There is a degree of participation and involvement that has led to my belief.
This is also true when it comes to our belief in God. In order to have a true belief in God that is rooted in our heart, we need to participate in God’s goodness. In order to be a Christian, we need to experience a relationship with Christ.
Near the end of his life during a 1959 BBC interview, esteemed psychologist and scientist Carl Jung was asked if he believed in God. His response was, “I do not have to believe … I know.” In letters to friends Jung attempted to explain exactly what he meant. “St. Paul was not converted to Christianity by an intellectual or philosophical endeavor … but by the force of his immediate experience,” Jung wrote. “…I know that I have such experience also, which I call God….” Jung then went on: “The primitive tribesman living in the wilderness does not believe in God. He knows God exists because his inner experience tells him so.”
All of these instances of great people seeking God come down to an experience of God. This was not a direct experience either, where everything was spelled out clearly. It was indirect and instinctive. It was not something that could be quantified, yet it was something that could be felt in the heart and sensed in the unconscious realm of intuition.
Theologian Granville C. Henry says we experience God much like a baby in the womb experiences his or her mother. The mother surrounds and encloses the baby, yet the baby cannot directly know the mother or see the mother. The baby cannot even comprehend what a mother is — a baby just knows that it is being cared for and nurtured by a higher power. It is the same way that we know God. God is everywhere around us, but it is impossible for us to conceive of God in his — or maybe I should say her — totality.
The only way to know God is to experience God. The only way a baby can know his mother is to experience his mother’s love. The only way I can help a teenage boy in his struggle to believe in God is to be there for him, to let him experience the relationship I have with God.
(Derick Cranston is youth minister for St. Mary Parish in Riverside, Holy Trinity Parish in Richmond and St. Joseph Parish in Wellman. He is going through diaconate formation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)