by Pastor Doug Kings

A “Guest Essay” intriguingly titled How to Pray to a God You Don’t Believe In” appeared this week in The New York Times. It is written by Scott Hershovitz, a professor of law and of philosophy at the University of Michigan.

The essay was prompted by his son, Rex, who is preparing for his bar mitzvah. Recently while on a walk, he informed his dad that he doesn’t believe in God. “Why not?” Hershovitz asked. “If God was real, he wouldn’t let all those people die,” Rex replied. As Hershowitz observes, while he was referring to the pandemic he could have been talking about any number of tragedies, past or present. The conversation continued.

“Why do you say that?”

“God is supposed to care about us,” Rex said. “That doesn’t seem like something you’d let happen if you cared — and could stop it.”

This is the “problem of evil.” It’s an old philosophical question. Rex had never heard of it, but it’s not uncommon for kids to rediscover ancient arguments on their own. They’re thinking the world through. And if you think about God (who’s supposed to be all-powerful and endlessly empathetic), the existence of evil poses a serious puzzle: Why does God let us suffer?

It is an ancient and serious puzzle indeed. And it’s being old underlines its seriousness because, after countless generations, it has never been convincingly solved. Every religious tradition is confronted by it. It hangs over the Bible, implicitly and sometimes quite explicitly, from beginning to end. The most startling words Jesus ever speaks occur as he hangs dying on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Hershovitz describes the standard responses to theodicy, the formal term for the problem of reconciling God and suffering, and shows their inadequacies. He concludes, “I’m with Rex. I think the problem of evil poses a serious barrier to religious belief.” And so, tipping his hand, Hershovitz acknowledges that he doesn’t believe in God either. And yet, his son continues his preparations and “I fast on Yom Kippur and observe Passover.” Why?

A common answer, Hershovitz says, is “It’s just what we Jews do, … it keeps me connected to a community that I value.” I have heard this response and I think it is a more common attitude, even among Christians, than we realize. Christians, however, are rarely as daring or honest about this as Jews, since not believing in God seems to many like the ultimate sin.

But this isn’t Hershovitz’s answer, at least not all of it. He relates the story of another conversation with his son, Rex, but almost a decade earlier when he was just a precocious 4.

One night, I was cooking dinner, and he asked, “Is God real?”

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think that for real God is pretend and for pretend God is real,” Rex announced.

I was stunned. That’s a big thought for a 4-year-old. It’s a big thought for a 40-year-old. I asked Rex to explain what he meant.

“God isn’t real,” he said. “But when we pretend, he is.”

Such a viewpoint is recognized by Philosophy, Hershovitz says, and has a name: fictionalism. That was a new one for me. In this case, though, it seems like a variation of Paschal’s Wager. Paschal (philosopher, theologian, mathematician, and contemporary of Martin Luther) said that the existence of God couldn’t be proved or disproved. But since the cost of believing in God was low, even if God didn’t exist, while the cost of disbelieving in God could be high (hell!) if God did exist, then the logical thing to do was live as if God existed.

Put baldly this way, few have been convinced or very appreciative of Pascal’s thinking. It’s just too logical. Hershovitz’s viewpoint has more appeal, I think. Basically he says that, in the midst of our pain and struggles, life and the world are simply better when we live as if God is real.

When it feels like the world is falling apart, I seek refuge in religious rituals — but not because I believe my prayers will be answered. The prayers we say in synagogue remind me that evil has always been with us but that people persevere, survive and even thrive. I take my kids so that they feel connected to that tradition, so that they know the world has been falling apart from the start — and that there’s beauty in trying to put it back together. Soon, Rex will stand before our congregation and pray to a God he can’t quite believe in. It will be a magical morning, and for that moment, at least, we’ll transcend the troubles of the world.

You or I may not find Hershovitz’s stance sufficient or satisfying, yet I do admire his honesty and courage. The Bible is much more forthright about the “problem of God” than we often recognize or are willing to admit. When it comes to human suffering, there simply is no fully acceptable explanation. That should make us realize that however strong our faith in God might be, it is nonetheless true that (as the Bible also says) we do not know God. God always remains a mystery: the Deus absconditus, the hidden God, which Luther often preached and wrote about.

The story of Jesus is, of course, a profound reflection on that hiddenness and mystery. The Easter proclamation does not erase the reality of the cross or of Jesus’ “cry of dereliction”—even for him, God disappeared. We don’t ponder enough Paul’s paradoxical statement that “we proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Whatever it was that they experienced (and I suspect it was much less “concrete” than we imagine), after his crucifixion the disciples of Jesus came to experience the love and life of God in a new and transforming way. Somehow the darkness of Jesus’ death yielded for them the light of new life. As John says at the beginning of his gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” But neither has the darkness gone away. Somehow light and dark exist together.

For some faith is a great story, for others a profound and mysterious reality. Either way it is true to life and a truth that provides courage and hope to fully live all our days, whether bright or dark, whatever they bring.

Blessings in your life and ministry.