The Catholic Thing
A Higher Power Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Wednesday, 02 July 2014
Senior Editors Note:  Dear Readers, I am sad to inform you of the death of our beloved contributor, Karen Walter Goodwin. She met the Lord late Sunday after a long, heroic battle against cancer. In the thirty years she and I were friends, she was always upbeat about life and was among the sweetest, kindest people I’ve ever known. As death approached she truly did do battle. But even in physical weakness, she was a powerful witness to what it means to be pro-life – in a context insufficiently appreciated. You may wish to reread the first column she wrote for us, Eucharisteo, about her 2012 trip to Lourdes. – Brad Miner

An old friend informed me recently, somewhat testily, that she no longer believes in “a higher power.” It’s probably just as well. As the ancient Greek myths show us repeatedly, “higher powers” can do all sorts of things not particularly good for human beings. And quite frankly, the notion of a “higher power” is usually too thin a concept to hold onto for very long.

Thus, when people reject the notion of a “higher power,” they’re often enough rightly leaving behind their former pagan views about God as something like the Grand Chess Master of the Universe who moves his creatures like pawns on the great chessboard of the cosmos. 

Or they’ve been thinking of their “higher power” as though it were “the Force” from Star Wars. The problem with “the Force,” as the Star Wars movies demonstrate, is that evil people can have it and use it as effectively (perhaps more so) than the good.  As for “balance” in the Force, well, as far as I can tell, that just means constant war – and more movies.  If there really were such a “Force,” and the Force really did depend upon little bugs inside of you, then I’d want to develop a vaccine to cure it.  Characters who can strangle other people with their brains need to be cured, not admired.

Christians don’t merely believe in a “higher power.” They believe in a God of Selfless, Self-Sacrificing Love. This isn’t merely “power.” It’s power at the service of love for the good of others, especially those who are the weakest and most in need.  

If Christians really did believe in the sort of soulless, silly divinity many people seem to have in their minds, a person would be quite right to leave that sort of “higher power” behind and move on to something better.  Indeed, it would be an essential element of his or her spiritual development.

What oftentimes happens in such cases is that the person who has supposedly “lost” his or her faith has, in truth, finally encountered in some distinctive way that greatest of all problems: the problem of evil.  How can there be evil in the world if there is an all-good, all-loving God?  Either that, or the person may have simply hit a hard patch where life seems meaningless.

My recommendation to such persons is to ask themselves this: How did I ever come to have the notion of “good” in the first place?  What makes something “good”? When life doesn’t seem “fair,” what would have caused me to believe that life was supposed to be “fair”?  And from whence comes “meaning”?

            Christ of St. John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí, 1951

There would be no reason to think that life in this big, empty, seemingly-meaningless cosmos was meant to be “fair” unless we had been given that hope from something beyond the physical, empirical realities we see around us every day. 

As C.S. Lewis notes in his book The Problem of Pain, the intellectual problem of pain arises precisely because Christians proposed the notion of an all-good, all-loving God. Without such a notion, pain is not a “problem”; it just is.  Pain and death would be – as many people assume – the natural by-products of an essentially chaotic and meaningless universe.  There’s no point in being disappointed or even in getting angry about such things.

Absent a loving, provident God, you could either choose to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, as did the Epicureans, or just suck it up and live with it, as did the Stoics.  But blaming “the gods” or “fate” in such matters is a bit like shaking your fist at the tides. The water is coming in to swamp your sand castle whether you like it or not.  So either get out of the way, or get ready to be drawn under.

Only those who imagine the universe could be better, who imagine the universe is made for us as a place of flourishing, have any reason to be disappointed.  And who imagines such things? Not Epicureans or Stoics. Only those who believe in a Creator who created the universe for us, and who loved us so much He was willing to die for our sins.

We trade on notions of “goodness” and “fairness” and “meaningfulness” as though they belong to us, and then throw them back in God’s face when we, and the world for which we are responsible, fail to live up to His standards.  What we fail to notice is that He is that without which there is no meaning. There is only “fairness” if there is a Creator of what is fair. There is no “evil” if there is no ultimate standard by which to judge “the good.” All that would be left without Him would be chaos and meaninglessness.

Christians don’t believe this is “the best of all possible worlds.” Quite the contrary. The Christian story tells us of a fall into the agony of sin, suffering, and death. The Christian story sets forth an ideal we must aim at; it doesn’t bid us to be entirely satisfied with our lot now.  Our problem isn’t that we desire too much; it’s that we too often settle on too little. 

Some of those who have supposedly lost their faith are really only experiencing the restless heart that will not rest until it rests in Him.  We tend to create comfortable little categories that we take refuge in.  This is not an entirely bad thing, of course. We think in words, and we understand in categories.  But all such categories have their limitations. 

God does us a great service when he explodes them to make room for Himself: the One who is beyond all categories, not merely a “supreme being,” but Subsisting Being Itself, the Source of All Being and Goodness – a person, not a power, with power so far beyond measure that He can empty Himself of it to become Love-Incarnate, God With Us and For Us.

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Mack, July 02, 2014
Eternal rest grant unto Karen, O Lord, and make perpetual Light to shine upon her.
written by Genesius, July 02, 2014
Cue the rabid, angry retorts from the AA 'Higher Power' crowd who deny that AA is religious, but are quick to burn heretics who question their theology of a 'Higher Power'.
written by Schm0e, July 02, 2014
Ah, well. For most people, the sort of power invested in a charismatic despot with the global information infrastructure at his service will be sufficient, by projection, to satisfy their desire for it.
written by Howard Kainz, July 02, 2014
"Christians don’t believe this is 'the best of all possible worlds'"? The emphasis should be on "possible." Taking into account original sin, human free will, subsidiarity, and all the contingencies God foresees, it just might be the best possible.
written by Nick P, July 02, 2014
Genesius, neither angry nor rabid, I'm a little puzzled by your prediction. I have yet to see a burning, but perhaps I hang with a laid-back AA crowd.

As a practicing Roman Catholic, my early years in AA were spent seething whenever I would hear either "my higher power which I choose to call God," or "I'm a reformed Catholic," or "I'm spiritual not religious." I've gotten over myself and reconciled The Faith (my Faith) with the AA program.

What I do know is that my Catholic Faith played a crucial role in my early sobriety. The concept that "[only] a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity" was almost obvious to me. While early sobriety wasn't easy, I truly believe it came more easily to me because of my Faith. Prior to AA I did not really understand what it meant to turn my will and my life over to God. I have a much clearer idea of how to do this today. And I learned it from the men and women in AA.

One of the reasons that AA has been so consistently successful is its singular purpose -- to keep alcoholics sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety. Period. It is not a Church, although we have our share of, shall we say, unusual or even offbeat members, some alarmingly strident. [A dear AA friend who passed away this year once pointed at someone attending a meeting and said, "Nick, see him? He suffers from ODD." When I asked the obvious question he replied, "yeah ODD, he's odd."]

AA does not exist to spread the Catholic or Jewish or Buddhist faith, it's here to get drunks sober. And it works. I don't have to check my Faith at the door, and I frequently speak at meetings about it. I'm not shy, and rarely hear anything but positive reactions. I ignore the nuts and fanatics. But I've come to realize that many, many suffering alcoholics would run for the hills were I to approach them with a Bible and Crucifix. This work is triage -- not cosmetic surgery. So I do lead a bit of a bifurcated life. The self-assembled "theology" of many of my AA fellows is, to say the least, far from coherent. But if it gets them sober, and is not in some way evil, I place their sobriety first. Only when sober can a man begin to shape a mature faith.

Over the years I've had the pleasure, indeed the excitement of seeing a person come to the Faith, or back to the Faith in God's time. My Faith is a relationship built over time. I think that's true for many. Periodically I reread St. Augustine's 'Confessions' to remind me of the journey -- it provides both hope and advice.

Professor Smith's take on "higher power" is wholly consistent with my experience. I enjoyed his essay and feel it helps me better to frame and understand my own journey.
written by Randall B. Smith, July 02, 2014
The Author Replies:

Prof. Kainz makes an interesting distinction between "the best possible world" and my locution, "the best of all possible worlds." I merely meant to say that this realm we exist in now, full of our own fallen humanity, is not the best for us. Our ultimate end and complete happiness is not achieved in this current, fallen world, but only in a fuller union and deeper communion with the Triune God.

To Nick, I say thank you for your words and may God keep you in blessed sobriety throughout a long and full continuing journey with Him.
written by Myshkin, July 02, 2014
Well said, Dr. Smith. God is not of our making, and is very much beyond our conceptual grasp. What we know of him philosophically comes through the three "vias": causality, negation and eminence.

But what of those to whom this kind of philosophical knowledge is too difficult to grasp? Revelation, with its narratives of God's actions, Jewish poetry and prose depicting humanity in relation to God, and the epistles of the holy Apostles, etc. must fill in. But taken in a modern literalist manner, the Scriptures often lead to just the the kind of pagan depictions of God as a Big MAN. This is why Roman Catholic Scripture study groups in parishes are so important. Since this is how most people come to know and love The Lord, it is very important that it not be left to heretical Protestant biblical scholars.
written by Myshkin, July 02, 2014
May God gather Karen Walter Goodwin to himself, for all of eternity.
written by Gottfried, July 03, 2014
What? Possible worlds? I just -love- talking about best-possible-worlds.

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