A Higher Power

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 a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.