Jeff Cook: Could Believing in God Harm Your Soul?

Jeff Cook: Could Believing in God Harm Your Soul? August 15, 2012

This post is by Jeff Cook, and details are at the bottom.

Could Believing in God Harm Your Soul?

Throughout Christian history it has been common to judge those who do not believe in God as not simply unwise, but morally suspect. That if a person did not believe in God, this was not simply a cognitive conclusion; it was a mark against that person’s character. Yet I know many men and women who want God to exist, know far more about the philosophical arguments for God-belief than I do, yet fail to embrace theism. Such folks are by all accounts honest and often doing the best with what they have—and this is a puzzle.

Perhaps those of us who wrestle with God belief are actually in the precise place God desires us to be. Perhaps times of non-belief and the experience of God’s absence can have real value. That was my experience (which I chronicle here), it’s the experience of many I care about, and it is common experience in the Bible.

Do you think “believing in God” can be detrimental to faith, God-belief, the soul — as Jeff Cook explains this in the post? Can God-belief diminish desire for God?

God’s hiddenness points to the fact that God values our desires more than our beliefs. I have argued over the past month that wanting God to exist is more important than believing in God (here and here), because I hold that pursuits of the heart are more important than rational deductions and one’s ontology. Both are important of course, but I think there are good reasons for seeing reason as secondary. In my own experience, the material that moved me most in reconsidering God belief was all about desire and it came form a French mathematician named Blaise Pascal.

I can hear it now, “What, the wager guy?” If all you know of Pascal is the Wager Argument prepare to have your heart explode. I have placed some of the Pensees below in an order that I find compelling, and because Pascal’s quotes are so good I couldn’t help adding my reflections in brackets to push the argument. I would love to hear your thoughts, particularly from those of you who have trouble believing in God.

Starting With Ourselves

“We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness” (401).

(The beginning of wisdom is knowing one knows nothing. We never possess truth. We can only look on it and love it. So too, we cannot possess life, for we are in danger every moment of losing the only life we have.)

“We have an incapacity for proving anything which no amount of dogmatism can overcome. We have an idea of truth which no amount of skepticism can overcome” (406).

(Neither skepticism nor dogmatism are worthy places to rest our heads, for neither can stand against counter attack.)

“What is man in nature? A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely remote from an understanding of the extremes; the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy. [Man is] equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed…Let us realize our limitations” (199).

(If we do not realize how very small we are, we are quite proud indeed–and pride cannot love wisdom.)

“Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition” (434).

(My favorite Pensees. Death destroys all philosophies. Russell knew it. Nietzsche knew it. Sartre knew it. In fact, death is retroactive and steals all meaning and value from our lives and thoughts now. The human condition is birthed into inescapable despair. Solutions to this problem alone can be labeled “Good News”, for without such solutions everything is butchered.)

On Seeking

“I look around in every direction and all I see is darkness. Nature has nothing to offer me that does not give rise to doubt and anxiety. If I saw no sign there of a Divinity I should decide on a negative solution: if I saw signs of a Creator everywhere I should peacefully settle down in the faith. But seeing too much to deny and not enough to affirm, I am in a pitiful state.” (429).

(Peter Kreeft said, If God is real, “he designed nature as a puzzle, not a solution.”)

“I condemn equally those who choose to praise man, those who choose to condemn him, and those who choose to divert themselves, and I can only approve of those who seek with groans” (405).

(Often what is sold by the peddlers of religion are easy answers: the one thing neither nature nor God seem to offer.)

“God being thus hidden every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden is not true and every religion which does not give the reason of it, does not instruct.”

(The materialist has a ready answer: God is hidden because God is not there. The Christian too often sets this question aside as unanswerable, but Pascal knows that here is where the deep truths of God’s character are uncovered.)

The Hidden God

“If there were no obscurity man would not feel his corruption: if there were no light man could not hope for a cure. Thus it is not only right but useful for us that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for a man to know God without knowing his wretchedness as to know his wretchedness without knowing God … What can be seen on earth indicates neither the total absence, nor the manifest presence of divinity, but the presence of a hidden God. Everything bears this stamp…Man must not see nothing at all, nor must he see enough to think he possesses God, but he must see enough to know that he has lost him. For, to know that one has lost something one must see and not see: such is precisely the state of nature” (449).

(What a Wonder! God reveals more by being hidden than he would through full disclosure. Had God revealed himself fully, we would not know ourselves. Because God is hidden we know our inadequacies; we know our frailty. This opens the avenue for understanding the most important truth of all: we may now know the grace of God for we first knew ourselves, on our own, with no trace of God. God’s hiddenness reveals the depths and potency of God’s grace when it is extended to the wretched.)

“God wishes to move the will rather than the mind. Perfect clarity would help the mind and harm the will” (234).

(And God is justified in such hiding because God knows that wanting God to exist is more important than believing in God.)

On Reason

“One must know when it is right to doubt, to affirm, to submit. Anyone who does otherwise does not understand the force of reason. Some men run counter to these three principles, either affirming that everything can be proved because they know nothing about proof, or doubting everything because they do not know when to submit, or always submitting because they do not know when judgment is called for” (170).

(Neither lacking doubt, lacking faith or lacking reason are healthy. The dogmatic skeptic, the dogmatic rationalist, and the dogmatic fideist are each unbalanced. It is in the tensions that wisdom speaks.)

“Two excesses: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason” (183).

“If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing supernatural.  If we offend the principle of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous” (173).

(Peter Kreeft says, “Not all of Christianity can be proved, but some of it can, and none of it can be disproved.” This is a great good, for reason takes us to that point where we can embrace God with our will. If all things about God where concretely proven, we would approach the Lover of our souls only through deduction without passion. God’s hiddenness insists that our souls awaken and plunge into the divine reality.)

“Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. Reason is merely feeble if it does not go so far as to realize that” (188).

(Reason can tell you where the ocean is, but not whether you should jump in. Reason can tell you of a wedding at noon, but not whether you should say vows to the girl standing there in white. Reason can tell you life is meaningless if there’s no God, but cannot tell you to seek the divine. Reason can tell you sin will destroy your soul, but give you no help in warding off sin.)

“Is it reason that makes you love yourself? … The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: we know this in countless ways” (423).

(Way 1: A friend who loves you, knows you more deeply than your psycho-analyst. Way 2: The man playing jazz at midnight knows John Coltrane better than the PhD in composition looking over sheet music at noon. Way 3: …)

“What a long way it is between knowing God and loving him!” (377).

(The devils “know” more clearly than most who God is, and their knowledge leads them to retributive anarchy.)

 On Choosing Christ

“There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition” (149).

(“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” It is not what we see, but how we see it that matters most.)

“Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God or of ourselves” (417).

(The few things we must have answers for in order to escape despair, find their best solutions in Christ. The canon of philosophical speculations and deductions are simply not in the same league as the New Testament portrait of Jesus Christ).

“The heart has its order, the mind its own … We do not prove that we ought to be loved by setting out in order the causes of love” (298).

(Lovers never propose in syllogisms. We should expect God’s offer of eternal life to be addressed, not to our reason, but to our souls. Reason will fill in the details later…if it can.)

Jeff Cook teaches philosophy at UNC. He is the author of Everything New: One Philosopher’s Search for a God Worth Believing In, which is an exploration of Pascalian arguments and Christian thought.

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  • Wow. WOW. How can one blog post have so much Truth? This all resonates with my thoughts and heart perfectly. Every word here simply sparks my soul to worship, wonder, and love.

    I don’t have to know because I am known. I don’t have to see because I am seen. I don’t have to become because, in Christ, I AM.

    Just basking in the peace and freedom of that now.

    Must show other’s….

  • far too little is written or expressed today when it comes to our struggle with doubt and belief, leaving those who do admit the struggle feeling isolated and alone. this is excellent.

  • CGC

    Thanks Jeff,
    I’m with Nate, “Wow!” I can say it backwards, “Wow!” 🙂

  • T

    Fantastic. Obviously a brilliant man. I am grateful to men so brilliant who affirm both the great value and limits of what our minds can do alone.

    Obviously, what we believe or “know” about God can be detrimental. Love is somehow “greater” than even faith and hope, however inter-related they are and must be.

    Also, I think this view of God’s hiddenness is important and is worthy of much more thought, at least by me!

  • Nate (1).

    Best comment ever.

  • Doug Hendricks

    Thanks for posting these quotes, many of them really resonate with me. If I understand the meaning of the question correctly, I think “believing in God” can often lead to an atrophying of the soul. We are often sold a view of God that is at best small, if not hugely distorted. It is the hunger and pursuit of God which animates the soul.

  • I’ve been exploring the idea of doubt as spiritual formation here: Right now, I’m in the process of putting together a teaching series for high school students on world-view and may go into apologetics. While I believe that my most spiritual times of growth have been in doubt, I struggle with the place evidence has in faith. I go between Kierkegaard’s evidence is the enemy of faith; to evidence that demands a verdict. Personally, I think that many of us believe in a God that is not Jesus and often doubt kills off our false ideas of Jesus and God and resurrects better understanding of who He is. What are your thoughts on this?

  • Rick

    I am having a tough time getting past the disturbing picture.

  • Doug Hendricks

    @ #7 Nithin Does the place of evidence have to be so “either/or”? I like the quote above about nature- “too much to deny, not enough to affirm”. I think the evidence is positive when seen in the larger context of the Beauty of God. And your right, “god” is a person with a name, not an abstraction. ( I have never quite understood the “LORD” thing in the O.T. )

  • Bill

    Love Kreeft’s quote above. Some of us Christians I think can learn that proving everything is not needed and can be an awful waste of time and energy and a distraction to loving God. The gap between knowing about God and loving Him is wide. I think someone said something like this above. Pardon the redundancy. This is just plain, Wow!

  • Nithin (7). You wrote, “I go between Kierkegaard’s evidence is the enemy of faith; to evidence that demands a verdict. Personally, I think that many of us believe in a God that is not Jesus and often doubt kills off our false ideas of Jesus and God and resurrects better understanding of who He is. What are your thoughts on this?”

    Two points, I do thin it is healthy to move beyond images of God that are not Jesus, but such images can be a bridge (though one that is festered with termites and cannot stand long).

    I think I would go a third road between McDowell and Kierkegaard. I think the evidence is enough to make both belief and non-belief equally rational. And from that point, we must choose with our hearts.

  • Jeff,

    Are you familiar with the brain research of Antonio Damasio? He shows that people who have experienced damage to the part of the brain responsible for emotion are not able to make “rational” decisions like buying a car. In other words, the emotions are integral to reasoning.


  • Jon G

    Jeff in #11 said ” I think the evidence is enough to make both belief and non-belief equally rational. And from that point, we must choose with our hearts.”

    Having spent years working through the obstacle course that is evidence-based apologetics, this is exactly where I’m at. Thanks for putting it so succinctly! And thank you for this great post…I’m going to have to spend more time digging into Pascal.

  • Jon G (13). Pick up Peter Kreeft: Christianity for Modern Pagans. Wonderful intro to the Pensees!

  • Let me ramble a few thoughts: Could it be that when “the faith” became cerebral with the availability of the Bible (printing press) and Enlightenment’s (scientific) scheme for finding “truth”, we lost those mysterious dimensions of “the faith” honored by Pascal and reaffirmed by Kreeft? Pre-Reformation eras used paintings, dramas, songs, (and sermons) of the Grand Story and those ways of communicating had the ability to by-pass “pure reason” and impact the heart. When human perceptors and receptors of total reality were scuttled with the exception of pure reason, reality itself was reduced. We became blind people in an infinitely colorful universe.

  • Just a thought for Jeff. Tackle, “Could believing in the Bible Harm the Soul?” As a pastor, I’ve seen too much use of the Bible that has revealed spiritual midgets who were oppressive tyrants.

  • DRT

    Wow, I am with Nate W and CGC, Wow. Wow.

    This resonates quite clearly with the thoughts I am having as a result of the Wellsprings of Conflict post by RJS. I have said for years that one of the problems I had with the RCC is that it was too defined, too known, too ….. intermediated. I found that I had a wall of dogma and imagery that intermediated my view of god, and I could not find my way around that wall until I left. They sought to make it no longer hidden.

    But having matured and grown, I like to go to the RCC and use the imagery instead of viewing it as dictating to me,.

    Do you think “believing in God” can be detrimental to faith, God-belief, the soul — as Jeff Cook explains this in the post? Can God-belief diminish desire for God?

    Yes, for the reasons I said above.

  • DRT

    For those with more direct experience than me, I have a quesiton.

    This sort of post resonates deeply with me, but I realize that most are not at all like me. Does someone of less than normal intelligence stand a greater or lesser ability to believe in these ways?

  • Jon G

    DRT, as “one of less than normal intelligence” I think the more I rationalized my faith, the more I doubted it. Not that I think we should bury our heads in the sand – or that there aren’t good intellectual reasons to believe (or disbelieve!) but pursuing God as an answer to a question rather than as a person to be loved results in two very different sets of data collected, IMHO. And left me quite confused. In the end, I decided to (try!) to pursue God as a person to be loved and I think it will end up strengthening my faith in the long run…but I’ll let you know.

    A more intellegent being might be able to walk both paths juggling both sets of data as they see fit, but alas, I have a hard time keeping them apart. Does that make sense? Is that what you were asking?


  • CGC

    Hi Jon and all,
    Do we pursue God as an answer to a question or a person to be loved? Jon, the arrow struck the right target, the heart!

  • Dana Ames

    I always resonate with Pascal when I read those quotes. Sadly, I have not yet read the whole collection of Pensees.

    Yes, death… Indeed, the only really good news is about the dissolution of death.

    Jeff, if you aren’t already acquainted with it, I recommend Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog, where he discusses the very matters you raise here:

    I think it can be detrimental to believe in the wrong god, because we become like what we worship… but the True God always knows what people really desire (cf Emeth the Calormen soldier in CS Lewis’ “The Last Battle”) and relates to us accordingly; that’s part of his hiddenness, I think.


  • DRT

    Jon G, thank you so much. I think everyone could roll with that perspective and that certainly, as CGC said, gets to the heart of the matter (nice pun).

  • CGC wrote “Do we pursue God as an answer to a question or a person to be loved?”

  • God has come that we may *know* him.
    The evidences of that reality are important. God has entered history. There are facts, evidences, that we may know that he is the Christ (to quote John) and that in him God is *fully* revealed.
    But at the end of the day, our strongest apologetic is always that we *know* him. We hear him. We know his voice. We know the peace of his presence in us. And it is this which we cannot deny.

  • #18 DRT

    I don’t think intelligence is the important quality of Love (for God is Love), and this can be seen in the life of Derek Paravicini as shown on CBS 60 Minutes:

    Derek loves music and loves the piano and can play anything he has listened to just once. But at 32 years of age he doesn’t know how old he is nor can he tie his own shoes, or get dressed by himself.

    See the video, it will put you in awe of the power, intelligence and wisdom of the heart.

    What this tells me is that if you are doing what you love then belief does not matter because you are living and breathing as the Love that you are. Thus you are integrated with God, and being integrated only comes from the experience, not the philosophy.

    Also, recent medical research has shown that the human heart is made up of 65% neuron cells like the brain, but reasoning is not the heart’s function. It’s intelligence lay elsewhere.

  • Mike M

    Great food for thought, Jeff. Thanks.
    But are we confusing “knowledge” with “wisdom?” Or even these days, “cleverness?” Proverbs 9:10 says that reverence of God is the begining of all wisdom. That should be the take between Jews, Christians, Muslims and the rest of the world including atheists and agnostics. What I do, I do in reverence to God. It’s not a hidden God who hides amongst the bushes of reality and leaves only broken branches for me to see that he was there. I’ve had proof but really, no one needs to go what we’ve gone through to prove it. Thanks again, Bro, for this post.

  • Andy W.

    Thank you Jeff! After this and other posts, I just had to get your book and am really looking forward to reading it!

  • jerry lynch

    I have had a passing acquaintance with Pascal over the years, always deeply delighted and challengingly moved at our chance encounters. Why didn’t I pursue this relationship further? Reading this collection assembled here, I feel bereft over all those lost years. If only…. Now it feels as if he is the only person I need to know.

  • Jerry – I feel that same way everytime I come back to reading Pascal. I suggested it earlier, but Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans is simply incredible as a edited, annotated gateway into the Pensees.

  • JamesB

    Consider me in the “trouble believing in God” camp. There is way too much here to give a full response to, but it seems like it’s all just saying we can’t know everything, therefore God. The Wager, in other words.

    I will address one quote however. “…death is retroactive and steals all meaning and value from our lives and thoughts now.” I see quite the opposite. Knowing that death is final gives much more meaning to my life, knowing this is the only life I have.

  • Jeff- Thanks for a “heartfelt” blog post that touches on an angle not often discussed. I also appreciated people’s responses.

    There is so much that could be said on this subject but I’ll try to narrow my comments to two points. First, the issue of negating the importance of emotions reflects a phenomenon not just in theology but in psychology. It’s interesting that Dave mentioned Antonio Damasio because his work on emotions is brilliant, (as is the work of Silvan Tomkins), yet cognitive behavioral therapy is all the rage these days in mental health. While CBT has its merits, it has threatened to usurp the jewel that is the heart and its role in guiding our lives. In an informal way, I touched on this subject in a recent blog post –

    The other area that interested me in this post is the relationship between how we come to “know” God and our experience of desire. I had a paper published about ten years ago called “The Bifurcated Gift.” It’s a clinical paper dealing with romantic transference in psychotherapy but in the writing, I alluded to the relationship between earthly desire and a deeper Desire for God. (It can be found on this webpage in PDF format – I wrote the paper long before I was a practicing Christian so the paper doesn’t encompass my current theology yet nonetheless, I sensed God often brings us to Him through our initial experience of desire. If we have the courage and willingness to explore what He is trying to reveal to us through our hearts, we often find Him there waiting for us with arms wide open.

  • Mike M

    Lise: briefly, how has CBT failed us? I find the techiniques useful so I’d like to learn how it falls short. Thanks.

  • Hi Mike,

    Thanks for asking. I didn’t mean to imply that CBT has failed us, as it certainly has its merits, and I use it in my work. My concerns stem more when CBT is either done by route or at the expense of compartmentalizing emotions and putting them on a shelf. For instance, I’ve seen thought records (a technique of CBT) thrown at clients in extreme emotional distress. While thought records can definitely be helpful, there is a time and place for them. If emotions have been bottled and repressed for years, it might be more helpful to let a person simply express them and/or to work on distress tolerance and soothing; and then look at thought record work at another point in time. I’ve just witnessed some paradigms of CBT where insight is held as supreme and yet insight was not yielding any behavioral change. I also think our emotions can bring much reason, if we know how to attune to them and listen to the messages of the body when we experience emotions physiologically. For this reason CBT + mindfulness can be more effective.

    I don’t know if this answers your question. This would probably be a better dialogue in real time.
    And I didn’t mean to get too much away from Jeff’s post which is about God not psychology. The main point I was trying to make is that we need a comprehensive approach to theology the same as in other disciplines as well. The Age of Reason has placed great stress on cognition (as opposed to intuition or mysticism or the arts, which explore other ways of knowing).

    I need coffee. 🙂

  • John Inglis

    re Jeff @ #30, “. Knowing that death is final gives much more meaning to my life, knowing this is the only life I have.”

    I don’t see how it gives more meaning. More personal significance, yes, but more meaning? No. Nor does it give one’s life more cosmic or ultimate significance.

    If God does not exist, does one individual’s life matter one whit in the cosmos? Does it make any overall difference? No. Meaning requires an end, a telos, a directedness. Words and language have meaning because they point to something else. If one’s life does not point to anything outside of itself, then what meaning does it have?


  • Kenton

    This post literally brought tears to my eyes. This finally brings voice to my feelings about the shallow-believism – on both sides of the atheist/theist debate – that surrounds us and plunges into deeper waters than I’ve read before.

    Thank you.