Can faith help us in a time of crisis? If we believe in a God, will our prayers and petitions lead us to the best possible outcome, for ourselves, our families and for our society?
Faith is a curious thing. It may be that you either have the faith gene within you or you don’t. The author David Foster Wallace once gave a now fabled commencement speech titled This is Water. As part of that speech, Foster Wallace told the tale of two men chatting in a bar, and their different takes on the role that God plays in their lives. I’ve paraphrased the story below:
There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. While they’re old friends, they have very different ideas on God—one is a priest and the other is an atheist. They begin arguing about the existence of God.
The atheist says, “Look, it’s not like I haven’t given God a chance. I even tried the prayer thing. It didn’t work.”
The priest asks with some incredulity, “Did you really pray? When did this happen?”
“Just last month,” replies the atheist. “I got caught away from the camp in a terrible blizzard. I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing. It was 50 below, and so I prayed. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m going to die if you don’t help me’.”
The priest looks at the atheist with a puzzled expression and exclaims, “Well then you must believe in God now. After all, here you are, alive!”
The atheist rolls his eyes and says, “No way, that’s not how it happened. A couple of Eskimos came wandering by and they showed me the way back to camp.”
The same story. Two different perspectives. The priest seeing this as a case of divine intervention, the atheist viewing it as pure happenstance. It’s not too hard to see how these same people would view the current coronavirus crisis. One praying for a speedy ending to it all, with the least possible human suffering, the other hoping for the best, but not knowing what to expect.
Is one point-of-view rational and the other misguided? Or is it possible that both men could be right? That’s possible. Consider the novel idea at God’s existence may be dependent on our beliefs—and that if you’re a non-believer, God does not exist. But if you are…This insight, that God exists for those who believe, comes from John Templeton, the businessman-turned-philosopher. Templeton believed that spirituality was a personal issue, based on “the unique divine experiences of the individual believer.” He wonders if there isn’t a reason why some believe in a higher power:
Can a person’s consciousness become activated through spiritual practices such as prayer? And can this activation in a person’s consciousness generate greater expressions of spirituality? Could this be what some people describe as “living the spiritual life,” rather than being “religious”?
Perhaps faith is not something we are born with, but something we activate by engaging in practices like prayer. Maybe those who pray on a regular basis are better able to connect with something greater than themselves, the life force that many of us identify as God. Or maybe prayer isn’t needed at all, just the inner belief that there is a God who will help make things right.
A couple of years ago I wrote a story about the “third man” phenomena. In some life-threatening situations, certain people detect a presence around them that they perceive as a guardian angel or God. There are numerous stories, like one of two hikers stranded on a mountaintop, who are led to safety by an unseen “third man” who provides encouragement and guidance. Did their faith conjure up this otherworldly presence?
As for me, I believe in the old Arab proverb, “Trust in God, but tie your camel.” During this crisis, I will continue to meditate each morning and breathe deeply during the day, doing my best to keep stress at bay as it can have a detrimental effect on the immune system. I will pray for my family friends and community, pray that this crisis will pass quickly. But I will also be hunkering down, working from home, avoiding social interactions, washing my hands until they are sore.
I’m not sure where this all nets out. But through meditation and prayer, I’ve come to believe, make that know, that it will all work out. I am comforted by the thought that, while we may not see them for some time, better days are ahead. God bless and good luck to you and your family.