We were made for hope

The morning news is rarely uplifting. Even less so, the morning news that includes an interview with the man who recently headed the government agency on biomedical and public health research.  But not too long ago I heard just such an interview, and quite unexpectedly, it gladdened my heart.

The man is Francis Collins, and until recently, he headed the National Institute of Health, one of the agencies tasked with combating COVID in the US. He is also, as the public radio host pointed out in her introduction, a Christian.

I guess I’ve been hiding under a rock for several years, because I haven’t been aware that an evangelical Christian who used to be an atheist has been head of this agency for the last 12 years. Now, this isn’t a tidy story. He has apparently been a thorn in the side of the “haven’t we outlawed this religion nonsense yet” crowd, but at the same time, under his leadership, the NIH has gone full steam ahead on some grossly unethical research

His personal faith is not really what this essay is about, though; although it was pleasant to hear a man so humbly describing his conversion story, and a public radio host listening so respectfully. If you haven’t heard it, here is how he told it to the host, Rachel Martin:

It was medical school. It was that third year of medical school, where you’re not in the classroom anymore. You’re on the hospital wards. You’re sitting at the bedside of good North Carolina people whose lives are coming to an end, sometimes with a great deal of pain and suffering. And you’re realizing your medical tools are inadequate to actually help them very much.

And I had a moment where a patient of mine, who I’d gotten kind of attached to – an elderly woman kind of like my grandmother – who shared her faith with me and then turned to me one afternoon and said, you know, Doctor, I’ve told you about my beliefs, and you haven’t said anything. What do you believe? What do you believe? Nobody ever quite asked me that question. And, Rachel, at that moment, I realized, I have no idea. I have settled on atheism because it was the answer I was most comfortable with, and it meant I didn’t really have to look into this. But I’m a scientist. I’m not supposed to make big decisions without looking at evidence. I’ve got to look into it.”


What he did next was to ask a pastor friend some challenging questions, and the man directed him toward the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which led him to understand that science is meant to answer one kind of question, and religion is meant to answer another. You don’t have to choose one or the other, despite what so many on both sides of our deeply divided society believe, or want to believe.

The host asked him about that divide, and about how he finds hope. He responded that he finds it in his faith. Then he said:

“I also have hope that human nature, despite all of its foibles, is basically put together in a way that over time we find a way to do the right thing, even after making a lot of mistakes along the way.”

This struck me as a message from Heaven. And this is the part I really want to focus on.

Here is a man who believes that God made us. And how did God make us? To be good. Maybe not all the time, and maybe not perfectly, and maybe not right away, but eventually, stumblingly, partially, or even just as a race: That’s what we do. That’s what the human race is: It is good. I guess I had forgotten that!

It’s become commonplace, in these dreadful, exhausting times, to look backward through history and to see plainly the fruitless cycles we seem doomed to walk through, over and over again. We struggle, we gain ground, we flourish, and then we come to ruin, over and over and over again. This is the story of mankind, on every continent, in every age, sooner or later, in big ways and in small. It seems like a story of constant, inescapable ruin. Fruitless, pointless.

But here is a man who saw this cycle as a story not of repeated failure, but of repeated hope. He is 71 years old, and he still thinks that people are basically put together in such a way that they are oriented toward the good, at least to try. This is a thing he’s saying in the beginning of the year 2022, after leading the fight he leaded, and after seeing what he’s seen.

I do believe, as we should all believe as Catholics, that there will eventually come an end to the world. There will not just be endless cycles to human life. Human history as we know it will someday cease, and a new age will begin, and we don’t know what that will look like. But I think that, right up until that time (which, Jesus insists, we do not know), it’s our job to keep turning and turning over the soil to find the next harvest.

It’s been a deeply discouraging few years, for countless, cascading reasons. We may have allowed ourselves to half believe that we’re just plain run out of goodness, as a human race.

But that’s not how we’re made.

What do you believe? What do you believe? I believe we were made by God to be good. We were made by God for constant conversion. There’s always the possibility of conversion, always the chance to try again to do good. If an atheist doctor can decide to ask hard questions about existence, then I, who already know about God, can decide to look for Him in my fellow fooling fumbling humans. We can ask God for help, and we can find that goodness, one more time. 

 

Photo by Kumaraguru via Pixahive 
A version of this essay was originally published on March 8, 2022 in The Catholic Weekly.

Do Christians do good because they fear Hell?

satan drawing

Imagine that I go for a walk in the mountains. Halfway up, I come across a little unexpected stream, with bracing cold water that sparkles over the mossy stones. The sweet smell of the waving weeds intoxicates me, and for one giddy moment, the shadow of a falcon races over my path. There are berries and wildflowers, sweet breezes and a new kind of birdsong, something wild and delightful that I’ve never heard before.

So I tell everyone about it. Most people say, “How beautiful! I love the mountains, too.” But one guy sneers, “Yeahhh, I’d scuttle up there too, if I shared your primitive fear of carnivorous valley monsters.”

I go, “Huh?”

And another guy goes, “Why, I don’t blame you a bit. It’s probably emotionally healthy for someone with your neurotic anxiety over coronary disease to take an aerobic uphill hike.”

And I go, “Yeah, but—”

That’s kind of how I feel when I talk about being a Catholic, and two different types of atheists respond. When I posted about my little girl’s belief in God, the first type berated me for “[t]elling a 5-year-old they need to obey a magical ghost who lives in the clouds or else terrible things will happen to them.”

And I’m like, “Huh?”

And the second one is like the much more civil atheist, who said that he would have had a far less polite response to the first atheist, speaking “as someone who doesn’t worry about going to hell for doing whatever I feel like.”

And I go, “Yeah, but—”

These two atheists have something startling in common: They both assume that a major feature of Catholic life is a constant fear of Hell.

Now, I believe in Hell. And I do fear it. At least two of my daily prayers specifically ask God to preserve me from that fate. But does a fear of Hell motivate good behavior?

When someone is nasty to me, my first reaction is to respond in kind (and too often, I give in). My second reaction, though, is to say, “Wait, wait, wait. Can I do a little better?” And why would I do that?

If you can stand another analogy, imagine that I’m sitting at a table with a beloved friend and mentor—someone who has always been kind and patient with me, and who is always secretly fixing things up to make my life better.  Today he has prepared a delicious meal, with all my favorites: five courses, perfectly matched wines, everything fresh and prepared with love and skill.

So I’m enjoying this meal tremendously, talking, laughing, having a wonderful time. Suddenly my host looks out the window and says, “Oh look, it’s that guy who commented on your post! Why don’t you wrap up one of these extra rolls and toss it to him?”

And I say, “NO!!! No, no, NO! It’s mine, all mine! I’m too tired! He’s a jerk! Why should I! Nobody cares about me! I can’t spare it anyway! I can’t believe you expect me to do that! Wahhhhhhhh!” and I fall to the floor, pulling the tablecloth with me, and lie there in a puddle of spilled gravy and broken glass.

Or, I could say, “Ehh, it’s just a roll, and I have this huge feast. Okay, buddy—my host seems to see something in you that I don’t. So here you go.” And I do it because I love my host. Am I afraid that he might cut me out of his will if I don’t share the roll? Maybe—but in practice, the relationship just isn’t like that. I worry less about his wrath than I do about my own foolishness: When I behave badly, it’s because I’m not thinking of him or his generosity at all.

Most of the time, when God asks us to do something good—to do something better than our original impulse—we do it not out of fear of punishment, but because we recognize that God is so good to us, so generous. And most of the time, all he asks us to do is to toss the other guy a roll. It’s not fear that motivates good behavior. It’s because we realize that God has given us a tremendous amount of love, and the least we can do is to pass it on from time to time.

Is the fear of Hell a useful way to control my sinfulness? Sometimes. But most often, if I commit a mortal sin, it’s when my heart is halfway in Hell anyway—so the fear of going there is not much of a deterrent. I behave much better when, rather than trying to avoid Hell, I’m trying to act more like I’m already in Heaven. I’m much more likely to share the wealth if I take a minute to look around and realize what a feast I have in front of me.

So yes, I fear Hell. No, fear of Hell doesn’t usually do much to change my behavior. Believe it or not, atheists, but that’s how it goes!

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This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.

At the Register: Prayer doesn’t make things happen

science religion meme

I agree, sort of.

We don’t pray for a cure for cancer and find a vial full of miraculous medicine on the table. We don’t pray to reach the moon on Christmas Eve and find a functional rocket ship waiting under the tree in the morning.

Praying doesn’t make things happen. Praying makes things possible. 

Read the rest at the Register.