THOUGH I am an atheist, I consider Christianity a huge part of my life. When I was a kid I attended Mass regularly — either at Bustillos or the magnificent San Sebastian Church. I read the Bible, and until now, it remains a source of inspiration, especially these two books: Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job.
Ecclesiastes and The Book of Job are my most favorite books in the Bible. And I think the Bible should just be reduced to these two. I believe that the Book of Job has to be read first before Ecclesiastes because the former teaches us what faith entails. Once we’ve learned what it entails, the layered meanings of Ecclesiastes will unravel beautifully. By the way, my fellow atheist, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, also loves Ecclesiastes. Dawkins considers the King James Bible translation of it to be “one of the glories of English literature.”
The Book of Job begins with God and Satan having a conversation about Job, a pious rich man. Satan told God that if Job were to lose all that he has, he would turn against God. God then asked Satan to test Job. Job experienced calamity after calamity, losing everything he had — family, wealth and health.
Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar counseled Job on his situation. Job was being punished for committing sin, they said, because he wouldn’t be in that situation if he didn’t do something evil. They advised Job to repent in order for God to stop punishing him. Job didn’t believe them. In the end, God punished Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, and restored Job’s health and made him more prosperous than before. The lesson of the story is summed up by this word: doubt.
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar had this illusion of knowledge. They were so sure that they knew what was going on inside God’s mind. But how could they know this if they weren’t there when God “laid the foundations of the earth” (Job 38:4). How can they be certain when they are mere winks in the eye of eternity? A mere dust in infinite space? What this implies is that nothing and no one can tell us what exactly God wants but God himself. Anyone or anything who weren’t there when He laid the foundations of the earth are all ignorant of how the Divine would unravel.
“Abolish all doubt,” historian Lesley Hazleton said in her 2013 Ted Talk, “and what’s left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction. You’re certain that you possess the Truth — inevitably offered with an implied uppercase T — and this certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so very right, in short, the arrogance of fundamentalism.”
Hazleton traces the path of spiritual development that doesn’t transition from faith to fundamentalism but from doubt to faith to awe.
A beautiful interpretation of this path is the response of Dr. Ellie Arroway, the Jodie Foster character in the film of cosmologist Carl Sagan’s book Contact, while being interrogated in the US Congress. Dr. Arroway was being pressured to say that her experience of traveling through the galaxy that didn’t leave any physical evidence wasn’t real.
In response, Dr. Arroway said: “I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision… of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves…I wish… I… could share that… I wish, that everyone, if only for one… moment, could feel… that awe, and humility, and hope.”
Fundamentalism is based on absolute certainty, while faith is based on uncertainty. Fundamentalism claims, faith trusts. Fundamentalism is unreceptive, faith is welcoming. Fundamentalism is the negation of doubt and the annihilation of the doubtful, while faith is the presence of doubt and the refuge of the doubtful. Fundamentalism arrests, faith surrenders.
Fundamentalists’ conviction is nothing but their vanity speaking. Nothing comes out of it but violence, arrogance and self-conceit. Faith is not a sword that one must wield against, those who are different from us but a bamboo that keeps on bending as it grows, always being humbled by doubt, prepared to be annihilated by awe.
The fundamentalist path leads not to awe because awe demands the bravery to accept totality — everything there is. Awe is not the arrogance that what “I believe is all there is and should be.” As Sagan once put it: “Any faith that admires truth, that strives to know God, must be brave enough to accommodate the universe.” And this universe includes everyone, every experience, every emotion, every moment, every thing there is, was, and will ever be.
Inspire your children to find their unique path to self-realization. Encourage them to study comparative worldviews so they will become aware of the various ways humanity attempted to understand the ocean of which they are just but a tiny drop. Understanding those various attempts inevitably stirs one to become more tolerant of the various paths people have pursued in order for them to wrestle with the mystery of existence.