God — Why Bother?

Haim Watzman

I’m not partial to faith healing and miracle stories. I like to keep my feet on the ground when talking about God. And so does my good friend Anne Hodges-Copple, who serves as rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina.

So I was a little surprised when she sent me a recent sermon that centers on what looks ostensibly like a simple story of faith and healing. It happened recently when Anne went on a church mission to Belize, in central America.

Late one night, only about ten days ago, twenty-year-old Rachel woke up in her one room house on the outermost edge of San Mateo, Belize. Her husband and two young sons were still asleep. She looked over the swamp outside the window of the tiny box of a house she and her husband had built from discarded wood planks and scrap metal. Like other rather ramshackle dwellings nearby, her house was built on piles that rose above the soft ground created by filling in the lagoon with a dubious combination of sand and trash. San Mateo was created away from any land that could be valuable to developers and to keep poor workers and their families out of the sight of the thriving tourist industry of San Pedro. Despite the beautiful multi-hued turquoise waters of the Caribbean that surrounds Ambergris Cay, Rachel and her neighbors were surrounded by brackish water, and a ground so lacking in nutrients that the hardiest shrub had a difficult go of it.

Rachel awoke because she sensed something was wrong. As she told the social worker at Holy Cross Anglican School later that day, she felt something invisible move across the swamp and into her home. She felt something dark and sinister blow into the house. She closed the board door across the window. Shortly thereafter her youngest child, three year old Ronan, woke up crying. He called out in a terrified voice that crabs were eating him. Candles were lit and the child examined by worried parents. They could find no evidence of any bites. They could find no physical source of the child’s continued cries. They tried to soothe him, but he remained listless and distressed. Rachel feared that evil spirits had come into her house perhaps, upon her child.

As usually happens in these stories, the doctors were of no use, and the family turned to the church—to Anne—for help. Her reply:

I’m Episcopalian. We might discuss demons in a Bible study, but that’s as close as I’ve gotten.” I paused, thinking to myself: what am I going to say if she asks me to perform an exorcism. “I could go and do a house blessing and a healing service for the child.”

But off she went, canoeing across a swamp to reach the afflicted family.

The family wanted Anne to bless their house with Holy Water—but Anne, for all her religious training, had no idea how to make water holy, or what procedure to follow. But she blessed some water with a baptism blessing,

I then took the sprig, dipped it in the water and began flinging water everywhere: over the door posts, inside and out. Over the windows, inside and out. I just made it up as I went along, inviting the Holy Spirit to visit the place, to drive away all sickness of mind, body and spirit. I invited the Holy Spirit to dwell in this home and abide with this family, keeping them safe from all harm. We crowed into the tiny house and blessed the stove and the kitchen table. Ronan was delighted with this shower of water being cast all over the place. He and his mother laughed as I shook the branch with the holy water over their beds and over their heads.

I then knelt down and placed my hands on Ronan and prayed for God’s healing. I then prayed over Rachel. By his time she is crying and I thought I was about to cry. But Ronan….., but Ronan was all smiles. Earlier when we first arrived his mother had asked him to sing but he shyly refused. Now, he tugged on her shirt. “I want to sing.” And as the three adult women stood there dumbstruck he proudly, carefully sang for us. “Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. All the people of God, praise the Lord.”

Anne presumes that the boy’s condition, and his cure, can be explained medically. But she also thinks she saw a miracle:

I do think I witnessed a miracle: a two part miracle. First, I saw a young poor woman with out any kind of social standing, without any kind of economical or political pull put all her trust in the Lord. She did what the Bible told her to do.… I saw a woman whose love for her child went hand in hand with her love of God.

Part two of the miracle? I saw a bond of fellowship and love that stretches across oceans and across time, across cultures and across class. I saw a miracle that has built a sanctuary of safety for the children of San Mateo. And I saw a bond of fellowship and love where a scared little boy and a priest out of her depth can sit down together and both feel the healing, cleansing power of the Holy Spirit. Those are miracles enough for me.

For me, too.

Let me add my own two cents: I have no doubt that Ronan’s condition was dire Anne would have seen that he got to the nearest hospital rather than just trust in God. But the cure that occurred here, as Anne points out, was much more than medicine could achieve. Not just bodies were healed.

As I’ve previously written, in the age of science the only way God can act in the world is if human beings make a deliberate choice to invite him in. That choice can’t be one that ignores the physical facts of the world. A true miracle does not change the world—it changes people. As George Bernard Shaw has his archbishop say in St. Joan,

A miracle, my friend, is an event which creates faith. That is the purpose and nature of miracles. They may seem very wonderful to the people who witness them, and very simple to those who perform them. That does not matter: if they confirm or create faith they are true miracles.… Frauds deceive. An event which creates faith does not deceive: therefore it is not a fraud, but a miracle.

We can live without God. My friend Anne’s story shows that there are some good reasons to choose to live with him.

You can download a pdf version of Anne’s entire sermon on the St. Luke’s sermon page–click on the sermon for Feb. 15.

13 thoughts on “God — Why Bother?”

  1. We are creatures of both emotion and reason, but far more of the former than the latter. For reason to prevail took a fight of centuries, emotion comes naturally.

    Both can work on us. I’ve no doubt of the power of voodoo, for example, or that people can have psychosomatic illness, or be “struck dead” with fear. All would be familiar to our ancestors of 250,000 years ago.

    Reason had to fight to be accepted and the fight is still going on. We still instinctively act under emotion and must ordinarily restrain emotion to think clearly. All that modern science and medicine have done for us in curing disease is a product of the success of the fight, but emotion has not lost its power.

    I agree that we can live with or without a god because we create god for ourselves by choosing to believe. But the choice to believe and the efficacy of that belief to the chooser says nothing about the existence of a god that exists outside of the individual human head, waiting to be chosen or not.

    Christian Science is an example of refusing anything other than belief and I leave it up to the reader to decide on the wisdom of that choice.

  2. It is true and I’m glad it’s true that human beings feel better when shown loving attention by others. But why does this natural, human response to love need to be wrapped up in superstition and nonsense? That boy was *not* possessed by a demon. He and his mother were poor and sad and scared and needed someone to reach out to them. And it’s wonderful that your friend did that. But what does any of that have to do with faith or miracles? It might be argued that, because the boy and the mother were (sadly) in thrall to religion, that the love needed to come in a religious form to actually make them feel better. So there may be a purely tactical argument for doing what your friend did. But even in that case religion is a concession to an unfortunate reality, not a virtue to be praised.

  3. “But why does this natural, human response to love need to be wrapped up in superstition and nonsense?” David, we could take this one step further. If we say that attention is what people need, then why does the grant by one person of attention to another have to be dependent on such a messy, fickle emotion like love? If we could wire people’s brains to grant attention without feeling love and its consequent baggage of jealousy, rejection, and so on, wouldn’t that be a more reliable way to get attention to the people that need it? But I doubt that you want to give up on love. You’re right–scientifically, physically, there was neither a demon nor a God here. But would a rational, secular attitude have achieved the same results? Note that Anne emphasizes the poverty and political weakness of the people involved, and the empowerment that faith offered in those circumstances. It seems to me that to try to shunt off the natural human sense of the sacred and mysterious as something primitive and useless is to miss something important about what it means to be human.

  4. Of course this is a lovely story. But
    I don’t think you need belief in a (traditional) God to have faith. It’s
    not an either/or with cold rationality on one side and a God who answers
    prayers from the sick on the other, no matter how that “answer” is

    And while the story is sweet and the people involved were obviously all
    moved deeply, putting different people in the same situation might yield a
    different result. Show me the orthodox Jew who would feel comfortable
    being sprinkled with Christian holy water. While your friend Ann might
    have felt a bit a duck out of water being the token Episcopalian present,
    she might have felt more like an elephant in a tree if she’d been ask to
    participate in some pagan rite. Membership in a faith community can supply
    one with expansive love–but it’s also by definition exclusive.

  5. Nancy, the fact that faith communities are exclusive–that is, that they have boundaries, and some are in and some are out–is a trademark of every community. I certainly don’t believe intervention by an Episcopal priest is the right answer for everyone. What stands out in this story is that Anne responded to a need rather than forcing herself on the family, and that she found a way to respond to that need despite the differences between the family’s kind of belief and her own (even though they all belong to the same church). That the family, and Anne herself, felt that the whole they created was greater than the sum of its parts–that a third party, God, was involved–seems to me to be an essential part of the bond that was created here. The family did not, ultimately, owe the cure to Anne, nor could Anne claim that her personal intervention cured the boy. The sense of both sides that the actor here was God rather than people bridged, as Anne noted, over vast differences of myriad kinds. This kind of God is not a simplistic mystical or magical force but rather something that is transcendent precisely because transcendence is what human beings–many of them, anyway–want and need.

  6. The key phrase here is “rather than forcing herself on the family” and the key fact is that they were members of the same church. That said one can imagine a situation, sadly all too frequent, where harm can be done in just such a situation–where a religious figure takes advantage of people in such a vulnerable state to demand money, for example. Obviously that’s not what happened here.

    That religious groups are exclusive is not in and of itself a bad thing. But it needs to be acknowledged. Particularly a country like the U.S., where we have so many types of communities of belief (and as Obama referenced in his inaugural speech, unbelief) this is particularly important. One group’s transcendent experience can be experienced by others as oppressive. But that’s really a different topic…

  7. mr. watzman,

    unrelated to this, what i would like to know is how do you feel on the day that the testimonies of soldiers on the killing of civilians and vandalism in gaza — after saying in your
    “Bad War, Good Soldiers” post that you were “happy to hear” a soldier telling you that “we had to show them we’re not suckers and beat the hell out of them”, and that soldiers should forget their scruples and just “do the job?”

    i would greatly appreciate a response.


  8. Haim, you make a good point that love is an imperfect moral guide. It may be, for example, that the people most deserving of your assistance are not the people you love the most. This fact can be highly relevant for decisions like where to send your charitable dollars. But nevertheless love is fundamental to what it means to be human, and your friend did a good thing by giving it to people who really needed it. It is likely true that in this case the love needed to be expressed in a religious form to be effective, but that is simply becasue the intended recipients were themselves so religious. So as a practical matter your friend probably did the right thing. What I don’t get is the claim that the religious hocus-pocus was actually a good thing in its *own* right. Let me ask you this: suppose that instead of the story as you told it, the story was that there were a bunch of poor, powerless, miserable people, and your friend took the trouble to go and comfort them, but there was no religious stuff in the story at all. Would that story have been less good? Less inspiring? What exactly does the “sacred and mysterious ” stuff add?

  9. Interestingly enough, I’ve been thinking lately of the scenario we’ve all heard wherein a Jew whose child is in the ICU makes a bargain with God that s/he’ll never eat *treif* again if her child is saved, OR a Catholic parent promising God that if her child pulls through, s/he’ll go to mass and confession regularly . I get the bargaining part, but what I’m wondering is if God actually knows which humans belong to which religion, i.e., it “wouldn’t work” if the Catholic promised to observe *kashrut*, or the Jew promised to take communion. Does God keep a database of which faith each of us is affiliated with? How come we rarely (if ever) hear of the parent promising God that if her child pulls through, s/he’ll donate her next month’s salary to charity?

  10. “Let me ask you this: suppose that instead of the story as you told it, the story was that there were a bunch of poor, powerless, miserable people, and your friend took the trouble to go and comfort them, but there was no religious stuff in the story at all. Would that story have been less good? Less inspiring?”
    No, it wouldn’t have been. Just as if you don’t put that teaspoon of thyme in your stew your stew will still be tasty and nourishing. You can do without the thyme. And you can do without God. My argument is that by bringing in God (in the way described in this story) the experience is enriched, that it takes on a dimension that it would not have otherwise, and that this is worthwhile. I also assert, as I did in my previous comment, that bringing God in in this way creates an equality between the comforter and the comforted that might well be absent otherwise. And I think of the minister in “Cry, the Beloved Country,” who withstood adulterous temptation–the thought that he was betraying his wife would not have been enough to stop him, but he could not betray God. I can’t argue that anyone without a sense of the sacred should call into his life a God he does not believe in. But I think that person may be missing something–something like the thyme in the stew.

  11. Interesting comment thread.

    The god problem is that the science cat is out of the bag. As long as there was no way of knowing how the natural world worked, god could happily exist because there was no way to question the idea; anyone could propose a way the world worked no matter how fantastic, though of course institutionalized beliefs were not likely to brook innovations.

    But it is faith and only faith that supports a god. There is a clear way the natural world works that we know from science and that answers to experiment and proof. One can still believe in a god but it is “make believe” and, for me (and some number of others), I can’t fool myself knowing that I am fooling myself. What I can do is live by rules that I would want others to obey just as I do – no cosmic threat required.

    There is strength in numbers and religion has always sought to some extent to expand the number of believers. If all around you believe then there is not only social pressure on you to do so as well, but great comfort and peace of mind to join in the belief that seems correct if only because so many say it is.

    For one NOT to believe was always a dire threat because it questioned the core of what held a society together, indeed what held the universe together for minds in ignorance of any alternative.

    But from that smothering blanket of group-think we are free at last, or can be if we so choose. You can make up thoughts of something almighty or you can pop that thought like a balloon.

    One of, if not the chief advance of modern times is that you will not be stoned, burned at the stake or otherwise punished for using that wonderful brain of yours as you wish and being outspoken as you do!

    That is the true Good News.

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