On Faith: The existential option for God

Discussions about God's existence usually consider three points of view: the theistic (some kind of higher power or powers exists), atheistic (the opposite), or agnostic (not sure).

Let me propose a fourth: existentialist, but not with the capital "e" found in the Existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and others. I'm referring instead to the wonderful fact that anything at all simply exists.

Cosmos of indescribable immensity encompasses us: the Milky Way Galaxy with at least 100 billion stars, the universe with its 300 billion or more galaxies, our own planet replete with tens of thousands of life forms stunning in their complexity, and the human brain with its 100 billion interconnected neurons.

We are confronted with Being or Existence at every turn, and should marvel at the fact that there is any-thing. Is such marveling the same as believing in God? No, but it forces us to ask how it all came into being, why it is here. Why is there being rather than non-being?

Such an inquiry is the beginning of a spiritual life. As I tell my students, you may not belong to a formal, religious community — and at least 20% do not — but you must have a spiritual life to be fully alive, to be transported by great music, to be in awe of an artist's piercing colors and shapes, or to be transfixed by an athlete's grace.

To wonder about existence and marvel at its multifaceted grandeur is a quasi-religious act, an existential prayer. To stand in awe at a starry night is to be lifted above life's hum-drum, pedestrian pace.

This small-e existentialism should not be confused with pantheism, the concept espoused philosopher Benedict Spinoza and others that God is the universe without distinction. Rather, existentialism distinguishes between the manifest universe and being-ness, the realization that there is something, not nothing.

I assume this theory of existentialism will please neither the believer nor the denier, neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the late Christopher Hichens (he of the book "God is not Great").

That is as it should be, for life is full of mystery, and there is no absolute, mathematical certainty either for the believer or the non-believer.

This does not mean a religious person may not take comfort in his or her deep faith, nor the disbeliever in humanism. Both are following authentic paths dictated by reason and a sincere search for truth. So, too, of the existentialist whose worldview is rooted in a sense of awe at the universe in all its splendor, its mystery and its terror.

Yes, terror.

As the Roman poet Virgil wrote in "The Aeneid," contemplating the fall of ancient Troy: "There are tears in things."

Life is often tragic and painful, but here too there is wonder and mystery. Evil is part of existence, such that we must all confront it, wrestle with it, and seek to understand it, in all its manifestations.

Yet, we will never fully succeed in understanding or conquering evil. It is always there for the atheist to use a proof-text, and for the theist to use to argue, in Augustine's words, that, "we have here no lasting city."

And so, all of us — theist, atheist, agnostic and existentialist — go forward in our quest for a spiritual life that will enable our spirits to soar. Perhaps there would be fewer disputes about belief or non-belief, religious faith or secular realism if everyone embraced the wonder of existence as the starting point for dialogue.

BENJAMIN J. HUBBARD is professor emeritus of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton. He lives in Costa Mesa.

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