Friday is “ski with the grandchildren day” in my family. We go up for the afternoon and practice our turns on the intermediate runs. The seven-year-old is working on parallel turns, while the four-year-old, who started out turning very gradual parallel turns has spontaneously adopted a snowplow turn style.
Emma, the younger, was delighted one day when she found a nickel and a penny in the old Suburban we use for our ski car. So last Friday, I left a quarter for her on the console and sure enough, she found it. “Look, grandpa, a nickel.” I told her it was actually a quarter, with a value of five nickels, and she should take it home and add it to her collection of found money.
Having money gives one a sense of security. Emma was being tended by some neighbors who knew she is a very picky eater. The father in the family said, “Emma, I will give you a dollar if you eat a slice of pizza.”
“No, thank you,” she replied. “I hate pizza and I have my own money.”
I have added to her security by leaving the quarter to be found. It is a good thing to be free to do as one wants, and not be coerced into things others believe are in your best interest.
Now Emma doesn’t ask who lost the quarter. My cat doesn’t ask where cat food comes from. We go through life, finding quarters and never wondering whence they come. I choose to believe in God, and that is where I attribute their provenance.
The advantage to me is a sense of security and relationship with my understanding of God. (Should I say, “my current misunderstanding of God”? Isn’t is certain that all our beliefs are tentative and misunderstandings? Isn’t it inevitable that my understanding will develop?) There are many benefits one accrues, including a sense of meaning and purpose. Rodney Stark at Baylor has shown that a belief in a personal God does give one more happiness, greater sense of meaning, and hope than either a belief in the distant, impersonal God of Spinoza and Einstein, or a will to disbelieve.
The reader may have already figured out that I am alluding to William James’ great lecture, “The Will to Believe” which is available on the web. James was reacting to William Clifford’s essay, “The Ethics of Belief” published in 1877, two years before his untimely death. Clifford argued that it is immoral to believe anything for which one has no evidence. Specifically, he argued there was no evidence for Christianity and so it was sinful to believe.
James argued that, to the contrary, it is impossible to proceed in life without belief, and that such belief propels one to work that, when it turns out well, ratifies the original belief. One can still see the echoes of Clifford today. I saw it recently. Eating lunch with an academic friend who is horrified at me being a believer, he cried, “But there is no evidence!” While the cry is heartfelt, it is wrong.
Speak respectfully to any group of believers and you will find many instances of finding quarters in unexpected places. The believer finds abundant evidence in miracles large and small. A friend owned a motorcycle, and approaching an intersection with a green light, he felt a powerful compulsion to stop. A small car whizzed through the red light with a young woman holding a cell phone in front of her. He attributed that to a divine prompting. He found a quarter.
And while you may criticize a loving grandfather for salting likely locations with quarters, that same grandfather sees abundant evidence of a loving God who likewise drops hints and taps us on our shoulder. That grandfather justifies his actions based on a general delight in seeing his granddaughter’s delight. As below, so above. Can we not then imagine a God who simply delights in creating tender mercies for his children to stumble upon?
Each of these spiritual quarters has an ambiguous quality. That is, life is like a Rorschach, that collection of inkblots that present an ambiguous stimulus and onto which we project our perceptions. We see the world, as the saying goes, not as it is, but as we are. So while my materialist friend says that it was a lucky coincidence to find that quarter, I see an invisible hand dropping it into my path.
I find great confirmations from my will to believe, just as my skeptical atheist friend finds that when others tell him that there is no evidence, he believes that. Were I to explain my basis for belief, he would scoff and attribute randomness where I see purpose.
James was a pragmatist, who argued that we know generally of truth because it works. He argued that mere prediction is not enough, that there is a general robustness to living a life enhanced by positive beliefs. Both James and Clifford did important work that is still of great value today. Clifford was reacting to his own time in which there was a vigorous debate between religion and science. James’ pragmatism has, in my eyes, a more timeless quality.
I find it comforting to believe in a God who is purposely ambiguous. I resonate with the hymn:
Know this, that ev’ry soul is free,
To choose his life and what he’ll be;
For this eternal truth is given,
That God will force no man to heaven
He’ll call, persuade direct aright;,
Bless with wisdom, love, and light;
In nameless ways be good and kind;
But never force the human mind.
What will you believe the next time you pick up a quarter? You get to choose.