Spiritual Certainty?

There is no W in Faith

I am neither God nor George W. Bush. As a result, I’m really not in a position to talk about the President’s soul, though I do believe I can talk about his faith, mostly because he talks about it all the time. Other people are talking about it too—or, more specifically, they’re talking about the role faith plays in his life and making a good case that the President’s approach to his faith provides one of the most stark contrasts in this year’s election.

Bush’s total certainty—his resolution, as he likes to call it—has been all the buzz among the blue-state, secular media lately. Like me, they’re horrified that Bush links his desire to kick the crap out of other countries with a religious faith that seems to be characterized less by a sense of grappling with tough moral questions than it is with the facile enabling that has made people distrust religion all the way back to Socrates.

At the same time, some accuse John Kerry of too much moral hand wringing, but, as a fellow Catholic, I can understand where the man is coming from. The Reverend Jim Wallis, an Evangelical Protestant, featured in a recent New York Times magazine article about the faith of George W. Bush, talks about how real faith forces you to reflect, to ask tough questions, and to move “beyond politics as usual.” Somewhere in all of John Kerry’s second-guessing and self-doubting is an expression of faith akin to what Wallis is talking about and that I can relate to. While George Bush might hold that “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1) John Kerry understands that things not seen are hard as hell to figure out.

Our President’s faith is hopeless—not because he is lost, but because his certainty implies that hope is no longer necessary.”

Of course, there are plenty of believers from across the religious spectrum who are equally aghast at Bush’s facile faith, but I think Catholics have a special status as doubters. I think our constant uncertainty about what’s really right comes partially from our hierarchy’s spotted history in many matters (major gaffs from Galileo’s imprisonment for postulating that the sun is the center of the universe to the recent sex scandals should serve as checks to our sense of absolute certitude) and, more importantly, from our belief that discerning the real presence of Christ in the world is no easy task. Unlike George Bush, I believe less in a direct connection between our hearts and Jesus and more that Jesus is in our hearts. But sometimes those hearts, or those minds, or those hands can get in the way of what Jesus wants, and sometimes we’re not even aware of it.

I try to live my life according to the values of my faith and make an effort to pray about every major decision I face. But I also know that crusaders, Al-Quaeda operatives, and philandering Popes have said the same things. God’s will is infinitely larger than my capacity to know it.

When I pray, I believe that the voice I hear answering my prayers is actually an odd amalgam of my conscious mind and my subconscious desires, hopes, dreams, and fears. I hope, however, that this voice is inspired by God, that it contains within it the real presence of Jesus, and that whatever the voice’s origin, it leads me to a greater and deeper love. So when I hear a voice that sounds like my own but that I figure might contain just some element of Jesus telling me to forgive myself or to stop worrying or yes, okay, I can vote for John Kerry, I don’t know if I can honestly trust myself to know if I’m doing God’s will. But I can hope. And pray again.

Thomas Merton, a contemplative monk in the mid-twentieth century, wrote to God in one of his most famous prayers, “the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.” Merton, along with a lot of thoughtful people of faith, believes that God acts through these desires. The difference between both Merton and our President’s approaches to faith is that President Bush is humbled by his responsibility and his connection to an almighty God; Merton was humbled by the knowledge that he could never fully comprehend the mystery of God.

Later in his prayer, Merton adds that it’s his desire to please God that must please God, even if he really has no idea if he’s on the right track. “I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing,” he says. “I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.” Our President’s faith is hopeless—not because he is lost, but because his certainty implies that hope is no longer necessary. As Paul also writes, we were saved in hope and we hope and “wait with endurance” for the union with God that would make an authentic connection possible. In the meantime, “the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:24-26).

In this confusing and polarized political climate, the only prayer I’m capable of lately is this request that the Spirit groans in my behalf and the request—given with all the humility I can muster—that my decision on who to vote for be slightly less arrogant than the idea that I could know God told me to do it.