Belief in God is comparable to belief in Santa Claus, say some skeptics. It’s childish and nothing but wishful thinking.
I respect their views, and given the fact that my faith includes doubt, I understand their skepticism. But for many reasons, it’s really not a good comparison.
For one thing, belief in Santa Claus is a relatively recent phenomenon and is culturally specific. That’s in contrast to belief in a supreme being, which is universal and dates to the beginning of history. Secondly, few people past the age of 10 continue to believe in Santa Claus, whereas over 85 percent of adult Americans say they believe in God.
There are no ancient writings on which to base a belief in Santa Claus; there’s no huge body of literature, music and art devoted to him; no one has ever claimed that Santa Claus is the author of life or is in us and around us. After the Christmas season, at least, people aren’t comforted by the idea that Santa Claus knows and loves them.
One reason for the comparison, perhaps, is the notion held by many that if they believe in God, they’ll - to put it crudely - “get stuff.” Many people searching for God overtly or secretly have the idea that if they succeed in their search, if they become people of faith, their material and physical lives will improve. In short, that faith is the road to material success.
“The more I give, the more I get,” sort of sums it up, with the “I get” part referring to material prosperity. Indeed, some evangelists have mined this idea, urging people to give in exchange for some material reward.
As far as I know, nothing of the sort is found in the Hebrew or Christian Bibles nor do I know of any major religion that promotes such an idea.
“To wrap ourselves in the name of God and then sit and wait for the benefits is imprudent,” writes Eric Hollas, a Benedictine monk, in his blog, A Monk’s Chronicle, “and it is the foundation for a life of hypocrisy. It is a life in which we may fool others, but we mainly fool ourselves. And it’s so because we’ve used the name of the Lord to achieve power or wealth or influence — when in fact God offers none of that to those whom he loves.”
What does God offer? The “churchy” answers are “eternal life,” “salvation,” “grace.” But another way of saying it is “centeredness,” the discovery of meaning in an apparently meaningless universe, the confidence – even though subject to the doubt that plagues all humans about virtually everything – that God clings to us and won’t let go even in the midst of suffering.
“For those who hear the word of God and act on it, then, there is no pass on experiencing the trials of life,” writes Hollas, “nor does it offer an express lane to the best that the boutiques have to offer. Rather, those who hear the word of God and do it will have the assurance of “God with them.”
Merely passing through trials doesn’t assure success, either, of course. During the Olympic Games, we have heard many stories of athletes passing through great personal trials on their way to success in Rio. But for every athlete who went through those kinds of trials and won medals, there are thousands of others who never won anything except, possibly, the satisfaction of having made the effort.
No, the search for God offers no medals or material rewards, though this could be misunderstood by Christians in reading some portions of the gospels, and Jesus’ disciples undoubtedly misunderstood.
Mathew’s gospel, according to The Message translation, has Peter asking Jesus, “We left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?”
“Jesus replied, ‘Yes, you have followed me. In the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously, you who have followed me will also rule, starting with the twelve tribes of Israel. And not only you, but anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields – whatever – because of me will get it all back a hundred times over, not to mention the considerable bonus of eternal life.”
Poor All His Life
Jesus, who was poor all his life, certainly wasn’t offering material rewards. “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or – worse! – stolen by burglars,” he also says in Mathew’s gospel. “Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars.”
It’s obvious he had something entirely different than “stuff” in mind, whether the stuff is material, political or power and prestige. That may be why so few of us take the gospel seriously.
“There will still be storms, there will be challenges galore, and there will be tests of every sort,” writes Hollas. “God does not promise to set those aside. But God does promise to help us rise to the occasion, to meet the challenges nobly, and to emerge as his beloved sons and daughters.”