You can find the full text for Psalm 14 by following this link: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Psalm+14&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
There is a story of a rabbi who once met with a young man who had come to doubt the existence of God. The young man said to the rabbi, "Rabbi, I think I am an atheist. I no longer believe in God." The rabbi said to the young man, "Tell me son, who is this God that you don't believe in. What is this God like?" The young man said, "This God is angry and punishing. This God let's bad people live and good people die. This God allows millions of people to be killed every day by other people, and babies to die of cancer." The rabbi replied, "My child. I don't believe in that God either."
Questioning the existence of God has become a national pass time. I can't tell you how many times, upon discovering that I am a priest, people have said to me, "I am not religious. I don't believe in God." Every time it happens I am tempted to follow the lead of the rabbi in my story and to ask them to describe to me this God that they don't believe in. I have done so a couple of times, but most of the time, I let the comment pass by. I know that there are parents in this congregation who are facing exactly the same issue with their children. It is not uncommon for a parent to have their child say to them, "Mom, I don't believe in God. I believe in science." As though belief in God and belief in science are mutually exclusive things.
This disbelief in the existence of God is a modern idea. The ancients would never have spent their time worrying about such things. We could argue that this is because we are more intelligent and informed than our ancestors. Or we could argue that they possessed a wisdom that we have lost and would do well to regain.
Somewhere in the 16 and 1700's the scientific method began to evolve. This is the idea that all of creation can be studied and understood. There developed the idea that it is possible through scientific investigation to achieve objective certainty. This idea was not only applied to the natural world, to physical phenomenon, but also to the world of religion, the world of "myth." The scientific method can help us to understand a great deal about the natural world, but it is abysmal at explaining myth. As a matter of fact if you place religion under the microscope of the scientific method, you cannot come to any other conclusion but to reject religion and the myths that accompany it. Looking at religion this way has led many people to conclude that a religious myth is something that is made up and is therefore untrue. Or others have come to conclude that all science is bunk and should therefore be rejected.
But religious myth, the stories of religion, were never meant to be read like a scientific textbook. The story of Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and even Jesus are not accounts of scientific fact. Instead all of these stories are meant to tell us something profoundly true about humanity and to point us to the mystery that is God that lies beyond the level of reality that science can know. And religious myths, religious stories, are meant to be put into practice. They are meant to be lived by those who read them. If the story of Jesus tells us something profoundly true about us and about the mystery that is God, then we are to do something with this revelation. These stories are meant to transform how we live our lives. These stories are meant to show us how to live more richly and intensely. They are meant to help us to live with the suffering that is the part of every person's life. They are meant to help us to fully embrace our lives even in the face of problems that we cannot solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life. Science can tell us that we have a serious disease and sometimes even why. Science may even be able to help cure the disease. But it cannot help us to deal with the anger, disappointment, and sorrow that come with being diagnosed with a serious illness. And science cannot help us, in the end, to die well.
There were many prisoners in Auschwitz who concluded, as a result of their immense pain and suffering, that God does not exist. I think we can understand and have empathy for why they might have come to such a conclusion. What is more interesting though, for me, is the many prisoners in Auschwitz who continued to study Torah and observe the Jewish festivals. Why would they do such a thing? Why did they not too conclude that there is no God? I think it is because they understood that God is beyond knowing and beyond human understanding. They rejected a particular definition of God--punishing, angry, rescuing--and they found that their religious stories and rituals weren't there to tell them who God is, but instead were there to give their lives meaning and to help them endure and transcend their suffering.
Religious fundamentalists and the new atheists are actually more alike than they are different. Both approach religion and a belief in God from a modern scientific method. Both believe that it is possible to achieve objective certainty. Both read scripture in an entirely literal manner. They simply reach different conclusions after applying the same methods to religious belief. But perhaps science and religion are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps, they are simply seeking to answer different questions.
Science can tell us that the Big Bang happened 13.7 billion years ago, but not why. Science can tell us that we evolved from single celled organisms but not why. Science cannot tell us what we are doing here. Science cannot tell us why there is something rather than nothing. Now to be honest here, religion cannot give us definitive answers to these questions either, for there are no definitive answers to these questions. There is much in life that lies beyond human reason. To think that the stories we find in our sacred scriptures are factual answers to these big questions, is to misunderstand their purpose. But that does not mean that they are not true.
Every human being faces the loss of paradise experienced by Adam and Eve. Every human being longs to find again the union with God that Adam and Eve knew in the Garden of Eden. Every human being finds him or herself in the desert, wandering and alone, just as Moses and the Israelites found themselves so long ago. Every human being needs the same hope that those shepherds felt when they saw that star and followed it to the manger and found the baby Jesus. Every human being has experienced death and all its finality, and needs the reassurance of the resurrection to know that death is not the final word. There is truth in our sacred stories, and when we encounter these stories, when we read them and listen to them again and again, when we allow them become our own stories, they begin to transform us and we find ourselves able to begin to transcend the suffering that is a part of our lives and we find ourselves coming to know a little tiny bit about God.
So, do I believe in God? Yes I do. But I too reject the God that atheists reject. Instead I believe in a God that is cannot be contained in human words. I believe in a God that cannot be contained in science. I believe in a God that cannot be contained in our natural laws. I believe in a God who is bigger than the time and space in which we live. This God will not rescue me from the suffering that is a part of life. This God will not give me certainty in the face of suffering. But when I do encounter suffering in my own life or in the lives of others, I can turn to my religious community. I read again the stories of my faith, I allow the truths deep inside of these stories to transform me, and I practice the principles within these stories knowing that doing so will give me the courage to transcend suffering. My religious faith and practice will give me the courage to overcome fear and to be generous and open-hearted rather than grasping and mean-spirited, and as I do so I will come to know a little bit more about God.
I leave you with the words from the beginning of the Gospel of John, words that express the mystery that is God so well:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:1-5.
(the following is a link to a YouTube video of a musical reflection on this passage from John: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSxUimoP-Uc )