On the other side of faith is a bottomless emptiness that emits no light. In his poem Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold hears only an “eternal note of sadness” as faith recedes, never to return:
The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;
But now I only hear
It’s melancholy, long withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
This poem of sullen defeat and despair appealed to intellectuals of the day because they agreed with Arnold. A new faith had advanced, pushing out the “old faith;” melancholy yes, but necessary to make way for the new faith of scientific and naturalistic truth.
At the same time, the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, warned that the human race would not fare well without a god. He said that a new god would need to be invented, essentially made up, to satisfy this peculiar need of the human heart. He was assuming the God of the Bible did not exist, was a human invention, but still without some kind of substitute, mankind could not survive the absence. As Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, “Without God all things are possible.”
Faith in substitutes for God are as old as the Bible itself. Satan enters paradise, searches out the man and the woman and quickly turns everything upside down by insidiously questioning the authority of God himself. Satan is a liar with a purpose; he manufactures doubt prolifically and casts it out to one and all with the hope of capturing some.
Jesus says of the devil and his followers, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
Remarkably, few see the receding “sea of faith” as nothing more than the ageless propensity of new generations to choose to follow new forms of the same old lie that either God does not exist or, for the world’s fence sitters, that God might exist but he is over in the bleachers paying no attention to the game or its players.
Not too long ago a heedless world awoke to a new virus that has crossed all kinds of boundaries to bring about sickness, suffering and even death. Before this virus began, spreading out over the earth, we were going about our business as if danger was someone else’s problem. Now the world economy is in danger and the well-being of millions. How is this physical sickness any different than the spiritual malaise that has afflicted the modern world? Whether the action of microbes or members of the human race, the issues have not much changed over the course of history.
Dostoevsky is right. Without God, all things are possible. And that is not a good thing. Free of God, we are free to let loose the dogs of war on the earth along with the death and destruction that flows from it. Really, what we seem to be experiencing is nothing new even though it might seem to be. Here is what the psalmist wrote three thousand years ago:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
There is none who does good.
The Lord looks down on from heaven on the children of man,
To see if there are any who understand,
Who seek God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
There is none who does good,
Not even one