Before I was ordained as a Catholic priest I ran a business training/personal development company. We would do charity work in prisons and schools as well as in management training.
We would often talk about belief systems and to get discussion started I would announce that everyone believed in something.
One prisoner said, “Not me. I don’t believe in anything.”
My reply was, “You have just stated what you believe in.”
Everyone operates with a certain set of assumptions which they rarely examine. On this foundation of assumptions they construct a framework of beliefs which give order and meaning to their life. Even nihilists find a paradoxical “order and meaning” in believing that there is no order and meaning.
I’m therefore interested in the human need for an underlying system that gives their life meaning and purpose. Humankind cannot bear chaos and true nihilism. The human spirit fills the void somehow and searches for some deeper pattern and meaning to it all–even when it is not conscious that it is doing so.
This hunger for meaning and order is built into the human being. We cannot bear the idea of ultimate chaos. This hunger is the hunger for God; a deep longing to know, and be unified with that loving intelligence that orders all things. It is a hunger for the certainty that behind and beneath and within the mysterious and sometimes seemingly absurd and terrible events of life God’s hand is at work guiding and directing all things to a good and just climax and fulfillment.
Abandonment to that Divine Providence is the end point of the spiritual life: to become so full of trust and love for God that we commend our whole selves into his care moment by moment even when we don’t understand what is happening–especially when we don’t understand what is happening. At this point we begin to live within the power of God and begin to dwell at the heart of the love that Dantes said, “moves the sun and all the other stars.”
The alternative is what human beings drift into when they either ignore or reject Divine Providence–and that is some form of paranoia. All of us (whether we admit it or not) believe there really is some sort of larger plan and underlying pattern, and if we accept Divine Providence, then we accept that there is a great and good intelligence that guides all things according to a plan and pattern far greater than we can understand.
However, if we reject that Divine Providence we still have the fundamental conviction that there is some greater power “behind it all” but instead of seeing that power as benign and benevolent, we perceive ‘The Power” as something to fear. This inner fear is then projected outward and becomes the motivating force for all sorts and forms of paranoia.
These forms of paranoia have been with humanity in every age. Every form of panicked apocalypticism is individual and group paranoia. We see it in the obsession the news media has with impending natural disaster, plague, war and economic and social collapse. The apocalyptic panic may take a religious form in radical Islam or fundamentalist Christianity. It may be the paranoia of political or paranormal conspiracy theories.
Right wing extremists blame a vast left wing conspiracy while left wingers blame a vast right wing conspiracy. The right panics about Bildenbergers, the New World Order and shadowy forces behind the worlds’ governments while the left worry themselves about multinational capitalist cabals, global warming, nuclear disaster, overpopulation or world ecosystems collapsing.
All these are forms of paranoia—a fear of ‘The Dark Power’ which is going to cause the end of the world and the collapse of all things. This paranoia may be mild in form, but very often it takes the form of true paranoia–in which every news item, every fact of history, every event on the world stage is interpreted as part of the paranoiac world view, and when the fact doesn’t fit the theory it is either rejected as a lie or it fits into the vast ‘cover up’ of the facts which goes along with all paranoia.
What is intriguing is that paranoia is very difficult to treat. You can see why: the paranoid person suspects the doctor, won’t take his medicine and doesn’t believe he is insane. Tell the paranoid person that he’s lost his grip on reality and you become “one of the enemy.”
The only remedy is the opposite belief system: child like trust in the Divine Providence. If you are human you have to have some sort of belief system, so you might as well go with the one which not only offers peace of mind, joy and hope, but which also happens to be true.
It’s the way we’re made, and St Augustine’s words were never more deeply true that “O Lord, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
Fr Dwight Longenecker leads parish missions, speaks at conferences, has a weekly radio show on EWTN and has written fifteen books on the Catholic faith. Read his blog, browse his books and be in touch at www.dwightlongenecker.com