The rhetoric of some atheists and agnostics makes it appear that there is a fine line (if indeed there is any line at all) between religion and superstition. Religious people should be careful not to be too defensive about this because it is often true. There is in fact a form of religion which is akin to carrying a lucky rabbit's foot or knocking on wood, and it is more pervasive in our churches than we want to acknowledge. You encounter it when people find themselves in some personal crisis and ask, "How could this happen to me? I have always gone to church, tried to live a Christian life..." as if we will be rewarded for such things. Life may be an automatic death sentence; but some of us are apparently supposed to get time off for good behavior.
You have to sympathize with people who ask this sort of naive question because they are in real pain and are genuinely baffled: the God who is supposed to make good things happen if you are nice isn't coming through. This has to be dealt with pastorally and sensitively; but it does confirm the agnostic's view of religion as a crutch, a shield against the harsh realities of the world, a comforting illusion.
The atheist or agnostic looks at people crowding their way toward the shrine at Guadalupe or venerating a wonderworking icon, and can't help contrasting this with a starving child whose parents are no doubt praying for her survival as fervently as anyone ever prayed. It is easy to find something obscene in the idea that God arbitrarily rewards some while others suffer horribly. There is no comfort, or even any convincing answer, in the idea that God's ways are not our ways. That's true in spades, but it's hardly an argument.
Part of the problem is the notion that God is powerful in the sense that we ordinarily give that word. That reduces God to the formula: "If God is God, He is not good; if God is good, He is not God!" God being God here means God being the One who makes everything happen the way it happens : God as the scene designer, playwright, director, puppet-master. There is something of this picture of God in the bible itself; but there are other strands there that also need attention. Christians too often see the revelation of Jesus Christ as something added to this picture of God as all-powerful and not as something that radically inverts and challenges it.
This sort of thinking should be resisted. The power revealed in Jesus Christ upsets all ideas of power as "control," even "evolving control." What I want to suggest involves no more than a couple of hints, and maybe that's as good as we'll ever get. God's presence is made manifest not only in acts of compassion and self-sacrifice; it is present only when we place ourselves there where God has been in the flesh. We can begin to discern God's presence and God's will only when we are to some extent like God. Any attempt to go beyond that in explanation and in thought is vain. Jesus tells us that we will not be forgiven if we do not forgive, that we are to love even our enemies, that whatever we do for the least human being is done for God. God's strength is revealed in absolute powerlessness (from our point of view) in the death of Christ on the cross. He has collapsed the distance between divine immutability and human suffering; and the initiative is all his. But we are invited to participate, and told that the consequences will be serious if we do not.
Beyond this I think we should be willing to know nothing. WE have to answer, "How could a good God permit such suffering?" with a non-answer: "I have no idea except that he stood where the suffering are, and he suffered with them." When Jesus says, "He who has seen me has seen the Father," he tells us both that this is the kind of God we have, and also that this is all we can know of him. The rest is hidden and is meant to be hidden. As in any serious relationship (like marriage or parenthood) we live in the faith and hope that things will turn out wonderfully; but this side of the end, we can't be absolutely sure. It isn't our place at this point to know the results or the end of the story, other than to try to trust the one who tells us.
It is fascinating that Jesus in a sense remains hidden following the Resurrection. Mary of Magdala mistakes him for the gardener. The disciples on the shore do not recognize him until they fill their nets. The disciples on the road to Emmaus do not know the one to whom they are talking until they recognize him in the breaking of the bread. And most significantly, at the end of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus has gathered them on the mountain: "And when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted." Some doubted. It is clear that something was not entirely clear. It was not obvious that this was the Risen Jesus, the same one who had been crucified. This hiddenness may be the way in which Jesus initiates us into the reality whatever we do for the least of these, we do for him. Our doubtfulness : our ordinary half-hoping, half-doubting faith : is not an excuse to avoid the mission. To all those on the mountain, including the doubters, Jesus says "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."
The criticism of atheists and agnostics mentioned above is not about to vanish : not even if Christians begin to take the Gospels seriously. The belief that life has any inherent meaning is itself an act of faith and can't be demonstrated. Chesterton says that the problem many agnostics have with Christianity is not that it is good news but rather that the news is too good to be true. There is something bracing about the idea of trying to live an honest and moral life in a universe where honesty and morality are fragile but essential human traits played out against an indifferent background. Even the noblest Christian looks, to someone who sincerely thinks this way, a bit like a child with an imaginary friend. Our hope for these people is that in the end they will be wonderfully surprised.
"For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:3). The hiddenness that is an essential aspect of the risen Christ applies also to us and to our lives this side of death. We are largely hidden from ourselves. We do not know how we might react if put to the test though we imagine we would be noble. We pray appropriately in words Jesus gave us: "Do not put us to the test..." Those who have been forced to witness and have come through, give us hope. They reflect the reality we see in Christ crucified and in the hope of his Resurrection.
The only contact we will have with this reality (on this side of our own resurrection) is found in the face of anyone suffering : anyone, finally, born and on the way to death. The rest is as hidden from us as it is from every agnostic : which should make us understand our human condition.