So then, just how can I call myself a “Christian” still (and do I, even), especially given that the title of this series of posts suggests that I may not even believe in God anymore? First, let me say that previously on this blog I’ve made a case for faith that is not rooted in giving intellectual assent to a series of propositions about God, which I call “checklist Christianity” but you may simply call orthodoxy. You can read all of that here. I’ve also previously worked out that I’m not terribly troubled by all the inaccuracies, etc. in the Bible because I’m less concerned with “Did it happen?” than I am with “Is it (in some way) true?” and “What is it (the Bible) for?” I’ve “answered” the middle question by suggesting that yes, of course the Bible (and hence, the Christian story) is true. It’s true in the same way that all great stories are “true” (whether they document a factual occurrence or not) and it is incidentally by virtue of the Bible’s role as story that I’ve found an “answer” to question number three above. In other words, the Bible doesn’t answer all of the questions posed to it by modern science very well because it’s not meant to. It’s not a science textbook; it’s a story, and I for one am okay with that.
As always, Frederick Buechner says all of this much better than I ever could. Here is Buechner on believing in Jesus:
Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child.
Here he is again on being “sure” of one’s faith:
Humanly speaking, in fact, who can say for sure about anything? And yet there are some things I would be willing maybe even to bet my life on. That life is grace, for instance- the givenness of it, the fathomless of it, the endless possibilities of its becoming transparent to something extraordinary beyond itself…That if we really had our eyes open, we would see that all moments are key moments. That he does not love remains in death. That Jesus is the Word made flesh who dwells among us, full of grace and truth. On good days I might add a few more to the list. On bad days it’s possible there might be a few less. Beyond that, all I can do with real assurance is once more to echo my old teacher Paul Tillich to the effect that here and there even in our world, and now and then even in ourselves, we catch glimpses of a New Creation, which, fleeting as those glimpses are apt to be, give us hope both for this life and for whatever life may await us later on.
Likewise, Buechner says in regard to the choice to follow Jesus:
If you tell me Christian commitment is a kind of thing that has happened to you once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery, I say go to, go to, you’re either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: “Can I believe it all again today?” No, better still, don’t ask it till after you’ve read The New York Times, till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer’s always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.
Buechner’s next statement will be controversial to some of my atheist and “believing” friends alike:
Many an atheist is a believer without knowing it just as many a believer is an atheist without knowing it. You can sincerely believe there is no God and live as though there is. You can sincerely believe there is a God and live as though there isn’t.
I do think one can find support for this last point in Scripture, though. I John 4:7-8 says, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” A surface reading of this would seem to suggest that because God IS love, you can’t love without somehow knowing Him, whether you realize it or not. Likewise, if you don’t love, this passage seems to suggest, it doesn’t matter who or what you know or think you know, you obviously don’t know God. I think all of this begs the question, then, does it really matter? Does it matter whether or not one professes faith in God as one loves, or, whether one rejects God as so much superstitious mumbo-jumbo but chooses to love all the same? This is a compelling question that frankly I’m still working out, but I take some comfort in the words of Buechner above and Scripture alike.
One more Buechner quote takes us to the heart of my “crisis of faith,” if that’s what this is: He says, “It is not the objective proof of God’s existence that we want but the experience of God’s presence. That is the miracle we are really after, and that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get.” This is important because what I’ve asserted previously is that in a world where the Bible seems to contain factual inaccuracies in the light of modern science, in my view it still holds validity because my answer to the question of what the Bible is for involves contending that it is not for answering questions posed by modern science, as I stated above. Rather, it is for conveying the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages so as to provoke in us a response even today, a response that leads us to encounter the Jesus that the Bible points to. So the Bible is a story ultimately that points to Jesus. It’s not primarily a set of rules or a “book of heroes” or a template for morality or anything else. The point, then, is to meet Jesus, to encounter him in some way that matters.
In my past, I believe this has occurred to me, and I know that in this “experience of God” I am one of the lucky ones, for I have friends (more than one) who once struggled to follow Jesus and eventually chose not to precisely because of the lack of such an experience. Buechner suggests above that the miracle we are (all) really after is the experience of God’s presence, and he hopefully suggests that we get it, that this miracle is finally somehow available to us. I can’t help but wonder, though. I’ve just asserted that I did experience it, or I thought I did once. Now, however, I know him only by his absence, and this has been the source of much struggle for me. I struggle because I’ve claimed that experience of “meeting Jesus” in some way as the basis for my faith, since I cannot “stand on” an inerrant “word of God” any longer (because it isn’t, after all, inerrant).
I’ve said that I don’t believe in Jesus as much as I simply believe Jesus. It’s again about a relationship with a living deity that I somehow encounter in daily life. This is the “concrete God talk” that others have taken me to task in the past for. But what does this mean? How can I say I’ve experienced God? Have I seen him visibly or been physically touched by him? Have I heard his voice? No, of course not. My experience(s) of God occurred during worship and can only be described as a sense of ecstasy, a feeling of exaltation as I focused all of my energy and attention on that which is greater than I. Did I somehow connect with God during these worship times? I think so. Can I say for sure? Again, no, of course not. So far, then, I’m suggested that my faith, which no longer rests on an inerrant Bible, rests instead on my relationship with a living God that to this point I’ve described only as a fleeting sense of ecstasy during worship that I experienced mostly when I was a kid. I would like to think and will suggest that there’s just a little more to it, though. One can read in Scripture that we have opportunity to meet Jesus in the “least of these” as we work to love and serve them, and I would like to think this has happened to me too. I’ve given strangers a ride in my car before. I’ve “picked up” a homeless guy and taken him out to dinner once; I’ve even worked professionally to empower and equip poor, struggling families to stay together and keep their kids. In all this, I hope I stand in the great tradition of many saints- professing Christians and avowed humanists alike- who have dedicated their lives to serving others and bettering the world and have by doing so encountered something “bigger” than themselves.
So I don’t know how much of a “Christian” I am, but I know I’m not an atheist. Call it stubbornness if you like, or some psychological, opiate-needing weakness, but it’s simply where I’m at. I can give you some reasons, but I think they’re almost beside the point. The fact is, that like Douglas Coupland in his seminal work, Life After God, “I need God… I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.” I need God to be there. I need the Jesus story to be true, and I desperately hope that it is, and according to Bart Campolo, this surety of what I hope for (not what I know) is the very definition of faith. Besides, at this point in my journey I’m too pissed at God for him not to exist. I need him to be there, if only to work out all my “stuff” with him.
Look, I know the story of Jesus is problematic in and of itself. It raises all kinds of hard questions not even taking into account the miraculous nature of it all, questions like, “Is the Jesus story a case of cosmic child abuse?” Another very troublesome question has to do with making Jesus the focal point of human history, the “lens” through which the rest of the Bible is read. Does this somehow excuse God’s annihilation of round 1 of humanity before the flood, or his frequently mandated genocides early in Israel’s history, which is to say nothing of what he’s put his “chosen people” through throughout the centuries? Likewise, the story not only of Christ but of Christianity is even more troublesome still, and I’ve built a case for that in this series of posts (and others). So Christians have done lots of awful things, and the Jesus story- while full of wonder and wonderful subversion of the domination system it’s historically rooted in- is also terribly problematic in a variety of ways.
Nonetheless, some pretty wonderful things have also been done in Jesus’ name, with a few notable examples being MLK, Jr.’s execution of the civil rights movement and his shifting focus toward peacemaking in Vietnam (which likely finally got him killed), or Dorothy Day‘s wonderful work for the poor and her co-founding of the Catholic Worker movement, or Mother Teresa’s work in India, just to name a few. I know there are some who would say that, on balance, religion/Christianity has done more harm than good, and I respect that argument, though I think it’s irrelevant. I would contend, conversely, that evil lurks in the human heart just as the capacity for loving self-sacrifice does, whether one espouses faith or not. Hitler used religion to justify some of his actions, for sure, but that’s just it: he used it. As a madman, I’m convinced he would have done what he did (given the right confluence of events) whether “faith” was in the picture or not.
If that’s the case, then, if people will engage in exalted acts of love or evil whether they claim faith is involved in any way or not, the question above remains: does it (God/faith/Jesus) really matter? I still believe that it does. You see, I think that I am rather ordinary. Those luminaries in human history like MLK, Jr., Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and even Hitler or Stalin may love or hate in the grandest of ways on the world stage with or without any claim for faith, but what about the rest of us? I think all of us are called to love and serve the world in the most magnificent ways possible, but I at least and maybe you too lack the will to consistently choose the needs of others and/or the world over my own. So again, call me weak if you will but I know this about myself. When I make a concerted effort to respond to the call of God in my life as I read it (through the “lens” of Jesus) in Scripture and, more importantly, experience it in community with other Christ-followers, when that happens I find myself daring to reach for heights of loving service to others that I know I wouldn’t even aspire to otherwise. Like Bart Campolo, then, I’m compelled to struggle still to follow Jesus because I truly believe it is a better life- better for me, better for the world. Kirsten and I once lived as part of an intentional community, for example, and hope to again some day, however brief and ill-fated our initial experience of it was. The first time around we lived with another married couple, a college student, and another woman with the intent of sharing resources and perhaps even raising our children and growing old together. We had a common checking account into which we contributed a percentage of our income and we had hopes for doing much good together that we couldn’t have done on our own without sharing those resources. Obviously, it didn’t work out that time, and Kirsten and I are mostly to blame for that, but without the Jesus story and the sense of calling it inspired, such an arrangement never would have even occurred to us, and we certainly wouldn’t have been crazy enough to try it. Likewise, having failed at it once, I’m sure we wouldn’t want to try it again if not for a sense that following Jesus- that “believing in God” perhaps in a way that most don’t- is something so hard and yet wonderful and world-changing that it simply can’t be done alone.
This, finally, is why I’m not so sure these days that I do actually “believe in God,” because I don’t think I’m living very much like it. I think if I’m going to go to all the trouble to claim some sort of faith still despite ALL the reasons not to that I’ve already discussed, then obviously there has to be a pretty compelling reason to do so. Life with Jesus in the end has to really matter. It has to change everything. It’s damn hard to follow Jesus, or I would argue you’re probably not really doing it “right.” If I “believed in God” like I would like to I probably wouldn’t be quite so materially comfortable, I’m sure (nor would I have the debt to show for it). I’m sure I wouldn’t live in a neighborhood that offers quite so much for liberal, eco-minded white “yuppies” like Kirsten and I. I’m sure I wouldn’t make so much time for watching television or pursuing other insular activities. I could go on, but perhaps you get the point.
Similarly, I’m not sure most would-be “Christians” really “believe in God” either. If they did, I’m sure we wouldn’t have the Christian shopping “ghetto” that I described previously, and the “worship wars” would never have occurred. There probably wouldn’t be over 33,000 Protestant denominations, and all of the inane debates over healthcare reform and welfare, for example, would likely never have occurred because folks who were actually working a hell of a lot harder (no pun intended) to follow Jesus and focus on what he focused on would have made damn sure that their neighbors‘ basic needs were met and that their neighbors were empowered in the midst of a loving, life-changing community to reach their full potential to contribute to that community. Of course, this assumes that such would-be Christians actually have “neighbors” with tangible material needs, which usually isn’t the case since so many “Christians” are relatively (monetarily) wealthy and place such a high priority on protecting that wealth that they isolate themselves in middle-class ghettos of mind-numbing privilege. It’s hard to believe in God and follow Jesus, especially in the U.S., because we middle-class white folks live such very, very easy lives. We may have the occasional mouse to deal with (which is why I was up so early this morning and am just loving apartment-living again), but we don’t aspire to a secure government job paying under $300 per month as a night-time rat killer, as some do. We are so terribly spoiled and in love with our money that we think our money can solve all of our problems and are even lulled into thinking that our money can solve everybody else’s problems on those few occasions when we’re roused enough to be aware of them. We practice social work and “give money to the poor,” usually in the hope that by doing so folks will finally be able to overcome their difficulties and live middle-class (or better) “American” lives like we do, all the while failing to finally realize that our “middle-class American lives” are unsustainable and are likely a part of what’s causing much of the world to be so poor in the first place. To invoke the old “parable of the river,” we continually do the work of rescuing people who have been thrown in the river without going upstream to stop the guy who’s throwing people in in the first place.
To really follow Jesus and live world-changing lives that actually make a difference for the world’s poor, hungry, sick, and dying- not to mention for the world (the environment) itself- we absolutely must do so together. Community is vital to such a life. It really does “take a village.” The domination system at work here in the U.S. will inexorably draw you in and propel you down the path of thoughtless comfort and demoralizing/disempowering consumeristic individualism. Everything in our lives is geared toward this and it’s nearly inescapable, which again is why community is so terribly important. It’s important because we need each other in order to actually subvert the system, and likewise it’s important because love only really happens in community. After all, as previously discussed God is love and we read in Scripture that we know him if we likewise love each other; moreover, the world will know we know God when we live such lives- together- of love. So, please, let us finally begin to do so. Let us cast off our fears and differences and begin trusting God and one another more than our pensions and insurance. Let us risk discomfort and struggle and conflict for the sake of community. Let us “vote,” for sure, but let us do so with our feet and hearts and hands and wallets as we support minority businesses and make micro-loans to the world’s poor and as we rehab old buildings and turn them into thrift stores. Let us risk our pervasive individuality and move in together with great intentionality, remaking “family” along the way and creating space for those who have no place to go, or who want to spend their days serving others for little or no pay instead of punching a clock for no good reason. Let us do all these things because we do believe in God and are trying follow Jesus, or at least because we desperately hope to.
God, let it be so, for your sake and ours too.