The other day I met a young woman whose entire life was built around her identity as an urban minister, and whose entire life was in shambles. She was burned out from her work and, in the aftermath of a failed romance, suddenly aware that most of her other relationships were unhealthy as well. The more we talked about her path and the key decisions she had made along the way, the more evident it became that something was deeply wrong.
At first I thought it might be some combination of the usual suspects: religious legalism, a broken home, an addiction of some kind, clinical depression, or a history of abuse. But as our conversation wore on, and each of those possibilities was ruled out, I began to suspect a different kind of wrongness. Eventually, I asked. This may sound strange, I began, given what you do for a living, but I want you to think very carefully before you respond: At the core of your being, do you really believe that the personal God you’ve been serving even exists?
She looked up from the patch of floor between her feet, maybe to make sure she had heard me right or maybe to see if it was a trick question. In any case, she held my eye as she shook her head. No, she said quietly, I don’t think I do. After a moment of silence, she asked a question of her own: That’s pretty sad, isn’t it?
It was all I could do to keep the grin off my face as I answered her. Actually, I said, that’s the most hopeful thing you’ve said all day.
I wasn’t out to undermine that young woman, of course. The reason I was happy was that the root problem of her faith—of her whole life, really—was one I knew we could work around. You see, two days out of three I don’t believe in a personal God either.
I used to think my lack of credulity had mostly to do with living in this ghetto, but over the years I’ve discovered that you don’t need to be surrounded by ignorance and brokenness to begin wondering about the likelihood of a benevolent, all-knowing, all-powerful creator. You don’t need to be a bad person, either, or a stupid one for that matter. In fact, many of the best and brightest people I know find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that Someone is actually listening to their prayers.
Honestly, I think whichever psalmist wrote “Only a fool says in his heart that there is no God” must have been an arrogant fool himself, unless he was simply fronting like the rest of us. Or, better yet, unless he was misquoted. Perhaps what he really said is that only a fool hopes in his heart that there is no God. In that case, you and I may be doubters, but we are no fools.
Regardless, it seems to me that what we hope for is ultimately more important than what we believe, anyway, partly because our hopes better reflect our true selves, and partly because those hopes so often determine what we believe in the end. That is good news for those of us who often doubt the existence of a good and loving God. Why, after all, would we even notice those doubts, let alone lament or defend them, if we weren’t so deeply attracted to their object in the first place?
Certainly my young woman friend (let’s call her Marian) is attracted to the possibility of such a God. Indeed, as she puts it, she is “absolutely desperate” to remain a believer. Beyond her understandable fears of losing her job, alienating her family and friends, and perhaps going to hell if it turns out she’s wrong, Marian is desperate because she is virtually addicted to the everyday experience of living by faith. She’s hooked on the comforting routines of discipleship, on the easy camaraderie of spiritual fellowship, on the purpose and identity she draws from openly following Jesus. Also, on a more existential level, she’s terrified of being alone and adrift in an uncaring Universe, with no meaning but that which she can fashion for herself. Really, she needs the assurance she’s on a divine mission like a junkie needs a fix. I can relate, of course. I’m a faith addict, too.
It isn’t just that, like Marian, I’m already so deeply invested in the idea of God. It’s that the idea itself is so utterly fabulous. Whether or not you believe in a good and loving God who can and will redeem everything and everyone in the end, you have to admit that a God like that beats the pants off all the alternative possibilities, including all those lesser Gods whose so-called grace depends on everything from theological orthodoxy to luck of the draw. Which is all the idea of God needs to do, as far as I am concerned: Beat the pants off all the other possibilities.
Now I know there are folks who claim they can empirically prove not only the existence of God, but also quite a few particularities about his character and expectations, but I don’t know anyone who takes those folks very seriously. Even my fundamentalist friends will admit that such things are matters of faith. What they won’t admit, generally speaking, is why exactly they put their faith in the existence of this or that particular God. Then again, born as most of us are into overwhelming currents of familial and cultural rituals and assumptions, I doubt they had much choice. That kind of directional leap of faith is the unique burden—and the unique opportunity—of the true non-believer.
When I say “directional leap of faith,” by the way, I don’t mean choosing what you actually believe. Nobody gets to do that, unfortunately, just like nobody gets to choose who they are attracted to, or what they are afraid of, or if they like strawberry ice cream. Faith is a feeling, after all, and, like it or not, you don’t get to choose your feelings. All you get to choose is how you respond to them—what you say, where you place yourself, who you watch and listen to, when you start or stop trying to do the right thing. What you do get to choose, in other words, is how you live.
Until proven otherwise, I choose to live as though what I (and Marian, and maybe you) desperately hope to be true actually is just that. I can’t prove anything, but I reckon that if there was a good and loving God, that God would want me to love people—especially poor or broken people—so that’s what I’m trying to do. I figure that God wouldn’t want me to hurt myself with drugs or alcohol, so I don’t. I wish pornography and junk food were equally easy for me to refuse, but at least I am disappointed with myself when I succumb to their false promises, because I feel certain that the God I hope for would be disappointed, too.
Here at last is my point: I believe that living by faith—even on those days you don’t believe in God—is the best life possible, for Marian, for me, for you, or for anyone. You might call this my version of Pascal’s Wager, except that Pascal’s argument for taking the leap was centered on his fear of eternal damnation, and mine has nothing to do with that. My best argument for choosing to live by faith is the happiness and meaning that choice gives me right here and now. A good and loving God in the process of utterly redeeming every soul in the universe may not be the most obvious of existential possibilities, but it is certainly the most beautiful of the bunch, and even more certainly the only one I deem worthy of my devotion.
And here is my good news: The more I live by faith, the more strongly I suspect that my faith is not in vain, even here in Walnut Hills. I pray that happens for you, too, wherever you are.
This is my response:
On the Walnut Hills Fellowship website (linked above), it alludes to folks who “enjoy Bart’s monthly letters.” Well, I not only enjoy them, I read them fervently, clinging to the absurd possibility that the faith he still hopes for is somehow big enough for me too. So one can imagine my relief in reading this month’s letter. You see, I think over the years I’ve become a lot like “Marian,” except in addition to the spiritual/existential dilemma “Marian” and I have in common, I also have abuse, dysfunction, mental health issues, and addiction in my family and personal history. Anyway, one of the many things Bart said over the years that has stuck with me is a question he once posed. He said that unlike some folks in ministry he’s less interested in why folks initially became a Christian and more so in why they are still one. I realize now that the purpose of that question probably had as much to do with his own search for an answer to it as it did with his desire to challenge his hearers to search for an answer to it for themselves. Nonetheless, I mention it because I find my own journey toward an answer to this question has brought me to some unexpected, and unexpectedly troubling, places.
Like many kids immersed in the evangelical civil religious sub-culture, I think initially I “followed Jesus” for the same reason that fish swim, and I probably gave it as much thought as fish give to water. Over time, and especially as I grew up too fast in the abusive, though “Christian” home of my youth, I came to believe (in hindsight) that I could “rely” on God in the absence of reliable parents, and this is why I chose to follow Him then. I think this “answer” worked pretty well for me until my Kingdomworks experience, after which it- and most of my other “answers”- fell apart. After a summer of intense urban ministry “in the ghetto,” Bart had predicted that we Kingdomworks summer interns would face culture shock upon our return to our normal lives, especially those of us finding ourselves immersed again in the “Christian bubble,” and this was most certainly the case. In my case at the time this “bubble” was represented by the affluent, pastoral, mostly white campus of the “Christian” college I attended. Of course one consequence of that culture shock was that I began to “question everything,” including why I would follow a God who could allow and apparently condone such suffering as that I had witnessed that summer in Philly and previously in my own life.
In some ways I don’t think I’ve ever adequately resolved that question, and I don’t know that I really expect to. When I got married and moved to Philly the following year, my wife and I became part of Circle of Hope (upon Bart’s recommendation, for which I am still grateful), and being immersed in such an incredible community of young God-activists who were doing so much to really “be the Church” and foment a revolution of love, peace, and hope seemed to make “the problem of pain-“ both mine and that of the world- fade into the background. During those heady days I might have said I followed Jesus still because I met him every day in the faces of those with whom I was having a “life together” as the Church, and therefore “I could do no other.” Pain still popped up from time to time, though, including when my abusive mother and loving father-in-law died within a day of each other, prompting our move to MN. Once in the Twin Cities, however, we found another faith community that was life-giving and subversive of the powers that be- House of Mercy. Hence, buoyed again by community, I found myself largely able to keep following Jesus, or at least I tried to.
It was during those years in MN that I went to seminary and was confronted with my experience of that troubling adage “you lose your faith by degrees.” I knew this to be a pejorative statement that I resented since education was something I aspired to and spent much of my early adult life pursuing, but I understand why some people say it. House of Mercy was great for helping me to see that “doubt is not the enemy of faith but its partner,” and seminary was great for helping me to see that there were a lot more reasons to doubt than I had ever previously imagined. I count myself very fortunate, though, to have had one professor who not only exposed all of the problems with the Bible but also suggested that those problems were only problems if you expected the Bible to do things it wasn’t meant to, like be inerrant or answer modern science questions. If instead you asked more appropriate question(s) of the Bible, like “what is it for?” you would get some pretty nifty answers. When I considered what the Bible was for, I came to believe that it’s for you and me; it’s the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages, and its purpose is to point to Jesus- nothing more, nothing less. Better still, I came to understand that the Bible was even more effective when I quit asking it questions and interpreting it all the time and would instead submit to its interpretation of me and my life, and I have another seminary prof. to thank for that.
Still, after seminary was over we moved back to Philly to be part of Circle of Hope again, and I framed this move by saying, “It’s time to believe again.” The pain of the parent deaths and their aftermath and the many reasons not to believe that seminary made me aware of had brought me to a place of near non-belief. I wouldn’t have said that I wasn’t a Christian anymore, but if you asked me why I probably couldn’t have given you a good answer. We went back to Philly in the hope of finding one. Once there, I was immersed again in that ever-growing community of young people doing all those great things in the city for God, and so the pain and all the troubling questions seemed to recede again as we(the community) focused on our life together serving those around us and growing God’s kingdom. It took another near tragic event (the four month premature birth of my son) and my (in hindsight) unrealistic expectations for how the community should respond to it- that is, how they should love us best in the midst of it- to bring all the pain back to the surface and confront me again with the question of why I should keep struggling to follow Jesus after all.
In the wake of all that- motivated by our pain- we chose to run away, no doubt short-circuiting what might have been an incredible tale of grace, reconciliation, and redemption had we stuck it out in Philly and as a part of Circle of Hope. Instead, we moved to Ohio in order to experience first-hand another cliché, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” We bought a house and sojourned there for about four years where we encountered a couple of pretty cool faith communities that we liked for different reasons but both of which we struggled to fully connect with. In those days, if you asked me why I still followed Jesus I probably would have struggled to speak at all. Had I been able to, I might have said something like:
Honestly, I’m not sure that I am following Jesus, though I still desperately want to. I think doing so is less about what you believe or give intellectual assent to and more about who you believe and how you live– who your neighbors are, how well you know them, what kind of job you have, how diverse your friends are, how much of your time and money you spend pursuing the American dream-or not, and so on. I think following Jesus into this kind of a life is impossible to do alone, and around here I haven’t found many folks who would want to be part of such a life.
Obviously, we felt pretty isolated, and in some ways, we still do. We’ve since uprooted ourselves again and left our house behind in Ohio in order to move to Texas due to my father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. There was and is a lot of baggage and a pretty big dysfunctional mess that all of the rest of my family of origin were/are still mired in here; nonetheless I felt compelled to return after having been gone for close to 17 years because I desperately needed/wanted to do my best to help and otherwise “be present” to and for my Dad.
We made this latest move, though, with some hope. To our great surprise, we had found online some pretty cool faith communities here in TX and we thought we might connect with one that would help us to keep choosing Jesus, despite the ever growing list of reasons not to. The actual experience of being around some of those communities and in- or at least on the periphery- of one of them has been disheartening, though. I know of course that whatever faults these communities may have, my “problem” with them is, well, my problem. It’s a function of my unrealistic, uncommunicated expectations (as is always the case).
You see, I want it all. I want an in-your-face Jesus that can be spoken of in practical and tangible ways, like He’s in the trenches with us as we join Him in the family business of reconciling the world. I want a “real” Jesus who’s with me and my community as we work hard at loving people, serving the poor, subverting the powers-that-be, etc. I want this kind of a Jesus; nay, I need this kind of a Jesus because whatever faith I have is built on the hope/belief that this is just the kind of Jesus we have (and yes, I’m hyper aware that this kind of “concrete God talk” has been a real problem for some of my critics over the years, but I digress). In any case, over time I had come to assert that I trusted the Bible not to be perfect and answer all my questions like some kind of ouija board or “magic 8 ball,” but rather to reliably point to Jesus and be “useful for instruction, reproof…” and the like. The foundation of my faith, then, was Jesus– not the Bible. However, this again necessitated a real Jesus that could be pointed to and experienced (if only vicariously), and for that I needed a vibrant community that was really “being the Church” in truly profound and inspiring ways, the kind of community that I had only ever really known in Philly with Circle of Hope. I want/need this kind of a Jesus- embodied in that kind of a community- to be both Savior and Lord. I need the “truth” of the story to still be somehow true, to still be “good news” for me and for us all, especially the “least of these.”
I feel this need for the “truth” to still be “true” so desperately no doubt because deep down I fear that it is not, which is not to say that for all the scientific, logical, historical, sociological, and linguistic reasons I fear there is no God. For whatever reason, that’s never been a path I’ve had much interest in going down. No, I fear instead that God doesn’t give a damn, that He’s asleep or bored or watching reruns instead of saving the world, or to be honest- saving me from all the crap I seem to face every day. In writing this, naturally I realize what a selfish bastard I am, and I know my real problem is simply me, not God, after all. For all these reasons, then, perhaps I’m just the kind of fool that Bart spoke of, the kind who in some way hopes there is no God. I would hope for such a thing not because I would want to live in such a world, for truly nothing could be further from the truth (in fact, confronted with the possibility of such a world I would find myself in utter despair, and as I just said, I’ve never had much interest in heading down that road). Conversely, I may hope there is no God because I’m so damn angry at Him, because the “problem of pain” (mine and the world’s) seems like such an intractable one.
Nonetheless, like Bart described, I’m an addict. I keep going back to faith, to my surety “of what I hope for,” because I can’t help myself. It frustrates and enrages me, but I can’t seem to give it up. I can’t quit God even when He seems to have quit me- and the world. This makes me no saint, and I hope this is so because somehow despite all appearances to the contrary God hasn’t given up on me after all. That is, I hope my inability to let Him go signifies both my ignorance of all God is doing that for whatever reason I’m unable to see and the reality that I’m not after all the grasper but the grasped. I can’t let go of Him because He’s never let go of me, and I can’t see Him for the same reason that a fish can’t “see” water (if after all it is in Him that I “live and move and have my being”).
In the meantime, I yearn for a community that not only “gets it”- that is, one that “gets” deconstruction/ postmodernity- but that is also really “doing it”- that is, earnestly trying to live as if “Jesus really meant” all those things He said about loving and serving the poor and building a kingdom that is not of this world. Of course, you can’t have a kingdom without a king, and that may be why there’s this stubborn, dogged part of me that says if I’m going to do this- if I’m going to keep following Jesus in spite of it all- I have to be “all in.” If He’s going to be worthy of my devotion, of my life, then He’s got to be, well, worthy. I need a “Savior” AND a “Lord,” whatever problems such language may raise for some.
As another mentor said long ago, “Christianity may merely be the best worldview I’ve found, but I still believe in the Resurrection, and that makes it something more.” I think deconstruction is vital and necessary and terribly important, but it is a means to an end, not an end. Eventually one reaches a point where you have to start building something again, and I think I’m long, long past that point. For all the Bible’s faults and problems and the hermeneutical milieu one has to navigate just to arrive at something called a “Christian” faith, I still want such a faith. Jesus matters terribly to me, and not merely as an example or guide or teacher, but again as Lord and Savior. I need to be a part of folks with whom I’m “on a mission” to love/serve the poor and thereby grow God’s kingdom by “being the Church” together in truly meaningful and profound ways. And I want all of that right here in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Is that too much to ask?
Postscript: I should add this. Obviously, I want and yearn for much from the kind of “community” I keep talking about, and there’s a lot of baggage associated with my experience of such a community during our two stints with Circle of Hope in Philly. I spoke above of my uncommunicated expectations being problematic both for me and everyone on whom I project them. So it is with great thanks that I post this link to something Rod White, one of Circle of Hope’s pastors, recently wrote. In it he alludes to such expectations for community and the possibility of experiencing emptiness “as a friendly place,” for it just may be that we meet God there. I pray and desperately hope that he’s right, for I sure feel empty, and I sure want to meet God (again). Lord, let it be so.