Monday, January 30, 2012


“My only rule: If I understand something, it’s no mystery.”

--Scott Cairns

When did people first begin doubting the existence of God, or gods? The Age of Enlightenment? Probably sooner. Was it hard for those people? It must have been.

For doubters today, at least there is a precedent. Lots of people don’t believe in God anymore. But what must it have been like for someone in a totally God-believing culture, where EVERYBODY believed, to doubt?

How lonely it must have been. And how scary to voice such doubts. Even Galileo, the great astronomer, gave in and professed faith (probably a false faith) before the Inquisition, to save his skin.

Today’s society is more relaxed about beliefs. You can believe what you want. But for someone like me, who grew up deeply connected to a Christian church, voicing doubts was (and is) hard and lonely.

I guess what is hard for me is the legitimate tension between faith and reason. I teach critical thinking in college. I am incapable of “just believing” something. A lot of academics I know, especially those in the hard sciences, those who have devoted their lives to understanding how the world works, are atheist or agnostic. And I don’t blame them. I have seen the skulls or Neanderthals and other pre-human hominids. I have seen a fish walk on land (the Japanese mudskipper). From a scientific perspective, evolution has a lot more explanatory power and utility than creationism, though (I admit) it offers little comfort as a worldview.

I also know some academics who are Christians, who have devoted their lives to explaining the rationality of belief. The ones I’ve met tend to be philosophers, not scientists. But there are some scientists.

Anyway, my point is this: If people who are way smarter than me, who have devoted their lives to studying the world, are still in fundamental disagreement about God, can you blame me for being sort of agnostic? Can you blame me for saying, “I don’t know.” It’s not laziness. I would wager that I have read more than your average American. I’ve even read some of those really dry “apologetics” type books.

My whole thing is this: If someone in today’s society is atheist or agnostic, I have no basis with which to say, “You’re wrong.” We could argue “till the cows come home,” and that is mostly what academics do. Argue.

Although I am an academic, my faith and my values are not academic. Some people find faith through academia. Some people lose faith through academia. What I call “faith” I did not arrive at through rigorous academic study. I arrived at it through human relationships and lived experience. It is not something I like to talk about very much because it is totally subjective to my experience. It is not something one can “prove.” How do you “prove” love, compassion, empathy, suffering, hope? These are matters of ones deepest heart and they are, in the best sense of the word, a mystery.

If I try to explain my heart to someone, I fail, but I sometimes still try. The only true way I know to show my heart is through action: active love, treating others as I would have them treat me, giving my time and resources to my community, to other people, trying to be humble, to shun power and wealth and status. To live simply, to help others in the ways I am able to help. I do these things, not out of a sense of duty or compulsion, but because it is the only way I have found to reconcile the conflict of my deepest heart. Language and argument are inadequate to explain these things, and that is perhaps as it should be.

For this reason, I feel uncomfortable in church buildings. There is too much talking, and it often rings false to me. At some point you have to say, “We have talked enough. Let’s start doing.” Which is not to say the church has done nothing. Many hospitals were started by churches, even though today they are big corporations (the hospitals). Church, to me, is not a building. It is people. In this sense, you could say I never left the church.

I watch, from outside, my old church struggling to stay relevant in a culture that moves way faster than it can keep up. In my heart, I still care about that church. This is what my heart says to that church: Forget about your facilities. Care for your people. They are hurting and confused. Don’t be afraid to let your wounds show. That is the only way they will heal.

One of the heroes of that church is my dad, who has been in some sort of leadership role there for most of my life. But he is the kind of leader who doesn’t stand up and give elegant sermons. He has always sort of quietly went about the business of caring for people: visiting the sick and dying, listening more than talking, writing when it is on his heart to write. We are not so different, my dad and me, though we look different and have different interests and often find ourselves on different sides of an argument. But in our hearts, we are not so different. In that place of mystery that pushes us to be our truest self, we are not so different at all.

The Japanese Mudskipper, the fish that walks on land.

1 comment:

  1. Watching the mudskipper, I'd suggest it proves that God has quite a sense of humor. And who knows, maybe mudskippers look at us and reach the same conclusion. I'm reminded of a favorite Frederick Buechner thought, quoting loosely his definition of theology: Theology is the study of God and his ways. Perhaps the dung beetle engages in the study of man and his ways and calls it humanology. If so, we would probably be more amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.