I am one of those people in the world who thinks that it doesn't really matter what you believe if it makes you happy, and it makes your life (and the lives of others) better. This year I am twenty three years in religious life. For me, it feels like a terribly important milestone.
While I have been engaged in ministry for all of these years, and while I am active in my community as a religious person, most of my intimate friends are atheists or agnostics. I am almost alone in being the "odd" man out when it comes to religion and being a person of faith.
I have a passion for science, believe firmly in evolution, that the earth is billions of years old and that we have evolved from other life forms during a good part of those billions of years, and I am wildly intrigued by the discoveries in quantum science, genetics, cosmology, and other sciences. I have been fascinated by astronomy since I was a kid, and I believe that there are most likely other intelligent life forms in the Universe besides on this planet. I support stem-cell research and a woman's right to choose her reproductive options, and believe that climate change is a real and present danger. In short, all of the things that seem completely incompatible with being a rather engaged member of the Christian faith in today's world, at least as public perceptions would have it.
I am also a very proud gay man who suffers no preoccupations in that regard. I have a very healthy sense of self, am comfortable being an active, sexual human being, and I do not see myself as someone who needs to atone, apologize, or be religious to hedge my bets with God in case it really is a sin to be gay. I don't believe it is. Full stop.
Despite what some may believe…especially in today's increasing polarization between fundamentalist Christianity on one side and militant atheism on the other…faith, science, and reason are not mutually exclusive. At least, in my own experience, they aren't. I do not have to do any mental gymnastics to hold science and religious faith in tension. I don't have to be reductionist with either to uphold the meaning and power of the other in my head or my heart.
So, in my closest circle of friends, beneath all of our exciting conversations about art, science, literature - beneath our waxing philosophical on the latest issues of the day, or the politics of being active in the LGBT community - there lingers one question that I'm sure many of them would like to ask but don't know how…why do I do the whole God thing anyway?
Things That Must Be Said First
Let me allow for some caveats here, to head off assumptions from the start: I do not believe that in order to reconcile my faith with my rational brain, I need to resort to platitudes suggesting that science merely proves that God must exist because of the implied order of things, or the suggestion of design, or the sheer unlikelihood of our Universe arising in the way it has, without some help, to support the evolution of intelligent life forms; or that what science doesn't know (can't know, may never know) still suggests that there must be a God at the end of our questions.
I also don't find it necessary to reduce my image of God to something that fits with what we know based on empirical science, or to suggest that God is just a code word for the mysteries we don't yet understand. Or worse still, to reduce God to just a helpful mythology that still works to frame the moral choices of weak willed individuals until something better comes along; or that faith is a neurological phenomenon that we are seeing evolved out of our collective gene pool - and none too soon.
I do not believe that the Bible is a literal book, except inasmuch as it is literally the story of a people who came to believe in God, and it chronicles the story of how they came to believe, and what they came to believe. And it is occasionally the story of an elite group of leaders who told people what to believe when it became apparent that some people weren't doing it right! And throughout, you can see as that people came to change their minds about what God was, and what God was doing, and how God was, when those beliefs began to clash with their own experiences.
And so, I find the Scriptures very helpful -- a wild and wooly collection of writings and stories, as a means to explore and talk about my own struggles to articulate what God is, and how I came to believe and what I came to believe when it comes to God. As a result, I call these stories holy, because they have been set apart for me - for my faith tradition - by my spiritual ancestors, as a means of engaging in a long and unfolding history of discovering what God is and how God is operating in my own life and in the world. My own human struggles, which frankly haven't changed much from other human struggles even of the distant past, are represented in these stories very well.
And perhaps, most interesting, I believe deeply in God, and would continue to believe without the Scriptures at all. Or any other religious text for that matter. They are useful in helping me to articulate my own experience within the context of a tradition and a community of spiritual ancestors, but they are not - in essence - why I believe. And frankly, the stories of Scriptures (from any tradition) if forced into dogmatic certainties can be more unhelpful than not, especially if taken literally. The experiences of my first century and earlier forebears can, if taken literally, be so ridiculous on their face, that it becomes essential to reject them and, by implication, the God they proclaim, precisely because they can't be true in light of scientific knowledge or reason. If they can't be true, then the God they point to must not be true either! So says the modern atheist, or the rationalist, or the secular humanist, etc. Ironically, this is the same kind of literalism as that of the "true believer" who says: "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." This post-modern literalism says "if this part can't be true, none of it can be true." But the Bible gives me a lush and rich and sometimes painful vocabulary to speak, think, and struggle to understand who/what God is within the framework of human history and human experience that stretches back a long time.
Another brief point…science has nothing to say about God. I don't believe it will ever have anything to say about God that doesn't merely beg more questions. The Christian faith has taught - long before the means of scientific inquiry - that God is transcendent. This means that God does not exist in our space time, but outside of it. Hence, I have no problem believing that God will never be subject to scientific inquiry or, for that matter, be reduced to a hypothesis capable of being proven or disproven. And because this is so, it doesn't in the slightest diminish what I hold to believe true in my faith life. But it also means that what God IS can't contradict what IS. Especially if I believe that God is the ground of all reality. The very "is-ness" from which all of these things that are - ARE. So that means remembering that what we know can't contradict God's being. And also remembering that we, as finite beings, can't yet know everything. Because, otherwise, why would we continue to seek knowledge?
My faith also teaches that God is immanent, meaning God breaks through into our time and space in ways that can be discerned - the means of discernment being something that we call revelation. And revelation is not something that everyone is capable of. Not meaning that certain people are chosen to receive revelations while others are not. It merely means that some people are capable of being open to receive them because they have effectively detached from the myriad distractions of the world to be available and open to divine revelation. And so, I understand why some people don't believe in God, and I have no problem with that. As I said, believe what makes you happy and betters the world and live that way. This also helps me to understand that some of us, in our brokenness, commit great evils. Not just because we are incapable of knowing the good, but also because we are capable of rejecting the good. Any of us. No matter how good we believe ourselves to be. This is called freedom. And the rejection of the good is also called, in my tradition, sin.
And finally, before I get to business, I have to say clearly…I do not accept that my job as a believer is to make other people into believers. My job is not to convince you or anyone else to believe in God, or that belief in God is right for you as opposed to non-belief, or as opposed to believing different things about God or even in different gods than I do. I do not believe that faith is essential for everyone, or that my faith in particular is the right one for everyone or the only one for that matter. What I do hold true is that it is the only way for me! And trust me, I have done a good deal of inquiry into other traditions and practices, and have done my time as a non-believer. I chose to return to the Christian faith after a good deal of rational inquiry and intellectual exploration. And I am pleased to have found a denomination within my tradition that embraces that and which honors my mind. After this exploration, I came to the reasoned conclusion that the tenets of my faith better explained my human condition, the facts of my life, and my experiences better than any of the alternatives.
So, why do I believe in God?
By this time, some of the more fundamentalist types of Christian will tell me that I am not Christian at all. No sweat. They can believe what they want. And some of my more agnostic/atheist readers will be scratching their heads wondering the same. And further, wondering how I can believe in God when I am a rational human being with a brain and an appreciation for science. Or maybe even wondering, just what God I do believe in, since I seem to not believe in the God they're convinced I must believe in as a Christian. The God they rail against in public discourse. The God they don't believe in. To them, I say, "Yeah…I don't believe in that God either."
First, I believe in God because my life is qualitatively better with God at the center of it. Having experienced life as an agnostic for a time, I have had ample opportunity to see if life is different from one point versus another point of reference. And it is. This does not mean that I have been given wealth, security, or any other tangible thing by God. I've already expressed that I don't believe God gives things to some and not to others. Certainly, not if the measure of faith to accumulated things is any indication. But my experience is that God brings out the best part of our nature when we engage with the divine life. I am less selfish, less driven, less anxious; more compassionate, more present, and more appreciative of what I do have. My faith provides me with a purpose, a point of reference, and a direction for my energy to focus - not for my own benefit only, but for a better world.
I believe in God because I am one of those people who has experienced God immanently present in the world. I don't know why this should be. And I'm not talking about revelations in the sense of seeing visions and hearing voices - although some would argue that the whisperings of the Spirit in the human heart, or a vision of the Universe that strikes breathtaking awe, may qualify as voices and visions. But I find that when one is attentive to the possibility of miracles, one tends to find them in all places. It is sad that our expectations of signs and revelations of power that are stupefying in their magnificence cause us to miss the countless real signs that surround us every day. Importantly, when I have encouraged people to look for these miracles as a spiritual practice, I have seen their lives transformed. I have seen them develop robust faith lives where previously there were none.
I believe in God because God is a more exciting story for me to tell about life than the story that doesn't have God in it. And for the countless ways in which beauty becomes magnified by God's presence in our human story; in art, music, poetry, and acts of kindness. I believe in God because justice, mercy, forgiveness, and truth take on deeper imperatives than they might without God. I'm certain that atheists experience all of these things just as deeply as I do. But, for me, I would not experience them the same way without God as the center of them. And also, frankly, because I as a human being tend to use lenses through which I determine to what extent these gifts may be parceled out, and to whom, and in what measure based on my own biases and culture and bigotries, and I know in my experience that God sees none of these and offers these gifts freely to all. In ways that I can't even begin to imagine.
I believe in God because the rising of the human intellect to a place of contemplation; the striving of the human mind to look at the mystery of life and ask "why"; the Universe's movement toward the kind of creature that has evolved into the Universe's own self-reflective gaze; seems unlikely without a preceding intellect or thought to get the ball rolling. And this is just from a purely anthropocentric view point, let alone if I step outside of it long enough to contemplate other intelligences of which we are not yet aware. In this way, I am firmly delighted to believe that scientific inquiry is one of the greatest and noblest indicators of God - it is the logical evolution of the intellect, and a means by which the Universe explores and discovers itself. This falls into the category of those miracles I wrote about earlier.
I believe in God because I think that without God the truth of Love and its imperative towards self-offering, self-sacrifice, service, and magnanimity are impossible. I believe that Love is the first principle of the Cosmos, and without this love I truly believe the cosmos and the world would fly apart into atoms and quarks and a misty field of un-attached particles and there would be no thing capable of either loving or being loved. I believe that the myths and tales we tell about our humanity all point to this Love as the very thing that binds us together, that it doesn’t originate with us, and that without it, we are absolutely no-thing.
I understand that none of this will sound remotely convincing to the atheist, which is a good thing because I have no interest in convincing atheists of the presence of God. Their belief (or lack of belief) works for them, and that is what matters. Atheists have no need of God to explain any of what I have spoken of here. And that is fine. But, in my own life, the possibility that there is no God does not explain these things in a way that makes sense to me. That I am capable of having my heart sense and be drawn to pure and perfect truth, and beauty, and justice, and love, and mercy without having known them; yet sensing innately what they are not - by experiencing their not-fullness rather than their fullness in this life ; it would be enough for me. I am given glimpses of them that transcend me and my own self. And this is miraculous. And that without these glimpses that, for me, originate in the Divine Life, I would be tempted to extend them to no one but myself as immediate satisfaction to my own agendas without care for any other creature, or indeed, the Creation itself.
The fact that I feel the presence of God in my heart, and beyond my thoughts, and quickening that thing I call the spirit when I try to draw near to God would be enough for me. The knowledge of how selfish I can be without God compared with how curiously I strive for the help of others when God is with me would be enough. And the conviction that life is beautiful, and miraculous, and unfathomably gifted to us - even in the absence of evidence - is enough.
And while I don't believe that God is an old man in the sky; not a police officer nor an accountant; not a cosmic Santa, nor one who keeps planes from falling out of the sky or keeps someone from getting cancer; while I patiently watch as our old and inherited metaphors for God increasingly fall short and fail; and while our culture bound assumptions about the workings of the Universe collapse under the scrutiny of scientific discovery; my faith in a God who surpasses our understanding remains unshakeable.
For when an individual life is touched by the love of God, manifest in the transformation of the human heart, it is merely impossible to pretend that God is not.