Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Back to That Christianity Problem . . .

I came to a rather odd and somewhat painful realization about myself not too long ago.

I think I lack the capacity for belief.

This is the only truly positive belief I have about religion: there is a God. That's about as far as I can go. But I'm the sort of person who needs a structure to their faith. It doesn't work for me to just go around believing in God. I need a faith tradition. I need a practice. More than anything else, Christianity works for me. I have the objectiveness of mind necessary to realize that this is probably only because that's how I was raised. If I were raised Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Pagan, I would feel much the same way. But as it is, Christianity has an incredibly powerful resonance for me that nothing else comes close to matching. I know this experimentally, believe me; I've tried a number of other things. This paradigm is how I can make my life make sense.

But still I don't believe.

I think the Bible is true in what my friend calls "the Tim O'Brian sort of way." I use the Hamlet metaphor a lot. I like Hamlet. I don't think any of the events in it ever occured. But I think it's a true story, in all the ways that count for a story. Same with the Bible. I find it true, and yet . . . Euph. I find the Bible true enough that I am willing to shape my life around its truth. And yet. The actual rising from the dead bit? Euph. I can go so far as to say that I don't know. I can suspend disbelief. But active belief in the virgin birth and the resurrection and the whole nine yards? I don't think I'm capable of it. I'm not capable of it. Part of my problem is, I see the truth in planes. There's a plane of spiritual truth, and of emotional truth, and of material, down-to-earth truth. I believe in the Resurrection on every plane but the last one. This is also why I see no conflict whatsoever between the Bible and science. The Bible is true on one plane. Science is true on another.

(Actually, I have the same problem with/in science, except in science this way of thinking is accepted and has a name. You can be a scientific realist or an instrumentalist. A scientific realist thinks that the world really IS as explained by science. There are electrons, and magnetic fields. They exist. An instrumentalist thinks they may or may not exist, but that they are useful ways to describe the world, and so acts as if they exist. More or less. Guess which one I am. At least I get to be just as good of a scientist either way . . . )

And on some level, it doesn't matter to me. It honestly doesn't matter to me whether God wrote the bible or men wrote the Bible or a three-headed hydra from the planet Ultron wrote the Bible. It's just as true either way. And it equally doesn't matter to me whether Jesus the physical guy was actually the Son of God and actually performed miracles and actually, physically rose from the dead. It's just as true to me either way. Just like electrons are true, whether or not they actually exist. Though, honestly, I find electrons a lot easier to accept than the resurrection of Christ.

But at the same time . . . I wonder if it matters that I don't think it matters. It concerns me that I don't have any emotional or intuitive sense of this thing mattering, when to everyone else I have ever met or talked to on the subject, it matters very much indeed. Is there something wrong with me? Am I crazy? SHOULD it matter to me? Does it make my life a lie, living something I am Just Not Sure about?

It makes me a little uncomfortable to be walking the line like this. I feel like I should make up my mind, one way or another, Christian or Heathen, none of this middle ground. Everyone else seems to have it figured out. Eh. Part of me wants to think that my faith is that much stronger for being willing to follow something that I'm not entirely sure is true. And why is that material-plane part of it so important? It's not important in science . . . I lack understanding. Gah.

Unfortunately, walking the middle ground is more or less a theme of how I live my life. I just can't figure it out. I wish I could think in black and white, but this has always been my greatest gift and my greatest curse: I can always see the other side of the story. No matter how abhorrent a person's views are to me, I can always stand in their shoes and say, "I can see where you're coming from." I can't deny the truth I see in all other religious traditions. Believing in the material, actual Resurrection and etc. seems connected to that somehow. I feel as if, if I make myself believe it somehow, I will have lost something essential in my point of view.

Again: does it even matter?

I am grateful to have a spiritual home here among Friends. Through all my doubts and fears and "dear-God-WHY-do-I-even-bothers," I feel like there's room for me here, in all my imperfections and wafflings. I know of few other faith traditions that are happy to have me express myself in the Christian metaphor, using all the Christ-talk that resonates with me, and yet still let me just inherently not know. This is a relief. If I decided I was going to go Accept Jesus As My Personal Saviour (I hope not- on principle it's a nice idea, but, URGH, the connotations make me want to run away screaming), there would be room for me. If I decided I wasn't sure about God any more (again, I sincerely hope not), there would be room for me.

I hope.

There is, isn't there?


Martin Kelley said...

Hi Sarah,
From the peanut gallery here it sounds as if you do believe but can't put it into the kind of definitive language and reality that science and other disciplines demand.

As Friends we don't have to minister or testify to those things which have not been opened up to us by the Holy Spirit. I've not been given the inside scoop on the virgin birth. I wouldn't mind believing it. A lot of other parts of scripture have been opened up to me in the last few years so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and won't dismiss it out of hand as fairy tale. But I don't know its Truth experentially. So it will have to remain an interesting story and useful metaphor on the edge of truth.

This sometimes feels like a cop-out. But I think its okay to say we don't know everything. There's an honesty to that. For what it's worth, my journey to identifying as a Christian began largely a result of me realizing that I could express my beliefs and openings most clearly using Christian language. It's deepened somewhat since then but I still think that God and spiritual truth is larger than the box of Christianity and that the horror done by humans in the name of Christ over two millenium is a proof that even "Christianity" can become its own false idol. Perhaps the history of Christianity would be a lot more inspiring if religious and political leaders didn't try to making assertions on beliefs they haven't been opened to...

Sarah said...


Thank you. The language you used of having Scripture 'opened' to you really helped. And it's a relief to know that I'm not alone in this. Most of the people I turn to for support in my faith are much more on the fundamentalist end of Christianity, and although I admire their firm belief, I can't quite understand how they got there- nor can they understand why I don't have it!

My Meeting is not the sort of place where these discussions come up often, which is frustrating. Me and another Young Adult Friend have just started meeting outside of Meeting, and we're hoping to draw other like-minded folks into having these conversations more often . . . I dearly wish my Meeting was the sort of place I could receive gentle, Friendly 'eldering' of this sort (or is fellowship the better word), but right now it isn't. Hence this blog, and the time I spend with my dear more conservative Christian friends.

Hehehe, and I definitely feel your twinge with the religious and political leaders. If you haven't looked at the August Harper's, I'd suggest it. here
is the article I am referring to. It is about Christianity in America, and lack of actual belief in it . . . enjoy. :-)


Amanda said...

Oh my goodness Sarah, I'm with you. Augh. The relief to have this post come out and not have to have written it myself (and I never could have been as clear as you. I would have rambled much more.)

I just so know that feeling of "Who cares!?" Well of course I care. But about these sorts of questions, Virgin Birth, Bible Authorship, Ressurection?" No. Not so much. And when I find myself caring, I usually discover it's because I'm feeling anxious about someone else's opinion of my faith or lack thereof.

When St. Paul says:

"And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile"

I just have to wince. How horrible to feel that way. If Christ had not been literally raised, or if Joseph knocked Mary up, or if a three-headed hydra from the planet Ultron wrote the Bible, I think our faith still matters.

Dave Carl said...

It was a three-headed Hydra, but now it's fifteen-headed. That's how it goes with Hydras, you know.

Chop chop!

But seriously, I was in a workshop at FGC (LizOps' actually) when it occurred to me: I'm so happy to be in a religion where I don't have to pretend anything! As Martin says, its what's actually opened to us that matters, and there's always a good possibility that more will be opened as we go along (one would hope so, anyway!) On the other hand, prematurely adopting ideas that have not been spiritually opened to us might just become a lot of debris in the way of further openings.

Don't know if you've read any of Marcus Borg's books, but your comment about Hamlet reminded me of his approach to the Bible as "really" true as opposed to "literally" true.

earthfreak said...

Sarah -

I think a number of folks (quakers) struggle with this.

I really like what Martin had to say about not testifying to those things that haven't been opened to us.

I think that's always been a big part of my problem - I feel I would lack integrity if I claimed Christianity, because I don't believe the Nicene or Apostles Creed.

(and, for me, I'm quite aware that Christianity is culturally familiar, but it really often doesn't speak to my condition any more than buddhism or taoism, or paganism (well, nature, not pagans - does that make sense?)

Anyway, if you want to read my struggles with it (which I don't think are as well articulated) you can find a bit of it at my blog.

I do believe that there's room for you.


Richard said...

Interestingly, I can relate to what you have written.

I was baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and I continue to practice there.

I too have a great difficulty in believing in a lot of things. I wouldn’t go so far as you do in saying the Bible is about as true as Hamlet (I believe there is historical accuracy there) – but divining the literal truth from the metaphorical truth is hard.

My approach to the Bible is that it is a collection of disparate recordings of the Jewish experience of God: some of it factual, some of it allegorical, some of it desperately trying to make sense of the events around them.

I find the rich tradition and theology of my church comforting (I also find it frustratingly narrow and legalistic at times). So, while I question everything, I am also mindful to be respectful of the teachings I was raised in (even if I ultimately disagree – clear case is the omniscience of God – if I am a free willed being, then God cannot know my future actions and behaviors. Consequently, God is not omniscient in the traditional sense, notwithstanding St. Thomas Aquina’s assertion that “God’s knowing does not cause us to act.” On the question of omnipotence, I have to credit my mother with giving me the best answer to: “Can God do anything?” “Yes”, “So can HE make a rock so large that even He couldn’t move it?” “Yes”, “So God cannot be omnipotent if he cannot move the rock.” “If God decides that he wants to, He will move the rock. If He doesn’t want to, He won’t”).

I probably stand more in line with St Thomas Aquinas and his Sumna Theologica, in which the defended Christianity by not referring to the Bible at all. His argument was that you could not expect to convert people by citing an authority they did not recognize. So he tried to use self-evident truths.

Coming to the recognition of a truth is a wonderful thing. Sadly, I my life with will probably end with more questions than answers.

God gave you intelligence, I think it is a serious failing not to use it – far too many people seem to be comfortable in turning off there brains and abdicating all responsibility to think to someone else. Questioning, responsibly, I think, is a vital aspect of a healthy faith life. If you don’t question and challenge, then what is going to happen? You’ll hit 40 with the faith understanding of a 6 year old (heaven is just beyond those clouds) and the consequent clashes that occur. I am not sure how I would have turned out if I had been raised in a different faith or tradition – would I be less critical? Or would I be the same?

Katia said...

Have you ever read anything by Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong? He has a few books that speak to what you're saying here. You might want to start out by reading his autobiography, "Here I Stand," see if you like him, and go from there.

Brian said...

Hey Sarah,

You basically challenged me to find this blog so I wanted to let you know that I did. You were right, it wasn’t very hard. I realize this post is over five months old but, while I found all of your posts interesting to read, this one really spoke to me. You always seem so confident that I would never have thought that you were struggling to such a degree with these issues. And maybe, five months later, you aren’t struggling with these issues as much. I certainly have been struggling with these kinds of problems for a number of years now and I haven’t fully resolved them and I don’t expect to fully resolve them any time soon.

As you know, I was raised an Episcopalian. In middle and High school I was involved in youth groups. I attended the Vermont Episcopal Diocese’s summer camp on lake Champlain. I was on the planning committees for events during the school year. Even so, my beliefs were very minimal. I mostly didn’t think about it too much because I knew that I didn’t really have strongly held beliefs in line with other Episcopalians. I also let my religion be basically a minor part of my life, something on the side that I didn’t really tell people about. I was a shy, geeky, nerd and I didn’t need anything else to mark me out as different from the rest of the school population. But I did have some very moving religious moments that insured that I kept my religion as at least a part of my life.

Then I went off to college. There wasn’t an Episcopal Church within walking distance of campus. So I stopped going to church and I looked on college as a separation from the church. I knew I had all these doubts and problems with Christianity and I wondered at the time whether I would ever really go back to the Church. Junior and Senior year I was taking a bunch of courses on philosophy and religion. At one point I said to myself “Ok, so you’re unsure about all these things, what are you actually sure of?” The answer, similarly to you I guess, was that I believed in God. I believed that there is a God of some sort, and that God is good and loving.

After a lot more thought and struggle I decided to believe that Jesus actually existed, that he was the son of God, and that after his death there was his resurrection. I know that there is no way that I can ever know this for sure, that I can be intellectually sure. But I have chosen to believe it. A good friend of mine once said that loving someone is a choice you make every day and I think of faith as being something like that. I have chosen to identify myself as an Episcopalian based on what it is I believe and that I find the way we pray together to be very moving. I also know that a large part of why I am an Episcopalian, or even a Christian, is because of how I was raised. My faith tradition asks me to believe a lot of things that are very hard to swallow, many of which I haven’t really reached a conclusion on. And I often find it hard to believe those things that I do believe. But I don’t have to be 100% certain of something to believe it. I’m just not sure about a lot of things but I can still believe them anyway, if you know what I mean.

I find it extremely hard to understand people who don’t or haven’t struggled with these kind of thoughts and just accept the Bible and believe in Christ and also believe every little thing written in the Bible. I mean, I know some people who seem to be like that but I really can’t understand how it is that they do it. Some days I envy them their faith, unfettered by thoughts of rationality, material truth, and just plain old doubt. Other days I almost pity them. Faith that isn’t examined, beliefs that aren’t scrutinized and doubted, seem so shallow and arbitrary. But most days I am just confused by them and can only conclude that their minds work in different ways than mine or that God has spoken to them in ways he hasn’t spoken to me.

OK, I have gone on way too long so I’ll stop there. Mostly that long, long rambling was just to say that what you wrote here really resonates with me. I found your blog as a whole very interesting.

Sarah said...


I guess I seem confident because what I DO believe, I'm very sure of- there's just not much of it.

It's true I'm no longer struggling in quite the same way, but it's less because I've found belief, and more that I've figured out the difference between belief and faith, and am learning how to make my lack of one strengthen the other.

It's good to hear your story, too, and know I'm not alone. I kinda want to talk about this sort of thing in Bible study more, but I'm shy of it. I don't know what the state of my soul is, nor do I think it's possible to know, but I feel like if I am open with my doubt, other people will be sure.

Well, maybe we will talk about it. Someday . . .