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.
Your friend, Bart
For those of you who ask, you can indeed donate online (thewalnuthillsfellowship.org) to support our little fellowship, which is conveniently registered as a 501c3 non-profit organization. Will we be stunned, and happy, and disproportionately grateful? Absolutely!