Living According to a Story
By Kyle Cupp
I was born to a Buddhist father and a somewhat lapsed Catholic mother, so you could say I had a divergent and confusing theological upbringing. Essentially I heard two different stories from my parents about the almighty and everlasting. One told me that Jesus was a significant but only human prophet; the other explained how God became man. The devil featured prominently in one narrative, at least to this boy’s active imagination, but he never made an explicit appearance in the other.
My parents divorced when I was four, and with their separation came two conflicting accounts of what had happened and why. I grew up hearing incompatible stories about the here and the hereafter, about the visible and the invisible. Being the audience of multiple stories that didn’t add up, I faced a crisis of belief, at least to the extent possible for a young boy: who and what did I believe? What was the truth and who spoke it?
I had trust issues growing up.
As fate or a California court would have it, I spent more of my time with my mom, and so it’s not surprising that she proved to have more influence on my religious upbringing. Besides, my dad wasn’t much for expressing his beliefs. He had a statue of Buddha and would answer my inquiries and curiosities, but he never, so far as I can remember, sought to raise me as a Buddhist. It wasn’t until I approached double digits that my mom got right with the Church and had me baptized and receiving Holy Communion.
I want to say I was in fifth grade, having recently moved from a suburb of Los Angeles to a suburb of Des Moines, that I began to take an active interest in my faith. A good friend who didn’t look favorably upon the Catholic Church would later help push me along. He was a bright kid from a non-denominational tradition, and he was the first to really pose challenges to what I believed. I don’t know if I debated him initially because I truly believed or because he was challenging something that was mine, but my eagerness to defend Catholicism fueled a new fire in my belly to learn and understand what it was I supposedly believed. And so throughout middle school and high school I pondered a lot about God, religion, the Bible, and the teachings of the Catholic Church. I read a fair amount of apologetics and a little bit of theology.
Not surprisingly, my choice for college was a small liberal arts school in Ohio well known in Catholic circles for its dynamic orthodoxy, ardent allegiance to the Magisterium, and unwavering devotion to the faith. It was (and is) a school to which pious Catholic parents feel safe sending their offspring. There was no danger of a theology professor proclaiming something contrary to official church teaching. The student body flocked to one of several offered daily Masses. Lines for confession were always long. While not every attending student felt the fire of the Holy Spirit coursing through his or her veins, the vast majority were enthusiastically and proudly Catholic. Sellers of religious-themed t-shirts loved us.
I studied English during my undergrad years, and while I took only two theology classes in all my time there, I remained persistently smitten with God and Holy Mother Church and in constant thought about both. In my senior year I took a few philosophy classes as electives and, having fallen madly in love with the ol’ flirt Lady Philosophy, made the decision to put off paying down student loan debt so as to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy. What can I say? The love of wisdom leads to unwise life choices.
You can rightly suppose that we read a lot from Catholic philosophers, but, to the school’s credit (or at least to the credit of a professor or two), we studied thinkers who I’d assumed were enemies of truth. I came in time to discover that people who didn’t conceptualize truth the way I did weren’t my intellectual adversaries. I took a keen interest in the thought of Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoeur, two philosophers whose works have continued to fascinate and influence me over the past decade. I may owe more to them than to any specific Catholic philosopher for how I today understand the world. For better or for worse, their influence upon my thinking has reformed how I think about God and religion and how I live my faith.
Largely because of that ancient head-screw called philosophy, a new crisis of faith whirls like a storm in my unstill soul. While I still strive for faith, hope, and love, I’ve ceased grasping for certainty. While in my younger years I could have professed my belief in unequivocal terms, I can no longer speak of my faith as a sure thing. It’s not that I disbelieve, exactly. Rather, I’m not sure that what I think is my religious belief really is genuine, Vatican-stamped faith. I ask myself questions I cannot answer. Am I really responding to a God who reveals? Or am I rather (or also) engaged in group-think or the comforts of a shared mythology? Perhaps my faith is only an opiate. Perhaps it’s my unconscious way of dealing with neurosis. At most, I hope that I have faith and that my faith teaches me to love as fully as one can. That is my hope as I walk in darkness, not really sure but with an inkling that I may have seen a great light.
My current crisis extends beyond my holding hands with uncertainty. While I’ve not given up on religion in general or Catholicism in particular, I have said farewell to a specific conception of God, namely God as explanation, and in so doing have joined hands with the atheists and agnostics, if not for the whole of life’s journey, at least for a section of the walk. To clarify, I continue to call God creator and savior, but for me God is not the solution to riddle or a formula. God’s not an answer to scientific inquiry or the end result of metaphysical speculation. God is wholly other than all these lines of human reasoning, all these constructions fashioned to explain the world. My need for God is not the need of a student seeking to explain a mathematical theorem, or the need of an ethicist looking for a basis for good behavior, or someone searching for the last piece to a grand puzzle. The divine isn’t the intellectual rope that ties the whole system together. God ain’t the Dude’s rug.
As atheist writers have noted, in the course of human history, many a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural explanation, but as of yet, no natural explanation has given way to a supernatural one. Given this trend, I find it unwise to hold on to God as an explanation, for sooner or later, what I use God to explain will likely be revealed to have a different basis. If I believe in God because God explains this, that, and the other thing, then I can be almost sure to have a belief that’s not long for this world. When science or philosophy answers this, that, and the other thing, what will be left of God? Nothing may be impossible for God, but a god used to explain the world may well, in the end, be reduced to nothing.
What is left of my faith when I have forsaken this idea of God? Having fled from the crumbling ruins of the unmoved mover and the uncaused cause, where do I go in search of the sacred? What conception of the divine lies ahead of me, having kicked the dust from my feet and departed the cities of certainty and supernatural explanation? In short, why do I still believe?
I continue to believe, to walk the paths of faith, because I believe a story and continue to choose to believe that story. More precisely, I believe in a grand sacred history that has been given embodiment in a plurality of diverse narratives, epistles, and other sacred writings. I interpret these writings in ways literal and figurative and in ways between. While I don’t look to the books of the New Testament for a historical transcript of the life of Christ, I cling to the hope that they reveal a Divine Person and give flesh and blood anew to impossible events, namely the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. On the one hand, my choice to believe the truth of these writings—writings that don’t perfectly add up, to be sure—is a decision to believe that an underlying thematic truth speaks through incredible, fantastical tales told to me by mostly unknown strangers, and passed down to me by figures holy and insidious, self-giving and power-hungry, saintly and vicious. On the other hand, I find some of those who have told and retold these stories, particularly the early Christian martyrs, to be credible witnesses. Those who have given their lives for Christ did so not merely in defiance of their murders, but as an act of witness embraced in the hope that their enemies would become their brothers and sisters. That kind of love strikes me as the height of love. And it’s been known to work wonders.
What does my faith give me? It gives me a love story. Not a story that explains love, but a story that gives birth to—and directs my heart, mind, and very being to—the fullest expression and fulfillment of love. It is a story that means everything if it means anything at all. It is a story about what it means to be human and what it means to be divine, both of which tell of what it means to love. My religion tells a love story about a humble God who reveals and who gives humanity, through the sacraments and other gifts, the grace to respond in faith, hope, and most importantly love. In this sacred romance, faith and hope are not ends in themselves, or even eternal things, but the temporal means to an eternal end. That end is love. According to this story, there is no need for faith or hope in heaven, and so you will not find them there. What you will find, if there is anything after death to find or a paradise to find it, is love.
Am I, because of my faith, better at love than those with no faith? Difficult to say, but I’m going to guess the answer is “No.” Am I, because of my faith, better at love than I would be without my faith? Also difficult to say. I hope the answer is “Yes,” but then I cannot answer with certainty. At the end of the day, I walk in darkness like everyone else, and I hope that this sacred story, the story of my life, and the stories all around me in what I see and hear are all one in the same, even while they are many and different.
I willingly admit, however, that this story to which I harmonize my life may be a fiction, that my choice to follow Christ may be akin to fashioning my life after Aeneas, Portia, Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins. It’s possible that the silence I hear in prayer is not the silent Word, but the voiceless breath of oblivion. Or it may instead be the case that my faith is terribly weak, that I see but do not observe, have open ears but do not hear. Perhaps I’m asleep in the garden or living an endless flight from Jesus’ arrest. Perhaps I am, like Judas, betray him with a kiss and seeking to make amends all on my own. Perhaps I’m not seeking forgiveness at all, and am, like Captain Ahab, poised to strike the sun if it insults me. Hell, I may have chosen the wrong religion.
My faith doesn’t free me from these unsettling possibilities. It doesn’t whisk me away from the battlefield like a protective Aphrodite. Instead, it fills me with fear and trembling and places me in the hopeless situation of not knowing what I love when I love my God. Yet I would not choose to be anywhere else. I’ve no interest in certainty, gnosis, or other false comforts. Nor do I wish to close the book of faith and place it on the bookshelf, unread, ignored and unlived. I intend to live according to a story I love, to share it with those I love, and to allow it to guide my steps and convert my soul, even though I journey to who knows where. And I intend as well to incline an ear to the voice of alterity, to reasons and rhymes that might expose my faith to its undoing. As John Caputo would say, I intend to remain unhinged.