I never have, really. I am one of those rare people who have always been drawn toward the idea of a call to metaphysical belief in a greater power and purpose, yet in some kind of cruel paradox I always find the actual call not compelling.
I can find both Truth and Grace in others’ expressions of faith. As a young musician, I found Daedalus’s struggles in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man spoke to me far more than any purely secular literature. And I think In This House On This Morning, Wynton Marsalis’s 21-movement recreation of the simple act of re-finding redemption at church each Sunday morning, is the most profound piece of music written in the past century. But that sense of awe and wonderment for me is always second hand. I never directly feel the warm comfort of faith, for I do not believe. And truth be told, I’m OK with this. Because as much as religious faith in others inspires me, it can also make me a tad nervous.
I think that we are all hard-wired to identify our tribes. For the most part, this is a good thing. It encourages community and compels us to look out for our neighbors. It demands both our compassion and our mercy. But in order to have an Us, of course, we must also have a Them. My view of religious experience is that it can tap into both sides of that coin at the most primal of levels. At its best, religion can push us to feed the homeless and give them shelter. At worst, it can trick us into believing that those who are different are sub-human, and seduce us into deciding they should be treated appropriately.
This double-edged sword can be tricky, and it trips up two of my favorite journalist/writers. Christopher Hitchens easily recognizes this ability to demonize Others, but incorrectly attributes it directly to religion itself. Rather, I would argue that the Us/Them dynamic is always with us, looking for a vehicle to turn us toward action. Religion is just a (very powerful) vehicle. And Andrew Sullivan has now coined the term “Chistianist” to separate his faith and the faith of the intolerant. I like that he separates his faith from theirs, but his (and his cross-pew opponents’) insistence that one is following the true words of God and the other is not misses that both the instincts of inclusion and enemy-drawing are part and parcel of the deep-seeded primal urges that faith touches upon.
I am fortunate enough (blessed?) to live a life where I am surrounded by the most positive aspects of faith and only witness the worst on the news. My parents were each on the vestry of their church; my father still has a financial aid package for low-income students of the church’s school named for him posthumously. My wife and youngest son are still very active in their faith. Close friends have included us in their family’s Bar and Bat Mistzvahs alike, and have had me join in carrying them aloft on chairs on their wedding night. (This last experience, by the way, always makes me think if I am ever going to find God and remarry, I am definitely going with the Jewish God.) I periodically get together with Catholics, Evangelicals, and Muslims to shoot the shit over beers.
When I see the hatred that religion can inspire, the blood lust and calls for death and sexual subjugation and rape justification and petitioning to perpetuate second-class citizen status, it is always on the news and feels a million miles away – if not another planet entirely. If a God does exist, being in this position would be the very first thing I might thank Him for. The worst I ever really have to deal with, on the religion front, is the desire of the faithful to engage me in discussions of Philosophy.
Full disclosure: I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of the entire business of capital “P” Philosophy, and at different times in my life have found it pretentious, distracting, purposefully exclusionary, and a linguistic tool to reshape reality when your belief system is proven to be wrong. Mostly though, my problem with Philosophy is its reliance on combat rather than collaboration. An example: In Jason’s recent post on the FOX Facebook page where thousands of Christians called for the death, rape and beating of atheists, I had what can best be described as a total disconnect with Tim Kowal. Tim’s initial assertion was that in order for my beliefs to count, I needed to come up with an entire system of epistemology, ethics and metaphysics that other atheists and agnostics could agree to*. Until I did this, Tim argued, we couldn’t debate and find a winner as to whose belief was correct. And while I grant that Tim’s approach to personal belief is quite common, I nonetheless find it an astoundingly bizarre way to approach a subject that is in turns a source of both communal connection and self-identity, deeply personal and often private.
My beliefs (or lack thereof) are the organic results of a lifetime of experiences, anecdotes, observations, best attempts at reasoned thoughts, reactions to art, music and literature, and a million other things as well. I didn’t make my god (or anti-god, if you will) as a D&D-like character to best yours in battle. I have no desire to “prove” Tim’s (or anyone’s) faith wrong and set him adrift – as if I really could. In fact I find the very thought that I might take pleasure in doing so deeply unsettling. (Related side note: I asked my wife the other night what she thought of the art of applying Philosophy to decision making and conflict, and I think her response was both true and telling: “Oh, I think most women don’t really think about the world that way. It’s a pretty ‘guy’ thing to do.”)
The most common criticism I get from the faithful about my lack of belief is that it is hubris. And from their point of view, I totally get this: my loving Father makes me in his own image, and I won’t even take his calls? My counter claim is that it’s the faithful who show hubris. After all, if your faith is strong you are not just arguing that God exists. You are invariably arguing that all who have come before you who had a faith slightly or greatly different from yours were wrong, and that the hundreds of millions of people today that believe, but believe differently than you, are wrong, and that you and a small number of your associates alone have cracked the Great Mystery and have an inside line into the Mind of the Creator. To me, this might well be the very definition of hubris. So which of us is right? It seems obvious to me with our complicated humanity that we are both in equal turns humble and guilty of hubris with our world views. The great trick, I think, is to be able to recognize both your own hubris and your fellow man’s humility and adjust accordingly, regardless of belief.
This is a mighty struggle, but it is the one that I have Faith in.
And so here I sit, on a Sunday morning, waiting for the return of my wife and son from their sacrament. My wife will have done one of the readings today, and at some point I’ll ask her which chapters she read. She’ll tell me, and I’ll have the privilege of hearing her explain to me what those words mean to her, and how they steer her most private thoughts. My son will have performed his duties as an acolyte; dressed in his thick white robes he looks so tall and handsome, so grown up. And as soon as he gets home he and his brother will begin some game and over the course of the afternoon the friends of each will join them, until our house is full of kids laughing and yelling and running and playing and singing. And for me, this is my church – or at least as close as I will ever come to one. These children, our friends’ and ours, they are my salvation. They are my redemption.
And after more than 40 years of searching I have found that this is enough for me.
*For what it’s worth, I totally reject this supposition. If we are standing in my front yard and you insist there is a dragon across the street that we can’t detect, you might well need to use linguistic gymnastics to define “reality,” declare how we know things to be True, and create an entire metaphysical system whereby your assertion that a dragon no one can detect is really there is “proven.” I reject that I have to do the same to reject your proposition. You might say you’re just being intellectually honest, and I might say that you’re using cleverness to be intellectually dishonest. You say to-may-to…