Grasping at Belief : Week 1

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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102 Responses

  1. David says:

    I respect your honesty about attempting to find meaning in a faith, but from my own personal experience, reading any religion’s holy book or taking assigned readings may not be the best way to go about it. Faith is something much deeper than that, and the old testament, new testament, or muslim koran and hadith are riddled with things both good and bad.

    There is also plenty of conflicting portrayal of the deity in each of them. Speaking in wide generalities, the god of the old testament or Jewish scriptures tends to be a strict parental figure, if not an outright wrathful demon at times. In most cases, his interaction is concerned with telling the Jews what not to do so that they can avoid angering him. The god of the new testament, meanwhile, is much more about kindness, acceptance and forgiveness, though there is the whole moneylenders-in-temple thing to deal with.

    I’m not as schooled in the muslim writings, but as I understand it you can’t understand them just by reading the koran by itself, and the koran even by itself is much more like the old testament in containing a vengeful deity and plenty of exhortations to hate and violence. I have seen one interview some years ago in which a prominent cleric of the faith described the philosophy to mean “one must not simply love what allah loves, but also hate what allah hates with equal ferocity.” As I understand it each of the muslim sects then appends to the koran their own collection of what they call hadith, or “sayings” attributed to their prophet that may or may not be true, and whose provenance is highly disputed because each has to have a long line of oral and written authors to whom it is traced until one reaches the point of an author who claims to have been present to hear it directly from their prophet, and the competing sects tend to pronounce the other sect’s authors as heretics or liars somewhere in the chain.

    If I might suggest, at least for the level of an adult seeking faith, it may be helpful to examine alternates to single-deity worship as well. Buddhists worship no god, the Hindu have a plethora. Eastern religions tend to focus either in ancestor worship or in the idea of spirits large and small cohabiting the world with humanity. You may even find some inspiration in the pre-christian religions of Europe, or the modern pagan religions still found and practiced, though the pre-christian religions of Europe have much in common with the old testament or koranic god in that they are not so much entities to be prayed to for assistance so much as entities who should be worshiped in hopes of avoiding their ire.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to David says:

      David – You may well be correct that the way I am choosing to go about this won’t be very fruitful.  In fact I’d say that’s where the smart money is.  The reason I’m choosing the Episcopal church as an entry point has everything to do with wanting to be able to share the experience of my family with them.  My sincere hope is that if nothing else, I will get to a point where – not to be too squishy about it – I will be able to believe that I can believe.  Should I get to that point and find Anglicanism specifically or Christianity more generally unbelievable I might go those other directions you touch upon.

      Or maybe to put it differently, before I go shopping for which prom dress to wear I need to figure out if I really want to go to the prom.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I am hugely biased, of course, but I can’t think of a better place to start (at least within Christianity) than Episcopalianism. My wife was raised Catholic and I was raised Episcopal, and that (along with temperament) is one of the reasons she and I have such different views of organized religion. It varies from church to church, and place to place, but I was allowed to ask the questions and have the doubts and still have a spiritual home even as my views have shifted from here to there and back again.Report

  2. Matty says:

    Maybe there is indeed something Holy and Divine about our reading of scripture. But maybe we err in thinking that the Holy and Divine comes from the scripture. Maybe the Holy and Divine are in us.

    Many years ago I saw a TV programme by the liberal theologian Robert Beckford that made a similar point, I’m going to paraphrase my memory of it as I think you may appreciate it.

    Don’t try and deny or rationalise away your problems with the text, accept them and take them seriously as problems. Then see if you can still find the holy spirit in there. Because if you can find God through and despite the problems in a book you can do the same thing with your life.

    As an unbeliever I would put it differently but the principle that we don’ t have to deny the bad aspects of something to appreciate the good ones is still one I value.Report

  3. I think you’ll find a lot more elasticity in an Episcopal service and approach to holy writ than you would in other churches.  It is, after all, quite open about its being non-doctrinal.  Doubtless the church of my upbringing would consider it barely Christian at all because of this elasticity, and would argue stridently with the interpretation of scripture presented in your sermon today.  (I say all this as a happy, confirmed Episcopalian myself.)

    For my part, the only way I can approach scripture is through this kind of open reading.  I’ve given myself permission to wonder where the Jesus whose incarnation and life are beautiful to me can be found in the lessons for the week.  And I’ve also given myself permission to say, in essence, “this message is impossible to reconcile with my beliefs.  I cannot incorporate anything from it into my theology.”  Again, this doesn’t square with the fundamentalism of my youth… but there’s a reason I’m not longer a fundamentalist.

    Now, one might wonder why I would choose to look for messages in an ancient book comprising a bunch of myths, archaic rules and questionable history.  And the only answer I can give is utterly worthless from an evangelical point of view — I still have lingering beliefs that, whenever I abandon them, find a way of insinuating themselves back into my life.  I am, simply, a happier and better person when I turn my attention to them.  I would never expect anyone else to believe or not based on this personal experience, but there it is for me.Report

    • Russell – When I was referring to elasticity, I was meaning more in the text itself.  THat it can serve the needs of moderates and fundamentalists both – and, for that matter, fundamentalists of a seemingly infinite number of stripes over time – suggest to me that part of the Bible’s staying power is directly connected to that large chunks of it that invite ambiguity.

      Your beliefs and what you choose to take from the texts now sound very similar to what I hear from my wife.  An interesting question, then, is how much of this has to do with the fact that each of you grew up going to church?  For me, scripture holds no tradition – save for the general way that it has influenced society at large.  I have read them all more than once, but until now that reading has always been with the same eye I bring to Dostoyevsky or James.  Approaching the as something sacred is, for me, a brand new ballgame.

      “And I’ve also given myself permission to say, in essence, “this message is impossible to reconcile with my beliefs.  I cannot incorporate anything from it into my theology.” “

      This is something I look to do as well, but with a difference that is key.  WHich is I find myself having to reject parts of scripture that are impossible to reconcile with my morality.  The belief part still seems a blank slate.Report

  4. Max says:

    I’m going through a similar experience myself at the moment, looking forward to reading these.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Max says:

      Thanks, Max.  Feel free to jump in with whatever is knocking around in your own head.Report

      • Max in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I will. I think our experiences are going to look pretty different, if only because Jewish praxis on spiritual matters – at least within the strain I hail from – is pretty clear. One needn’t believe at all while still successfully fulfilling the requirements of prayer and ritual. But I am happy to share the thoughts and feelings those practices produce, and depending on what “Old Testament” (as you heathens are wont to call it) passages you produce, I may be able to offer some commentary.Report

  5. Ann says:

    First time commenting here.  This is going to be an interesting series.  I hope you keep it up. I am on a similar path myself (desiring belief in spite of my lack of belief).  I’m pursuing belief again in the church of my upbringing, after having spent many years away, with a detour into another faith, that I believed in with all my heart.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your rector’s suggestion to pray.  It may seem strange to pray to a deity that you don’t really believe in.  But if your desire is to believe, then prayer, reaching out to what may be there, is essential.  If God is there, prayer is how you will connect with God.

    Since you are in a Christian church, the Jesus prayer is a good easy one, very simple and meditative.

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

    It can be repeated, mantra like.  Inhale up to “Son of God, ” exhale through the remainder.  Tip of the hat to Jana Riess  for this idea, described in her wonderful book “Flunking Sainthood.”Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Ann says:

      Ann – Thanks for being willing to dive in.  I’m realizing that I’m about to ask you some questions and because it’s your first time popping in, let me preface these by saying if I cross any lines in them apologies in advance – and obviously you don’t need to answer any you don’t feel comfortable answering.

      Having left one faith for another, and having that second faith not work out, why did this lead to a lack of belief, rather than a confirmation that your fist faith was correct?  I’ve discussed this with Jaybird here, but I have always assumed that the place I come from – feeling almost hardwired to not be able to believe – is an easier place to live in than having had the comfort of faith and then having lost it.

      Also, this idea of how to pray is one that I had never even considered.  I had always assumed that you attempted to talk to God in prayer, but have had no idea what to say.  So what you describe here might be the best way for me to start out.Report

      • Ann in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I didn’t really leave one faith for another.  I stopped going to church as a teen, and as an adult joined a different church.  I lost faith in the new, different church, mostly because the way I was taught that God works with humans didn’t usually work out the way I believed.  I’m hoping that I can come to connect with God again if there is a God.

        For me, belief/faith was experiential.  I experienced a connection to the numinous “out there” in the past, and it made me happy and centered.  I haven’t had that experience in a long time, mostly because when I left my church, I stopped seeking it.  If what I’m connecting to and experiencing isn’t God, it’s still worth having, and if it is God, then the experience is not only worth having, but important.

        re:  The praying thing.  I like praying other people’s words, especially when they are beautiful ones.  They can focus my attention on the seeking rather than finding the right words to say.  Check out the Prayer of Thomas Merton for an example.Report

        • Tod Kelly in reply to Ann says:

          Thank you for sharing.  I will look up that prayer.

          So I have to ask, how is your own journey coming along?Report

          • Ann in reply to Tod Kelly says:

            It’s early days.  I’m attending a series of “classes” for Catholics Coming Home, but it’s just started.  I don’t really expect this journey to have an end point.  I think a robust faith is not in my makeup.  I probably can only have the delicate hothouse orchid kind.  Plus I have the attention span of a gnat.


  6. J.L. Wall says:

    Maybe it is simply the act of searching for God that allows us to find him; scripture is simply a handy tool we use to seek him with.


    There is one major, major flaw in this idea, however: I am seeking God, in scripture and elsewhere.

    But I am not finding him.

    There’s a case to be made that simply seeking with no guarantee of finding is an act of faith already; one could construct an allegorical reading of the darting, never-touching lovers of the Song of Songs to this effect.  (I’m not going to, in fact, because others have done so better than I could.)  Of course, part of the problem with seeking is that the most you might ever catch is a momentary glimpse of something — that in the end makes the process all the more maddening because it prevents truly, wholly believing that there’s nothing there without providing any proof of the opposite — or real evidence of what it might look like.

    The problem with “the Holy and the Divine are in us” as opposed to the texts, traditions, etc. is the risk of the Holy and the Divine existing only in us/the created world.  This might be a useful conception of divinity; certainly there are people who believe it and find that meaning flows from it.  But I don’t quite see it as of a piece with Abrahamic monotheisms.    (In which the divine, though quite possibly inhering in us/everything, is also necessarily external to it all.)  But, like most things in this discussion, I really can’t comment on the particularly Christian perspective here with any authority.

    Finally, on not finding God: looking for a faith that rests on an unbroken chain of belief is, to my mind, a fool’s errand.  I take great issue with Maimonides’ formulation of, “I believe with perfect faith” — I don’t know that perfect faith is possible.  (This, from the nature of history more than the bloodier bits of scripture.)  It certainly isn’t for me.  I doubt that my faith will ever be more than an imperfect one, with moments of more and less intense skepticism scattered throughout.  This is probably a part of why traditional Jewish observance has become such an important part of my religious life: not only the needing to come to terms, in some way, with that tradition — but that adhering to practice gives me a little more elbow room, when necessary, for doubting and seeking without finding myself suddenly outside the faith community.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to J.L. Wall says:

      “There’s a case to be made that simply seeking with no guarantee of finding is an act of faith already”

      This may well be true, but if so than I confess it is not the kind of belief I seek.

      The way that you describe your experience with faith strongly echoes what I hear other friends who are Jewish say.  This approach appeals to me greatly – in fact, in a lot of ways it appeals to me more than the way Christians approach it.  However, I think tradition is a necessary ingredient for this kind of faith and worship.  Having not gone to any church growing up and having never believed, I’m not sure what exactly I tether things to.


      • Michelle in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        This is probably a part of why traditional Jewish observance has become such an important part of my religious life: not only the needing to come to terms, in some way, with that tradition — but that adhering to practice gives me a little more elbow room, when necessary, for doubting and seeking without finding myself suddenly outside the faith community.

        I feel somewhat similarly. For me, the rituals are a way of connecting to something larger than myself, for uniting past to future. Plus, I find that there’s something genuinely comforting about performing the same set of prayers over and over again and of going through the cycles of the Jewish holidays. It feels like home.Report

  7. Isebrand says:

    Mr. Kelly, you may be intrigued by the Odyssey Networks’ “ON Scripture” series that follows the Revised Common Lectionary. Your parish may be using the Lectionary of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but there will be some overlap. (See For I Samuel 3:1-20, the commentary, “Prayerful Listening, Prophetic Proclaiming,” was offered by Reverend Dr. Luke A. Powery.

    More generally, you may be interested in Reverend Paul Raushenbush’s contributions as Senior Religion Editor for the Huffington Post. I particularly enjoyed his post in December following Christopher Hitchens’ death.


  8. BlaiseP says:

    Seeking God is a bit like Diogenes seeking honest men.   He didn’t find any either.

    Here’s a thought about reconciling the prophet Samuel to St. Paul.   The Bible isn’t one cohesive whole, as I’m sure you already knew.   It’s a collection of books, spanning many centuries.   He who goes in search of contradictions in the Bible will hit paydirt immediately:  both Judaism and the Christian faith would evolve over time, in surprising ways.

    The prophet Samuel was given up to a religious life by his mother who had prayed for a son.   We don’t know very much about Samuel’s life as a boy, beyond this curious episode.  Samuel would have known the sons of Eli, who were probably older than him.   Eli raised Samuel to a large extent.   Visions were rare in those days, the text tells us:  the religion had evolved away from its primitive form of direct revelation and taken up a formal set of rituals.  It was enough to perform those empty sequences of ritual and the old tabernacle was gettin’ a bit threadbare, metaphorically.

    If we’re to take anything away from the life of Samuel, it’s this:  he stands between the eras of primitive, direct faith of Moses and the rise of the Kingdom of Israel.   Prophets had political power before the kings, like the tribunes of Rome, they’d rise up when the people were in trouble and get back to religion-ing when the troubles were over.   The people would demand, and get, a king.   Samuel would warn them about the problems attendant upon wanting a monarchy.    After he dies, it’s the spirit of Samuel Saul summons up from the dead, seeking guidance as he’d sought Samuel’s guidance all his life, and rejected it.    The core of faith arises from direct revelation, without which it devolves into wickedness.  But if a religion is to work, it must be internally accountable.

    Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.   Do not go in search of God.  He is as close as the air in your lungs.   How many people have you known who think they’ll find happiness somewhere else?   Off they go, little realizing they’re bringing their problems with them in tow.   How many people have you seen get divorced, only to remarry a carbon copy of the jackass they just divorced?  In the same manner, inversely,  the truths you seek in God are already within you.   You are a citizen of his kingdom, a kingdom whose borders lie within the vast spaces of your own soul.   Paul’s temple of the Holy Spirit is within you and you stand, like Samuel as a little boy, in the darkness. He will speak, if you are listening.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Blaise, first and foremost let me just say thanks for this response, which (as usual) was awesome and informative.

      Regarding Samuel’s lesson, I know that you are correct in your reading.  My challenge, however, is to figure out how exactly to go about listening.  Or, failing that, to come to a better peace with my lack of ability to believe.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        The unexamined life is not worth living, so Socrates told us.   There is no Radio God, to which we can tune in on a particular frequency and stab the Program Preset button, though if you drive through rural Indiana of a late Friday night, your FM radio offers the exclusive choices of high school basketball and Jesus.

        You’re a man with a certain fund of hard-earned wisdom:  how did you acquire it?   Mostly, I suppose, you had to live it.   Our parents and teachers tried to tell us how to avoid trouble in life, having learned those lessons the Hard Way.   Some of this advice we heeded but a great deal of it, heh, had to be experienced to be believed.

        I cannot speak to what works for others.  I can only speak to my own faith, or lack thereof.   God’s first attribute is truth.    Do not be led astray by what you sense to be untrue, in hopes some further revelation will unfurl some Mystery which will negate that first nagging sense of falsity.   God cannot be approached at second-hand.

        The only revelatory experience, anything which might approach supernatural insight or enlightenment in my own life, was a moment when I was given some insight into the suffering of the world.   We experience our own suffering, come to some rapprochement with it, but to contemplate the suffering of the entire world is another thing entirely.   It was the worst moment of my life:  earnestly do I pray that I may be spared any further such encounters with Enlightenment.   The Buddha apparently had just such a moment.   Jesus did.   I am fairly sure there is no alternate route to enlightenment: to exist is to suffer.

        To be enlightened, we must first die to ourselves, be freed from our own Ultra-Wonderful Selfish Identities.   This awareness of the suffering world is not the end of the road to enlightment:  it is the Narrow Gate through which few will go, of which Jesus spoke.   Only when we have at last abandoned the filthy pretense of our own special wonderfulness can God speak to us.   This does not mean we must lie in the mud and shout “I am not worthy!”, groveling before God like the knights of King Arthur in Holy Grail.   God doesn’t want our groveling.  I should think God wants us to stand up straight and persevere on our search for the truth, to be the agents of mercy and decency,  to be the lights that shine in the uncomprehending darkness of a self-deluding world.

        I have always loved the old Chinese and Japanese landscape scrolls, with the tiny people along the winding roads through the mountains.     Your journey will begin when you see yourself along that road, just another figure in the landscape.   You are not alone on that road, though it is a journey of a lifetime.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Do not go in search of God. He is as close as the air in your lungs.


  9. Robert Cheeks says:

    A couple of comments:

    We can not begin to understand the majesty, perfection, power of God.

    We are created by God in love and freedom. We are given free will.

    Your journey to live in the love of God requires a turning toward God (seeking) and the willingness and desire to love God. Is that, as a modern man, what you really want?

    The revelatory experience begins with some act of abnegation on your part.  Remember you’re carrying all the baggage and bs of modernity in your head, heart, and soul.

    Modernity in obliterating the transcendent has deformed man’s existence, making him merely an immanent being.

    You are beginning a journey to discover and live in a reality that was designed for you by the Creator-God, You have begun this journey because you chose to participate in the ancient act of philosophizing, you chose to seek the truth of existence experienced in man’s existential tension to the divine ground. That tension exists in all men. Some have chosen to ignore it, to not act on it. You, on the other hand, have chosen to examine, to seek, and to contemplate the idea of immortality and the eschotolgical limitsof existence.  

    You may wonderfully succeed or miserably fail.

    In the final analysis humans were designed to exist in the tension found in the relationship between themselves and God.

    And this, perhaps Voegelin’s most perceptive definition: “For a gospel is neither a poet’s work of dramatic art, nor an historian’s biography of Jesus, but the symbolization of a divine movement that went through the person of Jesus into society and history.” (The Gospel and Culture, p 203, CW of EV, Vol.12).




    • David in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

      If I may.

      If humans cannot understand the “majesty, perfection, power of God”, then might it also be said that we cannot understand the existence of god, or of deity in general? Subsequently therefore any religion must be viewed as imperfect to some degree or flawed in some way to account for the reduction in understanding as filtered through the various humans who attempt to speak for the god or deities they worship?

      Personally, I have always had trouble with the idea of a “perfect god” who chooses to create the imperfect beings known as humans, endowed with the free will to do horrible things. It would seem rather a trap. I personally view the Book of Genesis storyline in this manner. The act of taking a newly created being, with no knowledge or experience but the potential for temptation, and not only placing it in a paradise with a single “do not eat this fruit” tree but with another creation whose purpose was to tempt the imperfectly created man-being into breaking that one rule. The whole scenario seems to be the metaphorical equivalent of leaving a four year old child alone in a kitchen with a cookie jar and saying “don’t eat the cookies, they are for later” to the poor child each day, waiting for the child to give in to temptation and take a cookie so that the child can then be punished. The conclusion, unless the child is one of the most extremely biddable or merely lacks a fancy for cookies, is assured, and the blame must rest on the parent for setting up the child, not the child for succumbing to the trap.Report

    • Perhaps.

      But I am not convinced that the message and very point of Christianity is the rejection of the modern man.  Similarly, it seems obvious by those around me that modern man can indeed have belief, and walk in what they know in the hearts  to be with God.    As to myself personally, I would ask that you be open to the idea that in not believing in God as you do I am not choosing to ignore him – I am simply not hearing him.

      Should belief and faith require my rejecting reason, doubt, and the other trappings of modern man, this will be a very shot trip.Report

      • David in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I offer a third alternative.I shall append it to your statement.

        As to myself personally, I would ask that you be open to the idea that in not believing in God as you do I am not choosing to ignore him – I am simply not hearing him in the way that you do.

        All religions, by their very nature, must be imperfect. Perfection cannot come from the work of imperfect beings; some flaw must inevitably remain. I find philosophical reasons to disagree with every religion on the planet, while simultaneously holding a deep and as yet unshaken conviction that there is some higher power, of some sort, in the universe. That was the reason for my suggestion that you investigate a plethora of religions, Mr. Kelly. It is important to examine the potentials even if one ultimately disagrees with some or even most of the tenets.Report

    • Matty in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

      I disagree that failure need be miserable. Exploring your own views on things like morality and ‘spiritual’ experience can be an enriching experience in itself and something like a cathecism class can provide a useful context for that even if (like me) you come out more atheist than you went in.Report

  10. Stillwater says:

    I’m just barely beginning my confirmation studies, and I’m already screwing the pooch.

    Are you on the accelerated program? I’ve never done it, but screwing the pooch seems like a more advanced training technique to me.

  11. dhex says:

    so where does the desire to believe come from? sincere question – i’ve never had either the desire or belief*. you mentioned that you feel it will help you become closer to your family, but i presume that this in and of itself isn’t sufficient?

    *(as a young child i presumed religion to be a community theatre of sorts that adults played in, like the rules for dominoes or telling kids about santa claus, because it gave people a framework to decide what was “good” or “bad” behaviors. natural born straussian?)Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to dhex says:

      This is a fair question, and one that’s not entirely easy to answer.

      The easy answer is that after the death of my parents and various health concerns inside my current family (none of which has panned out as the scary things they might have, by the way) I find the thought of there being something else appealing.  Plus, since my parents were so active in their church, I have had a pretty good glimpse of the comfort that belief gives others.  In terms of Christianity, there is something to the idea that there is a being that both judges me and loves and forgives me unconditionally that I wished I believed in.

      The trickier issue is that there’s probably something beyond al of this, something that I can’t articulate.  To quote myself in an earlier post,

      “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.”

      There is something about the faith I see in others that inspires me.  However, I am unable to recreate that spark I see in others.Report

      • dhex in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        that makes sense, though it also seems like quite an uphill climb. fake it until you make it works for some situations, though – it’s basically how people pass along religious beliefs to their children.Report

  12. Burt Likko says:

    1. Your rector impresses me. He said the thing that I would look for a person confident in his faith (or anything else, for that matter) to say, which is “You’ve got lots of options. Compare what we’re saying with what others have to offer.” If a car saleseman said that to me about his product, that would tend to impress me. When a person of faith says “See what other ways have to offer,” that implies, “When you do, you’ll see that what we’re offering is really good.”

    2. The passage from Samuel calls to mind an experience I had with a client a few years ago. We had some down time in a prolonged activity, and he discussed the tremendous peace and happiness he got from the Koran. I asked him why, and said that I’d read much of the Koran and not found any similar experience. “Ah, that was your mistake!” he said, “You read it. It’s meant to be sung, and in Arabic. Would you mind listening to the first few verses?” And he sang them, and although I did not understand the words, the rythym and rhyme and his pitch really were beautiful and peaceful. I could at least get a taste of what he said he’d experienced. I suspect that, being transcriptions of an oral tradition, much of the originally Hebrew portions of the Bible also use poetic devices as my client demonstrated had been done with the Koran, both to help memorization and to increase audience appeal.

    3. But unlike Samuel, who heard God’s call but did not recognize it for what it was, you are calling out to God and have not yet recognized Him responding.

    4. A call to community service is a good thing to do, whether you experience God in the process or not. Churches are fantastic repositories for pooling the efforts of people who want to give some of their time. Much of the Gospels focus on service and helping others, with no expectation of reward or recompense, so if you’re looking for a meaningful way to “fake it until you make it,” that seems like a very good idea as it goes to the heart of one of the calls to action that both Jesus and Paul made.

    5. My own journey left me with the conviction that experiencing God, if it happens at all, happens on a non-rational, emotional, experiential level. You’re going to have the experience, or not, and your clerical guides are trying to structure a series of activities that they have found elicit that experience for you. You’ve only begun the process, and even this atheist must say that in fairness to expect an immediate result may not be realistic. If it happens that you continue having similar experiences as you report here, then you’ve got to be the one to decide that you’ve gathered enough data to reasonably conclude that there’s no “there” there. This was my experience. YMMV. Maybe you’ll find that there is a “there” there but it wasn’t what you had thought or expected it would be, which is something I hear many others reporting.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Burt, all of what you say are echoes of my own feelings.  In fact, I am able to connect with these sentiments more than others’ here – which I suppose means that maybe not believing is who I am.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Bear in mind, I’m not trying to persuade you to do anything, I’m just reflecting on your experiences. This isn’t a tribal thing for me. If you find faith, and faith makes you happy, then I’m happy for you. We’re friends here, and I want good things and happiness for my friends.Report

        • Tod Kelly in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Oh, I didn’t take it that way.  Everything you have said has been said in the spirit of encouragement.  I’m just noticing that your words speak to me far more clearly than, say, Bob’s or Blaise’s – even though I recognize they eloquence and spirit with which they say it.

          It’s just a thing in my head saying this may not be coincidental.Report

    • Matt Huisman in reply to Burt Likko says:

      But unlike Samuel, who heard God’s call but did not recognize it for what it was, you are calling out to God and have not yet recognized Him responding.

      Samuel (1) heard a call (an unfamiliar voice) – (2) and ran to Eli (the familiar) – (3) who gave some good advice.  I’d encourage you to see your situation – all three elements – similarly.Report

  13. Dara says:

    Do you read Leah Libresco at Unequally Yoked?  She doesn’t openly admit a desire for faith, but she’s also an atheist who’s made sustained attempts at understanding faith from the inside. Might be fruitful reading–if only to illuminate the contrast between a “good-faith” quest (hers) and a quest based on genuine desire (yours).Report

  14. Kyle Cupp says:

    A fine beginning, Tod.  Here are my initial thoughts, for what they’re worth.

    First, I heartily recommend Karen Armstrong’s book A Case for God. It’s not an argument for God’s existence, but a historical exploration of apophatic faith from the ancient and medieval world, through the certainty-obsessed modern era, and into our postmodern times.  Our friend Alex Knapp recommended it to me a short while ago, and I’m glad he did, because it’s one of the best books on faith I’ve ever read.

    Second, you might want to look into the various traditions of biblical hermeneutics and the multiple senses of sacred scripture (e.g., literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical), both of which may give you an understanding of how faith communities of various types have historically approached the sacred text called the bible.    Doing so probably won’t answer your questions about interpreting the bible, but it may provide some beneficial historical contexts for your investigations.

    Third, for my part, I tend not to read the biblical texts as transcripts of divine dictation, but as writings of various sorts and by various authors (Genesis has, I think, four authors) that, in their own way, give voice to a sacred history, namely the history of humanity’s relationship with God.  I believe them to be divinely inspired, in that God speaks to us through the human authors, but again I do not take this to mean that God said “Write X” and the human authors wrote X.   And being a Catholic, I don’t hold the bible to be the only means by which God reveals.  Indeed, the scriptures are the product of multiple faith communities and individuals, and they should, in my view, be approached as such, and not as the end all, be all of divine revelation.

    Fourth, the elasticity of scripture is one practical reason for having a religious teaching authority as part of a faith community.  If the sacred writings can be construed to mean whatever one wants them to mean, and yet these writings have a true meaning that is vital (eternally!) for everyone to understand, then it helps, to say the least, for a community of faith to have an official interpreter, an authority that can settle disputes about interpretation when they arise.  To put in the most extreme terms, the inerrancy of scripture necessitates an infallible interpreter.  Of course, if scripture ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, then there’s really no need for any singular interpretive authority.  Anyhow, I just threw this out there because you talked about the elasticity of scripture.


    • As to your fourth point, would it be good for that faith community to also have an “opposition” or “dissenting tradition” to the official interpretation?  In the way I think of it, I would imagine that such an “opposition” would still be considered a full part of the faith community.

      Perhaps it creates and infinite regress problem:  how is the “faith community” defined so that an “opposition” to the official interpretation may still reside in it?  But I make the suggestion as part of an answer to what I see as a possible objection to your fourth point, that by accepting an authority for interpretation, one pre-commits oneself to what that “infallible” authority says, and one risks banishment for objecting.

      I hope I’m not putting words into your mouth.Report

      • Pierre,

        In the Catholic tradition at least, the official religious authorities don’t look kindly on dissent.  There’s a reason for this: if orthodoxy (as proclaimed by the authority) leads one on the path to eternal life, then dissent and heresy lead one to everlasting spiritual ruin.  So, for example, if the religious authority says that fornication is always spiritually harmful, it’s not going to be welcoming of oppositional viewpoints that say fornication is harmless or just dandy.  To do so would be akin to welcoming  someone saying that’s it’s okay to play in traffic.

        Of course, all of this rests on the religious authority and his proclaimed orthodoxy being right.  And how do we know this?  Well, because the authority tells us he’s right, perhaps with reference to statements made by other religious authorities.  Sure, the authority will tell us his authority to teach on faith comes from God, but none of us witnessed this imparting of authority.  It’s written about in the bible, they say, but what is the bible but another statement held authoritative by the same religious authority!

        Anyhow, I advocate among my fellow Catholics what I call the willingness to dissent, by which I mean that one should never accept the claims of a religious authority blindly, but should instead, to the extent that one is able, put authoritative proclamations to the test of rational thought and be willing to call the religious authority itself into question.  (As you might image, I’ve been called a heretic more than once).Report

        • J.L. Wall in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

          I had a professor — a wonderfully crazy Ukrainian historian — walk into class, grumbling about how he had accidentally worn his yarmulke into the shower that morning, and then introduce himself to us as an “observant heretic.”  Sometimes I think that would be a wonderful title to earn, except I doubt I’ll ever be observant enough and heretical enough to warrant it.Report

      • J.L. Wall in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        In theory, at least, there’s space for this in the Jewish exegetical tradition: the major 1st century BCE/CE schools of thought, those of Hillel and Shammai, are constantly depicted as at odds.  The conclusion the Talmud comes to is, roughly, “Both are the word of God, but Halakha follows from Hillel.”  But there have always been certain dissenting lines you can’t cross; just ask Spinoza.  (Or the early Christians?  Though this break was probably somewhat mutual.)  The problem, in practice, even with the recording of dissenting opinions, was the freezing of the “official” conversation with the various codificiations of the late Middle Ages/early modern period — such the contemporary dissent tends to look like the arguments between Chasids and Litvaks, or the Haredim and the Modern Orthodox — or between the Conservative/Reform/Reconstructionist movements and the Orthodox (and among each other).  Which is to say, less dissent within the tradition than arguments over how to relate to the non-Jewish/secular world.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

      Hey Kyle – Thanks for commenting.  Because of you’re writing I have been especially looking forward to hearing what you have to say.  To go down your points in order:

      1. I can’t believe I have never read this book.  I was pretty sure I had read everything by Armstrong, whom I love.  I will pick this up this week.

      2. The study of hermeneutics is actually something I enjoy, and had enjoyed for a long time.  THe entire history of where things came from in a religions life span haas always fascinated me.  For the moment I am trying to beg off these works, though we’ll see how long I last.  For me, reading Ehrman or the histories on Constantine firmly cement my strong doubt.  As I look at these kinds of study, scripture seems to me to be less that work of the divine and more the tools of man.  Does that make sense?

      3. This is something that I am working on.  But the closest I can get is “These are texts by different authors that have survived because in some way they speak through myths things that we recognize as truths.”  Obviously, this only gets me halfway where I need to go.

      4. Good points to ponder on the elasticity of scripture, and so I will.Report

      • Kyle Cupp in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I’ve not yet read Ehrman, although I’ve seen him a couple times on the Colbert Report discussing his books.

        What you say about scripture being more the works of man makes sense to me, but I would say that the writings are entirely the works of man and, if their divine authorship is to be believed, entirely the works of God.  Kind of like Jesus being said to be fully human and fully divine.  That the earliest manuscripts of the scriptural books are lost to us and that the copies we have are inconsistent doesn’t really bother me.  What we have today in the bible is the culmination of a process of  individual agendas, debate, interpretations and reinterpretations, additions, subtractions, and revisions–in other words, what happens in any faith community that produces a text or texts.

        And still happens today.  In the Catholic Church, we have what’s called the development of doctrine, which is the idea that while revelation has come to a completion, our understanding of it has not, and the process of understanding it, just like the process of revelation being put into words, involves individual agendas, debate, interpretations and reinterpretations, additions, subtractions, and revisions.

        All this brings me back to the recognition that the revelation, if it really happens, happens within a faith community.  The community has been around a lot longer than its sacred texts and authoritative pronouncements.  And so the writings of the community, whether scriptural or doctrinal or canonical, have to be approached as creations of the community, produced in nothing less than chaos, confusion, and mess–none of which can be swept under the rug.Report

  15. Michelle says:

    There is one major, major flaw in this idea, however: I am seeking God, in scripture and elsewhere.

    But I am not finding him.

    Perhaps instead of looking here there and everywhere for G-d, you might open yourself to the possibility of G-d finding you by putting yourself in a place and mindset to be found. You seem to be taking a very logical approach to finding your religion, so to speak, but it’s been my experience that faith is not a rational thing. Having never been in a position of non-belief, I don’t know how one goes about faking it until you make it. I’ll be interested in seeing if it’s possible.


    • Michelle in reply to Michelle says:

      Since I don’t feel like I explained myself sufficiently above, let me provide a little analogy. Looking  for G-d can be something like searching for something you lost. You can search high and low and it’s nowhere to be found. But, if you step back and get clear, you’ll often remember where you left it.

      At any rate, I commend you on your search. Even those of us who have faith often find ourselves in the position to renew and redefine it. Heaven knows, I do.Report

      • Teacher in reply to Michelle says:

        ~nods in agreement~

        Use it or lose it as they say….


      • Tod Kelly in reply to Michelle says:

        Michelle – This advice bumps up against what I often refer to as my “hardwired inability to believe.”  When you say that I might put myself “in a place and mindset to be found,” I have no idea what you mean.  I mean, I get the semantics of course, but I have no idea what it means in practice.

        This is not due to poor wording on your part, I think. More that it doesn’t translate inside my head the way that I know it does for others.Report

        • Michelle in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          I practice a lot of yoga, which has a spiritual component to it. Yoga, in part, is about stilling your mind, letting go of thoughts, and opening yourself to the universe. Not easy at all especially as I have a tendency to overthink things, to search out explanations, to try to make sense of it all. But, on those relatively few occasions when I can just let it all go, is when I’ve felt closest to G-d.

          I’ve had similar kinds of experiences in synagogue, when you get caught up in a prayer or a song and just for a moment experience being part of something larger than yourself. Something transcendent.

          I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading lately on Jewish mysticism, yoga, and Buddhist beliefs and practices. Letting go of the self and opening yourself up to the possibility of something greater is a common thread with a lot of this literature.Report

          • Will H. in reply to Michelle says:

            I used to be into yoga too. Before then, I had something of a background in martial arts; which is odd, because I ended up kick-boxing where I had started out with judo.
            Anyway, I want to draw the distinction (the way I see it) here:
            Yoga is more about postures, stillness; martial arts is more the movement that connects them. Both have a very strong breath component.
            But very similar, in my view.
            Again, odd, due to the origins of the disciplines.Report

  16. Renee says:

    Awesome post and comments.  Perhaps you will be getting more advice than you would like, but I would say:

    –  I second Kyle’s recommendation of The Case for God.

    –  Even if you can’t get to Abraham binding Isaac in your “Scripture”, you can sneak it in by reading Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard for one of your “Communions”.  To be honest, I’m not sure I fully understand it, but it radically changed my approach to Abraham and faith.

    – Finally, I find it helpful to view faith as a process.  It is not an end-state.  Don’t be frustrated that you are grappling with how to interpret scripture.  Grappling is, in fact, the point.  Regardless of where you end up, I pray that you enjoy and relish the process of traveling the road you are on.  It will be similar to others’ travels, but unique – so revel in that and lay your doubts and worries aside.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Renee says:

      Thanks, Renee.  I think it might be best that I avoid the binding of Isaac at least for now.  It’s one of those stories that I have a hard time not wrapping up all the things I hate about organized religion into.  I recognize, of course, that in doing so it is as much about what I am bringing to the table as what Genesis is.  But there you have it.

      I also like the idea of faith and belief being a journey.  However, Burt in his comments above is correct.  At some point I am going to need to have something to hang my hat on, or I will not see the point of having the journey.Report

  17. I am glad that you are being open about your search. I would like to encourage you with the following:
    Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good those who ask him!” Matthew 7:7-11 (NASB)

    This passage has been used and abused by those preaching a prosperity gospel but I think it directly applies to your search.

    I know you have a lot to read but if I may suggest some books that may be of some use.
    Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

    Blue Like Jazz and Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller


  18. This is a wonderful idea, and I look forward to following you on your exploration of faith. As a former Episcopalian, I agree that it’s a great church to start with, and even a great church to call home, as I did for 25 years.

    But one thing you said reminds me of my own journey out of the Episcopal Church into the Religious Society of Friends: “Maybe there is indeed something Holy and Divine about our reading of scripture. But maybe we err in thinking that the Holy and Divine comes from the scripture.”

    Exactly right, I think. Robert Barclay, the first Quaker theologian (a phrase not entirely an oxymoron), said something similar in his Apology (1678):

    “…because [the Scriptures] are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Yet because they give a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty: for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that Guide by which the saints are led into all Truth; therefore, according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader.” [my emph.]Report

    • Dave – Thanks for this quote.  It is somewhat comforting to know that a seemingly wild idea I had last week is something someone wrote about at length in the 17th century.  I confess I know little about Quaker… Quakerism I’m guessing? Other then in terms of their colonial presence before the United States was founded.  Is this a movement that continues more on the East Coast, or back in Scotland?  If there is a Quaker presence in Oregon I am unaware of it.

      Now I am suddenly curious about Quakers.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Load of ’em, it seems.  I admire the Society of Friends.   They’re true to the essential spirit of what Christ intended, by my lights.   You could do a lot worse than hang around with them.Report

      • Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Once you read up on the Quakers, you’ll probably find other sects/denominations with significant “Plain People” populations interesting, too: Mennonites, Amish, the Old German Baptist Bretheren, etc.

        I remember vividly the first time I saw Mennonites on campus, when I was an undergrad. I saw two adult women and three young girls, all dressed in blue dresses with white bonnets. And I also remember the frustration of being stuck behind Mennonites on the road.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

          Heh.   It’s 18 miles between Augusta and Eau Claire.   The speed limit is 55 and most everyone drives 60.   Except the Mennonites, who always do 50.   There’s loads of Mennonites around here, as well as Amish.   Sometimes the Amish kids will go Mennonite.   They lose their status in the Amish Gemeindschaft but it’s not a big leap, theologically.   The Mennonites run Weaver’s Store in Fall Creek and they’re always playing recorded Mennonite choral music in there.   Very annoying, too, because the tenors and sopranos are always just about a quarter tone flat.  But they have great produce and the biggest selection of candy I’ve ever seen.Report

  19. Will H. says:

    In ancient times, tea was not known outside China. Rumours of its existence had reached the wise and the unwise of other countries, and each tried to find out what it was in accordance with what he wanted or what he thought it should be.

    The King of Inja (‘here’) sent an embassy to China, and they were given tea by the Chinese Emperor. But, since they saw that the peasants drank it too, they concluded that it was not fit for their royal master: and, furthermore, that the Chinese Emperor was trying to deceive them, passing off some other substance for the celestial drink.

    The greatest philosopher of Anja (‘there’) collected all the information he could about tea, and concluded that it must be a substance which existed but rarely, and was of another order than anything then known. For was it not referred to as being a herb, a water, green, black, sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet?

    In the countries of Koshish and Bebinem, for centuries the people tested all the herbs they could find. Many were poisoned, all were disappointed. For nobody had brought the tea-plant to their lands, and thus they could not find it. They also drank all the liquids which they could find, but to no avail.

    In the territory of Mazhab (‘Sectarianism’) a small bag of tea was carried in procession before the people as they went on their religious observances. Nobody thought of tasting it: indeed, nobody knew how. All were convinced that the tea itself had a magical quality. A wise man said: ‘Pour upon it boiling water, ye ignorant ones!’ They hanged him and nailed him up, because to do this, according to their belief, would mean the destruction of their tea. This showed that he was an enemy of their religion.

    Before he died, he told his secret to a few, and they managed to obtain some tea and drink it secretly. When anyone said: ‘What are you doing?’ they answered: ‘It is but medicine which we take for a certain disease.’

    And so it was throughout the world. Tea had actually been seen growing by some, who did not recognize it. It had been given to others to drink, but they thought it the beverage of the common people. It had been in the possession of others, and they worshipped it. Outside China, only a few people actually drank it, and those covertly.

    Then came a man of knowledge, who said to the merchants of tea, and to others: ‘He who tastes, knows. He who tastes not, knows not. Instead of talking about the celestial beverage, say nothing, but offer it at your banquets. Those who like it will ask for more. Those who do not, will show that they are not fitted to be tea-drinkers. Close the shop of argument and mystery. Open the teahouse of experience.’

    The tea was brought from one stage to another along the Silk Road, and whenever a merchant carrying jade or gems or silk would pause to rest, he would make tea, and offer it to such people as were near him, whether they were aware of the repute of tea or not. This was the beginning of the Chaikhanas, the teahouses which were estaclished all the way from Peking to Bokhara and Samarkand. And those who tasted, knew.

    At first, mark well, it was only the great and pretended men of wisdom who sought the celestial drink and who also exclaimed: ‘But this is only dried leaves!’ or: ‘Why do you boil water, stranger, when all I want is the celestial drink?’, or yet again: ‘How do I know what this is? Prove it to me. Besides the colour of the liquid not golden, but ochre!’

    When the truth was known, and when the tea was brought for all who would taste, the roles were reversed, and the only people who said things like the great and intelligent had said were the absolute fools. And such is the case to this day.

    From the teachings of Master Hamadani (d. 1140) teacher of the Yasavi in Turkestan;
    as told by Idries Shah
    in Tales of the Dervishes:
    Teaching Stories of the Sufi Masters
    over the Past Thousand Years

  20. James Hanley says:

    There is one major, major flaw in this idea, however: I am seeking God, in scripture and elsewhere.

    But I am not finding him.

    Some would suggest you’re going about it the wrong way (I may or may not be among the some; just take me as a reporter, not a minister), and that instead of looking for belief in God before you accept him, you should just accept him–that is, act and behave as though God is real–and through that you will find him; his reality will come into focus.  From this perspective the rules and requirements are not “commands” for the purpose of satisfying God, but techniques through which God will reveal himself to you.Report

  21. Jonathan says:

    Hi Tod,

    I know I’m late to the party (I wish I could say it is because I was properly observing a day of rest, but, no, I was just away from the interwebs), but here are some random thoughts (perhaps poorly articulated) that occur as I read your post and follow up comments:

    The reason I’m choosing the Episcopal church as an entry point has everything to do with wanting to be able to share the experience of my family with them.  

    This seems quite important to me. My wife and I have issues with some aspects of our church, but part of the reason we haven’t left is because much of my family attends there (plus, no church is perfect) and that’s spiritually beneficial. It’s part of living in community with people (important with regards to family), as well as living your faith*and living your witness. I find that it is all the more important for me to live my faith now that I’m a father.

    That Samuel excerpt is a nice reading for a first class. God can still talk to you even if you guys haven’t been formally introduced.

    We look to these texts hoping to find God, and we do – not because God lives in the texts, or even that the texts are True. Maybe it is simply the act of searching for God that allows us to find him; scripture is simply a handy tool we use to seek him with.

    Yup. This is pretty much it for me (small quibble: I’d say that God does live in the texts, because he lives everywhere. We don’t know how he lives in the texts or that the texts are “True”, just that he’s there, somehow).  I know that many Christians have different views on how literal or True the bible is. My minister (Presbyterian, in case it matters) explained my thoughts pretty well. The bible isn’t the word of God. The bible is something through which we discern the word of God.

    Do you need a text that allows for so much elasticity that as times, situations and people change the text can change too, while simultaneously remaining the same?

    Such a griffon-like test is pretty fitting for a religion centred around a guy who was both God and man. Well said, Tod.

    Since we’re broken, we’re never going to fully understand God. That doesn’t mean we won’t get to know him**, learn about him, or work work towards understanding him. For many (most? all?) of us, it’s a process of discernment. We’re always growing in Christ; we’re always trying get closer to God. We’ll never get there, but we’ll get closer. It’s a worthwhile process.

    A mildly random thought that occurred during reading the post (but I can’t remember what spurred it or if it even really relates to anything): you’re role in this whole temporal experiment may not bring you into the Church. As you note, this endeavour may not result in you becoming a Person Of Faith; you may not develop a personal relationship with Christ or anything like that. But that does not mean that this process will be in vain (from a faith perspective). You may still be doing the work of God. You may still be getting yourself closer to God. You may still be a living testament to the love of God. These are all really cool things. Your mission may be just to inspire another down this path, even if you’re destined to never reach the end. Your mission might be to just spread a little more love around the world. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

    I’m a bit of a fan of Rob Bell. He’s a pastor (I think he is/was leading some Evangelical megachurch). I’m a fan of his Nooma videos. I’m not in complete agreement with his theology, but I’m down with what he’s attempting to do. He caught a bunch of flak for writing in his most recent book, Love Wins (which I haven’t read), that you don’t need Jesus to be saved. My understanding of his argument is that God can pretty much do whatever he wants, so he can totally save the non-believer should he be in the mood (shameless plug: I wrote about the controversy here). I think this jibes with your comment about God saving both types of families, and – hopefully – perhaps it can offer some solace if you find through this project that, for all your longing, you’re just not finding faith.

    (And, hopefully, that last paragraph doesn’t come off as pandering or proselytizing or anything like that.)

    Anyhoo, there might have been more in my head when I started to write this comment, but I’ve gotten kind of off track, so we’ll just leave things there. Thanks for being so open about your journey.

    *I know you are not necessarily a “person of faith” just yet, but I’ll probably keep writing in these threads as if you are because (a) much of this will be personal so I might be writing more about me than you; (b) it might help break down barriers to the faith community; and, (c) I’m too lazy to write these things out correctly. I hope you don’t mind.

    **I know, I know, “him” isn’t right, it should be “Him” or perhaps “Her” – damned lack of English gender-neutral pronouns – but I’m writing at my lunch break at work, so there won’t be a ton of proofreeading.Report

    • “He caught a bunch of flak for writing in his most recent book, Love Wins (which I haven’t read), that you don’t need Jesus to be saved.”

      Not true. While I have only read half the book to this point he doesn’t make that argument in the first half and I doubt he does so in the second half. I refer you to this interview with Bell:

      • Thanks, Chris. I didn’t see a direct refutation in that interveiw, but it certainly was implied (serves me right for listening to a newspaper report on it – though, perhaps, they were oversimplifying rather than completely misinformed). I hope to read the book eventually; it’ll be interesting to see how people may have twisted his words.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Jonathan says:

      Thanks, Jonathan.  If I had to encapsulate your entire comment into one thought, it would be that it feels like you are rolling our a big welcome mat for me.  I am touched.

      I think I might agree with you that the journey might end up being worth it no matter where I end up.  I don’t know that I would have said that two weeks ago.  Now, hover, I don’t necessarily feel any more belief than when I started, but I feel a sense of profound gratitude to Something that I started.  It is allowing me to share something very intimate with my family in a very different way than I ever have before, and that is no small thing.

      Also, I must say that everyone here who has jumped into the pool with me on this is inspiring.  Reading all of these comments from the past couple of days is just… well, it’s hard to put into words.  But maybe this is pretty close: If people hear don’t end up helping me believe in God, they are certainly strengthening my belief in people, and humanity.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Also – and I know this sounds completely potty – but because of your and Kyle’s exuberance on this subject, and the new sub blogs starting at the exact time I am starting this…  It just fits together so nicely for me.  I’m not sure I can explain why.Report

      • That would be a pretty good encapsulation. When I think of evangelism (note the lower-case ‘e’), the main thing I feel I can do is not be a barrier to others who are interested in joining the church (loosely or strictly defined). It can be tough to get someone in the door. It’s damned easy to push someone out.Report

  22. Tim Kowal says:

    In comparing your journey through the Scriptures to my own when I was much younger and less sophisticated, I thought it interesting how many more angles there are to seeing things.  For example, I had never thought about what you mentioned about structuring a religion with enough flexibility to endure through the centuries.  I don’t believe Jesus or Paul or the disciples had that in mind, but I get that you’d be looking at it that way, whereas someone like me who went to Christian and Catholic schools from the beginning just wouldn’t.

    Feels like there’s a lesson in that, too — though doubt you’re not looking to pile on.  Is it better to come to belief with eyes wide open about the world, about history, about the reality of world politics and religion?  Or is it better to build all that foundation upon belief in the first place?  Jesus chose his disciples, modest, uneducated fishermen, perhaps because they were simple like children.  And his greatest enemies were the educated whose whole worldviews stood to be shattered by his message.  Like Paul, who had to be confronted with a blinding vision before he ceased his persecution of Christ’s followers.

    Maybe this is to say, I wouldn’t know where to begin to explain how you might go about finding God in the Scriptures because, in my personal experience, I was a believer before I studied them.  I think this changes the lessons that are found there.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Tim Kowal says:

      Tim – I think what you say here is entirely spot on.  I know that one of the things my wife loves about services, for example, is that it gives her comfort.  This comfort, of course, comes in great part because she has practiced these rituals since childhood.  ANd so while I recognize the comfort she receives, I myself do not feel it.

      Which makes me think of something else, which is that my agnosticism might be a greater barrier than were I a hardcore atheist.  I note that some of the most fervent atheists become some of the most devout born-agains, and vise versa.  I suspect this has to do with the fact that for each, having such strong belief is a familiar state – there is simply a switch as to what they believe so passionately.Report

  23. Christopher Carr says:

    Sorry for the delayed response. I had a busy weekend.

    (1) Tod, I like my stories dark as well, which is why I think you especially should read Les Miserables. It’s sentimental and sappy, but never gets saccharine or self-righteous. Les Miserables is sentimentality and belief for jaded and cynical souls.

    (2) Cliffhangers were the only reason I actually watched Lost from beginning to end. What an absurd disappointment.

    (3) I’ve had Unitarianism recommended for me too. I think its blending of atheism, transcendentalism, and mysticism suits intuitive people.

    (4) I actually had a very long and frank conversation about religion with my parents and sister last night at Monday dinner that grew out of my sister claiming that some “psychics” really do have psychic powers and me just not being able to resist vitiating that claim. The truth is, I love contentious conversations about religion, even if the people I’m having those discussions with think I’m angry or bitter about it. (I’m not.)

    Eventually, during intermission, my dad decided to tell a funny, unrelated story about how when he asked my older daughter where milk comes from she said “a cow” but then when he asked my younger daughter where milk comes from she pointed to her bottle. Everyone thought that story was very very cute, and there was much mirth; but I basically used it as a metaphor for how my family and I differ in our perspectives on religion. We all eventually realized that we were talking past each other on most issues, and the main ones where there still appeared to be irreconcilable differences were:

    (1) I believe prayer is useless and even counterproductive for a moral life. Why put into simplistic and fallible human language what must necessarily be of an order of magnitude or greater in terms of complexity?

    (2) The idea that heaven is a reward for a virtuous life is like a grown-up version of getting candy from your parents for doing your chores. If you believe in heaven, who really is the one promising you a reward? And if you are only virtuous because you believe you’ll get something out of it, are you truly virtuous?

    I believe after we die, there is no reward if we have lived a virtuous life besides the satisfaction of having provided for our loved ones. What we call “the soul” is only the distributed impression that remains of our existence after we are gone, and we should cherish it. And there is nothing sad, frightening, or unfortunate about that.Report

  24. Tod Kelly says:

    Hey CC –

    “Sorry for the delayed response. I had a busy weekend.”

    No worries.  I have already made a conscious decision to treat these threads differently from my other stuff.  So while I might make a comment here and there throughout the day on my political/cultural stuff, I’m wanting to only respond to these when I have quiet, peaceful uninterrupted time.  I think that will work better for me to be able to absorb what people are trying to say to me.

    1. I loved Les Miserables, though I haven’t read it since college. Nor have I seen the ANdrew Lloyd Webber version.  Nor have I seen the movie with Neeson and Rush; since they are both favorites of mine I should give it a try soon.

    2. Really?  I think I may be the only human being that liked the end of Lost.

    3. I know almost nothing about Unitarianism, and am thinking I am not going to try to find out before I go.  I saw Cedar Rapids with some friends when it first came out last year, and new literally nothing about it when the movie started.  I think I liked it more because of this; I’m going to try the same thing with the Unitarians.

    4. This story is very profound, and remind me of Will H’s tea story above.  (Check it out if you haven’t read it yet; it’s worth a scroll up.)

    Regarding your second (1): You are the first person I have ever heard say this; I don’t think I’ve even considered this possibility before.

    Second (2): I do believe this, with all my heart.  Which I suppose is pretty natural for an unbeliever; but I am somewhat confident my belief in this will remain, even if my belief in God flowers.Report

    • Regarding Les Miserables, I have not seen the musical either. The movie is mediocre as any feature-length version must necessarily be, but I respect the attempt. Someday, someone should make an “I, Claudius“-esque version of Les Miserables.

      Regarding Lost, I fell pretty deep into the nerd-culture bait that the show trafficked in: “Oh! That was a reference to the Iliad!”, “I think it’s brilliant that the show does the whole in medias res thing.”, etc.

      Regarding Unitarianism and the virtuous life, our beloved Emerson was a Unitarian minister before pursuing independence as a man of letters. Here is a quote from him:

      “To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” Report

  25. Matt Huisman says:

    But I now also have Lesson B in my head, which is the lesson I feel pretty sure the original story teller wanted me to take away: Don’t blaspheme!

    Perhaps there’s more than one take away from a text?  In defense of the primacy of Lesson A, I would note that the book is named after Samuel, and that his calling is significant – not only to his story, but also in how we mere mortals can relate it to our own calling.  (He’s called by an unfamiliar voice; he turns to what he knows; he’s encouraged to approach directly.)

    Eli is the side-story.  I can appreciate your concern over about whether Eli was treated fairness/lack of mercy toward Eli – no doubt you’ll want to follow up more on that.  But there’s a little more going on than “Don’t blaspheme or you’ll be zapped”.

    Is this what you need to be a successful religion that can last for thousands of years? Do you need a text that allows for so much elasticity that as times, situations and people change the text can change too, while simultaneously remaining the same?

    The text is pointing you to Jesus – to relate directly with Him, not with article III, section 7 of a fully enumerated book of law.  No one wants that.  I’ve never looked at it this way before, but perhaps this elasticity you sense enhances the centrality of the direct relationship.  The Book was never meant to be the star.


  26. Kim says:


    To go out in the world with faith? I’d focus on doing good works. Show up to a hospital dressed as a clown — do a groucho marx impression. Something hands on and gritty.

    Doubt is the handmaiden of truth, and I wish you the best of luck.Report

    • Oscar Wilde in reply to Kim says:

      Clown costume? Certainly, a noble idea. Even better, show up at animal shelters and sanctuaries dressed up like St. Francis of Assisi.

      You’ll be loved by both people and animals. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years. Even incorporate it into my dog walking career.

      As far as searching for the “divine”, I’d let William Blake be your guru–

      To see a world in a grain of sand,
      And a heaven in a wild flower,
      Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
      And eternity in an hour.

      There is no search to be had nor any Divinity to be found. No burning bushes or apparitions to be seen. Your body and soul are teeming with all that is the seen and unseen cosmic fabric of Divinity. The Burning Bush is right between your eyes. As you peel away layer upon layer upon layer of your self, therein dwelleth the eternal kernel of existence and the source of the greatest ecstasy of all, God.

      If the sun and moon should doubt,
      They’d immediately go out.
      To be in a passion you good may do,
      But no good if a passion is in you.

      Every night and every morn
      Some to misery are born,
      Every morn and every night
      Some are born to sweet delight.

      Some are born to sweet delight,
      Some are born to endless night.

      We are led to believe a lie
      When we see not thro’ the eye,
      Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
      When the soul slept in beams of light.

      God appears, and God is light,
      To those poor souls who dwell in night;
      But does a human form display
      To those who dwell in realms of day.

      A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.Report

  27. The Reason says:

    Mr. Kelly,

    I would suggest that your quest is doomed from the start so long as you are searching for a God who “deserves” your worship. If the God of Abraham, Father of Jesus and one with the Holy Spirit does exist then it is irrelevant whether or not you believe he is deserving of your approval. If your search is for some kind of skewed perspective of a mythical figure molded by countless generations of splayed Christian sects that happens to fit what you had in mind then you won’t get there.

    Your quest, instead, should be for the truth. X Files wasn’t so far off in that “the truth is out there.” There certainly is one ultimate truth and life is very much about finding it.

    The problem with humanity is that we believe that we are god-like when in fact we are all fatally flawed. When you can honestly let go of your assumptions based on your belief that you know better than the creator only then might you truly open yourself to the most powerful knowledge of all.

    Food for thought…meditation.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to The Reason says:

      Reason, another great comment to a post of mine.  I’m not sure if you’re new to the site or just new to me noticing your comments here.  If the former, please stick around.

      This all seems like good advice; and though you are indeed quoting me about the “deserving” part, know that in these posts I am more thinking out loud, and that I might say more stream of conscience stuff.  But you are correct in what you say, and if I was really so worried about what God may or may not deserve I wouldn’t be on this journey.

      I, too, seek truth.Report

  28. Carolyn says:

    Stop and take a deep breath.  There are some good questions here that don’t have to be answered in a day, a confirmation program, or even a lifetime.  Are the teachings of this religion bringing you closer to God?  From the thinking and responses to these posts, I think it is pretty clear the answer is yes.  So, take the leap and consider the answering of the questions the rest of the journey.Report