I am at the Abbey of Gethsemeni as I write this: home of Thomas Merton, and one of the great mystical and ecumenical centers of the world. The Abbey has a plain, simple beauty about it, and is transfixed in a perpetual silence – a silence so deep it feels like a physical substance. I am taking this time to rest and reflect, to process the past year and prepare myself for the new, and to open myself up to the presence of God.
As I meditate and pray in this beautiful, quiet place, I come to confront all over again that I have questions: questions about who and what God is; questions, more specifically, about the Christian God, and questions about the nature of faith itself.
This is not new. For as long as I have known faith, I have known doubt, and after many years of struggle I have come to accept that my doubt and skepticism are inseperable from my experience of faith. I have come to accept that, paradoxically, if I kill the doubt, I kill my faith as well.
Some mornings, I wake up, read my Bible, and it makes perfect, brilliant sense. For reasons I cannot explain – I am never going to claim that faith is 100% rational – I believe. I see the world of faith as I see the distant peeks of Appalachian mountains on an unusually clear day: brilliant and undeniable. Other days, though, I pick up the exact same Bible, and think to myself, “this is bullshit.” I feel, on those days, more like an agnostic with Judeo Christian leanings.
While this used to cause me angst, it doesn’t anymore. I’ve grown accostumed to the dissonant chords my faith sometimes plays. As I sit here in the tranquil Trappist library, looking out over the quiet gardens of the Abbey, I thought I would share three of my current questions about God.
1. What if The Story Is Wrong?
This question is, perhaps, the most obvious, and the one that plagues the most people about Christian faith. How do we know the Church and the Gospels reflect the historical person of Christ? Who was he? And how, through all the thousands of layers of myth and conviction and fundamentalism and piety and mysticism, do I know whether the version of Christ that has been handed down to me is the correct one? Some nights I lay awake and wonder if he was really just a revolutionary rabble rouser with some extraordinary ideas.
Regardless of this question, though, I find myself gravitationally pulled to the story that I have been given: that God – the Ground of Being, the Creator of the cosmos and whatever lies beyond – embraced logical impossibility and became man, flesh and blood, wedding together into one the infinite and the finite. Out of a love through which the total sum of human love is but an imperfect metaphor, God gives his life for the world, allowing us to experience the same death and rebirth. I find that story divine, transformative, and I believe it, even when I have questions about its origins.
2. Is the Search for God a Form of Suffering?
A story I’ve been told about the Buddha haunts me: people would come to the Buddha asking, “is there a God.” The Buddha would not answer. Later, his disciples would ask, “why did you not answer them?” The Buddha would respond, “I teach the root of suffering and freedom from suffering. I have nothing to say to the existence of God.” To him, the anguish with which people asked the question was proof that the search for God was another form of suffering.
What if the pursuit of God, and all that comes with God – eternal life, heaven, hell, life after death, the future of the world and the soul – is missing the point? What if that is simply another source of suffering? What if the real point is that the world is a mystery, and that our one task is to lean into the mystery, moment by moment? What if our one and only sacrament is the present moment, the eternal now, where we choose to experience the fullness and mystery of existence? Questions about God tend to lead to enormous pain, but a radical openness to the world as we experience it, moment by moment, creates peace. What if the whole concept of God is missing the point?
3. Is Religion A Highly Developed Coping Mechanism?
Through history, we have externalized just about all of our experiences: depression, anxiety, and other mental illness as demons; inspiration as muses; drought and catastrophe as the wrath of the gods or god.
Sometimes, I find myself wondering if we have evolved an incredible capacity for story to explain the mystery of the cosmos because we are not well equipped to handle life without this mystification of the world. What if, without this self-generated propensity towards religion and category and story, our large, self-conscious brains would be crushed beneath the horrible vastness of an incomprehensible universe? What if grief and despair and self-consciousness all require faith and story and belief, because the agony would simply be too great without them?
Out of all the questions I have, this one is the most horrifying to me: it opens to me a Lovecraftian vista of human suffering in a universe inherently terrifying and inhospitable. It leaves me with an empty view of man, with no divine spark, no image of an eternal creator. It leaves me, in the words of the The Dhammapada, “A painted puppet, a poor toy / of jointed parts ready to collapse, / A diseased and suffering thing / With a head full of false imaginings.”
On days when depression strikes me, this world seems more and more likely, and out of retaliation to the pain it causes me I flee back to the warmth of belief.
In her book Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber describes ministering to someone in a hospital, who tells her, “I don’t believe in God.” Before she can stop herself, Nadia blurts out, “Damn, I wish I could pull that off.”
I know the feeling. Despite these questions, I am still a Christian. I still come back to belief. I still love Jesus. Perhaps it is cowardice, blindness, or courage, or all of the above. I’ve stopped trying to give an explanation for it – I’ve never liked the strident arrogance of apologetics anyway – and I just let it be what it is. If there is one thing my faith teaches, it is humility. What a terrifying, painful thing humility is, for it must be applied to my faith itself.
This dissonance of doubt and belief strikes me as the very heart of the religious experience. It is, to me, what makes it so beautiful, so worthwhile, so stunning. In this age of fundamentalism, humble faith infused with doubt might be the remedy. Faith without doubt is an impossible ideal; we are but human, and perfection will never be ours. When we hold ourselves to the impossible expectation of a doubtless faith, we create tortured and twisted lives, and it may be out of this torture that all the horror of fundamentalism arises.
Paradoxically, when we let ourselves doubt, faith becomes less desperate and more seamless, more full of grace, more compassionate. It becomes more like Christ himself.