I’ve written a lot about faith and doubt within Christianity over the past year or so. Doubt has been my constant, dark companion. I can understand now why Martin Luther (according to myth) hurled a bottle of ink at a devil that was taunting him. I’ve been hurling my own ink, trying to fend off the monster.
I could easily shrug off the doubt and turn to the warm light of my faith, stuffing all the questions back into the box, but I can’t do that. My understanding of integrity doesn’t let me shrug off genuine questions. I know that I need to value truth, and that truth requires certain proofs to be true. I know that humility, asking questions, and accepting my capacity to be wrong is integral to living a good, upright life.
These principles have led me into a dark spiritual discipline of asking hard questions, and I am being led into a radically new place, an alien wonderland. It’s a new kind of Christianity, one that I think might start to grow more and more as people confront science but are unwilling to let go of religion. Here’s where I’m at:
I can’t ignore science anymore.
I can’t ignore science anymore. I can’t ignore the fact that miracles would leave patterns on the physical world that could be tested and observed. This is not to say that there is no mystery in the world, or that people don’t have extraordinary, supernatural-like experiences. But I can’t deny anymore that there is next to no scientific evidence of spiritual existence, despite how much I deeply hope and yearn for that spirituality reality. I am a mystic at heart, and I think that a part of me will always believe in the supernatural, but I also can’t deny that the supernatural needs to be tested and observed to be validated by science.
The implications of this for my faith are huge. External truth claims such as the resurrection of the dead, the existence of the soul, and the reality Godly, angelic, and demonic realms require testing before they can be stated as certain. This means that my whole configuration of the cosmos is up for question. That is incredibly hard for me.
This doesn’t mean there is no supernatural, but that my only upright option is agnosticism. I am open to the reality of the supernatural (read: I am desperate for it to be true) but I can’t make a claim about the world around me that exists outside the systems of science. I can state hopes, dreams, and hypotheses, but I can’t make truth claims outside science.
I need you to know that this is traumatizing.
Dear atheists: much as I respect you, I need you to stop rejoicing over this transformation in my life. Stop singing victory chants over the carcass of my faith. I’ve lost my mother: the womb that taught me to live and breathe. I’ve struggled with this slow process for years, and it’s like watching my beloved grandmother die of cancer when I was in college.
And what does this mean for my life? For close to 3 decades, I have believed that I am immortal in Christ, but I am confronting for the first time that this might be the only life I have. There may be an afterlife – and I hold out hope that there is – but there is a growing likelihood that my existence as a conscious being will be cut off by an eternity.
That’s a huge, hard, scary paradigm shift to swallow. I’d even call it traumatic. So please, stop with the celebrating. What I (and so many other doubters) need is empathy and compassion.
I need to find goodness and redemption in my religious experience.
I’ve scoured the world of the New Atheists for answers, but I was just left feeling desolate. To the New Atheist Movement, religion is bad, bad, bad. The sooner you throw it away and never look back, the better. It’s bad for you, bad for society, bad for the world. Religion is nothing more than a parasitic infestation of the mind, corrupting our better angels of reason and enlightenment. (I accept that this is how I hear them, and that I may miss nuance. I’m open to discussion if my interpretation is wrong.)
I’ve spent close to 30 years of my life in religion. In order to move forward, in order to be whole and integrated and move into whatever is ahead of me, I need some sense of goodness from my religious experience to take with me into the new world, otherwise I am just left with futility. To believe that it was all bad, all corruption, is to be left in desolation. I need some intrinsic goodness and value that only the religious experience can offer. I believe that this is one way in which New Atheism is failing enormously: many of us can’t just cast off this huge chunk of our lives as a parasitic, ugly monster. We need to find goodness as well as the ugliness in it in order to move on.
I’m discovering interior religion that does not conflict with external truth claims.
In her TED talk, journalist and paranormal investigator Carrie Poppy differentiates between internal and external truth claims. She says,
I believe that there are two kinds of truth, and it’s taken me a while to get to this place, but I think this is right, so hear me out. I think that there is outer truth, and there is inner truth. So if you say to me, there was a man named Jesus and he once existed, that’s outer truth, right? And we can go, and we can look at the historic record, and we can determine whether that seems to be true. And I would argue, it does seem to be true. If you say “Jesus rose from the dead,” oohh, trickier. I would say that’s an outer truth claim. Because he physically rose or he didn’t – I’m not going to get into whether he rose or he didn’t – but I would say that’s an outer truth claim: it happened or it didn’t happen.
But if you say, “I don’t care if he rose from the dead. It’s symbolically important to me, and that metaphor is so meaningful, so purposeful to me, I’m not going to try to persuade you of it.” Now you’ve moved it from outer truth to inner truth, from science to art. And I think we have a tendency to not be clear about this, to try to move our inner truths to outer truths. Or, to not be fair about it to each other, and when people try to tell us their inner truths, to try to make them defend them by outer truth standards.
Hearing this talk put things together for me. I am still part of the Christian tradition, and Christianity is my formative worldview. I’ve realized, however, that my faith is on a journey from outer truth to inner truth.
In his book Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found it Again Through Science, Mike McHargue (AKA Science Mike) argues that even as we doubt, or find the claims of religion preposterous, we can still develop an experiential neural God network. This network is cultivated through prayer, meditation, and religious activity, and it can be a source of profound happiness, fulfillment, and meaning.
This is where I find my faith: I don’t know anymore whether Christ was literally raised from the dead, but the transcendent myth of Christ is something I meditate on daily, something that enriches my life and, I believe, makes me a better person.
After years of not attending church, I am now back in church.
Here is the most ironic part of all: after years of struggling to go to Church, I now find myself attending church every Sunday, and finding more fulfillment in it than I ever have. I find myself in the Episcopal tradition, full of beauty, ritual, and mysticism. I also pray the daily office from the Book of Common Prayer every morning and night.
Not only do these practices leave me feeling satiated and at peace, I also can’t help but feel that they are objectively good for my brain: I’m not as lonely as I used to be, my focus is better, and I go through my day feeling happier.
This still leaves a lot of unanswered questions and conflicting emotions.
I know that most other Christians would say that my hodgepodge faith is heretical, and it probably is. But honestly, I don’t care. I’m just happy to be finding an interior faith that gives me some sense of meaning in a deeply chaotic world.
But what about the external world, and my place in it? What about my consciousness, and my soul? What about the fate of humanity, and it’s place in the cosmos?
These are questions I don’t have answers to, where I once had certainty. That’s hard.
The only solution I can think of is to continue to have integrity, humility, and kindness. To keep asking questions, and to keep hoping that, just maybe, we tiny creatures with magnificent brains can figure out this universe and why we are here.
Do you have your own journey of doubt within a faith tradition? I’d love to hear your story, and how you have learned to survive the experience. Share your story with me in the comments below.