Archives For The Skeptical Believer

Skeptical BelieverThis weekend we begin a sermon series entitled The Skeptical Believer: Making Peace with Your Inner Atheist. For the series, I solicited questions from you challenging belief in God- you can still send me your questions, by the way.

One of the questions as to me directly: ‘Have you ever doubted?’

The best response I can give to that is from this pericope of an old sermon:

The first time God’s presence disappeared from my life I’d been a Christian for seven years. I’d been a candidate in the United Methodist ordination process for a year and a half. I’d been a seminary student for two semesters, and I’d been a solo pastor for three months when a member of my tiny little congregation at Linvale United Methodist Church outside Princeton, New Jersey went home one Sunday after the 10:00 worship service, climbed downstairs to his basement, spread out the plastic tarp that was still dirty from a long ago family camping trip, unlocked the deer rifle with which he’d once taught his son to hunt in the Pine Barrens, sat down in a wrought iron lawn chair, and killed himself.

It had been seven years since I’d given my life to Christ. I had ten ‘Master of Divinity’ courses notched on my transcript. I’d been a minister for a dozen or so Sundays. And, suddenly, God just wasn’t there anymore.

His name was Glenn.

He came to church with his daughter-in-law. Sometimes her husband, his son, came with them. He was named Glenn too. They always sat in the very middle of the sanctuary near the center aisle.

At the end of every service I would stand outside on the steps of the church porch. He would make his way through the line and would shake my hand and say ‘Nice sermon…the organ sounds out of tune though’ and then he would walk off down the sidewalk and drive away in his red PT Cruiser.

Every Sunday it was like that until the Sunday he drove home and decided to take the key hidden in a kitchen coffee can and unlock his gun cabinet.

Later that afternoon, his daughter-in-law called me at my apartment. And when she told me what he had done, I couldn’t help myself. Without thinking how it might sound, I just asked her: ‘Why? Why would he do that?’ 

She didn’t have an answer.

Even if she’d had an answer, she was crying too hard to get the words out. And besides, an answer wasn’t really what I was asking for.

What I wanted was something more like absolution. Because listening to her sob in to the phone, I felt stabbed by guilt: guilt that I never took the time to get beyond: Nice sermon…the organ sounds out of tune.

I was just a ‘part-time’ pastor. I had books to read and papers to write and classes to attend and he never fit into my schedule.

She caught her breath long enough to ask me if I would come over to Glenn’s house.

I said yes.

And it wasn’t until I hung up the phone that I realized: I’d never even been to a funeral before.

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After a drive in my car that I quite honestly hoped would never end, I met them at Glenn’s house.

Neighbors standing in the street stared at me as I got out of the car and walked up to the house.

When Glenn’s daughter-in-law answered the door, I hugged her there on the front porch- not because I knew that was the right thing to do, not because I was overwhelmed with empathy or even because I’m a natural hugger- I was just terrified to say anything.

She led me down the hall to Glenn’s kitchen where we all sat down while she started to rummage through the refrigerator to make sandwiches no one would eat. Even if we couldn’t articulate it, we all sensed that eating would’ve violated something sacred.

Sitting in Glenn’s kitchen I noticed the appointments and To-Do’s written on a Philadelphia Phillies calendar next to the black rotary phone on the wall. A shopping list was scotch-taped on his fridge door next to faded 3×5 photos and postcards. He needed eggs and creamer.

I sat there with my hands on the pink formica tabletop acutely aware that my 10 ‘Master of Divinity’ courses had in no way prepared to do anything for them.

We sat in the quiet for a long time. It was only later in my ministry, after I’d been with several other grieving families, that I understood the silence in that kitchen. It was because all the usual cliches we wield against death were off limits that afternoon.

No one in that kitchen could fill the silence with: He’s in a better place. At least he didn’t suffer. God must’ve needed him in heaven. 

     There was none of that. There was no bright side to look at, no reason to find, no pious explanation to smooth out the tragedy.

Glenn’s son, Glenn, sat next to me playing with the coffee can I later learned had held the hidden key. He broke the silence by telling me he didn’t want any mention of his Dad’s suicide at the funeral service. ‘Not one word’ he told me and I realized it was something of a threat.

What he said he wanted was what families always say they want: a celebration of his life. Back then I wasn’t brave enough to ignore what they wanted.

The funeral came a few days later.

They held it at the funeral home. Glenn’s family said it was because the steep sanctuary steps would’ve been too difficult for the pallbearers, but even then I knew better.

Everyone gathered there that Wednesday morning knew the details of what had happened, yet we were all willing accomplices in keeping it a secret.

In my homily I said exactly what the family wanted me to say. You would’ve thought Glenn had died peacefully in his sleep after a long and happy life.

I preached about God’s mercy, about how God-in-Christ shares our grief.

Mostly I preached about God’s presence in our lives, in the here and now, to bring us comfort.

At that point, I’d been a Christian for about 1/3 of my life. At that point I’d earned 30 credit hours in seminary. At that point I was about 8 minutes into my first ever funeral sermon when I realized that what I was saying about God’s presence wasn’t true.

I don’t mean it was false in a general, universal way. I don’t mean it was false for anyone in that funeral parlor. It’s just that as I was speaking the words, I realized they were no longer true for me.

In the weeks that followed it got worse.

My prayers felt like they’d bounced off the ceiling and come back to me unheard.

Where before my faith had felt as real inside me as water or blood, now it felt dried up. Sunday mornings my preaching felt hallow and rang false.

I don’t know how it happened exactly or why, but it felt like God’s presence had been amputated from me. I could remember what it had felt like to have it as a part of me, and now all I could feel was its not-there-ness.

I didn’t not believe in God anymore. God just wasn’t present to me anymore. It was like God had gotten up and left.

After a while I realized that could be problem for a pastor.

No offense but I could never put up with church people for a living if God wasn’t real to me and present in my life.

Nothing changed for a couple of months.

I didn’t know what to do. I thought about dropping out of seminary. I applied to teach school in New York City.

I made the mistake of sharing my dilemma with my ordination mentor here in Virginia; he very helpfully suggested that maybe I shouldn’t be a minister after all.

I confided to a theology professor who didn’t seem to understand and who, without a trace of irony, suggested that if I didn’t have God in my life I could at least teach at a seminary.

What they didn’t understand was that I wasn’t worried about my career. I just wanted God back.

 

Skeptical BelieverDavid Bentley Hart likes to quip:

‘An atheist is someone who has failed to notice something very obvious.

Or rather, failed to notice a great many obvious things.’

He also amusingly condescends that pure atheism, which asserts the impossibility anything beyond the material, natural world, is an absurdity such that it can be likened to ‘magical thinking.’

When it comes to arguments for and against God, Hart knows his stuff; that is, he knows the ancient Christian and classical tradition. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Hart, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, can muster a balls-to-the-wall indictment of God that no unbeliever could possibly approximate.

In his little pastoral book, The Doors of the Sea, itself a continuation to a Wall Street Journal article he wrote, David Hart recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? 

Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Or “It’s okay, God is mourning too” which is only a more sensitive-sounding but equally deficient explanation precisely because it still attempts an explanation.

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy to talk like that to the father (though my experience tells me Hart would be surprised how many people in fact would say something like it).

This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

Silence is the best thing to (not) say when there’s nothing to say.

Hart goes on to reflect on The Brothers Karamazov. In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God.

Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry. Better, it goes without saying, than anything the ‘New Atheists’ delude themselves into thinking is a compelling argument.

Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.

What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering.

He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.

Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering.

Ivan admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun.

Ivan even believes that in the fullness of time we will be able to see for ourselves why everything on Earth unfolded as it did, that, as Joseph in Genesis confesses, God can use even evil for his good ends.

Ivan doesn’t disbelieve.

Ivan just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

So, Ivan doesn’t so much doubt God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan.

He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes. It is, ironically, a thoroughly Christian rejection in the sense it’s a rejection born of very Christ-centered sensibilities.

What Dostoyevsky understood is that most compelling arguments against God are not philosophical or scientific ones. They’re moral ones.

Atheism, as popularly understood, is an absurdity. I’m with Hart on that. Properly understood, ‘God’ is the most obvious thing of all.

So arguments against God’s existence ultimately crash against the rocks of logic.

But arguments against God’s goodness? That’s another matter.

When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan.

I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.

Of course, Ivan’s argument doesn’t disprove God. It only rejects the god ‘who has a plan for everything.’ I also reject that god.

Skeptical BelieverLast week I solicited responses from you, asking you to give me your best case for NOT believing in God.

One of the responses I received was brief but cutting:

“Rather than insisting (with no evidence to support it) that God exists, doesn’t it seem much more reasonable that humans simply needed a ‘god’ to give their lives meaning and morality?

And doesn’t it make sense that as society increasingly needs ‘god’ less for meaning and morality that people would believe in him less?

And isn’t that exactly what we see happening in modern, scientific cultures?”

Whether the writer here did so purposefully I don’t know, but he’s channeling Sigmund Freud’s primary critique of religion.

Say what you will about Freud’s bona fides as a psychoanalyst, his analysis of both religion and literature remains incisive and compelling.

I remember the first time I read Freud’s The Future of an Illusion and Moses and Monotheism, both as a second year at UVA. I’d only been a Christian for a few years, and after read those two books I was pissed off for weeks.

On the one hand, Freud’s critiques of religion were wild, sweeping speculations, made with very little ‘hard’ evidence to support them and demanding of readers precisely the very thing he’d set out to dismiss: faith.

On the other hand, I’d been a Christian long enough- and I’d been an atheist long enough before that- to know that Freud’s arguments were not without merit.

Indeed they were true when considered against a great many strains of Christianity and religion in general.

Religion, Freud argued, is, at root, an expression of our underlying psychological neuroses. In the two books I mentioned and in others, Freud asserts that religion is an attempt to control the Oedipal complex, it’s a means of giving structure (meaning moral and ethical boundaries) to social groups, it’s a form of wish fulfillment, it’s an infantile delusion born out of our need for a Father figure, and it’s an attempt to control the outside world.

Dismiss Freud at your peril.

Just think, many fundamentalists, Christian and Muslim, make Freud’s very argument but in reverse: Without God, there’s no moral foundation to the world; there’s no rubric for what constitutes the ‘good.’ Religion is just an artifice then for a certain vision of traditional society.

It’s also true for many Christians ‘Christianity’ is but another label, a way to distinguish us from other tribes. It’s but a baptized form of nationalism.

And we all know that for many religion IS an escape or cover to which people turn to cope with psychological wounds- or, even worse, religion becomes the way people refuse to cope, or even confront, the wounds and painful realities in their life.

And then there’s Freud’s ‘wish fulfillment’ critique. While critiques of certain manifestations of religion are not indictments of religion in sum nor does such a critique even logically approach the existence of a transcendent God, still…there’s enough substance to the argument to give believers pause.

Fact is, Freud is right. A good deal of religion, at least the Christian sphere I know, is actually just human projection and wish fulfillment, reducing the great ‘I AM’ to a god ‘up there’ who answers my prayers, blesses me, and grants my wishes.

Or doesn’t…at which point I get angry and no longer ‘believe’ in him.

The great ‘I Am’ reduced to a magic genie in a celestial lamp.

People often ask me why I have such a problem Joel Osteen.

Honestly, my problems are too many to number, but really they all boil down to this:

Joel Osteen reminds me that Freud was, if not right, not entirely wrong. images