Tuesday, May 06, 2008


A while ago Jay's Wife posted this:

The part of this that bugs me the most is that my husband can make some very convincing arguments for why he does not believe in God. He is an intelligent person and his reasoning makes sense to me. I’m an educated person as well, and I find myself thinking of how his views might be right. This goes against what I have been taught and the faith that I have in the Bible and my belief in God. Maybe humans just need someone or something to believe in.

If there are any religious people or pastors reading this, I could use your advice. But know this, I’m not a fundamentalist, I won’t listen to holier-than-thou crap, and I don’t like judgmental comments.

Advice? My own opinion is that free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it, but all I can say is: Lady, you asked for it...

There is a big difference between churchgoing and faith. There is an even bigger difference between what churchgoers profess and what reality brings home to them once they take their blinkers off. I was never a churchgoer by nature, but did my best as the spouse of a public office [wear beige, smile a lot] to do the right thing, and after some twenty years of going to church, I came to love my congregation.

We all live by faith, if only a rudimentary, vestigial faith in "facts" like the connection between an electric light set into the ceiling and the switch set into the wall. Sure, it has always worked before, but do we know that the one will actually impact the other? Not in a room we've never been in before, we don't. On some level, we all operate on faith and hope; in almost every case, we are only made human because someone else loves us.

There is no particular need for the faith we live by and the faith we profess to overlap at all. Most of us are very good at compartmentalizing our lives in such a way that we can ignore the uncomfortable truths that God places before us to make us see truth. ["I never had sex with that woman."] Some people, even some churchgoing people, really worship money [what the Bible calls "Mammon"] or social status; some are willing to make human sacrifices to their real gods, no matter what they profess on Sunday.

Faith impacts us all in different ways. A former atheist recently submitted the story of her discovery of faith to NPR [click here]. Some people are brought up Christian [or Buddhist, or Jewish, or "nothing"] and encounter truth in such a way that they deviate from the path they were expecting, and expected, to follow. You can find many such stories in the lives of the saints, especially interesting in the cases where the saint has not been encased in a hard sugar-frosting shell, but there are equally compelling stories of people who saw themselves set before a clear choice between their under- standing of God and their own conviction or experience of truth.

Who would not choose truth?

Well, many of us would not...

If we truly believe what Jesus said, that he is the way, the truth, and the life, it is not our understanding of that should dictate our behavior, but our awe of it. If we cannot even agree on the meaning of that saying, how can we ever hope to understand the intent behind it? We can't. If God is truth, who are we to set bounds upon the vastness of his meaning and intent?

Can any sensible person really think God really cares where we spend Sunday morning? God calls us to live in truth, and if that means anything, it means that we must live out truth as we see it, and may well mean living out truth in a way that others label "sin." So be it. Jesus was notoriously fond of sinners, and did not have a lot of affection for the "church people" of his day, the Pharisees. They had it all figured out, and so do most of us.

Read Matthew 25: 31-46, and tell me where there is a single reference to anybody going to church, or synagogue, or anywhere else. The criterion is simple; the goats are goats, and the sheep are sheep based on their answer to a very simple question: where were you? When Paul says that we have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, he is deadly serious. We cannot know what is best; we cannot see what will result from our actions -- we can only act in hope that our faith has led us to do the right thing. No one really operates on Spinoza's assumption that we can only accept what we personally know to be true; we all depend on the good will, the trustworthiness of others, the benefit of past experience that our elders hand on to us.

If we really waited until we knew what was true before we attempted to believe, or do anything else, we would all die without making the leap, in fact, without living. Who can marry except as an act of faith? [Yes, I know there is a world of pre-nup agreements out there, but is that marriage?] Who can choose to have a child except as an act of faith?

Gay men have until recently received powerful, general, uniform information on just how awful they were: not just from the way the Bible was used, but from the way secular law was enforced and interpreted. As a result, many of them stumble on the contradiction between what they are told and what they know to be true long before some other people. (Indeed, some people spend their lives avoiding the possibility that a contradiction might be staring them in the face.) The search for truth is just as likely, far more likely, to lead gay men away from all that has judged and outlawed them, than it is to lead them to seek meaning in confrontation between the "fact" of who they are and the demands of what is easily, and accurately, seen as a corrupt human institution.

Many gay men who try to reconcile the truth they know with Christianity seem to start with the assumption that one or the other of them has to change. In my view, they overlook the vast difference between the wine and the bottle, between God and his priests, even, my beloved Protestants, his ministers. The number who try to reconcile what they know with their hearts and what they know in their flesh in a way that even begins to admit the church into the picture is such a laughably small minority that it is astounding that this tiny band of people has had the "mainline denominations" in knots for so long. For most, it is an "either-or" proposition. And Christianity seldom wins.

For a long time they [we] were persecuted, at times burned at the stake; even today, there are places where coming out is an act of heroism or stupidity. That was certainly true in the United States for the first half of my life. Lawrence v. Texas happened only five years ago, and the time since then has indeed passed "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye." It is going to take some time for the good people of Texas, and plenty of other places, to actually see that they do indeed need to remove the beam from their own eyes before they settle down to remove the mote from ours. They have quoted it ad infinitum, and now they are going to have to live it. Maybe someday they will understand that we too know what it is like to have the state enforce something you know to be untrue...

The existence of God cannot be proven, only experienced. That has not stopped people from undertaking the effort. And even if we could make the "superhuman" leap to accomplish the impossible task, how do we know that God would not disprove our proof and its assumptions by his next free act of will? God is utterly unknowable, and we need to hold fast not to what we have been told truth signifies, but what we have been told the truth is. God cared enough for us to sacrifice his only-begotten son. Not, mind you, that God sacrificed him -- we did. Jesus knew what was coming, and we gave it to him, in spades. As we would again today, the churchgoers first of all...

The existence of God can only be experienced, or taken on faith. And if you have come to the end of your rope in the faith department, the existence of God may be the first thing to go...

God is infinitely bigger than any church, is infinitely bigger than any church we could form, even if we could get everyone on earth to agree what "church" is and what it should look like. If even his peace, which we experience, "passeth all understanding," how are we to hope to comprehend HIM himself? We can't. And rather than accept a view of God as somehow determined and limited [just think of the various churches as various settings of Procrustes' bed, with various unpalatable bits of truth being cut off to fit the convictions of the owners], what rational person would not give up on God rather than accept a small and twisted God?

The Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote that truth is polyphonous: on earth, no one can hope to approach divine truth alone -- we can only do it together, all genders and all the generations together. St. Augustine spoke of human life as one great song, with each life a single note; we are called to harmony, which by very definition is not unison.

Let there be life!

I apologize for the length of all this; I did warn you that Jesus was going to come again, here at least. I have posted rather a lot, maybe even too much, on this topic, but I will just hit a highlight or two:

March 31, 2006, with Sean's words in yellow:

Sure, I have had warm fuzzy feelings like God loves me. But I'm not so sure that wasn't just indigestion. No way to know, really.

Wasn’t it Scrooge who told the ghost that he might be no more than an undigested bit of beef or mustard? I am not talking about warm, fuzzy feelings here [as you know, I got those when you cited me] but about the annihilating power and presence of God. Helmuth von Moltke, one of the leaders of the German resistance to Hitler, wrote to his wife from prison on the day he received his death sentence:

If I were to be reprieved now --- which under God is no more likely or unlikely than a week ago --- I must say that I should have to find my way all over again, so tremendous was the demonstration of God's presence and omnipotence. He can demonstrate them to us, and quite unmistakably, when he does precisely what doesn't suit us. Anything else is drivel...

You wrote, at first quoting me [and I can still hardly believe it]:

"...maybe he was telling you that you were perfectly OK as you were." My question is, then, "Why didn't I hear that?" Why, if you loved someone enough to actually DIE for them, wouldn't you figure out some way to communicate that love to them so they could understand and experience it? If God was telling me something (anything), why didn't I get it? I was SEEKING Him! I was asking! I was pleading for SOMETHING! What was wrong with me that I just couldn't receive His signals? I have always believed that in communication, it is the responsibility of the person initiation the communication to make sure the message gets across. I would think that an Omnipotent, loving God could figure out some way to make Himself Real To Me.

Now let me just repeat one piece of that: “I have always believed that in communication, it is the responsibility of the person initiating the communication to make sure the message gets across.” Are you hearing the same thing I am, or is this the game of Telephone, where what you say and what I repeat bear less and less resemblance to each other as time goes by? If you were seeking and pleading so hard, were you making so much noise that you couldn’t listen? I know I do that A LOT. Let me be perfectly clear what I am NOT saying: I am not saying that I have the answers and you don’t — that one would be ridiculous to more than one of us; I am not saying that what happened is your fault; and I am not saying that anyone else but you could begin to explain what happened. I only want to ask a question, and it starts: Why are you here, Sean?

But the word of the LORD came to him, "Why are you here, Elijah?" He answered: "I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life." Then the LORD said, "Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by." A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD--but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake--but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire--but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

A voice said to him, "Elijah, why are you here?"

Isn’t it possible, and it’s only a question, that in waiting for the earthquake, the fire, and the wind, you missed the “tiny, whispering sound” in which the LORD said what he had to say to you? To save you the trouble, I will answer my own question. I believe that you did hear what some other translations call the “still, small voice”. And I believe that this is what it said:

“Leave the church; there is nothing but more suffering here for you any more. Find out who you are and find your strength. Leave the land of your fathers and go to a land I will show you. You may spend forty years in the wilderness but I will bring you into a land of milk and honey.”

Isn't it possible that if you heard such a voice, that you might have failed to recognize it as the LORD’s?

I do not know you well — I should probably say I do not know you at all — but I think that in leaving the church, in leaving someone else’s certainties, you have taken up the cross. It is not my cross, but I can clearly see that the price you pay for taking it up of your own free will is the same that I pay for taking up mine.
Well, that is probably more than you ever want to hear from me. But if this offends you, give me a chance to apologize. I don’t have so many friends that I can afford to lose any. And stay in touch...

Bigg, the Once-So-Troubled Tough Guy from East Overshoe, once asked me to what I attributed my religious faith, and I suspect he got more of an answer than he wanted: you can find it here.

That's more than enough. I'll stop there.
Hang in there, all.

No comments:

Post a Comment