Friday, April 20, 2007

Okay, so this is really, really long.

It's also not very pleasant, I'm afraid. But it's something I feel I need to talk about. If you don't feel like reading this one, I have a somewhat lighter one below.

It's come to my attention that I can't find God. It's been a long time since I really felt God was there... I always just kind of assumed He(/She/It) was there, somewhere, and now I'm not so sure why.

I never even asked myself these kinds of questions before I went to college. It was only after leaving home and the church where I couldn't dissent against the idea at all that I started calling all the dogmas of Christianity into question.

And one by one, I explained the contradictions, the hate and intolerance, the ignorance in the Bible away (As I write, that "The Bible is totally literally true" song is playing in my head). Then I came to ask myself why read the Bible at all? Ultimately, if you eliminate the stuff that's not "totally literally true", what do you have left that doesn't exist in every other religion? What, other than God, does it leave that isn't in just about every secular philosophy? Furthermore, what, other than my having always been raised to believe in Him(/Her/It), makes me look for God?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against religion in what it stands for or what it promises. I do want what it promises. I do want to believe in a God who cares about the universe and cares about me. I do want there to be more to life than just this earthly existence. I want the religion I was taught all my life to be true. But wanting it to be true doesn't make it true.

My big problem, as I think I mentioned in my very first post here, when I was talking about "God bestaat niet", is that I'm so easily talked into things, and to compensate for that, I get paranoid and suspicious of everybody. I've always been the kind of guy who reads C. S. Lewis (his "serious" books, not just the Chronicles of Narnia, which I never finished), and I haven't given up this habit (although I really haven't read much more from Lewis than Mere Christianity, that's more do to with lack of time for it than lack of interest). Only in the last couple months, however, have I also been the type to read Richard Dawkins, who up until then just repulsed me with his (admittedly near-)certainty that there was no God (again, because it made me feel personally attacked).

I'm surrounded with simple and reasonable explanations against religion, based on observable behavior of religious groups or people, and believable statements against theism in general, to which the only rebuttals, when they are even coherent, which is distressingly rare, are all either taken right out of the Bible or based entirely on the speaker's "feeling God's presence" or something similarly subjective and impossible to demonstrate in a way that means anything to me. I won't state categorically that these people don't feel God (I realize that I probably am addressing some of the people of whom I speak), because I can't prove that they don't; in fact, I hope they really do. The problem is, what they feel, what you feel, stays with them, with you. I can't feel it, and I can't let myself simply take their word for it.

If I've gained respect for intellectuals like Dawkins, there's still one thing I can't pardon in them, or at least in Dawkins himself: when I've heard him speak and someone would ask him about how to deal with the pain and stress of abandoning long-held religious beliefs, he seems utterly bewildered that this could go beyond a simple concern for how this will affect their relations with believing family and friends. He seems to take for granted that religious beliefs are some kind of crushing burden from which one would be glad to be liberated, rather than the order and structure of the world that is violently shaken and blown away. Yes, I am deeply concerned for how this can and will affect my relations with my parents, friends at church, my girlfriend (the only one of the aforementioned to whom I have mentioned this, and I would appreciate that it remain so for a while longer)... but the idea that my life is worth nothing more than its face value just terrifies me. I see nothing inspiring or liberating about the fact that whatever freak occurrence could kill me tomorrow would be the end.

I have never, and will never, have any respect for the gleeful God-bashers who scream "God bestaat niet" and call believers "delusional apes". I refer in the latter case to a certain Brett Keane, who manages run a fairly impressive network of free-hosted websites, including a YouTube channel. He's rude, crude, and barely appears functionally literate (he can't pronounces the word "on", and admittedly appeals to the pro-wrestling mentality in his debating style). The link I just provided is pretty characteristic of his style. Even so, when they do actually address an issue (even Brett Keane on occasion), they can make substantial arguments against it, and the response is never very strong.

Again, I'm trying to avoid just going with who wins a debate, but it seems that if there were reasons to believe in God that didn't come out of the Bible, they'd be pretty obvious.

The complexity of nature has been something I've used for a while to support my version of the idea of "intelligent design"... not the neocon antithesis to evolution, since I've long been able to accept that idea, just that the whole thing wasn't left to chance... but even if there is some supreme intellect that put the whole universe in motion (which Dawkins argues would have had to have evolved from something less complex anyway, but that's beside the point), what guarantees that It(/She/He) has any interest whatsoever in what happens to the world afterwards?

It's funny... I'm not used to the idea of not believing in God yet. Maybe just because I still want to believe in God, maybe because it's just such a deeply ingrained habit. I'm still always looking over my shoulder for God to be there, and when He(/She/It) isn't obviously (not "obviously isn't") there, I feel that letdown all over again.

I want to believe in God, but I want to believe for real. I don't want to make up a God to believe in, and I don't want to believe in a God that somebody told me about or that I read about in a book. I don't even really want to "believe", I want to know.


David Reese said...

Right. So... okay. This is interesting and important stuff. I want to react to a couple things in particular.

"Then I came to ask myself why read the Bible at all?"

So, I often have this thought myself. Which is kind of a problem, being in seminary, where we read the Bible kind of a lot. But I should say that as I study it more, I like it more. Mind you, as I study it more, I also hate it more. There's just something about the Bible. Maybe it's that so many of my fellow human being have wrestled with the text before me, maybe it's because for good or ill the Bible holds a lot of sway or at least interest in our society, and maybe there's something more numinous going on. So, I think that there might be some good reasons to keep reading/ wrestling with the Bible even if one doesn't believe in God. Heck, I'm pretty sure there are some parts of the Bible that don't believe in God. Ecclesiastes, anyone? Esther? Maybe Job? (That last one is my own personal anti-Job bias that I have developed of late... namely that my last reading of Job left me feeling like that God is kind of a jerk. However, I suspect that this is just a passing bias and I will probably eventually return to a place of finding value in reading Job. I certainly appreciate its value for other folks.)

You also wonder about what the Bible has to offer that other faiths don't, and that (other?) secular philosophies don't offer. I guess to an extent, my answer is: well, it's my tradition. So, in addition to learning from other traditions, I'm also required to (and gifted with the opportunity to) wrestle with this one. But that's not really what you're asking.

So let me ask you this: what about Jesus? I don't think that Jesus is necessarily saying new stuff; but I just find something about him altogether fascinating. What do you think about Jesus? These days, I don't know how I feel about God, all the time, or even most of the time. BUT, I've pretty much cast my lot with this Jesus character, and I'm in for his whole nonviolent social-revolution anti-imperial plan. AND I'm in for his whole "triumphing over death in the personal and the political plan", which I suppose is another way of saying that first part.

I don't know, Dan. Maybe we should take this to email, and we can if you want, but since you posted here I will too. This is an important conversation for contemporary Americans, I think.

So, I'll answer your question(s?) with another question: what do you think about Jesus? Can you follow him without believing in God? I know folks that do. Frankly, I'm more interested in that, and I truly believe that God cares more whether you follow Jesus than whether you believe in God. We could throw scripture around on either side of that last point, but I'm happy to bracket scripture with you. So: what do you think?

(dude- a long comment that was. Sorry, my ranting gets a little away from me sometimes.)

David Reese said...

PS- another thing I wanted to react to and forgot to do so:

"I never even asked myself these kinds of questions before I went to college. It was only after leaving home and the church where I couldn't dissent against the idea at all that I started calling all the dogmas of Christianity into question."

Dude: good thing you went to college.

Also: If you must read 'mere christianity' you should balance it out by 'a grief observed.' I feel like Lewis in 'Mere Christianity' is trying to do the "let's prove God exists by a point-by-point analysis." I find that unappetizing at best. "A Grief Observed" is where he reacts to the death of his wife; it's much more real, and therefore, for me, much more important. He's just writing and grappling with the nature of God and death, and he has to, because he's up late at night and doesn't have anything else to do. It's also an important book to read if you're ever in love.

Anyway... Oh, I'm also curious about the simple arguments against faith based on the behavior of people.

Huzzah for revived extended theological David/Daniel conversations!

Huzzah for you probably not trying to convince me of my hellboundness in these ones! :)

Dan said...

Oh yes, I certainly don't miss my fundamentalism, not by a long shot. I'd be more than happy to continue this one by e-mail.

Beth said...

Hi Dan, this is Beth...Thanks for posting your thoughts. Not an easy think to do to. I'll venture a comment here; I'll try not to make it as long as David's!!

First, I second David's recommendation to read A Grief Observed, and would add another book to that list called Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott.

Both of those books for me speak to the work of God and the work of God's people in the world; they're about where God is in life (real, everyday life, life during crisis, life during experiences of happiness and community, etc.), about where the authors have seen and felt God through experiences and the actions of other people.

In terms of "feeling God", for me that language has been problematic at times. A friend of mine calls really churchy language like that Christian-ese, which refers to language that people use all the time in church, but many times makes little sense to people outside of the church, and many times makes little sense to people inside the church, even though they use it! So, everyone says they feel God's presence...but what does that refer to? I have also tried to find that kind of unexplainable feeling that God is there, and what I've come up with I can never be sure is real, so....

For me, feeling God refers to seeing the way communities of people support and share with each other, hearing people's stories of surviving under and fighting oppression, helping and learning from people who are survivors of violence, trying to live in solidarity with other people, etc.

So, feeling God, for me, becomes inextricably related to the experiences and actions and stories of other people, and my own experiences and actions (which is where what David said about Jesus comes, what do we DO, now that Jesus and others have shown us a way of living nonviolently, in community, etc.) rather than something that each individual feels and can't share. For me, God is in the world, in experiences, in other people, and if I try to separate God into a feeling away from all that, I come up with nothing, or something that I feel like I've invented from trying so hard!

There it is...entonces, we'll see if I matched David in length, or not! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

Kathryn Ray said...

I very much appreciate your thoughts, Dan. Richard Dawkins and his ilk don't sit well with me because they exercise as much faith as any religious believer, only they don't admit it (and perhaps don't realize it). Science can explain how the world came into being, but it can't create morality and it can't tell us if there is any meaning in life beyond observable fact. Drawing a meaning of life from science and claiming it's absolute truth is as dodgy to me as drawing a meaning of life from the Bible and claiming that it's absolute truth.

Actually, I find that atheist-fundamentalists like Dawkins and religious fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell have a remarkably similar understanding of who/what God is: a supreme being like all of us are beings, only God's perfect and all-powerful. I prefer Paul Tillich's understanding of God as not a literal being "out there" somewhere, but the power of being, the foundation of life itself and the reason it exists, intimately involved in and extending beyond all life. Because of this, I can't accept the framework of prove/disprove that Dawkins uses to approach God: God is not an empirical reality, but the way I understand and relate to the world around me. Dawkins also has a way of relating to the world around him that is not based on science: science is his canon, and he draws on its concepts to find philosophical and religious meaning in life, which science was never meant to do.

Though I think if you're trying to find an experience of God, I would look to community before looking to ontological musings. That's why I like yours and Beth's responses.

Kathryn Ray said...

I'm sorry, I should introduce myself. I'm a friend of David, Rachael, Beth, and Megan from college, and I'm currently sick and at home with nothing else to do besides contemplate my existence and God.

Although I don't particularly like the strategies of atheist fundamentalists, I do think atheism may be one of the best things that ever happened to religion. The freedom to be kept up at night working through atheist critiques of religion and hashing out if and how I believe in God is one that I treasure, even though it can be painful.