I’m taking a break from posting about issues relating to sexuality to answer a question I received just yesterday in an email from a young woman named Sally. Sally writes:
I don’t know how ‘appropriate’ it is to ask someone about why they believe in religion over an e-mail, especially to a stranger but I am touched by your honesty and openness as demonstrated by your posts, and am inclined to believe that you will answer my question… So here goes: Why are you..or how are you a Christian?
I’m not asking for you to share a personal moment of epiphany or anything like that but rather…I guess I want you to defend yourself, or defend all people in the world who are religious. That’s not because I think you belong in a position to defend yourself but because I am not religious, and out of my arrogance and ignorance, refuse to believe that anyone with ‘intelligence’ or ‘rationale’ would be religious. I only say that because religion is based on faith, not logic. So how is someone as logical as you, as deeply analytical and sharp as you..committed to a religion?
It’s a fair question, and I’ve been asked it before. I’ve answered it as best I can in various ways in other settings, but haven’t dealt with it on this blog. I’ve made allusions to my faith journey — my initial conversion in college, my brief flirtation with a vocation to the priesthood, the long period in the 1990s when I was estranged from my faith and my return to Christ following my near-death experience in 1998. Certainly, the tumult of my personal life over the past quarter century has made me into the ideal candidate for conversion; there is little doubt in my mind that had I not found a faith that could sustain me, I might not have survived.
But to a non-believer, that’s an explanation of belief as a coping strategy. It is not a “case for Christ”, or a case for anything other than the efficacy of religious feeling as a tool for folks in recovery. Even most atheists recognize that there may be psychological benefits to religion. But what of the beliefs themselves? Sally seems to be asking how I reconcile my progressive politics and my reason with a belief in Christ as my savior and the bible as the inspired (if not entirely inerrant) word of God.
I’ve dealt with how I reconcile a deep passion for Christ with a very liberal sexual ethic — see this series. But what about reconciling my faith with my belief in science? What about reconciling my commitment to pluralism and universalism on the one hand (the notion that there are multiple paths to enlightenment and everlasting joy) with my insistence that for me, that redemption has come solely through Christ? And how do I deal with so many of my fellow Christians whose views on a variety of matters are so radically different from my own?
Both of my parents are — or were — philosophers. Both are atheists. I often tease my mother that “I have no problem rejecting the principle of non-contradiction.” Like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, I have on occasion believed “six impossible things before breakfast.” As a child, I believed that if I kissed my teddy bear three times on the morning of a test, I would do well on that test. I always studied too — I never trusted a talisman to do the job for me. It was never “kiss the bear so you won’t have to study”; it was “kiss the bear, and that will help you to remember everything you studied.” I understood a basic theological principle even as a rather obsessive-compulsive child: success is a collaboration between the individual and the divine. (As a Christian, I see this notion reflected in 1 Corinthians 3:9.) So for me, the rational and the inexplicable, the that-which-can-be-proved and the that-which-can’t could always be reconciled. Perhaps it’s a Gemini thing. (Referring to astrology with any degree of seriousness is evidence of still another belief in something that responsible people consider to be just so much woo-woo.)
I studied scholastic philosophy in graduate school: I read Anselm and Duns Scotus, Ockham and Aquinas. I read their various proofs for the existence of God. I wasn’t moved. I’ve never been concerned with proving God exists. God for me is something I experience in a way that isn’t particularly rational — it’s sub-rational, or extra-rational. It’s more emotional and sensory than it is logical. I believe the stories about Jesus — including the bits about his conception and his resurrection — despite my wariness of the miraculous. I believe the stories because they spoke to me as no other stories have. What seems absurd on an intellectual level makes good sense far deeper in my core.
For me, reason is, to paraphrase Jeffers totally out of context, a clever servant and an insufferable master. It is a tool for functioning in the world; it is one way of comprehending and interpreting reality. Whether or not it is reasonable to believe isn’t the question; whether it is worth believing is. And I do know that the evidence for the good that my faith has wrought in my life is considerable. Count me in the “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” camp, if only because without a belief in an omnibenevolent force, the universe would seem so lonely to me that I would feel incapacitated by existential despair. Religion is a crutch. I happen to need a crutch, and haven’t an iota of shame about admitting that I do. And the “Christian crutch” happens to be the one which has worked best for me.
I take Jesus seriously when He says that he has sheep of other folds whom He must lead. I don’t think it is necessary to be a Christian, or even believe in God, to be either a good person or to achieve whatever reward may await us after death. I’ve known too many cruel Christians and kind atheists (and kind followers of other faiths) to believe for an instant that those of us who call Jesus “Lord” have any particular moral superiority. At the same time, I can’t walk every path — I must walk the one that has made a claim on my heart. And Jesus made a claim on mine, so His is the path I try — imperfectly — to walk.