The “Why I am a Christian” post

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.

21 thoughts on “The “Why I am a Christian” post

  1. 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.” -Hugo

    That is interesting. I use the exact opposite explanation when I deal with atheists.

    Sometimes they will talk about belief in God as illogical. I simply resort to a variation of the principle of non-contradiction “A or not-A” is always true. If A is that “God exists” (whatever is meant by “God”) and not-A is “God does not exist,” I know with absolute certainty that that statement is true. Most people (except the extremists on either side) can agree that one or the other is true. Logically, it has to be the case.

    Then, the problem simply becomes one of knowledge. Believing Kant and the ancient skeptics, neither side is provable. But, one of them HAS to be true. The existence of God just makes more sense. It is just a matter of picking between two unknowable propositions. So, the belief itself is not irrational, it is just coming to the belief that is, in essence “extra-rational.”

    Then, again with Kant, Christianity seems the most plausible and most consistent with humans as moral agents.

    Q.E.D.

    -Jut

  2. A beautiful expression of some difficult, honest thoughts, Hugo; my thanks for putting them up here.

    You have just given what we Mormons refer to as a “testimony”–that is, you have testified of that which you believe, and how it is that you believe. To continue with the translation, Mormons would say that what you have–what you were born with really–is a gift of faith, a burning in your heart when you hear or read certain stories, because you can see how they apply to and can make sense out of the world you see around you. You are able to bear witness to the truth of these stories, because their explanatory insight and comforting wisdom are apparent all around you. You are a believer, my friend.

    Now obviously, trying to force your words into the Mormon model does a little violence to them; so would trying to force them into any denominational model, I suppose. But those models can also buttress and focus our expressions. So I guess I would love to hear more: more about your belief (or lack of such) in the Christian models (Memmonite, etc.) which you have experienced before, and those (if any) that you regularly experience today.

    I’ve never written a “Why I am a Christian” (or Mormon, etc.) post on my blog. Perhaps I ought to one of these days. For now, again, my thanks. Hearing testimonies–of this or any sort, really–does my believing heart good.

  3. “The existence of God just makes more sense.”

    Jut, I’ve got to interrogate that assertion a bit. I’m an agnostic who respects the role that religion plays in others’ lives – if people want to believe in things, and those things don’t impinge on my own ability to live life the way I choose, then fantastic. That said, however, I am at a loss as to why – given your “A or not-A” binary set-up – the existence of something unprovable makes more sense than the non-existence of something unprovable.

    Seems to me there are a lot of viable reasons for a person to believe in God, but it making more “sense” than the alternative never struck me as one of them.

  4. Lovely post. I had the thought the other day that faith and reason are like an old married couple living inside of me. They have some irreconcilable differences of opinion and squabble occasionally, but they are better together than they are without each other and they coexist quite peacefully within me most of the time.

  5. In my experience, there is very little correlation between being logical/rational and being religious (or being non-religious). I’ve met a ton of logical religious folks, illogical religious folks, logical non-religious folks, and illogical non-religious folks.

    In fact, plenty of the people I’ve met who are anti-religion seem to take a lot of conventional wisdom on faith. Few and far between are the skeptics who demand absolute proof and mathematically impeccable logic before believing whatever they believe.

    In terms of the liberal/conservative cognitive dissonance, even though in America the most vocal Christians appear to be politically and sexually conservative, the life of Jesus has liberal written all over it. Right now we have a conservative Christian politician saying birth defects are God’s punishment for women having abortions, but when the disciples asked Jesus what a blind man’s parents did wrong for him to be blind, Jesus said they did nothing wrong.

    It’s not really my place to judge conservative Christians as not genuine in their faith, but I would go so far as to say most of them are extremely theologically misguided.

  6. Have you ever written about your near-death experience, Hugo? I would love to hear about it.

    Thanks to Sally for posing this question and many thanks to you for replying. It’s a question I have wanted to ask you myself, and your answer was inspiring and left me wanting to hear more.

  7. I guess the only other question I have after reading the post is what denomination you belong to and why. And I don’t believe that faith is a bad thing. If Christians really were more like Christ the world would be a far easier place to live in. As near as I can tell that’s what you’re trying to do and that is a noble goal.

  8. This reminds me of a wonderful line from ‘All In The Family'(and yes Hugo, I always trace everything back to 1970’s TV thank you very much). Archie Bunker was trying to explain to his son in law Meathead, an athiest, why he had faith in G-d. His explanation was, ‘Faith is about believing in something that no one in his right mind would believe’.

  9. Post Script: Your thoughts on faith remind me of Paul Tillich whose wisdom had a profound and lasting influence on my thinking. His view that “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith” had a powerful intuitive pull for me and made sense of my constant grappling with the “ultimate concern” which he speaks so eloquently of. However, since Patrick’s death, which was preceded by my ten years of Zen study and practice, my skepticism has thwarted any attempt at opening to a sense of the Divine, so I am personally very interested in your experience and perspective.

  10. kate.d and Erik,

    As far as the making “God” making more “sense” than “not-God,” I did not want to divert the conversation away from Hugo’s larger point. “Sense” was somewhat of a short-hand.

    But, it would probably have to do with the Big Bang. That is the point where the physical and metaphysical most closely meet. Science cannot penetrate beyond the Big Bang (and often says words to the effect that there is nothing “there,” as there is no time or space “there”). It is almost as if the universe did not exist before the Big Bang.

    But science tells us two things: 1) the amount of energy/matter in the universe is constant; and 2) every effect has a cause. (Disclaimer: not trying to get into a discussion about quantum physics here.)

    The Big Bang appears to be: 1) the creation of something out of nothing; and 2) an effect without a cause. But all of that takes place “beyond” the Big Bang, in the metaphysical realm, where we have no knowledge. “God,” a metaphysical concept, fills in that gap, albeit, not very well, as knowledge is impossible one way or the other. As a being that looks for causal connections in the world, it makes “sense” to think there was a cause to the universe.

    And, there are other points I could bring up, but I think that example illustrates the point.

    So, but trying to circle back to Hugo’s point, most people who choose one way or the other, probably do it because it makes sense to them. Whether that “sense” is “it’s in the Bible,” or “I saw a miracle,” or “the idea of an omnipotent being is logically incoherent,” or what I said, or what Hugo said, it is all an attempt to make “sense” out of a world we can not fully comprehend.

    -Jut

  11. At the end of the day even the best scientists will tell you god is unprovable through any scientific means but you also can’t make a case agains a deist god. Without diverting the conversation even further I’d just like to say that you can either believe that humans and the universe itself are the total of a random series of events based off of organic material. Or you can say all that but god directed it. If you say a god directed creation or at least started it off you bear the burden of answering the question of why we were made like we are. That is to say our sun is slowly dying, so many things on earth will instantly kill us if we come into contact, children are born with defects etc.

  12. Thank you for your post.
    Are you able to say what it is the convinced you that God exists? Was there something that proved it to you? Do you believe in hell for those who do not believe in God?
    I think I saw on your facebook page that you believe in evolution. Do you believe that it is God that created evolution?

  13. Wow, just wow. I am touched by this. I have felt obligated to believe in God for nearly my entire life. I no longer want to feel this way. Your post has given me much to think about…

  14. This meant a lot to me, Hugo. I’m long overdue for a post like this myself. So many of my views have changed since I converted 9 years ago, but for me, it always comes back to this: I want to believe that I live in the kind of universe that is run by a loving God, and Jesus is the most beautiful and true image of what that God would look like in human terms – inclusive, passionate about justice for the underdog, self-giving, and strong in a way that builds others up instead of dominating them.

    For good philosophical arguments about whether belief in God is justified or desirable, I recommend Eric Reitan’s “Is God a Delusion?” Eric blogs at http://thepietythatliesbetween.blogspot.com/

  15. Something else I would like to raise, is the curious way in which we seem to speak about Christianity outside of a cultural context. What I mean is – most people can easily identify someone as Jewish no matter what their religious beliefs are. But we tend to forget that Christianity is not just a religion.

    I’m not a Christian – I dont believe in the redemptive power of the sacrifice of Christ, I do not believe in an afterlife as presented in the Bible, and many other things, all of which add up to the fact that – well – I’m not a Christian.

    But I grew up with Christian parents, and was educated in the system of Christian National Education. Some of the earliest stories I heard were bible stories. Most of the books I read, movies I see, music I hear – all grew out of a tradition in which the Christian church was hugely influential.

    These days I’ve expanded my horizons, but the threads of the Christian narrative – from both the old and new testaments – are woven into me. I think its worth remembering that although many of us have grown up in a largely secular society, it has many of its roots in Christian culture.

    So – I’m not a Christian. But I am a Christian.

  16. Bill Moyer presented a series on Faith & Reason featuring conversations with intelligent and articulate authors. Intelligent and articulate is a combination that I seldom encounter on this subject.

    I was raised in a Christian household. I don’t consider myself a Christian nor do I consider myself religious either. Actually religion and “religious” has a very negative connotation to me. I don’t go to church. Instead of houses of worship they’ve seemed to have digressed into houses of bingo, business networking and babysitting. Anytime I think about attending a service I think about the people that I’ve encountered and that quells all desire to interact with others or to even talk about my feelings. I dislike the political agendas and the money-grabbing. Perhaps I’ve just encountered too many people who are spiritually abusive, bullying in their viewpoints, disrespectful and a host of other negative qualities—all behaviors which inhibit thoughtful discussions. In college I studied Zen and other philosophies and majored in science. I gravitated to Zen, which seemed more intellectual than how Christianity was presented or should I say rammed down my throat. Still, I haven’t completely given up my faith and spiritual beliefs-it’s rooted in Christian culture.

    I seldom even talk about this subject anymore given people’s irrational and idiotic bent. What’s happened to people who demonstrate intelligent and critical thinking? There’s so much evidence of stupidity that it’s disheartening.

    My thoughts are pretty similar to Masha’s, “…the threads of the Christian narrative are woven into me.”

    Bill Moyer posed the question, “In a world where religion is poison to some and salvation to others, how do we live together?” Good question. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  17. “I’ve never written a “Why I am a Christian” (or Mormon, etc.) post on my blog. Perhaps I ought to one of these days.”

    Russell, I really hope you do. I’d love to read it (them).

  18. Jendi, Eric Reitan’s blog is very interesting. I’ve ordered his book & look forward to reading it. Thanks for linking to it — not sure I would have found it otherwise.

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