Mike McHague, or as some of you may know him, Science Mike, tweeted the following a few weeks ago.
“Every Christian should become an Atheist at least once in their life.”
This is a statement and idea that I can full get behind. But what does it mean? First of all, everything that follows in this post is a representation of what this has meant for me in my life and how it is shaping my faith and belief currently and not to be taken as an exact description of what Mike was meaning.
Second of all, it would probably be helpful to figure out what an Atheist is. Most commonly an Atheist is thought of as someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of God. That believes there is no God up in the sky looking down ready to bring down fire and brimstone on those who disobey Him or lavish gifts and blessings on those who do. That there is no divine being that created the world in 6 days and that there is no higher infinite power keep track of everything down here on Earth.
There are obviously big questions about whether this description really constitutes who God is in reality (if He exists of course) but if we’re all honest with ourselves most of us Christians act like this is how God acts, even if we would deny we do.
So right from the start it’s helpful to realize that many of us aren’t really sure what we believe about God. For example we believe that God loves us unconditionally and is ready to welcome us back every single time we “sin”, yet we hide from Him if we constantly “mess” up.
So if we truly believe that God loves us unconditionally then why do we not embrace this to it’s extreme?
Stuck between a rock and a hard faith.
This is a difficult place for anyone to find themselves. When the things we state we believe don’t line up with our experience of God. Furthermore, we believe many, many different things about God that are far too many to speak about in one blog. So if we all believe drastically different things then who is right? Is anyone correct? Is anyone wrong? Is everyone right, is everyone wrong?
So belief in God is not just a simple question of whether He exists or not. Because even if you believe God exists it quickly becomes a question of which God exists?
For me this is at the crux of belief in God. What type of God do you believe in? Wars have been fought and people have been tortured and sentenced to death in horrible horrible ways in an attempt to answer this question.
When beliefs in God are taken so seriously that at one stage in history (and for many, currently) your life depended on it, it’s safe to assume that having the correct beliefs about God is extremely important. Even today where most of us safely live out a faith without fear of death, we place a huge importance on believing the right thing. If we believe the right things, we’re in but if we believe the wrong things we’re out.
Sure, for most of us, our lives are not at stake, but our communities, our families and sometimes our livelihoods are. In many cases the loss of these is as bad as death.
It’s all about God’s word?
Then there is the Bible. The place which we are taught from a very early age is where we are to go to finally pin God down and understand how He works. Which of course, would be perfect if we all read the Bible the same way or understood it exactly the same. But we don’t. Some people read a passage about men and women and believe that only men should preach, while others don’t read it another way. Some read the first few chapters as a description of how God created the world, while others see it as metaphor and a poem. Others see it as both.
I took this picture last week in the John King book store in Detroit. (Side note: If you love books, go here. It’s wonderful). It’s a shelf full of Bibles. Different type of Bibles, in various different translations, shaped for various different types of people.
Any other book (which is actually a collection of diverse genres of writings written by a diverse group of people for a diverse multitude of purposes) and we would never claim that we have the corner on understanding it. Yet, an entire shelf is devoted to many different versions of the Bible (these are all just the English copies).
Then there were the others shelves, full of books explaining the meaning of this book of other books written by lots of people.
You’re not alone.
Then there are our experiences and the way we are brought up. Some of us are told that Catholics are not really Christian while some of us are told that Protestants aren’t. Some of us are men and were simply born into a long tradition of other men being the ones who get to decide how everything should be run. Some of us are women who have been told that they have a role to play, just not this role. Some of us were born into a Western Evangelical family who went to church twice a week and dutifully had a quiet time twice a day. Others grew up in a more Eastern Mystical Christian background where concrete beliefs about God aren’t as important, if even truly possible.
So which is more important, experience or truth? Or is experience, truth?
Which ultimately brings us back to the disconnect with what we say we believe and what we experience. Perhaps it’s fair to say, that more often than not, we don’t truly believe what we say we believe. Or at the very least, a part of us doesn’t.
For someone from a Western Christian mindset where a set belief in a set of statements or as the church calls them, “doctrines”, this can create a lot of anxiety.
It does no one any good if we claim that God loves us conditionally but never experience this is in any tangible way.
Of course, beliefs are important. We all operate under a set of beliefs every day, some conscious, some unconscious. But where we have got into trouble is that we’ve spent too much time trying to believe the right things so that we can experience something.
Deconstruct in order to Reconstruct.
When I spent a year working with guys who were addicted, I heard story after story of freedom but I also heard story after story of, hitting walls. The main difference between those who found freedom and those who didn’t, wasn’t that they bunkered down and just believed harder, but that they stopped using their beliefs as something that would heal them.
If you have ever engaged in a process that gets you to open your fists of beliefs and temporarily set them aside, this can be painful. So I get why many of the guys I worked with, never experienced freedom.
What if though, we start with the experience and let our beliefs form from there. In the tension that even then, our beliefs have to be held loosely.
Richard Rohr, put it best when he wrote, “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living, you live your way into a new kind of thinking”
Take suffering for example. What if, when I experience a separation from God, instead of rejecting this experience, I fully lean in and accept it? This may lead me to a belief that God isn’t around or worse, doesn’t care. How is this useful to us? Well, it’s not if we hold the belief (which I am under no illusions is a belief itself) that our beliefs are rigid and don’t stretch and change.
This is why many people believe they need to dress up on Sunday. It’s why people tell us to smile in church. We subconsciously don’t know what to do with pain and suffering because our beliefs have convinced us that God needs us to constantly have our shit together.
Because suffering allows us to experience God more intimately because we connect with that part of God that felt alone and isolated and frightened, through Jesus. Something that maybe we couldn’t experience otherwise. This then leads to a deeper relationship, one that can withhold through major trials and all the hard shit that life throws at us.
Our beliefs end up shaping how we dress, act and speak rather than letting our experiences shape our beliefs.
Letting our experiences guide us, actually changes our beliefs in God in a way that we can actually trust Him.
Happy Birthday to the biggest act of Atheism in the Church.
This year, the Reformation is 500 years old. In the last several years, coincidentally or not since I moved to the USA, I’ve gone through my own personal reformation. I’m not entirely sure what I believe about the Reformation, but what I do know is that reformation is critical.
The one problem the Reformation may have had was that it didn’t go far enough.
The Reformation essentially said that a particular type of faith in God was wrong. That how the church understood God and consequently how this translated into actions in our churches, was incorrect.
So we carried out some deconstruction and built up a new faith that relied heavily on making sure you believed the right things.
In some ways, the Reformation was one of the greatest acts of Atheism ever. Martin Luther and his buddies stopped believing in the type of God that was popular and decided that there was a better way of thinking.
Somewhere though along the way, we have stopped this journey. Rather than seeing the Reformation as a one off event in which finally Martin Luther got it right, we should see it as the beginning of a journey that we have been on ever since.
We are still reforming.
And if we’re still reforming it follows that we don’t know everything yet. And if we don’t know everything then there is the chance we could be wrong. And if we’re wrong then maybe we need to listen to other voices.
This then is what best sums up my faith experience in the past few years. It’s not that I’ve rejected everything that I was brought up to believe (although some may say I have), rather it’s that I have given up needing to be right. I view the basic tenants that many claim we need to believe, not as the landing but a spring board to something much greater.
I don’t believe in the same God I did 5 year ago, or even 10 years ago. Who of us does?
Without this atheistic approach to my faith, I wouldn’t have grown and learned from teachers and traditions that I would have rejected as wrong and dangerous.
I needed to stop believing in god up there waiting to yell at me down here in order that I could have hope and faith and excitement for the Divine again.
I needed to stop believing that as long as I was in control and knew exactly what and how I believed that God would be happy with me. To trust that when Paul said that nothing can separate me from God’s love that he actually, damn well meant it.
I needed to stop seeing the Bible as the final testament of all truth in order for me to appreciate the humanness and Divine that are found richly interwoven in every page of the Bible.
I needed to stop believing in Church in order to find authentic community again.
I needed to stop believing in prayer so that I could learn new ways of quietness and spiritual practices that have revolutionized my experiences with “God”.
I needed to stop believing in Heaven in order to see the beauty of life here and now.
Where I will be in the next 5 years is not something that I can accurately, nor want to predict. But if it’s anything like the last 5, it will be richer. It may be ugly and muddy along the way, in fact that is one thing I can predict.
But I know that in the dirt is where most of us truly find the Divine.