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My struggle with God
A personal reflection
This Hub is a highly personal reflection, not a dogmatic or systematic dissertation, on my belief or lack of belief, in God. I do not presume to tell other people what they should believe, nor do I in any way presume to tell other people that what they do (or do not) believe is wrong (or right, for that matter).
I really do struggle with God, or the idea of God. Perhaps it comes from growing up with a father who had a strong belief in God. Everything he did, and he did some really great things in his life, things that I truly admire, he did in some way “for God”. I suppose I wish he had done them because they were enjoyable to do, because they were fun, or simply because he wanted to do them.
So this Hub is not written in condemnation of nor in competition with anyone, just to portray as honestly as I can a struggle I have – a philosophical and emotional struggle between belief and scepticism. I have dear friends with whom I share a lot on both sides of that divide.
I am no theologian, just a traveller on life's sometimes rocky road trying to make some sense out of what often seems like a lot of nonsense around me. I'm not asking for agreement or disagreement, nor am I asking for help. I would like some understanding, though!
“I believe in one God...”
Right there, that's where it starts.
Because I really don't know that I do. I'm not sure what it means to believe in one God. I feel unable to say those words with honesty.
At the same time I'm not sure that there is no God either. I feel very uncomfortable when people make derogatory remarks about other people who do believe in God. It seems somehow mean and petty.
On the other hand, I want to run and hide when I hear a person talk about “my personal relationship with God.” Huh? Got me there. If there is a God, is it honestly possible to have a “personal relationship” with “him” (or “her” for that matter)?
I know I can have a personal relationship with another person. After all, that's what “personal” means – it has to do with a person. So, with God? So God is a person? But then he (or she) could not have “made heaven and earth”, and definitely not in six days. So I get a bit stuck.
And then I go to church, as I did last Sunday. And meet these lovely people, people whose only concern is to make others feel at home, and who are so happy, it seems, with saying that phrase, “I believe in one God.”
What I do get is a nice feeling being there, even though the singing is crappy, the tunes sentimental and the words – well, the less said about the words of the hymns the better. With a few exceptions, of course.
Sometimes the preacher will preach a sermon that really touches me in some way. The preacher on Sunday did. He spoke of change in the world, and how many people have this expectation that the church will be a refuge for them, a place where they can get away from the confusion caused by what the preacher called “discontinuous change.” But, he said, that's not really what the church is about. Sure, there are some things about the church that haven't changed much in almost 2000 years. Like the liturgy around the Lord's Supper. The words we hear at the consecration are pretty much what the people of the first churches in the countries around the eastern Mediterranean heard in the first few centuries of the common era. And the Nicene Creed was written in the Fourth Century. So its been around a while.
But the church stands for discontinuous change also, the preacher said. The disciples were challenged by the discontinuous change that happened on that Good Friday 2000 years ago. Their world fell apart. They were left stranded, as the saying goes, up a creek without a paddle.
The Church at the periphery of life
And that is the feeling we so often have these days, when very little seems certain and the pace of change seems to be increasing exponentially. We often feel directionless and without motivation. And the church does not provide a refuge from that, but a challenge to go and be fully human in the midst of that change, to embrace the change, be the change.
And that brings me back to the God thing, my struggle with the idea of God. Because I don't need a God to help me deal with these things. Or not the kind of God so many people seem to talk about when they talk of their “personal relationship” with him (or her). And this is why I don't ask too many questions about God, or I don't ask other people to tell me about God. Because they tell me they believe things because they are in the Bible. And that's where we get into a circular argument because, of course, the Bible doesn't prove anything. To believe that the Bible has the answers presupposes a belief in God. So it doesn't help to say it's in the Bible.
We live in a world in which, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so graphically put it, God has been moved, like our churches, from the centre to the periphery of our lives. In the Middle Ages and before, villages and towns used to grow up around a church or a cathedral. Now as a town grows at its centre are banks, shopping malls, office blocks, movie theatres and other places of entertainment, and the church buildings are tucked away, far from the action, in the 'burbs. And when did you last see a church flourishing where people actually work, like around factories and office blocks?
A contingency approach
To deal with the flow and flux of life I need a contingency approach. What is certain today, might be at least questionable tomorrow, and I have somehow to deal with that, honestly and without resorting to flights of fancy. I am not interested in a God who is paraded among people who are desperate for certainty, for comfort, even a delusional comfort. That seems to me to be dishonest.
At the same time I cannot judge those who find such a God meaningful, a decent escape from all the troubles and uncertainties in their lives. All I know is that I cannot take that kind of refuge. I cannot say in all honesty “I believe in one God” because I'm not sure what that means in terms of the daily struggles of life.
And again, I cannot say with any dogmatic certainty, “I don't believe in one God (or indeed, many Gods).” Maybe I'll walk into a bank, or into the head office of some multi-national corporation (maybe even General Motors, for goodness sake!) one day and meet God. And then where will I be? A little surprised, I guess!
Jesus had some harsh words for those who are “lukewarm” about their faith. I'm not lukewarm, I'm pretty cold actually. About faith, that is. Is that OK, Jesus?
You see, about Jesus I don't have too many doubts, because even if he didn't really, historically, exist, as some historians claim, he represents a very human and I believe, necessary, approach to life. Which is why I liked the preacher's sermon yesterday. Jesus, as I was taught at Sunday School when I was about five, “went about doing good.” Now that makes sense to me.
In the midst of discontinuous change, in the midst of violence or indifference, it is still possible to do good. It is still possible, without getting too hung up about “what is good”, to actually help folk, it is still possible to take time to listen to another person and try to understand them. It is still possible, and we don't need a lot of theory to understand this, to side with the woman in an abusive relationship, and not write off the person abusing her either.
It is still possible, when things start to get out of hand, and hatred and judgement seem to be called for, to refuse to cast the first (or any) stone. In short, it is still possible to side with the victim rather than with the executioner. We don't have to have an elaborate theology or philosophy to do that. Just an acute awareness of what it is to be human. To be able to see that the labels we believe people have – white, black, religious, irreligious, terrorist, conservative, rich, poor – are labels we put on people. The labels are ours, they don't belong to the people we so easily stick them onto. We tend, as the saying goes, to see the world (and other people) as we are, not as it is (or they are).
That is I think the wonderful thing about Jesus (or, if you prefer, the myth of Jesus). He was totally, fully on the side of the people and against those who were oppressing the people. He wanted people to live fully as humans, to be joyful not sorrowful, to be kind and generous, not grasping (look at the lilies of the field, how they are clothed), to give comfort to those in prison, those in hospital, those who are thirsty, those who are lonely or in pain. By caring for them in very practical, earthy ways, not preaching to them. And not by promising them that God will comfort them.
That's why I love Jesus (but I'm still not sure about believing in God).
I am grateful to fellow-Hubber Jane Bovary for this wonderful quote from Andre Gide: “Believe those who seek the truth. Doubt those who find it.” I found this after I had written the foregoing, and it seems somehow relevant to what I was trying to say.
And I hasten to add that Jane has absolutely nothing to do with this Hub, and I "stole" the above quote from her profile page. Thanks Jane!
A link to the Preacher's Desk (and more)
- The Rector\'s Desk
This is the blog of Canon Mark Long, the preacher mentioned in this Hub. He also had no part in the writing of this Hub except for the inspiration mentioned in it.
- Active Atheists
They call them the New Atheists, although they've been around for a while and they are assertive, educated and articulate spokespeople for disbelief in supernatural beings which rule the universe....