When I was fourteen years old I converted to an evangelical form of Christianity. I had been raised a mainline Protestant, but my immediate family didn't take their faith very seriously. My paternal grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor, and my primary religious role model. He died of a sudden heart attack when I was nine years old, leaving a spiritual vacuum in my life.
As you can probably guess, I have always been concerned with "ultimate questions," the sorts of questions most people start asking after they've had a couple of drinks. I spent most of my childhood staying up late at night, staring at my twin brother's bunk above me, wondering what happens when we die. I couldn't imagine that life just ceased. But, at the same time, it also couldn't go on forever, like we're experiencing it now. Eternity as time stretched out with no ending. As the war between extinction and limitless time waged on in my head, I would jump up out of my bed and run in circles around the room, trying to outpace way restless thoughts.
After my grandfather's death, even though I was so young, I turned to a functional nihilistic atheism. I know that serious atheists will read that and say that I nine-year-old raised as a Christian cannot possibly be a real atheist. And, they're probably right. But functionally, I was an atheist. I had no interest in God, no interest in religion. That was the path of my grandfather, the path of death. As he was dead, so too God was dead, at least to me.
I have no interest here in sharing how I got from there to the evangelical Christianity of my teenage years. It simply isn't a great story, even if it got me my first speaking gigs. Suffice it to say, when I converted to an evangelical form of Christianity at fourteen, I was all in. I approached my faith with a rigor and a fervor, with everything that was in me.
But my faith was equal parts devotion and belief, equal parts passion and intellect. I studied evangelical Christian apologetics, as it was the only theology I knew. By the time I finished high school, I'd read every book by C.S. Lewis published in the United States, and had started working through Francis Schaeffer. I'd also been turned on to a writer named Paul E. Little, whose Know What You Believe and Know Why You Believe were excellent primers in the basics of evangelical doctrine.
In my first stint as a college student I spent more time tutoring at risk kids at a United Methodist mission and debating religion with Mormon and Jehovah's Witness missionaries on campus than I did going to class, and quickly failed out. Failing out of school only furthered the trend of living only for and through my religion.
In my early twenties I had a certainty of belief. I could clearly articulate what I believed, nay knew about God. The first seminar I ever gave was on basic Christian beliefs for a state-wide evangelical youth retreat. As far as I was concerned then, there was only one Christianity, to be accepted or rejected. It's teachings were simply, and I could articulate them for you. From there you had only to believe, and you would, by God's grace, be saved.
Now, of course, nothing is so simple. I often miss the certainty of my youth, when religious belief was the rock that held my otherwise unstable life together. I miss being able to answer fundamental questions simply, without hesitation, equivocation or doubt. But I do not miss the moral and spiritual arrogance which came with seeing God as basically a list of propositions which can be known. I do not miss limiting the mystery of the universe to my beliefs about it; being blind to wonder. And I certainly don't miss my dirty little secret, that beneath the veneer of belief my faith was cracking.
My public face was one of certainty, my private face one of crippling, paralyzing fear and anxiety. Having all of the answers didn't make those answers emotionally or existentially satisfying. It just ended the search for new answers. As such, I still had the private anxieties which kept me up all night as a child, I just had no new area to explore. I had already converted, already been saved, but in the end it didn't solve my fundamental problem. I still had no peace, no security. I still couldn't sleep at night.
I'm in a much healthier place now. But I can no longer easily put together a list of my beliefs. In part this is because those beliefs - once my bedrock - are constantly shifting like unstable sand, rocking back and forth like the waves. And, in part this is because I no longer see belief as being the equivalent of faith, as the primary subject of religion.
Last week I finally finished my seminary application. I'm signing up for a second tour of duty, this time in a Masters of Arts in Religion program - the first stop in my preparation for an academic career. As part of the application process I was asked to write a short (300 - 500 word) essay answering this question:
What is your understanding of God, and what is the basis for your belief?
In my teens or early twenties that would have been an easy question to answer. Now, however, I stared at the question for two whole months before I even started to attempt an answer. When I finally started writing, this is what came out:
First and foremost, God is mysterious. That is, God is not the sort of being (if God can be described as a being at all) which is empirically observable, scientifically dissectible, or encyclopedically describable. So, while we can invent theological descriptions of God, resting in part on our great religious tradition, we must understand that any description of God only loosely corresponds to God as God. As the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes observed, any human idea about God is accurate, if at all, only by accident.
All theological descriptions of God are, as Marcus Borg has observed, due to the mysterious nature of the divine, best understood as metaphors. That is, we cannot say in any literal way that God is this, but not that. We cannot compile a list of divine attributes, and expect those to in any non-accidental way correspond with the literal nature of God. But we can describe God through the use of poetic language, understand that we are not really describing God at all, but instead our experiences of God.
The role of theology, especially as it concerns propositions about the nature of God, is not, then, really to describe God as God. It serves instead as a way of reflecting on our personal yet corporate experience of God. My own ideas about God come from my experiences of God, especially in corporate worship (which includes reading the Bible in Christian community) within a community of faith inside the United Methodist Church, as a part of the broader Christian tradition. As such, it is shaped by the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
Within the context of that quadrilateral, understanding that ultimately God is a mystery and that my own ideas of God are useful only insofar as they facilitate an experience of God, I understand God through the use of metaphors, such as:
God is love (I John 4:8)
God is the mysterious Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, the great “I am what I am,” or even “I will be where I will be.” (Exodus 3:14)
God is the Ground of Being (Paul Tillich), and more importantly for me, the ground of my being (personal experience)
God as a creative and evolutionary force (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)
God as the divine mystery (Abraham Joshua Heschel)
and many, many more. Too many to count or name.
I experience God as both immanent and transcendent, as both a personal being and as Being Itself. I recognize that these are rational contradictions, but I think that ultimately their contradictory nature speaks to our inability to fully comprehend our experiences of God rather than to some flaw in God. But, most importantly, I experience God in community, through corporate worship, and through the life of discipleship. I believe that my experience of the grace of God, which redeems me, demands from me my very life, the collection of all my hopes and dreams, and the sweat of all of my labor.
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