A culmination of reading, viewing, listening, online and in person dialogue, and self reflection has had me thinking these past couple weeks about my faith in God. Not so much how it is I know God exists; the older I get the less interesting that question becomes on both sides of the apologetic fence, and in truth must be submitted to the idea that knowledge is the not the same as proof. Rather the far more interesting question for me is the why. That is where we can uncover important things like empathy, context, motivation and humility in discussion as we recognize one another at different points along this journey either towards or away from confessions of faith.
As I’ve been reflecting on this question in my own life, particularly in relationship to this Advent season and as an identifying Christian, I am struck by the degree to which my experience plays into this question in so many different directions and in different ways at different points in time. Theologian Pete Enns often refers to the Wesleyan Qaudrilateral to explain his own journey within this complicated thing we call faith, which provides a tool for theological reflection citing the interconnected methods of Reason, Scripture, Experience and Tradition. Remove any one of these from the picture and theology becomes a dangerous game no matter our disposition and our belief. Given my own Weslyan roots this picture has often resonated with me in a powerful way, and lately I’ve been trying to be more intentional about allowing it inform my own journey with faith in God, which is far less linear and static and far more given to a necessary ebb and flow within the experiences of life itself.
Perhaps most pointedly when it comes to the why question in relationship to Advent and my own Christian confession is the question of why Jesus. Or perhaps better, what difference does it make that Jesus is God, especially if, rightly, we can locate things like goodness and joy and love in an unbelieving world. I have found this to be a difficult question to examine in conversation with others because it carries with it something of a conundrum in deciphering how it is that theological truth relates to the material world. In some sense it is far easier to simply leave God somewhere out there uninvolved with the inner workings of this world, as indeed much of history has done and continues to do. Bring God into the inner workings of our world and it tends to disrupt, throwing all manners of things into confusion at the same time. Suddenly the why becomes difficult, especially when it comes to making sense of a good God in the midst of so much bad. Add to that the corruptible witness of the institutional Church and religion itself and the challenge of the why becomes that much more difficult.
And yet, at least part of my own journey is the truth that life in a world without God for me proved no more freeing, no more joy filled, and no more enticing as an experience, if that was what my reasoning was predicated on. In fact, if the why question of my then unbelief became less complicated on one hand, justifying life in the day to day became that much harder. If belief in God is merely a construct we create, an illusion we feed to give ourselves comfort in an otherwise often meaningless and cruel world for the majority, then what this underscores for me is that the problem of belief is not a religious one, it is a human one. A problem of nature that continues to push back against our attempts to find the answer in our own humanity. We have no more reason to trust any of the illusions that we feed to give this life meaning, least of all our notions of personhood and humanity. For me, my experience seemed to confirm that in this view, which I once held as true, all of life is a game that has a way of reminding you rather consistently whether you are on the winning or losing side of it. And while something like empathy and compassion, traits that are arguably unique to humanity at least in how they get expressed in conscious ways, are true, they are still traits and functions that are ultimately concerned with our survival. They breed competition. I have yet to find a compelling argument for an empathic view of human evolution that frees me from this simple, basic truth of our existence; that the meaning and worth of my existence and therefore the existence of others is intrinsicly dependent on my living in this world successfully. It is dependent on philosophies about life that makes sense when things are what we might call good, and cater to mere platitudes and increased dependency on our illusions when speaking to a life that is not. At best it locates truths about successful living that can only ever make the bad a little bit better. For me this only enslaved me further to my failures. And the more technology progresses the more this seems to get illuminated. I can locate a plethora of articles that demonstrate clearly how longer and more comfortable lives do not result in greater happiness and greater thriving. In fact it often appears to result in the opposite, which feels intutively true to my own experience.
As I have been thinking about this it is important to note that this is, again, not an argument for the existence of God. It is an argument for why. Or at least an attempt to locate elements of the why that might be evidential as i engage with this Advent season. I came up with three basic words that seemed to resonate especially strongly as why factors for me- Presence, Hope and Mystery. I’m still working to flesh these three words out in relationship to the Christ story, but one thing that did become evident to me as I have been doing so is how prominently the ideas of grace and forgiveness seem to play within all three. If there is a root of my belief it would flow from the truth of grace and forgiveness, two things that I found struggled to coexist in any sensible way within my unbelief, and which came most alive for me in my desire to believe. These two essential truths continue to undergird the ebb and flow of my personal journey, with the notion of forgiveness of ones enemy, which is as antithetical to our survival and thriving as a species as it is nonsensical to my efforts to succeed at this thing called life, continuing to prove to be the most scandalous idea birthed by my faith in a God who enters into human history and is intimately involved in its affairs. It is true that far too much of religion has given into the models of justice that pervade so much of our modern, secular ideas and systems, which when paired with a God made in our own image and beckoned to serve our will becomes even more dangerous and problematic. That it remains equally true that the revelatory truth of grace and forgiveness, which turn humility from a vice to a virtue, seem to be persistent and spiritually laden ideas that push back against attempts to narrow my definition of morality and goodness (to the idea of the the free and liberted individual) continues to be a compelling reason for me to believe, at the very least, in something bigger than my own dueling human nature. Something that reflects more than simply the emergence of human consciousness as our ticket out of the inevitable war against these two natures that seems to be imprinted into the very fabric of the universe, with what we determine to be bad (suffering and death) leading to good (new life and new creation). This of course lies at the heart of the Christ story, giving us a way to speak of death and suffering in redemptive terms. I often hear atheists suggest that we (humanity) create religion for comfort, to satisfy the desire to personally imagine immortality and cope with evidence of our finitude. This is, I believe, a fundamental misnderstunding of religious interest in death, at least when it comes to matters of theology. What is at at stake is our ability to enter into the suffering of the other and speak in terms of this redemptive process. Even further, what is at stake is our ability to enter into the workings of nature itself with this same redemptive message in view.
Which for me begins with this story of God invading history, of light illuminating the darkness in order to declare it good, not to highlight human ambition and success and awaken the grand human project in all its glory, but to awaken us to the presence, the hope and the mystery of a Holy Other. A Holy Other that is then demonstrable in the whole of nature and in the whole of humanity, helping us to make better sense of what truly good, truly joyful and truly loving. To awaken us to the power of the Holy Other to break the cycles of unforgiveness and the violent predication towards competition that contines to hold us subtly and often overtly captive, calling us in the way of Christ to an imagined future paved in the scandelous image of self sacrificial love. The simple fact that this has been demonsatrated concretely and historically in a way that holds us captive to it as theological “truth” is one reason why it matters to me that Jesus is God.