We’ve all experienced it, though many of us can’t talk about it. Doubt is a fearful thing. A shameful thing. But most of all, doubt is a real thing.
What do you do when you have a master’s degree in the divine, a bachelor’s degree in the study of the Bible and biblical languages, have built your identity on the depth and wisdom of a spiritual life you have always hoped was meaningful for more people than just yourself, and you’re even in the middle of writing a series of blog posts about prayer and meditation, and in an instant, you no longer believe? What do you do when you’ve defined your life as a search to find the right steps to dance to the ancient and eternal song composed of God’s love and the music fades from hearing?
Of course, the instant is not isolated, and it’s part of the ebb and flow of a heart and mind that is a real, living person, not a collection of credentials and expectations.
I have known many people who experienced a crisis of faith. This was not tumultuous. It was a crucial moment, a crossroads. It was not painful. It was profound. It wasn’t damning. It was defining.
Let me say that I love knowledge. I am fascinated by scientific discovery. I view the world through an empirical lens. Show me proof, show me data, show me statistics, and you are likely to sway me. I also know that people are more important than information, truth more important than facts, and love more important that correctness. Differences between us matter little, and the divine within us matters much.
I am convinced science is not the enemy of spirituality. In fact, I am certain that the Christian God knows nothing that could even begin to be a threat. One of the greatest gifts I received from the Evangel University Theology Department was the repeated exhortation to remember that “All truth is God’s truth, wherever it is found,” which is a paraphrase of St. Augustine’s “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master” (On Christian Doctrine II.18.28). Knowledge then, as long as it is true, as long as it is understood in context of the truly valuable things of life, is always good.
I have had moments in the past where I experienced flashes of “what if there is nothing? No God, no meaning? Nothing more than what we make for ourselves?” I have mostly just decided to ignore them and continue on as before.
This time, it was not so easily shaken. It wasn’t a thought about a “what if?” It was more of a realization of what I was already believing. I realized God was a psychological, sociological expression of the spiritual-neurological reality of our experience of meaning and connectedness. And it surprised me.
I then realized I had a choice. I could accept that conclusion that had somehow wound its way into my mind when I wasn’t looking. Or I could figure out what it would take to return to belief in God. I tentatively chose to look into belief.
I decided to use what I had learned about the neuroscience of meditation for faith and not for atheistic resignation. I decided I would continue as before, not as a lie but as a sort of act of faith in my own spirit, leaning into faith in Christ when unbelief was more present. I knew from what I had learned that if I meditated on God enough, my thalamus would make him real for me regardless of the objective factuality of it all. I was OK with that because my unbelief was not contrary to God, just mucking about in a vacuum of direct evidence and some reason to think it might all be neurological trickery. Oddly, this all happened while I was driving, listening to a recording of a priest discussing contemplative prayer. Weird.
I kept my doubt to myself at first. The only one I might have told was Chrissy, but I just didn’t feel ready to say anything out loud. I knew that “going public” would have rather far-reaching ramifications, and I was comfortable with the uncertainty of it. The dissonance, as long as it was temporary, was tolerable.
I didn’t really have any breakthroughs, but then it was only like a week and a half.
Then Chrissy shared with me some issues she was wrestling with, and it was time for me to contribute to the conversation. I started with easier, Jesus-assumed, ideas I was working through. Then, I decided she deserved to know me fully, that our relationship mattered enough to speak the inmost things aloud. So I did the scary thing that didn’t actually end up being that scary (It helps that I trust her completely).
I told her what I was thinking and how I knew I had a choice to make, to believe or not. But then, even in the telling, I knew I would probably choose to believe, but I knew I would probably choose to believe mostly because I would rather believe. Because the Church is my people. Because my values are wrapped up in my theology and my Christian practice. But I couldn’t fully commit because my mind, my heart, my will, and my soul weren’t fully there.
But, that conversation made a difference. Voicing those things out loud, so that the words were out in the universe, never to be retrieved, had an effect on my spirit. Things began to shift.
Then, just as the doubt had manifested while I drove and listened to Thomas Keating talk about contemplative spirituality, faith found me once again while I drove and listened to James Finley talk about contemplative spirituality.
Something Finley said triggered it, but it wasn’t that he convinced me. Something he said got me thinking, and my thoughts led me to love.
I realized that the very reason so many other people abandon faith in God is the very reason I must remain faithful: the existence of suffering.
All these realizations came without warning. The realization of doubt was gentle, like the caress of a whisper. The return of faith was like lightning. It was electrifying, which is thrilling and painful. I went home and told Chrissy about it. I told her about it being the opposite of most people. “Of course it is,” she said. “That’s how you are. Let’s hear it.”
And then I told her. I told her about the futility of words to convey the truth of a divine response to suffering. I told her about the failure of philosophy to provide an explanation for the purpose of pain. I told her about the deficiency of theology to justify an all-powerful deity’s neglect of the anguish afflicting their beloved.
Logical treatises never satisfy when held up against a heart in pain. Rational arguments are never meaningful to the one whose life is falling apart around them. Systematic analyses never heal broken hearts. Doctrine can’t make the wrongs turn right again. But neither can atheism.
What Christianity offers that Zen Buddhism or atheism or agnosticism or the American Dream don’t is love. What makes a broken heart believe in life again? What makes the anguish of loss worth enduring? What makes desolation a beginning and not the end? Someone who loves you and who can make you feel known and loved deep within.
Christianity doesn’t just offer sage advice or logical laws or even a meaningful path to follow. Christianity stands or falls on the love of one all-compassionate being, Jesus the Christ, God’s beloved Son, the suffering King who gave all to love us. It is not with logical exposition but with compassionate expression of love and care that Jesus lived and died and lived again. Even that might not be enough for me if that were all there were, if a 2,000-year-old martyrdom were supposed to be heart-warming enough or exemplary enough to make me look past pain. It’s the present Jesus, comforter and friend. Jesus, our brother and father and mother. Jesus, who reaches out in empathy, compassion, and understanding and who by knowing us deeply and staying with us in suffering as well as monotony and joy. That is what Christianity offers, and it’s an offer worth accepting.
I choose to trust, not in correct doctrine or right living or neurologically beneficial optimism, but instead I choose to trust in a being that loves enough to join us in our suffering. I choose to trust Jesus the man who felt the pain of those around him and did everything in his not insignificant power to alleviate that pain. I choose to trust Jesus the God who thought the finite was worth sacrificing the infinite to death in order to reconcile lost relationships. I choose to trust Jesus the chosen leader who understands suffering with his people is the way to bring them to glory, to meaning, to the promise of joy beyond pain.
It sounds trite, I know. A ten-day deconstruction hardly counts at all, but everything is different now. I don’t believe because I have proof or because I was told it was so or because I need it to be so to maintain the status quo of my life. I believe Jesus the compassionate brother of my soul makes life worth living and the empathy of an infinite God for the likes of you and me is too good not to be true.
I don’t expect to change any minds or to turn any hearts. I expect this may even alarm some of the people I love, but they need not worry. I can affirm along with others around the globe and across time that
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Even more than all that, I trust Jesus, the God who lived and died, suffering not just for us but with us, and who gives himself to us in our pain. He dances with us as we sing of our sorrows. No amount of cleverly delineated doctrine or carefully analyzed theodicy can make any amount of pain, evil, or suffering worth even the tiniest moment of experience. But, Jesus doesn’t insult the reality of our lives with platitudes or excuses. He joins us where we are. He doesn’t promise it will be worth it. He gives us himself. And I choose to receive him. Our hope is not for a heavenly glory but for the reality of love and understanding now and forever.