What If I Don't Believe In You?
Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost • November 19, 2017
What if I don’t believe in you?
Can I still pray to you sometimes?
Can I still feel your presence?
Can I still bemoan your absence?
Can I still think about you everyday?
God, if I don’t believe in you -
Can I still be scared you don’t exist?
Can I still live my life as if you’re there?
I sat down and wrote this prayer when I received the prompt for this week’s sermon. I wasn’t surprised at how quickly the words came -- this exact topic, this exact line of questioning is one that I have spent the better part of my life thinking about.
In fact, just a week before I received the invitation to speak on this subject, I sat down and wrote another prayer, this one was just:
Dear God, Can I pray to you to believe in you?
Writing prayers is a new iteration of a writing practice that’s always been big part of my life. I’ve kept a regular journal in one form or another for over 10 years, serving mostly as an outlet for observations about people, thoughts about life, questions about God. I have a wooden crate in my apartment filled with these journals. My digital life, too, is peppered with these kinds of messages -- from iphone notes to random word documents I open and promptly forget about, to emails I send to myself from the train in some kind of hurry, as if these thoughts are groundbreaking and urgent.
In preparing for this sermon, I skimmed through my years on the page and was both amused and humbled to find that not only had I been asking essentially the same questions, over and over again, in perhaps slightly different ways or different contexts, for over 10 years, but that these thoughts were neither groundbreaking nor urgent. They are the questions that every person asks, has asked, and will ask -- again and again -- in one form or another, forever: Who am I? Why am I here? What does all of this mean? Is there meaning beyond all of this? And what do I do with it?
In Tolstoy’s short autobiographical book about mid-life existential crisis, A Confession, he touches on these questions, writing: “I realized that it was not just a casual indisposition but something very serious, that if the same questions kept repeating themselves they would have to be answered. And I tried to answer them. The questions seemed so stupid, simple, and childish. But the moment I was touched upon them and tried to resolve them I was immediately convinced, firstly, that they were not childish and stupid questions but were the most important and profound questions in life, and secondly, that however much I thought about them I could not resolve them.”
The answers to these fundamental questions, in the way we tend to understand ‘answers’ -- as responses of certainty -- are not knowable in the ways we have come to understand ‘knowing’ -- namely, in the mind. Often, when people claim to know the answers to these questions in this way, it leads to unGodly outcomes. There’s another way to live beside these queries about God and existence, a different kind of knowing; a trust, even, in the mystery of not knowing; in other words, a kind of faith. This is where I think the topic of today’s sermon enters the scene. Praying to God about not believing in God. Having a relationship with God that is marked by doubt that God even is even there at all. Dear God, What if I don’t believe in you? It says: I may not know God exists, but I know God.
When I was a child, I knew both. I knew there was a God, and I knew God personally. I didn’t grow up in a religious household. But as a young person, when I confided in my mom about my confusion around my gender and my anxiety around not fitting anywhere, she told me that this was a gift from God. That even though it may be hard at times, I must also see it as a unique blessing from something beyond. Well I must have been 6 or 7, and this really stuck with me.
From that moment on, God was with me. God was my friend, my cosmic companion. I was in constant communication with God, whether through actual prayers before bed; or just speaking aloud to myself on the walk to school, talking through my day and knowing God could hear; or through navigating my daily actions in a way I felt aligned with what God would want. I didn’t have any doctrine, no Bible, no one telling me what God even was. I just knew what I needed to know -- that God was there somewhere, seeing me, knowing me, helping me and loving me no matter my complexity. And so I grew up feeling that this is what I should be doing: trying to see and know and help and love people despite their complexity.
I went off to college, started deconstructing everything, asking big questions, praying less often. I was unsurprisingly drawn to religion classes. I loved the study of religion because it combined poetry, history, sociology, art, but I loved it for other reasons too, more personal reasons, reasons that have to do with my own big questions about the ultimate and about God.
I quickly learned however that this academic environment was not the place for these questions. I remember distinctly in my first religion class, my freshman year, Old Testament 101 class I was always hung up on why God was doing what God was doing, and my teacher would politely but with increasing frustration remind me that she had no idea why God would or wouldn’t do anything, she was just teaching us who wrote the books, when and why. As I continued in these courses, fascinated though I was, the belief of my childhood became more and more difficult. I was learning who wrote the Bible -- I was learning all about the synoptic gospels and that Matthew and Luke drew from Mark and an unknown source Q, and they patched it together, and then it continued to be patched together over centuries, according to male European standards. And I thought -- if I can poke holes in the religion and beliefs of millions, enduring over centuries, what makes me think that my God, my personal God who I talk to and who I know -- actually exists?
My crisis of belief was not dramatic. I had no church to stop going to. No rituals to cease. No minister to reckon with. No one to tell even. I just kept on living, slowly sort of cerebrally noting that “belief” no longer applied to me in the way that it once had.
I graduated and moved to New York City, wrote songs and performed them, kept journals, worked at a coffee shop. And I never stopped thinking about God, or at least I never stopped thinking about life in terms of God. I had lost my ability to say with certainty that I believed in God, but I still felt governed by something beyond me. I think this is when I first asked myself the question: is it possible to have faith without belief?
4 years after graduating from college, I started seminary. I wasn’t sure why I was going. I had no intention of being ordained, I had a feeling that not being sure you believed in God would be a pretty big obstacle to most ordination processes. I will say I was very happy to find that at Seminary, all anyone wanted to talk about was why God does what God does and so my questions were finally entertained.
At seminary, I learned new worlds about belief, faith, God -- what these can mean to different people in different ways. I saw the amazing potential of lives held in faith, as well as the dangers of claiming absolute certainty -- religious or not. So now, while there are very very few questions in life I feel like I can answer, I do feel like I’m beginning have an answer to the question I asked years ago: Is it possible to have faith without belief? In my experience the answer is yes.
To me, belief involves a knowing in the mind, which I can no longer claim with certainty. But in because in my heart, my gut, my actions, the way I operate in the world, I’m still governed by all the same instincts I was as a child, born out of faith. I still feel like I should strive to see, know, help and love people just the way God did for me growing up. I still try to leave time for silence in this crazy busy city, so that I can cultivate awareness about myself and the world. I still feel like I need to pay attention to what’s going on inside and around me, to witness the joyous things as well those that scare me or sicken me, and respond accordingly. I even still feel, on some level, like I have a constant companion in the universe -- I still go for walks and talk to myself, still feel somehow that God is listening. In other words I still feel held and driven by faith in God regardless of knowing whether God is “real.”
I am not saying that I always succeed in following these instincts, not even close, but I do recognize that they’re there. I do know -- when I’m paying attention -- somewhere deep down, on an intuitive level, when I have followed instincts that are good, or right, or “of God” (and I definitely know when I have not). This emphasis on living right because of some ultimate reason outside of yourself, I call it faith, not necessarily tied to belief. You might call this exact same phenomenon faith built from belief. Or you might call it something different that has nothing to do with faith or belief or God. We either listen or don’t listen to these instincts, and the result is the same regardless of what we call them.
In the scripture that was read earlier, Jesus is clear. And delivers what is actually, a fairly simple message. Jesus says to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to take care of the sick, to visit the prisoner, and what’s more: do this for the least of these. This may or may not entail an active belief in God. Jesus doesn’t say. He just says do this. He doesn’t talk conceptually. He just says do this. This is a life of faith. Living such a God-filled daily life that believing in God’s actual existence may not even be relevant.