“Lord, I believe – help my unbelief!”
I was more than a little surprised when a friend asked if I would consider taking on the role of a “moderator” on his blog about living openly atheist in the Bible Belt. I was his first and only theist moderator, charged with keeping the comment threads civil: not an easy task, given the subject matter of leaving a religion whose culture influences literally every aspect of Southern life. I was chosen for the “job” because I identified myself as a Christian with the sole agenda of learning rather than preaching. Not until discovering Neil’s blog did I give serious consideration to the question of how much control we have in choosing our beliefs.
In our world, beliefs tend to be distinguished from facts. We treat beliefs as individual preferences, but facts as indisputable. You can believe gravity doesn’t exist, but will be proven dangerously wrong by jumping off a building. Facts transcend culture on every level.
Evangelicals, I’ve noticed, have a different definition of “belief.” I’ve read tracts with careful phrasing about “choosing” to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Since words are my livelihood, I spend a great deal of time analyzing them in definition and context, and in evangelical context you can choose to believe or choose to reject. It’s all very simple.
But for many people, the choice to believe is a struggle. If I could easily choose to believe or disbelieve, I wouldn’t struggle with doctrinal ideas like eternal punishment. I struggle to believe because the very idea itself makes little sense to me. Is my thinking brain, my ability to reason, a gift from God or a defect from the Fall? I’ve sat in bible studies with people who believe that asking questions and using logic is playing straight into the hands of the Devil.
With the ability to reason comes the ability to accept or reject an ideology, and the amount of grace I have for people who tried to believe and failed continues to increase as I get older. Christianity asks thinking adults to believe in talking snakes, parting seas, and a dead man coming back to life. Even more uncomfortable is the belief that man has something inherently wrong with him, and he cannot find meaning on his own. I completely understand why, for some people, the choice to believe is as feasible as choosing to believe in the Easter Bunny. It stretches the mind too much.
There is one thing I must choose to believe, no matter how unlikely it seems: I must choose to believe that God’s grace is bigger and deeper than what our human brains are capable of comprehending. I have to believe that God’s love transcends the roadblocks set in place by nature: we know that when people die, they stay dead. We know that watching a newborn sleep soundly makes Original Sin sound ludicrous. We observe and believe what is tangibly visible with evidence. Is it wrong to want a God of the universe to be proven the same way? No one who can see God would consider it a choice to believe; they would simply know.
I envy people who feel they know. And while I choose to believe (for my own sanity) that God has his ways of making himself known to people who wish they were born with a “belief gene,” I strongly empathize with those who just couldn’t do it. I’ve been there; some days I still am. I believe those who say they were devout believers for many years, but are not anymore. Let no one try and dictate your story for you when they haven’t lived it.
Excerpted from my upcoming book, Add Jesus and Stir: a Jewish-born Christian’s attempt to understand evangelical culture.