April 20, 2014
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.
For he who has died is freed from sin.
But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.
For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.
The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
– Romans 6:3-11
of which it is written
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me
and full of gladness…
when the things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.
– From the Catholic Easter Proclamation recited at the annual Easter Vigil Mass
Easter Sunday. The sky is blue, the crocuses are pushing up from the ground, cardinals are hovering around the bird feeder. After a long winter, spring has finally come to Western New York, where I am spending this Easter as I usually do, with my parents and other family members. Over the past week I have engaged in traditions that, for Christians, mean temporarily setting aside our daily concerns behind and entering into another dimension: the realm of story and myth. During these days, Christians commemorate the end of Christ’s earthly ministry, the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, his unjust suffering and death, and his glorious resurrection three days later. During these days, we celebrate the centre of our faith: the belief that God is alive and moving through our troubled world, transforming our pain and suffering into grace and salvation.
During this week, I have found myself meditating on faith. Looking at the world we live in now, with its continued war and violence as well as the destruction of human and non-human life, it can be difficult to maintain a belief in God’s mercy. And for me, as an academic in a secular milieu where atheism or at least agnosticism is most often the default belief system, I find the premises of my religious faith are constantly being challenged. When I look at the history of Christian apologetics (the efforts by theologians to justify the truth of faith through the use of reason) for guidance, one of my favourite arguments is that put forward by seventeenth century philosopher Blaise Pascal. According to “Pascal’s Wager,” as it is called, all of us human beings bet our lives on the possibility of either God’s existence or non-existence. If we do not believe in God, we are unlikely to seek to live according to Christian principles; we are more likely to pursue earthly pleasures and personal gain. If we believe in God, however, we will set our aim on salvation and the infnite reward of heaven. For Pascal, even the possibility of this infinite reward should be enough to convince a rational person to embrace a life of faith.
Though groundbreaking in its time and still invoked today by many Christian apologists, Pascal’s Wager has also met with much criticism. While it might be true that we bet our lives on whether or not God exists, these critics say, we do not know what kind of God this might be. For example, what if God is evil? In that case, any sacrifices we might have made in the hope of an eternal reward will have been in vain. Conversely, if God is truly benevolent and merciful – if his love is unconditional and universal as Christians believe it to be – then why do we need to live according to a set of precepts or even profess belief in order to obtain a divine reward? Then, there is the argument of inconsistent revelations – what if, for example, the God that exists is not the Christian God, but perhaps Zeus, or Odin, or one of the many other divine figures that have graced the stage of human belief systems over the centuries?
For me, there is much truth in Pascal’s wager. As of this writing, God’s existence (or non-existence) has not been proven. Whether we choose to believe, disbelieve, or remain undecided, not one of us can claim to know for sure. Knowing full well that I could turn out to be wrong, I choose to believe – but not for the reasons that Pascal has argued we should. While I hope that I will some day meet Christ face to face in heaven, the truth is that I am already meeting him here and now, on this earth, every day.
Contrary to its public image, the Christian life is not about devaluing our earthly existence. Yes, it is true that we hold a dualist view of the world; we believe that there is a transcendent realm beyond this one where God lives – a transcendent realm we all aspire to reach. At the same time, we also believe that God is immanently present in the world we inhabit: in nature, in our joys and sorrows, and most important, in our relationships with one another.
For me, there is no need to make a bet on eternity. My own experience of Christianity has much more to do with my llife here and now. As a Christian, I am given the opportunity to have a relationship with a loving God who consistently offers strength and mercy – to constantly strive to overcome my innate tenency toward wrongdoing, knowing that God will help and support me every step of the way. As a Christian, I am admitted into a two-thousand year-old community of imperfect but courageous people who are striving to transform our world into the image of the one whom we dare to call its Creator – people like St. Augustine, Michelangelo, Teresa of Avila, Maximilian Kolbe, Oscar Romero and so many others who have lived out their faith in the best way they know how. As a Christian, I am encouraged to constantly seek divinity in my daily existence, to see God’s face in every person I encounter, to find strength even in times of hardship. I am called to love all, to give of myself generously to others, to seek peace through justice, to see beauty and meaning in our world, even when it is at its most chaotic. If this is not the recipe for a happy life on earth, then I do not know what is. And if I can do this, then even if my initial bet on God’s existence (and benevolent nature) turns out to be false, I will not have lived in vain.
I wish a happy Easter to all who celebrate it, and a blessed journey to all.
August 2, 2011
It’s hard to maintain religious faith in the secular world which I live in. Over time, I let my faith grow weak and began to take it for granted, assuming that it would still be there for me when I needed it. Now, I am learning the hard way that there is nothing in life which we can afford to take for granted; there is nothing we have which we might not lose. I have not yet lost my faith, but I’ve come to realize that if I want to keep it, I’m going to have to put up at least something of a fight.
During the past weeks I’ve offered several posts about the “Ideological Turing Test” which Leah Libresco (of the atheist blog Unequally Yoked) ran in order to give Christians and atheists the opportunity to find out if they could know the other side’s arguments so well as to fool a panel of judges. There are many flaws in this kind of exercise, but Leah herself has a post in which she addresses the ethical issues raised by the project. In any case, I’ll admit that during the atheist round I wasn’t trying too hard to fool the judges. While posing as an atheist, I tried to keep my answers as close as possible to my actual beliefs, even though I certainly did a fair amount of bluffing (for anyone interested, my answers to the atheist questions can be found here). I only managed to convince 35% of readers that I was an atheist (though an additional 25% voted me a “lean atheist,” meaning that more people considered me to be a nonbeliever than a Christian. However, I didn’t even come close to fooling enough people to “win” the round.
More interesting to me were the questions for the “Christian” component of the test. As a member of the control group I did not find it necessary to argue or apologize for my faith, but merely to assert the things that I genuinely believe. I took the exercise as an opportunity to make a profession of faith, to state the credo that I uphold in my heart and try my best to live by. When I wrote my answers, the words flowed out in a stream of passion, a kind of thrill and excitement that I only experience when stating something which I deeply, genuinely believe. Faith is a constant struggle for me, but in the moment of sharing those particular answers, I knew that I was winning:
What is your best reason for being a Christian?
I am a Christian because I believe that God exists – in the complexity of nature, in the beauty of art, and in the human capacity for empathy and compassion. Some people have told me that this belief is irrational. I am not so bothered by this charge.
I am a Christian because I believe that, while there are many ways of seeking knowledge of the divine presence in the world, Jesus Christ’s simple commandment for us to love one another (and his following of that commandment in his own life, through his ministry, suffering and death) is the best model for me to follow.
I am a Christian because I want to be part of the tradition that gave birth to Augustine’s Confessions and John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, to Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater,” to Chartres Cathedral and to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to Archbishop Oscar Romero and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, if you believe what Charles Taylor says in Sources of the Self, our entire modern identity. I want to belong to the community that (if it practices what it preaches) is supposed to treat all people with mercy and compassion.
I realize that by identifying as a Christian, I also claim membership in a tradition that is hardly beautiful, one that burned so-called witches at the stake and excommunicated supposed heretics, one that started brutal wars and destroyed entire civilizations in the name of God, one that continues to breed intolerance toward women and anyone who does not identify as straight. However, I do not understand these actions/attitudes as manifestations of Christianity but perversions of it, just as the Gulag was a perversion of Karl Marx’s humanistic philosophy and the Taliban is a perversion of another beautiful religion, Islam.
I don’t claim knowledge of the truth, but for me, Christianity is the best path toward it.
What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to stop believing in God?
For me, faith is very subjective, and I suspect that what would most likely cause me to lose it would be some sort of drastically traumatic personal experience in which I felt God’s absence very strongly, as it appears to have happened to Elie Weisel in the Holocaust. As for empirical evidence against God…The reality is that (for the moment anyway) there isn’t any. I know that this is a claim which atheists dispute, but for now at least, science has been unable to prove or disprove God’s existence. Also, I do not consider science the only valid approach to human knowledge. It is certainly the best means of explaining to us how the universe works, but it cannot tell us why the universe exists, or what the purpose of life is. For this we turn to other sources: art, philosophy and (for some people) religion. Some Christians concede that a confirmed discovery of the remains of the body of Christ in Jerusalem would force them to abandon Christianity, for its central claim – that Christ rose from the dead – would be proven false. However, I do not think that this would be enough to make me abandon Christianity. The religion would be proven factually false, but I maintain that factual truth is not the only kind of truth. At best, Christ is the God who created the universe and destroyed death; at worst, he’s a very wise man who was just a little bit better than the rest of us, and that alone, for me, is enough of a reason to follow his teachings and seek to emulate his life.
Why do you believe Christianity has a stronger claim to truth than other religions/On what basis do you reject the truth claims of other traditions and denominations but accept your own?
I do not believe that Christianity has a stronger truth claim than other religions. Religion is the creation of fallible human beings who are very limited in our capacity to understand God. Consequently, all religions contain many flaws, and while all can claim to approach the truth, none can claim to have attained it (and, with the exception of the fundamentalists, most religions do not make this claim). No one knows for certain whether or not God exists, or whether or not humans have an immortal soul, or what (if anything) happens to us after death. Religion is a product of the human imagination. While critics of religion would dismiss this imaginative nature of religion as grounds for its falsity, I maintain that imagination is one of our most important human faculties. The ability to tell stories and find beauty and meaning in our experience constitutes a significant part of who we are, and in my view, this drive for myth and narrative is the most important thing that religion offers to humanity.
My decision to be a Christian is a very subjective one, and to be honest, it’s based largely upon aesthetics. Whether or not you believe in Christ’s divinity, it is hard to dispute that this outspoken, passionate man who healed the sick and ate with tax collectors was a beautiful person. The parables which he tells are beautiful stories; the morality which he outlines is a beautiful morality. Of course, one might argue that all religions contain such beauty – and they do. Christianity is just the one that speaks to me most personally.
How do you read the Bible? Do you study the history of its translations? How do you decide which translations/versions/books are the true Bible? How does it guide you if you have a moral or theological dilemma?
I belong to a Christian denomination which is notorious for its lack of biblical knowledge; the majority of us encounter the Bible in a liturgical setting, where various passages are read, but very few actually study it. I must confess that I have not yet compared translations or read the apocryphal books of the Bible (though both of these activities are definitely on my to-do list)! Also, I do not interpret the Bible literally, but as an allegory and an image of one particular human community’s experience of the Divine.
Other than one religion class taken in high school, I have only studied the Bible seriously while preparing to teach it to a group of literature students. In this class we read the New Revised Standard edition of the Bible as a secular literary text. Interestingly, reading the Bible in this nonreligious context allowed me to rethink my faith and to renew my religious beliefs. I was struck by the various images of God in the Old Testament, which I view as complementary rather than contradictory (the transcendent creator-God in the first Genesis creation story followed by the immanent human-God in the second one, for example) and the revolutionary spirit of the New Testament (I sometimes wonder if most Christians even realize that we believed in a God who told us to give all our possessions to the poor, to drop absolutely everything in order to follow him, and to love our enemies). I do sometimes turn to the Bible for inspiration in times of moral crisis; I have several favorite passages, and when feeling flippant I occasionally open the book to a random page (Magic 8-Ball style!) and read whatever message I find there, just as Augustine did.
I meant everything I said in this post, and I still mean it. So, you can imagine my shock when I looked at the statistics from the readers’ responses to my post. Only 10% of voters were definitely convinced that I was a Christian, with an additional 20% voting me a “lean Christian.” 70% found me to be either a “lean” or complete nonbeliever. Seeing these answers, I couldn’t help but shuffle nervously in my chair and read my responses again. Did I really sound so weak in my convictions that only a minority of readers found me to be a genuine Christian? My answers had not sounded or felt weak in the moment when I was producing them – why, then, did they fail to convince everyone else? Or is it just that these were not the responses that someone would expect a true Christian to offer? Looking through the post again, I certainly understand why people might be unconvinced of my religious conviction. What gives Christianity a higher truth claim than other religions? Nothing, I say. Is Christ the Son of God? Maybe; I hope so. These are not the answers of a person of strong faith. These are the answers of a person mired in doubt and uncertainty, someone who has tottered for years on the precarious tightrope between belief and unbelief. Perhaps my one strength is that I do know which side I want to be on, and I do manage to land there, even if staggering, time and time again. But somehow, this is not enough of me. I recall the ending of Flannery O’Conner’s classic short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” After the Misfit finally kills the racist, hypocritical grandmother, he makes an interesting comment:
“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Fortunately for me, I don’t have someone there to shoot me every minute of my life, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of person I might turn out to be if I did. Maybe at least then I would learn to have some convictions that others could know and recognize to be genuine. But for now, I continue to walk the fence, struggling to avoid the sharp metal spokes but continuing on even when my feet get pricked, naively trusting some unseen higher power that I’ll continue to fall down on the side of faith, which is still the side where I so vehemently want to be.
“Come on, let’s say hello to Nancy,” my mother urged, nudging me slightly as we stepped out of our pew. The church service had just ended, and my heart was pounding. I was visiting my parents in Buffalo, NY after a significant amount of time away, and while I loved returning to the Catholic church of my youth, I dreaded seeing all those former teachers, family acquaintances, and other parishioners who’d known me since childhood. Would they be disappointed to see how I – who once served on three parish committees and talked about becoming a nun – had turned out?
These people couldn’t possibly know that my church attendance in my new home had become sporadic, or that some of my political views had diverged from traditional Catholic teachings, or that at times my very belief in God wavered. But I knew these things, and like Dostoevsky’s guilt-ridden Raskolnikov, I couldn’t help but read my own insecurities into their pleasant smiles.
Nancy, a woman in her seventies, was a veteran member of the parish. I knew her well from many Sunday afternoons during high school when I would accompany my mother to parish council meetings. “So, what have you been up to lately?” she asked.
I began telling her about my latest activities– studying for a Ph.D. at University of Toronto and teaching beginning Spanish to fifty sweet but reticent eighteen-year-old undergraduates. “Do you plan to stay in Toronto permanently?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I responded honestly. “The academic job market is a roller coaster – who knows where I’ll end up?”
“You’re educating yourself away from us,” she said.
These words caught me off guard. I knew that Nancy meant that I was “educating myself away” from my hometown, with no plans to move back any time soon. However, my underlying insecurities gave them a different undertone. Might she mean that I was abandoning the faith in which I’d been raised?
Her comment forced me to reflect on my own religious journey. I was raised Catholic, and throughout my childhood I rarely questioned Church teachings. My first shock came on my first day of high school in the cafeteria when one of my new classmates declared her unbelief. “There isn’t any evidence for God,” this black-clad atheist declared. “I think it’s just a story we’ve made up.”
I nearly spit out my chicken souvlaki in bewilderment, but I quickly launched into a diatribe defending all the teachings of my youth. However, her words remained with me – especially as we engaged in more debates and, as our high school years passed, became close friends. I soon realized that, like it or not, atheism was a force to be taken seriously. The teachings of my youth were no longer the absolute truth, but one of many paths towards it.
When I arrived at my non-sectarian liberal arts college and saw my new classmates in all their pink-haired, multi-pierced glory, I knew I wasn’t in Catholic school anymore. My resident advisor eyed me quizzically when I asked where to find the nearest church in town; the girls on my hall viewed my religiosity as outmoded. And while I later realized that several of my classmates and teachers were indeed religious, I realized that nonbelievers were a huge presence not only in my new college, but in society at large. I had no choice but to take them seriously.
Unlike what I’d previously been led to believe, atheists were not bad people; in fact, many of them seemed to live much more ethically and meaningfully than a lot of religious believers I knew. And yet, while many of the people I spoke to looked at religion with interest and curiosity, they did not feel a need for it in their own lives. They did not report feeling like they were missing something; there was no “God-shaped hole” in their universe. For them, religion simply didn’t figure as necessary.
When I moved to Toronto for graduate school, I found myself in a definite minority. There are many reasons for the lack of religious belief in academia. One is its ongoing debt to the Enlightenment tradition. During the eighteenth century, thinkers like Voltaire stormed into the dusty halls of the old religious institutions, affirming scientific reason based on evidence and raising a suspicious eyebrow toward any kind of mysticism.
All academic disciplines, including the humanities, are heavily influenced by this rationalist approach. As I focused more and more of my energy on approaching texts critically, I found my own beliefs challenged. If every text can be subject to rational inquiry, just what exactly is the place of revealed truth? As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor remarks in A Secular Age – his study of the decline in Western religiosity – we now live in a pluralistic society where unbelief is the default position. And this can make it very difficult for people who are struggling to maintain their religious faith.
At one moment in my senior year of college, I became struck by depression and temporarily lost my faith. When I told my philosophy professor about my situation, she offered me two books – Fritjof Schuon’s The Transcendent Unity of Religions and Martin Buber’s I and Thou – that transformed my understanding of religion. I started to view faith not as a set of dogmas, but as a way of understanding human experience.
For both authors, religious experience shakes us out of our habitual ways of thinking and compels us to face the divine presence in our lives. Schuon suggests that all of the major world religions consist of two dimensions: the exoteric realm of belief, doctrine, and ritual (inhabited by the masses) and the esoteric realm of contemplation (inhabited by a small, generally self-selected group of monks or nuns who have opted to devote their lives to the mystical pursuit of divine knowledge. For Schuon, the realm of the esoteric is a point of intersection of all religions as well as the centre of each individual religion itself. When focusing on the esoteric, one sees that religion is not about explaining phenomena in the world, but about experiencing the presence of the divine. In this schema, questions about doctrine and belief fade away; only the experience matters.
Jewish theologian Martin Buber takes a similar approach in his I and Thou, which describes religion as an alternative way of relating to the world. In our everyday lives, we tend to view phenomena in our environment – places, things, and indeed other people – as objects for our instrumental use, or understanding, or interpretation. This he terms the “I-It” relation, and it is in this state that most of us lead the greater portion of our lives. However, there are moments when something in our environment catches us off guard, and we come face to face another subject with whom we enter a relation based on equality. For Buber, it is in this moment of mutual recognition that religious experience lies.
I am happy to say that these readings saved my religious beliefs when I was twenty-one. However, lately some of the old doubts and questions have been coming back. If religion is fundamentally experience, then what is the place of doctrine and belief? I can follow Schuon and argue that experience lies at the core of all religion, but what of the periphery? What will happen to us if it just withers away? And finally, while Schuon manages to reveal the lack of contradiction between different faith traditions, can his model be extended to those who subscribe to those of no faith?
The conflict in today’s world, as I see it, does not lie between one religion and another, but between theism and atheism – faith and no faith. For atheists of the Richard Dawkins persuasion, all religious believers are misguided; their claims are simply wrong when held up to empirical scrutiny, and religion holds no legitimate place in the modern world; for many believers it is easier to relate to other theists (even those coming from other religious traditions) than to non-theists. But if we start from the premise that we are on different paths toward truth (and not in absolute possession of the truth), is there a way that we might all turn out to be right?
These are the questions that I continue to grapple with while struggling to maintain my faith in the land of academia. And, at this point I can say that while my perspective on life has definitely become more secularized over the years, I haven’t educated myself out of faith. God appears in so many ways – not only when I must make tough decisions or grapple with life’s uncertainties, but also in the everyday experiences of appreciating the beauty in a work of literature, or witnessing the flash of understanding as one of my students comes to master a new concept, or reconnecting with an old friend who, after a long absence, happens to reappear in my life. Everyone’s path toward the truth is different, and while I don’t consider the religious perspective to be inherently superior to the non-religious one, I also can’t accept it as inferior. For me, the rational approach just isn’t enough to make sense of the world, or my own place in it. There are some experiences that I can only understand as divine.