good enough

June 23, 2005

I was a freshman in college when I first got sucked into the world of evangelical Christianity. While my friendships within the IV Fellowship on campus were certainly influential, and I certainly felt the appeal of the community life which the Fellowship offered, what really tripped me up was my need for certainty. I thought by converting to Christianity I would find out for sure that God was real. I didn't particularly want God to be real, but I was intellectually convinced that there was a strong possibility… a possibility too strong to leave just bumping around in the basement. It had to be addressed, even resolved. I think I probably had my fingers crossed somewhere in the back of my mind – if living as a Christian made it apparent that God was real, great, and if there was no god, then my commitment hadn't meant anything in the first place and I could go on my way. A fatal premise was that I could be certain as to the presence or absence of God in the world. A physics major who suddenly decided he had to attain certainty as to the existence of theoretical entities like quarks would equally well set himself up for a fall.

Later in my life, understanding better the nature and power of commitment, I gave my life to God for real. However, I set some limits on the gift. Trying to learn from my experience in college, I imposed some rules – my faith would not be something to talk about with others. If I didn't put it into practice, it wouldn't exist, because I wasn't going to talk it into being – and I wasn't going to put myself at the mercy of others' definitions of what following God should mean for me. It would be private, and so it would not call for intellectual analysis or defense. I knew many of the contradictions inherent in believing in God, and I knew there would always be more, as long as I was willing to hunt for them. The hunt for weak points and vulnerabilities in religion was called off. I was going to remember that it was not within my power as an individual to resolve those contradictions, and I would consider them secondary matters in light of my primary duty to God.

In other words, I felt significant arguments for and against faith had tangled in my intellect for years, and they had fought each other to a standstill. My new life in God would not be an expedition to collect data to start the fight afresh. It was time to actually walk with God, to try to give him the life I owed. You don't need a bachelor's degree to do that.

Very gradually, my faith became a less and less private matter, although I was still cautious about dealing with it in strictly intellectual terms – reading a lot of theology, or trying to win arguments, etc. Of course, I gradually relaxed in that area too, and I've rediscovered the addictive (and not entirely healthy) pleasures of a rhubarb with a skeptic or atheist, particularly since I discovered LiveJournal.

This year – pretty much starting at Christmas in 2004 – I really got involved in hashing out the big question: why believe at all? To such an extent that a good friend approached me the other day, concerned, because he had been following the blog, and to him all this hashing out reflected an uneasy mind and a setup for anguish. I was stunned at first, because that didn't resemble my inner experience at all. I'd been having fun, for the most part. But thinking about what he said, I felt he was simply confirming what I knew was true. The five or six months had been really educational, but the resolutions I made when I first turned my life over to God were still relevant – the intellectual concerns were still a sideshow, a diversion. It was past time I stopped.

Why had I gotten started in the first place? I think the readiness came from my preparations to become a formal member of my church – and at the same time, have our daughter baptized. Just like in my marriage, a time when your commitment deepens or is suddenly made more manifest is often a fruitful time. And then, I'd found an interlocutor I liked and trusted, someone who wasn't simply opposed to religion but was a positive advocate for his own viewpoint and was secure in that viewpoint. He was a good writer, a highly intelligent and sensitive person, and would never serve as a straw man in a pseudo-debate. Most importantly, of course, he liked to tangle. He was willing to try to argue me down. So, like most of the important things that have happened in my life, it came in the form of a relationship. A very limited relationship, to be sure, but a relationship nonetheless. And that was a big part of why this intellectual work didn't feel traumatic like it had in college – not because nothing was at stake, but because only a limited number of issues could come to the table. I was only interested in what would help me understand or make myself understand this particular person. So my mind was on a leash, but it still got to go for a walk, and it really enjoyed having freedom within that secure structure.

A few weeks back, wrote something that helped to crystallize what was wrong with the scenario. He said, paraphrased, that he considered the argument I was engaged in winnable, but winning it was not a Christian duty. He doesn't think the crucial elements of our lives – “an existential faith; an interpersonal faith; and a personal relationship with God” – require or even accomodate an intellectual grasp. In the same spirit, a little bit earlier, a friend had reminded me of Paul's flat statement that the gospel will ultimately look foolish in the light of the world's greatest philosophy and science. It was a profound reminder. Paul may have been saying that right to me, rebuking me for trying to surpass the greatest intellects around me by somehow defending the folly of the gospel. They're great intellects, man – and you're a fool. Stop pretending otherwise.

Then my concerned friend came along, saying, “You know, sometimes you need to be able to say, when someone asks you or you're asking yourself if you have good reasons for believing what you do: well, the reasons are good enough. They're good enough for me. You're too smart to be an absolutist – I know you know that there's no such thing as a reason that's absolutely good for everyone. A reason can be good in relation to your life and what you know or think about the world. And that's good enough.”

So, that said, I want to do one last post to try to bring some closure to this extended discussion we've been having. After that, the last word is his to make, if he wants.

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