by Kelly Wilson
The Apostle Paul was knocked off his horse in a blinding flash. Emperor Constantine saw a burning white-hot cross in the sky. John the Divine cowered in his cave as he watched the stars fall.
Christianity has always been propelled forward by life-changing revelations.
My apocalyptic moment happened at a computer desk in a tiny studio apartment in the northern reaches of Manhattan, amid a clutter of papers and half-empty coffee cups.
But it was no less earth-shattering than if an angel with a flaming sword showed up at the door delivering the news.
I had struggled for months with a writing piece—a spiritual memoir, loosely modeled after Augustine’s “Confessions.” In it, I tried to make sense of the devout religion of my youth, with the hopes of finally figuring out the “real truth” about God.
Critics of religion have often called it a convenient coincidence that children believe in the same gods that their parents do. To quote Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption, upon hearing the murder weapon was not found, I found it “decidedly inconvenient.”
From my teen years on, I had faced the challenge of making sense of my faith. I studied Biblical history, interpretation, hermeneutics, exegesis, the literary critical method, and so on. Out of college, I felt like I had finally dug out from a parochial, fundamentalist view of Christianity to a broad, liberal, progressive understanding of the Kingdom of God that welcomed and embraced all people. (Yes, I even became an Episcopalian!)
But in a world with thousands of points of view, both religious and non-religious, I was still uncertain that my belief was based on something real, not just sentimentality or fear. I needed to know that my beliefs were something I could stand behind, not just a vestige of my evangelical Midwestern upbringing.
Had I ever really considered any other beliefs? Why was I still so focused just on one tradition? Was it just intellectual laziness? Force of habit?
I decided the only way to know was to approach religion scientifically. Some scholars claim that religion and science cover such differing areas of existence that there is no overlap, but I disagree. Both make claims about the universe and how it functions, those claims can be examined and tested, just like any other problem.
I would look at science texts, at religious texts, talk to people about what they believed, test my own assumptions for relative plausibility, and lay out all the evidence. Using my senses and the power of reason, I would get to the bottom of this.
It was, of course, going to take a phenomenally long time. Wiser men than I had dedicated their entire lives to this pursuit, and had still never gotten to the bottom of it. There was a huge amount of data to be considered. Thousands of books, millions of pages, hours upon hours of analysis and cogitation.
And somewhere in there I was still going to have to go to work, earn a living, eat, sleep, have a life. More to the point, I was going to need to find a way to live that life.
Because of my background, it was going to be exceptionally difficult for me to be objective. I knew I was going to have a strong bias toward Christianity, and might need to distance myself if I was going to have any clarity. I spoke with one friend, a scientist, who wisely said “Sometimes when you are in the habit of believing something, you have to choose not to.”
In the theater and other art forms, there is a concept called the “willing suspension of disbelief,” which allows an audience member to join in the vivid and continuous dream unfolding on stage. I found myself trying to accomplish the opposite concept, the “willing suspension of belief,” in which I held my Christian beliefs at a distance as I tried to examine the bigger picture.
My ambivalent stance made prayer awkward at best. I have long been in the habit of prayer, to ask for help, to discuss problems, to check in with God to make sure I’m still working within the plan at any given time. But prayer was difficult for me during this dark period. I would find myself laying in bed, whispering to the darkness in tortured, legalistic language:
“Dear God, that is, if you exist, and if you are the same powerful god who created the universe, and if you are involved with human affairs, and if it is ok to petition you…”
And so on.
It’s hard to walk on eggshells before the Divine when you are used to just crawling into the Father’s lap. But I muddled through, trying to be humble in my ignorance.
The bigger issue was adopting an ethical stance. Since my earliest childhood, I had lived under scrutiny of a divine eye, expecting that there would be consequences for my choices. Now I found myself feeling uncomfortably weightless with regard to moral choices.
I thought back to Maugham’s pathetic antihero Philip Carey in “Of Human Bondage”, who threw aside his devout upbringing and carved out a moral code for himself consisting of “Follow your inclinations with regard to the policeman around the corner.”
Surely, even in my uncertainty, I could come up with something a little less shoddy than that.
I had long heard from my atheist friends that fear of divine retribution is far from the only source of morality. But how could I make sure I was still above reproach during my investigation? Would it be more genuine to base my behavior on kindness than on fear? On the well-being of the many? On what merely felt right?
This was wild, uncharted territory.
Without knowing exactly what I was doing, I embarked on my project. Rather than take on the major theological issues head-on, such as “Is there a God?” or “Did Jesus rise from the dead,” I started first with a personal narrative. It seemed to make sense to set a baseline for what I believed, and to identify where my biases lie.
It was once I clawed my way through the history of all my belief-challenges to the present, and asked myself, “So now what?” that I had the first revelation of the night.
As I gazed at this ornate wall of belief that had been built by so many influences and experiences over the years, it dawned on me that it was going to be nearly impossible for me to achieve any level objectivity at all.
I believed what I believed. My biases were my biases, and that was probably it, at least for today. My fears and hopes and assumptions all operated within me in the same way as if they were facts empirically proven in the laboratory.
On one hand, the realization that I wasn’t objective was OK. In fact, I realized that this was probably the case for many, if not everyone. Everyone approaches he world with their own frameworks, some of which they can see and some which they can’t, which are either supported or contradicted by what they observe.
My background assumed the existence of God, a truth that was either going to have to be confirmed or falsified with evidence, if I was willing to consider it. Atheists assumed that it was possible for this universe to arise without help, and that ever-natural explanation was more likely than a supernatural one. Agnostics assumed that it was unknowable.
Even journalism, which had long been the bastion of supposed objectivity, had all but given up on the idea of objectivity, in favor of differing points of view. Today, anyone can call up a news network or website that fits his or her own belief structure.
This realization did not ruin my endeavor. The scientific method is built in such a way to overcome those biases, but it’s OK to have them. In fact, hypothesis is encouraged.
In fact, after trying to hold my beliefs at arms length for so long, it was something of a relief to be able to admit that, despite my intentions, I believed. I just believed.
Many Christians would call this the best way to believe, an example of a kind of childlike faith. A faith beyond reason.
Of course, on the other hand, I found this unreasonable faith incredibly annoying. It seemed less than noble, if not totally irresponsible, to stake a claim in such an unsupported theology without evidence. Without first doing the hard work of digging to uncover the very bones of this system of belief.
But admitting that yes, indeed, I did believe, I believed in God and I believed in Jesus and the crucifixion and the resurrection and the whole of it, was like I was truly admitting who I was, after a long period of living in hiding.
I could finally pray to the God I knew.
The whole event reminded me of CS Lewis’ famous conversion story, when he described the night of his reluctant conversion:
That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.
In my funk, however, I realized that I had unlocked the secret to knowing how to proceed, or at least half of it. At any given point in my life—or perhaps in anyone’s life—when it comes to making choices, I can only do what it is I know how to do. This is akin to the scripture that states that faith is a gift from God, and that each of us are expected to live in accordance to what we’ve been given.
The basis of my assumptions about the universe, what was expected of me, what I hoped and feared, was the accumulated knowledge that I had gathered through my lifetime. It was all I knew to do. As such, how could God expect me, or anyone, to do more than this?
Even as I considered this truth, the other half of the revelation dawned upon me. I still didn’t know for sure if what I believed was absolutely, incontrovertibly true. Despite the long, storied history of the scriptures and the richness of the tradition I followed, the actual physical evidence to support even the existence of God, let alone all the details of the Bible and Gospels, was scant.
On the other side, there were solid philosophical arguments that posited that any explanation other than the supernatural were more likely than the ones put forth by Christianity.
And still, just outside the door, there were thousands of other points of view, both religious and non-religious, that claimed just as much authority on just as little evidence.
And even if I was utterly convinced that every word of the Bible were inherently written by God Himself, there was still a matter of understanding it. If one believes the Gospel stories, even the disciples who walked daily with Jesus expected him to emerge as a conquering king to overturn the Roman Empire. They had no idea that the plan involved death or resurrection, or any of the key tenets of the faith we have today. They had absolutely no idea what the story was until after it happened—and they were in it!
To quote the Apostle Paul, I still saw through a glass darkly, just as so many had before me.
The only way I could know I was being responsible, both in my reason and my faith, was to continue to keep an open mind to the next revelation. I would stand on the foundation of my current faith—in fact, I could do no better—but would have to hold onto it loosely enough to be ready when new information, be it physical evidence from the latest scientific journal or spiritual revelation from the Holy Spirit, taught me something new.
It is for this reason that you won’t see me out in public, pounding on the cover of my Bible and telling everyone the error of their ways. I’m happy to tell you about my experience. I’m happy to tell you what I believe, what has been revealed to me. I’m happy to tell you about my answered prayers, about the miracles I’ve seen, about the hearings and financial rescues and dangers I’ve walked away from unscathed. I’m happy to tell you about the profound peace I experience when I walk into a church, or close my eyes in prayer.
But I know I don’t know it all, and would be lying if I said I do.
I just believe.
My investigation still continues. In fact, in many ways, I’ve only just begun. I have a young son who asks me questions every day, which forces me to re-examine my assumptions over and over again.
Which I think is the way it’s supposed to work. If I’m doing the best I know to do with what I’ve already learned, but constantly working to keep my mind open to the new, I’m not sure how anyone could ask more of me than that.
Because of this system of thought that came crashing into my apartment that dark night, I can finally feel that I’m being as responsible as I can to my intellectual and spiritual integrity, while still living a faith that I can stand behind and call my own.
Kelly Wilson is a writer and blogger living in New York City, where he also serves on the staff of the landmark Cathedral Church of St John the Divine. More of his writing can be found at www.kellywilson.com.
image: Angel with Flaming Sword by Franz Stuck