“Faith Beyond Belief: Confessions of a Christian Atheist”
March 16, 2007, 6:30 p.m.
I’m a churchgoing Catholic. And I hope you’ll forgive me some real, honest-to-God earnestness. It’s Lent, after all, when Christians are supposed to be most reflective. “Remember that you are dust,” I was told on Ash Wednesday, “and to dust you shall return.” Then the priest smeared a cross on my forehead. Amen. I believed him.
I’ve spent the past five years writing a book with a Jew about the search for the meaning of God. For two of those years I was also studying Pirke Avot, the piece of the Talmud translated as “The Ethics of the Fathers,” with a group led by Rabbi Leon Morris, who directs the Skirball Center of Adult Jewish Learning at
Over this time I’ve become a more solidly and outspokenly Christian, finished a seminary degree, preached a wedding sermon in my church, St. Francis Xavier, in Chelsea, delivered my stepfather’s eulogy in the church where I grew up—and stopped believing in God.
Several weeks ago I was at the Public Library for a conversation between Shakespeare scholar Jim Shapiro and F. Murray Abraham. Abraham was, at the time, playing lead roles in the Theater for a New Audience’s repertory productions of The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice. (The run closed just a few days ago.) Answering a question posed by Shapiro about how he prepares for roles—especially these specifically Jewish roles—Murray, a Syrian Orthodox Christian who won an Academy Award for his 1984 portrayal of Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, insisted that he didn’t think an atheist could play Shylock. He then corrected himself by saying that maybe a “religious atheist” could.
While I’m in no position to remark on whether or not an atheist could play Shylock—although, who am I to argue with F. Murray Abraham—I have spent some time thinking about belief in God, my own included. It’s why I’m here. And I think I may have a sense of what the actor meant by “religious atheist.” It may, in fact, be the best way to describe me.
I’ve begun to think that there is something more that makes a religious person religious than belief. After all, the First Commandment is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” Love, not belief, is the key. Now, it’s true that this idea—that belief is not central to what I would call faithfulness—may come more naturally to Jews than to Christians. I may be preaching to the choir. After all, it’s much more common to hear someone described as a “cultural Jew” than a “cultural Catholic.” And what is it to call someone a “cultural Jew” than to suggest she doesn’t actually believe in God?
But then again, “cultural” affiliation is not exactly what I mean, either, when I talk about not believing in God, and not, I think, what Abraham was getting at when he referred to the casting director’s responsibilities in staging Merchant. I’m not just talking about going to church on Christmas and Easter, although I do. And I’m just not talking about going to synagogue on Yom Kippur or the yearly Passover Seder with family or friends. What matters when it comes to being religious, and for me, in continuing to stake my claim as a religious person—above and beyond belief—is the imagination it involves.
See, as a Christian, I find few things more troubling than the central Christian belief that “faith alone” is what ties us to God and makes us believers. In this scenario, God seems needy and jealous, and we, the faithful, don’t need each other at all. Nor, if we take “God” literally, do we need any imagination—which, as a Christian standing before a Jewish congregation, seems to me a particular shame.
Because even if we decide not to take seriously that clingy and nagging, decidedly un-godlike, God, and focus entirely on another form God takes—say, the one who leads an entire people out of slavery, or another who gives sight to a single blind man—you and I begin to see we have nothing in common. Yet when it comes down to it, that we both can find meaning in these great Jewish and Christian myths and still want to celebrate together tonight, suggests that we have in common the one thing necessary to call ourselves religious. We have a religious imagination.
One of my favorite religion writers, the former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong, has written that we need myths to shape our ideas of God “to create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipsistic selfishness.”
It’s a mouthful, perhaps. But what she’s saying is that to take religious myth seriously—that is, as myth, and not literally—and to possess a truly religious imagination, leads to the understanding that there is no such thing as faith alone. There is only faith together.
Through our myths, the faithful experience spiritual attitudes, not spirits; we seek transcendent value, not transcendence. And selfishness, not some real and monstrous Satan—although we may call it that—is the enemy.
Though he would never refer to himself this way, my most influential guide through Judaism over the years has been my friend Peter. We’ve done a lot of writing and praying together; he’s taught me a great deal about good music, and we’ve listened to a ton of records together; we’ve recently celebrated his fortieth birthday together—which was, as it should have been, as much a celebration of his wife and son as anything else.
Through conversations about birth and death, marriage and children, his awe at the cosmos, my facial tic, and the ethical problems of pornography and pirated CDs, it’s safe to say that as believers, we’ve been reconciled.
I’m not always as direct as I should be. But all I’ve been saying has been leading to that word: reconcile. To come together again.
For Christians, the very idea of reconciliation is sacramental, and may, in fact, be at the center of all our sacraments: from baptism to communion, from to marriage to our last rites—from the cradle to the grave, they say—we’re constantly trying to come to terms with one another in the name of God. We ask in our sacraments: May I wash with you? May I eat with you? May I spend my life with you? May I die with you?
Jews ask the same questions in their rituals. All religious people seem to.
And in asking any of these questions in the name of God—often in a “house of God,” or as a “people of God”—we’re putting more on them than we might otherwise. On the one hand, we’re looking backwards to try to come together with the people who came before us, doing very much the same thing. On the other, we’re constantly looking forward, asking the community, our partners and friends, for their help. We’re using our religious imagination. We’re taking on a spiritual attitude and seeking a transcendent value. Being faithful means that there is always, always something more important than us, a value that transcends us. Some of us call that thing God. Others call it monogamy; still others, sobriety. Some of us call that thing church; still others, justice. Some of us call that thing family; still others, history or tradition. What we all have in common—what reconciles us—what brings me here tonight and sends me to church on Sunday—is the religious imagination: an understanding that in birth and death, in eating and washing, there is no faith alone.
To say we’ve been reconciled is not to say that we believe the same thing. Peter’s belief—though, that is not to say his religiousness, or faithfulness—rests on his encounters with “holiness” itself—something I would never claim to have experienced. It’s what theologian Rudolf Otto would call the mysterium tremendum. When his son Sam was born, Peter says, God tore the roof off building and entered the room. And he talks about his mother Ruth’s death using exactly the same language. (Yet even with the roof off the house, Peter still, according to a Jewish superstition, opened the window to let Ruth’s soul escape.)
Peter experienced the holy, as Otto would describe it, and as many of you may have experienced it, as an “object of horror or dread, but at the same time ... no less allur[ing] with a potent charm.” And “the creature,” in this case, my friend Peter, “trembles before it, utterly cowed and cast down,” feeling “at the same time the impulse to turn to it ... even to make it somehow his own.” It’s how he would react if the roof really were torn off.
And that’s why we understand him, whether we’ve ever been present at a birth or a death. We know the power of storms and the awe they can inspire. In fact, in a way that risks turning the metaphor of God into something literal, we call the most destructive storms—the kinds that literally tear the roofs off our houses—“acts of God.” And far more accurately, far more truthfully, I think, Peter would call Sam’s birth and Ruth’s death acts of God, too.
The encounters any of us have, in and of themselves, are not religious; they may not even be supernatural. They are what Otto calls holy. Before we have ethics or dogma, we have an experience of the “wholly other.” In a birth, a death, a war; in sex, in psychedelics, or, for your rabbi, in the wilds of Alaska.
The way Peter makes these encounters his own is the way religious people have always made meaning of their encounters with God: he tells stories. In a sense, he makes religion. That’s how we reconcile God and the world.
You want to tell an amazing story about the birth of a spiritual genius? When you tell it, have the brightest star in the sky point to
You want to tell a heroic story of the rise of a great king? When you tell it, have him kill a giant with rock and a slingshot.
You want to tell a reassuring story of the death of the messiah? When you tell it, have him not ever actually die.
These are the stories that bring us together, that ask us to live faithfully, that provide meaning to out lives.
Religion—or, in any case, the stories that serve as the basis of religions—has always begun with worldly encounters, transformed into meaningful stories meant to reconcile us with holiness; otherness; that thing that draws you in and repels you all at once.
Encounters with holiness do not begin with an idea about God. Belief itself comes later, when these stories are collected, canonized, and given shape within communities such as this one. These stories and rituals make up the God we imagine exists. Whether some divinity actually exists behind those worldly encounters with story, ritual, and eventually service, doesn’t matter. For the communities that continue to form around particular myths, those stories do not depend on belief to be efficacious. Our mythmakers have always been nothing if not imaginative, and as Karen Armstrong says, their most creative work is, like our best novels, “infused with the spirit of compassion … [and] respect for the sacredness of all life.” By asking us to imagine something outside of ourselves—in other words, by suggesting the sacredness of reconciling with the wholly other—myths help shape our ethics and remind us that other lives are just as meaningful as our own.
This is not to say that we can’t believe. Only that it doesn’t really matter. And the stories can be meaningful whether they actually happened or not. As strange as it sounds, if our emphasis as believers remains on the very fact that we believe, then the more important notion of religious action—the social aspect of religion, that we participate in the world—threatens to become irrelevant.
Now, I’ve gone this whole time without once mentioning, much less giving my thoughts on “Christian forgiveness,” the ostensible subject of this talk. Though I’ve alluded to Christian stories, and suggested deep meanings behind some Christian rituals, I’ve yet to quote a passage from the New Testament and haven’t even mentioned Jesus by name.
But I drew my title tonight, which I originally called “Even as God,” from a piece of the New Testament known as
But these days, forgiveness alone doesn’t seem to me like a particularly religious idea. It’s something we do alone. There are no stories about forgiveness. Only when we bring forgiveness to others—say, the wholly other—in good faith, do we do what we might imagine God would have us do.
So I was wrong in my first, recent thoughts about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Like most of Paul’s letters, this one is concerned with “building up” a church. And while the ideas are radical in some respects, and in other respects elitest—like when Paul writes, “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else” —Paul is a religious genius. (It’s no wonder that Paul, too, has been subject to mythmaking. You want to tell the conversion story of the founder of the Christian church? When you tell it, have him be blinded by a vision of God and knocked to the ground on his way to kill some Christians; then, at the moment of his conversion, have him recover his sight.)
Paul’s real genius is in the way he asks Christians to believe. To be made new. To consider what the will of God might be, and to live that way.
Some verses from his letter:
You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Paul tells Christians: Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Forgive everyone at the end of the day. Put away your bitterness. Act even as God would have you act.
When you go to bed tonight, sleep, but before you do, prepare yourself to be reconciled tomorrow.
In other words, end your day like a good Jew: Pray the bedtime sh’ma.
Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me—whether against my body, my property, my honor or against anything of mine; whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration—I forgive every Jew.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God. When you go to bed tonight, sleep, but before you do, prepare yourself to be reconciled tomorrow. Even as God would. Which means radically: In ways we have yet to imagine.