(Picture from Empower Network.)
Certain names have been changed to protect their privacy. Other than that, this is a true story.
Dear reader, I'm afraid I have to make a confession. I thought I was going to take this secret with me to the grave, but I can no longer deny the truth.
I’m an a/theist.
No, that wasn’t a typo. I’m not an atheist in the Richard Dawkins "theists are delusional" dogmatic sense. I’m an a/theist, which, according to Peter Rollins, “is not some sort of agnostic middle point hovering between theism and atheism, but rather, actively embraces both out of a profound faith.”
Confused? Okay, well, let me try to explain. In fundamentalism and most evangelicalism, one is extremely confident about what one believes about God. The Bible is 100% factual and inerrant, and no amount of objective evidence can change that. “In contrast,” Rollins says, “the a/theistic approach can be seen as a form of disbelieving what one believes, or rather, believing in God while remaining dubious concerning what one believes about God (a distinction that fundamentalism is unable to maintain).”
So in other words, I have my beliefs about who and what God is, but I don’t hold a death grip on those beliefs. I try to open my hands up enough to give my beliefs room to grow, evolve, and adapt. And most of the time I can do that without having an existential crisis. Sometimes, though, the evolutionary process is so painful that I’m tempted to go from a/theist to atheist.
This happened recently during Labor Day weekend.
Prior to that, I was already having doubts. No specific event triggered the doubts; it was just my usual heady intellectual existentialist armchair philosopher angst. The questions piled on like snowballs rolling down a mountain: “How can we know for sure that God exists?” “Why is God so silent?” “Can a person be compassionate without religion? And if so, does this mean religion is useless?” I looked for answers, but couldn’t find any. Normally ambiguity doesn’t bother me, but this time I was like, “Fuck ambiguity, somebody give me a straight answer!” I never got a straight answer, but re-reading Rollins and Kierkegaard satisfied my existentialist armchair philosopher angst enough for the time.
That is, until the Friday before Labor Day. My coworker Jessica called us up at work and told us that her two-year-old daughter Rose was at John Hopkins. The doctors performed three emergency brain surgeries in forty-eight hours, and it looked like Rose was going to make it. But by Labor Day, the doctors said she was dying. Although she didn't die until two days later, I already started mourning her.
I was at my boyfriend Sean’s house when I got the news. We sat on his porch trying to make sense of what just happened.
“Maybe it’s sort like Job," I said, "where this is no answer in the end. Maybe it’s all an ambiguous ending where the only thing we know in the end is that God exists, and God put the natural world in order. But that kinda sounds like a cop-out, doesn’t it?”
“It does, a little," he replied. "But I don’t think anyone can understand God. We’re not supposed to, or else it wouldn’t be faith.”
“I guess you’re right.” I wasn’t completely satisfied, but at least I had some one to talk to about this.
Sean lives an hour and a half from my house, so on my way home that evening I had plenty of time to think about Rose, God, and why this happened. I couldn’t believe that God somehow ‘preordained’ Rose to die so young in order to give God’s self glory. That kind of theology makes it sound like God has a borderline personality disorder.
Then you have the process theologians like my friends Tripp and Bo at the Homebrewed Christianity podcast. They say that God doesn’t preordain every single event that happens on Earth, but God does guide us (non-coercively, of course) in creating a better future. That would definitely explain how God can be good when there’s so much misery in the world. But then again, it also makes it sound like God’s kind of lazy, doesn’t it?
Then, all of a sudden, I realized something: there’s no way of knowing for certain who or what God is, or even whether or not God exists. I had to decide for myself what I believe. And so, at that moment, I chose to believe that God did not preordain Rose’s death. I chose to believe that God was healing Jessica and her husband right there and then. I chose to believe that God, in the words of Alfred North Whitehead, is the “fellow-sufferer who understands.” I chose to believe that Resurrection Sunday will always follow Good Friday and Holy Saturday. I chose to have faith in spite of the absurd.
Rollins says, “For when we can say that we will follow God regardless of the uncertainty involved in such a decision, then real faith is born—for love acts not whenever a certain set of criteria has been met, but rather because it is in the nature of love to act.” And that’s why I still believe, because I believe to have hope in the midst of despair.
. Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2006), 25.
. Ibid, 26.
. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1979), 351.
. Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God, 34.