nonsermon #4: my unbelief

by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

Although these nonsermons are decidedly against preaching, I am still drawn to a particular Gospel narrative that speaks to me even now. The story of Matthew 9 states that when a man asks Jesus to rid his son of a bad spirit, Jesus tells him that all things are possible for those who believe. The man replies, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”

This nameless man, whose son is afflicted by a spirit, asks for help, and Jesus tells him to believe. The agonized father has the audacity to tell Jesus that he does believe, but he needs something tangible to believe in beyond words and statements of conviction. This is not a man who is lazy and unwilling to do the work of believing, but a man in distress: his son needs help, and he’s putting his efforts into believing but not seeing the part where all things become possible.

In telling Jesus to help his unbelief, he gives Jesus a direct command. As a child, teenager, and even as an adult, I was warned by many Christian elders not to test God, not to question but to wholly believe. Perhaps because I felt my doubts were not honored in church, I was never able to reconcile my tendency toward unbelief with a life of faith.

Maybe I have more to do in the way of belief, as this nameless man confesses. But right now, you are going to have to prove there’s something to believe in.

Among the people upheld as symbols in religious communities, Mother Teresa is often remembered for her good works but is not frequently remembered for being uncertain of God’s presence. In her words: “Where is my faith? Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness… If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.”

As anxiety seems to increase in the United States, with millennials often found to be the most anxious generation, and blame being distributed among factors like social media, chemical pollution, and living alone, one stands out: as privileged Americans concern ourselves less with literal survival, we tend to turn inward. But instead of developing a self based on intrinsic desires for community and love (Hard to come by? To recognize? To want?), many seek extrinsic desires such as financial and material wealth. “Motivations are drifting away from the community and onto the individual,” writes Tim Newman. “Materialism is paramount in modern society.”

Given the ever-widening gap in income, lifelong student loan debt, and increasing financial insecurity, it would seem my generation needs something beyond money to believe in. There are still many who believe the answer is faith, but for many others faith is a question at best, still unresolved and possibly irresolvable.

Four years before the end of his life, Roger Ebert dedicated one of his blogs to his beliefs about life, and he posited: “I was told that I was an atheist. Or an agnostic. Or a deist. I refused all labels. It is too easy for others to pin one on me, and believe they understand me. I am still working on understanding myself.” Quoting Whitman, he corrected those who tried to label him: “How sad if our freedom to think about the immensity of time and space could be defined by what someone informs us that we believe.”

Ultimately, he stated his most firm belief in kindness—that to ourselves and to others.

When elders—in my life, religious ones—criticize millennials for questioning institutions and challenging systems of oppression, how often do they consider those words: “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”?

How long does it last: that shortsightedness of youth they tell us we will outgrow?

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master, Joaquin Phoenix’s character finds himself in the throes of a cult-like religious group called the Cause, led by a charismatic minister played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. After Phoenix escapes the group’s hold on him, Hoffman asks: “If you figure out a way to live without serving a master, any master, let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”

How old was I when it struck me? A lot of men believe they are going to heaven because they have made God in their image.

Coming from an evangelical faith tradition, I understood why the Christians around me wanted to share with others what had brought them comfort. What I never understood was the ways by which many religious people turned the idea of an inclusive community into an exclusive affair. I was 20, studying religion and interning with church youth groups, when Rob Bell provoked controversy with his book Love Wins, which argues against “hell” as a place where people who are not Christian go, and argues instead for a universally redemptive message in Christianity.

When people in my church spoke out against Bell, and he eventually left a pastoral position at his own congregation, I wondered if there was enough room in this house for me. If I would want the room I was offered if it meant that others were left outside.

A professor who later became a guiding mentor throughout my life first introduced me, in an African Diaspora class, to the idea that some cultures do not have a word for religion, and instead concern themselves with the idea that “there is no place where God is not.”

I do not want to fetishize the “other” as a means to critique Western culture. That which is deemed so can become profitable in certain American hands. Short of commodification, however, what have we lost through arrogance? In efforts to save the world through evangelism?

Religious historian Charles Long understands the Western category of “civilization” to be an empty term deployed over and against that which it considers “primitive,” namely, he argues, Native and Black Americans. Millennials grew up watching older generations reinvigorate Islamophobia after 9/11, and those of us who did not fall prey to this “othering” began to question what kind of nation, what kind of religious value, would cast an entire religion as “primitive” for the deeds of a few? Under what names has our own country deemed itself something other than violent?

When I first wrote this, examples of Islamophobic violence in the U.S. were rampant, yet as I prepare for this post we know that 50 Muslims were killed and as many injured in their house of worship by a man in New Zealand who cited white nationalist rhetoric from the U.S.

We must do more than repent of violence and go on about our business. We must name every instance of exclusion, othering, and harmful rhetoric that perpetuates such hatred. People are killed for their beliefs by the continual, unrepenting ideologies of hate that have infected us through white supremacy, Islamophobia, and other evils.

“The Christian church has betrayed and dishonored and blasphemed that Saviour in whose name they have slaughtered millions and millions and millions of people,” wrote James Baldwin. Arguing that Christians do not believe in Christ since they have lived against his teachings, Baldwin inquires, “[W]hy, then, wonder the unredeemed, should I abandon my god for yours? For I know my gods are real: they have allowed me to withstand you.”

Though Baldwin left the Christian church, where his father had preached and he himself started preaching at the age of 14, his works—both fiction and nonfiction—returned frequently to religious imagery as a metaphor of the need for a spiritual and moral reckoning in America. The quote above appears in his book No Name in the Street, divided into two sections, which, when read together, say: “Take me to the water / To be baptized.”

Baldwin, in this and other works, believed that Black and white Americans would need to be baptized into a new life together, but that it would require white Americans giving up  “the doctrine of white supremacy.” Writing in The Fire Next Time, Baldwin argued that “in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred.”

He felt, while preaching, that he should be telling his audience to leave their pews and take action elsewhere.

Milosz: “‘Christ has risen.’ Whoever believes that / Should not behave as we do.”

No matter how many mass shootings, no matter how many hate crimes, acts rooted in racism, misogyny, homophobia, and terror of the marginalized, Americans continue to say that this is not us.

Sontag: “Someone who is permanently surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.”

Help our unbelief, for the ways it continues to kill.

In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the protagonist Celie can no longer stand to write letters to God, long portrayed to her as a white man, so instead she writes to her sister, Nettie. As Celie begins to understand that God is not a white man, Shug asks her, “…have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me.”

I believe that if there is a God, this God is not omnipotent, but is very dependent on human hands. What we do with them, what we don’t.

One of the fundamental issues with respecting all orientations to life is that certain theologies see Jesus as the only pathway to God. As soon as I decided that I could not accept this tenet, I felt myself on the exterior doors of the home I grew up safe inside. By the time I entered college and found that a wealth of other theologies existed which honored other spiritual paths—ones full of doubt, apart from evangelism, for inclusion—I did not know how to honor the faith of my youth without letting it go entirely.

Patricia Lockwood, in her memoir Priestdaddy, which meditates on growing up, out of, and back into a religious household, writes: “The question, for someone who was raised in a closed circle and then leaves it, is what is the ‘us’, and what is the ‘them’, and how do you ever move from one to the other?”

The difference between a headcount and a community: a lot of churches want to appear affirming and diverse without doing the work of becoming so.

Talking with a friend experiencing a similar crisis of faith, she brought up the guilt that she carries with her from the church of her youth and how difficult it is to shake this guilt in order to become whole, to enter a new space of comfort. I said that working through my own crisis and deciding to be open with my struggle made me realize that I fear this is something I am doing to my family instead of for myself.

We both agreed: this guilt will not carry us where we need to go.

I have friends working within churches to change them, other friends who have given up on church altogether. I sympathize with both. Often on social media there are calls for people to walk out of Sunday services if pastors do not mention the latest tragedy brought on by white supremacy, American gun culture, or misogyny.

Often I feel weirdly on the outside of this debate, as I haven’t found myself on a pew in some time, in part because of this silence and in part because my leaving did not bring me to arrive elsewhere. My only advice: if churches want millennials back, they will have to let go of the gospel of silence that protects present-day evils.

Anthony Pinn warns against overestimating the role of non-theists in struggles for civil rights throughout history. While some religious people lead movements while others stay silent, so, too, do some people who claim no faith lead movements while others stay silent. It is not religion alone, then, that determines what people will do with our agency in our little time here.

In his reading of Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, James G. Chappel critiques Hägglund’s idea that religious people do not concern themselves with the finite world since they are concerned with an eternal world. “For many,” Chappel argues, “this world matters precisely because of its linkage to the eternal.”

So, then, both the religious and otherwise could stand to see beyond dogmatism in order to form a new vision of our world and its matter.

In articulating his beliefs on the necessity of kindness in our world, Ebert confessed, “I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” Mother Teresa, doubter that she was, believed our duty as humans was to be a “living expression of God’s kindness.”

A convergence of belief, even in their unbelief.

“I believe in the ordinary day…,” Merwin wrote, “it extends beyond whatever I may / think I know and all that is real to me”.

Where did he go, last week, when he passed? “There is no place I know outside today,” he proclaimed, “except for the unknown all around me.”

In Night, Elie Wiesel writes in the first pages of the wisdom Moshe the Beadle passes on to Eliezer: “Every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer.” Stated elsewhere, Joseph Heller writes in Catch-22: “It was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.”

Who or what made me to feel wrong for questioning? I pray to never uphold certainties at the expense of my true spirit, how it wanders without end.

I would like to think that I did not leave the firm answers of childhood to find other firm answers elsewhere. Instead, I am trying to honor the questions of my life as beliefs in themselves.

Inquiring to Rainer Maria Rilke about his poetry and whether he should pursue a literary or military career, Franz Xaver Kappus found that Rilke had no answer for him but was a willing correspondent in his questions. Rilke famously wrote in a letter to Kappus, “I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue. Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”

Keep the letters of Paul: Rilke’s message has been a gospel, a word of good news, throughout my ambivalence, my anger, my ambiguities. Along with him, Baldwin, and others, I still hear the voice of God, whatever that may now mean to me, in the words I’ve underlined and returned to, like proverbs that serve as balms in hours of need, and which I have tried to distill to you in small batches but find myself pouring out on the table to see what they all could mean. Here, hold these under the light, I find myself saying, to understand what they might illuminate.

And would you believe me if I claimed to make sense of everything? Would I want you to?

I do believe. Help my unbelief. Or else let it be.

notes:
1. The story of the man whose son was possessed in Mark 9:14-29.
2. Tim Newman, “Anxiety in the West: Is it on the rise?” Medical News Today, September 5 2018, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322877.php.
3. Roger Ebert, “Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” Roger Ebert’s Journal, May 2, 2009, https://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/go-gentle-into-that-good-night.
4. Charles Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and the Interpretation of Religion (Aurora: Davies Group Publishers, 1999).
5. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).
6. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (Boston: Mariner Books, 2003).
7. James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (New York: Vintage, 2007).
8. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1992).
9. Czeslaw Milosz, “Six Lectures in Verse,” Selected and Last Poems: 1931-2004 (New York: Ecco, 2011).
10. Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy (New York: Riverhead, 2018).
11. Anthony B. Pinn, Humanism: Essays on Race, Religion, and Popular Culture (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).
12. James G. Chappel, “Democracy Without God,” The Boston Review, March 4 2019, http://bostonreview.net/philosophy-religion/james-g-chappel-democracy-without-god.
13. W.S. Merwin, “A Momentary Creed,” The Shadow of Serious (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2009).
14. Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. M.D. Herter Norton (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993).

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