Friday, September 14, 2007

What if God Doesn't Exist?




"I'm studying theology."

“Really? But what if God doesn’t exist? What if you’re wrong? I don’t mean to be offensive or anything, but won’t your life be wasted?”

I blinked at the barista. Huh? I sipped my coffee and tried to gather my thoughts. Meeting people was always fun, but who expected a comment like that within the first two minutes. Your life will be wasted? Who said that?

“Well, I think that the pursuit of-“

“Andrea! We need you, girl!”

A fresh round of orders echoed through the café. The barista smiled at me.

“I have to go. I’m sure we’ll talk later.”

I nodded and wandered over to my seat. I should have expected it, but I couldn’t restrain the deep sigh as I gazed out the window. What if she was right? What if God didn’t exist? What if I was going back to school, basing my entire life, on something that was little more than a very good myth?

I knew how many Christians would view that type of question. Nonsense, they’d say. She’s an unbeliever. I also knew that for theologians the question held more weight. When you studied the history of Christianity, when you put yourself on the intellectual front lines, it was far more difficult to brush aside any question. If only because of all the “stuff” (to use a polite term) woven into the history of the church through two millennium. In other words, peeking behind the curtain revealed quite a bit. It was like watching a butcher make sausage. No matter how tasty they were when you bought one on the street, you never really forgot your initial disgust at parts of the process.

Yes, her question was worth answering. If only for all the garbage I’d seen (from myself, too) over the past fifteen years. I remembered an evangelist telling us when I was in Bible College that there were plenty of nasty Christians. These days, I’m not so sure I agree with that. I’m not convinced that it’s possible to be ‘nasty’ and actually follow Jesus. Or is it?

My head spun with a sudden deluge of thoughts and doubts and worries, dancing and swaying to a rapid percussion that threatened to overwhelm me. I stood, almost drunkenly, and forced myself outside. Maybe I just needed some air. And later perhaps, a good night’s sleep. The week’s events rolled through my mind. There was no doubt about it. I should have seen this coming from my first day in Toronto.

DAY 1

“Is that it?”

“That’s it, man. We’re done.” Mark said.

I bent over at the waist, breathing heavily. We’d left Ottawa at eight that morning, and after a long six hour drive, we’d spent the last four hours unpacking the truck. We were both whipped, and any excitement over the new move was muted by fatigue from the days of packing.

I said my good byes to Mark and Naomi and headed back to my new home. I was no longer living alone, but sharing a house with eight others. Despite the positive first impressions, the thought of sharing my living space only added to my fatigue. Through it all was the unsurety of what I was doing. Was I doing the right thing? What was I going to do in the future?
When I finally went to bed, I tossed and turned and thought about all the changes in this new life.

I slept little.

DAY 4

The traffic slowed to a crawl and I let out a deep sigh as I finally turned into the parking lot. It felt like weeks since I’d left my car. I was drained, physically and emotionally. Going back to school had sounded like a great adventure, but now that I’d finally pulled up my roots in Ottawa and moved to a strange city, the adventure had turned into reality. For the past week, my reality had been lifting and driving and packing and driving and sorting and driving. Slow traffic. Traffic jams. Lanes of traffic. If God was handing out brownie points for time spent in a vehicle, I figured I was on my way to a mansion, well, somewhere.

I sighed again as I grabbed my laptop and headed towards the welcoming Starbucks sigil. School started this week, but I had one last important task in front of me. I needed to find a new café to ply the quill. This particular Starbucks was the closest to the school, but that didn’t necessarily make it ideal. Staff considerations, busy-ness, and table availability were all high on the list. As I ordered my coffee I couldn’t help but think of my Starbucks back in Ottawa. I’d spent five years there, become friends with the staff and many of the clientele. I missed it already.

I smiled at the barista, and mentioned that I was looking for a new Starbucks home.

“I’m Steve, by the way.”

“I’m Andrea. Nice to meet you.”

Ten minutes later I was reeling from her question about the existence of God and a wasted life and drunkenly stumbling towards the exit. Perhaps the reason it hit me so hard was the line of doubt that kept echoing in my mind about changing my entire life to follow my dreams. What if God didn’t even exist?

I leaned against the building before finally collapsing onto the curb and cradling my head in my hands. The sun beat across my neck. Voices echoed in the distance, the cement rumbling with the vibrations of the cars as they slipped in and out of the busy lot. Existentialism was popular these days, especially among college and university students. I had friends who felt the same way about God and some days I didn’t know what to say to them. I wasn’t happy with the typical Christian expression:

“I know God exists because I know.”

It seemed condescending to me. Also, it was highly abused. How many suicide bombers felt the same way? How many fundamentalists used “I know because I know” as a reason to stop wrestling with their faith and foist ridiculous rules among their congregations? Or how many Christians said “I know because I know” in a manner (by their life) that spoke volumes about what they really believed now that they were "safe in the lifeboat.” It was a statement that lacked both reason and humility and fostered abuse.

I refused to use it.

But that didn’t make God anything less than supernatural or our faith any less un-rational. I sat on the curb and watched the traffic go by, watched people as they walked and hustled to their next destination. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere. After a while, I came to two conclusions.

The first was that my pursuit of Jesus, my hunger to act like Jesus, would inevitably leave a mark in my life.(if I was serious about it) If God didn’t exist, then the pursuit of the sacred would help me manage my tendency towards hedonism and pleasure seeking and ego-centrism. It would still be a good thing. In trying to enact the kingdom now, I would be making a difference in people’s lives. Of course, if my faith was only about heaven and escapism and rewards, it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference. The Bible taught that without God, we were all inevitably selfish, but trying to help others, trying to be thoughtful and kind actually mattered. I'd often felt that wasn't taught enough in the church. Jesus didn't instantly make you a better person. You still had to work at it.

My second thought was that Jesus was a historical figure. You can dispute his claim to be the Son of God, but you can’t dispute who he was and whether he existed. Therefore, my faith wasn't responsible for conjuring someone not of history, but of deciding just who this man was. Somehow, that changed the question.

People who never question their faith scare me a little, because I wonder how you can have a relationship with God with perfect security. Doubt must be present for faith to exist. And if we're so sure about what we believe, how can we be anything less than condescending towards those who believe differently. The apostle Paul says something interesting in one of his letters about this. He says that even if people HATE your doctrine, let them see the good works in your life so they have no reason to challenge you. (This is interesting, since for a good portion of the first three centuries of the church, most Romans were convinced that Christians hated outsiders.)

I took a deep breath and headed back inside. I didn’t have all the answers, I never would, but so long as I continued to allow myself (and my faith) to be challenged, at least I’d have less to fear about becoming stale.

My prayer this week is that God would help us to realize just how much we need to challenge our faith to make it real. That our hearts would understand the kingdom is for us to DO now, in the world of needs and hurts around us. And that despite some preachers assertions about perfect security, faith always blooms the brightest in the fields of doubt.

-Steve