The Impossibility of Belief

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17) 

Once upon a time, everybody believed in God. God, in Western Civilization, was a given. Believing in God wasn’t a choice; it was an inheritance. Of course, people argued about the content of that belief. As the early Christian church established orthodoxy - right belief - it simultaneously established heresy - wrong belief. But whether you were on the right side or the wrong side of belief - you believed.

And then dawned the age of Enlightenment. It all happened so quickly: the rise of rationalism, the ascendancy of science. As people learned to look at the world through the lens of reason, many abandoned religion as irrelevant. Incompatible. The possibility of unbelief was born; atheism was invented. Literally. The word did not even exist until the 16th century.

Several years ago the philosopher Charles Taylor argued that we’re in a new age, the so-called Secular Age. Most people would call it the post-modern era. It’s an age marked by a dizzying array of choices, an endless stream of information. It’s an age in which absolute truth claims are inherently suspect. And it’s an age in which many people do not believe in God. Some are outright atheists.

Others are functional atheists who tell themselves they believe in God but do not, in fact, act like they do. And still others long to make the leap of faith but find themselves mired in skepticism.

Taylor ponders, “Why is it so hard to believe in God in the modern West, while in 1500 it was virtually impossible not to?”

Now, maybe you’re not one of those people for whom it is hard to believe in God. Don’t take this the wrong way, but this morning I’m not really talking to you. You’re more than welcome to listen in. No doubt you have a beloved skeptic in your life. Maybe you’ve even grieved the sudden disappearance of belief from one generation to the next - you raised your kids in church, but as adults they rarely if ever darken the doors of a sanctuary. But this morning I’m talking to the skeptics.

I know you’re here because - well, let me put it this way: I know I’m here.

Once upon a time, I was a fifteen year old girl having a crisis of faith. I had grown up attending Sunday School and worship, and my closest friends were all confessing Christians. But something didn’t click for me. Or rather, it kept clicking, the way a gas lighter does when the spark just will not ignite into flames. I simply did not feel God’s presence.

And without a sense of God’s presence, it wasn’t long before I began to question God’s existence. I felt so ashamed of this fact that I told no one until, finally, the confession tumbled out, along with a torrent of tears. The church camp counselor to whom I confessed my unbelief responded with incredible grace. Without minimizing the distress my unwanted atheism was causing me, he encouraged me to stop worrying so much about what I believed or didn’t believe. He encouraged me to take the words of Micah 6:8 to heart - the same words that inspired our shared Lenten challenge: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly.

Within six months of that conversation I started to have my first stirrings of a call to ministry. When I confessed to that same church camp counselor that I thought I was maybe supposed to possibly be a pastor, he laughed and told me that he’d already figured that out and was just waiting for me to realize it for myself. I was stunned. Stunned because the last thing I expected to receive was such a hearty affirmation. And stunned because, in the six months between my confessions, I hadn’t quite started actually believing in God yet.

I was still waiting for belief to overcome unbelief when I sent in my seminary applications, still waiting as I navigated the ordination process, still waiting as I stepped into the pulpit to preach my first sermon. In some ways I am still waiting. Which is not to say that I’ve ever lied to you, or that I believe in nothing. It’s not quite like that. I promised myself a long time ago that I would never preach something I didn’t believe in.

A theologian writing about the Secular Age wrote this: “The mark of a secular society is that believers can no longer enjoy a “simple” or “na├»ve” faith. The “conditions of belief” have changed such that Western Christians are now unable to believe without reservations, without uneasily looking over their shoulders. The honest believer must concede, “I am never, or only rarely, really sure, free of all doubt, untroubled by some objection—by some experience which won’t fit.” In sum: Secularism means that our Christian experience is now shaped by a lurking uncertainty.”

Now that is a phrase that resonates: A lurking uncertainty.

It was, frankly, comforting to me to learn about Charles Taylor’s philosophy of secularism. For years I was convinced that there was something wrong with me - that my faltering belief was my fault. To paraphrase Madonna - the pop star, not the mother of Christ - we are living in a secular world, and I am just a secular girl.

But what, then, do we make of today’s gospel reading? It’s funny to me that in a culture that is notoriously skeptical, one of the most popular bible verses is John 3:16 - For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

It seems the whole thing hinges on that one phrase - everyone who believes in him. What if you are culturally incapable of belief?

Years ago, the biblical scholar Marcus Borg admitted that for him, believing a set of statements was impossible. “What is possible is to “belove” Jesus and walk in his path. For the past 300 years, faith was a matter of believing a list of beliefs about Jesus. The list varied among Christians — that Jesus was the son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that the tomb was empty on Easter morning. But in the pre-modern world, before about 1600, the object of belief was never a statement,” he says. “It was always a person. To believe meant to belove a person. To belove Jesus means more than simply loving Jesus. It means to love what Jesus loved. That is at the heart of Christianity."

Well now. That’s a different way of looking at it, isn’t it? The etymology checks out, friends. To believe is to belove.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who beloves him may not perish but may have eternal life.

You want to know why I trust this alternative reading of the passage? It’s not because the etymology checks out. It’s because the theology checks out. The gospels bear witness to a God who is comprised of love, who creates from love, who covenants in love, who reconciles through love. Love is the holy thread that holds the whole thing together. Of course our part in this beautiful redemption story is to respond to God’s love with love.

However did we get to a place where signing off on a set of statements transcended beloving the one who calls us beloved? 

Bless your heart, Western Civilization, sometimes I wonder about your priorities.

I don’t want to abandon belief - and here I do mean belief as intellectual assent. There is power in confessing our convictions about God. There is power, too, in confessing our doubts about God. Sometimes we have to stop believing in a false god in order to open ourselves up to the Living God. But especially in our secular age, we cannot let belief become a stumbling block to faith. If that sentence doesn’t make any sense to you, perhaps it’s because we often use those terms interchangeably.

Belief and faith are not the same thing. Faith is entrusting yourself to God despite profound uncertainty.

It took me years to understand this, but I finally learned it from paying attention to my own story. It took faith to follow my vocation through so many years of waiting for belief to overcome unbelief.

It takes faith for you to be here today, friends, if you happen to be one of those for whom belief is elusive.

I dare you, for a moment, to let go of the struggle. 

Stop trying to believe seven impossible things before breakfast. Rather, seek justice, love kindness, walk humbly. Practice letting yourself love and be loved. Entrust yourself to the mystery.

Therein lies the path of rebirth in the Spirit.

Therein lies the way of eternal life.


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