I wrote a piece earlier called “Mere Atheism,” and if you read between the lines of the opening paragraphs, you will find lurking within them an ugly fear—the mystery of why I am faithful was pinpointed on my family rather than the Holy Spirit; the mystical nature of God was pushed aside and assumed inconsequential. Tremendous doubt resides in that piece.
Doubt, of course, is natural to the faith. We find doubt in nearly all of the leading figures found in Scripture, and I believe that is meant to comfort as much as it is to challenge. It is not the doubt of my earlier piece that should disturb, but rather that ugly fear—the fear of the orthodox tradition.
“Mere Atheism” was the result of a conversation with a friend of mine who was an atheist, or rather, an anti-theist, in the tradition of minds like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. For months we argued through Facebook messages, and the entire time I did not bring up once the mystical nature of God, or the truth of that nature as described the Scriptures; I didn’t bring it up because it has no argumentative power. For people who vehemently believe there is no God, bringing up Scripture can almost be something of an embarrassment if you let it. So I didn’t, and my lack of trust in the all-powerful triune God probably explains that conversation’s failure, and the damage my own faith took because of it. Doubt tangled itself so deeply in the roots of my faith that acknowledging God’s power and acknowledging the truth of the Scriptures was intellectually uncomfortable. Sitting in the pews of my church, I would battle internally over every verse and every challenge the pastor uttered.
Strangely enough, I’m not sure that this kind of agnostic faith is discouraged. Who among us believes that God is still as active, as present, as talkative as he was in the Biblical tradition? Is the Bible still even considered divinely inspired in its totality? A challenge among intellectual Christians today would be to say yes without adding some additional caveats, or perhaps to say yes at all.
In a science-fiction novel titled “The Fall of Hyperion,” the author Dan Simmons sees a future where Christianity becomes so watered down that it disappears. Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul are all but forgotten in place of some vague Gnostic spirituality. That prediction rang an eerie bell for me, and I knew that the trajectory of my own faith was heading in that direction, if not entirely in the direction of flat-out atheism.
The crux of the matter comes down to this: I was not reading Scripture enough to have any real relationship with God, I was not praying enough, I was not going to church enough—I was not participating in the rich tradition of faith that has existed for millennia, because I didn’t respect its power and meaning. I was relying heavily on God to just show up, even though I wasn’t showing up myself.
Furthermore, I was afraid to show up because I didn’t want to be a fundamentalist. My worry was that an in-depth reading of Scripture leaves the avid believer no choice but to reject homosexual marriage and evolution, and to accept the image of a wrathful God willing to kill for something as seemingly small as touching the Arc of the Covenant. I didn’t want to immerse myself in tradition and find out that Christianity really is outdated and no longer has any room within itself to grow. I would rather exist within my watered down version of faith, whose roots are everywhere and nowhere, than tie myself down.
Of course, a faith rooted in Scripture and tradition is not nearly that straightforward. It doesn’t call one to be fundamentalist, nor does it necessarily push one to be agnostic. A brief survey of Christian thought over the past 2000 years reveals that the minds devoted to God and His Word are all over the map. God is constant, and also willing to change His plans when offered prayer. He is wrathful, yet filled with a love greater than our understanding. He, and the way our faith works through Him, surpasses our understanding, and yet we are called to know Him better than our own five senses. Such is the tension of a faith-soaked life, as given to us through tradition.
The two thousand years since the death of Christ are filled with so many different opinions and understandings of God, some reminiscent of weak tea and others an unbearably strong cup of black coffee, and all of it under the name of Christianity. What ties all of it together is the willingness to come to Christ’s table, to drink from the cup and eat the bread. It’s through tradition that we have grown, and through tradition that we will continue to grow. Without tradition, we are stagnant.