Help Thou My Unbelief

LAST YEAR on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” I heard the story of Teresa MacBain, a United Methodist pastor who came to the conclusion she was an atheist. The situation was scary and awkward for her. Who could she tell? What would she do now for a living?

She wasn’t trained for any other occupation, but neither could she continue her double life of preaching and public praying while knowing she didn’t believe in any of it.

Lacking someone to confide in, MacBain secretly confessed to her iPhone, “Sometimes I think to myself: If I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of the sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I’d just keep my job. But I can’t do that. I know it’s a lie. I know it’s false.” Eventually, she left the ministry.

As I listened to MacBain’s interview, I empathized with her. After 30 years of serving as a Mennonite pastor, I often wonder whether I still believe the things I’ve always said I believed. My questions about God have become deeper, while my previous answers now sound shallow. The thought that I might not believe in God is frightening. It threatens my identity and worldview—not to mention my occupation. And yet I haven’t arrived at MacBain’s atheism. Instead, my doubts have been folded into my faith.

When I was 16 years old and discovered that several of my school friends had become atheists, I was racked with questions about God’s existence. I tried to resolve the issue by reading every book I could find on Christian apologetics. I piled up a mountain of highly dubious evidence and then spent the summer writing a 60-page defense of the Christian faith. But when I was finished, I made an awful discovery—I still had the same doubts. No amount of proof had made any difference at all.

I then came to the realization that my faith in God was not because of historical, scientific, or philosophical evidence, but because I experienced a relationship with God. Through prayer, Bible reading, corporate worship, the beauty of nature, and even my daily routines, I experienced life as meaningful, with a gracious presence behind it all. God was not an idea I intellectually came to believe in. Rather, God was that with whom I had a relationship of awe and reverence, the ground from which sprung my belief in love, goodness, and hope. This epiphany has stayed with me, but it has not resolved my doubts.

IN COLLEGE I took a keen interest in the relationship between science and religion—an area I have continued to study. But after decades of pondering these two different ways of engaging reality, I still have no satisfying way of melding them together. Science and religion may not be incompatible systems, but how can they come together to form one reality in a human being? I do not know.

My journey with doubt took a different turn after my mother died a few years ago. With a much sharper awareness of mortality, I couldn’t escape the feeling that all of life is utterly pointless. It didn’t matter what I did because eventually I would be dead, and all will ultimately be forgotten. It didn’t matter what my children did or how I nurtured them or what would happen to them because they, too, will perish. Everything dies. An afterlife? Maybe, but I couldn’t solve a host of logical questions. Life after death has more inner contradictions than time travel.

So it seemed I had to simply trust God that death and meaninglessness are not the end—but why would I make such an irrational leap? Yet, if there is no afterlife and all is doomed for death and nothingness, then what’s the point of God? Even if God exists, who cares?

I stewed with these questions for a long time, taking no real interest in anything—let alone my pastoral duties. I finally decided to preach a sermon series on Ecclesiastes. “Everything is futile” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)—I could relate to that. Wrestling with this book and turning those struggles into messages for my congregation helped me to more fully explore my angst over the vanity of all existence, and somehow this brought me some solace and even hope. I began to notice beauty and creativity again, as well as the gift of each moment. I allowed myself to enjoy these moments and cherish my family and friends. I eventually came to a place where I was simply grateful to be alive. Time brought me back to life, soothing the doubts, though not removing them.

Two Advents ago I preached a sermon about Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. I was struck by the contrast between Zechariah’s and Mary’s responses to an angelic message. He doubts, Mary believes. Mary is blessed for her belief, while Zechariah is struck mute for his doubt. I immediately identified with Zechariah—an older, experienced priest who, because of doubts about how God works, is unable to speak the right words.

I shared these observations with a small group of clergy friends over lunch one day. I told them I fantasize about starting a “Zechariah Club” for pastors who struggle with doubt. Most wanted to join.

So I empathize with Teresa MacBain, but I’m not an atheist. Even if I were an atheist, I think the last place I’d go to make that announcement would be where she went: an American Atheists convention. She tells about the tear-filled standing ovation she received, and I’m happy for her. But even if I were to conclude that there is no God, I’d still be deeply grateful for religious impulses and the healing communities of faith that often spring from them.

Sometimes I imagine someone asking me if I believe in God, and I answer, “No, but I trust in God.” The words “believe in” usually carry the connotation of having arrived at an intellectual conclusion. I have precious few logical reasons for believing in God. But, as I discovered long ago, God is a relationship.

I’m now learning to trust in God. For me this is the only way to live with hope, the only way to be fully human and reach our potential. We need to trust in order to love, to do justice, to selflessly give of ourselves for the benefit of others and the world.

One of my favorite authors, A.N. Wilson, is an atheist—or at least he was. I recently discovered an article he wrote, “Why I Believe Again,” that captures well my sense of reality, noting that “a life like Gandhi’s, which was focused on God so deeply, reminded me of all the human qualities that have to be denied if you embrace the bleak, muddled creed of a materialist atheist. It is a bit like trying to assert that music is an aberration, and that although Bach and Beethoven are very impressive, one is better off without a musical sense.”

I still wonder about God and always will. But I am more comfortable now with my doubts than I used to be. This wrestling with God is honest and useful, keeping my mind and awareness open, helping me to grow and mature. The Bible sometimes warns against doubt. However, its warnings are not aimed at intellectual limitations but at the failure to trust. God is an unsolvable puzzle, a mystery that I know I can never understand—but God is also the ground of my meaning and purpose. So I have decided to enjoy the journey, be grateful for the gift of life, follow Jesus, shepherd the flock God has given me—and, of course, trust.

Ryan Ahlgrim, lead pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis, is author of Not as the Scribes: Jesus as a Model for Prophetic Preaching.

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