Belief

What If I'm Not Sure What I Believe?

Close-up of hands, Diego Cervo / Shutterstock.com
Close-up of hands, Diego Cervo / Shutterstock.com

I get asked questions sometimes that I feel are useful for a larger audience to consider and discuss. One such question was submitted to me by a reader a while back, which echoes the sentiments within many other similar questions I’ve received. Here’s the essence at the heart of those questions.

What do I do if I’m not sure what I believe?

First of all, don’t freak out. Most of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament is about a priest suffering a crisis of faith. And though some argue it was more a fulfillment of prophecy (quoting a psalm) rather than a personal cry of distress, it’s hard not to feel Jesus’ own existential suffering when he cries out from the cross for a God who seems to be missing.

Uncontained

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My Brother John: A Eulogy for the Living

Stone cherub in London cemetery, nagib / Shutterstock.com
Stone cherub in London cemetery, nagib / Shutterstock.com

For some months now, I have been ruminating on the writer John Podhoretz’s eulogy in Commentary magazine for his sister Rachel Abrams upon her death, from stomach cancer, at age 62. Commentary effectively being the Podhoretz family house organ, and the Podhoretzes effectively being the mythological family of the origin of neoconservatism, the essay would be of interest to anyone interested in cultural and religious sociology — or at least to me.

I, too, come from a family that has also tended to think of itself in somewhat mythological, contrarian terms — This is what Langstons are like — so a meditation from the heart of another large, bustling family is an immediate and natural draw for me.

But lay that all aside. The eulogy wins, and haunts, because it is the passionate remembrance of a sister by her brother. Despite their being part of a prominent East Coast family, its focus is relentlessly on the small acts of family and home that transfigure quotidian existence. Podhoretz dwells lovingly on Rachel as a housewife, a lifetime foul-mouth, an exuberant and dedicated mother, an artist, and finally a writer who let loose with political commentary in her late fifties as online blogs began gathering steam.

“I loved you, Rachel,” he concludes poignantly, in words I could read over and over. “I liked you. And oh, oh, oh, how I admired you.”

So much of that poignancy is derived from direct address to his sister, who is no longer there to receive it. Having just hit 45, Dante comes to mind: midway-through-the-journey-of-our-life-I found myself within a dark wood for the right way had been lost. Who can know how our days are numbered? The lesson for me is that I should tell of how I love my brother John, even as he lives.

AUDIO: Keeping the Faith?

Illustration by Ken Davis

Many people of faith experience periods of doubt in their spiritual journey. Some wrestle with questions about God, while others lose faith altogether. That’s what happened to Theresa MacBain. As a pastor, MacBain could not reconcile her doubts and eventually left the ministry.

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But, as J.R.R. Tolkien writes, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

In "Help Thou My Unbelief" (Sojourners, November 2013), Mennonite pastor Ryan Ahlgrim shares his struggles about believing in God. He empathizes with MacBain, but is learning to embrace his doubts. Follow Ahlgrim’s journey here.

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Are Atheists Smarter Than Believers? Not Exactly.

Person taking an IQ test. Photo courtesy RNS/shutterstock.com
Person taking an IQ test. Photo courtesy RNS/shutterstock.com

A new study of almost a century’s worth of data shows that the smarter you are, the less likely you are to believe in God.

The study, conducted by Miron Zuckerman, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, examined the findings of 63 earlier studies — one dating back to the 1920s — that measured intelligence and religiosity. The majority of those studies found that more intelligent people were more likely to lack religious beliefs.

“The relation between intelligence and religion is negative,” Zuckerman said. “It was very early in the study that we realized that.”

But Zuckerman is careful to point out that his work — known as a “meta-study” because it examines a range of other studies — does not mean only dumb people believe in God.

Rather, he said, it shows only that more intelligent people may have less need for religion.

The Problem Isn’t God; It’s Certainty

Boy covering his ears,  3445128471 / Shutterstock.com
Boy covering his ears, 3445128471 / Shutterstock.com

Uncertainty about the existence of God is not the same thing as certainty about the non-existence of God.

I’ve enjoyed taking part in the “Subverting the Norm” conference this weekend with many of the forefront thinkers in what has been called “Radical Theology.” Although the word “radical” has sensationalist connotations for lots of people, it really just means a theology that isn’t firmly rooted. I know that in itself sounds scary to some folks, but the radical theology camp might suggest that fear stems from an addiction to certainty.

When Spouses Lose Faith, Sticking Together is Hard

Tying the knot, albund / Shutterstock.com
Tying the knot, albund / Shutterstock.com

SALT LAKE CITY — For years, Matt Duff was an uber-Mormon.

At 17, he ran away from home and moved in with the only black Latter-day Saints family in his New England town.

Two weeks shy of his 18th birthday, he joined the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

By 19, he was on a Mormon mission in Denver, and two years later he enrolled at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where he met his future wife, Kylee, a multigenerational Mormon with a winning smile and a guileless faith. The two married in the Salt Lake LDS Temple.

Eight years and three children later, Matt Duff stopped believing.

Uncertainty's Graces

JUST A FEW dozen pages into Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I've Crossed, evangelical pastor Jay Bakker pens what may be the best explanation for the Christian emphasis on church community that I've ever encountered. Noting that doubt can be "hard and scary," Bakker writes: "That's why we have one another, why we have community. We can go through those days of doubt together. I wouldn't be who I am today if it weren't for the people who have been there with me as I question everything."

Many writers have grappled with the challenge that doubt poses for religious believers. But in this honest, searching, and ultimately uplifting book, Bakker pulls doubt out of the shadows where many believers wrestle with it on their own and instead presents it as a reality that Christian communities can and should address together.

Bakker's approach to the often-taboo topic of questioning—or, as he puts it, "the sense that faith is crap, life is meaningless, there is no God, the Bible is a fraud, Jesus was just a charismatic man turned mythological figure if he existed at all"—is shaped by his childhood in a Pentecostal environment that left no room for doubt. As Bakker ruefully notes in the book's introduction, "I will probably be 80 years old and still introduced as Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye." That unusual background only provides the impetus, however, and not the substance for this book, which reads mostly as the stream-of-consciousness meditation of a man pushing and pulling at his faith to see if it holds up.

The beliefs that pull Bakker up short, that cause him to question what he's always been taught about his faith, aren't that different from what many of us are told in our own religious communities. Our membership is often contingent on accepting a certain concept of God, a certain idea of eternity and where people get to spend it, a certain understanding of the Bible. Above all, many communities demand certainty.

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Tigers By the Tale

IT'S A STORY that promises to make you believe in God.

A boy, shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, repeatedly cheats death and eventually discovers his own self. It's a typical coming-of-age tale, really—except for the whole tiger part.

Life of Pi centers on Pi Patel, the son of a zookeeper, who grows up grasping to understand God. His open heart and willingness to learn lead him from Hinduism to Christianity to Islam. While stranded at sea along with a few escaped zoo animals as company, he continues to explore the meaning of God as he's thrust into dramatic—and at times inconceivable—situations.

Anyone who has read Yann Martel's best-selling book can understand how near impossible it seems to adapt the larger-than-life story into a film—none more so than the person who did just that, screenwriter David Magee. The largest chunk of Pi's journey is a solitary one, save the aforementioned Bengal tiger (named Richard Parker).

In an interview with Sojourners, Magee said he wrote the scenes without any lines for Pi at all, only inserting them where necessary after the fact.

"We didn't want to have some strange conversations with the tiger that he would never have," Magee said.

To work out other ways to move along the story, the filmmakers met with Steven Callahan, an actual survivor of a shipwreck who spent 76 days at sea.

"While he was on his journey, [he] wrote in the margins of a little notebook that he had with a pencil in the tiniest lettering he could, and he tried to keep track of his thoughts and his observations in order to keep himself from going insane," Magee said.

Magee did the same thing in the film and used Pi's journal entries, jotted in the margins of his survival manual, to delve into the character's inner dialogue. Through the written word and the slow dissolving of his one pencil, the days and nights pass as Pi becomes ever more weary.

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