Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Why there's no turning back

Despite my despair at not seeming to be able to believe in God on a gut level, I've known for a while now that there's no turning back. I couldn't put my finger on why, but I knew that I'll either end up truly believing in God or keep searching my whole life, but going back to atheism isn't an option. Today I realized why.

While doing a bit of morning web surfing I read the story of that little girl in New York who was tortured and killed by her stepfather while her mother looked the other way. I thought about how much I hope the personal, caring God of the Bible exists, not so much for my sake but for hers.

And I was reminded of my old atheist days when I would read about stories like this and wonder why we all don't kill ourselves right now. I didn't mean it as a flippant, passing comment. I really thought about it and tried to come up with one good reason why I or anyone else shouldn't just kill myself this afternoon. If I'm going to die anyway and there's no afterlife or God or anything then why not just speed up the process? Sure, there may be some good times to be had in the future, but if there's no soul or sort of eternal "memory" then they don't matter. And, yes, my family would be devastated, but they'll eventually die too and all their emotions and feelings will disappear into nothingness as well, so that certainly doesn't matter. I never really came up with a good answer.

Christians are often asked to answer the question of the problem of pain: "What about pain? Why would your God let people suffer?" (to which they respond that it's an inherent part of free will). But atheists have to answer it too: "What about pain? It sucks, there's more of it in your future, so why not just kill yourself now?"

So today as I read that horrible story and thought of my life pre-religion I realized how silly it would be to reaffirm my old beliefs. As a true, we-are-just-chemical-reactions atheist just living your life is absurd. You're mocking your own "life is meaningless, there is no afterlife" beliefs when you try to find a more fulfilling job, get excited about a pregnancy, host a fun party, or do anything else for that matter.

If you're going to attempt to enjoy your life and live it to the fullest, which I fully intend to do, it only makes sense if you believe in God. And that's why there's no turning back.


At January 18, 2006 11:31 AM, Anonymous SteveG said...

What an amazing post!

I can not actually say that I ever was an atheist. Instead, I say that I had a long period of non-belief where I was an agnostic. The reason I could never embrace atheism was exactly what you describe here.

It always seemed quite obvious to me that the only logical conclusion to the atheistic fundamental premise is one of nihilism. The meaningless of life under that paradigm is utterly oppressive to me (and the vast majority of humanity) and goes against every fiber of the human experience which cries out for meaning.

Since I could never accept that utter meaningless existence, I could never actually embrace true atheism. Seems you've come to the same conclusion traveling from a different direction.

Amazing how much commonality our experiences seem to have. Then again, I think this commonality is something that nearly everyone shares to some degree. It's why the words of St. Augustine ring so true when he address God thus....

You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.
As to the despair you feel at not 'getting it' at a gut level, I'll echo JPII in the first words of his Papacy....

Be Not Aftaid!

...and of course he was only echoing Christ himself when he spoke to the apostles after the resurrection.

I want to continue to point out that I think some of this is again coming from expectations of what your experience ‘should be’ like that are strongly influenced by the Protestant culture around us.

The expectation seems to be that you should necessarily have some kind of emotional epiphany, or have this singular 'born again' conversion experience where you once and for all accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.

Certainly this kind of experience occurs (look at St. Paul for instance), and for some Catholics as well. But it's not universal, and it's a fairly modern and Western way of describing the spiritual journey. If it happens, and gives someone consolation in their journey, great; if not, well, that's fairly (more?) common too.

Conversion is traditionally understood to be an ongoing process with lots of little 'epiphanies' that you might not even take large note of. I know lifelong Catholics who would be dumbfounded if you asked them if they had ever 'formally' stated the words 'Jesus Christ is my Lord and personal Savior', or if you asked them if they were 'born again'.

But these people would easily identify with a description that they'd over a long period 'grown into' the faith they'd been raised in. They could probably identify a period of their life where they took it all for granted and just did it because, well, that's what they were used to doing, and how they were raised.

They could likewise identify a period in their life where they become more active and interested in their faith. Where they started to learn it, embrace it, come to understand it bit by bit, and 'fall in love with it'. They probably couldn't pinpoint the 'born again' moment where this 'conversion' took place, but rather would recognize a long period of ongoing conversion that happened a little at a time (and continues).

These folks would definitely recognize that Jesus is God (and the Son of God), that He is the messiah, that he died for them, etc., but their way of having come to it, and of saying it might be different than the 'Personal Lord and Savior' formulation, but no less real, no less meaningful, and no less relevant.

This seems to be more like what you are going through. Your statement in this very post seems to me to be a summation of what I describe…

I'll either end up truly believing in God or keep searching my whole life, but going back to atheism isn't an option.

…and is to some extent the position we all find ourselves in.

Invariably, the moment when I think I’ve ‘got it’ regarding belief in God is the beginning of a period when I feel very distant from God. Really how could I possibly ‘get it’? How could a limited, frail, sinful human being like me begin to truly ‘get’ God? It’s like trying to pour an ocean into a tea cup and expecting it all to fit.

Surely, I can grow in faith, and understand more, but I am fairly certain that unless I become a living saint (not very likely for me), my entire life will be process of ongoing conversion and searching for closeness with God. And that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. For me, for you, for the ‘born again’ Christian, and for nearly any believer.

When I see a person say…

I pretty much totally accept the idea of God and Jesus intellectually

…as in your previous post, all the caveats that follow seem so much less important.

This is a person who has already had an epiphany of sorts (maybe not an emotional one, but so what?), and set their foot on the path of the spiritual life. This person is already in the ‘process’ of conversion.
Don’t let yourself be overly troubled by the ‘ifs and buts’, or if you have periods where you children, husband and the rest dominate life and you aren’t thinking about God every waking second. I assure, the ifs and buts will always be there to some degree.

Anyone who tells you they never doubt, or question is likely either dishonest (mostly with themselves) or a fool. We are made to question, and so we do. But you know as well as I that atheism offers no relief from that experience. It’s that very part of us that continues to ask questions that allows us to continue to grow closer. You will grow and strengthen in your faith over time if once you’ve set your foot on the path you don’t flinch away from it because of the ifs and buts. From what I’ve seen here, I highly doubt that you are the flinching type. :-)

Remember, God gave us this life and all its pleasures and pains to experience, and he expects us to experience them. Don’t worry, if we are open to it (and you are), he will find a way to meet us in that very experience.

God Bless!

At January 24, 2006 12:36 AM, Blogger Joel said...

Hey! Steveg, are you that Steve G. who guest posted on The Raving Atheist a couple months ago?

At January 24, 2006 7:43 AM, Anonymous SteveG said...

One and the same! Jen discovered me in a discussion over there one day and emailed me. We started up a friendship on her blog over the past few months.

Not sure if you've read through the archives or past posts here, but Jen is one amazing and incredibly insightful lady.

I think from your profile I can see that you are the same Joel from TRA as well, and the same Joel from Chez Joel (a most excellent blog I must say).

Great to see you!!!

At April 24, 2008 12:33 PM, Blogger Erin K. said...

Amazing. I know you wrote this two and a half years ago, but I can't help writing a comment. And now that I'm commenting, I'm not sure what to say. Except that this post made me sit back in my chair and say "wow."

Thank you so much for sharing your journey.


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