Three Words That Set Me Free
I don’t know.
This was not something I felt I could say earlier in my faith. It was imperative to to always have an answer to any theological question. With Christian friends, I did minor battle over baptism, predestination, the rapture, what heaven would be like, speaking in tongues, whether you could lose your salvation, and various other issues of dispute within the realm of orthodox Christianity. Not having an opinion was like admitting you never read your Bible.
In confronting non-Christians, it was all-out war. My evangelical school explicitly prepared us to go out into the big, scary, secular world to defend our faith. I read books and listened to speakers and played out imaginary arguments in my head for years. Imaginary, because I honestly rarely if ever encountered a declared non-Christian before I went to graduate school at the age of 21. I lived in a cloistered, uniform world, crouched down and ready to pounce with why the geological record indicating an ancient earth was wrong, how we knew for certain Jesus rose from the dead, who was going to heaven, why it was logical and even loving that an all-powerful God would condemn most of humanity to hell, how we knew for a fact that every story in the Bible really happened as it is written, why there seemed to be a disparity between the violent, at times genocidal God of the Old Testament and the New Testament Jesus, why we ignored the directive about women covering their heads in church but not the one about them staying quiet, why it was OK that figures in the Bible owned slaves and had multiple wives but that is not OK for us. There were definitive, indisputable answers to all these questions, and I had all of them down pat.
And I was terrified.
Terrified that somehow some of my answers were barely hanging together, and someone would come along and pull a string. Terrified that my inability to head that off and convince them of my rightness would condemn them to hell. Terrified about the scandalous doubt that lurked in my own heart. Terrified by my own unanswered questions. Terrified my faith would blow away like dandelion seeds at the first stiff wind I encountered.
When I was in 11th grade, I briefly attended public school in the US and encountered my first real heathens. Given that I wasn’t there for long and my guard was up the entire time, I unsurprisingly didn’t make any real friends. But there was one girl, Natasha, who came close. Natasha was smart, fun, hard-working, and an atheist. She knew I was a Christian, but we didn’t talk much about religion. Every time I we hung out, I felt this pressure to find an opening through which I could broach the subject, to present the clear and convincing case that Jesus was the Son of God and if she didn’t acknowledge that, she was going to hell. I never really found that opening. And frankly, I was never any good at this sort of evangelism. I cared too much about what other people thought of me. I wanted them to like me. I felt queasy about telling someone they were going to hell. Especially when, secretly, I was afraid that’s where I was headed.
Back in Kenya, I wrung my hands over Natasha. I had missed the chance to convert her, and she might not get another chance. I had basically sent her to hell with my hesitancy and cowardice. After a chapel service in which, once again, the utmost importance of sharing our faith was impressed upon us, I couldn’t stand the guilt anymore, and I wrote Natasha a long letter laying out all the precepts of the Christian faith, how we know for a fact, that it’s all 100% correct, and how I could tell her with certainty that she was going to hell if she didn’t invite Jesus into her heart via The Sinner’s Prayer. I felt briefly relieved. I have no idea what Natasha thought of that letter, probably not much, because I never heard from her again.
The next time I encountered non-Christians in any kind of meaningful relationship setting was when I started graduate school at the University of Oklahoma. I arrived at my first class with a backpack fully of evangelical zeal, ready to show all those heathen the way out of their pathetic, lost blindness. They would be so impressed with my intellect and my solid apologetics that they would have to take Christianity seriously for once. Maybe I would save them from hell. If not, I would at least leave them with no excuse.
But God is a comedian. Instead of being convinced and seeing the light, my friends watched my own life unravel before their eyes. And in fact, none of them were surprised, because they saw right through the complete disaster that was me from the start. Instead of gloating and laughing about the devastating implosion of Evangelical Girl, they wrapped me in their arms, picked me up, dusted me off, and helped me get back on my feet. I’ll have more to say about this later, but the short version is, I began a process of deconstruction, of questioning everything, picking through the rubble and refashioning my faith.
I’ve kept a lot of my core beliefs (most days), but what has fundamentally changed is how tightly I hold them. I no longer feel the enormous pressure of having to have everything nailed down. I’ve come to realize that any faith by definition is belief in unknowable things. You can’t prove there’s a God. Although there is evidence of a historical Jesus, you can’t prove the resurrection. You can’t prove the Bible is the definitive word of God. You can’t prove your interpretation of it is correct. You can’t know what happens after you die. No one outside the Bible has ever died and returned to give an account (there are near-death experiences that are interesting). Guess what, though, the “other side” can’t prove their beliefs either. You can’t prove there’s not a God. There is a realm of experience and existence that lives well outside evidence and fact. In many ways, the best part. I quantify or study in any concrete sense my love for my husband and children. I can barely put in into words.
In his book The Sin of Certainty, Peter Enns, whose work has been so instrumental in my process, described how the idea of “correct belief” has been elevated into an idol of sorts in the post-Englightment Christianity and how faith necessarily involves an acceptance of mystery that paradoxically produces deeper peace. This has definitively been my experience. Acknowledging doubt and growing comfortable with and even grateful for uncertainty has led me down a path of liberation.
A few months ago, a dear atheist friend asked me to talk about my faith with her two kids. She explained that they had a lot of questions about why people believe in God, and she wanted them to get that perspective unfiltered through her own opinions of it. She wanted them to understand and respect those who believe differently than she did.
I was incredibly touched by her request. What an incredible modeling of love and grace and how we should approach the great mysteries of the universe. Why do we go to war–literally and figuratively–with others over positions that can’t be proven correct? The question contains its own answer. We can’t know for certain and we fear the uncertainty, so we bludgeon to death any doubt or doubters. We can’t offer definitive evidence, so we attack those bringing the case.
Old Holly would have spent days preparing for this opportunity to blow my friend and her children right out of the water. Anticipating their questions and nailing down my answers. My motives would be good on some level; Old Holly would sincerely believe I was saving them from hell. Old Holly would have gone into that conversation terrified of screwing up for fear the fate of their souls rested upon my performance.
New Holly simply waded with them into the mystery. How, in my experience, there was just too much wonder in the world and how believing in God helped explain that for me and gave me comfort. How particles called quarks randomly disappear and reappear in another location without any evidence of having traveled. How maybe the universe started with a big bang–how I didn’t really know!–but no one could explain where the energy came from or where the matter originated. How I couldn’t really put into words the love I had for my children but we both knew it was real. I explained that for Christians, we believe that God came in human form to show us how to live and how much we were loved. I conceded that the Jesus story sounded a little crazy, but that it resonated with me. I told them about the strength I got from being part of a community of faith. I told them that all of my beliefs were just my best guess, and that their mom had her best guess, and that we loved and respected each other.
They asked a lot of questions. For some of them, I had some some decent replies. For many others, I just said, “I don’t know.”
And I don’t. I don’t know if any of what I said meant anything to them. I don’t know what kind of eternal result that might have. I don’t know if I’m right or wrong. I don’t know. And I’m not supposed to know.
And, frankly, I don’t really care about even attempting answers anymore to a great many things. I don’t have a dog in the fight about how the universe began or how homo sapiens came to walk the earth. I don’t really mind if you prefer immersion of adults or sprinkling of infants. I have zero opinions about the end times, except when the striving for certainty produces cult-like religions that cause greater damage in the world. Sure, I think it’s fun to ponder and ruminate about such things. But I’m definitely not going to stake my inner peace on them.
Here’s what I believe most strongly: If there is a God, He is love. He is the energy that permeates all things and the beauty of a sunset and the sound of the rain on a tin roof. He is the force that binds our hearts together and gives us eyes to see beyond ourselves. He is the all-powerful creator of the universe, by whatever process that unfolded. He is nothing we can presently understand or imagine beyond glimpses. And therefore he doesn’t expect us to get everything right. How would that even be possible? I don’t expect my dearest loved ones to read my unknowable thoughts and know my unreadable heart with certainty in order to love them and have a relationship with them. And I’m so much less gracious than God.
If this post makes you panic and fear for me, I’m sincerely sorry you are feeling that. It honestly causes me sadness, and I know it’s because you love me. Please pray for me, if you are concerned. I will pray you will be relieved of anxiety and trust God to keep me in the palm of His hand.
But me, I am free and unconcerned. I am luxuriating in mystery and filled with awe at the unknowable. I am walking by faith.