These were the most challenging 862 words I’ve written. I’m not writing to impose my belief system on you, the reader, but to sort out my own thoughts, questions, and doubts. I’ve spent the past 21 years as a practicing Catholic and received a religious education from preschool through college, yet this hasn’t been enough to tell me who God is, or what it means to live a life of faith.
Over a third of people my age not religious, and I empathize with them. It’s possible that they feel judged or excluded. Maybe they don’t find value in religious writing. Or maybe they see prayer and reflection as signs of weakness or childlike dependence. But as I looked closer at those around me who were indifferent toward faith, I didn’t see bad people or even a distaste for religion. I saw distractions.
The idea of God, who has been given many names by many different cultures, has been weighed down with so much baggage that it’s become nearly impossible to recognize the intent behind the concept.
I recall feeling ostracized from my middle school’s youth group because I didn’t attend the 8th grade retreat. In the following weeks, my classmates would perform chants and sing songs that I could not participate in. Teachers and Bible study leaders questioned me for interpreting Bible passages differently than they did.
Voices from all directions tell us who, what, when, where, why, and how to worship. Self-righteous preachers, mega churches, and pop culture promise that if we simply profess our belief in Jesus, we will be saved, receive blessings beyond our wildest dreams, and live a life of joy. This is not a valid promise, nor is it authentic faith.
“Faith,” as the theologian Paul Tillich puts it, “is our ultimate concern…it is the state of being grasped by the power of Being itself.”
In this sense, faith’s purpose is not to comfort us, protect us, cure us, or make us fit in. Its purpose is to break through the limits of finitude, chaos, and cruelty to reach toward the ultimate self – this is where God endures.
We’ve collectively forgotten that we find God not in our own self-interests, but in the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the sick, the destitute, the sinner, and those outside our own religious or cultural bubbles.
Chris Hedges states, and I agree with him, that God is best described not as a noun, but as a verb. God is an experience that comes in profound flashes of insight and transcendence which cut through the darkness and moral neutrality of the world. God is that unexplainable force which works within us and through us to achieve beauty, truth, and love. And God is an inescapable process – a life force in which we place our highest hopes and which exceeds all that we will ever understand.
Today’s atheists assure us that adherence to science and reason is our only hope for progress – any talk of faith is attacked and labeled as a poison to society. This obstinate belief system creates its own sort of idolatrous religion, and is no different than Christian fundamentalists who use the Bible to persecute gays, Muslims, and free thinkers.
These same atheists will tell us that faith in God is irrational. They create a binary worldview that groups all religion into a childlike belief system which says Earth was created in six days and the universe is only 6,000 years old. This attack is not only cheap, but also fails to address the nuances of a divine experience that is not irrational, but non-rational. This is where the atheist becomes lost.
This non-rational dimension of the universe cannot be measured by experiments or evaluated by logic. It is not tangible.
Love, forgiveness, grief, struggle, wonder, beauty, and fulfillment are facets of this dimension. These are what’s left up to faith – this is where we find God.
Genuine religion doesn’t conflict with reason or science. It cannot be affirmed nor denied by philosophical, historical, or psychological truth. Its nature is not suitable for debates, and any argument for or against the existence of God is futile. Instead, religion serves as our finite attempt to comprehend the infinite. It expresses truths about the human condition, and makes possible wisdom.
I mentioned previously that religion and faith are not intended to comfort, protect, or satisfy. If anything, those who choose to walk this path face more challenges than those who are apathetic towards it. It forces us to transcend our obsession with neat and tidy conclusions that are able to be touched or explained – this obsession is useless.
Though I do find value in religious rituals as a means to point toward a greater good, I’ve found that seeking fulfillment through them alone inevitably leads to disappointment. Tillich writes that “Man’s faith is inadequate if his whole existence is determined by something less than the ultimate.”
“Nothing we do, however virtuous,” says the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, “can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.” We are not saved by prayer, charity, or rituals, but by pure, non-rational love. This is who God is.