You are here'God of the gaps' did my faith in
'God of the gaps' did my faith in
In one of _The Four Horsemen_ videos linked to below (I think it's hour 1) Christopher Hitchens makes an observation about religious people that I think is quite true, at least I know it was of me. He says that most people keep two sets of books, meaning that there is one set of beliefs which they use to order their everyday lives and another set which they get from religion and use only occasionally. The first set we use when we eat breakfast, brush our teeth, commute to work (or stay home with the kids!), pick up the dry cleaning, etc. The second we use during holy times or when life starts to suck. I would add that religious people who do not do this, but rather keep only one set of books, we often label fanatical or radical - and most of us don't like fanatics.I have a friend, someone I love dearly, whom I have attempted to avoid religious discussion with for a long time. She tends to keep just one set of books. I used to listen to her talk about praying that she would not run out of gasoline instead of immediately stopping to fill up her tank (and she wasn’t rushing someone to the hospital at the time either). I remember wanting to grab her and shake her and scream, "Don't you know that it doesn't work that way. One of these days you're going to find yourself stranded!" I mean, prayer is for asking God to help us with things that we don't understand. Once we fully understand how something works it becomes a closed system, and there is no more room for God to maneuver (yes, this is Bonhoeffer's "God of the gaps"), right?
OK, so if you find yourself about to run out of gas we both know that you're going to pray to God to get you to a gas station quickly and safely, and if you should get there you are going to utter a quickie "thank you" prayer. I know because I used to do the same thing. The difference between this and what my friend was talking about is that one is actually banking on God to intervene as part of the rational decision-making process, while the other is not banking on anything but simply has nothing to lose. That's a big difference - the difference between keeping one set of books and keeping two, I would say. (By the way, if any of you are tempted to come to my friend's defense I would strongly suggest that you not attempt it because I've shared the most benign story in my arsenal.)
Why am I talking about this? I've shared this because I want to begin to explain how I went from being a leader of a small Christian house church to someone who rightly passes for an atheist (to borrow Derrida's phrase) in a seemingly short amount of time. I'm going to attempt to tease out the various reasons for the change, and I'm going to try to arrange these in some kind of narrative sequence, although it might be disjunctive.
I don’t think it’s literally true, but it feels like I woke up one morning and realized all of the sudden that my life would be no different if I didn’t believe in God. Actually that’s not true: I would have much more time and much less stress. Bonhoeffer had been right, since I had relegated God to only the gaps in my knowledge of how this universe functions as a closed system He was continually being pushed ever further to the periphery. What’s more, being used to functioning without God meant that even those things which were inexplicable warranted a wait-and-see agnosticism rather than an invocation of the name of God. It was as if on that supposed morning I suddenly discovered that I had no need of God – everything functioned quite well without him, thank you very much (I’ve since learned that the famous Laplace once said the same thing, although I don’t know how I feel about that given the critique of Laplace offered by one of my favorite philosophers, Michael Polanyi).
I had long since abandoned prayer because it seemed useless: first, because this “God of the gaps” had no more gaps, and second, because empirically I learned that both good and bad things happened to me whether I prayed or not, and seemingly in the same proportion. Not to be overshadowed, however, is the fact that I felt silly for talking to someone who I had never seen and who had never answered me back. By the way, I used to be irked, and actually I’m sure I still am, by people who claim that God has spoken to them. I want to ask, “Really, what does His voice sound like?” The ones that I talk to don’t mean that they actually heard anything - they are simply baptizing their own opinions or desires and Christening them God’s opinions and desires. Sorry for the minor tangent. I’ll get back to telling my story.
I also didn’t read or use the Bible in the same way that I used to, and this change had been happening over a long period of time. To get the obvious stuff out of the way first, I realized long ago that the Bible is not a scientific textbook or a history in the Western tradition, and that it should not be read as such. In case hearing me share this as part of the story of my slide into atheism freaks out any of my more progressive Christian friends, this was a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Obviously, to lose one’s faith one cannot accept the Bible at naïve face value, but that in no way implies that all who take a more mature view of the Bible must lose their faith. ‘Nuff said on that? Anyway, and more to the point, I had stopped reading the Bible in general and the New Testament in particular as normative. That’s a much bigger deal, and I’ll explain what I mean by it by telling another story.
Years ago I led the house church in a study of the “issue” of marriage and divorce. It was a really in depth study of the Bible and to this day I think I did a decent job on it. Later, a friend of mine asked that I officiate at her wedding ceremony, and I happily agreed. When another Christian challenged her on her right to marry again, she asked me for the information from our previous study so that she might discuss it with this person. Now here’s what startled me: I realized that the information that I was giving her didn’t matter to me. Even if I believed that the Bible forbade her to marry again I would have married them because I believe that people have a right to be happy. I was floored. I never imagined that I would feel that way. Still, I was happy to be able to be honest with myself and to know that I was not getting my sense of morality or ethics from the Bible (this generalization was in fact largely true).
So, like I said, I seemingly woke up one morning and realized that my life would be no different, practically, without God. I made all of my decisions based on the assumption that the universe operates by simple cause-and-effect. My hopes did not involve God’s intervention. My sense of “right and wrong” did not come directly from the Bible or any other Christian source. In fact, as I’ve said since then, the word ‘God’ had become meaningless to me. I had no idea what it even meant. I know what ‘chair’ means because I’ve sat in one and I know what ‘water’ means because it’s quenched my thirst, but I’d never experienced a ‘God’. All of this being the case, what’s the point in maintaining a farcical faith? So that, in a nutshell, is how I lost my faith.
Of course, none of this inherently means that I believe there is no God, only that I do not hold the belief that there is one. The difference is subtle. Some of you might object to my self-description with the word “atheist,” and would think that “agnostic” would be more appropriate. Indeed, I began sharing this experience with friends by using that word. I now want to know, however, the pragmatic difference between the two. I mean, if I’m completely fine with living my life as if there is no God (which I am, and which I am doing), then why should I adopt a mental stance which says maybe-there-is-and-maybe-there-isn’t? How are these two beliefs cashed out in actual experience? If I really were an agnostic, would I hedge my bets in some way, and if so how?
Ok, that’s it. Now I think you are pretty well caught up to the present on this journey of mine.