My non-Theist friend Dan often says, “It’s not what you believe that counts. It’s how you live your life.” And who can argue with that?
The Bible says the same. Jesus says, “not every one who calls me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father in heaven.” The sheep and goats in the parable are divided not on the basis of their beliefs, but on their readiness to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome strangers and visit the sick and the imprisoned. Jesus routinely decries the religious leaders of his day, not for their beliefs, but because of their hypocrisy. And he extends grace to people outside His faith, such as the Samaritan woman and the Roman Centurion.
It is equally true to say, “It doesn’t matter whether you believe the world is round or flat, it’s how you live your life.” Long before a round earth was a proven fact, or even before mathematics and astronomy allowed it to be inferred, people led full, productive and moral lives. But it is also true that an accurate understanding of the world’s nature opens up possibilities not available to the “flat world” adherents.
A new way of knowing
I grew up as an atheist. My dad and I would routinely ridicule the simple-minded beliefs of Christians: “If Adam and Eve had two sons, then where did their wives come from?” “How could all those animals fit into an ark?” For people who prided ourselves on open-mindedness we embraced a literalism far more rigid than any Christian I have ever met.
It was a high school chemistry teacher that shook my smugness. He was actually a student teacher, assigned the unit on “Why we believe in the atomic theory.” For the first time, I understood that science was a much more tentative thing than I had imagined. I learned that, long before atoms could be observed, they were inferred on the strength that they “helped to explain what we could see.” Contradictory theories – light is a particle; light is a wave” – were held simultaneously because it was helpful to do so. It was around that time that I began to realize that History – that other “holy way of knowing” – was built on a mix of sometimes skimpy and often biased texts.
This revelation didn’t stop me from believing in science and history. But it did take the holy shine off them, and made me realize they were just ways of knowing things – helpful, in fact essential, but imperfect. This realization opened my eyes to other ways of knowing – also imperfect, but helpful.
It also made me drop my strange double standard. I had somehow gotten the notion that if we couldn’t prove definitively that God existed, then we couldn’t know anything about Him. But that’s not how good science is made. I realized if I wanted to know whether God was real or not, I had to get off the sidelines and jump in. And that realization indeed opened up far more possibilities than I had ever imagined.
Starting the faith experiment
Quakers talk about their faith being “an experiment.” I like that concept. It helps us stay true to what we actually observe and experience. And it helps us bring the humility of a good scientist to our faith. Instead of devising a theory about God, and then fending off any arguments that might poke holes in our theory, we recognize that the theory is man-made, and welcome the opportunity to discard elements that are false or misleading.
That doesn’t mean the theory is useless. Christian faith gathers together the shared experience of millions of people who came before us. But the theory is not the God we seek. We inevitably, to use the biblical phrase, “look through a glass darkly,” but one day hope to see “face to face.” And our call (and our gift) as Christians is to try to seek out the real truth about God any way we can.
In future entries I hope to write more about “what happened next” after I accepted the possibility that there was a God, and that I could not dismiss religious experience just because I didn’t have any.
Bur for now, I’d like to hear your own “experiments with the truth.” Have you had a realization that led you to discard your childhood beliefs about God? And if so, what was it?