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"I don't believe in God" and other Silliness

I hear this statement quite often and, frankly, I grow quite impatient with it. Of course, I completely understand rejecting the God of our childhood, this Father with a strong resemblance to our earthly parents. Whether this all-powerful God shows affection or is a harsh judge and disciplinarian or not, at first, like our parents, he can do no wrong. Yet, at some point we realize he, like our parents, does not have all the answers and cannot make everything all right.

So when I hear, “I don’t believe in God” I want to say, “Well, yes, you have outgrown the gods of your youth. So must we all.” But what this statement conveys is simply that there is no movement from stage 1 to stage 3 of faith development.

Paul Ricouer, the philosopher and theologian taught the first stage of faith, the one that children have is one of naiveté. It is a complete reliance upon the trustworthiness of an external authority. A magical faith, it easily believes in miracles that violate the principles of science, is mesmerized by the razzle dazzle of good against evil, and fancifully believes God rides to the rescue and saves all good people keeping them from harm and punishing all the bad ones. Of course, the inevitable experiences of life bring this faith to a halt. Thus begins the second stage; the dark night of the soul.

This is a time of questioning, doubting, and searching that usually occurs during the teen years or sooner should tragedy strike. But most people stop here. Disillusioned by a disappointing childhood god who is now unbelievable, they easily point to death, suffering, and tragedy accusing their childhood god of being insufficient. With nothing to replace it they give up and conclude, “I don’t believe in God.”

But the scientist, Carl Sagan, who had absolutely no use for religion or any non-materialist explanations said, “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.” I believe he is describing the second stage when one gives up the safety of a childishly naive faith. Yet, for those who persevere in asking the questions, experiencing the doubts and moving through the difficult times when the incomprehensibility of evil is so evident, a third stage can emerge. The Hebrew prophets with their pre-modern views and scientific ignorance modeled this stage of questioning and grappling with God for answers. We who now live in a rational, science-informed post-modern world can move through this transitional stage and may find that our ideas of God/Love/Mystery grow and develop into a metaphor or symbol that is still relevant and life-giving. To do so is to move to the third stage that Ricouer called the “second naïveté.”

During this stage we have left behind the childish faith and move into a faith that has dived deep into the incomprehensibility of suffering and evil and emerges changed yet intact. We have lost faith in simplistic answers and given up our reliance on childlike miracles yet still stand in complete awe of the miracle of life by continuing to hope in the midst of seeming hopelessness, by believing in Goodness even when there is little evidence to support it.

To see or experience the birth of a child, or the unexpected reconciliation and healing of an estranged relationship, or fall under the spell of humility at the raw beauty of nature’s grandeur, or the rapturous sacred moments of intimate sexual desire and complete trust, is to know God --or whatever one chooses to call or rename this Divine Mystery. It is to say, in faith, I can’t explain this but I know deep in my body that this is my truth.

So, “I don’t believe in God” is really about not yet moving through the second stage and the inevitable adult questions and the doubts to get to a mature faith on the other side. But when we do persevere we may find a faith in One that does not promise magic but abiding presence, One who does not always protect us from the painful realities of human existence but who can be seen, felt, and touched in every single experience of grace-filled love that can ultimately heal us. And trusting, we seek out more of the sacred to become willing vessels that pass it along to others -- even though it still fails the test of simplistic answers. That Love is a Mystery and I rest my faith in it. And that, my friend, is the second naïveté.



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