by David Dark
What turned out to be one of the best exchanges I had in all my years as an English teacher at a Christian school came in a general discussion over my love for the likes of Kafka, Nietzsche and Camus. Every time I expressed unqualified enthusiasm for these thinkers my students deemed “nonbelievers,” the same wall kept coming up. Is it OK to like these people? I insisted it was more than OK. As readers of good books, they were all compelled, I argued, to let the truthful words get through to them, even if particular writers lurked beyond the boundary of what they took to be “Christian” truth. Nevertheless, I kept meeting resistance, so I tried a different tactic. I asked my students to define the word “agnostic.”
“Someone who doesn’t want to believe,” one keen student responded.
The “doesn’t want to” part really threw me off a bit. “Why the judgement call?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what to say. I told them to try again.
“Someone who chooses not to believe,” hazarded another.
I was beginning to sense a pattern. I couldn’t call it unexpected. “No, really no,” I said. “And I’m giving you a big hint when I say, ‘No.’”
“Someone who doesn’t know!” came a shout of mock enthusiasm. And we were on our way.
“That’s right. Agnostics don’t know. They might believe all kinds of things. And it can get to feeling like a crying shame sometimes, this lack of absolute knowledge, but they just don’t know. Not much to be done for it really, this not knowing business. Incidentally, guess who’s agnostic.”
“You are,” dared an especially avid, young Presbyterian.
“Right you are. And please understand that I believe as much as the next believer. I can hardly even tell you how much I believe and how strongly I believe it. I believe, I believe, I believe [this with an intensification of my already sufficiently Southern accent]. I confess I find it hard to believe a lot of things sometimes. I’m riddled with doubts and uncertainties. But I see your smiling, approving faces, and I believe once more. Now I’m a believer. I believe again, as if for the first time. Belief. It’s what I do. Guess who else I believe to be agnostic.”
I had to wait this one out and gape at them goofily a little bit. One of them finally chirped in with one eye squinted, “We are?”
“Yeah. But I think you think you have to pretend to know in order to not go to hell. And I want to tell you, in Jesus’ name, that this isn’t the case.”
I hope it’s clear that I wasn’t invoking the name of Jesus lightly. I meant—and mean—to challenge the version of Christianity that says we’re called, above all, to play it safe, only letting in the thoughts and ideas that fit easily into our supposedly Christian belief grid, as if there are certain confessions of honest confusion or doubt our faith can’t afford. This version of Christianity is the one which insists (or at least strongly implies) that fear is the heart of love, to borrow Ben Gibbard’s phrase. And it is this version I see critiqued most radically in the life and teachings of Jesus.
Against the psychic oppression of a Christianity that would keep us dishonest and afraid, I want to announce the good bit of news that the God who exists, the God in whom I believe, never calls anyone to play-act or pretend or to silence their own concerns about what’s true. I want to chase off the spirits that render us incapable of seeing truthfully for fear that we might let in the wrong information, as if God might be made angry and insecure by an archaeological dig, a scientific discovery, an ancient manuscript, a Christ-like atheist or a good film about homosexual cowboys. If we think we have faith, because we faithfully protect ourselves from anything that might call it into question— as if God is counting on us to keep ourselves stupid, closed off to the complexity of the world we’re in—I’d like to argue that we don’t have faith in God at all. We have faith in our own faith rather than the God who transcends it, faith in a faith that will somehow save us. Not faith in God, but faith in a false god of our own conceptions, a god too afraid to entertain a question or a doubt…
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