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Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life

I am going write something about which I am somewhat ashamed: since converting to Christianity I’ve never doubted the existence of God or even the incarnation of God through the person Jesus Christ.  It’s not my faith that makes me ashamed, but the fact that I have never had a serious crisis of faith, never a time when I became convinced that God did not exist.

I’d like to think of myself as a critical and realistic person.  I’m very suspicious of authority.  I often find myself on the side of atheists and sceptics.  I have serious doubts about the existence of heaven and hell (serious doubts amounting to non-belief).  I tend toward socialism, but deep down inside I am an anarchist in the sense that I believe all institutions are severely flawed.  And I don’t believe that any of these things are a choice, but rather, they happen to be where I find myself and where I have found myself for several years. To make any sense of this I must go back to my ‘conversion’ to Christianity from atheism.

I remember several particularly traumatic times in my life when I prayed to something because I wanted a god to exist.  Early on I wanted to make sense of my questions and pains.  I was an extremely contemplative child, writing stories and reflections from as far back as I can remember.  I wanted to find solace in something (though I am not claiming to have found such solace even as a Christian).  I happened upon the works of Marx and Engels when I was 12 and that seemed to do it for me.  I learned about the Communist Revolutions in Russia and China and found them to be counterfeit – the old regimes had only put on new clothes.  I saw oppression, closed-mindedness and totalitarianism, trademarks of all institutions before and after.  But in the ideals of Marxism and the Frankfurt School I found restored hope.  A god wasn’t necessary.

When I was 14 I wanted nothing to do with religion.  Friends would try to lure me into attending lunch hour meetings of the Christian club at our high school.  They baited me with pizza, but even the pizza wouldn’t draw a 14-year-old who couldn’t stomach the thought of listening to someone talk at him about religion.  These friends then approached me from another angle – a Wednesday night Bible study with a skate park and a good bit of socialising.  After a few attempts I eventually gave in and went.  It was an unremarkable setting and apart from hanging out with my friends I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular.  But after a few Wednesday nights something clicked in my head.  It wasn’t a particular word or song.  I can only deduce that it was an authentic religious experience, whatever that may mean.  I felt a sense of God’s presence.  I wanted to live my life for that God, whatever that meant.  I found an old Bible that had belonged to my then-senile, late grandmother and read the Gospel of Matthew.  I wanted to follow this Jesus.  Love, inclusion, justice – ideals I had valued before conversion I found embodied in Jesus.  I can now acknowledge that in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ those ideals are not unique to Christianity, but it was never so much a choice among equal options for me.  I don’t believe that any belief system is a choice, whether that is a belief in Santa Claus, reincarnation, The Beatles, Jesus or naturalism.  Beliefs are merely what we make of the things before us.  It’s not bare logic, but it is some form of deduction.  We all believe things and ‘non-belief’ is merely a belief in something that opposes another belief.

After that ‘religious experience’ I never found my belief in Christianity to stand in great conflict with any of my other beliefs.  Of course, over time my views have evolved (for instance, I used to believe in some sort of heaven and hell), but the most basic elements of my beliefs — that an empathetic God loves the world and has involved herself intimately in the workings of her creation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit (that’s a lot to stomach for non-Christians, I know) — have only been emboldened.

Back to the earlier days of my religious faith, I followed my reading of the Gospel of Matthew with two readings of the Bible in its entirety.  I understood far less than the little amount I understand more than a decade later and some parts rubbed me the wrong way, but I gathered a general sense of the trajectory of the Christian faith as it is presented in the Scripture.  A few years later, near the end of my time at school, I sensed a calling to serve in full time church ministry.  I didn’t know what that would look like, all I knew is that I wanted to learn and experience more about God and Christianity in order to be better equipped to serve people in that way. Since the age of 17 my life has been on this course (though not without countless mistakes).

Now I find myself in a different country, in the midst of a PhD and candidacy in the Church of Scotland.  My view of the world and of myself in the world has changed dramatically over these last eight years (and I thank God for that).  I’m indebted to a great many people for loving, encouraging, challenging and inspiring me over these last years, but I’m back to my first statement: since converting to Christianity I’ve never doubted the existence of God or even the incarnation of God through the person Jesus Christ.  I have had dark times when I doubted my place in the kingdom of God and when I felt an intense separation from God (thank you, San Juan de la Cruz, for guiding me through those days) and I suspect that darker times are in store, but my faith in God remains.  Still, I want to make certain that my acceptance of faith is not some default position.  I don’t want to remain on this path because I’ve convinced myself that I’ve gone too far to change my mind.  I must keep questioning my motives and my ambitions.

I am not a Christian because I am a good person – I am not.  I don’t believe that to be a good person one must be a Christian – one does not.  I don’t have answers to many difficult questions prompted by a belief in God, or at least by my type of belief in God.  I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, whilst some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it.  I don’t know why the universe is chaotic.  I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer.  I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year.  I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant.  These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless.  But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.  Part of that calling is to encourage others to do the same.  So I will just keep doing what I know and keep asking the difficult questions.