– Emily Dickinson
They always told me: If you have faith “the size of a mustard seed,” you can move mountains. Problem is, mountains don’t move. And when you’re told that they can, and you aren’t able to do it…well, then, what does that say about your faith?
It’s not you, God; it’s me.
It’s July, 2011. I’m standing alone on a trail off of Cataloochee in the Great Smoky Mountains. It is quiet, and I am in turmoil. I’m still clinging to the tatters of my Christian identity, to what little is left of whatever divine dependency I might once have had. I speak into the stillness: “If you’re there, give me a sign.”
This scene has played out in my heart and in my mind a multitude of times over the previous two years, I the honest supplicant, God the (supposedly) loving auditor. Words run amok in my mind: “Whatever ye ask of me believing, ye shall receive.” And I believed, desperately. I had faith, if only the size of a mustard seed. I had doubts, but up until that day I also had faith. And there I was again, on my inner knees, begging for just one tiny proof of life.
Nothing. Silence. Complete and utter silence. Except for a rustling in the trees off to my left–a fisherman who, I realize, must have heard what I just said and is now convinced I’m insane.
But God? Zilch.
In that moment, a moment of absolute despair, the straw fell, the back broke, and I was done. The God who made a donkey speak couldn’t be bothered to speak to me. I had given up a whole life for him to climb into a pulpit and talk him up on a weekly basis, and when I needed him, he was not there. He was nowhere to be found.
As I stumbled back down the trail, fighting the tears and resisting the urge to scream profanities at the sky, I knew. I just knew. I’ve been called a doubter recently, with the best of intentions, but that’s really not an accurate description of my stance. In that moment, I didn’t doubt. I knew, in the pit of my stomach. I was alone.
At first, and for a long time, I was angry. That has faded, for the most part. In its place, there is now determination. I will not be a pawn in anyone’s game, no matter how monumental their cosmic powers.
Since that moment, my true moment of deconversion (to use the popular term), I’ve had my share of life’s well-timed insults. But I had my share of those before that moment, as well. Things have gone wrong; things have gone well. I have been sick; I’ve gotten better. Income has dropped; income has gone back up. I’ve had good days as well as bad. There is virtually no difference between my day to day existence now and my day to day existence before, except that now I sleep later on Sundays.
You might respond with the old story (and an old, old, old story it is): it’s not about this life; it’s about the next. Okay. Prove it. Prove to me that I ought to live this life in fear of what might happen after it ends. And then think about this: there’s a name for this sort of thing. When someone powerful tells someone less so that if he obeys, he’ll have a home and be taken care of, and if he doesn’t, he’ll suffer and die–we call that slavery. Read a history book. We call it slavery…unless we’re talking about God, in which case we call it love.
I. Will. Not. Be. Owned.
Don’t test the Lord, you say. Fine. As soon as it stops being okay for him to allow people to go through hell in this life just so they can sit it out in the next, and call it A Test. Then we can talk.
It’s not the desperate anecdotal efforts to prove that God works miracles that bother me. It’s that these anecdotal efforts serve only to underline the extent to which he does not. No self-respecting zoologist would accept the absence of the unicorn for proof of its existence, but millions of Christians throughout the ages have been taught to accept a chronic lack of action as proof of power (or at least not a denial of it). Like he didn’t act that day in the national park, or on any of the days prior to it, as I, the guy he knit together in my mother’s womb, slowly came apart at the seams.
I’ve somewhat accepted the “atheist” label now, for convenience’s sake, but again, not a strictly accurate description of my position. It isn’t that I believe there is no God. It’s that, even if there is, I have no faith in him. I have no use for him. Because, if he exists, he has not been faithful to me. He hasn’t been faithful to a lot of people. And a God who doesn’t act might as well not exist.
If my wife tells me she loves me every day, if she sacrifices for me, bends over backwards to show me how special I am to her, and in return I toss her in a puddle of crap and leave her there to drown; what’s more, if I tell her it’s her own fault she’s in the puddle, and unless she pulls herself out of it by way of proving her love, I’ll leave her there for good; and if I tell her no matter how much she tries to live up to my love, it’ll never be good enough for me; that she needs me in order to have value, and without me she’s nothing; that the only thing she can do is beg me for acceptance every day of her life and hope that I’m telling the truth, that in the end, I’ll make up for the abuse by giving her a great big hug and “wiping the tears from her eyes”; not only would that be an abusive relationship, but it would be fairly clear that she isn’t the problem.
So, God, if you’re listening: I was wrong. It’s not me; it’s you.