With or Without You

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

– 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.

7 thoughts on “With or Without You

  1. Very well written and almost paralleling my own evolution from Christianity.

    “If you have faith “the size of a mustard seed,” you can move mountains.”

    The origin of that faux statement is an interesting story into which few folks think deeply enough. Let’s look at it:

    Jesus saw yon fig tree, and being hungry, decided to eat some figs. Upon reaching the tree, he found that it had no figs. So he cursed the tree and the tree died. Then the disciples marveled at the “miracle.”

    1. Why did he not know it had no figs?
    2. Why did he curse it–out of frustration and anger?
    3. If he wanted to get a twofer–show a miracle AND the love of a god, then why did he not simply make it grow figs right then and there?
    4. The moving mountain by faith parable, then, was a distraction to hide the fact that he could not make it produce figs even though he was supposed to have such faith. Then again, since he was a god, why would he even need faith?

    “I’ve somewhat accepted the “atheist” label now, for convenience’s sake, but again, not a strictly accurate description of my position.”

    If you haven’t heard of it, check out Dawkins’ Spectrum of Theistic Probability, where:

    1 = Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”

    2 = De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”

    3 = Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”

    4 = Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”

    5 = Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”

    6 = De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”

    7 = Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction Jung knows there is one.”

    Simply because it is logically impossible to be certain that there is/are no god(s), I place myself at “6,” as does Dawkins.

    1. Thanks, Max, for the thoughtful comment.

      To add to your exegesis of the fig tree incident (that sounds more like a Ludlum novel than a Bible story), if we are to take it in the metaphorical sense in which it was always taught to me, then it is yet another example of God demanding the impossible of us and then casting us aside when we inevitably fail to produce:

      “Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, BECAUSE IT WAS NOT THE SEASON FOR FIGS.” In other words, he cursed a tree that failed to operate according to the natural laws supposedly designed by his Father (a.k.a., himself). Sounds fair to me…

      As for the Dawkins scale, I try to avoid any classification of which that man would approve. While I share his atheistic standpoint, I do not share his contempt for people who don’t share our shared standpoint, and I find his attitude extremely off-putting. That being said, I would probably place myself at 6, as well.

  2. These are powerful words, written with eloquence. I had my moment two years before you, same month. It was lonely and scary and sad. Everything quaked with menace and confusion.

    But the ground settled, life continued, and, like you, I found that nothing had changed but my mind. If I find myself arriving at pearly gates, I will picket and stomp until my questions are answered. If the fault lies with the maker and not his earthly speakers, then I shall ask for ultimate death. I have no need for the deities I have learned of.

    If I arrive in the hottest of supernatural worlds, I shall say hello to my friends. If the powers at be wish to torture me, I will know that I spent my life honestly and fully.

    But I think that neither shall happen, or any variation thereof. I do not wish it any other way.

    1. Not to be too “Clash of the Titans” or anything, but I’m not afraid of what I’m saying. It seems to me that, as justice goes, if there is a God who created us humans, imperfections included, then set us up to choose wrongly before morally we were even capable of knowing the difference, and then engaged in centuries of emotional extortion accompanied by threats of eternal suffering in the worst of all possible realities…and THEN backed away and left us neck-deep in a world of evil we can’t (and He apparently won’t) control…well, first, I no longer find that thought the slightest bit comforting–actually, the opposite of comforting–and second, why in the world would I love such a being and sacrifice for him? Seems to me to be the mother of all cases of Stockholm Syndrome…

      1. I fully agree. The Devil starts to look like a pretty nice guy by comparison. I just haven’t seen you personally frame it in such a way before. You seem more at peace somehow. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it.

      2. Sometimes clarity arrives via the back door, yes? Recently, I’ve been prompted to remember how and why I ended up here in the first place…

        I ain’t afraid of no ghosts… :o)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s