At eighteen I saw the light; in my middle years I did my best to serve the light; so how did I wind up my late fifties without much light? To borrow a phrase from Kinky Friedman, I had become a “Jehovah’s Bystander,” someone who believes in God but isn’t personally involved. Winston Churchill expressed the same sentiment when he said that he related to the church rather like a flying buttress; he supported it from the outside. This was a seismic shift for someone who’d spent his adult life on the inside.
I had been involved in a few church plants and served in the leadership of a few others in Colorado, Oregon and Illinois. Along the way I presided over weddings and funerals, participated in baptisms and exorcisms and preached to handfuls and hundreds at a time. But when life experience caused me to question my image of God, my awareness of him dried up.
I don’t doubt God’s existence. I still believe he holds all things together, including me. I still consider myself a Christian but I’ve lost much of my sense of communion with Christ since I began questioning my theology on a deeper level. Just as I once rejected Roman Catholic doctrine, I’ve also jettisoned pieces of evangelical theology as well. The difference this time is I have nothing to put in its place.
I’ve come to believe that much of what we attribute to the handiwork of God is a matter of interpretation. We take positive circumstances as evidence of his loving care but tend not to hold him culpable for negative ones. This “faith filter” keeps us from disillusionment. Mine has gotten clogged to the point of doing more harm than good. What has gummed it up are the paradoxes that have been around longer than the Bible.
In light of God’s love and power, how does one explain:
The sad state of the world: Augustine once wrote, “It is enough for Christians to believe that the only cause of all created things … is the goodness of the Creator.” But how does one account for evil and suffering if the “only cause” of everything is “the goodness of the Creator?” Is this the best God is capable of, or is he really limited by our free will and the machinations of a fallen angel?
The limited scope of salvation: Somewhere between half and two-thirds of humanity will be lost forever if the orthodox position is accurate. How would you rate a fire department that managed to save only a minority of those it tried to rescue? Would you trust a surgeon who lost most of her patients?
The existence of hell: Most Christians can’t bear to think it through but eternal torture for temporal wrongs seems more despotic than divine. Not even Hitler revived the Jews so they could be fed into the ovens over and over again. Are the commands to forgive our enemies “seventy times seven” and the assertion that “love keeps no record of wrongs” voided at death?
These difficulties didn’t used to debilitate me; now they do. I don’t expect answers but I do long for the consolation of a father who can make his child feel loved and safe in the midst of complex circumstances I can’t possibly understand. I could use a close encounter but I realize how rare such theophanies are. I hope my condition is temporary. I want the fog to lift. I want to see behind the caricatures to the reality but I also don’t want to manufacture the experience.
Mother Teresa longed for the same solace yet never received it. The book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, contains letters between her and her confessors spanning two-thirds of a century. They show that for the last forty-five years of her amazing life she felt no presence of God whatsoever—except for a five-week break in 1959.
Time reported that,
In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the ‘dryness,’ ‘darkness,’ ‘loneliness’ and ‘torture’ she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God.
Mother Teresa remained able to press on in selfless obedience; that’s what made her a saint.
I’m also not done with my journey. I’m still searching, listening and holding myself open to divine intervention.
* * *
“Perhaps great believers and great doubters
are more like each other than either group is like
he great mass of relatively disinterested middle-grounders.
Both are preoccupied with understanding the nature of the universe.
Both agree that this is, after all, the great question.”