A Yearlong Justification; or, A Year Without God

I am not one to be particularly informed about the general interests of the community. "Dude, did you hear about _____?" is a question I get asked often, and my response is, more frequently than I care to admit, "No! Tell me about it." The same is true in opposite, too. The things I assume are just common knowledge turn out to be a bit more niche than I originally thought. 

I don't watch much TV and I leave major news outlets alone (for the most part; I do occasionally get BBC breaking updates on my iPad). I frequent the corners of information: the Serial subreddit, a smattering of podcasts, NPR in the car when I don't opt for silence. I'll catch the occasional trending topic on Twitter, the occasional repost from one of the, like, 18 people I haven't hidden from my Facebook news feed, the occasional rant from some video somebody posted from Youtube. All this is to say that I may be "uninformed," but I'm okay with that. At least I'm not misinformed. Or overinformed. 

But I digress. The following is one of the things that has piqued my attention lately, stemming from my rarely-love-often-hate relationship with Patheos blogs: the story of Ryan Bell (who, by the way, has his own Patheos Channel, linked here in a new window). 

I'll give you the Reader's Digest version: Ryan Bell was a pastor for 19 years until he decided that he wasn't so sure about this God fellow anymore. He said, "alright, God, I'll give you your shot. For the next year I will live (and blog) as an atheist, and if you'd like to change my mind about it, you know what to do." 

There was no whirlwind. No boomy voices from the clouds. No descending doves. It was the ultimate New Year's Resolution with the most not-with-a-bang-but-with-a-whimper ending possible. On December 31, he uploaded his year-end review of the year without God. I will be interacting with his article from here on out. You may want to read it first (you can find it by clicking on these words; it, too, opens in a new window). 

 

In Which I Tried Several Times To Make This Post Practical But Just Couldn't, So Now I Will Be Going Through His Article And Commenting On It... You Might Want To Pull It Up In A New Window If You Haven't Already By Clicking The Link In The Parenthesis Above

"A year without God."

At least he's still capitalizing His name.

"More pixels have been spilled over the meaning of that expression than any other aspect of this experience. Now that the year is down to its final hours, it makes sense to once again start at the beginning."

"A year without God" is not an expression. Also, "spilling pixels" is both a supremely annoying metaphor and a pretty neat glitch-rock band name. Further, I don't know what "other aspect"s of this "a year without God" experience he's talking about. Isn't the whole "year without God" thing exactly what he's "spilling pixels" over? 

Finally, he should have begun this post, "In the beginning, God [insert creative metaphor here]". It would have held a bit more artistic weight. 

"A year ago I had come to the end of my existential rope."

"I had forsaken God but not the practice of beating clichés into the ground." Okay, I'm sorry. I'll take this seriously, I promise. 

"I was no longer a pastor, and nine months after leaving my congregation I had arrived at the point of questioning everything. I knew that I was on the doorstep of atheism--a place I never thought I would be." 

Just to clarify... "questioning" is not atheism, unless you know that's where you're going to end up, anyway. In which case, this "journey" isn't a tenth as truthful or honest as he makes it sound. 

"Assuming for the moment that God exists, what difference does God make?"

Now we're getting somewhere. Asking questions. I love questions. 

I'm going to respond to this in a couple of ways. I will begin by... answering. Okay. The difference that God makes is overwhelming. He is the most consequential thing that has ever been, and He, not to mention faith in Him, changes literally everything. Not white-girl-in-the-line-for-a-frappuccino literally, I mean everything that there is. The realization that God exists alters, fundamentally, every action, attitude, and philosophy on the planet. Its implications are enormous, sublime. Its mandate for response is overwhelming. Of course, it requires faith; not as much faith as atheism does, but it does require some. All things do. 

But here's the thing: that answer will only satisfy one portion of my readers--those who already believe. I know where he's headed with this caravan though, and I will respond to it in kind later, when it comes up. So let me respond to this question with another question: What kind of "difference" are you looking for? 

Are you looking for Philosophical difference? Check out Thomas Aquinas' seminal work Summa Theologica. Are you looking for a measurable, physical difference? Try Eric Metaxas' new book Miracles. Are you looking for an epistemological difference? Alvin Plantinga's God and Other Minds. A Mathematical difference? You should get acquainted with John Lennox.

Imagine you're trying to explain astrophysics to a factory worker in the Gilded Age. They're going to look at you and say, "Okay, I hear what you're saying, but this doesn't make a difference to me, at all. I'm trying to scrape money together to pay for my family's dumbbell tenement and to make sure that they can eat this week. Your astrophysics makes no difference to me." Of course, they don't need to unerstand astrophysics to get by in their daily life, but to say that it doesn't make a difference to them is not quite true: physics in outer space is what holds the planets in alignment, what keeps the earth the right distance from the Sun, what makes sure that the moon doesn't get so close that tides wreck our surface or too far away so that the water is stagnant. You could say they're alive BECAUSE of astrophysics, so it, arguably, makes all of the difference.

It's not a perfect example, of course; God is quite a bit more consequential than forces he set in motion. But to call the concept of God rubbish because you can't understand it is to discount some of the foremost minds of any generation because, simply, you're smarter than they are. 

"Does faith in God provide something that cannot be achieved in any other way?"

This entirely depends on what one is setting out to achieve. If you're setting out to understand God better, I'd wager that faith in Him provides a bit of an edge. If you're setting out to embezzle funds from a corporation, I'd say that you're best doing that on your own, without His help. 

God does not (as I surmise Ryan would like Him to, based on how the article pans out), for instance, behave like a genie: you're not going to get sports cars any faster with Him than without Him; you're going to have as many wishes fulfilled by rubbing lamps as you are praying for As. What will not be fulfilled, however, is the "oceanic feeling," as Freud mentioned it. Without God, people have achieved extraordinary things: they've built cities, crafted art, they've made themselves gods among men.

But here's the problem investing your very essence into something temporal (and yes, cities, art, and gods are temporal): once they're gone, you've nothing to show for them. What God offers is the chance for what you do to make an impact forever. It's the Grand Irony, giving yourself up--once you've forsaken the shackles of selfishness, God will exalt you (sometimes among men, always in His kingdom), but by that time personal exaltation is meaningless to you. 

So yes, faith in God provides something that non-faith does not. It provides weight and importance to even the most trivial of things ("do it as to unto the Lord"), it gives hope for eternity, it explains why in the world we like it when people are nice to us and don't like it when they're mean to us. Faith is a crucial aspect of human existence, whether it's faith in the accuracy of the calculation and observation of scientific principles or faith that the people we love won't break our hearts. But of course, that's not what we are talking about, are we? 

 

Gettin' Down To His Argument; or, Boogie Nights

 "As I attempted to integrate my understanding of the Bible with my experience of the world and the wonderful people in my congregation and city, the God I knew faded into the distance." 

I've highlighted some problem areas of this text. By the way he puts it, it seems as though his problem isn't with God (who was mentioned once) or the Bible (which was mentioned once), it is with himself and his own misunderstandings. 

I do not need to go into this again, because doing so would be spitting on the already-flogged dead horse. Instead, I'll link you to a whole piece I did on "Destroying the God Cliche." Long story short, destroying your idea of God is actually a specialty of His; any pastor worth his salt should be having his own ideas of God wrecked daily, anyway. 

"The God of deism, for example, makes no difference beyond an intellectual exercise. That God does not answer prayer, intervene in human affairs or have a personal relationship with us."  

Despite needing a good ol' Oxford Comma, this statement is spot on. Ryan's really good at factual talk, that's for sure. 

What I'm a little confused by, though, is just what he's presenting the god of deism as an "example" of. For example of what? Of how God faded into the distance? Of how his understanding changed? Or is it about this "difference" thing, still? (The editor in me wants to just take that blasted "for example" out or move the sentence quoted above somewhere else.)  

"The God of contemporary American Christianity is supposed to make a difference. But I could not discern this difference. I had stopped believing that prayer was for changing anything besdides me."

Aha. Yes. The difference thing again. I'm tired of you, already.

We have, I think, arrived at a root of a problem. Did you see it? 

1) I would be extremely disappointed if God turned out to be the God of contemporary American Christianity. First of all, He's quite ancient; I doubt He wears snapback hats. Second of all, He's not American. If we were forced at gunpoint to give Him an earth nationality, the least-stretchy answer we could give would be that He's Jewish. But that's not even correct, so forget that. 

2) Who are you to tell this God what he's supposed to do? Who told you that He's supposed to do anything for you? Reader, hear this: any god that exits to make you happy is not God at all, it's a genie. I think that Ryan has gravely misunderstood what this God business is about. I'll give you some CS Lewis: "I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity."

3) Did he think that he was praying to change God's mind? Did he think he was praying to win football games? Did he think that he was praying to get God to come snuggle him to sleep? Then no wonder he was so sharply corrected. I'll drop some more CS Lewis, mostly because he's better at words about God things than anyone who has ever existed: "I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.

Ryan literally quoted CS Lewis and didn't know it. How about that?  

"I had stopped believing that heaven was a place we were going to go or that God was really going to step into our world, stop the pain and bloodshed, and usher in a new age of peace.... the belief in paradise after death is the very thing that disempowers people from doing the things that will save us from premature destruction." 

Is he doing the Marx thing? He's doing the Marx thing. Just not as well.  

For a Christian, belief in heaven is not an excuse to treat life as if it means nothing, nor is it an excuse to "disempower people from doing the things that will save [them] from premature destruction" (by the way, if you're going to be pedantic in your verbiage, at least make sure your pronouns match). Knowing that summer break is coming doesn't make the school year any less important. Knowing that the movie is going to end eventually anyway is not an excuse to walk out of it midway. Knowing how the story ends takes nothing away from the power of the story--as proven by our obsession with "true story" adaptations. 

If he's talking about people dying for something bigger than themselves, there are martyrs in every religion, worldview, and agenda on the planet. Unless the only people who died for causes bigger than themselves are Christians (I'm looking at you, Kamakaze pilots, Romeo and Juliet, Leelah Alcorn, and Ghandi). Christianity doesn't "disempower" anybody; it redirects power into the places it needs to be. "You're such a tough guy, huh? You're strong? Then prove it: wash your brother's feet." 

"Everywhere I turned people were claiming that my efforts to make the world a more peaceful and equitable place were doomed to fail because that is what was prophesied just before Jesus returns to make it all better."  

Right. Which is why Jesus said, "they will know you are my disciples by how much you love each other." Which is why Christianity teaches feeding the hungry, caring for orphans, and loving those we should hate the most. I think that what Ryan has done here is mix faux Christians up with their Christ.  

And who are all of these people? What Christian is going to walk up to a pastor trying to make a difference and say, "you know that you're doomed to fail, right? Cool. Just making sure." Methinks the toes of memory are being chopped off to fit the glass slipper of justification. 

 

I have said a lot of things in this response, but it is just the first part, because his article goes on! I couldn't bear to make you sit through two of these bad boys this week. So next week, tune in again as I address what he insists are the reasons that theism fails. We will also discern whether or not we think that he went about this experiment honestly, and whether his findings hold any water.

The point of this little exercise is not to talk to Ryan or to convice him to "come back!" or to persuade atheists or any of that nonsense. What I do hope to do is provide hope to those who have been where I have, who have looked at these things that Ryan is pointing out and wondered just how much validity there might be in the thought of a world without God. 

Click Here for part 2.