I’d like to tell you I’m a man of deep, unshakable faith. I’d like to tell you I know the real, actual truth about the universe and meaning of life so I could share the secret with you.
That’s a big deal when you’re a Christian. Certainty. Certainty wearing a “Hello, my name is Faith” sticker.
Maybe it’s a big deal for Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and Atheists, too. Maybe you’re only a good member of your faith community if you believe everything you’re taught.
Understand something about me: I only saw good, kind, decent versions of Christians growing up—loving and charitable people who I only witnessed doing good things, and never doing bad things. I think that’s why I always felt ashamed when I was younger for wanting to make out with the cute girl in the church pew in front of me, or for questioning whether I’m literally supposed to believe that God once lost His temper and intentionally flooded the entire world killing every man, woman, child, animal, and plant which wasn’t on a giant wooden boat built by Noah and his family large enough to house two of every type of animal on Earth, followed by Noah’s family incestuously repopulating the world.
I nonetheless had mountains of evidence that Christians were good people. And since I knew a bunch of them, and had no reason to doubt them, I grew up believing all of the finer points of Catholic Christianity.
And let me tell you, that’s not an easy thing. I was just a kid. A pretty good and nice one too.
There wasn’t any ambiguity in our rules:
Any orgasm outside of marriage?
Going to Hell.
A hit off a joint or one too many drinks at a party?
You’re gonna burn.
Holy shit! An eternity of torturous fiery terror and torment!
That’s a lot to handle when you’re a 16-year-old boy, and your life revolves around girls, friends, sports, and daydreaming about going off to college, in that order, where you assume you magically become an adult and figure out what you’re going to be for the rest of your life, and maybe stop getting erections for no apparent reason.
Maybe Muslims and Atheists experience it differently. I hope for their sake that they do.
‘You Have an Obligation to Write About Your Faith’
People tell me that, sometimes. I always disagree with them, and then try to explain why.
I usually write about divorce, marriage and sustainable relationships, and I’ve earned some credibility with a group of people who think maybe I have a bunch of it figured out.
Here’s the thing: I can spit out a nice little playbook for how a man can make his wife feel loved, safe, secure and desired, and not want to divorce him as much as most women want to divorce their shitty husbands. I can. I’ve had THOUSANDS of wives, and even some husbands, write me to say so.
That doesn’t make what I believe true.
It just makes me confident.
The only path to a good, forever-kind-of marriage is vigilantly practicing love—the verb—every day. It requires a healthy understanding of human psychology—how husbands’ and wives’ minds and bodies operate differently, and having the tools necessary to keep things from breaking.
For years and years, everyone was smoking. Even doctors. A bunch of people were dying from cancer and heart disease and we couldn’t figure out why. Eventually, we did. And now we know smoking invites sickness and death faster than not smoking does.
There are three kinds of people now.
- The kind who do not smoke because they want to do what’s best for themselves and the people they love.
- The kind who smoke because they don’t give a shit about themselves or others.
- The kind who smoke, know it’s bad and want to quit, but struggle with the addiction or habit for a variety of reasons.
On the subject of marriage and relationships, we are—as people—nowhere near as enlightened and educated as we are about the health ramifications of smoking cigarettes. Every day, people are accidentally and carelessly ruining relationships, damaging children, and tearing families apart.
There are three kinds of people who are married or in committed relationships, and unlike with smoking, the largest group has NO IDEA that what they’re doing (metaphorically smoking circa 1960) will invite sickness and death into their relationships.
- The kind who get it and do things the right—and frankly, only—way. Actively choosing to love their spouse and family every day, applying information they’ve learned about what makes their partner feel good to their daily lives. Proactively nurturing their marriages.
- The kind who abuse and lie and cheat and neglect because they don’t give a shit about themselves or others.
- The kind who sometimes fall short, understand that they can do and be more, want to, but struggle in their hearts and minds for a variety of reasons.
Let’s call it doubt. Maybe a person doubts that monogamy can really work. Maybe a person doubts they can trust their partner to not abandon them. Maybe a person GOT EVERYTHING THEY WANTED IN LIFE AND STILL DOESN’T FEEL HAPPY.
That last thing happens to decent, intelligent people all the time. They were certain this was what would finally make them happy, but then it didn’t, and now they want more.
There must be more to life than this.
Life in the Margins
I don’t write about God and/or Jesus because I think it’s an ineffective way to communicate with strangers. People don’t like being judged or preached to.
It automatically divides and makes people feel unwelcome. Not only that, it’s a bullshit thing to do.
And the answer to this question is why I think so: When is the last time you witnessed two human beings with deeply held spiritual, theological, philosophical or political beliefs discuss their differences pleasantly or otherwise, and afterward hear one say: “Gee whiz. You’re right. I reject all my previous beliefs and agree with you now.”?
Even once? Ever?
I mean, yeah. I’m Catholic. Kind of a rogue, miscreant one. I believe many things unique to Catholicism. I’m a regular churchgoer.
But I also have a bunch of stuff I’m not sure about. I used to feel guilty about that but now I don’t.
I don’t murder, because that makes sense. I don’t rape, because that makes sense. Can I really be damned for eternity for using birth control during married sex because money’s a little tight right now?
I’m tired of people acting like they know. No one knows. Zero people.
We know precisely dick.
We’ve had the world’s most-intelligent and thoughtful people trying to get to the root of what’s true about life and the universe since before the words “science” or “philosophy” were ever uttered. And no subatomic-particle physicist, pastor, atheist, teacher, scholar, prophet, rabbi, tribal chief or jungle medicine man has solved it.
Their argument and evidence would be convincing if they had. Like when the doctors proved to us that smoking caused cancer, and we believed them and made new choices.
We all want to feel certain.
I want to feel certain. I don’t want to believe in fairy tales. And I don’t know how to believe in nothing, Lebowski. I need meaning and reason and purpose, or I can’t make sense of anything. If the entire point of living is hedonism before the lights inevitably go off, why aren’t we all shooting heroin, hosting orgies and encouraging everyone we know to do the same?
But I’m NOT certain.
I don’t know.
Not for sure. Is what I feel faith and belief? Or is it just 36 years of habit reinforced by like-minded people within an unchanging faith community?
If no one ever told me the truth about Santa and someone kept sneaking “From Santa” gifts under the Christmas tree every year, might I still believe in him?
If Carl Sagan was my father and nothing bad ever happened to me for believing everything he taught me, would I look at the world completely differently?
If I didn’t have a father, money, education, enough food, or experienced love from family or friends, might I be willing to join a violent group of religious militants intent on spreading mayhem and murdering innocent people who believed a different God story than me?
The Shadow Proves the Sunshine
When you strip away all the bullshit, we’re all just a bunch of people who behave the way we do because of our beliefs and habits.
That’s why we usually believe whatever our parents taught us, so long as no negative consequences came from doing so. When it felt bad, we did something different than them.
I don’t know anything. I never have. I just believe things which make sense to me.
I don’t know that what I write about in terms of love and marriage actually works. I just believe it strongly because I’ve read, discussed, and thought a lot about it and it made sense to me.
Maybe some really good guy out there has been married twice and did everything right both times, but in both marriages, his wife took advantage of him financially and slept with his best friend. Maybe now that guy can’t believe what I believe anymore.
I’m done pretending I know what it’s like to be another person.
Maybe some people can’t believe in God because they watched their mother die of a horrible disease she didn’t deserve to get, or because they lost family on Sept. 11, 2001, or because their parents told them there is no God, and since thousands of children die every day in Africa from asshole warlords and no sanitary water, that story made sense to them.
Something is true, and I don’t know what it is. But I like trying to figure it out.
The only thing I really know is what it’s like being me.
A flawed, broken, uneven human being who can feel joyful and grateful one day, and a little bit sad and empty the next.
A guy who does all kinds of things my faith community warns me could send me straight to Hell.
That might be total bullshit. Or 100-percent true.
I won’t know until I’m dead. That’s when we will all learn the truth OR when the lights go out and our consciousness insta-shuts off, and the book of our life ends, maybe mid-sentence and unresolved.
On the other hand, I can’t tell you I don’t believe in God.
Do I doubt some of the details of thousands-year-old religious texts which include mountains of symbolism and metaphor? Sure!
But do I doubt God’s existence, goodness, or power? How could I? Why would I want to?
Some people don’t like God and religion. But it’s not because of God and religion. It’s because some religious people do heinous, horrible things in the name of their faith, thereby making every sane person on earth despise them and reject their beliefs.
That makes sense to me.
If the only Christians you ever knew screamed “God hates fags!” at your gay friend or family member, or staged protests at the funeral of your neighbor killed in military combat, or bombed women’s health clinics because they’re somehow convinced God’s preferred solution to ending abortion is murdering people with guns and explosives, would you like them or want to practice the same faith?
Isn’t that what many Muslims deal with now? Judgment and squinty-eyed suspicion based on the actions of a few?
Life has clearly demonstrated that one size does not fit all.
I think everyone feels the emptiness sometimes. Every faith. Every walk of life.
Things just feel off, sometimes. We can’t figure out why because when we write it all down on paper, our lives are exactly what we think we want.
I HAVE EVERYTHING I WANT AND STILL DON’T FEEL HAPPY.
I love my wife and I want to be married, but I don’t always feel like sacrificing for her. I don’t always feel like not putting my penis in others I’m attracted to. My marriage didn’t turn out the way I thought it would, so what’s the point?
There will always be that third group. The group too damaged to love themselves or others. Who just want to watch the world burn.
Then there’s the rest of us. With all our doubts. All our ignorance. All our guilt. All our shame.
Crooked souls trying to stay up straight.
The longer we live, the more bad things we experience. We collect more scars. We lose more innocence.
It’s so easy to embrace the cynicism now. To abandon hope while the politicians scream, and the fanatics shoot, and greedy abuse, and our friends fail us, and our marriages burn while we cry.
But here we are. Still trying.
We pray and we hope. We try to be good, for the sake of being good. We do things that are difficult or inconvenient because it’s what’s right.
People keep waiting for a blinding light. For God to speak thunderously from a mountaintop or burning bush. To feel certain again. Like when we were kids and less afraid of everything.
God doesn’t yell. We’d all know if that were true.
He whispers. Whispers are hard to hear.
I think when people have everything they ever wanted and still don’t feel happy, or genuinely love their spouse and family and want to be married, but still feel empty?
I think that might be a whisper.
I think that’s when we’re supposed to cede control. For God to fill the gaps. I think God likes working in the margins.
I’m never going to suggest you need to be saved. That you should believe what I believe. That I have some answer you don’t. I don’t know. And I think most, if not all, people who say they know are mistaken or lying.
I will always try to ask the right questions, though.
When it seems as if all options have been exhausted, is it possible the only thing you’ve never tried is a legitimate leap of faith? Is it possible that could make the pain and fear go away?
I’ll always say what I believe and why and let others form opinions about it. To decide for themselves whether the nagging emptiness we don’t usually talk about might be a whisper. A nudge to wake up inside.
Maybe there’s no love without hate.
Maybe there’s no hot without cold.
Maybe there’s no light without darkness.
What do I believe? That the shadow proves the sunshine.
(Thanks to Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman for writing this beautiful song, and inspiring this post.)