Faith in the Fog: On Losing Beliefs and Finding God

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This is Part 5 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

Part 4: Love as our Compass


There are certain ways Christians talk about God that turn me into an atheist.

I can’t help it. As much as I try to ignore it, my inner skeptic is constantly on the lookout for holes in the God theory. It will find a loose thread and keep tugging until the whole thing unravels. Before I know it, my cherished beliefs in a loving God have disintegrated and I’ve unwittingly written off the entire Christian faith as superstitious nonsense.

Any troubling question or rogue thought can trigger this unravelling process. But few things give my inner skeptic a firmer foothold than Christians making statements of apparent certainty regarding their beliefs.

We are certain that God will prevent this bad thing from happening.

This is definitely what will happen when we die.

This is the one correct interpretation of this two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old passage of Hebrew scripture.

Really?

Sometimes I feel like being a Christian requires me to switch off my brain altogether.

Now, this confidence and assuredness seems to work for a lot of people. But for me, an assertion like that is all it takes for the fog to descend. Questions and doubts start spinning around my overzealous monkey brain, rapidly eroding any hope I had that this Christianity thing might be true.

You see, I was brought up to believe that Christianity was mainly about believing in certain doctrines. The main function of the church seemed to be to help me understand these doctrines, and to convince me of just how correct they were. If I was ever to lose my faith in said doctrines, well, let’s just say my fire insurance policy would be null and void.

The lingering effect of this particular introduction to Christianity is that I still have an underlying, often subconscious assumption that correct beliefs are the point of it all. So when doubt sets in and my beliefs begin to evaporate before my eyes, it’s no surprise that my gut response is usually to panic.


A different kind of knowing

I strongly suspect that whenever any of us get too caught up in the specifics of belief – whether we are confidently asserting faith in a particular doctrine or being thrown into blind panic by our doubt – we are missing the point.

The thing about a subject like God is that it is, by definition, beyond our understanding. So when we use language to describe God, our words are never going to accurately represent the reality we are describing.

The writers of the Bible use metaphors, symbolism and poetic language to describe their experiences of God, simply because this is the closest we humans can get to conveying a reality so far beyond ourselves. These poems and metaphors can be true in the deepest sense without being scientifically provable.

We Christians tend to cling to our beliefs because they provide a reassuring framework in which everything is categorised and understood. But in doing so we risk losing the very heart of Jesus himself, who insisted upon disrupting our ideological constructs, defying our expectations and merging our categories.

This does not sit well with us. We modern, post-enlightenment folk like to have control; to have things neatly encapsulated within our understanding. If something is true, surely we must be able to nail it down and explain how it works. We like to think we can know about God in the same way we can know about the mechanics of a car or the anatomy of an insect. But seeking objective knowledge about God is like chasing the wind. A subject like God requires a different kind of knowing.


So when the questions start to whirl and the and the panic of unwilling atheism sets in (which it does on a fairly regular basis), I have to remind myself that my beliefs about God are not the foundation of my faith.

I will not find God by thinking harder, by using the power of reason to convince myself intellectually that a particular set of beliefs are true.

But if I instead focus my energy on walking in the way of Jesus – loving my neighbour, practising forgiveness, standing against injustice and speaking out for those who have no voice – I wonder if I might just find myself staring God in the face.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable. I would love to have all the answers. But I think that would make me God, and I suspect I don’t have the qualifications.


Expanding our God vocabulary

I wonder if the church might have an easier time relating to people today if it was willing to think creatively and expand its vocabulary of God metaphors.

I think one of our biggest problems is that we are still a bit stuck with the idea of God being up there, occasionally intervening down here. Like some sort of cosmic super-genie, granting wishes from above. But the whole point of the Jesus story is that God is with us. The curtain in the temple was torn in two, and there is no longer any separation. God is not looking down on us, demanding appeasement and hurling blessings and curses from on high – that’s what every other god in the ancient world did. According to the New Testament, this God is in the sweat, blood and dirt of our lives, with us in our weakness and in some mind-boggling way, suffering alongside us.

If my doubt and confusion feel like a fog, then God is in that fog, not hidden behind it.

When I’m losing faith in a particular statement or belief about God, it helps me to remember that there are many other God metaphors I can turn to if the more traditional ones lose their appeal.

I can choose to think of God as Source, breath, ultimate reality, Ground of Being…

The energy and luminescence behind all of life…

The Divine Mother who nourishes us within her womb…

The unquenchable spark of humanity…

The light that pierces the darkness…

The ocean that surrounds us, saturating all things…

The unspeakable beauty woven into the very fabric of the universe.

These ideas are deliberately vague; they aren’t meant to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Some things can only be described poetically, because to try and literalise them would reduce their meaning. As with all language attempting to describe the indescribable, they are abstract words, none of which contain God, so I hold them with a loose grip. But with a wide repertoire of God metaphors at hand, it’s easier to prevent my inner skeptic from denying God’s existence altogether.


In letting go of concrete beliefs as the foundation of my faith, I dare to hope that I am more open to experiencing the reality of the presence of God in this moment. God in the soil, in the breeze, in laughter, in the faces of strangers I would usually avoid, and in the last places on earth I would think to look.

Without my own fixed ideas and constructs limiting my perception, my eyes can be opened to the mystery of the divine, loving presence that infuses everything, pulsing through my veins and filling the air I breath.


“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands…

…For in him we live and move and have our being.”         Acts 17:24,28


I have lots more to say. Subscribe via email to receive updates when I publish posts.

If you want to get in touch and share your own thoughts or experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email musicineverysound@gmail.com.

< Part 4: Love as our Compass

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Faith in the Fog: Love as our Compass

Slide11465919043_twitter facebook

This is Part 4 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

< Part 3: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible

Part 5: On Losing Beliefs and Finding God >


Deconstruction‘ is a bit of a buzzword at the moment in some Christian circles. For various reasons, many of us have found ourselves dismantling our belief systems and questioning long-held assumptions.

For some people, the deconstruction experience can be overwhelmingly positive and freeing. They are able to see things from refreshing new perspectives and discard aspects of their belief system that were oppressive or harmful.

For others, faith deconstruction can be like losing a parent. Utterly devastating and disorientating.

My experience has been a bit of both. Sometimes, deconstructing feels great. It feels like I’m standing on the edge of a whole new world of possibilities. My faith is renewed and I am filled with hope, content to revel in the mystery and wonder of it all.

Other times I feel like I’m stumbling around in a dense fog, desperately grasping for something to help me find my way, something to give meaning and assurance. (I plan to address the emotional and mental health issues surrounding faith deconstruction later in this series.)

I used to find meaning and assurance in my firm beliefs, based on the solid foundation of the Bible. My belief system was the anchor of my faith, and offered a neat, static framework within which to understand the world.

As my belief system crumbled and my view of the Bible changed, I was left searching for something to anchor my faith to. I had to be sure about something, or what was the point? How could I call myself a Christian if I wasn’t sure what I believed?


Love is all you need

I know, it’s the ultimate cliché.

It took me a long time to come to terms with this, but for me, right now, love is what it’s all about. It’s the whole point.

You see, my faith deconstruction has gradually revealed to me how little we can ever really know. Any ideas or theories we have about God and the meaning of existence are bound to be hopelessly inadequate. And you know what? That’s OK. I don’t think we are supposed to have an intellectual grasp on those sorts of things, they go beyond intellect and reason.

I still have beliefs and hopes about things like Jesus and the Holy Spirit and prayer and the Kingdom of God. But they are no longer set in stone.

I have stopped searching for an anchor; a solid, static set of beliefs I can cling to. Instead, love is my compass and my guiding light for life, here and now. That’s the foundation on which I’m reconstructing my faith. My beliefs will probably change, but love remains.


Love is not the easy option

The conservative evangelical voice in my head still occasionally wonders if this is wishful thinking. An attempt to soften the Truth, to make it all sound nicer and more palatable.

It sounds suspiciously like wishy-washy, fluffy, hippy nonsense doesn’t it?

Well, that depends on how you define love. The Biblical accounts of the life and death of Jesus are still, for me, the ultimate definition of love.

Sacrificial. Radically inclusive. Painful. Dirty.

Real love can bring life in all its fullness, but it is far from easy.

You know what is easy? Signing a doctrinal statement to show that you’re a real Christian. Asserting an intellectual belief in a particular theory of the afterlife. Those things aren’t exactly difficult.

But reorienting your entire life towards radical, sacrificial, Earth-transforming love – now that takes some commitment.


Christ is bigger than Christianity

Jesus demonstrated a radical way of being in the world that undermined and transcended the human need for separation, hierarchy and systems of control.

I can choose to see Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God, whilst acknowledging that the power and influence of his message is not limited to those who adhere to the Christian religion.

Of course we naturally want to create “in groups”. Of course we think everyone would be better off if they were like us. That’s human nature. The human nature that Jesus and the New Testament writers challenged relentlessly.


Why bother with religion at all?

I think that some people reach a point where the healthiest and most life-giving thing to do is to disassociate themselves from religion and faith altogether, at least for a time.

Religion can be toxic. And to be honest, it seems to me that humanists are often far more on Jesus’ wavelength than many Christians.

But. 

I don’t entirely buy the atheist argument that we don’t need God to be moral. I’m sure biology, sociology, psychology and neuroscience have a lot to say about how we have evolved to live in relationship and, in general day-to-day life, refrain from killing one another.

But I don’t believe that the kind of love demonstrated by Jesus comes naturally. Love our enemies? That goes completely against our human instincts, our ‘worldly wisdom’, and when truly lived out, can have life-transforming and world-changing effects. It interrupts the status quo and creates something entirely new.


Following Jesus was never supposed to be about having a static set of beliefs.

To have faith in Jesus is to embrace a new way of being in the world; a way of upside-down priorities, counter-cultural inclusion, radical forgiveness and ultimate sacrifice.

And the best word we have for that is love.


Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)


I have lots more to say. Subscribe via email to receive updates when I publish posts.

If you want to get in touch and share your own thoughts or experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email musicineverysound@gmail.com.

< Part 3: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible

Part 5: On Losing Beliefs and Finding God >

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Faith in the Fog: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof

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This is Part 2 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

< Part 1: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian

Part 3: Faith in the Fog: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible >


The Fear of Science

One of the biggest steps towards learning to deal with my own crippling skepticism has been to convince myself that Christianity is not irrational.

Deep down I had always feared that if I thought too deeply or learned too much about science, this faith that brought hope and meaning to my life would eventually be exposed as wishful thinking, no more credible than an ancient myth or fairy tale.

You know what I’m talking about.

That nagging suspicion that if the beliefs at the centre of our faith were examined under a microscope for too long they might disappear into nothing, revealed to be unfounded and delusional.

The fear that science might disprove God.

In its more extreme forms, this fear of science leads some Christians to make absurd claims about the historical and scientific accuracy of Biblical texts. They fear that if even one aspect of their belief system is proved to be false, the whole thing might collapse. In the eyes of these Christians, scientists must be either deluded or evil, deliberately trying to distort the truth.

My fear of science came in subtler forms. For example, it concerned me that spiritual experiences and ‘answers to prayer’ could be explained away by psychology and neuroscience. How could I fully trust the Christian story if science was able to give equally, often more credible explanations?

I wanted proof of God’s existence, and science seemed to be eroding all my evidence. Skepticism was gradually gnawing away at my faith.


The Rise of New Atheism

It’s pretty hard to ignore atheism these days. The atheist voice in our culture is loud, angry and very convincing at times. So much so that belief in God can seem a bit silly, like still believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus.

This quote is from the British comedian, Jimmy Carr:

“When I was a kid, I used to have an imaginary friend. I thought he went everywhere with me. I could talk to him and he could hear me, and he could grant me wishes and stuff too. But then I grew up, and stopped going to church.”

Ouch! That hurts, doesn’t it?

More and more I found myself wondering if people like Jimmy were right – the whole Christianity thing was one giant hoax, a distraction from reality.

In a discussion between atheists and Christians, I would nearly always find myself siding with the atheists. The thing is, Christians are irrational a lot of the time, and atheists are actually doing important work in exposing the bad side of religion.

I was never really fussed about the finer points of Christian belief. They differ from one denomination to the next, from one church to the next. Heck, for me they can change from one week to the next. I was concerned with the BIG questions. Was the universe designed by a supreme Being? Is there such thing as a spiritual realm? Does life have ultimate purpose and meaning?

(I should mention at this point that I am married to a biologist, who is also a Christian. For him, science and faith are entirely compatible, and atheism is no more rational than Christianity. It is through many lengthy discussions with him, and through reading the work of other like-minded thinkers, that I have been able to come to the following conclusions.)


Science has its limits

Jimmy Carr was brought up Catholic and, like many others, became an atheist after reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

In this hugely influential book, Dawkins’ argues that:

  • Evolution through natural selection provides evidence against intelligent design by a Creator.
  • We don’t need religion to be good.
  • Religion is bad for the world.
  • The God Hypothesis cannot be proven and is highly improbable, therefore God almost certainly doesn’t exist.

I actually agree with many of his arguments, and would probably be a convert if it weren’t for the following points:

  • There are a great number of scientists, including biologists, who believe in God.
  • There is some scientific evidence that religious belief can have benefits for general wellbeing. This doesn’t mean that it is definitely a good thing for the planet as a whole, but it makes the blanket statement “religion is bad” scientifically untenable. (Mike McHargue’s Finding God In The Waves explores some of this research in fascinating detail).
  • The God Hypothesis cannot be proven, but neither can the Atheist Hypothesis.

Science is the study of the natural world. It is very good at showing us how things work. But it cannot comment on the why questions. It can tell us how the universe came to be and how complex life evolved through natural selection, but it is not qualified to make statements about meaning or purpose.

The Christian scientists I have come across tend to all say a similar thing: science tells us how life works, faith gives it meaning. They are not in opposition. Christianity and Rationalism are examples of interpretive frameworks or narratives used to explain what we see in the world around us – science itself doesn’t take sides.


The Very Unsatisfactory Conclusion

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that ultimately, none of us can know the answers to these big questions. If we delve as far as we can into theology, philosophy, science, history and any other discipline we can think of, at the centre we find a deep mystery. A fog. We humans just aren’t capable of grasping ultimate knowledge about divine things.

This is very disappointing news for, well, all of us really. It’s not at all fun being in the fog. We want clarity. We crave answers and neat explanations. We long for the power to understand everything and the ability to prove everyone else wrong. We’ve mastered everything else, why can’t we prove or disprove the existence of God?

Because we’re only human, that’s why. As much as we would like to be, we are not omniscient.

This means that whether I believe in God or not, it’s a choice. It takes faith to believe in God, and it takes faith to believe that there is no God. (Any atheists reading this will have smashed their screens by now). I can’t prove it either way, so I make up my mind as best I can based on the evidence I have.

This is bad news for many atheists, for whom getting rid of the fog means wiping out all religion and holding rationalism as the only form of truth. It’s also bad news for many Christians, for whom getting rid of the fog means proving the existence of God once and for all.

We have to learn to live in the fog, which means admitting that whatever our position, we could be wrong.


Reimagining Faith

I remember having a mini-revelation about all this while walking along the canal in my parents’ village one afternoon in late summer. I was grilling my husband (again) about science and faith issues and how we can know we’re not deluding ourselves… when the most blindingly obvious but soul-stirringly profound thought struck me. That’s what faith is. If we could prove it, it wouldn’t be faith.

I longed so much for proof. I felt sure that if only I could know for certain that God existed, I would find assurance and peace of mind.

I have to tell you, figuring out that there are no absolute answers available to me didn’t do much for my peace of mind. But having confidence that to be a person of faith is just as intellectually valid as being an atheist was a good starting point. It gave me intellectual permission to continue calling myself a Christian, and to seek to deepen my experience of life through faith in an ultimate Source and a deeper meaning. It also gave me intellectual permission to read as many “secular” books as I liked without fearing that they might disprove God.

To conclude, we return to the problem I explored in Part 1 of this series, of faith being primarily about intellectual beliefs held as objective fact. If my faith is based entirely on a solid framework of beliefs, then if any of them are challenged I’m in trouble. (Or I can just put my fingers in my ears and sing loudly). My faith has to be based on more than intellectual reasoning. I simply can’t prove my beliefs rationally to anyone else, so I have to hold onto them lightly, respect the views of others and be genuinely open to changing my mind.

As I said, this was a starting point for me. Part 3 coming soon…


 

If you want to get in touch and share your own thoughts or experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email musicineverysound@gmail.com.

< Part 1: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian

Part 3: Faith in the Fog: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible >

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Faith in the Fog: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian

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This is the first post in my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

Part 2: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof >


How do I trust God when I’m no longer convinced he even exists?

How do I stop myself from being swallowed whole by the fear and despair that can come from seriously rethinking my beliefs?

How do I pray when it seems like there’s probably no-one listening?

Can my faith survive this?


If you have ever asked questions like these, I hope you know that you are not alone.

If your doubts become so overwhelming that you wonder if you are losing your faith altogether, then you are in good company.

Having serious doubts about the faith that has been a (possibly the) central part of your life can be unsettling, confusing and scary.

I don’t know many things for sure these days, but I am fairly certain that it’s possible to have an authentic, healthy and soul-nourishing faith whilst also being a skeptic. I continue to wrestle with these questions almost daily, but I no longer fear that I am losing my faith. I actually think these questions are a valuable part of my faith.


One of the biggest shifts in my thinking has been the realisation that faith is not supposed to be about having strong beliefs.

It’s still a pretty widespread assumption that being a Christian is mostly about what you believe. Of course, how you choose to live is important – there are very few Christians who would deny that. But it seems to me that what matters most to the majority of Christians is believing certain doctrinal statements. If you accept these statement as fact, you are saved; not by doing good works, but by asserting the validity of a particular set of intellectual propositions.

I’m not saying beliefs don’t matter at all. What we believe to be true drastically affects how we live our lives. It’s just that when we’re talking about things like God and the nature of reality and the future of the cosmos, we can never really know, can we? We are human beings, by definition limited in our capacity to understand such things.

It’s fine (and necessary) to have ideas and theories and doctrines about God, provided we remember that as long as they are contained within language and can fit neatly into human brains, they are utterly inadequate. A human claiming to understand God is not dissimilar a fruit fly landing on the tail of a Boeing 747 and claiming to understand the intricacies of aeronautical engineering.

(This may seem obvious to some, but it took me a long, long time to come to this realisation).

Once I started letting go of intellectual beliefs as the centre of my faith, things started to get decidedly foggy. My beliefs had been a sturdy framework on which to build my life; an interpretive lens through which I made sense of the world. When those beliefs started to shake and evolve, it was unnerving to say the least.

I’ve asked about every troubling question you can imagine, and yet my faith remains intact. It’s a lot less comfortable than before, and in some ways barely recognisable, but it’s also deeper, richer and more authentic. It’s constantly changing too, which can be exhausting, but also kind of exhilarating.


Forging a different kind of faith

In this Faith in the Fog series I plan to go into detail about various aspects of my evolving faith, coping with skepticism, and ways of thinking about things that have helped me navigate uncertainty and doubt.

I have things I want to say about the Bible, science, learning to trust again, prayer and spiritual practices, and mental health.

Mental health has been a particular interest of mine for over a decade now and it has become intertwined with my understanding of spirituality and faith. I think the two are inextricably linked in many ways. I particularly want to explore the mental health issues that can arise as the result of a “crisis of faith”, and share some coping strategies I have picked up along the way. (My life has been one long “crisis of faith” in recent years, and as someone prone to anxiety I have worked hard to find ways of maintaining some sense of equilibrium in the midst of existential chaos).


Experiencing serious doubt and skepticism can be tough, scary and depressing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re losing your faith. It could be the first step into a deeper, richer, more authentic faith.

You can take the plunge and face the difficult questions head on. Your faith might change beyond recognition, but it can survive.


If you want to get in touch and share your own experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email musicineverysound@gmail.com.

Part 2: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof >

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