I recently read a year end review of crazy pastor stunts, and one Christian pastor, Ryan Bell, decided to spend 2014 without God. Recently, he’s announced that he’s going to stay without God: he’s decided God doesn’t exist. St. Thomas Aquinas said that you have to go where your conscience leads you, even if it takes you away from the church, so if this is where Mr. Bell’s journey has taken him, fine. My own journey of faith has never been a straight line, and I can think of many times in my past where I was a Christian in name only. We end up where we end up, although I will be interested to see where Mr. Bell’s journey takes him in the future.
Part of his reasoning is that not believing in God makes life simpler, as he says in this interview, but I think it’s a fallacy to assume that simple things in life are always better. Many harmful, wrong ideas are simple, such as: “We are the Master Race destined to rule the world,” but that’s the subject of another essay.
The aspect that bothers me greatly about the story is about faith being disposable. Mr. Bell started in a branch of Christianity far from where I started (I grew up a small town Presbyterian, a mainline Protestant with a rightward bent); I don’t know much about Seventh-Day Adventists other than they are usually intolerant of other Christians. I would question whether he started in the right place in the beginning, but that’s not the issue I wish to address because it matters where we end up, not where we start. The issue is the understanding of faith: for me, if it’s something you feel you can let go of, then it isn’t faith. Beliefs change, and they have changed for me, but I can’t imagine living without a belief anymore than I can imagine voluntarily living without the use of my legs in a wheelchair or spending a year with one arm tied behind my back. There have been times I’ve tried living without housekeeping, but those have been unprintable. Faith is part of our core identity, and we really can’t live without part of who we are, or at least we shouldn’t.
There is nothing wrong with doubting God’s existence, provided that doubt leads to deeper reflection and an openness to insight and revelation. But that’s not the same as “giving up God for a year.” The problem of giving up God for a short time is many of us do it in real life while holding onto belief at the same time. Many live religion as if it’s a switch we flip on and off on a particular day of the week or a few moments of focused attention, which usually means we’re worshiping a construct of our own making which has little to do with any reality on any plane, and has no real power to change or transform us for the better. The consequences of turning religion on and off are usually toxic and can lead to horrible consequences.
I wish Mr. Bell well and I’m glad that he’s working to help the homeless. I can’t say that I find much value in his approach, nor would I recommend it any more than I would recommend an atheist or agnostic trying prayer for a month. I don’t think belief is found through experiment or a search for miracles, it’s found through reflection on experience. For many theists, we see God’s work in retrospect, in the rear view mirror, with moments of immediate revelation being rare, wonderful and unpredictable things. That puts a great value on how we reflect on our experience, but there is a danger. Simple answers to what we do and why we do it, what we’ve seen and what it means, are frequently misleading, and it’s only when were unafraid of complexity that we find a true sense of what our reality is all about.
Faith is something you’re willing to die for rather than give up. In my view, if you can give it up, it probably wasn’t Faith in the first place.