There’s a dangerous and popular myth about religious faith, that says you either have it, or you don’t.
Even if we don’t consciously choose to, most of us probably see spirituality this way too; as a fixed, all or nothing, pass-fail proposition, as either one of only two available, very distinct options: Belief or Unbelief.
This is especially true of those of us raised in the Christian Church, as it often operates this way, with the saved, sold-out, settled faithful on one side, and the rebellious, unreachable, heartless heathens on the other.
Every Sunday we’re thrust into a starkly lit, supernatural Super Bowl, presented with the hard moral battle lines and neatly marked out theological menu options (all framed with great eloquence and urgency), and we’re asked to choose—now. We’re forced to go immediately and permanently all-in with either Faith or Doubt; implored by pleading pastors and preachers to forever join the ranks of those believing souls who are surely headed for Heaven, or of the Godless unbelievers most certainly bound for Hell.
The only problem with this clean, seemingly decisive Yes or No religious rhetoric: It’s an impossible ask of any of us.
Most people simply don’t work that way. You probably don’t work that way either, truth be told.
When it comes to our real-time, real life religious convictions, we don’t always live or think or believe in those sharply delineated black and white spaces. We are always in the process of becoming more or less faithful. We’re all in continual transition between believing and not believing, and back again and again.
If we’re really honest with ourselves, we always fall somewhere along the single, beautifully paradoxical continuum, of faithful believers who are fighting back doubt, and sure skeptics trying to escape belief; Faitheists all of us.
I’ve come to believe that theology is a place, one that always moves, one that is decidedly fluid, one built upon the fault lines of our experience. It’s a momentary destination we’ve reached as a result of every second we’ve ever lived through and it is constantly altered and shifted as we continue to live and learn and grow.
Sometimes our faith seems unshakable, and on other days our unbelief seems insurmountable, right up until those moments when the opposite proves true; when that faith is shaken, when those doubts are overcome. Because of that movement we live in perpetual existential indecision, our souls never quite stopping to stay in any one place for very long.
Sometimes this religious vacillation lasts a mere moment and sometimes it settles in for a season, but in those moments and during those seasons, we fail to be either merely Believers or Unbelievers—we’re simply sliding somewhere between the two.
We aren’t all this or that, but some of both.
Rarely do any of us have the kind fully resolved certainty that extremist talk show hosts and fire-and-brimstone preachers on either side want us to believe that we’re supposed to have. If we did, it would make their jobs easier and their sales pitches tighter.
No, even in our most confident and most zealous days, there’s some glitches in the system.
Life itself, does this to us.
Faced with the unthinkable horror and tragedy that we sometimes see in the world, (and the kind that visits our own lives), even the most faithful of us sometimes asks if God is really there. Likewise, in moments when we experience the kind of overwhelming, indescribable beauty that we’re sometimes gifted with here, many of us who claim no faith at all, feel our hearts involuntarily wondering if there isn’t more than we can see and understand and explain.
And in those times of decidedly undecided faith none of us are wrong or evil, we’re simply living in the honesty of our limitations and in the truth of our spiritual condition.
Every week I hear from so many people who write and say things like, “I’m a Christian and have a really strong faith, but I have often have these massive doubts, and sometimes I’m not sure I believe at all”, while others will say, “I’m an Atheist and I can’t stand organized religion, but the teachings of Jesus still stir something inside of me. I still wonder a lot about Heaven, too.”
What is strikingly similar in so many people’s stories, is how many feel they need to keep such apparent theological inconsistency hidden; afraid to be “found out” not to be fully invested in the side they’ve chosen or the group they’ve signed-up with.
If only we could all have real authenticity about our spiritual journeys and admit our own religious indecision, and the secret caveats to our creeds. That admission might allow all of us to dig deeper to excavate the common sacred ground that we all really stand on. It might give us consent us to simply share our stories and receive other’s, without forcing anyone to align with a side or chose weapons or fight at all.
It would be better if we could all just admit that religious belief isn’t a team that we choose, but a path that we’re on. None of us fits into a narrow, clearly defined box for very long, and even in our most sure moments, we are still not quite sure.
In the Gospel biographies, Jesus tells what is known as The Parable of The Four Soils, or The Parable of The Sower. He paints the wonderful word picture of a farmer scattering seed which falls on different soils, with varying degrees of germination and growth. It’s an image of the different conditions of a person in this life, which each yields certain receptiveness to the message he gives.
What’s beautiful about the story is its admission of complexity regarding belief. There are not simply good or bad people; not only saved lovers of God on one side and damned rebels on the other. There is an understanding of nuance that is greater than merely In or Out.
What’s more, Jesus allows for change and for season. He doesn’t assume that we are forever one soil or that we are all one soil in a single day, for that matter. In fact he reminds us that we are the ever-evolving product of the lives we live.
As you read this, you may consider yourself to be a Christian whose faiths only sometimes has cracks, or you may see yourself as an Atheist who only occasionally gets angry at a God who doesn’t exist. You may see the faithful or faithless as enemies poised on battle lines across from you, desiring to destroy and always prepared to charge.
I prefer to think of us all as trying to navigate the same rugged, treacherous, terrain of big questions and elusive answers, and because of that we ought to be kinder and more grace-filled toward each other on the way.
Saved and Sinner, Evangelist and Atheist, Believer and Doubter, there is rarely as a great chasm between us as our traditions tell us.
Truly we’re all Faitheists; much closer to one another than we have been led to believe.
Let’s dig in the dirt together.