I don’t know if God is real.
I believe that there is more to the universe that what we see and touch and feel, but the notion that there is a particular god in a particular place making bad things happen to particularly good people is not something I can know for sure. There are times when I think I want to know that some kind of god exists, but when I think about all of the ways that a god who is supposed to love people acts as though we aren’t worth loving, I can’t believe in that kind of god.
Over the years, I’ve tried really hard to get to know God. As a kid, I logged a lot of hours in a church pew on a sunday and in church classrooms during the week. Even though it didn’t always make sense to me, I read a lot of scripture and was told what it all means. In college, a Bible study group that I was a part of had heard that really good Christians sometimes do this thing called speaking in tongues. We heard it was called a gift of the spirit and we all wanted a gift from the spirit. So we prayed. And we waited. Most of us were disappointed that God didn’t think we were good enough.
Maybe we weren’t. Maybe we were pursuing the wrong god.
Maybe the way that we had all been thinking about God was wrong this entire time.
Perhaps there are more ways to think about the world around us than we will typically hear about in the typical, twenty-first century church service. The message there is something like love God, follow these rules we have learned from the Bible, pray for what you want, and someday you’ll be in heaven forever with Him. It’s not my purpose to argue that this approach to faith doesn’t work; if this is how you find truth and life, then absolutely continue pursuing it.
But, this approach did not work for me and some of my friends. We grew up with this sense of a God that wanted to have a relationship with us but the tools we had for connecting didn’t seem to work. It seemed like we couldn’t talk to him directly or, at least, he didn’t seem to be communicating back to us. So it was really hard to get to know him. We started to wonder if he really was interested in us. We wondered if what everyone had been saying about him was true. We wondered if he was even real.
Most of these friends have left the church now. They never were able to fully resolve these questions for themselves. Instead of facing an endless stream of frustration, they decided that the effort wasn’t worth their time. There were rules about what to expect for a life of faith and none of those seemed to be playing out. We either weren’t good enough, weren’t getting something right, or were missing the point. So we left. In droves.
When I say we left, understand that I mean we left the church. And by that, I mean we left the traditional ways of pursuing and understanding god. Most of us never gave up on the idea of God, however. Many of us felt compelled to continue trying to connect with God. We didn’t know what that even meant.. We had a lot of questions about life and the world around us. We saw a great deal of pain that seemed to be going unnoticed by God and wanted to know what what was about. Surely, it a god of love wouldn’t punish people by placing them in a part of the world where there was not enough food to keep their children alive. If God was real, then we believed it possible for us to interface with him on some level and, hopefully, to understand.
For me, the idea of God doesn’t begin with questions about whether God is relevant or if God intervenes in our daily life or even if the existence of God is likely. What compels me to even think about God are questions about the possibility of God – of any god. Is it possible – even remotely – that there is some being beyond what we can physically perceive that may have some capacity to interact with the world around us? Is it possible that there is a source of energy that ties each atom in creation together into some cosmic family?
It seems like a simple set of questions and it’s easy to pass over them. But where we land on the answers to these questions provide a foundation to how we understand life in general.
Unlike most of the questions that we face today, this particular question seems to be very black or white. People can fall into one of only two groups in answering these possibility questions: Yes or no. You either believe it’s possible or not. But answering no, here is really the only definitive declaration. A yes answer doesn’t mean that there definitely is a god – only that it’s a possibility. A maybe answer is a yes, an I don’t know answer is a yes. Even an I don’t think so is a yes. If we’re not prepared to definitively say there is no possibility then we have only one other alternative.
By the way, all of those answers – yes, no, maybe, I don’t know, I don’t think so – are great answers.
To say that it is not possible that any heavenly being exists is to say that there is an overwhelming amount physical and personal evidence against this claim. Because of some collection of clues, you might conclude that there is no being out there. There is no consciousness that can interact with our universe and nothing that we can perceive with any or our senses. The literal claims that faith makes about itself have never been proven. Therefore, there is no reason to entertain the idea of a heavenly being. Show me the evidence to the contrary and I’ll reconsider.
When we’re talking about possibilities, these are difficult statements to make, partially because they are necessarily so definitive. We’re not asking about a person’s own beliefs here. Instead, we’re simply wondering if there is any good reason to discount the possibility that there might be some sentient being.
Of course, the other way to answer these questions is to say that it is, in fact, possible that some god exists. That’s it. Just because you acknowledge the possibility doesn’t mean that you believe in any particular god, that you make any claims about such a god’s character, or that their existence has any bearing on our daily lives. It doesn’t mean you have to give up any sense of rationality; it’s completely rational to be able to say that there’s not enough evidence to disprove the idea that there might be some god character.
Why are these questions so significant? The way that we answer says a lot about how we see the world around us and particularly how we approach new ideas. To say that some god’s existence is possible is to be open to the idea that something that we do not know to be true, might actually be true. Openness to ideas beyond our own is foundational to acceptance and growth. On the other hand, we see those that are closed off to new ideas as intolerant. To be closed off from possibility is to insist on certainty. In some cases, certainty can be the prelude to conflict. Conflict separates people from each other. Separation is not a divine concept.
It’s important to point out that we just as readily need to be able to consider another version of this question: Is it possible that no god character – no sentient being or source of spiritual energy – exists in any way in the universe? The same sort of rules apply here. Answering no means that there is absolutely no possibility that we are the products of a beautiful, self-structuring universe; it means that you know for a fact – not feel or believe, but know – that there is such a being. Both of these questions are important because they open the discussion. Before we can land with our own set of beliefs and structure around faith, it’s important to recognize the expanse in which we all start. None of these questions preclude us from considering the wonder of it all. The universe, void as it may be of any spiritual energy, is a wholly remarkable place.
Almost anything we can imagine here is possible. Questions involving faith are fundamentally different from problems that can be rationalized and solved. Neither is inherently better or worse. However, unlike rational approaches that deconstruct ideas and remove mystery in search of the correct answer, questions about faith are constructive and add a massive amount of mystery to what it means to be present in the here and now. When rationality it applied to a problem, we get structured, definite answers, detailed plans and procedures, and the ability to reliably reproduce results. Faith questions, on the other hand, when they are free of fundamentalism and dogma, enrich our lives and relationships and help us feel connected to the world around us, often adding more questions than they answer. They are personal, unique, and momentary.
I’ve believed in some variation of God for the majority of my life. What exactly I believe has changed dramatically over that time. It changes every day. For me, I’ve never been able to definitively answer “no” to any of these questions that wonder about the possibility of God. Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of the typical techniques that people seem to go through to resolve these issues: I’ve tried looking for evidence and rational reasons as to why I believe these things; I’ve looked for help and guidance from other people who have tried to figure this stuff out before me; I’ve read the Bible compulsively looking for clues; I’ve prayed for signs. After all of that, I never had an answer that stuck. By the end, all I really knew is that there was more that I didn’t understand than I had figured out.
Today, I am in a place where I consider that these questions about faith and meaning are the ultimate mystery. These are the questions for which we cannot know answers, at least in the way that we’ve come to understand the idea of knowing. There are, quite literally, an infinite number of possibilities – so many that they overwhelm any sense of certainty we might have. Certainty becomes a stumbling block that keeps people from truly experiencing what it means to realize one’s full potential. Certainly closes the door on the possibility of new experiences. Certainty keeps people from experiencing God.
Our culture seems averse to the idea of being unsure. Some would label the person who doesn’t resolve these questions sounds as an agnostic rather than a Christian. An agnostic, by definition, is not someone who says there is no god, but rather says that the mystery is too great to know for certain; Fully grasping the idea of a being that might exist out of the reach our senses is impossible. I’ve come to believe that, in the realm of faith, certainty is largely a cumbersome concept and there is great beauty in agnosticism. To fully experience God, have to be willing to give up some of what we have become certain about and open ourselves the possibility that we can never comprehend these mysteries. We have to consider the questions that seem to have no definitive answers. We must learn to embrace wonder and to share this wonder with others.
The most beautiful things that we can discover are often not in the finding, but in the seeking.
Not in opening the door, but in the knocking.