Why Do I Believe in God?

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I am always interested in the posts that come to my site from self-professed atheists. They tend to live in a world far-removed from the one I inhabit (surrounded as I am with religious services and the whole culture of the Church). I never satisfy the questions posed (which usually demand rationalist answers, that, though they can be given, are not my particular strength). But I am interested in why someone does not believe in God – though my deepest suspicion is that the God they do not believe in has almost nothing to do with the God that I believe in – that is – I probably don’t believe in their God either.

But why do I believe in God? This is a question that has several answers – partly because my faith in God has gone through a number of permutations. I was born in a Southern Baptist family that was not pious nor active in the local Church. My older brother (5 years my senior) was a strong influence. During good weather, he and I would walk down the railroad tracks near our house (no trains on Sunday) to the local Baptist Church. I was Baptized there at age 7.

My earliest memories of a consciousness of God go back to those journeys down the railroad tracks. My brother believed in God. My Sunday School teachers believed in God – and always spoke in very kind terms about God. If we “stayed for preaching” the pastor would tend to yell a lot and talk about hell, but in my world, adults were always yelling about something and I paid little attention.

Instead, there was the kindness of a Sunday School teacher, the steadfastness of my older brother (who is still at the top of my hero list), and interestingly, the witness of icons. I know its strange to speak of icons in a Baptist Church, but my Sunday School room, like many others, had wonderful pictures (probably published by Broadman Press) of Jesus the Good Shepherd and Jesus and the Children. I add to that Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (here I join my witness to that of Dostoevsky and Fr. Sergei Bulgakov who wrote of the profound effect of this painting in their lives – Fr. Sergei credited his adult conversion back to the faith to an encounter with this painting in Dresden). My Sistine Madonna was simply a picture in the front of my Bible, given to me by my mother’s Sunday School class when I was born. Thus I cannot remember a time that Mary was absent from my relationship with Christ.

I began to doubt the faith – or at least the faith as I was hearing it – between the ages of 10 and 13. No age can be more idealistic. And my idealism was being shattered left and right by the hypocrisy of adults and the growing realization that there were problems within my world. Not the least of which was the problem of racial hatred in the South. I was born in 1953 – thus at age ten and beyond the television was filled with images of the racial strife in my native South. I recall my brother leaving a service in protest when he was age 18 (I was 13 and thus his dependent protege). A guest preacher was invited that Sunday and took the occasion to preach against the racial integration of Furman University (a local Baptist college which later became my alma mater). My brother interrupted the sermon and shouted to the preacher, “You’re crazy as hell!” after which we left in protest. Thus my first protest was because I needed a ride home.

I floundered for several years. My brother was off in college. I read and listened. I never felt attracted to atheism – it seemed empty and shallow to me and full of despair. I had an almost innate sense of a transcendence in this world. I was no stranger to suffering or evil. At age ten, I lost one aunt to the devastations of an incurable disease, another to the insanity of a random murder. Grief, and the insanity of evil were among the most real experiences of my young life. The same year one of my closest cousins was diagnosed with the onset of childhood Rheumatoid Arthritis. I have written elsewhere of that relationship and the eventual witness of her life. But at the time it was simply one more example of the reality of suffering and the randomness of its victims.

At age 15, I made another Christian profession, perhaps more consciously mystical than my childhood profession. My older brother introduced me to Anglicanism. This, of course, was in the days before liturgical renewal struck the Episcopal Church. The rhythms of the old prayerbook and the beauty of its traditional services, along with the Victorian splendor of an old Southern Church made a deep impression on me. A sense of the presence of God – not one that I could articulate – but one that I could cry out to – were palpably real to me. It was in that setting that my first sense of a vocation to priesthood was formed.

Belief in God, if it is to survive, almost never survives without tremendous testing. I endured college along with its freshman philosophy and even the shallow slogans of agnosticism and youthful atheism. I wondered and I doubted. I went to seminary (Episcopal) straight from college and found little solace there. Some professors believed. Others were openly Arian (denying the divinity of Christ). Others represented such a mix of faith, pseudo-science, and nonsense that they were less than helpful.

Upon graduation I was ordained and took up the struggle of being responsible for the spiritual lives of others. I made mistakes. I took wrong turns. I took right turns (and left ones, too). I watched the birth of my children, and the death of friends. I watched the Church to which I belonged live its life subject to a corrupt bureaucracy and to the Spirit of the Age.

I occasionally struggled to fight back.

In the end of all that, I struggled to come to grips with the Orthodox faith. And coming to grips with the Orthodox faith was, in all reality, coming to grips with belief in God. As a Protestant you may believe in God, but what that means is under constant revision and construction. The Orthodox Faith, on the other hand, professes faith in a God who has made Himself known, and the reality of that is larger and clearer than the confines of one’s own life. This God you can either embrace or reject – but do little else with. Years of reading, praying, thinking, conversation, visiting, etc., all led me to understand that if Christianity was true then it was true in its Orthodox form. Everything else was a deviation.

And thus in 1998 my family and I were received into the Orthodox faith, at first certain that financial ruin was to be our lot. Probably for the first time in my life I was staking everything practical on the reality of the existence of God. I was frightened. But at every turn, my fear was overcome with the faithfulness of the God to whom I had sworn an oath. He sustained us and protected us. The decision we made was so final that had it resulted in ruin and death I think I would not have wavered.

Why do I believe in God? There is no rational argument or syllogism that comforts my heart. No argument from philosophers has anything to say to the death of an aunt, or random murder. It has nothing to say to the pain of childhood disease. But from my earliest childhood I knew a kindness and a goodness that seemed to shine in my life and heart despite everything around me. Had I abandoned that kindness I do not think I would be alive today.

I believe in God because, I think, He believed in me and sustained me (and has sustained me) through the whole of my life. I believe in God because when I pray, I do not hear an empty echo of my own voice, but a resonance with a Goodness that I see everywhere around me. I believe in God because I have witnessed the death of hundreds of believing Christians. It is a great mystery to stand by the bed of the dying and I have seen people die well, despite pain and deprivation. I have heard the prayer from lips that bless God for His goodness even as they breathe their last.

I believe in God because I can think of almost nothing beautiful that has been begotten by atheism. It produces bad art, bad novels, and empty cultures. Were it not for believers, atheists would have almost nothing to discuss. Even in their science, they live off the fruits of believers. I do not know of an attractive atheist leader, despite the many unattractive Christians whom I know all too well.

I believe in God because He is real, true, beautiful, good, compassionate, kind and then more than I can say. Atheism can offer me nothing (precisely). I do not believe in nothing.

32 comments:

  1. Fr. Stephen:

    In line with your childhood memories of the Good Shepherd and other pictures —

    I grew up in an Episcopal church named after St. Andrew. A stained glass window there, one that fascinated me, had St. Michael treading down the serpent. The Archangel wore colorful ramient, while the serpent was drak brown in a grayish sea. The only white was a bright point of the spear that seemed to meld both goodness and judgment together. I later was privileged to attend a St. Michael’s, and I have read some of your thoughts and prayers about hims.

    When I have gone back to St. Andrew’s, the inside seemed shabby and the window just looked pedestrian. But my mind’s eye still holds a full image of godly rebuke holding a focused and ferocious good.

    One question — where could I learn more about St. Andrew?

  2. Beautiful, strong testimony, Father – and ideas that wil help me is talking with my students. I must say that i feel similarly, that when I get folks to talk about the “God” they don’t believe in, it is very likely that this is not any “god” I recognize.
    Fr John

  3. Stirring, Spirit-breathed testimony. I cried. I am reminded that God’s grace surpasses the evils and deep sorrows of this world. I cried too when I read these words about the old Anglicanism in America, now dead and gone, it seems: “rhythms of the old prayerbook and the beauty of its traditional services.” I’m afraid I’m still grieving that loss, though I rejoice to have found Orthodoxy, which I agree is the fullest expression of the Faith.

    God bless you, Father, and pray for me, please.

  4. I will agree with both Fathers in their view that the god of atheists isn’t a god that they would recognize. The god of atheists is a perversion produced by the nonsensical nature of the Western heresies. The fact that the Anglicans are nicer about it doesn’t change anything. Authoritarian commands, sacrifice and suffering, verbose philosophical contrivances, and romanticized imagery are just part of the West’s theological baggage. My view is that atheists tend to possess well-tuned crap detectors, and they’re not afraid to vote with their feet when a religion fails the sniff test.

  5. I grew up in an Italian Catholic home and the images which hung on our walls are what shaped my understanding of God. I deeply lament the iconoclasm which has afflicted the Catholic Church. The rich imagery of the Orthodox Church has been a source of constant joy. The first time I entered an Orthodox Church I knew that I had come home.

  6. Visibilium, I agree with you on some of the atheists I have encountered. Unfortunately, they tend to throw the baby out with the bath water. They reject not only false gods but God as well. That is not something that a person who longed for God would do as easily as some of them seem to have.

  7. Michael,

    That’s a great point. Two features of contemporary Orthodoxy are particularly unhelpful, in my view: (1) Coziness with a Tsarist conception of Church-State symphonia and (2) A too-eager sympathy with the problems plaguing the Western heresies.

    None of the above features are part of Orthodox Tradition, but they’re part of the cultural baggage that some Orthodox carry around. Holy Tradition offers a radically different conception of Christianity. We and the West sometimes use the same religious terms, but we mean different things. In my view, if more atheists were aware of this, we’d have more formerly atheistic Orthodox.

    Wonders,

    That’s almost a great point. A particularly odious notion of Church-State symphonia is a part of Orthodox conversations about politics. Such conversations may lead the unschooled to opine that such political blather is part of Orthodox Tradition, which it is not.

    On the other hand, there are two problems with your almost-great point. (1) Fr. Stephen’s post didn’t pertain to coercive atheistic politics. The dynamic is somewhat different than that which is present in individual believers in free societies determining which, if any, religion to join. (2) Once the coercive nature of state-enforced atheism disappeared, the formerly Communist Orthodox countries, especially Russia, have been experiencing a tremendous rebirth of Christianity, which Western Europe’s decadent religious husks indubitably envy.

  8. Alice,

    The traditional Anglicanism you have pronounced “dead” in this country is, in fact, still alive in some places (if only barely breathing). The “rhythms of the old prayerbook and its traditional services” can still be experienced in parishes across the country. They may not be TEC parishes, but continuing Anglican parishes are preserving the treasures of traditional Anglicanism, as are the few Western Rite parishes in the Antiochian jurisdiction.

    Of course, traditional Anglicanism (the continuum) brings with it many problems and questions of authority, communion, etc… but it is, at least, keeping alive the beautiful tradition of historic Anglican prayer and worship. I say all of this as a priest in a traditional Diocese of TEC whose journey will most likely lead to Holy Orthodoxy. I am already grieving the potential loss of these great treasures. What a shame that faithful Christians must give up so great a patrimony to enter the fullness of the Church.

  9. Father Drummond,

    I think most of us are aware of the continuum, etc., and what are often painful and brave efforts to preserve something beautiful that has suffered such losses. It is perhaps premature to pronounce it “dead” but it has become fairly rare. Many of the conservative groups allied with Africa, etc., are extremely renewal based and practice and Anglicanism that bears little resemblance to its classical form. I don’t begrudge them this – they have to do what they have to do. But I pray for all of it. I will certainly remember you in my prayers and pray that the journey you make will be guided by God and that He will protect you from too much grieving. I am well acquainted with the grief.

  10. Thank you for your prayers, Father.

    It is precisely this trend of the emerging Anglicanism toward a more evangelical and charismatic practice which leads me to question my future in this Communion. I have often asked, to no avail, “What will become of Catholics in the Anglican Communion?” It seems to me that we are headed for “party status” in the newly aligned Communion. A tolerated, even respected party, but a party nonetheless. I am becoming less and less convinced that Christianity can be reduced to “essentials” on which all must agree with other points (Real Presence, Eucharistic Sacrifice, Mary, Invocation of Saints, etc…) being acceptable options for those who are “into that kind of thing.” Sort of like icing on the cake of the Creed. I tend to agree with the Orthodox that these things aren’t icing at all but that they naturally and organically flow from the truth the Creed proclaims. Terry Mattingly put it quite succinctly when he said that Anglican compromise is a bit like trying to get John Chrysostom and John Calvin in the same pew.

    It seems at this point that the only answer for a Catholic Anglican will be to put his hat (or biretta) in with one of the churches of the Continuum which at least publically confesses and teaches the whole Faith, in the hopes of fruitful corporate ecumenical work, or swim the Tiber or Bosphorus…or perhaps the Volga:-)

    At any rate, thanks again for your prayers.

  11. As an atheist, I think I should just comment on Father Stephen’s eloquent piece, because, whatever his own beliefs may be, there seem to be some common misperceptions about atheism in them.

    The first is that pure atheism is not an ideology, merely the denial that God exists. That is not to say that meaning is impossible, that atheists are nihilists or anything else. Atheism doesn’t offer an alternative to theism – it merely negates it.

    Theists tell us God exists. That is a proposition. But atheists believe it is one that has not, to date, been substantiated. So atheism remains the default position. That process ought, incidentally, to be the default for any propositions. If I say Vitamin C cures cancer, that’s a proposition. Let’s take a look at that and see if it does. If we can’t show that the proposition is true, we remain without an adequate basis to believe the proposition. Simple.

    That religion consoles may be true. But it doesn’t make the beliefs true. If I am comforted by thoughts about God, it does not make God a reality. If I am comforted by imagining I am a millionaire, it does not make me one either. So the argument that religion is comforting really doesn’t stretch very far in justifying belief. “I believe X because it makes me feel things are better” doesn’t say anything about the truth of X’s existence on any level.

    One comment on this site commented on Dostoyevsky. He said that it is a compelling argument to believe in God that without Him there would be no moral law above manmade values. That again, is not a convincing reason to believe. It may be logically necessarily true that without God there is no higher moral authority than mankind. But that does not necessitate God. Maybe there just isn’t a higher moral authority. Why should we expect that there would be? We might want it to be true. But that’s the same logic as above.

    Father Stephen tells us of a religious upbringing. Many people have a religious upbringing and if they go on in their tradition, they tend to follow the one they were brought up in. Had Father Stephen been born in Saudi Arabia he most likely would have been a Muslim. And a Buddhist had it been Thailand he was born in and a Jew had it been Israel. Atheists view claims about religious truth with great suspicion here. Why is it that most often people assert the absolute truth of the very religion they were born in? If birth alone dictates what is true, then every Muslim and Buddhist and Jew and Christian is right. In which case, why the discrepancy in doctrines?
    Much more likely is that religion is a human idea which changes over time and between cultures. Anthropology here offers a far more simple explanation than does any metaphysics.

    That philosophy doesn’t offer consolation is quite unconvincing. Read The Consolations of Philosophy – that’s a good starting point.

    Finally, let me end by making some comments on Father Stephen’s remarks:

    “I believe in God because I can think of almost nothing beautiful that has been begotten by atheism. It produces bad art, bad novels, and empty cultures.”

    Firstly, which art is bad and which isn’t is a judgement, not an objective truth. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But even if it were true that atheism is incapable of producing good art, how is that an argument for God, not to mention the God of Christians? Bad atheist art, if it is bad, does not imply the divine. It just does not follow. I could make a similarly silly argument in favour of unicorns: I don’t like Bach’s music. It’s bad. Bach didn’t believe in unicorns. Therefore I’ll believe in unicorns. Same logic.

    “Were it not for believers, atheists would have almost nothing to discuss.”

    They’d have plenty to discuss. But they wouldn’t be atheists because there’d be no theists. And atheism is a reaction to theism. That’s like saying “without up, there’d be no down”. By definition. There’d still be plenty to discuss if theists weren’t around. It just wouldn’t have to be atheism.

    “Even in their science, they [atheists] live off the fruits of believers.” This makes it sound like atheist make science “their own” which they don’t. I am a scientist (a chemist) and there are believers and atheists as scientists. Most scientists in my experience do not belive in God, at least in the West. However, the claim that most scientists are living off the fruits of believers is not quite true. Theism predominated when some of the founding discoveries about science were made. But every paradigm shift has its points or origin. In fact, since the englightenment theism has had to quiten down over claims it previously made about the way things are which got scientifically tested. Such things are the earth being at the centre of the universe, about disease being God’s revenge for impiety, about the origin of species, creation and its mechanisms. On all these things theists have had to give ground because the evidence was against the claims they were making. How that will continue in the future is not known, of course, but certainly science has opposed theistic claims many times and overthrown them. Whilst religious people may have been the ones who sometimes did this (e.g. Newton believed in God and is a prominent historical figure in Science) that does not validate anything about religious doctrine.

    Ok rant over. Just thought I respond from the atheist’s perspective and set some things straight about what atheists think, and point out some of the inaccuracies in what Father Stephen was saying and some problems with the arguments on offer.

    Thanks.

    “I do not know of an attractive atheist leader, despite the many unattractive Christians whom I know all too well.”

    I don’t see how the lack of an attractive atheist leader is an argument for God. Besides, atheists don’t have leaders for atheism. If you mean political leaders then I’m not surprised. I can’t think of an attractive political leader of any persuasion.

  12. I mean no disrespect to the point Fr. Drummond is making; but I wonder if the evangelical thrust south of the Tropic of cancer is what those cultures need at this point in history. They are facing a more physical threat of persecution that we do “up here,” so to speak. And, it seems in scripture that evangelism runs ahead of ecclesiology.

    Just ideas I have — here, we need a church rooted in ancient tradition to protect us from all manor of deceit, worldliness, heretical cults, etc. Down there, perhaps, believers need an intensely experiential fire to strengthen them in the face of those wanting to kill them.

    There remains one Lord, one faith, one baptism…

  13. Chuck,

    I certainly understand what you are saying, and your point is taken. I should have clarified that I am completely for the evangel and for the charismata, but not outside the bounds of a solid ecclesiology. In practice, certainly evangelism goes ahead of ecclesiology, but theologically this shouldn’t be the case. They ought to go hand in hand, as the Lord Jesus does not exist apart from His Body nor vice versa. Our efforts at evangelism are inextricably tied to our understanding of the Church.

    That said, I deeply admire and fervently pray for the godly and courageous men and women of the Global South, particularly this week for Bishop Kwashi of Jos, Nigeria, who suffered a second attempt on his life within the last 18 mos.

  14. Fr. Drummond — thank you for your cogent thoughts.

    I realized after sending my first comment that Orthodox believers (among many others) have faced horrific persecution “up here” for centuries.

    The bottom line — may the Lord grant us all grace and strength to stand firm for Him where he has planted us.

  15. As Orthodox believers, there has ever only been One Church, visible, and it has and does carry on the mission of the Church, East, West, North and South, and bleeds everywhere. But there cannot be a mission of the Church that is not the Church. In the history of missions, ecclesiology may follow, but not in Orthodoxy. There are as many cultural dangers in the Southern Hemisphere and Third World as in the developed nations.

  16. Bluerat,

    Cute name. I well understand your points. We disagree. More discussion is probably just circular. Just as atheists have a point of view on religion, Christianity has a point of view on atheism. Thanks for the note.

  17. Blue rat – propositional logic as a tool for finding absolute truth is doomed from the outset. As so aptly illustrated by Lewis, reason only tells you what is in your mind – what you already know (see The Pilgrom’s Regress). Propositional logic fails by its own account – see Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Of course, if you don’t believe in absolute truth, you’ll have to be a postmodernist – and then you can’t be an atheist anymore, only an agnostic.

  18. I don’t know that postmodernists deny absolute truth (or objective reality) – they question that anyone has access to this. Postmodernism is best characterized by a suspicion of overarching frameworks of meaning – because they think people who say “I’m just looking at things the way they obviously are” most often are actually using this so called “objective truth” they talk about for their own power and advancement. Postmodernism is a valid critique of modernity, but not a positive vision to base your life or society on.

  19. Chuck,

    Amen and Amen.

    Blessings!

    Fr. Stephen,

    It seems to me that the core question (or, at least, ONE of the core questions) that Anglicans must wrestle with is the question of the Church. Anglicans must necessarily believe that the Church is divisible (i.e. C.B. Moss in The Christian Faith) to justify their existence as a portion of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. If one becomes convinced that this cannot be so (and the historical witness is that this indeed cannot be so), he then must ask: “Where is the Church?” I think this is what many of us are asking now. Certainly this has a bearing upon the question of evangelism and mission. If one does not believe one is summoning others into a body which is not properly the Church, then missions and evangelism become quite a confusing issue. Perhaps this is why today the more Protestant portions of Anglicanism are bearing so much more evangelistic fruit than ACs. Anglo-Catholics are quite tied up doing ecclesiological footwork to make our position legitimate, while evangelical Anglicans are satisfied with the broad definition of the Church provided in the 39 articles. Just a guess, though.

    Pax,

    RD+

  20. I have a wonderful story to tell you and it has to do with the Sistine Madonna picture of the angel cherub on the right. I had a baby almost two years ago and I stared at this painting for the entire pregnancy. The Lord told me I was going to have an angel, my daughter came out looking like that angel baby. I can send you a picture if you would like validation on this. I just wanted to know what was the painter’s inspiration and was these figures live creatures.

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  23. Father Stephen.
    In one of your recent posts you noted that God cannot be known rationally but he can be known reasonably. Likewise Hart in his book “God” wrote”…a knowledge of God that comes not from categories of analytic reason, but from–as Maximus says–the intimate embrace of union, in which God shares himself immediately as a gift to the created soul.”

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