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.