Monday evening as I was sitting down to read the lectionary for this Fifth Sunday in Easter, NPR carried a story that has haunted me since. It was the testimony of a Methodist pastor, Teresa MacBain who found that she could no longer believe in God. Her reasons were classic—the problem of evil, etc. For a time she continued in her role as a minister—albeit a faithless one. The cognitive dissonance eventually led her to “come out” as an atheist at convention of non-believers. The video of her coming out went viral on the internet and soon enough her congregation found out, in the way of many an internet age breakup, through social media. Many shunned her, job interviews were cancelled, and she found herself an outsider in the circles she’d once been a part.
After listening to the story, it struck me as a bit over dramatic— the language of “coming out” as an atheist seems a bit too much. But the story stayed with me, and as of this writing it is still the most recommended story on NPR’s website—it must have stayed with others as well.
As I turned to the lectionary, I started to wonder about belief, what it is to have it and what it is to lose it. In our reading from Acts we are told of a conversion—a coming to belief. The Ethiopian eunuch, came to belief through searching the scriptures, he was confused by what he found there but he kept searching. He was ready when Philip ran alongside his chariot and offered to teach him. It’s almost like the way a good math teacher works–allowing student to try a problem herself, just beyond her level, and then suddenly revealing the answer after the thirst has been developed. When the eunuch understood the answers Philip offered to his questions, he realized immediately that he had found the truth. There was no hesitation in his embrace of belief in Christ as witnessed in baptism. We are told that he “went on his way rejoicing.”
In our epistle reading we find more insight into belief. John tells us, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Belief and knowledge are different things, I think, but here I think we could easily interchange the words without radically changing the meaning. “Whoever does not love does not believe in God, for God is love.” Pragmatism would question a belief that does not offer a “live option”–something that makes a difference whether its true or not. If I said I do not believe in gravity then I would have to behave in a way that expresses that belief–otherwise my belief is not “live.” John is challenging the idea that people who say they believe, or know God, really do–if you do not love, it’s clear, John is saying, that you do not in fact believe. Teresa MacBain’s asserted atheism was no doubt formed in a context of a good deal of practical atheism, where people who say they knew God, did not behave as though that were in fact true.
Part of what John does by placing the locus of knowledge and belief outside of a person’s own judgement–we can’t actually make a claim to knowledge on our own and as pragmatism tells us, we can’t make a claim to belief on our own either. A belief or knowledge must be judged within a community. It is only in a community that love can make sense, it is only in a community then that knowing God can make sense.
Perhaps the saddest part of Teresa MacBain’s story was the loneliness of her journey. She wrestled with unbelief on her own, in secrecy, away from her church. She found refuge and community online, the place where so many secrets thrive away from the grounded, complex communities where we can truly struggle and love together. What if she had told her congregation, I’m having trouble believing in God? How they responded would be a reflection of their own belief, their own knowledge.
Belief isn’t the most important thing. What we need, we are told in John 15:1-8, is not to believe but to abide. It is in abiding that we discover truth, it is in abiding that we come to know. Knowledge and belief work on so many levels beyond our conscious and rational minds, it is through practice, through context, through community and imitation that we come to truth. We find all of this in abiding, staying close, not letting go. A part of this, Jesus tells us, is also submitting to the pruner’s shears, allowing ourselves to be humiliated and reworked so that new growth can come.
Teresa MacBain says that she doesn’t miss God, but she does miss the music. To her I would say, come sing with us. I don’t put much stock in your belief or lack thereof. If you start singing with us you may start praying with us, you may start reading the word with us, and end up doing the work of the liturgy. This is an opening to practice love in a community and it is in love that we come to know God. Maybe belief was just a dead branch that had to be cut so that a new shoot of life could come. The trick is to stay with Jesus and his body made manifest on earth, believe it or not.