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Believe It or Not

Acts 8:26-40

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

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.

5 Responses to “Believe It or Not”

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  1. Jim says:

    Thank you for this important commentary. I think you are right on point. It is in and through the embrace of the practices of the faith as expressed in the community that we grow in faith and love.

    I often recommend this very thing to those I encounter who are not “believers” per se and who are struggling. “Come. Be with us. Let us learn from you. Perhaps you may learn from us. Above all things we will welcome you and, hopefully turn your journey from one of stranger to us to friend to us and from friend to family with us.”

  2. Becky says:

    You write: “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. ”

    Judaism (my religious heritage) is all about this: you don’t have to believe–just follow as many of the 212 mitzvot as you can and soon enough it’ll make sense and you’ll come to know God/holiness.

    It took me till 19 to realize that religion advocated succumbing to brainwashing as an *admirable* quality. I appreciate your message of love, but to continue to live under the message of do-then-believe-then-KNOW is perhaps more painful than leaving the congregation and missing the music.

  3. Sally Davis says:

    I do not see anything about Teresa’s story as “sad.” It is a story of triumph and victory over superstition. It’s a story of the human spirit demanding facts over faith.”

    There’s plenty of really good, very inspirational, secular music out there. Teresa will find it in her own time. She doesn’t need the music of woo-woo. :-)

  4. Wayne Rollins says:

    As one who grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist church and family and chose to move away from it while in college, I continue to search for ways to “abide.” I struggle with those moments when memory merges with experience and I find nuggets of truth in the faith of my childhood, even while it expands and increases my faith as an adult. With several whom I’ve met along the way who begin, once learning I’m an Episcopal priest, by telling me they don’t believe in the god they were told about as children or even as adults, I answer, “I don’t believe in that god either.” That’s the common ground where we begin walking together for awhile, and often find ourselves encountered by God in our journey.

  5. Katie says:

    I have a few issues with this post, the first of which is the continual use of the word “truth”. Truth is something which can be systematically proven, which is the exact opposite of faith. There is no real and tangible truth to be found in religion, not in the dictionary sense. You can certainly find things which feel true to you, but that doesn’t make them undeniable and universal truths. God has never been proven to exist, so while I believe in the existence of a Divine and that feels true to me, I recognize that it is a false statement to call that BELIEF a truth when it isn’t one. While this may just be an issue of semantics, I feel it is an important one as rampant word misusage can often lead to incorrect interpretations and understanding about word meanings. One biggie I can bring to mind is that of “theory” which most incorrectly use to mean “guess” in the common vernacular, as in, “The Theory of Evolution is JUST a theory”, and therefore dismissable as they don’t understand it to be anything more than an educated guess. This kind of word misusage can lead to disastrous consequences when it comes to critical comprehension of the world around an individual.

    My other issue is with the paragraph discussing the excerpt from the Epistle. I especially take issue with this: “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.” This is a very sneaky way of pushing people to not search for God on their own, but to instead look for their answers regarding the Divine strictly within a community, i.e. by going to Church. I feel that statement insinuates that one’s own judgement about God isn’t good enough and isn’t trustworthy. The religious community is NOT the scientific community. The scientific community does require their knowledge be tested and repeatedly verified in order to hold up as truth. This isn’t even remotely the case with a church, diocese, group of believers, etc. All any church or individual has to do is point to a verse in scripture to back up even the craziest and cruelest of beliefs and they have enough “truth” to back up their BS without anyone being able to effectively “disprove” it by using the whole “you can’t argue with God” line. You CAN find answers to God on your own and you should. Why? Just because an opinion on God is held within a certain church or religious community doesn’t some how make it more tested and true, and if it doesn’t feel right to you that doesn’t make you wrong just because more people believe in it and you don’t. That’s not how issues of personal faith should work and that’s certainly NOT how science works; the scientific community only agrees on something as being true after it has been proven to in fact be true, which you cannot do with religion.

    And no offense, but your example below about hypothetically not believing in gravity is patently absurd. You can in fact state that you don’t believe in gravity, but you have no way to live that belief out because it’s a scientific fact of daily life that isn’t optional. Faith is ENTIRELY optional and you can live a life that’s full of love and live a life that exhibits your spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof) with love. Gravity has been proven to be true regardless of whether you believe it or not. The same cannot be said of God.

    “‘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.”

    Ms. MacBain’s loss of faith did not come as a result of a lack of any kind of “love” or a lack of community. You suggested that she should have expressed her doubts to her congregation & she may have gotten an understanding response that could have helped her faith. Based on the response of those around her who claimed to be friends at her “coming out”, I would imagine that their reaction to her having doubts probably would have been very similar. She obviously didn’t feel safe and comfortable discussing her waning faith with her congregation and it appears she had a valid reason not to as they probably would have only turned against her & ostracized her sooner. Where was that peaceful understanding of her congregation when she told them she no longer believed? Where was that Christian love from them? Shouldn’t they have tried to help her find her faith again as you suggest? Why is there no chastisement here of her congregation for dismissing her and treating her so harshly? Personally, I don’t find it sad that she lost her faith at all. If her religion of choice could not offer her the answers she sought, if she felt hollow and empty inside from participating in her former religion and was in general miserable and sad trying to live within its confines, and she actually feels better and more complete as a person now, then I think that’s wonderful. Obviously for her the branch of religion was no longer bearing fruit in her life and she pruned it. That’s usually the healthiest option.

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