I wrote the following many years ago before I married or had children. I was attending a Christian college, and going through a crisis of faith.
I don’t believe in God.
Oh, don’t misunderstand me. I know God is. I know he created everything, and I know he sent Jesus to rescue man from death and sin. Yes, I know the whole tired, old story. I’ve heard it in church all my life, and so have you. I believe it; it’s my ticket to heaven. But what good is it?
Sure, I know. You’re shocked. All this time you thought I was a Christian. Or worse, you really care about me, so now you’re going to pray for me. Go for it. But before you do, hear me out.
It’s not that I don’t believe in God; I don’t trust him. I don’t believe in God as God.
Oh, I trust him with my life—my afterlife, I mean. I’ve given him everything I value most—almost. Except my woman, my money, my time, …. My, my, my. Myself. No, I don’t trust him with those things. But you do, don’t you. You trust him with everything, and you follow him wherever he leads. At least that’s what you say if anybody asks. I believe you. It’s God I don’t believe.
Maybe you have greater courage than I. Maybe you just haven’t thought about it. If you don’t have courage, then don’t think about it. Dou you know what on earth it means to give up everything you call your own? Everything?
“Just give it up,” he says. So easy. “Just move that mountain a little to the left. Just wade out to the nearest star. Just pick up your coffin and follow me.”
What’s he trying to do? Scare the living hell out of me?
And you go along with it like it’s some kind of game, and you a sure winner. Don’t give me any of your religious talk. He is talking about life and death—yours and mine. He laughs. And you laugh. Joy vs. frivolity. I don’t trust anyone who laughs joyfully at death.
Don’t you see what he’s up to. He wants us body and soul and present tense. He wants us to feel the terrifying love that twists your heart and tears at your guts, and all the while you are full of irrational joy and an irresponsible peace of mind. How can you stand it?
But I believe you. You have greater courage than I. You trust him, and I don’t. And to prevent you finding out, I play the hypocrite; saying all the right words, going through the motions, and practicing the proper rituals. No one suspects—no one at all—that there is such a difference between you and me. One of us must go on lying.
I’ve always admired great curmudgeons: men—they are always men; there is no polite word for a woman curmudgeon—who are at once witty and wise and aloof. They have both inspired and excused my own grumpiness. Of course, there’s more to being a curmudgeon than grumpiness, but an ungrumpy curmudgeon is as oxymoronic as a gloomy Pollyanna. Grumpiness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a curmudgeon.
Showering is a good time for thinking deep thoughts, and I was meditating on the character of the Bishop of Digne in Les Misérables, when a question popped unbidden into my head.
Was Jesus ever grumpy?
This question had nothing to do with Victor Hugo’s saint.
Clearly Jesus became angry. He overturned the tables where the bankers were exchanging money. He drove the sheep and goats out of the temple. He laid into the people who were buying and selling with a whip made of knotted cords. But anger is different from grumpiness. Jesus’ anger had a well-defined object. The Jews were effectively barring Gentiles from the one area of the temple where they were permitted to worship. Grumpiness is a diffuse irritability. It has no particular object but tends to take whatever comes. Someone who is grumpy does not want to be bothered, and nearly everything is a bother. It’s hard to see Jesus as grumpy.
However, it’s easy to see God as grumpy. In fact, most people, Christian or not, have had an impression of God as an irritable old man, sifting through people’s lives like a fastidious beggar going through other people’s trash. They see him take a discarded chicken leg, sniff it, grimace with disgust, and toss it aside. Or maybe he’s like your own father, always searching out your flaws, never satisfied with you, muttering under his breath when you come in the room and exuding an air of fault-finding and pickiness wherever he goes.
Jesus demolishes these images. (One of his favorite pastimes is smashing idols.) “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” “I do nothing except what I see my Father doing.” Or my favorite: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” God is not grumpy.
Maybe my admiration for grumpy old men is misplaced.
I was born and raised a Christian, so I started out with one strike against me. How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven! I was better than other kids: didn’t cuss, didn’t dance, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink. But I didn’t want to be defined by what I didn’t do. And I couldn’t quell the tremulous feeling that I wasn’t really better. I was fortunate that my parents were not hypocrites. They really believed in Jesus and really acted on their faith. They taught us kids to do the same, but it was hard, terrible hard.
I wanted to be like other kids. I was afraid of being different.
I didn’t want anyone to know I was a Christian. I hid it as best I could without actually sinning. I laughed at coarse jokes but never told them. I excelled at bitter sarcasm. I devoted myself to the study of arcane subjects. I taught myself how to use a slide rule. I taught myself the syllogisms of classical logic. I taught myself propositional calculus and devoured the meagre store of science fiction books in the town library. Isaac Asimov was my hero; I didn’t know he was an atheist.
During the summer of 1970 the Jesus Movement came to our town. We met in an old train depot and sat on beanbag chairs and cushions. We used discarded cable spools for tables. We drank pop and ate chips and called the place a coffeehouse because it sounded cool. We were caught up in the genuine presence of God, who was pouring out his Spirit. Everybody prayed and sang and swayed to the folksy sound of acoustic guitars. The girls wore beads and long skirts, and the boys wore chains and long hair.
I met Jesus again that summer. He was just a regular guy in sandals and dusty jeans. But he said the most amazing things:
You’ve heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemies,” but I tell you love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you, and pray for those who abuse you.
You’ve heard it said, “Do not murder,” but I tell you that anyone who hates his brother has committed murder in his heart.
You’ve heard it said, “Do not commit adultery,” but I tell you that anyone who looks with desire at a woman has already committed adultery in his heart.
He kept saying, “It’s not about following rules; it’s about your attitude. Your heart matters more than your dos and don’ts.”
So I gave my soul to him again. I lost some of my fear. I gained a newfound joy. I stopped performing. I started living. I was 15.