Sometimes my natural skepticism asserts itself, but I cannot walk away.
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My father-in-law is one of the fairest, most patient, and most virtuous people that I know. He’s always available to help out, his capacity for forgiveness is immense, and when he’s unavailable it’s usually because he’s caring for or teaching people in his community. He’s intellectual honest, and he’s a profoundly decent human being. He’s also an atheist.
He’s part of the reason why I have respect for people in the atheist community, and why when I write about atheism I usually have positive things to say. I don’t think it’s true that all atheists are fundamentally driven by selfishness, pride or immorality. Sometimes people are atheists because they’ve been intellectual or morally scandalized by poor catechesis or by the bad behavior of those who represent the gospel. Others may just be like those laborers standing around in the marketplace who haven’t yet been called into the fields. Conversion, after all, is a grace that comes to us according to God’s timetable.
I’ve found, though, that when I speak well of the atheist community people often believe that I must be one of them … or very shortly about to join their ranks. Of course I can’t guarantee that I will never lose my faith (nobody can), but an atheist I’m definitely not.
I am a skeptic, and I’ve been around for long enough to know that skepticism is a deep-seated personality trait that isn’t going anywhere. I’ve never been capable of the kind of faith that is comfortable and stable. I constantly question everything and I’m always searching for better answers – not just in order to be able to better answer other people’s doubts, but also in order to be able to answer my own. I have tremendous respect for those who are capable of simple childlike trust in God and in the Church. I’m just not that kind of kid. For me, being like a little child means being like that 3-year-old who always has to ask a hundred-thousand whys.
This kind of skepticism does, I think, represent a kind of sincere fidelity to truth. It’s a difficult form of fidelity, however, because Christianity is not simple, easy or clean. I don’t just mean that in the sense that it’s complex, demanding and you’ll get dirty — so you should gird up your loins and take up your cross. I mean that the beauty of the faith is constantly obscured by power games, superstition, simony, charlatanism and various other forms of self-serving vainglory. We don’t receive a pristine doctrine, because the teaching that we receive is presented to us by sinful human beings. We receive the Body of Christ – the Body of Truth – scarred, broken, pierced and crucified.
Because religious truth is so often abused and misused, it can be tempting to just be done with it. For me, though, that’s not really a live option. Basically, whenever I get to the point where I can no longer see God through all of the mirages and smokescreens that men have erected in order to make God into an instrument of human purposes, I have a crisis of faith. Usually, I decide that I’m for sure leaving the Church. Often, I conclude that atheism is the only intellectually honest option.
Now, this is the point where I do something that I wouldn’t do if I actually were an atheist. I go and talk to God about it. And God listens very patiently while I explain all of the reasons why I can’t believe anymore. And we talk it through. And usually there are some jokes at my expense. And by the end of the conversation, I remember that ultimately religion is about forging a relationship with a Being who is my author, my creator, my lover and my friend. A Being who is infinitely greater than even the most beautiful human representations, and who can never be reduced to any simple human agenda. A Being who is both revealed and concealed in every molecule, every galaxy, every human heart, every word that is uttered, every inmost thought, and every grand historical movement. A God who is in all, with all, through all, for all, of all, beyond all, beneath all, and above all.
When it comes right down to it, this relationship is sufficiently real, sufficiently profound, and sufficiently important to me that I’m not sure that I’m actually capable of atheism. No matter how skeptical I may be, the fundamental claim – that there is a God with whom it is possible to have a deep and life-giving relationship – is one I find it impossible to deny. I just have way more first-hand experience of grace than I can easily explain away.
For me this is the bottom line. I know God. I love God. And having encountered Him, I cannot go back to being an atheist.