Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Email to an Atheist

Here's an email I wrote to an old high school acquaintance:

I wanted to tell you something about being an atheist. I think of it very much like I think of the whole "gay issue" in the church. Let me explain. I have many Christian friends who believe it's sinful to be gay, and who don't understand why I say that my gay friends are created as they are for a purpose, not because God/sin messed them up. I actually believe they are perfectly OK the way they are. But I believe this because I know them - I know their faith, their families, their love. I have seen them at worship, in pain, and deliriously happy (most often at weddings - their own). I have also seen what the world has done to them - I know people who went through actual electric shock therapy, I know people who spent every night for a decade begging God to take it away. I know this all first-hand.

And so I never expect someone who hasn't personally experienced all of this to understand it. How could you? I didn't, until I knew gay Christians (who were better Christians than me). So it doesn't bother me that people haven't come around, because they just haven't been exposed to what I have experienced. I don't like them to be hateful, but most of the circles I run with aren't that way, they are simply naive. The fact is, I don't believe a person will be "converted" on this issue by arguments, or science, or rhetoric, or protests. If I may channel Stephen Colbert, you simply need to know it in your gut, and that requires personal experience.

So all of that is a VERY long way of explaining that I feel the same way about people who haven't experienced God. I would never expect you to believe what I believe based purely on MY explanation, or on the scriptures which obviously hold no authority for you, or on someone else's experience, or on an argument, or anything else like that. I honestly believe God can only be found through personal experience (warning: this can happen whether one is looking for it or not). So your not believing in God is simply an honest result of what you have experienced of this world and this life so far. It is not threatening to me or my faith, nor is it in any way inferior. It's each of our truths.

Do I believe in absolute truth? Sure I do. But I don't believe I can know it. I'm too imperfect and ignorant. In seminary I took a postmodern philosophy class that really helped me clarify this: the difference between believing truth is "out there" but being willing to admit that I'm way too limited to actually say what it is. I think that's a healthy balance; I hope you agree.

To me, it would be pointless to argue about whether God exists, because I only know it from my experience. God is not someone who can be known by anything other than experience. And, ironically, God cannot be explained by the experience because there are no words to describe it.

What I mainly wanted to say was go your way, my friend, and know you won't get any flack from me for your beliefs (and I hope that would go both ways). I do hope that in some way you will one day experience God: be it during a performance of Beethoven's 9th, or at a sunset, or contemplating an artwork, or reading Carl Sagan (I've noticed there seems to be a Church of Sagan...and I have to say, Sagan's basically talking about God the way he talks about the universe...and also, Contact is one of my all-time favorite Christian movies). You may not want to call it God, and that's fine. I just hope everyone gets to experience, in this life, a touch with something greater - God, or universal Love, or simply the self-giving of another human being.

But for me, there has been full-on mystical connection to the divine, the kind you get in meditation, the kind that is pretty universally reported by all the world's religions. I find it to be the most truthful way to talk about God, because it's the most personal (and somehow also the most universal). In my life, God has become a very personal friend and guide, but She's not that way for everyone. God meets us all in the way that we are able, that we are willing. God stoops to our level. [that's why it's so ridiculous to think I should have to defend God: if God needed defending, He'd be pretty lame. I only want to believe in a God that is so beyond my petty defenses as to render them absurd]

But even better: God will, on occasion, raise us up to Her level. And that, my friend, can be an awesome experience.


Matt said...

thanks for the words/thoughts, stasi. it's funny that when i decided to write to say hello (and since that day) i never really thought much about your faith, my lack of it, and what might transpire. i just wanted to say hello and catch up (my mentioning of my atheism was meant merely a humorous side note). and for what it's worth, i appreciate the tone of your words in your email. they make sense to me, and and are very honest and fair. after we got to chatting, i could tell you weren't going to have a problem with that facet of my being. i hope you could tell i in turn was not of you, too.

i guess i could respond in kind by telling you more about my way of looking at matters related to god & theism. i mean - the conversation we're having on email so far, as we talk about life after high school, is cracking me up. it makes me smile. we could definitely be serious for a while if you like; the subject matter certainly seems of interest to you and me. do you want to hear all that stuff from my personal viewpoint? i should say i never did receive this email from you; i found out about this blog post during my morning perusal of bookmarks.

just let me know,

Nathan Empsall said...

What a wonderful post. It would cut two ways with the athiests I know: some would find it stirring, and these words would help form a basis of mutual respect and partnership; others would laugh at it and try to undermine it with their version of "reason." The former are, of course, the non-militant non-idealogues, and we can work with them. This is great.

Unknown said...

"...and also, Contact is one of my all-time favorite Christian movies."

Have you read the book? It's one of my favourites -- the whole time I was reading it I was going "Sagan is the most Christian atheist I've ever read!" I recommend it to all my Christian friends.ffeminist