In case there is any confusion on the issue, I describe myself as Christian. Beyond that, there is a possibility of all kinds of confusion because the word ‘Christian’ can mean so many things to different people. As I call myself a Christian, perhaps you are making assumptions about me that may not be true. For example, many people who identify as Christians believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant truth as spoken by God and written by men. (Well, they say that they believe that. Actually, I find that they cherry-pick the stories and passages that conform to their own biases. So do I, for that matter.) I don’t believe that. What I believe about scripture is that what was written and put into the Bible was written by fallible men, edited by fallible men, and subject to interpretation by fallible men and women to this very day. And those interpretations vary. The stories and rules and guidelines that were written were passed down by way of oral tradition as a means of explaining what they believed about God and nature, things they could not otherwise explain through observations, in the times in which they lived. I do not believe that the wisdom, insights and knowledge of scholars of centuries past were superior to wisdom, insights and knowledge of more modern scholars. That’s not the way things work. Understanding builds on understanding. It does not devolve and decay.
While I’m on the subject of literal interpretation and inerrancy, I have to ask: Does that literal interpretation come from the Hebrew, or from the Greek, or from your own language? Obviously, any translation involves some interpretation, and here are some specific examples I reject. A literal interpretation would require that I believe that a man named Jonah survived inside the belly of a large fish (or whale) for three days without dying of suffocation or being at least partially dissolved in its stomach acids. I don’t believe that. It’s ridiculous. Also, I would have to believe that a man named Methuselah — and a bunch of other guys mentioned in Genesis — lived over 900 years. Again, ridiculous. They would be blind for over 700 years and none of their vital organs would function. Am I to believe that there once was a super race of men that experienced longevity exceeding that of modern humans several times over that somehow became extinct? Did they have superior diets and nutrition? Come on!
But I digress. The question that I pose is why I believe. Clearly it’s not because scripture has all the answers. And let me say at the outset that I do not imagine that my belief will be satisfactory to non-believers. I, too, am drawn to logic and reason. Faith does not fit into those parameters. Faith and reason are separate realms. Believing is not the same thing as knowing. So when I say, “I believe this,” it’s not the same as my saying “I know this.” I cannot and do not require of you that you believe as I do. That, I think, is an error of stridency that many faithful people make; they reject you for your beliefs if you don’t believe as they do. They say that they know, when what they really do is believe. I don’t know there is a God; I only believe it. There is a difference.
So first of all, there is the issue of the afterlife. There are people I love dearly — and miss desperately — that have died before me. I like to think that I will one day see them again. Moreover, I am not at all comforted by the notion that they are dead and gone and that’s it. Atheists and Agnostics may make peace with the notion – I don’t disbelieve that they can — but I don’t think that I am able to do so. Perhaps someone can offer an explanation of how the idea of death leading to nonexistence cannot cause fear of inevitable mortality; where’s the comfort in that? Seriously, I want to know.
By itself, the afterlife — the concept of Heaven as the place to go when we die — might suffice for some people as a reason to believe in God. That cannot be the only reason for me, however, because that would suggest that my belief in God is based on fear or superstition. That is: I’d better have faith or I’ll go to Hell. Well, I don’t want that to be the case. I don’t want to be a Christian, or a believer of any kind, for superstitious reasons. That would not speak well of the loving and gracious God I envision; I think God is bigger and more understanding than that.
Another element of my faith is the matter of forgiveness. This is a perpetual struggle for me, as I believe it is for most people. Forgiving someone is a really, really hard thing to do sometimes. Even the most devout Christians have trouble with this. I have heard it over and over from people I know, faithful or not, saying “I cannot forgive…” or “I will never forgive….” Who doesn’t relate to that sentiment? And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with examples of situations that seem unforgivable, so I won’t bother you with any here.
The thing is that I’ve experienced forgiveness from both ends. It is an almost indescribable feeling to be forgiven of a terrible wrong. Yes, I have been the recipient of such grace, and it’s wonderful. It’s hard to compare it to anything else.
But it’s also a wonderful thing to forgive. One simile I’ve heard on the subject is that refusing to forgive is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die. Apt as that might be, it doesn’t make forgiveness easy. How does one attain serenity? How does one successfully forgive someone who has done great harm to you or someone you love? All I can advise is that you make the decision to forgive and the feelings come later. I know, I know. It requires patience. Lots of it. Lots and lots and lots. And it’s hard. But the payoff is peace. Not in the afterlife, but here on Earth. You can feel it. Now maybe, just maybe, one can attain that serenity separately from faith, but I think the impetus to forgive is certainly grounded in scripture and commanded by God. Do you ever wonder how people can possibly find it in their hearts to forgive someone who raped, maimed, tortured or murdered their children? I wonder, too. But somehow they do it, and I think it’s with God’s help.
Again, I offer my disclaimer: I have no delusion that this rationale for my faith will satisfy a non-believer. Because they are different realms, faith cannot be rationally explained through logic.