WHAT FAITH IN GOD DOES AND DOESN’T DO: I’m working on an article for Crisis magazine about how non-Christians view Christianity. (Why don’t you buy a copy of the mag when it comes out? Huh? Huh? Why doncha?) I’ve asked a bunch of non-Christians about this, and gotten some really insightful responses.
But one phrase cropped up a lot, often in the most thorough and empathetic responses, and it doesn’t ring true to me. Several people referred to “the comfort of religion.” I would never deny that Christianity is ultimately a faith that proclaims a hopeful, joyful, and comforting truth: Despite so much apparent evidence to the contrary, truth can be found, we can be cleansed of sin, and life can end as a comedy (with marriage–in this case, communion with God) and not as a tragedy.
But. To fully imagine the inner life of a Christian, I think it’s necessary to acknowledge that there are doubts, terrors, and pains that are as native to Christianity as the corresponding terrors of an atheist are native to that belief. I find it much more terrifying (and difficult, not philosophically but personally) to believe in Hell than to believe in nothing after death. This is one of the things that keeps me up nights. I think that, overall, I’m happier now than before I converted (in large part because I’m morally steadier–yes, I know, but you didn’t know me before! We’re working from a low platform here, people…), but there’s been a lot of tumult, upheaval, and drinking-in-self-defense. It is often difficult to believe, to trust, the promises of Christ, no matter how good your philosophical reasons for faith. The joyful aspects of Christianity must also be struggled with, and struggled for. Mother Teresa knew this from her own experience.
I notice a similar worldview in the women I counsel at my volunteer job. The belief that it’s the comforting or joyous parts of Christianity that are hardest to believe is not unique to overeducated ex-atheists. Many of the women I counsel find it all but impossible (that “all but” is crucial…) to believe that God loves them; that living as a faithful Christian is possible; and that they have enough strength to live rightly. They’re not “leaning on the everlasting arms”–they’re struggling to escape what feels like God’s vise-grip. I remember riding on a Metrobus in 1997, when I was first beginning to realize I might have to enter the Church, and literally feeling like it was hard to breathe because I felt so trapped by the philosophical and experiential evidence for Christianity. Now, I can find comfort in God’s presence, even if I also find fear or doubt; but not in 1997.
I guess this was pretty rambly. Just some thoughts sparked by this Crisis piece. I’m in no way trying to say, “Oh, poor little me, it’s so hard to believe what I believe!” I’m just trying to suggest that the “comfort of religion” is much more complicated and contradicted than it might seem.