Andrew Sullivan on God, Doubt, and Organized Religion

Andrew Sullivan on God, Doubt, and Organized Religion May 26, 2016
Image courtesy of Banksy98/Wikimedia Commons and Trey Ratcliff/Flickr Commons. Alterations by JJ Feinauer
Image courtesy of Banksy98/Wikimedia Commons and Trey Ratcliff/Flickr Commons. Alterations by JJ Feinauer

Blogging pioneer Andrew Sullivan formally retired from the daily content grind last year when he announced the closure of his subscription-based blog, The Dish. Apparently he’s spent the last 12 or so months seeking greater spiritual peace and working on a book about modern Christianity. But as he told Ezra Klein in an interview released Tuesday, the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump has pulled him grudgingly back into the world of political commentary.

Sullivan discussed this and a whole bunch more in a nearly two hour interview on Klein’s interview podcast, The Ezra Klein Show.

The most interesting part of the interview, and the reason I felt compelled to mention it on Peculiar People, is a section where Sullivan describes his views on faith. Sullivan is a rare gem: A public intellectual that openly discusses his belief in God. This has in turn allowed him to give an elegant voice to some of the complexities of modern faith. “If we have never doubted,” he argued in 2006, “how can we say we have really believed?” According to Sullivan, faith is not about “blind submission” but instead “open-eyed acceptance, and acceptance requires persistent distance from the truth, and that distance is doubt. Doubt, in other words, can feed faith, rather than destroy it.”

This interview is full of that kind of stuff.

In my view, Sullivan is a remarkable thinker and I like having his voice around, even if I don’t always agree with him. In this particular interview, he shares his thoughts on proselytizing (he’s not a fan), describes his friendships with New Atheist figures Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, and explains why he keeps his faith separate from his relationship to the institutional Catholic Church. Sullivan is also a Gay man (and a pioneering figure in the marriage equality movement) who was diagnosed HIV positive during the AIDS epidemic. One of the most interesting parts of this interview involves Sullivan describing how this tumultuous period of his life — which included the death of his best friend — counterintuitively served to strengthen his faith.

He gets at some of the poetic elements of belief that I think get lost in the culture war rhetoric of believer vs skeptic. For example, he Borrows from T.S. Eliot to explain that “humankind cannot bear too much reality so we flee it,” further arguing that “we rightfully flee it because it’s kind of terrifying unless there is a loving God.”

Sullivan is careful in the interview not to come across as a zealous missionary, noting that he believes atheism to be “an absolutely honorable and principled position to take.”

“We all face the existential darkness alone,” he explains, “and whatever you make of it is what you make of it.”

If you’re interested in politics and the changing landscape of the news media, be sure to check out the whole interview. If those things don’t interest you, but you’re curious about his thoughts on religion, start at about the 47 minute mark. You can also check out a short summary of the interview over at Vox dot com. And if you’re itching for some more Sullivan on God stuff, check out his Newsweek piece from 2012, “Christianity in Crisis.”

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