We know the fire awaits unbelievers
All of the sinners, the same
Girl you and I will die unbelievers
bound to the tracks of the train- Vampire Weekend, Unbelievers.
There are many shades of unbelievers, and due to the limits of my own experience, I do not presume to speak for them all. The ones I can most relate to, and therefore speak about are the ones who were raised in a Christian tradition, but subsequently rejected the dogma of the church as they came face to face with questions, doubts and unbelief engendered by their own experience, their learning and their reason. They are the ones that get a bad rap, in a culture where questioning the established dogma is considered deviant. They are the ones the ‘good’ christians look down on, for their unbelief. It’s that unbelief that I’m here to defend.
You see, most of us are born believers. Our parents raised us in the church, and we were plied with Bible stories and traditions. We emerge from childhood as nominal Christians. We know the full story. We believe in God the Father. We understand the baptism of the Spirit. We want to make heaven. By all intents, we are Christians. Yet, few of us are the kind of Christians who understand our faith. Not our religion. Our faith, our internal dance of questions and answers, experience and actions that come together to say: I am a follower of Christ. Few of us would stand straight and take a bullet to the brain or a knife to the gut, for the sake of Christ that we profess, and I don’t mean that as a figure of speech. If someone put a gun to your head today, cocked it and says “You’re a pagan or I blow your brains out”, for many of us, our response would be “you’re right, I’m as pagan as they come, word to Amun-Ra.” and we’d be right to do so. Because our faith is untested, which means it isn’t faith. It is the comfortable veneer of the things we’ve always known.
But there comes a time when other narratives penetrate your consciousness. You see that belief is not an absolute requisite for life. You confront alternatives to your world view. You start to see that belief systems can be cultural artifacts. You start to see different religions, and philosophies. You encounter logical thought, scientific proof, rationality, and knowledge. You start questioning the edifice you’ve carried all your life, because now you see that it rests on nothing but faith. What if it’s all made up? This is the point where, for many, that burden of religious conviction they’ve carried all their life, slowly fades and then falls completely off. There comes that sense of freedom. The ability to see life for oneself. The ability to question assumptions, and rest belief on the sure foundations of proof and reason. It’s a joyous feeling, for a while. But for the perceptive, it is never enough. Life always intrudes and presents experiences, lessons and other things that will show you that there is more to it all than randomness and reason alone.
This is the most precarious moment for any unbeliever. Those who are dogmatic about their religious belief can pound down the roof and try to drown the skeptic with arguments or appeals to fear. This is no better than the Philistines and zealots who treat religious belief as if it’s a matter of objective facts which you must believe or suffer the consequences. That hardens unbelievers, makes them defensive because goddamnit, they can see with their two eyes that many things about faith are subjective, and you trying to paint it otherwise is akin to calling them stupid. Plus, it makes the believer look delusional, which further erodes any confidence an unbeliever has in what you have to say.
On the other hand, without the burden of other people’s interpretation of what faith is supposed to be, an unbeliever confronts reality on their own terms and slowly starts to experience, if they keep their eyes open, what faith is for themselves. They see how one can act, even when you don’t have all the answers, and you don’t see the whole picture, and still come out on the other side with results that cannot be explained by reason. Their own experience, and the patience and love of those believers who know that faith is an inward battle with reality is what will slowly bring them understanding. And as they see how life resolves things, they slowly come to a place where they may have doubts, but they do not let doubts curtail their actions. They encounter the limits of the known, and get a glimpse of the unknowable. They start to see what is possible for humanity, for themselves and for the world we live in. And perhaps, the Bible starts to make sense again, this time from their own fountain of truth.
It is at this point that for many people true Christianity begins. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it does. And when it happens, you will see why questioning, doubts and unbelief can help build a deeper understanding of faith.
Christianity is not a function of going to church, saying your prayers, reading the Bible, and all that. It’s a matter of loving those you cannot love, doing things you cannot do, living in ways you could have never lived, and acting when all evidence points to inaction. It goes beyond reason. And it definitely has nothing to do with dogma. But you have to experience it to know that.
Essentially, faith emerges first when doubt occurs. And the stronger your doubts, the realer your faith. So until a person confronts doubts and learns why faith is necessary, they can never truly believe.
And when the first cracks of doubt appears in the mind of someone who was ‘raised’ a Christian, it isn’t always the time to haw, and condemn. It’s the first step of leaving the herd. It’s the onset of labor pains, and the crucible for true faith.
Remember Jesus’ parable? It was the sheep that left the herd that the shepherd had to devote his attention to find. Think of the relationship between that sheep and that shepherd from that day on. As the saying goes, not all who wander are lost. You just have to have a little faith that God will find the unbeliever right where they are.