Of Love and Fear
[A reader made a comment in reply to the posting immediately under this, entitled “My Theological Eccentricities.” You can click on the comment box under that posting to see the full text of his remarks. This is my reply to his comment.]
In your last four sentences you say: “Since I no longer believe in Christianity, I am well aware of the possibility that there may not be any continuance [of life and consciousness] after death and that bothers me. However, in the same instance, there is a relief that there is no longer a fear that I could end up in Hell. Also, I actually prefer the fact that I believe that Christianity is not factual. You see, I prefer to know the truth rather than live a fantasy.” (Emphasis added.)
Your self-analysis is unusually candid. Most readers don't admit that their feelings affect their beliefs and often determine them. You call yourself an agnostic. If you really were one, you would admit that you don’t “know the truth” and your belief in the Christian God’s non-existence, or Christ’s being “a failed prophet,” may turn out to be fantasies in the end. Hiding from divine reality may be the ultimate self-delusion -- and the most perilous.
If you feel disbelief gives you a sure doubt-free grasp of truth, I think you deceive yourself. The believer’s creed may be a fantasy, but so may the unbeliever’s. That is the uncertainty we must live with, and atheism is no escape from it. In the last three paragraphs of my essay “An Agnostic Argues for Faith” (posted below) I explain why the decision I’ve made seems to me the most prudent, and why I commend it to non-theists.
This morning as I left church I reflected on your comment and asked myself: Why has the fear of hell that haunts so many, and once vexed me, receded to insignificance for me? The answer I realized is this: I don’t just believe. I love God and I love Christ, whom I believe to be his Son. I express that love every day and feel it most hours of the day. God, who is much better at loving than I am, doesn’t love me any less than I love him.
When I underwent a four-hour heart procedure three months ago, I knew there was a small risk things could go awry and I could die of a stroke or a heart attack. I felt peace and confidence as they wheeled me into the operating room that if the worst happened, I would meet someone magnificent, whom I have loved for forty years. That was not a terrifying prospect. “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Deut. 33:26. Jesus said, “Perfect love casts out fear.” I don’t have perfect love, but I know what he means. Even imperfect love makes fear small and manageable.
Why Christianity and not Buddhism or…?
You say: “Ok, let’s assume there is a god. What makes you so sure that the Christian religion describes this god? Why not Buddhism?”
As I said in an earlier comment, the philosophical agnosticism I argue for does not require a pronouncement that my belief is right and others are wrong. I contend that neither atheism nor theism can be proven. I don’t think Judaism, Christianity, or Islam can be proven either. But the fact that we can’t prove a hypothesis does not mean we can’t believe it. For those who feel dissatisfied with atheism, that leaves open the question, what – if anything – shall we believe? The process of deciding was not, for me, quick and easy. I describe it in some detail in a segment of the book I’m writing, which I trust you’ll read someday.
For now, a short answer is that the Western culture we live in certainly militated against Buddhism and Hinduism (with which I experimented) and favored Christianity. But my first stop out of atheism was Pure Theism, which I’ll enlarge on soon. I was surrounded by ardent Christians during that time, in a tight-knit social group in Manhattan in the late ‘60s. I began to feel they had something very precious that I didn’t have. That predisposed me to Christianity. I saw how impassioned faith illuminated their lives, and I wanted it to illuminate mine. The figure of Christ and his gospel became more and more compelling. Even then it took some remarkable experiences – and a couple of years -- to help me cross the chasm between Pure Theism and faith in Christ. I can’t explain that adequately here.
How do I know Christianity is right, rather than Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, etc.? I don’t know, but the person of Christ and the Christian worldview appealed to me much more strongly than the religions of the East. I want Christianity to be true, and I see no rational barrier to its being true. Objections, sure. Reasons not to believe, plenty. But none that is rationally insurmountable. I look at them all, weigh the counter-arguments, and say, “Might this possibly be true?” The answer is a resounding, Yes! I don’t have to be sure. I don’t have to know. Belief, over time, became possible. I chose to believe. After forty years it is still the best decision I ever made.