My friend Woody texted me recently: “Favor to ask: my assignment for a class I’m taking at church is to interview someone whose worldview is different than mine, and then practice articulating that worldview by writing it out. . . . Would you have a few minutes after work to talk and would you be up for this?”
I don’t talk much about my faith these days. I haven’t for a long, long time. But Woody is a friend from a time in my life when that was almost all I did, so what was meant to be a few minutes turned into a conversation of nearly three hours, by my reckoning. This was nearly four weeks ago now, and this conversation still is dancing pirouettes in my head, trying to get me to revisit it, and so I’ve decided, since I own this here onliney space and pay money every month for it to exist, that my personal blog was the place.
As a bit of meta business: This will be the first post of many along these lines.
Woody, thankfully, had come ready with a list of questions, and as I go through this series, I’m going to address these questions one at a time. I found in this conversation that I had a lot more to say than I knew.
For instance: When it comes to questions of faith, spirituality, and God, my answer is almost always the same: I don’t know.
It’s the holiest sentence there is. “I don’t know.” So much of my issue with formal religion is how much a sham I consider it for any one human to offer any other human anything even resembling certainty, especially when it comes to things like death, mortality, and the organizing principles of a universe we’ve only begun, as a species, to understand.
“I don’t know.”
This sentence leaves us open to possibility. To imagination. To learning. To seeing with new eyes. It’s an absolutely beautiful sentence: “I don’t know.” Maybe it’s this old journalist brain of mine, but I like starting from a fresh place when there’s something new to learn, and when it comes to unfathomable things like the human spirit or the divine, there’s always something new to learn.
I know some people who are absolutely certain of what they believe—or at least, that’s what they claim. But I’ve found that the more certain someone is, the more rigid and insane they become. This, I think, is part of the problem with our country’s current state of discourse: We’re all so very, very certain that we’re right and so very, very certain that the Other Guys are wrong. We think Right is the safest thing we can possibly be. If you’re right, after all—if you’re safely located in Camp Correct—then you are unassailable. You don’t really have to be kind. You don’t really have to compromise. You don’t really even have to listen or regard another human being if they’re not Right with you.
(A note: I’m not talking about the political Right here. I feel that’s self-evident from the context, but again: Toxic political climate, and this Registered Independent Voter is going to be sure to cover his bases).
It used to drive me nuts, uncertainty. Does God want me to go left or right? English major or religion major? Ph.D or mission work? Study abroad or stay on campus? During my super-Jesusy days in college, I was terrified not to know what God wanted, because it meant I might mess up.
What I didn’t realize at the time—I still have to work not to beat myself up about the time I wasted before I made this realization—was that doing the right thing, locating oneself in God’s will, isn’t really a question of specific choices. Right or left, go or stay, English or religion: None of those choices mean jack squat if our insides are all screwed up. If we’re not exhibiting those delightful Fruits of the Spirit described in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
I know lots of people who’ve nailed every decision they ever had to make—and a few, like which parents to pick, that they didn’t—and who were some of the biggest buttwipes ever to cross my path. They clapped themselves on the back for being so wonderful on paper, all while being the kind of person even Saddam Hussein wouldn’t have wanted to have dinner with. These people were self-righteous, arrogant, dismissive, and unkind, but they prayed loudly, tithed properly, never swore, never drank, and quietly Lemon Pledged away all their other little sins so no one would see.
They were Right. They were absolutely correct in all their behavior in the world’s eyes—and the church’s—and also were completely awful. They knew what they knew what they knew.
I don’t know.
I don’t know that I’m right. I don’t know that I’m correct. I don’t know that whatever theology I do happen to hold is the Good One. I don’t know that I’m kind. I don’t know that I’m compassionate. I don’t know that I’m hardworking or talented or good to be around. I don’t know what I don’t know.
So, in the absence of knowing, I strive to be all the things I want to be. I remind myself daily what those things are and what they look like. And sometimes, being the man I want to be is so difficult I find myself starting to chicken out. I find myself starting to make the easy decision: Don’t deal with this conflict. Don’t try to right this wrong. Don’t do that super-inconvenient yet very kind thing. Don’t be generous. Take the easy road, hunker down, you’ll get ‘em next time.
Not knowing makes it easier, oddly, to make the right choices. Because I don’t have Being Right to fall back on to reassure my conscience: I only have my conscience, and it’s a loud motherfucker that tends not to let me ignore it. My life occasionally is inconvenient and awful beyond the telling of it due to this—both when I ignore it and when I follow it.
I don’t know. But I try really hard to do the right thing as much as I can. In the meantime, I believe in some kind of a higher power that well and truly does have my best interest at heart and won’t let me stray too far if I seek earnestly to do good whenever and wherever I can.
We don’t have any way of knowing the mind of God; mostly, what we have in formal religion, in my opinion, is just a way of knowing what a bunch of other people—many of them wise, many of them not—say about the mind of God, most of which is just them talking about their own minds anyway. We don’t have any way of knowing what happens when we die or why we’re here or why the Universe is here. So I’m not going to commit myself to one tiny little guess masquerading as The End Point of All Truth.
I’m going to keep saying I don’t know. Because as they like to say in recovery groups, more will be revealed.