First, a word of warning… This blog is NOT intended for everyone. It is written for a very specific group of people—those who would like to have some sort of intellectually honest faith but have experienced crippling existential doubt that makes faith difficult or impossible for them. If that phrase means nothing to your own experience, I’d suggest you move on to a different blog because this probably won’t be all that helpful to you.
I guess I could start this with the image of me weeping on my knees in a bathrobe in a spa. I’ll save the (fairly entertaining) details for another time, but basically I lost my metaphysic. I lost the ability to “believe” anything.
I’m not talking about the “Why didn’t God do this for me?” kind of doubt here.
I’m talking about a complete lack of ability to hold any sort of metaphysic. Is this universe “real” or an illusion or some kind…a software simulation, perhaps? I don’t know.
Some of you are scratching your head or furrowing your brow at this point. I told you this blog is not for everyone.
Is there a God, an afterlife, a direction to the universe? I don’t know.
I suddenly found myself for the first time in my life with no actual metaphysical beliefs.
This kind of doubt is not some postmodern, hipster trendy sort of “doubt.” It is a very real and painful loss of the ground beneath your feet. This can be a very depressing and horrifying experience for people. Some of you know what I’m talking about, and it’s you that I’m writing this blog to.
Through this experience (“dark night of the soul”, or whatever you would like to call it), I’ve had a few things that have really helped me “spiritually”. (Community, ritual, apophatic theology, meditation…etc) But I came across something this week that really helped me cerebrally.
The philosophy and science of the day have left us with very little certainty about the universe we inhabit. (“I think therefore I am” really doesn’t get you very far.) We are subjective creatures that have very limited and flawed receptors. There is really no way to objectively “know” anything. It all comes through our subjective lenses. In reality, it all comes down to faith. And faith is not something one can force.
Nearly everything can be philosophically deconstructed. So those of us who lack the faith to believe even in our subjective senses or reasoning can have a very hard time finding things to be “true.” This can lead to paralyzing doubt. The kind that keeps one from living the kind of life that he would like to live.
Ok, so now to the helpful part.
I had a conversation the other night with this brilliant guy that everybody kept calling “Science Mike.” Mike grew up in Christianity but then became an atheist, and has recently come back to his faith. I was startled at the similarities in his experience and thought world to my own. And when I shared with him about some of my experience, he shared with me a set of axioms that he has come up with that has allowed him to continue to practice his Christianity in an intellectually honest way, even during seasons of extreme doubt. These axioms, he explained to me, act as a sort of ground floor upon which he can deconstruct no further. They are built on the idea of “at least”. So, while these axioms may be extremely unhelpful to a person who has no metaphysical dilemmas, they can be EXTREMELY helpful to a person who sometimes dips into deep, debilitating existential doubt.
You ready? I hope you’re ready for this, because this is freaking brilliant. I asked him to write it down and send it to me, and this is his email:
OK, my little system is AT LEAST, EVEN IF. I provide definitions for religious concepts in the form of axioms in a manner that is compatible with naturalism (falsifiable and provable). Even in the sciences, we must admit we don't have a complete understanding of most concepts, so AT LEAST could be applied to natural concepts too (the Universe, gravity, etc.)
Basically, this is a ground floor which doubt can dip no further. It allows us to always feel intellectually honest about pursuing God, religious ritual, fellowship and even Jesus himself.
God is AT LEAST the natural forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial construct rooted in evolved neurologic features in humans. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace and empathy for others and is warranted.
Prayer is AT LEAST a form of mediation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress and can connect us to God. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.
The Bible is AT LEAST a set of writings where a people group describes their experience with and understanding of God over thousands of years. EVN IF that is a comprehensive definition of God, study of scripture is warranted to understand our culture and the way in which people come to know God.
Jesus is AT LEAST the idea of a man so connected to God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings; he was very likely a real person. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his teachings can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.
This is amazing. Every word in this is very intentionally crafted, and I really can’t see any way to reasonably deconstruct this argument.
Of course, for most Christians, these axioms fall woefully short of any robust orthodoxy. Still, the beautiful part of this is that it provides some sort of framework upon which you can continue to live the kind of faithful life that you’d like to live even when doubt takes over and drives you to the absolute depth of uncertainty. This argument basically “proves” that even when everything gets deconstructed to the very least (God as a word for our subjective experience of the natural forces that create and sustain the universe), Christianity is still worth LIVING.
That’s they key to this to me. Living. Doubt has its benefits. It asks questions that can lead to progress and growth. But the dark side of doubt is when it stops the person from actually living the kind of life she wants to live. It’s one thing to have cerebral doubts about whether love is anything more than a set of chemical reactions in the brain; it’s much more severe problem to let those doubts actually stop you from living a life of love.
It’s one thing to doubt the dogmas and ideas about Jesus. It’s another thing to let those doubts keep you from living the “abundant life” that he invited people into in the Gospels.
So, there you go. Mike is a genius. If you want to know more about him or contact him, you can find him at http://mikemchargue.com or @mikemchargue on Twitter.
Ps. As far as blog comments go, I would love to ask the Christians that don’t struggle with this sort of doubt to please refrain from speaking too quickly here. There are many people that believe the answer to this sort of doubt is “Come on, just believe! The Bible says…” Regardless of how good the intention in that sort of statement may be, please trust me when I say that this sort of response is not at all helpful in these situations. It actually can be quite destructive and can lead the doubter to push away even farther from what you are saying. Thanks!