I had an interesting conversation with an atheist the other night. Where, when, who, what circumstances: doesn’t matter. What matters was the shared conclusion we drew concerning the nature of and extent of the human capacity to believe. Which, again, boils down to: doesn’t matter. I believe it doesn’t matter. She believes it doesn’t matter. What anyone believes only matters to the extent that it affects how we treat one another in this convoluted, sometimes painful, often beautiful, always-taxing world we live in.
I believe in all sorts of things. She does not. But I also believe that what she doesn’t believe doesn’t affect my beliefs one whit, nor do they prevent her from being a decent and loving person.
She believes that many believers don’t believe everything they’re supposed to believe. And I believe that she’s correct. I don’t always believe everything I’m supposed to believe. Sometimes I’m incapable of believing. But I believe anyway, because the struggle itself is a form and expression of belief. I believe, yes, but I also realize that sometimes I can’t. This realization is itself belief.
Let me explain myself.
I didn’t always believe. I was once an atheist, too. My late parents were initially non-believers, my father devoutly so. I grew up believing only in the miraculous vastness of humankind and the need to drill down deep inside one’s core for moral guidance. Jesus was a good man, my mother said. She believed that. We all did. We believed his message of love, of serving the poor. But that son of God business? Dying into eternal life, blah blah blah? I didn’t go there.
Even when I began to believe, I understood that my own belief can never depend on my credulity: i.e., my faith can’t be pegged on whether This Actually Happened or That Actually Didn’t. So if I can’t wrap my head around, say, transubstantiation, I don’t sweat it, because no one can wrap their heads around transubstantiation. Our heads aren’t big enough to wrap around transubstantiation. Wouldn’t it be strange if they were?
Part of what I believe is that my brain is too limited, too small, too confined by this pressing and solid world, to grasp the things that span beyond it. That’s a major element of my faith, this belief in my own cramped capacity for belief. I believe that I’m more than the neural squishiness within my cranium. I believe that I’m not well-equipped to comprehend, much less believe, the infinite and complex wonder that is the unseen Other. I believe that I’m incapable of true belief, and that’s the basis for my belief.
And whether I or anyone believes that a piece of baked good literally morphs into the body of Christ doesn’t affect how I carry that chunk of God into the world. Because I believe I should be carrying it anyway.
And if I’m not? Then everything else I believe just doesn’t matter.