I lead worship at two churches. One is Trinity’s house church, the Fellowship. The last time I lead there my set included: “Give Me Jesus,” “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “One Thing Remains,” and Hillsong’s “Hosanna.” Each of these songs is filled with Christian imagery and theology, full of faith and hope in God, adoration and joy in Him. I chose these songs, carefully and lovingly. And I played them with all my heart.
Comfortable with a guitar and able to project my singing voice (even if amelodically), I like knowing that people like it when I lead music, however flawed. And that sometimes, someone actually enters into a true space of worship: meeting God, connecting to Him, praying, thanking and supplicating. I am amazed by this, and can only credit something far larger than myself as the catalyst.
But I don’t actually believe in the God I worship.
Yes, that’s right. I am a heathen. I am an atheist. And still, I practice Christianity with earnest and humble reverence.
1999 was the last time I was this involved in church. I was, for all intents and purposes, a believer back then. I say “for all intents and purposes” because I was too afraid to take an honest inventory of my faith at the time. Though I could accept the social effects of denying Christ, I wasn’t yet prepared to face the existential challenges of meaninglessness and death.
I was a worship leader back then too, at the church I grew up in. Annoyed, of course, by all the typical small church annoyances: no budget, low attendance, over-extended volunteers, revolving door of interim pastors. But, I really, truly believed that my Christian brothers and sisters had my back. And I tried to believe that God had my back too.
But then I lost my job. The only job I think I ever loved. And then my grandpa died. And then my mom got a brain tumor, and then my wife’s baby sister, her best friend and our roommate, one of the brightest stars in our small sky, died. She was 24.
Each blow, awful. Some unbearable. But I felt sure that God and the Church would carry me through, just as those old footprints posters used to say. Without specifically thinking it, I imagined my phone ringing off the hook and long heart-to-hearts, an outpouring of love and support that would last for as long as I could want and beyond.
But instead I found quiet nights, drinking myself to sleep while reading Job, over and over.
That year, I lost my faith in God and Christianity. But I didn’t realize it right away. For a long time I acted like I still believed. I kept angry at God, praying to him with resentment in my heart, telling him that he owed me for what he’s put me through, expecting an apology or at least some restitution. But none of that ever came to pass. And it only made me more angry. Until, I understood, God is not going to apologize and God is not going to make me whole again. God is not what I thought he was. And, for the first time in a long time, I had to admit, maybe God wasn’t even real at all.
Years later, having sat with my doubt, meditated on it, read up on it, talked about it. Eventually I landed on the saddest but wisest place I have ever had the honor to land on. A small island with one simple law, be true. And my truth is that, as far as I can tell, Christianity in particular and God in general are not literally real. They are inventions that humans have used throughout our history to achieve social and individual benefits.
God and religion can be very, very good. But they are no more “real” to me than Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings.
The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung allegedly prescribed religion to his patients as a cure for their psychological maladies. Supposedly only when they were incapable of practicing religion effectively would he embark on a course of psychoanalysis.
I think I now understand what Dr. Jung meant. The earnest practice of religion has deep psychological and social benefits. I see it in myself. Christianity connects me to a community that I share values with. Even if I do not share in Christianity’s metaphysical beliefs, I certainly share in the values of human equality and dignity, of non-violence and charity. And, in an everyday way, I certainly believe in taking care of my peeps as they take care of me.
And that’s just with community.
Psychologically. Individually. Practicing religion gives me the opportunity to reflect on my smallness in the face of the vast universe. Allows me to fill my tiny role within a magnificent operation. An operation that I see only through a darkened window, but that contains mysteries beyond my comprehension. And it provides room to believe that, though Yahweh and Christ may not be “real,” maybe something, somewhere, out-there and in-here is real and moves us all eventually, along an irresistible arch towards love and justice.