God is apparently trying to get my attention. There is a problem with that: I don’t believe He (or anything like the common concept of God) exists.
I grew up in the church. I spent my weekends playing guitar while my enthusiastic youth group sang, and I taught Sunday school classes for both adult and children. A large portion of my social life revolved around my church family. Going to church with my mom and sisters was an expectation that I never bucked, and my kids attended with me until they were nearly grown. Church was an important and special part of my life.
However, for much of the time, I was pretending. Searching, if that sounds better. Most of my friends accepted even egregious Biblical paradoxes and historical impossibilities as somehow true. I was told more than once to pray “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) so that God would replace my questions with faith. Even though I wanted to believe that God existed and cared about each person individually, I didn’t. Einstein might have said “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” and Jung claimed there were no coincidences, but…well,…those blithe quotes had contexts that were not nearly as breezy.
Even when I “believed,” I didn’t accept that God cared what I studied in college or whether I wore jeans to worship service. I was appalled at the idea that having cancer would be blessing from God in any way, and I was baffled at the assertion that a blizzard that trapped my youth group in another state was God’s plan for saving people the strangers we witnessed to strangers who took us in — all things my friends could positively applaud as God in action.
As I got older and studied more, learning more about mythology, other religions, the origin of the Christian Bible and my own denomination, I accepted that I did not even believe there is sentient force advocating for us, a proto-God, especially not an anthropomorphized, we are built-in-His-image sentient being. Reading about goddesses and the feminine divine did not expand the concept of “God” enough to reassure me that God’s in heaven — which, incidentally, I do not believe in, either.
I continued attending my church, however. I liked the people there, and I felt good about many of the socially-oriented ministries it sponsored. I played devil’s advocate in study groups and represented the liberal interpretations of faith in my Sunday school class without telling them that I didn’t actually believe any of it. One minister approached me about my “crisis in faith,” but overall, staying in the church was easier than admitting to myself and others that I did not believe God existed, not even in the remote “intelligent designer” sense. I was comfortable pretending that I was searching.
But the last few years, changes in the church, society, and myself made it clear that I had to be honest. When I left the church, I lost a community — people I had been close to for much of my life — because their social lives and mine did not intersect outside of a church context, and none of us made the effort to build a non-faith-based friendships. My social life and my connection with my community as a whole suffered because I quit pretending.
That leads me to the odd experience I had last week. While driving home from a solitary out of town shopping trip. I was throwing a serious pity party for myself about how few friendships I have, the type of friends who you make plans with, have traditions and regular events with. I have people for dinner, and friends who are there if I need someone, but this is the first time in my life that I have not had a tribe, for lack of a better word.
Anyway, I was deep in feeling sorry for myself while driving, and I was considering if I should go back to Sunday school, with the caveat that I don’t believe, but I basically care about the people. I was thinking about whether Sunday school would make a difference in my social connectiveness, when my phone rang.
It was my Sunday School teacher. I haven’t talked to her in nearly a year. The class is going out for dinner in two weeks, and they wanted to make sure I was invited. I immediately said I will be there, and we chatted for about a half hour.
If I had any inkling of religion left, I would see the timing as divine intervention. As I was considering whether I need to return to church for social reasons, my phone rang and it was my church. I’m still amused by the coincidence.
But there are no coincidences — that was drilled into me for years. Everything that happens is God trying to communicate with us. Decades of indoctrination and quasi-belief do not fade easily, but at this point, I can appreciate amusing irony without feeling the hand of God slipping into my head. Or so I thought.
Then yesterday I was driving home again, and I clicked on my podcast app to hear the next Freakonomics podcast in the series I was listening to. Apparently I misclicked in the dark at a stop light and choose a pagan podcast by mistake. It was short, entertaining and thoughtful, so I kept it on. As I pulled into my driveway, the hosts of the podcast closed with what they called their guiding principle: There are no coincidences.
At this point, any of my Christian friends would emphatically argue that God is trying to get a message to me. Some of my “spiritual but not-quite-Christian” friends would probably agree. My couple of pagan/New Age friends would earnestly suggest that I draw the energy I need towards me, so even if I do not want to attend church, I may need those people in my life.
But what do I believe? Years of experience, research and thought is not canceled out by an ironically timed phone call during an isolated pity party. There is no Charleton-Heston-esque whisper luring me back to the faithful flock. Deciding I believed again, or even allowing myself the easy luxury of pretending to believe again, would have some psychological pay-off. Sinking into the structure of Sunday morning church, maybe even joining a church choir — that would be easy, and I have faked it before. The story of my faith being renewed by a phone call would light up my congregation, or a new congregation if I changed churches (which, as a former United Methodist, I would have to do because of their current LBGTQ issues). I could be an inspirational anecdote!
But..I do not have the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, and I do not believe the B-I-B-L-E is the book for me. Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt is a terrific morality tale, but impossible. And me walking into a church as if I’m returning back to my true faith…that is not happening either, despite a phone call inviting me to dinner.