Reader Mail: A Question About Peace

I get a lot of mail from readers of my Doubt Series with further questions and insights. I answer as much of that mail as I can, and I thought it would be helpful to start posting some of the common questions on my blog. If you'd like to ask a question or share your story, use the form on this page.


Dear Mike,

I’d like to start by thanking you for your blog and the Liturgist Podcast. Both the blog and podcast have helped a lot in my faith walk.

I grew up in a Christian household and have always thought that Christianity is a good thing. Both of my parents are pastoral counselors and I get to see first hand the peace and healing that Christ can bring into people’s lives.

For the past two years though, I have struggled with a lot of doubt. For most of these two years, even though I attended church twice a week, I had not been putting any effort into seeking out God out of fear that I might not find anything. Every now and again I would feel as if God was real and I would feel like I was in his presence. Even with these rare occurrences of faith, doubt would ultimately take over.

When I found your blog and The Liturgists Podcast, I felt compelled to explore Christianity more. I have read your entire doubt series and am currently working my way through Rob Bell’s series on the bible. A lot of the questions that I initially had about Christianity, that created a lot of my faith deconstruction, have been answered and I’m continuing to learn more and more about how applicable Christ is in my life.

All of this sounds inspirational but there’s a problem. Now that I am struggling towards God, I am not at peace. One day I will wake up and think ‘Wow, the Universe is so beautiful! How could you not believe in a loving, personal God?’ The next day I will think ‘Wow, the Universe is so beautifully explained by science. We don’t need a silly creator.’ This constant switching back and forth wears down on me.

One of the aspects that is most appealing to me about Christianity is the peace that it promises. I feel like I’m missing out on this great gift. Do you have any advice on how I could find peace in my faith even if my faith involves healthily wrestling with God?


I've got two Weimaraners. They're wonderful dogs: fast, strong, wicked-smart, and picturesque. Max and Ruby are laid back and easy-going, but that hasn't always been the case. They were lunatics when they were puppies.

Weims are high-energy dogs. They have a nearly limitless energy supply, and a powerful desire to hunt. When they were younger, the frustration of suburban life lead them to dig trenches in my yard and chew up anything they could get their mouths on--including a gas grill, all our shrubs, and our home's foundation.

The sad thing is all this frenetic, obsessive activity did nothing to satisfy them. They'd get into a frenzy and their eyes would go wild. I walked them, but my human legs couldn't go far enough, fast enough to help.

I loved days when I could take them out to our family farm and let them run. A Weimaraner finds itself when it can run across a couple hundred acres. My dogs would change after a few hours of running and chasing wild game. They'd be calm, centered, and considerate.

That peace only came to them after they'd had an opportunity to channel their natural energies in a healthy way. So, let's talk about a couple of human energies.

First, Human brains have a remarkable need for certainty. Studies have shown people crave certainty, and they experience something neurologically similar to pain when they are in a state of chronic uncertainty.

Second, humans have a need for meaning. Humans that don't have a sense of meaning are much higher suicide risks, and research shows that humans will sacrifice their lives if they believe their death has meaning.

Christianity does a remarkable job addressing these needs, even across all its diverse sects and denominations. Christians trust that God has the answers (which offers certainty) and that God has a plan for the world (which offers meaning). I spent most of my life in this warm blanket of certainty and meaning, and the result was inner peace.

When times were tough, I trusted that God was in control and that God had a plan. I remained at peace.

And then I lost God, and all my certainty vanished, along with that feeling of peace. Without God's plan, my life had no meaning, and I struggled with existential nihilism and depression. This compelled me to furiously research what science had to say about our world. I dove into philosophy, epistemology, quantum physics, and cosmology. I was determined to find out the answers to life's greatest questions: How did we get here? Why did it happen?

Like my dogs, all that energy compelled me to dig deep, unsure of what I was looking for.

It would be easy for me to say is that discovering God again offered me peace. That's what the crowd loves to hear, but it's not what happened.

I found peace as an atheist. I learned to accept that there were things I would never know, and that this life was the only one I would ever have. I learned that I had to make my own meaning in life. After a few months of angst, I discovered a powerful sense peace in humanism and atheism.

I believe that is what ultimately prepared me to know God again.

When God came back to me in the waves of the Pacific, I couldn't reconcile it with my model of reality, but my understanding of science helped me know my model was just that: a model. My experience with humanism taught me to be certain about my own uncertainty. There's always going to be new data and new experiences that will challenge my older ways of knowing the world.

I hold my understanding of the world in an open hand instead of a closed fist.

I believe God is real. I could be wrong about that. That's ok. I'm not trying to find the final answers to the big questions. I'm trying to live a good life--the only one I know for certain that I get.

You need certainty to have peace, so place your certainty in your uncertainty. Stop treating life as a puzzle, and accept it as a gift instead. We're wrong about things all the time, we just don't know which things. If you want to trust in God, then trust in God. I accept that I could be wrong, and that stops the constant loop of doubt and anxiety.

But, what about meaning?

I find my meaning in Matthew 25. Jesus tells a story about sheep, goats, and salvation. It's a famous story, and it shows how the Gospel changes the world when Christians work for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, shivering, sick and imprisoned.

We have a need for meaning, and I find that meaning when I serve others. A lot of people think I'm nuts for reading all the email I get on my blog, but that's one of the places I find meaning and connect with God. I find it when I accept those who've been rejected, or sit with those who have no place in our society. When I walk with someone in their suffering, and offer the little insights I've found in my own, peace comes to me.

I found certainty by letting go, and meaning by getting my hands dirty. With those things, came a profound and lasting peace.

May you know the peace of letting go and getting your hands dirty.

photo credit: Debarshi Ray via photopin cc

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan just released a movie called Interstellar. It's science fiction film steeped in the big questions of life and some pressing ideas in the sciences. After a few hundred of you sent me questions about the science behind the film, I headed to the theater so I could answer your questions.

My friend Rob Carmack did a five question interview with me about Interstellar. If you've only got a few minutes, that's the way to do. We also did a special edition of The Liturgists Podcast to discuss the science and faith themes found in the film. The podcasts runs just over an hour, so we cover your questions in detail.

Be warned, both are full of spoilers and plot details.

Reader Mail: Still Doubting

I get a few dozen to a few hundred messages a week from people about doubt–that's why I wrote my doubt series. I don't always have time to respond to these messages as fast or as in-depth as I'd like, but when I get the time to interact with people I enjoy it.

This is a series of messages between a reader and me who read the entire doubt series and still had some questions. I thought some of you may enjoy it, so it's presented below. I have done some editing for clarity, and changed names to preserve the reader's privacy. So, I'm sharing this with his permission.

Message from: Paul
October 16th

Hey Mike,

I read the blog you posted on yesterday and I appreciated a lot of what you had to say. I always appreciate what people have to say when they've been where I am because not feeling alone is one of the greatest comforts in life I have ever known. It's good to know my experience is not *just* my own in part.

My deconversion goes a lot like yours in terms of arguments. Evolution just made sense to me one day, way more sense than creationism ever did. I started off as a young-earther, then an old-earther, then a theistic evolutionist, to now a natural evolutionist. It's made sense of everything in life for a lot of the questions I've had. It makes sense why Bonobo's have culture and language and humans share >99% DNA with primates and DNA sequencing with fly's are identical and animal parts like a pig's blood valve can be transferred to a human. I mean, you don't need my writings for you to be convinced of science, you're clearly a very intelligent man.

Basically, I look at the universe and I don't see a need for God to be anymore. I know religion and supernatural belief is a human universal, but that's not convincing in any degree to me. Lawrence Krauss eloquently explains how quantum mechanics allows for the universe to come out of nothing. So I'm left wondering, if God is real, why has He masked himself *so* well that it's impossible to find Him and the universe gives no indication that He is needed or present in any way? The truth is what I somewhat want to believe in God again. Somewhat. And maybe that's only because I don't like the idea of going to hell simply because I pursue knowledge and came to the conclusion God wasn't real and then suffered for an eternity as a result of it, that sounds pretty unfair and sucky.

I'm also really big into philosophy. If God created creation for creation's benefit (because God does not lack), why would he actualize a universe so miserable? I'm aware of the "greatest of all possible universes" theory and it seems pretty weak to me now. Before I deconverted, I hated my life. I hated all of my life. I was a Calvinist and I was told I was an evil, awful, completely sinful, wretched human being incapable of doing anything without God let alone save myself. This just made me depressed. It made me angry. I become so mad to think that a God who supposedly is infinitely loving would create me and give me such a shitty, miserable, undesirable life that I lamented living and I had no choice in living. Especially if He could have made things differently. I don't understand why God would create a world of bacteria and viruses which destroy DNA and cause illness. I don't understand why God would say He's going to establish an eternal kingdom in *this* world, if the universe has a limited amount of energy and heat death is our seemingly most-likely inevitable death. It just seems silly to me now. And I don't mean any of this offensively, but I know you've been where I am. But I can't reconcile these things. I *want* God to be real, but I can't rationally believe in an eternal omni God who would actualize the universe we live in with its structure. Because then there is objective morality that changes the dynamics of *everything* in life for me. Hurricanes and tornado's aren't *bad*, they're neutral, but they kill people sometimes, we just think of them as bad. I just don't get it. 

I could do what your blog said and pray and talk and surround myself with Christians again, but they're all so naive about life it seems. At least the ones I know. It's very clear to me Adam wasn't a real person because it's anthropologically impossible in terms of what we know and Noah is also a myth, but why would Jesus and Paul both quote these guys as real when they weren't? I don't get how I can believe in knowing a God through the Bible when I can't trust the legitimacy of the authors and Sola Scriptura is circular reasoning. The point of this is that I can do what your blog yesterday suggested, but if Yahweh is God, I don't like Yahweh. Yahweh wants to kill good people and punish them *forever*. If Yahweh is loving, He's made us a miserable life that's very unloving and He's very silent- if not completely silent.

I'm sorry for such a long message. I'm just trying to ask you for help. I want God to exist, but I feel like I philosophically can't. The world is too conflicting with the theoretical attributes of God for me to admit or concede He is real or cares about anyone or anything. I'm honestly a lot happier now as an atheist. My depression is gone, I'm looser, I'm freer, I enjoy life and everything more. I'm no longer afraid I'm going to piss God off or afraid of anything happening. I've really become like an old Greek Stoic now and it's working out well for me, if you know anything about it -shrug-.

I'm going to end the message now, haha. I'm sure you're dying from the length of this. If you don't reply that's okay. If you do, that's great and I'm thankful. I'm just a dude looking for answers.


Message from: Mike McHargue
Oct 17th


Hey Paul,

Thanks for taking the time to write me and to share your journey and frustrations. More than that, thanks for using paragraph returns in a long message--you can't imagine what a gift that is. I get a lot of emails like this, but for some reason people never press the return key and send me a massive wall of text instead.

Your journey is familiar to me. I have thought and felt all the things you are feeling now. Most poignant are the reminders that YAWEH can be a jerk, and that people who follow Christ can be naive about the natural world. The Problem of Evil is a pickle too. And, as you have said, modern physics tells us that our Universe could emerge from nothing, or it could be eternal. Neither scenario needs a Prime Mover or a Source of All, or whatever language liberal theologians use to describe God.

Does the Universe have a need for God? You can certainly argue that the God of the Bible has been demonstrated unnecessary by modern cosmology. Many physicists have created theoretical frameworks wherein a Universe can arise from a quantum vacuum, or ceaseless cosmic inflation from an initial singularity.

None of that worries me. Not a bit. I've reached a point in my life where I've decided that life is not a puzzle that I have to master, but instead a gift to be enjoyed. I don't have long to be a conscious being on this planet, and I'm determined to get all I can out of my time here.

I study, and I learn, but I do so only so that I can grow. The biggest questions will not be answered in my life. Where did the Universe come from? Is there a purpose to all this? I don't know. No one does. One of the theoretical frameworks on our origins may prove accurate in time, or some fundamental discovery may uncover a New Physics that sweeps them all into history's Drawer of Silly Ideas.

All I know is that something far more powerful and mysterious than humanity caused our Universe to exist as it does now, complete with a blue marble floating around an unremarkable star that is teaming with life.

The sun's going to swell and consume the Earth in a while, and then in a very long while the Universe will probably reach heat death, that is assuming that a new Universe isn't birthed from quantum effects consuming this one. How and Why are great questions, but my main concern is another question altogether: What do we do about it?

Humanists say we create our own meaning and make life as good as we can as long as we can. I don't have any problem with that answer. Christians say we should follow Christ, and in doing so make the world better. I don't have any problem with that answer either. That's why I'm a Christian Humanist!

Don't hold the Bible against God. People wrote it. It's has fallible, mistaken, and beautiful as its human authors. It's full of agendas and justifications. I don't toss it out the window though--this is a collection of books about people searching for God and meaning amidst suffering. That sounds a lot like me. I lean into these stories and see what they can teach me.

I know very little about God. Does "God" have consciousness, will, or agency? Beats me. For all I know, God is nothing more than the inanimate forces that power physics. But those forces allowed me to exist, to fall in love, and to experience wonder. I'm fine calling those forces God.

But, I also hope for more.

God has moved so powerfully in my life. The most majestic and profound moments in my history as a conscious piece of the Universe involve something that seems very much like a personal, animate, and powerful force reaching out to me through the Cosmos and into my daily life.

So I trust. I take the unfounded assumption that God is not just Einstein's mystery behind the elegance of physics, but that God is also a personal deity that cares for humanity. This assumption brings me comfort, but it doesn't answer any of the tough questions. Instead, it gives me hope and light in a dark, cold Universe.

It's not a question of if the Universe needs God. It's a question of if I need God.

It's in this place of trust and humility that I met a risen Christ. It's in a still, small voice that I find a broken God who was a broken man. This story of a man-God who died and rose again gives me the courage to be broken and poured out for others. To forgive when it's unwise to do so, and to believe it's never too late for redemption, even when Evil, with a capital "E", is all around.

If you've found happiness and peace as an atheist, I'm not here to convince you to believe. I've just found in my own life there is beauty in facing the mystery--and then leaping in.


Message from: Paul
Oct 17th


Mike,

You're welcome! I'm a bit of a grammar junkie so I try to be respectful and helpful with the structure of my messages. I appreciate you noticing and saying thank you for it. That actually means a lot to me.

Thank you for saying everything you have. You're right, there are a myriad of things that I'll never know the answer to in my life, and that's okay. Since my deconversion I've learned to appreciate a lot more. I'm in whole a lot happier and a lot more free. There truly is a lot more to enjoy.

I guess my biggest fear in all of this though is hell. I'm not worried about anything else. I just don't want to die and suffer for an eternity and I don't think I have any way of knowing if I will or not, and I think that's lame. 

But this notion of Christian Humanism sounds cool. I like that a lot, actually. I like everything you've said honestly. I like it because you're not judging me or giving me shit for things. The unfortunate aspect of this is I know I could probably never belong to any form of orthodox church or probably find a church again. Church is nice for social exposure and grouping, you know?

I suppose I just have to keep wandering and keep waiting. Maybe Jesus will encounter me like He did you. That would be nice. It would be nice to have some personal validity to believe something instead of grasping at the wind for things. It sounds scary but exciting. Thank you for sharing what you did. Although my response is quite short this time, your meaning is of great impact and importance and I'll be reading it over and over again for a long while to come I imagine.

Thank you again. 


Message from: Mike McHargue
Oct 17th

Two thoughts.

First, Hell. Don't worry about it. Many religions have some version of it, and according to Muslims, Christians will spend time there. Among Christian sects, there is disagreement about how salvation works, and who's going to make it to heaven.

Who's right? How do we know? From what I've read, Hell is a fusion of Hebrew and Greek ideas amped up by Dante. Don't worry about hell. Hell is not a compelling or interesting part of the Christian story, and it's certainly not an original part. The message of Christ is abundant life and salvation from the hell we create by living under law and condemnation. I'm not so sure it's God who hungers for violence, revenge, and justice. I think it may be us. Jesus invites us to step beyond those impulses and into a life of forgiveness and grace. You're already free. Just accept it.

Second, church. There are a lot of churches that are dangerous to the doubting. Most, probably. But, there are a growing number of safe churches out there. I go to one, and I'm invited to speak at them all the time. These churches accept people as they are, without judgement or condemnation. These are safe places to work out what you believe in community without pressure. If you run across a place like this, give it a try. If you want, of course.

Grace and peace to you. May your journey led to a place of peace and joy.

-Mike

photo credit: gajman via photopin cc

Book Review: The Zimzum of Love by Rob and Kristen Bell

After fifteen amazing years, I didn't expect any marriage book to show me any radical new truths about my wife. We're husband and wife, but also best friends. We've read our share of marriage books, and I thought we were already masters at this whole marriage gig.

Jenny and I read The Zimzum of Love by Rob & Kristen Bell together while driving home from Miami. Jenny read, I listened, and a sudden, heightened sense of connection grew between us. Somehow, the metaphor of Zimzum and the stories Kristen and Rob share throughout the book drew us closer together. I saw our marriage from Jenny's perspective in a way I never saw before.

All of which raises one question: what is Zimzum?

In ancient Hebrew theology, tzimtzum is the way God created the Universe. Essentially, God drew back and left space for the world to exist, and creation happened where God made room for it. That all sounds a bit like the Infinite Cosmic Inflation theory of the multiverse to me, but Rob and Kristen never mentioned it.

So, the zimzum of love is the space two people create between each other. I found that image helpful. In a marriage, there's "me", there's "you", and there's "us". I've always noticed that "us" has a unique and distinct character--it's more than a sum of "me" and "you." In this "us", this "zumzim", actions and feelings are amplified dramatically.

After this mystical opener, The Zimzum of Love explores the nature of marriage and how to best maintain it. These thoughts and practices are grouped into for chapters: responsive, dynamic, exclusive, and sacred.

  • Responsive because our relationship with our spouse amplifies everything we do and feel.
  • Dynamic because our relationship is always changing as our lives change.
  • Exclusive because our relationship has to be protected and private.
  • Sacred because our relationship has an effect on the rest of the world.

There are discussion questions, too. Lots of them. We're nowhere near done with this part of the book--there are a lot and they provoke deep dialog.

The Zimzum of Love is remarkable in that it covers profound, deep insights about our most important relationship in a simple, accessible way. I think this book is best read as a couple, and the inclusion of both Rob and Kristen's voices help it accommodate masculine and feminine sensibilities.

I enjoyed reading it, and I feel closer to my wife as a result.

You can by The Zimzum of Love on Amazon.