I left Tallahassee an atheist, at peace with my unbelief. I was secure in my knowledge that God was either not there or his presence was unknowable to us. My only concern was what I should do with that knowledge.
If I failed to keep my secret, I suspect I would have been removed from any place of service in the church, and my family would be whispered about in tragic tones: "There goes poor Jenny, her husband is an atheist."
On Friday, I went to NASA. The Dryden Flight Research Center had its first event where members of the public were allowed "through the fence." At Dryden, I learned about what mankind is doing on the very cutting edge of engineering. Ways to make commuter jets travel faster than sound, or how to make sure planes don't run into the ground under pilot control anymore. I also saw the first machines that propelled us faster than sound and beyond, and held pieces of the spaceships we've built that have left the earth.
Over the weekend I connected with dear friends who once called Tallahassee home, but now lived spread across the country. It seemed a mere quirk of timing that they could all be with me on this pivotal weekend.
On Monday, two friends humored me and went to a showing of Blue Like Jazz. This is a movie, made from Donald Miller's famous post-modernist book about the Christian experience. It was fun, and funny especially when I saw my goofy face on the big screen, along side my lovely bride. Thanks to this movie, my Bacon Number is 2.
The film was made via a Kickstarter campaign, and I contributed what I could. In a show off gratitude, the filmmakers put me in the movie as an extra. This consisted of Jenny and I sitting in the front row of a church for hours doing the same thing over and over. I had no idea how confusing it was to make a movie, and that the people in the movie don't have a lot of context to go on. You just perform these little moments in an order that makes sense for the production and has nothing to do with the flow of the story.
That means I knew Don would storm out of the church in anger, but I didn't know why. It turns out Don is angry because of a change the movie made from the book. In the film, Don's mom is sleeping with Don's mentor: the youth pastor. Don puts two and two together and achieves a state of pure fury.
The tears started. The rest of the film is about Don running away from God because of his sense of betrayal. The moral failure of his mother and his mentor made him doubt everything he knew. At this moment I realized how close my search for Real Truth came to my own parents’ divorce.
How could God allow this to happen? How dare He? Who exactly does He think He is? What right does He have to allow this to happen if He has the power to stop it? Here was this little thread in my Sweater of Faith that I began to pull. Why does God allow rape in the Congo? Why is the Bible so full of factual contradictions? Why were the gospels written so long after Jesus was gone? What about all those other deities that were like him, but before him? Christ is not the first to claim being born of a virgin, or to be resurrected after three days. I pulled and pulled until my faith was gone, and nothing was left in me but what I could prove.
Until Blue Like Jazz (The Movie), I didn't know why I was searching. I wept for the rest of the film and Don ran farther and farther away from God. Then I wept more as I saw him restored, but in a radically different way. Don couldn't return to his fundamentalism, but in its place was a greater mystery and questions that can't be answered. It was a new and, for him, stronger faith.
I wanted that. And sitting in a little movie theater in Irvine, California a tiny spark of Belief started in my heart. It was fragile, and I was afraid to say much for fear it would go back out. My friends were understanding, and left me to my silence while offering occasional words of encouragement. These two people, acting as the hands of God.
Tuesday, it was time to meet Rob Bell. My original intent for the trip was to learn about inspiration and creativity from a well-known writer and speaker. Now, carrying this tiny little spark of belief, I was instead a seeker in the presence of a prophet. Fifty people, mostly pastors, sat in a room to talk about how we do what we do, whatever that is.
It was good. I learned a lot about how to create, and some ways to relate the scriptures to people in an accessible way. Rob even covered some secular academic work that was new to me about the way people learn and relate to each other. I felt my time was well spent.
Then Rob talked about New Atheism. He made some statements that offended me. He said atheists can't tell you why something is beautiful or why they love their wives. Having been an atheist, I could very much do both and do it in scientific terms. He made a joke that Evolution was great for telling you why you don’t have a tail, but terrible at telling you why you find that interesting. The hits kept on coming, to the delight of the group. Science can’t locate you in your elbow. Consciousness can’t be explained as the sum of physical parts. Science is great at hierarchy, but it can’t respond to holism. For that we need God.
My conservative Christian friends don’t like Rob Bell. From my perspective as an atheist, this supposedly open thinker was serving up the same lukewarm tripe that all Christians use to assuage their anxiety about those who look at the same information they have and decide there is no God. I expected more from the author of Love Wins.
I was filled with despair. I was in a room with some of the most open minds in Christianity, and I was hearing the same trite truisms that I had heard everywhere else. My little spark began to go out, and I prepared myself to say goodbye to God forever.
But this little voice in my head said "Remember what Rob said when we started? He said that if something didn't sit well with you to speak up, and the whole group would rewind with you." Even as that thought entered my mind I didn't want to speak up. Years of Southern social conditioning taught me you shouldn't make a fuss, and you should not be disrespectful. I wanted to say something, but I was in the grip of terror.
Then I realized this was it. This was a moment that would only come once. When would I again have the opportunity to address Rob Bell and 50 great Christian leaders on the intersection of theology and culture? Never. If this moment slips away, it is gone.
I spoke up. I don’t know exactly what I said. I have some people’s notes from the event, and I have my recollection. From that let me offer you this dramatic recreation:
“Umm, Rob? You said that if anything didn’t sit well with us, then we should speak up, and we could rewind. I have to prevail on you to follow through on that. I’m a Southern Baptist who is also a closet atheist. I teach Sunday School, and I’m active in church, but I also don’t believe that God is real. I haven’t told anyone but my wife and my mom because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s belief. You have said a lot about atheism in the last few minutes, and I think you missed the mark. You say that New Atheism is a form of faith because it believes that mankind can answer all the unanswerable questions. That’s not true. In fact, most educated atheists will tell you there appears to be some hard limits on human knowledge. We don’t have even a theoretical basis by which we can probe what happened in the very first instants of the Big Bang or anything before that. In fact, the edge of the observable Universe is moving away from us at the speed of light. I was just at NASA on Friday, and I had some great conversations with rocket scientists and astrophysicists. There is a belief among some of them that the time of religion is drawing to a close, and that the hostility religious people express toward them is fear. I believe we are reaching a time when science will crash the gates of the church, and it will tell people it has better answers and a better way to view morality–simply because it is intellectually honest. So, Rob, how can a person like me, who knows what I know about how the Universe came to be, ever believe in any God?”
The room was very quiet. Tension sparkled in the air. And Rob said "Thank you for sharing and for being honest." Everyone present affirmed his words. All these pastors and believers had broken hearts for me at that moment. No one wanted to talk about anything but my struggle. No one cared what they had flown across the country for. I became their calling.
And then Rob said “Something in you has a longing. I might not overanalyze it. You have a longing that doesn’t have a category. Your mind is seriously dialed-in. You are used to mastering things by categorizing them, but here is this bucket that doesn’t fit in your categories. Maybe you should take those questions and put them in that bucket, and call that bucket God. Don’t define it more than that. It sounds like there is this thing in your life that can’t be mastered. You’re not standing over it, it’s doing something to you that’s different. You have inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning, but this thing is ‘abductive’–it kidnaps you. It is real, but you can’t get to it through the standard ways you know.
I think that’s beautiful, that even as you didn’t believe you couldn’t share that because you love others. That sounds sacred and holy to me.
The more I think about it, what an odd step of faith you have taken, ‘I was at NASA on Friday, today I came out with my closet atheism.’ God is moving in you.
If that's all you can do, I want to tell you that it’s enough, and there is room in the Faith for you. I want you to know that God says 'This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.'"
And my spark exploded. In that moment God washed over me like the waves of the Pacific.
And then a woman named Sarah stood, and she talked about the importance of a simple faith and sometimes just letting go of questions. I said "Have you been talking to my wife?" and there was a lot of laughter.
And we moved on. And I participated as one who believes. Even though I know that what Rob explained is called Worship of the Gap by Richard Dawkins–this idea that God exists beyond the veil of what we know. Something magical happened in that moment. I held to it.
We talked about more stuff and Carlton Cuse from LOST came for a visit to talk about creativity.
Then we slept. Then we came back and talked another full day. Then we all had dinner. Then Rob called us back down for communion.
My cynicism returned. Here we've been talking about some really amazing, cutting edge stuff about the nature of God and belief and culture and now we're doing the bread and wine thing. Youth groups do this to cap off church camp.
But Rob talked about communion. He talked about how it is about making everyday things Holy. A loaf of bread. A shared glass of wine. It reminds us that the resurrection lives in every moment. Then he told us if we didn't know what to pray during this time, that God simply show us what our own Eucharist was. That we ask how we can be broken and poured out for others.
So I prayed. I felt something, but I don't know what. I cried a little.
Then I walked up to Rob, who started to cry as I approached and he said "This is the body of Christ, broken for you. This is the blood of Christ spilled for you." For this to work, Rob has to hand me the piece of bread and I have to take it. In that moment, God told me I had to accept it. I literally had to accept Christ's sacrifice.
I did. My quiet tears turned to sobs as I left the room. I started to write a letter to God, but I couldn’t see the paper through my tears. A very sweet pastor just sat with me while I cried, offering comfort. Another said “Welcome back” as he passed by. I never even noticed Rob leave.
Walking back to my hotel room, I decided I wanted to pray. My roommate was sleeping, so I walked out to the Pacific and stood on the shore. I looked out into a great darkness, able only to make out the waves. Here was a powerful force of nature, barely seen. This seemed right.
So I prayed:
God, I know so little about you.
I have so many questions. About life, about suffering.
I wonder why the universe seems to have no need for you.
I can’t understand why the Bible is your best attempt to tell us about you.
I wonder why you bless me when so many suffer–
Why children in Africa are starving right now, and women are being raped.
I have lots of questions, and I have to keep asking them.
Asking them keeps me aware that something must be done.
I don't know what I believe, but I know that I believe.
And I know that tonight I accepted the gift of Christ.
At the moment I said Christ, a wave rushed up the shore, crested the peak, and washed over my feet. I took a picture of the spot the next morning, and you could see where the sea invaded the beach in a circle around me. Here, after giving up, I found the sign I was looking for. I cried and cried and thanked God for talking to me again. I told Him I missed talking to him, and no matter what happened I never wanted to stop talking. I never wanted to be without His presence as long as I live.
You see, just as he did in the upper room before giving his life, here again did Christ wash the feet of his follower.