Brother Against Brother

We're over it. We're done. We can't even. We weed people out of our life. We move on.

I've noticed that the some of the most shared posts on the Internet today are posts like this one. America has a long history of impressive political bluster and even a Civil War–division in this country is nothing new. Lately, our proclivity to line up against each other seems to be rising toward a fever pitch.

Jesus told us to love our enemies, and to bless those who curse us, but I know Christian families who won't speak to each other because of differences in political beliefs. These fractures are undergirded by certainty in either camp. Both are absolutely convinced that they are correct, and the other camp is wrong.

Here's the thing: you're wrong. I'm absolutely sure of it. But that certainty comes at a cost, as it means that I'm wrong too. We're all building models of a reality that is far more complex and nuanced than our brains can handle. Different models have different advantages.

There are advantages to being religious and nonreligious.
There are advantages to being conservative and liberal.

Every human model of reality comes with trade offs, and none of us are masters of fact, or unbiased, rational agents. We're especially clever primates, highly specialized for tropical environments, with a unique ability to incorporate time into our neurological model of the world. I'm a very clever ape, sure, but I'm still an ape.

No matter how enlightened I (or anyone) may feel, no matter how careful I've considered my position and the alternatives, I have to remember that one of the most powerful human biases is toward tribalism. Our brains crave identifying a tribe we can identify with and outsiders to defend against. It was a very successful strategy for most of our history on Earth, but today tribalism does much more harm than good.

You are here. So is everyone else.

You are here. So is everyone else.

When I'm tempted to identify with some group and look on others with disdain, I find it helpful to remember most people build constructs and ideologies primarily as a means of forming social identity and coping with the fact that we're a species that can contemplate death. We're all trying to work out the grief that bubbles up from the End of The Line. I ask myself: in this moment, how can I be an agent of healing and reconciliation.

Jesus calls me to identify every other person a member of my tribe, and to be willing to offer my life for theirs. I'm called to suffering with the suffering. I'm called to feed His sheep.

Jesus shows me that God loves everyone–even conservatives, liberals, and moderates. The call on my life is to do the same. If Jesus made time for the Samaritan woman at the well, I damn well better make time for the Republican woman at my office.

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