My brother and I have been Christians all our lives. Now he says he’s an atheist. How can I have a relationship with someone who believes in nothing?
Being an atheist doesn’t mean believing in nothing. While your brother no longer believes in a Creator God, he may well believe in the power of human reason to improve life, the moral capacity of people to create just and compassionate societies, or the preciousness of life and the need to protect it. He may experience a deep and transcendent awe when peering into the night sky and contemplating the wonder of life and its evolutionary unfolding. He may be greatly humbled by his own existence and may feel an obligation to devote his life to the betterment of life. In short, he may believe and experience many of the same things you do. Invite him to share his doubts and his convictions. Listen with an open heart and mind, and I suspect you will find your relationship not only continues but deepens.
My mom was a devout believer right up to the end and never lost her sense of humor or commitment to kindness, though she died young and in agonizing pain. What is the point of faith if this can happen to a believer?
You have answered your own question. Your mother’s faith couldn’t protect her from suffering and pain — nothing can do that. Rather, it helped her live her suffering and pain with grace and humor. People ask the wrong things of faith. We want ease, safety, and certainty, but the real gift of faith is learning how to live suffering, impermanence, and doubt with humor, joy, compassion, and grace. I don’t envy your mother’s end, but I do envy her faith.
You talk a lot about religion, but what exactly do you mean by it?
My definition of religion comes from anthropologist Barbara King (Evolving God) and historian Karen Armstrong (The Great Transformation). King defines religion as humanity’s quest to connect with and belong to more and more inclusive levels of reality: moving from I to thou, from us to them, from them to all, until we realize our connection with all life — mineral, vegetable, animal, and beyond. Armstrong understands religion as “ethical alchemy,” adding a corresponding sense of compassion, justice, and concern to King’s sense of belonging; not only do we belong to all life, we care for all life. For me, then, religion is the practice of opening myself to ever larger circles of compassion, concern, and belonging until, at last, I reach beyond all divisions to lovingly encounter and embrace all life as the one Life, God.
Last Sunday some friends came over, and we ended up talking about how to read Scriptures. I like to study the Bible, but one friend went on and on about “praying the Scriptures,” while another (who is Jewish) focused on “learning.” After a while, it got very confusing and we dropped the subject, but I’m still curious. Can you explain the difference of studying, praying, and learning the Scriptures?
As I understand and employ them, study puts you outside the text, praying puts you inside the text, and learning puts the text inside you.
When I study the Bible, I examine it objectively, looking for clues to its meaning in archeology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and comparative myth, literature, and religion. The text is clearly something outside of me.
When I pray the Bible, I don’t stand outside the text but inside it. When I pray the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman (John 8:1–11), for example, I’m not concerned with the historicity of the story or with Jewish laws regarding adultery, which belong to the realm of study. Rather, I imagine myself standing in the crowd gathered around the woman and Jesus. I feel the anger and shame of one willing to stone a woman to death. I hear Jesus’ teaching and let his compassion change me.
When I learn the Bible, I internalize it and allow my imagination to take me beyond the written text. Keeping with our story, John tells us that Jesus twice bent down to write something on the ground, but he doesn’t tell us what Jesus wrote. Neither studying nor praying can reveal what the written word conceals, but with learning I step beyond the text and co-create the story with John. I imagine what Jesus may have written, and as I imagine more and more possibilities, the text acts as a catalyst for self-revelation. I am no longer reading the text; I am reading myself.
All three methods are valuable. My advice: study fearlessly — don’t be afraid to learn all you can from as many sources as you can. Pray fearlessly — don’t be afraid to enter the text and explore it from the inside. And learn fearlessly — don’t be afraid to grow beyond the word and discover the living truth planted in your own soul.
I feel sorry for people who don’t believe in the afterlife. How do they maintain hope?
Your question begs another: Hope in what? I’m Jewish, and for millions of devout Christians, that means I’m destined to burn for all eternity in hell. Where’s the hope in that? Sure, fear of eternal damnation could motivate me to convert to Christianity, but which brand of Christianity? And how do I know Christianity is true? Maybe I’m safer if I remain Jewish. Or perhaps Islam is the better guarantee to spending eternity with God. Since there is no way to know if any religion is true, we are reduced to the same option: guess.
As to your original question, I imagine nonbelievers place their hope in the same things I do: the fact that life is chaotic—
sometimes joyous, often sad, and always surprising — but that no matter how crazy life gets, there are always opportunities for cultivating love, justice, and compassion; and that if there is an afterlife, it will depend not on what I believe but on how wisely and lovingly I behave.
As a scientist, I find the stories of the Bible absurd. Do you have any idea how many laws of nature Jesus would have to break to walk on water?
Actually, I do, which is why I don’t read the Bible as history, nor do I hold it to twenty-first century standards of science and morality. The Bible is a mythopoetic exploration of what it means to be human. I don’t ask of any biblical story, “Is this fact?”; I ask, “What does this story have to say about life and how best to live it?” I don’t always agree with the Bible, but I always find wrestling with it a catalyst to deepening my thinking about life and life’s meaning.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, poet, and teacher. His most recent book is The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness. To send him questions, email [email protected]. His online column is at here.