I spent most of my life calling myself a Christian. I worked at Christian camps and in a church setting. I earned a Master’s degree from a well-respected seminary. I came close to being an ordained elder and full-fledged member of the Christian clergy.
Today, I’m not sure I could consider myself “Christian” in any traditional sense, but hold your horses: this isn’t one of those stories where the secret evangelical pulls a fast one and says, “I’m not religious; I’m a Christ-follower.” I wouldn’t do that to you. On the other hand, I’m also not going to tell you a story about how I was once a proud believer who was finally enlightened and found skepticism. Or how my anger with the church has made me into an atheist. That seems silly to me, too. I don’t mean in saying all that to bemoan that people make those journeys and certainly feel that wherever you end up is probably where you need to be for whatever moment of your life you find yourself in. For me, though, I just wasn’t satisfied anymore with the more traditional labels we’ve been handed over time.
That is, usually, people see three options available on the issue of God: theist, atheist, or agnostic. In layman’s terms, that includes belief in a divine being, lack of belief in a divine being, or the position of “I don’t know.”
I like to think there are plenty of other ways to approach God beyond those three categories, though. Maybe you’re apathetic and just don’t really care about the existence of God (apatheistic), or maybe you don’t believe any words in the human language can define a concept like “God” and therefore, why even bother with the conversation at all (igtheism)? We could argue all day whether these are “theistic” or “atheistic” positions, but part of the point is that people – and what they believe – are more complex than any label could ever give them credit no matter how hard we try to boil it down to two or three distinct categories.
And, really, if you want to play with labels, there are several such nuanced categories from anti-theist, non-theist, pantheist, irreligious, nones, etc, which help pin down some of those “other options” to religious or irreligious life. If I’m not theist, atheist, or agnostic, what could I call myself? Well, let me first reiterate what I already said – that I think all labels break down. But for the sake of trying…
If someone were to walk up to me and say, “Do you believe in God?” my response would be, “I don’t believe that question is always helpful. Whose God? Who’s God? What does ‘believe’ mean, exactly – faith choice, hope, love, trust? What do those value terms require of me? Or of ‘God’? What is expressed by belief ‘in’ something; should we believe with, of, for, or by it?” Nevermind that if I actually responded to your question that way, you’d probably think I was a pretty incorrigible person, and you’d be right: the point is that language should be important, and while I think we might can pin down a few words to such a seemingly simple question, the one for “God” always remains a mystery. To me, today’s religious language has been made disappointingly inadequate; God is a dying metaphor.
I want to use the term “dying metaphor” with Orwell in mind. In what is probably one of his best essays, Orwell writes
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.
So, when I say that God is a “dying metaphor,” I mean that our society has so “worn-out” the concept of God that we no longer have a vivid or clear picture of what is meant when we talk about God. Not that we ever did, since God has always been an elusive concept, but today’s pluralistic divine being can be anything from Democrat to Republican to Catholic to Jewish to Muslim. Anything between a white man with a beard in a white cloak to something more akin the way Star Wars defines the “Force.” Put another way, too many people of too many religious backgrounds use the same generic term for the divine, such that if I were to say to you that I believe “God is love,” you do not know if I am earnestly kind-hearted or if I am about to throw a Bible at your face in the name of that “love.” Admittedly, some people have tried to solve these theological problems by offering an apophatic approach to the divine (i.e. describing God by what God is not rather than what God is). I don’t necessarily find that approach helpful, as it just raises more questions than answers even if the benefits outweigh the detriments.
So, what does that mean for me exactly? Part of what I’m saying when I say that I’m not exactly Christian in the traditional sense is that I no longer am able to participate in the language Christians use to describe God, or as it’s been referred to elsewhere, Christianese. For the sake of convenience, however, many people might consider me a “Christian,” or at least a theist while many others might not. I’d probably even define myself as Christian in a public setting with strangers because it’s easier than explaining the nuances. But if you really started pushing me on Christian dogma, my beliefs are somewhat vague: I don’t necessarily believe that the Bible portrays historical events, after all (though it often writes around them). Adam and Eve probably never existed. David and Moses may have been based on historical figures but were much different in reality from the way the Bible portrays them. I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin or that he necessarily performed literal miracles or that he was seen rising into heaven. Which is not to get into whether I believe it’s “true” that it happened so much as I don’t think the “truth” of it has anything to do with its factual occurrence.
As narratives – as a kind of theopoetic form of symbolism – I “believe” all of it. By believe, though, I mean that I value the symbolism in such a way that I can translate those stories (as well as stories from other religions) as useful and meaningful to my life. Maybe I don’t believe that Jesus was resurrected as an historical event that happened in the 1st century, but I believe in the power of Resurrection because I live Death and Resurrection, the ongoing saga of the struggles between despair and hope, almost every day of my life. Or, I may not believe that a divine being, Yahweh, created the world in six literal days and rested on the Sabbath, but I celebrate the art of creation in that I am constantly creating myself (as we all are), and I regard such a story about our origins as beyond the profane in that it portrays something achingly beautiful about our ancestors, about the way they understood their own origins and sense of purpose. That is, whether we ‘evolved’ from Adam or from monkeys is the wrong question to me (of course we evolved!). What’s more interesting than the science or the fiction is that we all have common ancestry, an undisputed fact but a fact that makes us all kin, all brothers and sisters of one species (or perhaps several). That alone – our interrelatedness – should give us a deep sense of purpose and meaning and humility and belonging. The more interesting questions move the conversation into a depth we should be earnestly seeking.
To me, the operative word is “theopoetic.” In my own mind, the theo-poet seeks to experience something beyond him or herself and then situates that experience within newly invented metaphors (or by reclaiming old ones). As an example, think about an atheist who loves singing old school Gospel hymns in a secular university choir. She may not “believe in” God, but through the practice of singing the hymns, she can nevertheless appreciate the religious experience. Perhaps while she rejects the truth-claims of God’s existence, historical or scientific, she nevertheless understands the spiritual metaphors embedded in the lyrics, and she is sometimes able to glean something personal from those metaphors despite her disbelief. The words and sounds move within her in a way that almost muddles what it means to be a theist or an atheist.
The theo-poet is, quite simply, someone who yearns for the lyricist within. Maybe God, too, is within that voice? Our feeble minds cannot prove or disprove that, but we can celebrate whatever it is without having to pin it down. Those lyrics within need not come from one specific religion, though they may. My own theopoetic is, in many ways, Christian, because that’s how I was raised. That is, because I have the greatest understanding and history with the Christian narrative and tradition, it stands to reason that Christian metaphors will appeal to me more often than, say, Hindu metaphors. But I don’t limit my love for any one tradition, narrative, or religious community. If I did, I would be limiting whatever is or isn’t “divine,” as well.
Being the theo-poet also means to me that I deal with morality similar to a humanist: I believe in being good for the sake of being good, and not because I was given any kind of mandate to be good. And yet, as a theo-poet, I do draw from religious narratives and metaphors and hope to seek out and claim those “lyrical voices” of morality where they exist, while eschewing religious examples of immorality, as well. To say that in a more concrete fashion, I don’t believe – as an example – that I should “love my enemies” because Jesus told me to, but I do wish to highlight that Jesus said it, because it fits so squarely within my own sense of morality, just as it did figures like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. My theopoetic accentuates or complements my sense of morality, rather than entailing it. And I can return to those great historical questions, like Jesus’ resurrection, and say with comfort that I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, because again, there’s resurrection in the story, and the story is what contains truth for me.
Those are mostly religious examples of theopoetics because I value those stories frequently; it’s a personal choice, but I do not believe one’s theopoetic need be couched in religious narratives even if they may always contain an element of spirituality. That’s my whole point: our lyric within will inevitably vary from person to person. So, while my own theopoetic may make me still Christian, on some level (or at least connected to religious communities), I don’t believe every theo-poet will be driven in that direction. It boils down to this: we cannot know what is or isn’t God, or if there even is a God definitively, but we can discover and create that which is beyond ourselves but still within our own capacity, and we can borrow religious, secular, or otherwise symbolic language to describe it. That’s not necessarily the approach of any theist, atheist, or agnostic, but at times, it can be the approach of all three, because it is the life of the artist.
And for now, that’s what I believe.