Thursday, January 31, 2008

Why Theology?

I've been a professional student of religion & theology since 1993. Nearly fifteen years now. Somewhere along the way, I stopped believing in God. I can't put my finger on when, but I am consumed by why.

The short answer: traditional notions of God simply stopped making sense to me. By traditional, I mean that of a transcendent, all-powerful, all-knowing Father. As I explored alternative notions of God, first through Buddhism, and then through radical Christian renditions that identified the Father as dying with the Son on the cross, I at first tried to equivocate when people asked me if I still believed. "Sure," I'd say. "Just very differently." Anymore, I'm not sure answering in the affirmative is at all helpful. Any explanation I offer will be involved and require lots of patience on the part of the curious, to the point that I suspect most would just say, "Why didn't you just say 'No'?" So, for all intents and purposes, no, I don't believe in God.

I repeat: I don't believe in God.

And yet, I must confess, it is still hard to write that. This is not because of some residual nostalgia. I do not sometimes wonder, "What if all my evangelical friends are right." I do not, when I think about death, experience fear because of the anxiety of burning in hell or eternal separation from God. My fear, rather, is one of human weakness -- of not being able to face the end of individuality, the collapsing of consciouness to nothingness; and of not being able to comprehend the complex ecology whereby the individuality of my living and dying unfolds into a ever-expanding network of human and non-human, via the constantly changing kaleidoscope of memory, the process of physical decay in which my body literally feeds the earth, or the seemingly infinite tapestry of decisions I've made that connect me to this world, and this world to me, even after my dying breath. It could well be said that the welcoming of this weakness is the reason I do not now believe -- though, I would be lying if I said I was aware of this when I first realized I did not believe. (That is the subject of another post, or perhaps even a book -- the evolution of disbelief.)

And yet, it remains hard to confess this. Not because I fear the reaction of others. My mom's reaction, maybe -- less because of what she would say to me, but because of how she would take it on as yet one more thing to worry about. She is a smart woman, I tell myself. She must know already. Or, like many from my past, suspect it, but wish to think otherwise. After all, the lies we tell ourselves about others sometimes make for the most polite conversation.

No, it remains hard to confess my disbelief in God because I do believe in miracles. Which is to say, I believe in acts of love and heroism. I believe that you do not get simply what you see, and that what you see is what you get. I believe there is more to a body than even the body knows. There is more to the individual, to the body-politic, to the universe untold than its constituent parts -- not that something divine transcends or permeates these parts, that there is anything BUT finite parts, but that the parts themselves are more than themselves. I believe that this is the stuff of creativity -- the creation of potential and possibility and power. The capacity not simply to change or evolve, to become something else, but the capacity to become something more, something that explodes from within expectations fashioned by past use, present desire, and future profit. Indeed, where these expectations alone explode beyond themselves.

I realize this threatens to become New Age mumbo-jumbo, so I'll be more concrete. In thinking things can be different, more than the horizon of expectations allow -- I am not content, for example, with a new president, a stronger Democratic party, a wider social safety net, or universal health care. I will take them all. But they are not miracles. The stuff of theology, as I understand it, of a political theology that matters beyond propping up the moralizing of sex or the extension of militaristic aggression or xenophobic hatred, prevents this from being the horizon, because theology, even without God, is the discourse of miracles.

What kind of a miracle am I talking about? One can only ever venture guesses and estimations, but what about forgiveness of debt ... a worldwide forgiveness whose results we cannot even imagine. It's insane. Horrific, in fact. Economies would crumble, money would become meaningless. In a word, chaos. Miracles, after all, are not always pretty -- they are not always the result of beneficient forces. Debt forgiveness could come through mass legislation, or perhaps revolution; but more than likely through natural forces like environmental collapse. Miracles emerge from the spaces that exceed, but do not necessarily transcend, intention and agency, cause and effect.

What happens after miracles, as we've witnessed in those religions we believe and disbelieve, most of which were themselves borne from miracles, is always unknown and always contingent. To believe in the miracle, though, is not simply to believe in what follows, be it a doctrine or a constitution, but to direct one's attention to what matters: the miracles from which these emerge, which they try to keep from happening again, and to which they ultimately fall. If this sounds a lot like the structure of myth, that's because in a way it is. Attention is paid to miracles in the quality of the myths we create and enact in our daily rituals. The fact that we no longer believes in miracles is indicative of the death of mythology, replaced by the spinning of tall tales and cons.