When I was about 23 years old, a friend and I passionately debated the existence of God. I was working as a youth minister in a Catholic parish at the time, so it was – to say the least – far from a dispassionate conversation. Today I don’t recall the precise details, but I have a vivid memory of the moment I abandoned my faith.
We were in my friend’s apartment and he had, either explicitly or implicitly confronted me with the question “What are you afraid of?” In response I had walked into the kitchen to refill a glass of water. I removed an ice tray from the freezer, placed it on the counter and, with the question spinning in my mind, broke the ice. Along with the sounds of cracking and splintering an interior wall of fearfulness seemed to shatter and the thought that came to me, crystal clear and certain, was: Of course there is no God.
One part of the wall that fell within me that day was trepidation about the loss of comforts associated with a personal relationship with God. Such a relationship, as well as the practices that accompanied my Catholic version, provided a sense of inner peace, a constant guard against isolation and loneliness, and a regular practice of passionate engagement in deep feelings such as joy, community, meaningful suffering and the clarity of purpose born of conviction. I felt very alive and that liveliness was intertwined with the rituals and practices of Catholicism.
So, wasn’t that fearfulness a means of protecting and preserving the comforts of my spirituality? Why lay it to waste? To what end?
Without God my values would not significantly change: they had been rooted in a commitment to social justice that was resonant with, but not defined by, biblical principles. Years later, when my father lovingly confronted me with his concern about my atheism, I responded that I was confident that the God in whom I had always believed would not judge harshly my disbelief in Their existence. God was always more concerned with our capacity for compassion and love than for our adoration of – or belief in – the deity. I was far less confident in the judgments of other human beings.
What I was losing was a clear association between myself and goodness. God wasn’t only good; God encompassed ALL goodness. While being in relationship with God did not ensure me a pass into eternal bliss, it did provide an earthly identity: that of a person whose intentions are good. By surrendering my belief in God I was left wholly, directly and individually responsible for my goodness and would have to construct it out of the most meager of materials: who I actually am, what I actually say, believe and, most importantly, do.
Emboldened by the support of friends who celebrated a fearless pursuit of truth, prompted by the increasingly frequent intellectual back-flips that theism demanded of me, and fueled by a growing disappointment with the institution of the Church, I dared to forego an identification with goodness that I had not only enjoyed but had, for approximately five years, utilized as a basis for employment. As the ice cracked so did many social contracts, the basis for friendships, and the context for the esteem some had held me in.
I had been a person of faith. Now what would I be?
In the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is called “Good Teacher” by the Rich Young Man who asks about how he can earn his way to Heaven. Jesus responds in part by saying “No one is good except God alone.” Biblical scholars have a great deal to say about this text that I will not attempt to elucidate here. It is a verse I have carried with me most of my life. The meanings I take from it I find humbling, challenging and liberating.
It seems to me that Jesus was saying goodness is God’s identity and no one else’s. The rest of us are not good – we are capable of participating in goodness and we are just as capable and free to participate in evil. But these qualities are not badges we get to wear or names we get to don, any more than the Rich Young Man (or this middle-class old man) gets to earn and amass a right to Heaven. In true goodness there is no accumulation to one’s self; there is only a participation in something larger, something other than my interests and ego. There is community, kindness, compassion and love.
My atheism is no victory over theism or any religious tradition. It is an attempt to strip away my own pretense to goodness. It began as a spontaneous outcry, an admission that while my commitment to gospel values was felt to be fully intact, the existence of God as a person seemed no longer sustainable and, more importantly, no longer relevant.
In these days of bold acts of fear-based aggression playing out on a national and global scale, generating levels of suffering and institutionalized oppression the likes of which this white man has never known, personal response has become paramount. The question of my identity is raised and answered every day (even moment-to-moment) by my response or lack of response to the unfolding horror show. I am inconsistently aware of my inconsistencies: one moment enthusiastically participating in a massive public protest in response to current oppressions, another moment resenting that I am not the focus of attention.
My ego, born of my privileged history, resists a supporting role and subversively seeks out the stardom to which I feel entitled. How am I as a white man to bear witness to the existence and injustice of white and masculine privilege without replicating that privilege by making the development of my voice and role central to the narrative?
When I was 23 and loosened my bond with the generalized good, I took on a greater responsibility to maximize my participation in specific acts of goodness. Goodness is elusive and challenging in any time, but the wisdom of Jesus’s reprimand to the Rich Young Man seems particularly applicable today. I strive to recognize on an hourly basis that goodness, righteousness and love are bigger than me and will never fit my small, awkward frame.
Good is a river and while you cannot hold a river you may choose to rest on its banks, enjoy the cool breeze blowing across its surface, and you may even dare to enter its waters. I’m constantly re-learning that the river will carry me, my feet will not reach its bed, I will have to submit to its power and participate with effort and consciousness, always respecting that I am but a part of something larger.
That is as close as we get to being good.