Not long ago someone, upon learning my profession, asked me, “How can you believe all that stuff?”
“What stuff?” I asked.
“That there’s a man in the sky who does magic things.”
“I don’t believe that,” I said.
“Do you pray?” he asked, in a tone that was less like a question and more like a challenge.
“Yes,” I replied. “I pray every day. I’m praying for you right now.” I smiled to let him know that last bit was a joke, trying to lighten the mood. He was not smiling.
“If you pray, then it seems to me you believe in a magic man in the sky. Such thinking is a hold over from humanity’s primitive days, when they thought the sun and moon and fire were divine…” He went on like this for some time. When he finished, I tried to respond to his points. I thought I did a pretty good job, bringing the full force of my divinity school education and twenty-five years of ministry to bear. When I had finished, he looked at me with genuine perplexity.
And then he, his voice full of sarcasm, said, “That’s really nuanced. How many Christians do you think really believe that way?” Then, answering his own question, he said, “Almost none. Christians believe in the magic man in the sky. They believe that because they believe in him, they are going to heaven and I am going to hell.”
I went away from that conversation disturbed and encouraged. I was disturbed at the misperceptions people who stand outside of Christianity have about our faith. And I was encouraged because I knew I served a congregation filled with thoughtful, engaged, and, yes, nuanced believers. I know those are not mutually exclusive terms, because I live and work among people who live them out every day. I know you do not have to have a seminary degree or be a minister to have this kind of faith, because I know doctors and lawyers and carpenters and accountants who manifest a deep faith in something a little more substantial and mysterious than “a magic man in the sky.”
There are millions of Christians living in the world who expose my inquirer’s caricature for what it is. To believe is not to assent to the outlandish and unbelievable (the magic man in the sky), but to literally “give one’s heart” – which is the root meaning of the word “believe.”
I was intentionally vague in this piece about the specifics of my response to my interlocutor. I am preparing to preach a series of sermons on the nature of belief, using the Apostles’ Creed as a basis. I am curious about how my readers would have responded, but even more so, I wonder how you think about belief. What do you mean when you say, “I believe…”