Nobody really believes in God—Christians or members of any other faith community. Christians who say, “I believe in God,” actually mean, “I believe in a particular construct of God that was formed by a particular sub-culture’s reading of a book called The Bible.” That is all that can honestly be said about belief in God. The significant limitations inherent in being human prevent us from understanding, much less believing in, qualities like eternity, infinity, the divine—for that matter, the human.
Christians, or members of any other religious community, will not, of course, stop saying, “I believe in God.” There aren’t many good alternatives to “God,” and they tend to range from the impossible-to-say to the impossible-to-understand. You know, something along the lines of “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” That’s endearing. Thanks, Anselm. The very fact that it is called the ontological argument pretty much kills it for me. Then there is Matthew Arnold’s “stream of tendency, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness.” I guess I prefer that to Anselm. At least Arnold makes God the good guy/girl/thing/tendency.
Anyway, you get the idea. “I believe in God” may not be true, strictly speaking, but it’s easy to say, and heck, it would work well under pressure—for example, as a last testimony before the pagans chop your head off. Can you imagine trying to say, “I believe in that than which a greater cannot be thought” as the ax is falling?
So then, why say, “I don’t believe in God; God believes in me”? We all know the well-worn story of the alcoholic or drug addict trapped in a cycle of self-destructive behavior, whose life is transformed because someone else “believed in her/him.” It’s a beautiful story that touches people because it reveals something essential about human nature—that the faith and love of an other might change what seems unchangeable in us. The other believes in “me” and stays with “me” in the brokenness. Sometimes that is transformative.
The most addictive and self-destructive behavior in my life has been believing in God. Growing up in the Bible Belt, in a small Fundamentalist church, in a loving, believing family, there was never a time when I didn’t “believe in God”—by which I mean, of course, that “particular construct of God that was formed by a particular sub-culture’s reading of a book called The Bible.” It is almost impossible in that sub-culture to step outside the paradigm—comfortable and secure, beliefs constantly reinforced by reading a book that has been for all practical purposes deified, and interpreting personal experiences through that (particular) reading. That particular reading of the book and understanding of God was who I was—my identity, my worth—not just now, but for eternity. The investment in getting it right was staggering. Then when I was sure I “had it right,” it was almost impossible to consider, and certainly impossible to accept, any proposition outside that construct. I could not, without unbearable stress on my identity, my worth, and on my eternal relationship to God, risk such immense stakes.
I was, in effect, a Biblaholic. No, a Particular-reading-of-the-book-aholic. I was addicted to the particular way I had come to read the book. And I judged God and other people by that standard. And like an alcoholic or drug addict, under the influence I was able to justify saying and believing some pretty awful things about God and other people. But something inside kept pushing back, insisting there had to be another way. And then a door opened. Perhaps someone was knocking. I think someone was. Somehow I walked through. On the other side was peace. On the other side was all of creation, including me, and it was good. A different paradigm. The addiction and self-destructive behavior began to fade. No need to “get it right” so that I could judge God and other people. A relief.
Now, like all recovering addicts, I guard my heart closely to make sure I don’t relapse. And I remember that, if there is God, the path to God is God’s belief in us. And so—John 3:16 (Gary’s Revised Edition): For God so believed in humanity, that God became human, that everyone who was believed in would have life.