Failing to Walk On Water
One chilly fall afternoon, I tried to walk on water.
I was 5, old enough to know that the stones crossing the pond were meant for my feet and trying an alternative route across the water would leave me soaked.
But I was also old enough to know that while most of my loved ones went to church, my father did not. And while the church was like a second home to me, there was a shadow side. Although my Presbyterian church was far from fire and brimstone, I did pick up on the idea that in order to get into heaven, you had to “believe.” And my dad didn’t.
I wasn’t sure if I did, either. As far back as I can remember, the gift of faith for which I so desperately yearned eluded me. I longed for the shelter of belief in which I thought most of my own family rested comfortably (what did I know of their doubts and struggles?), but I couldn’t take God’s existence for granted even though I thought I was supposed to. And if God did exist, could he love my father, or me, if we couldn’t always – or ever – believe?
I don’t know if I was actually frightened of hell at that tender age, but I did wonder what would happen to those of us who didn’t pass the admissions test into heaven after we died. And even if I could find a way to believe, did I even want to go there without my daddy?
It was all too much for me. I desperately yearned to prove it all to myself as much as to my father, to calm my fears and quell my doubts. So, recalling the Sunday school lesson in which Jesus stepped out on the water, I tried to follow. Whatever I lacked in faith, I tried to make up in sheer desire. Please, God, prove to me and my daddy that you’re real, so we can be in heaven together someday.
I’d like to say I learned a lesson against Biblical literalism that day, but that would only come with hindsight.
I did learn a powerful lesson about a father’s love, though. He jumped right in after me, pulled me up as my heavy coat dragged me down, wrapped me in his jacket, and took me home. No scolding, just strong arms and warmth reaching from his heart to my shivering little body.
But it didn’t help his faith. And my own would be swept under waves of doubt for years to come.
Since salvation anxiety haunted me from such an early age, it’s ironic but inevitable that the three greatest Gospel truths I ever learned, I first learned from my atheist father.
… our task as human beings is to nurture and heal the world with love.
Wrestling with Salvation Anxiety
My salvation anxiety was a monstrosity of confusion and fear and guilt. Beyond the mental gymnastics of trying to believe the unbelievable or the moral gymnastics of calling a genocidal, geocidal deity Love, it felt like disloyalty to my father to even try to believe in God when part of the desperation of my struggle in the first place was fear of what could happen to those who couldn’t believe.
If you’ve ever struggled with salvation anxiety, some of this wrestling might sound familiar. And particularly if we fear for the salvation of a loved one, it’s impossible to feel secure in our own salvation as well.
How do we find hope in the bleakness of it all?
Some walk away from religion altogether… and this is healthy and right for those who choose to do so. Religion should not be a source of anxiety, and those for whom it is an obstacle rather than a path to joy flourish better apart from it.
But I couldn’t let it go. I kept wrestling until I wrenched many blessings from my anxieties and doubts.
Those blessings include the conviction that, if God exists at all, God must indeed be Love.
I’ve come to see scripture as humanity’s journey of coming to understand that the ultimate force that moves and shapes the world is not violence, but Love. The violence attributed to God in scripture is human misunderstanding, slowly corrected through the prophets and finally through the very embodiment of Love on earth in Jesus.
And human beings, made in Love’s image, are meant to nurture and heal the world with love.
And I largely credit my (relatively) new interpretative lens to my father.
It’s not just that my father’s atheism prevented me from ever taking my faith for granted, or that I inherited his skepticism for a sentient being who can’t be perceived by our immediate senses. It’s also because his love for humanity and his hope for a future without violence or injustice convinced me that anything less than universal salvation just isn’t worth believing in.
The only God worth believing in is universal, redemptive Love.
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I credit that conviction largely to my father and the three Gospel truths I learned from his love:
1. Salvation Isn’t About Getting Into Heaven. It’s About Restorative Justice.
My father – strong, passionate, and gentle – continually inspires me with a heart for social justice.
He taught me, from a young age, the lasting effects of systemic, institutional racism and how to look out for subconscious bias. Having lived through the 50s and 60s, seeing not only the hard-won progress of African Americans but also the depths of white resistance, he taught me to look out for prejudices. He strove to be anti-racist long before the term was popular, though he humbly admits that he still has much to learn.
While I learned almost everything I understand about racism and how to fight it from people of color, I credit my openness to learning largely to my father.
He was also a conscientious objector and a pacifist, especially when he saw through the veneer of righteous justification to the ugliness of the Vietnam War.
Through my father, I learned that every life, including those that the government declares the “enemy,” is precious. I learned to see through to the greed and power-lust that officials tried to disguise with appeals to humanitarian warfare. I didn’t need my father to tell me that there was no such thing as “humanitarian” bombs, but his tears when the bombs started to fall in Iraq, both in ‘91 and just over a decade later, nevertheless reinforced this truth.
So what does this have to do with the Gospel?
My father continually sees both the beauty in humanity and the depths of human deprivation. He never loses sight of the evils humanity is capable of, never glosses over the horrors of racism or bigotry or violence. But despite all of this, he has hope that humans can be and do better, through education, compassion, and great stirrings of the human spirit that can wash through the culture on waves of empathy.
Isn’t this exactly what Jesus shows us as well?
All the time I was worried about “heaven,” I was too anxious to fully absorb the message that Jesus taught through his words, actions, and death-defying self-sacrifice. Salvation is not a reward after death, but a liberation from the ways of violence and bigotry that circumscribe our lives now. Jesus shows us how to overcome the worst tendencies we have toward fear, hatred, and measuring ourselves over and against one another so that we can live into the freedom and joy of seeing the beauty in one another.
Jesus railed against narratives claiming that the poor and marginalized are being punished by God. Poverty, homelessness, and marginalization are largely the results of human greed and the false justifications for it claimed in the name of tribalism, nationalism, or religion. And I see so clearly how Jesus’s actions to help the poor and marginalized are a defiance of a mindset that would blame the poor for their own fate because my father first modeled that defiance for me.
Even my concern for salvation helped to reinforce my later conviction that any God worth praying to is a God who desires the best for everyone. If God wasn’t at least as loving as my father, who continually taught me active love for the marginalized and the so-called “enemy,” then what was the point?
I do have hope in life beyond death, but Jesus teaches that abundant life begins here and now, as we replace conflict with compassion and enmity with empathy. Now that I can listen to Jesus with ears to hear instead of fear, I hear that message quite clearly, because my atheist father first taught me the language of empathy.
2. “We’re All We Have, And We Have to Take Care of Each Other.”
These are my dad’s words for why he is a humanist and an atheist. To him, appeals to God are a distraction, a shirking of our responsibility to one another.
Ultimately, I hope that we are not all we have. But, then again, I believe God works not as an outside force, but as the impulse of Love moving within us and guiding us to be our best selves. And it all amounts to the same thing.
“Christ has no body but yours,” St. Teresa of Avila reminds us. “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me,” Jesus declares. Whatever compassion we show to the most vulnerable, we show to God, who stands forever in solidarity with the marginalized.
Jesus shows that the living image of God is not the power or might of a king, but the dignified vulnerability of those the world refuses to love. As such, God erases the boundaries of our limited love and unleashes love to the infinite reaches of the universe.
For me, to believe that God was packed into a slave ship, walked the Trail of Tears, suffered the fallout of nuclear bombs, hung from lynching trees, drinks poisoned water in Flint or India or suffers from imposed starvation in Yemen or Gaza, to believe that God is in every victimized or traumatized person everywhere, is to reinforce rather than offset our human responsibility.
But there is nothing wrong with not needing the image of a suffering God, believing that it is enough that we are human and part of being human is caring for one another. If the language of God gives me hope and sharpens my sense of responsibility, if eschewing the language of God gives my father hope and sharpens his sense of responsibility… it’s the hope and responsibility that matter.
The most powerful interpretations of the Gospel strengthen rather than diminish our responsibility to one another. The Good News is that Love empowers us to love one another. My dad taught me this Good News through his love for me and the world in the language of secular humanism and compassion.
3. Perfect Love Casts Out Fear.
“I never felt obligated to believe. I never had a sense of being an outsider,” my father told me when I asked him about his rejection of the church.
Considering that his own father was a minister, that statement carries a lot of weight.
Dad never struggled to believe the way I did. His fears and anxieties never revolved around the existence of God or the nature of salvation. He was raised to reason and question, to examine and test. When, in his view, that kind of scientific mindset clashed with mainstream religious authoritarianism, and when the idea of a personal deity seemed too fantastical for him, he rejected God and the church. But he never lost sight of his family’s love.
My father’s vision of and for the world is rooted in the love in which he was raised. At its best, he sees how religion can motivate people to great acts of love. But he finds no reason to believe in any God beyond the depths of love in human hearts. And at its worst, he sees religion as a weapon of division justifying an us-versus-them mentality that facilitates dehumanization, apathy, and violence.Of course, my father is absolutely right that religion is weaponized as a double-edged sword of fear. Outwardly, it can be used to terrorize “others.” Inwardly, exclusive interpretations cause heartache and anxiety for those who wrestle with belief. If exclusive interpretations were all there were to religion, I would either have to reject it or live in fear.
But perfect love casts out fear. It has cast out my fear that God could ever be disappointed with “incorrect” belief or matters of semantics. My father believes in Love. I call that Love “God,” and my father does not. Real faith isn’t correct theological language or consent to a supernatural deity. Real faith is living in love for all. If religion helps us in this endeavor, it is a blessing. If it hinders us, faithfulness requires setting it aside as long as necessary.
My father’s atheism sharpens my faith, and in all irony and honesty, I consider it a gift from God. After all, my father taught me long ago that the true message of the Gospel isn’t to see life as an admissions test to heaven that we pass or fail. It is simply to love the world and keep our eyes open to its suffering, so that when we see anyone in need, we don’t hesitate to dive in and help.