A week ago I was asked to share with you the story of my faith. To remedy for my diction that day, I was asked to share it again in writing. Here is it:
As many of you know, I was born and raised on the Russian-Chinese border, in the South of Western Siberia. Given my country’s Communist past (you may read up on that at your leisure), religious sentiment was not wide-spread. After 70 years of prohibition, the subject was largely taboo, and almost never discussed. Even though many were old enough to remember the Orthodox traditions, their children would have forgotten. So it was with my family; until once, when I was still a very young child, my grandmother, who always told me stories before bedtime, told me the following story: Once upon a time, the world did not exist: there were no people, no animals, nothing at all – there was only God; he has no beginning or an end; he was, he is, and he always will be. He created order out of chaos, and he is very kind. If I ever need help, I can ask God, and he will listen.
That is how we left it for the next 20 years. By that point I was out of my first Master’s degree with a thoroughly secular education and two minors in philosophy. My poor professors were under the impression that they successfully taught me how to think.
They taught me to love truth, and truth was just the thing that religion seemed powerless to provide. The concept of an all-powerful Creator that explains the existence of the universe didn’t satisfy me, because it the leaves the Creator Himself unexplained (unless he was Himself created by some sort of Super-Creator, and so on to infinity). I saw no reason to believe in the existence of a God; saw no reason to expect there to be one.
Furthermore, whenever I have spoken to people who claimed to be Christian, more often than not I saw people that were hiding from the truth outside their walls. Instead of answers, I often got rationalizations and tricks of logic. Often my religious interlocutors would refuse to acknowledge what we now know about the world; they would hide themselves behind a concept, clothe it in hymns and words of comfort, as if to cushion themselves against hostile ideas.
They acted as though the wanted to protect their belief from the possibility of being exposed as untrue. I wondered from that reaction how strong their belief really was. And no wonder! Existence of God is an extraordinary claim, and, for that reason, requires an extraordinary proof. The burden of proof lay on the side of religion, I thought, and religion failed to provide it.
So, for a very long time, the issue of God as presented in the Bible was a non-issue. Until, as it often happens, in a time of a personal crisis, I tried praying. It happened quite naturally: I was so sad I assumed there was a God; and asked for guidance. In a funny turn of events, my prayer was answered; I, of course, attributed that to pure coincidence. A couple of years later, when things, again, got quite difficult, I tried praying again. And again, my wish came true. And, of course, I attributed that to another coincidence. As a lover of truth, I could not make the conclusion that God exists just because my wishes were coming true. I recognized that the arguments against the existence of God are very strong, and I could not object against them without lying to myself. The truth had always mattered to me; I was desperate to find it. I held it to be the highest possible good. I’ve read every book on philosophy I could get my hands on trying to find it. I believed that behind this elusive truth that I couldn’t find there lies a better version of myself. And I built a hierarchy of values around it. In every difficult moment, I tried to align myself to the highest possible good I could imagine; and ask myself: what is the right thing to do here?
Of course, at a certain point I noticed that I was doing exactly the same thing while I was praying all those years ago. Except instead of a two-dimensional God of my childhood came the illusive concept of this Highest Possible Good; this great Truth that I believed in and could never find. And then I started to notice its power.
It had the power to create order out of chaos. It had the power to drag me out of hell, whenever I found myself there. It’s like this abstract concept had an ability to act on its own. It had the power to reconfigure my life in relation to itself. If I aligned myself to it and followed it, the chances of my prayers being answered became as high as they could possibly be.
And yet, this great Truth doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, does it? It is neither a fact, nor a thing. One cannot find it or prove it. The only thing one can really do is believe in it. And believe in it I did, all the while claiming that I was atheist to the core. This abstraction of the greatest Good, that I created in my own head, if personified, starts to resemble a Christian God to a staggering degree.
If that’s what God is, what could he be like? As I thought that, it was surprising how much of the Bible began to seem so dramatically true. As I think about it now, if that’s what I imagined God to be from the beginning, I would have no problem accepting that He exists in his own way, or in his own way answers prayers; I wonder how many atheists there are in the world that would find this to be interesting; and whether places like this can be places where the toughest questions can be asked, the most difficult ideas confronted, all in search of the highest possible good.
May we find it together.
The song I wanted to share with you today is a tune by Roo Panes, that our guest tenor River Guard performed in the sanctuary this past Sunday. It is called “Quiet man”.
It was a pleasure to speak to you, dear friends! Hope you are well these days,